Heading to Michigan? The good news is that the Great Lakes State has lots of free things to do that will help you get to know it without spending a dime.
From seasonal events to everyday activities, Michigan has budget options for every traveler. Here are the best free things to do in Michigan.
1. Find your favorite beach on the Great Lakes
Home to more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, the Great Lakes are Michigan’s defining feature. The shorelines of Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario and Erie run for a total of 3288 miles across both peninsulas. In the summer, travelers have plenty of beaches to pick from, but we recommend heading to Silver Beach on Lake Michigan, the state’s namesake water, where the soft, powdery sand shimmers gold and the gentle blue waters are refreshingly cool.
2. Pedal to Belle Isle
Think New York’s Central Park is impressive? Just wait until you see its larger, older cousin: Belle Isle in Detroit. Both were designed by American landscape master Frederick Olmsted, who created this floating homage to the great gardens of England while keeping a third of the island’s 982 acres as untouched woodland.
Drivers must pay to bring their car onto the island, but cyclists and pedestrians can visit for free. Cycle across the arched MacArthur Bridge and pedal around the island to check out all the sights and sounds.
Planning tip: For the best skyline view of Detroit, head to Sunset Point at dusk.
3. Watch the birds at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge
Bring your binoculars and see how many of 265 species of birds you’ll spot in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge on the outskirts of Saginaw. The majestic bald eagle and pelicans soaring overhead will surely draw your attention from observing nearly 50,000 Canada geese and mallards wading in the wetlands during migration season. With more than 9500 acres to explore, it’s one of the top birdwatching sites in the state, and it's free to visit.
4. Stargaze at Headlands International Dark Sky Park
At the top of the Lower Peninsula, Headlands International Dark Sky Park is a heart stealer. Thick with cedar trees and teeming with white-tailed deer, bald eagles and circling osprey, this free 550-acre park offers the best chance of seeing the northern lights.
Planning tip: Arrive in the evening to catch a brilliant orange sunset over Lake Michigan before – keep your fingers firmly crossed – the aurora borealis arrives and swirls in glorious illumination.
5. Jam along at the African World Festival
The sounds of rhythmic Djembe drums fill the air as you meander through the crowds dressed in their finest dashikis and boubou dresses for the African World Festival. The two-day festival held in July outside the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit attracts more than 100,000 attendees every year for free music and dance performances.
6. Track down the lighthouses around Traverse City
Step aside, New England: Michigan is the real home of the lighthouse. Home to a whopping 129 lighthouses, Michigan has more of these structures than any other state. Many are free to visit, and it’s possible to squeeze in several on a day-long road trip from Traverse City.
Drive to the northern tip of the M-37 to spot the turn-of-the-century Mission Point Lighthouse, an unusual schoolhouse-style lighthouse where you’ll stand on the 45th parallel marking the midpoint between the equator and the North Pole. The 100ft-tall South Manitou Island Lighthouse stands alone on a small island and makes for great photographs.
7. Stroll along the Detroit Riverwalk
Running for more than 3 miles from Rosa Parks Blvd to MacArthur Bridge, the Detroit Riverwalk has revitalized an area that was once gruff, graffitied and unloved. It offers a fantastic glimpse of Canada from across the Detroit River as well as great views of the Ambassador Bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge when it was completed in 1929.
Today, it's North America's busiest international crossing. Riverwalk visitors are greeted with flowering landscaped gardens, luscious parks, wetlands and the historic Milliken State Park Lighthouse, originally built in 1876 – all are free to see.
Planning tip: For bikers, a cycle path cuts along the former Grand Trunk Railroad.
8. Get a view of Mackinac Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the US until Michigan’s Mackinac Island Bridge, which connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, was built in 1957. At 26,372ft long, it’s nearly three times the length of San Francisco’s iconic crossing.
The bridge is popular with birdwatchers and engineering buffs, and Bridge View Park in St. Ignace on the northern end is the best viewpoint for photos.
Planning tip: It costs $4 to drive across the bridge, and pedestrians can cross only on Labor Day for the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk.
9. Climb the sand at Saugatuck Dunes State Park Beach
While attempting to descend the 200ft-tall sand dunes at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, just southeast of Holland, the sand is often so soft it feels like you're running on the spot. Once you get over the vast, marram-grass-covered foredunes – beyond the huge golden sand hills, the sand cherries, sea rocket and yellow hairy puccoon plants – a fantastic stretch of quiet, little-visited Lake Michigan shoreline awaits, ripe for whiling away the day. It's a 0.75-mile hike from the parking lot to the beach.
10. Tour the Michigan State Capitol
It’s hard to miss the spectacular cast-iron dome of the Michigan State Capitol presiding over Lansing, so stop by for a free tour of the state's political hub. An ornately tiled ceiling decorated with each state’s coat of arms towers over the floor where you can see 110 politicians debate the latest Michigan bills. Guides point out small details that make the building unique, such as the “Michigan chandeliers,” original pieces designed with an elk and a shield to represent the Michigan coat of arms.
11. See engineering in action at Soo Locks Park
The Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie are an engineering marvel. Assisting around 7000 vessels a year that want to traverse between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, these two 21ft-high sluices can get a 1000ft freighter between the two bodies of water in less than 20 minutes. A number of boat tours can go into the locks themselves, but for those on a budget, the observation platform at Soo Locks Park that overlooks the big boats using the historic MacArthur Lock is free to visit, as is the downtown visitor center.
12. Drive the Tunnel of Trees
A scenic, slow-winding 20-mile drive through northern Michigan, the Tunnel of Trees is the state's ultimate road trip. Running along the M-119 between Harbor Springs and Cross Village, the route was once a primary north-south trail for Native Americans and gets its name from the overhanging holloways created by the sugar maple, white pine, red oak, aspen and American elm that line both sides of the road.
Planning tip: Fall is the best time to visit the Tunnel of Trees, as the canopy's colors explode into life like an autumnal firework, bursting with reds, greens and yellows as the trees change with the seasons.
13. Walk around the Ann Arbor Art Fair
Each July, the streets of Ann Arbor come to life as more than 400,000 art lovers check out the annual Art Fair. Nearly 1000 painters, sculptors, illustrators, woodcarvers, photographers and other creatives display their work in three simultaneous art shows. Nearly 30 blocks are designated pedestrian only as crowds make their way through tent-lined streets full of unbelievable art. All of it is free to see.
14. Get in the holiday spirit at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland
Visiting the world's largest Christmas store is probably the best free thing to do in Frankenmuth. Expect 361 days of non-stop carols, tinsel and holiday glee (it's closed on Christmas Day itself) across this huge store. Browse more than 100,000 lights along its 0.5-mile Christmas Lane, some 350 decorated Christmas trees and shelves of hand-painted ornaments, cultural decorations and holiday gift ideas.
15. Savor nature at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
The first designated lakeshore in the US, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a 40-mile sweep of shoreline with 15 miles of thick, sandstone cliffs carved out by Lake Superior. Set your GPS to Miners Castle Rock, the Lakeshore’s most iconic slab of colored sandstone.
Planning tip: Afterward, head to Miners Beach to relax on the sand in the sun.
16. Name that tune at the Grand Haven Musical Fountain
When it was put together by volunteers in 1962, the Grand Haven Musical Fountain was the world's biggest. These days hits from chart-toppers like Pharrell Williams, Taylor Swift and Coldplay provide the musical soundtrack for this free, synchronized water-and-light show. Thousands of spectators still make their way to the top of Dewey Hill to see a full spectrum of colors illuminating the dancing water.
Planning tip: The sound-and-light show runs every night from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
17. Ride the Tawas Bay Bike Path
Grab two wheels and head out on the Tawas Bay Bike Path en route to catch one of Michigan’s golden sunrises at Tawas City Park. It’s the start of a 16-mile scenic bike path running on the Tawas Bay coast with views out to Lake Huron as you make your way to the tip of the peninsula to see the Tawas Point Lighthouse. Take a breather and enjoy the picturesque views of the 19th-century lighthouse rising 67ft over Lake Huron.
18. See colors at the Tulip Time Festival
Each spring, more than six million tulips burst into color across the fields of Holland, Michigan, in vibrant hues of red, yellow and orange. Their arrival, overlooked by slow-turning Dutch windmills, is the highlight of the eight-day free-to-visit Tulip Time Festival, which celebrates the city's heritage through food, costumes and dancing.
Founded in 1847 by Dutch Calvinist separatists, the small city of Holland on Lake Macatawa now welcomes millions of visitors each May to commemorate their roots.
19. Check out the Heidelberg Project
Despite Detroit’s much-heralded revival, the city still had many abandoned homes until local artist Tyree Guyton decided to take matters into his own hands and create the Heidelberg Project in 1986. He covered one house in polka dots and filled its yard with sculptures made from upcycled dolls, cars and other random items.
The art project transformed the run-down Heidelberg Street into one of Michigan’s favorite art destinations, and it expanded onto multiple houses painted with themes like the Number House and Dotty Wotty.
Planning tip: Take a self-guided tour using the free Heidelberg Project app to learn details about each object.
20. Admire the view Castle Rock
The panoramic views from atop Castle Rock will give you some idea of the endless beauty you can discover in the Upper Peninsula, a region of rich Native American heritage. Rising some 195ft above St Ignace, Castle Rock once served as a lookout for the Ojibwa tribe. It is possible to climb the 171 steps to the top of Castle Rock, but access costs $1.
Planning tip: Stop by the Castle Rock gift shop to admire the ceiling and walls, handcrafted by Native Americans.
21. Explore the Eben Ice Caves in winter
Wintertime in Michigan isn’t as bad as they say. Indeed, if you trek through the thick woodlands of the Hiawatha National Forest on the Upper Peninsula, you'll find the wonderful, hidden Eben Ice Caves. When the state experiences frigid temperatures, giant ice stalactites form a wall, creating a seasonal 30ft cave. Bring suitable clothing and your camera.
22. Scope out the cars at the Woodward Dream Cruise
As the lights flick from red to green, a lineup of all-American muscle cars, collector-only classic motors and little-seen vehicles from overseas accelerate up to the regulation 45 mph as they drive along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, past a million-strong crowd at the Woodward Dream Cruise.
Running for 16 miles, the Dream Cruise, held in August, is the largest one-day celebration of classic car culture in the world. Even for those not behind a wheel, the city comes to life with cool merchandise stalls and raffle giveaways.
23. Hike up Sugarloaf Mountain
Breathe in the crisp air of the Upper Peninsula and take in the views of the blue gradient of Lake Superior meeting with the sky as you stand atop Sugarloaf Mountain, which towering some 470ft above the water. Getting to the summit requires hiking up 300 steps, but the views are worth it.
24. Look through the displays at ArtPrize Grand Rapids
With nearly 500,000 attendees, the ArtPrize, held annually in September, has blossomed into one of the largest art events in the world. One visit is hardly enough time to cover a fraction of this open-air gallery in Grand Rapids, which showcases more than 1000 international artists across 100 city venues.