Detroit is Michigan’s largest city and a great destination all by itself. However, you may want to get out of the big city for a day and see some of the other smaller towns that Michigan has to offer. Since I prefer a day trip spending time at a specific destination, I chose places within an hour and a half of Detroit. I would rather choose closer places than spend most of the day on the road. I also chose locations that wouldn’t be considered part of the Detroit metro area.
Here are seven fantastic day trips from the Motor City, in no particular order.
1. Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, is just under 50 miles from Detroit. Known for the art and culture scene, the city features the Ann Arbor Art Fair every July, where 1,000 artists take over 30 blocks, creating stunning art displays. In addition, you’ll find artist demonstrations, live music, and children’s art activities. Art lovers will also enjoy the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), one of the biggest university art museums in the United States.
Other museums include the University of Michigan Natural History Museum that just opened in a new location. Additionally, the wooly mammoth bones found in nearby Chelsea are on display. You also will like the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Nichols Arboretum has flowering gardens from March through November. I like to visit when the peony garden is in bloom in May and June. The Matthaei Botanical Garden is another beautiful walk if you enjoy flowers.
After all this activity, you’ll want to check out Kerrytown for nourishment and shopping. This area has several restaurants, including the Korean American restaurant Miss Kim. For foodies, Kerrytown also has several specialty food shops.
Pro Tip: For the collegiate sports enthusiast, the best time to visit Ann Arbor is the fall during a University of Michigan home football game. The Big House, aka Michigan Stadium, is the largest stadium in the United States and the second-largest in the world. On a typical home game Saturday, you’ll find over 110,000 people there.
2. Frankenmuth, Michigan
Frankenmuth, Michigan’s Little Bavaria, is an hour and a half drive north on Interstate 75. I love to visit Frankenmuth in the autumn when the air is crisp and the colors are changing. Leaf peeping is a relaxing fall activity, and it’s fun to do it on the Bavarian Belle Riverboat. The stern-driven paddlewheel riverboat offers 1-hour cruises down the Cass River. The river cruises leave from the Frankenmuth River Place Shops every 90 minutes.
Outside of Germany, Frankenmuth’s Oktoberfest is the only German government-sanctioned Oktoberfest, first approved in Munich. Frankenmuth’s Oktoberfest was also the first time Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus brewery exported its beer to the United States. In 1997, Hofbräuhaus became the official beer sponsor of Frankenmuth’s Oktoberfest. With Frankenmuth’s German culture and heritage, you’ll feel like you might have flown across the ocean to Munich’s Oktoberfest. The experience offers authentic entertainment, dancing, and authentic Hofbräuhaus Oktoberfest beer.
You can always find authentic German food in Frankenmuth. One of my favorite places is the Bavarian Inn, where they have been serving all-you-can-eat German food at your table family-style since 1888.
Pro Tip: During the warmer months, the Bavarian Inn’s biergarten features live German music, dancing, and a party atmosphere.
3. Port Huron, Michigan
Port Huron is an hour from Detroit by car, heading northeast from Detroit up Interstate 94. Situated on Lake Huron, the town is Michigan’s easternmost point and offers rich maritime history. Start your visit off with the hour-long Blue Water Trolley Tour. The fully narrated tour is just a dime. No, that isn’t a typo. The tour provides an overview and history of the area so you can learn where to focus your interest.
The Fort Gratiot Light Station is Michigan’s oldest lighthouse and the second oldest on the Great Lakes. The light guided boats between Lake Huron and the St. Clair River for more than 187 years.
The Great Lakes Maritime Center presents the opportunity to learn more about the Great Lakes. In addition, the Thomas Edison Parkway Boardwalk and the Blue Water River Walk are great places to stretch after the car ride up from Detroit.
Thomas Edison lived in Port Huron from ages seven to 16. At the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, you can learn about one of America’s inventors.
Pro Tip: Port Huron has the first international tunnel, the St. Clair Tunnel, where the Grand Trunk Western Railroad tunnel links Port Huron with Canada. Opened in 1891, the international submarine railway tunnel was the first in the world.
4. Lansing, Michigan
Lansing, Michigan’s capital city, is an hour and a half west on Interstate 96. The Greater Lansing area could easily be a weeklong vacation, so it’s convenient to focus on four significant attractions within a five-block area downtown for a day trip.
Start the day with a visit to Michigan’s Victorian-era Capitol Building. While the capitol is a government building, it could be mistaken for an art museum, with nine acres of hand painting showcasing artistic talents. Cast iron and pine are painted to look like marble and walnut in the structure. The Michigan coat of arms appears on the door hinges and knobs. Hour-long guided tours leave from the information desk.
The Michigan History Museum offers five stories of exhibits that tell Michigan’s history from prehistoric times through the late 20th century. Of course, you can’t get the complete Michigan history without an automobile exhibit. The 1957 Detroit Auto Show exhibit features a beige and white Plymouth Fury and a shiny red Corvette convertible.
For more car fun, visit the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum, the only Oldsmobile Museum in the world. The 25,000 square-foot single-story museum features over 60 vehicles, including the 1886 Oldsmobile Steam Carriage, the first Oldsmobile ever produced.
When the Lansing Lugnuts, Lansing’s minor league baseball team, are home at Jackson® Field™, finish out your day rooting for the home team. At every game, you’ll find hot-dog and T-shirt cannons, inflatables in the Kid Zone, giveaways, and competitions between innings. In addition, the Lugnuts often showcase post-game fireworks.
Pro Tip: April through September is the best time to visit if you want to catch a minor league baseball game. A fun fact is that Michigan is the only state in the nation where the capital city isn’t in the county seat.
5. Chelsea, Michigan
Chelsea, a quaint all-American small town, is just under 60 miles from Detroit. It’s approximately a 1-hour drive west on Interstates 94 and 96. Chelsea offers outdoor activities, foodie fun, and plays.
The 20,000-acre Waterloo Recreation Area is Michigan’s largest state park in the Lower Peninsula. This state park offers paddlesports, hiking, and biking for a day of outdoor fun.
Actor and Chelsea native Jeff Daniels founded The Purple Rose Theatre in 1991. The Purple Rose Theatre Company is a professional theatre that produces new American plays and classic stories. The 168-seat theatre has audiences sitting within five rows from the stage. The Purple Rose creates four plays in each season. Performances take place seven times a week, Wednesdays through Sundays.
While you’re there, enjoy lunch and dinner. They have several great restaurants in Chelsea. A must-try for lunch or dinner is Smokehouse BBQ 52 for their barbecue ribs. One of my favorites for dinner is the Common Grill, known for its seafood variety. You’ll find everything from oysters on the half shell to Thai Shrimp dumplings. If you’re looking for a caffeine break, get a cup of joe and an apple fritter at Chelsea Bakery.
Pro Tip: Waterloo Recreation Area has a park track chair available for guests with mobility challenges who want to explore the park. The electronic, off-road chairs are first-come, first-reserved at no charge.
6. Monroe, Michigan
Monroe lies just 47 miles south of Detroit, between Detroit and Toledo. The must-see reason for the trip south is the River Raisin National Battlefield. This battle was part of The War of 1812, which lasted from June 18, 1812, to February 17, 1815. The disagreement was between the United States and Great Britain over British violations of U.S. maritime rights. The conflict ended with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent.
The battle at River Raisin National Battlefield helped Americans gain support for the war in the West. The killing of Americans at the Battle of River Raisin in Michigan angered the settlers on the western frontier. This battlefield is one of four National Park Service areas within Michigan.
The River Raisin Heritage Trail provides 8 miles of paved hiking and biking trails that offer scenic routes to walk, run, in-line skate, and cycle. The trail links major historic sites, Sterling State Park, and local parks.
Pro Tip: Admittance to the park’s outdoor areas is free.
7. Toledo, Ohio
Jump on Interstate 75, head south for about an hour, cross the state line into Ohio, and you’ll end up in Toledo. While it’s out of state, it’s closer than some of the Michigan towns listed. Sitting along the western edge of Lake Erie, it features a combination of city and shore.
Toledo Museum of Art features the work of world-renowned artists like Rembrandt, Miro, and Picasso. Admission to the museum is free. I love the interactive Plan Your Visit tool on the museum’s website. Provide the day you plan to visit, your type of group, and their interests, and the tool will provide a must-see itinerary. In addition, they offer glass-blowing demonstrations and docent-led tours of the 25 sculptures in the garden. In addition to the Toledo Museum of Art sculpture garden, check out the Toledo Botanical Garden. Think of it as a museum of plants, where you’ll find 60 acres of greenery.
The National Museum of the Great Lakes offers six maritime exhibits focusing on the Great Lakes. In addition to the exhibit galleries, an outdoor maritime park, the Col. James M. Schoonmaker Museum Ship, and the Museum Tug Ohio. The ship is open seasonally from May through October, the maritime park and the museum are available year-round. Located next to the museum, the Toledo Skyway Marina features riverfront access and city views.
Pro Tip: Toledo offers many things to do. You may want to make this more than a day trip.