Did You Know There's an Island You Can Travel to in the Midwest? Here's What To Know

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island with horse-drawn carriage out front.

Did you know there's an island you can travel to in the Midwest? Growing up in Chicago, surrounded by vacation spots in Wisconsin and Michigan, I’d heard of Mackinac Island—but not everyone has. It can also be hard for some people to realize just how big the Great Lakes are and that, yes, islands exist in them.

Even if it doesn't have palm trees and tropical vibes, this particular trendy vacation spot offers plenty of excitement—for couples and groups, families or going solo. And we've pulled together 19 of the best things to do on Mackinac Island to help plan your trip.

Mackinac Island is located between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, on Lake Huron. It’s open for tourism year-round, but the main season on the island for tourists is between April and October. That is also the length of the Grand Hotel’s season (more about them below!) since they are closed in the winter months.

Originally, before the island was colonized by Europeans, the island was a sacred place for the Anishinaabek People. It was a burial ground for them, and Mackinac Island got its name from the Odawa word "Michilimackinac," or the Ojibwemowin word "Mitchimakinak," which means "Great Turtle.”

After colonization, though, the island turned into a center for fur trade and then, by the late 1800s, people from close cities like Chicago and Detroit were flocking to Mackinac Island as a breezy getaway. Now, remnants of the island's early days as a tourist destination are still seen today, including the Grand Hotel, horse-drawn carriages and shops that have been there for decades. About 15% of the island is taken up by the "commercial district," while the rest is part of Mackinac State Park.

In addition to Main Street and its shops and restaurants, you’ll find out why Mackinac Island is known as the “Fudge Capital of the World.” There are shops everywhere you look, some with multiple locations along the strip. Even though it’s a small area, one million visitors travel to the island each year to enjoy the natural beauty and unique town life of Mackinac Island.

I was one of the lucky one million visitors this year, and have plenty to share from my travels. So whether you’re thinking of going to Mackinac Island with your family or on a girl’s trip, no matter your age, we have the 19 best things to do on Mackinac Island. 

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Best Things To Do on Mackinac Island

1. Travel on the Mackinac Island Ferry

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

First, because Mackinac Island is, well, in the middle of a body of water, you need to get there by boat. My partner and I took Shepler’s Ferry from Mackinaw City, Michigan, because we were coming from the south of Michigan. But if you’re in the northern part, you can take a ferry from St. Ignace, Michigan.

Regardless of what type of parking you purchase or whether you’re staying overnight or not, you do have to leave your car in either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace.

Once you get on the ferry, it's a smooth ride to the island. It took about 20 minutes, and once there you get off on a picturesque doc that leads to Main Street, which looks like an Old Western movie because of the facades and the horse-drawn carriages everywhere (more on that later).

2. Visit the Grand Hotel

The Grand Hotel is in its 137th season since opening in 1887. It's about a 10- to 15-minute walk from the dock and Main Street. The nice thing about Mackinac Island is that it’s very walkable and with only 15% of the island taken up by the “commercial district,” everything you need is close by. 

The Grand Hotel is one of the main attractions on the island, with its Front Porch measuring 660 feet long, making it the longest porch in the world (more on that in a bit).

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

The hotel has a lot of amenities, a very old Hollywood-looking parlor and a dress code (basically, for women, no cut-off shorts, midriffs or sweats, and after 6:30 p.m., no jeans. For men, no sleeveless shirts during the day, and ties after 6:30 p.m.).

All of that together, along with the fact that areas of the hotel—like the main dining room—look like the Titanic, gives off a very "old-time" feel.

President of the Grand Hotel, David Jurcak, tells Parade that it was built in 93 days, which left some “imperfections” like curved ceilings and floors. But that’s what makes it unique and adds to its character today. Plus, in a way, those raw touches truly make you feel like you’re back in the 1900s.

3. Bike Around the Island

With no cars on the island, one of the few ways you can get around is by walking and biking. Many residents and workers have electric-powered bikes, but tourists are more than welcome to rent bikes. There are several bike rental shops around the island, ranging from about $15 an hour to $50–$100 per day, based on where you go or what type of bike you want. You can also bring your own bike onto the island—you just have to pay a fee to bring it on the ferry with you.

It’s about 8.2 miles if you bike around the coast of the island, according to Jurcak, and can take an hour to 90 minutes to complete at a “leisurely pace,” the Mackinac Island website says. There are also tons of gorgeous spots to stop at on the island; it is a state park after all.

Related: 40 Best Girls' Trip Ideas for an Unforgettable Getaway

4. Ride in a Horse-Drawn Carriage

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

Horses are a big part of Mackinac Island's everyday life. So whether you’re indifferent to horses or love them (like me), it’s fascinating to see a town where the main mode of transporting large items is all done by horse. You can get a hotel shuttle to the Grand Hotel or call the taxi service and ride in a horse-drawn carriage. There were also people riding them on horseback, though that was far less common.

Jurcak tells Parade that the fact that there are no cars on the island (except for construction), truly changes your perspective because we’re so used to having vehicles in our lives.

“...Cars change our life,” he says. He goes on to share that on Mackinac Island, you’re “forced to be face to face” with people in a way we didn’t realize was so foreign to us now.

“So that step of slowness, of pausing in your life, even if it's for two days, it does impact people,” Jurcak explains. “When they come across on the ferry and they get off, you can hear the clip-clock of the horses—I mean, immediately.”

With many horses comes a lot of horse poop and smells, but it really wasn’t too bad. And it never got old seeing them work as they majestically passed by on the road.

5. Hit Up Pink Pony Cocktail Lounge

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

As mentioned before, Main Street is where the majority of businesses, restaurants and stores are located. From souvenir shops to the oldest family-owned grocery store in America (Doud’s Market), Mackinac Island’s “downtown” area is a lot of fun to stroll up and down, day or night. And as Jurcak suggests, going to bars at night is a must-do on the island.

“It's more adult-driven, but there are really cool venues and bars on the island in the evening,” he shares. “Just spend a little time at each one of them.”

My favorite bar we stepped into was the Pink Pony Cocktail Lounge. Yes, if you’re a Chappell Roan fan like my partner and I, you’re probably more inclined to gawk at the Pink Pony’s decor and name. But the vibes inside are also just immaculate. There’s pink everywhere, of course, the logo has a horse drinking at a bar (hilarious!) and the bartenders were some of the nicest people we met on the island. 

They’re celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, and they even sell some cute merch next door.

6. Visit the Longest Porch in the World at the Grand Hotel

As we stated before, the Grand Hotel’s Front Porch is the longest in the world. Jurcak tells us that the Viking Cruise ships that come in for their Great Lakes cruise are only 8 feet longer than the Grand Hotel. You can see the Front Porch from the water as you come in, and standing on it is a pretty unique experience (especially if you love history).

“So back in the turn of the century, between 1800 and 1900, there were 1,200 hotels like this, wood frame structures. There are only 11 left in the United States,” Jurcak tells us in the parlor of the Grand Hotel, which has outlived everyone originally involved in its conception.

He shares that when the hotel was first built, it was a place for people from Detroit and Chicago to get away from the city and experience “lake breezes” and the fresh air, which they could experience from the massive front porch.

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

“So for me to really understand the tradition of the Grand Hotel, most of that tradition and most of those histories took place on the porch,” Jurcak says. “When people know the frontline porch of rockers, even back in 1887, there were rocking chairs, bands used to play out back. And we do that now as a tradition.”

Seeing the Grand Hotel’s Front Porch is an experience unique to Mackinac Island and we highly recommend it. And if you’re not a guest at the hotel, you can still come and visit the porch—it just costs $12.

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Things To Do on Mackinac Island for Families

7. Eat Mackinac Island Fudge

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

As stated before, Mackinac Island is the “Fudge Capital of the World.” Even if you think you have an idea of how much fudge is produced on the island or what to expect, it's truly a unique experience once you get there. There are 13 fudge shops on the island, but for a Main Street that’s not super long, that basically means there’s a fudge shop every few storefronts and right across the street from each other. 

We went to Murdick’s, Joann’s and Sander’s and got tastings at all of them. Joann’s Fudge shop was even making their espresso flavor right in front of us, so we got to taste extremely fresh fudge.

I don't usually have much of a sweet tooth, but Mackinac Island’s fudge is no joke! It's definitely a must-do for everyone, and it’s a fun time for kids.

8. Go to The Gem for Miniature Golf

The Gem Miniature Golf course is new and located at the base of the Grand Hotel. Anyone can book a game, though—not just hotel guests.

It’s not like other mini golf courses with huge, cartoonish structures and fake ponds. This one is designed to “blend in with the natural surroundings” and is set in the middle of some pretty big trees, so you’ll definitely feel one with nature after a game.

9. Visit Fort Mackinac

After the Grand Hotel, Fort Mackinac is the other biggest attraction on the island. It’s the oldest building in Michigan and hosts hourly cannon and rifle demonstrations, including the chance to fire the cannon yourself (though you’d have to sign up far in advance as it’s a very sought-after experience, as you can imagine). It’s a steep hike up to it, but once there, you get a great view of the water and the island.

If you’re a history buff, you’ll love Fort Mackinac and the 14 buildings they have for you to explore. They’re furnished to look like the period it was built in and offer many educational moments. There is an entrance fee, which is $16.25 for adults and $9.75 for kids 5 to 12 years old; kids 4 and under are free.

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Things To Do on Mackinac Island for People Over 50

10. Hike Mackinac Island

If you’re a hiker or outdoorsy person, Mackinac Island might be the perfect place for you. It’s a state park that has over 70 miles of hiking and biking trails to explore. There are a lot of easy-to-read maps of the trails on Mackinac Island’s site, complete with great tips. While this activity can be for anyone of any age, if you’re on a trip with your spouse and the two of you love connecting with nature together, this is the perfect thing to do if you’re older and just want to explore.

11. Have a Cold Snack

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor is located at one end of the Grand Hotel, and you’ll see it as soon as the hotel comes into view. It’s named after Sadie, the award-winning dog owned by the hotel Chairman at the time, R.D. Musser Jr. and his wife Amelia. There’s even a room in the hotel (off the parlor) dedicated to Sadie’s Westminster Dog Show trophies and awards.

Because ice cream is for all ages, and certainly not just for kids, this is a great place to stop for a cool snack made with real Michigan dairy. It also has a 50s ice cream parlor vibe and it’s a very enjoyable atmosphere.

12. Have Dinner at The Jockey Club

Now, while this should be on everyone’s list, our readers over 50 might appreciate this one a little more. The Jockey Club is a restaurant across the street from the Grand Hotel (and is owned by the hotel). It’s more casual than any dining inside the hotel but the food is still delicious and the wine selection is fantastic. We ate on the outside patio, where you get a great view of the sunset.

13. Do the Sunset Cruise Sip ‘n Sail

Jurcak shared that one of his favorite things to do is a sunset cruise on Lake Huron.

The Sunset Cruise, the Sip and Sail, is an incredible experience,” he tells Parade. “They'll take you out to the bridge and back, and you get to watch the sunset. And I had the incredible opportunity… the year before last, to see the sun set and the moon rise… It looked like a reverse sunset.”

This cruise is great for birthdays, date nights and anniversaries and is a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the lake while also having some boozy fun.

Related: 'My Mom Used a Cruise Ship Tracker While I Was Vacationing—and Loved To Send Me Updates'

14. Stay at the Grand Hotel

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

Again, staying at the Grand Hotel is an experience that, if given the opportunity, you should enjoy. It’s basically like a cruise ship on land, which makes their cruise-like traditions back in the day make more sense. When the Grand Hotel opened, they were initially only open for 60 days.

Guests would remain at the hotel for the whole of their stay since there wasn’t really a commercial area like Main Street back then.

“You didn't really necessarily go into town,” Jurcak tells us. “There was some fur trading and some other stuff in town. So people would stay here. They'd go to the porch, they'd listen to music.”

The hotel still holds those traditions today, hence the dress code, the five-course meals for dinner, and the 9:30 p.m. dancing in the Terrace Room off the parlor. Again, very old-fashioned and very traditional.

Unique Things To Do on Mackinac Island

15. Rent a Private Carriage

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

When we asked Jurcak about any Mackinac Island experiences that might be off the beaten path, he shared that renting a private carriage for your group was a fun way to explore the island in a unique way.

“If I were planning your vacation, I would say do your research, come in, get a private carriage,” he shares. “Do a private carriage ride and allow them to kind of take you in that spot. So now you have a self-guided tour, but you're in the old way of doing it.”

Mackinac Island Carriage Tours offers private tours that you can customize for your tastes and needs; they start at $210 an hour for 1–4 people. Gough Carriages also offers private livery tours that start at $210 per hour for 1–4 people.

16. Do Walking Tours and Maybe Even a Ghost Tour

Something that’s a little more affordable than a private carriage tour is a walking history tour of Mackinac Island. Jurcak suggests Chad’s Wonderful Walking Tour, led by local resident, Chad Bennett. You can reach out via Facebook or give him a call to find out more about his history walking tours.

Jurcak also shares that there is a ghost tour at night, though he doesn’t think Mackinac Island is haunted (at least not compared to other haunted places he’s been in). But if you’re brave enough to give it a try, there’s the Haunts of Mackinac Tours; they offer a nice mix of experiences.

Related: 9 Unique Things to Do in Williamsburg, Virginia for an Unforgettable Vacay

17. Run, Walk or Bike the 8.2 Mile Coast of the Island

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

As we stated before, biking around the island is a great way to get around, but it’s also a fantastic place for recreational biking.

“It's 8. 2 miles to make the loop. And that's fun… But it's not the park. It's all coastline. And it's, it's worth the do,” Jurcak shares, also noting it’s a state highway. “I mean, you have to do it. I run it, but other people bike it… Early in the morning, it’s great. It's crowded in the afternoon.”

Make sure to take notice of the natural wonders on the island, including the rock formations.

Free Things To Do on Mackinac Island

18. Indulge in a Truly Unique Back-in-Time Experience

<p>Courtesy Alani Vargas</p>

Courtesy Alani Vargas

Between the Grand Hotel feeling like it’s 1887, the saloon-style facades of the buildings on Main Street, and the horse-drawn carriages, Mackinac Island is truly a special place. And with untouched nature on the island and the banning of cars, you can really get lost in time—in the best way.

Jurcak shares that it was the 125th anniversary of the car ban last year and that the unique experience of not being able to get in your car and leave is such a novel experience. It adds to that “feeling where you’re taking a step back in time,” Jurcak says.

19. Free Fudge Tour

Again, Mackinac Island is the fudge capital of the world. And most of the fudge shops (if not all of them), give out free samples. So why not do a fun tour of fudge?

The shops are constantly making fudge and there are often samples either fresh or on the counter. Sometimes you don’t even need to step foot into the stores because they’ll be out with a tray of fudge for you to try. So you can get your fill of Mackinac Island fudge without spending a dime. Plus, it’ll help you decide which fudge you do want to buy and bring back home to your friends and family.

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