Traverse City Festivals

Enjoy sweet eats, fine dining and movie marathons at three Traverse City, Michigan festivals. Plus the chance to see Madonna.


If your family vacation includes a trip to northern Michigan, be sure to check out the various festivals that take place in Traverse City. Each year, the sleepy town of Traverse City, population 14,407, grows by leaps and bounds to celebrate movies, food and wine—even cherries. There’s plenty of room to add your family to the guest list—the city has the hotel space and parking to handle it. (The new 137-room Turtle Creek Resort Casino east of the city opened June 17.) As you plan your family trip, choose from three popular festivals.

The Cherry Festival

This year’s Cherry Festival kicks off the day after the Fourth of July with fireworks over Grand Traverse Bay and free performances by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. This is Traverse City’s premiere festival for families. “There are one hundred events that are all perfect for families,” says Susan Olson, director of the festival’s media relations. Watch a parade, join a cherry pie eating competition, compete in a grilling contest, or check out the area on a cherry or wine tour. An eight-day ticket also includes nightly entertainment by the Bay. The Cherry Festival is one of the few festivals in the country with events set aside for children with special needs, including accessible elephant rides and craft workshops with one-on-one attention.

Though more than 500,000 people will come through Traverse City during the annual festival, don’t worry about finding a place to stay. “It’s often a myth that you can’t find a hotel room in Traverse City during the festival,” says Olson, who recommends contacting the Visitor’s Bureau to find accommodations. The festival runs from July 5 to 12; visit the Cherry Festival Web site to sign up for competitions.

The Film Festival

Spread out a blanket overlooking the Grand Traverse Bay to catch one of the classic movie screenings that run nightly during the Traverse City Film Festival, which runs from July 29 through Aug. 3. Or, take the kids to the free Saturday morning movie. Adding to the ambiance, local musicians and artists perform before each show and along the sidewalks.

Other than those events, the festival isn’t good for young children, though movie-buff teens will likely enjoy the shows. Even if you’re not at every screening, the film festival electrifies downtown, according to Deb Lake, festival executive director. “Everybody’s talking about the films,” she says, “people reach out and talk to each other … and it brings a lot of really cool people into town.” Such as Madonna.

At least 80,000 people attended the film festival last year, and this year they expect even more—especially since Madonna will be making an appearance on Aug. 2 for a showing of her documentary I Am Because We Are on orphaned children in Malawi. (Madonna’s father owns the Ciccone Winery near Traverse City, and festival founder Michael Moore invited her to participate.)

Hotels book early, says Lake, “and many of the shows sell out [to members] before tickets for the public go on sale.” But if you’re willing to stay outside downtown, you can definitely get in on the fun, and some people make it into sold out shows by waiting in stand-by lines. One piece of advice: Don’t wait to see what the movies will be before signing on. “We don’t know the films until late June or early July,” says Lake, “because we wait until the last possible moment so we can get the best films.”

The Epicurean Classic

Unless your child is a total foodie and will tune into the Food Network for hours on end, it’s best to leave the kids with a babysitter for this one. The Epicurean Classic runs from Sept. 11 to 13 and is “one of the finest food and wine events anywhere in the country,” says founder Mark Dressler. The event attracts foodies, cookbook authors, sommeliers, and chefs from around the Great Lakes and beyond. This year there will be wine makers, cheese connoisseurs, and chefs from as far away as Italy and Australia. Of all the events, from cooking demonstrations to wine seminars, “the tasting pavilion is something not to be missed,” says Dressler. “There will be hundreds of wines, cheeses, beers, liquors, coffees and teas, and you get to talk with the people who make it all.”

Most of the event is held outside around the Grand Traverse Bay, which means more time to enjoy the upper Michigan autumn. “It’s an absolutely incredible time to be up here,” says Dressler, “It acts like summer in the day time, then cools off at night.” The Epicurean Classic sells out early; Dressler recommends booking hotels in May and June, if possible. Even if your kids aren’t foodies, you may be able to take advantage of a day off. The festival offers day passes ($129 for one day, $229 for two days)—a change from its a la carte pricing in previous years.

Destinations: Michigan, Traverse City

Themes: Culinary, Family Travel

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Eat

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