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You might know Traverse City for its wineries or cherries, but there are plenty of kid-friendly activities in the picturesque destination. Even baby can enjoy sensory-driven museums and trips to the beach.
Planning that first vacation with baby can be downright intimidating. I remember just how slowly the hubs drove just bringing her those couple of miles home from the hospital. Now we were plotting a full week in a car with our seven-month-old baby and all her stuff.
We set our sights on Traverse City, Michigan, about a six-hour drive if we were to drive straight there from our home in Chicago. We had visited Traverse City many moons ago when we were dating. That trip was all about wineries and sleeping in…hey, we didn’t have kids. Somehow we managed to escape without visiting the beautiful bay, the beach, and the nearby dunes.
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It was probably ambitious for a first vacation, but we decided to drive all the way up through Wisconsin, across the Upper Peninsula, and back south to Traverse City before heading home to Chicago. We had the time and figured that would allow for a little extra sightseeing. There were three keys to our successful trip: a rental crossover utility vehicle that gave us more space than our tiny car, frequent stops to give baby time to stretch and play, and a longer stay at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa that allowed us to unpack and unwind.
3 Things to Do in Traverse City If You’re Bringing a Baby
1. If you do nothing else with baby while you’re in town, stop at the Dennos Museum. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the small museum had a lot to offer our curious baby. We’re art lovers, so this actually wasn’t her first art museum. But it was much more accessible and interactive than what we’re used to. With only a couple of exhibits, it’s easy to get in and out quickly. The best part is the Discovery Gallery, a permanent exhibit that encourages you to touch and interact with various pieces of art. Baby loved the block wall that makes sounds when you touch it, the sensor-driven harp sans strings, and the inside of a piano hung on a wall. Older kids might whip through this small museum but if you’re bringing a baby, it’s sensory heaven. Plus, babies are free (adults $6/kids $4).
2. Visit the bay. There are many places that offer access to sand and water, from hotels right on the beach to public parks. Clinch Park downtown offers great views of the water and a splash pad with fountains (but be sure to bring quarters—the parking people are serious and it’s tough to find quarters at nearby businesses).
3. Take time for you. The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa has a licensed day care that guests can use ($8.50/hour per child). Directly across the hall is the Spa Grand Traverse. Hello, date time! We dropped baby off for four hours one afternoon. That gave us enough time for a massage, a dip in the hot tub, and a snack at the onsite sports bar. Listen, traveling with kids is great, but it’s still traveling with kids. Sometimes you need to just take a moment to breathe and remember that this is actually vacation and you can relax.
3 Places to Eat with Baby
The Traverse City restaurants and nearby options seem endless. From breweries with locally sourced foods to upscale steakhouses and brunch spots, you can pretty much find whatever your heart desires. Three places were particularly fun and easy with baby:
1. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, a favorite of locals, is situated out on the peninsula, giving visitors a chance to drive up the lakeshore on the way to dinner. For a brewery, they did a great job of catering to both the frequent-flyers (who had their own mugs) to the families with kids who were there for a hot meal. My husband had their Sloppy Joe and is still raving about it.
2. Pangea’s Pizza in Downtown Traverse City offers pizza by the slice. We visited in a pinch, seeing our chance to eat lunch but knowing we had about 10 minutes before baby had a pre-nap meltdown. There were other families with small children in the restaurant, and the staff knew exactly how to handle our stroller and “in a rush” attitude. One slice is enough for a quick lunch, and the pepperoni is delicious.
3. Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen in nearby Elk Rapids is touted by locals as fun and authentic. When we saw cars parked along the street, the parking lot overflowing, we knew we’d found a gem. After ordering the jambalaya and fried chicken, we sat back prepared for a relaxing evening. And then I realized I’d forgotten the baby food and the bottle back at the hotel. Not to worry, our waitress quickly offered up applesauce and baby enjoyed gumming on some bread. Several people checked on us and cleared plates to make room for her flailing arms. And on our way out, one server came running after us when she found a toy I’d left on the table. That’s service!
What We Skipped or Found Difficult
There’s so much more to do in Traverse City, but we decided to skip some activities like the bike trails and winery tours because, well, baby.
Other activities we did try but were more difficult with a baby. Nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes is great for hiking, biking, and climbing the mounds of sand. We’re no strangers to hiking and did some in the Hiawatha National Forest on our way to Traverse City. But hiking up sand dunes with a baby strapped to your chest is not an activity for the weak. I thought I had some strength back after childbirth but it’s seriously time to get in shape again.
Downtown Traverse City has some adorable boutiques and coffee shops. There were loads of parents with babies so I certainly wasn’t alone. But navigating our giant Chicco stroller among the gobs of tourists and down the tight aisles of some of the boutiques made me understand that whole “bull in a china shop” saying. That said, if you make your way downtown, definitely stop in the Sweet Pea shop. It’s filled with adorable (if overpriced) baby clothes, Melissa & Doug toys, and clever solutions like hooks to hang bags from your stroller. We couldn’t leave without buying a toy accordion (hilarious).
Bottom line: Traverse City is not only doable with a baby, it’s a gorgeous place to visit with the whole family. Between the restaurant selections, cute toy stores, and sensory-driven museums, you’ll have plenty to enjoy. And every trip is a chance to gain confidence and get out of the house.
Have you been to Traverse City? What would you recommend for families with kids or babies?