The first sign that you've left the 21st century behind and entered some sort of delightful time warp comes as soon as you step off the ferry dock on Mackinac Island.
Instead of being met with taxis and the sound of traffic on the busiest street on the island like you might expect in other locations, here you're met with the sight of luggage being loaded on to the back of horse-drawn carts, lines of bicycles, and “taxis” in the form horse-drawn carriages.
The “city sounds” here are one of ferry horns, bicycle bells, and the clippity-clop of big draft horse hooves.
Yes, visiting Mackinac Island in Michigan is like stepping back in time.
Mackinac Island history
Long before Europeans “discovered” the northern part of Michigan, Mackinac Island was an important spot for the Anishinaabe people. They came to Mackinac Island during the summer months to fish, and also used the island as a meeting place and burial ground.
The name of the island even comes from these Indigenous peoples; the name “Mackinac” comes from the Ojibwe word Mishimikinaak or Mitchimakinack, which means “Big Turtle.” No one is sure if this comes from the shape of the island, or because the Anishinaabek believed that the island was home to a great turtle spirit.
Regardless, the name more or less stuck. (And, for the record, it's pronounced “Mack-ih-naw,” in case you were curious.)
Mackinac Island was eventually colonized by Europeans in the mid-1600s, and by the early 1700s the nearby Straits of Mackinac which connect Lake Michigan to Lake Huron were an important part of the local the fur trade routes.
The British built a fort on the island (Fort Mackinac) in 1780 during the American Revolution, and this fort still stands today. It was used by US forces during the War of 1812 (when it was re-captured by the British during a battle), and was loosely used again during the Civil War years.
Throughout the 1800s, Mackinac Island became an important outpost for the fur trade (at one point being the headquarters for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Trade Company), and then the commercial fishing trade.
After the Civil War ended, the island turned to tourism. Americans were desperate to escape congested cities in the summer, and were eager to put the war years behind them. Mackinac Island became a popular resort island, and remains so today.
Except that, while the rest of the world evolved, Mackinac Island has basically remained in the Victorian era.
Victorian hotels and grand homes still abound on Mackinac Island. Fudge shops started in the 1880s still operate today. And “horseless carriages” (AKA cars) have been banned since 1898.
So when I say that visiting Mackinac Island is like stepping back in time, I'm not exaggerating!
When to visit Mackinac Island
There are a few hundred permanent residents on Mackinac Island, so the island is technically “open” year-round. However, it does have a distinct tourist season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October.
The season is in full-swing by Memorial Day, and begins to wind down once the winds start to turn cold in October. While you can technically visit outside of these months, not all the hotels, restaurants, and shops stay open once the tourists leave. (For example, the hotel where we stayed closed up shop on October 11 in 2020, and several other places were already closed by that time.)
You'll find the nicest weather on Mackinac Island during these months, too. To avoid the worst of the summer crowds, I would avoid holiday weekends (and, actually, weekends period if you can). And if you can visit before school lets out or after it's back in session, you're also likely to find a quieter island.
My husband Elliot and I visited in early October, and while the weather was a bit chilly during our stay, we loved the added pop of fall colors around the island.
How to get to Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island sits in the Straits of Mackinac, technically in Lake Huron. It's not far from mainland Michigan, however, and can be reached by boat, small aircraft, and even snowmobile in the winter months (snowmobiles are one of the few exception to the “no cars” rule on the island).
My recommendation for getting to Mackinac Island is to go by ferry. During the tourist season, ferries are run by both Star Line Ferry and Shepler's, and both have docks in Mackinaw City (Lower Peninsula) and St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula).
The ferry crossing only takes 15-20 minutes (Shepler's quotes exactly 16 minutes), and there are multiple sailings every day from morning until well into the evening.
Elliot and I went over with Shepler's, which cost us $27 per person round-trip, plus $10 to park for 2 nights in Shepler's surface lot at the dock in St. Ignace. (Star Line's prices and parking options are different, though.)
Pro tip: The majority of people seem to sail to/from Mackinaw City. So if you want easier parking and less-crowded ferries, I'd recommend making your way to St. Ignace to catch the ferry. Bonus: this includes a drive over the famous Mackinac Bridge!
Things to do on Mackinac Island in 2 days
And now that you know a bit about Mackinac Island's history, when to go, and how to get there, let's talk about what to do once you're there!
Mackinac Island only covers about 4.35 square miles total, so you might erroneously believe that you can see everything worth seeing in just a couple of hours. Obviously, this is not the case!
While you *can* technically visit Mackinac Island for just a day from the mainland, I recommend spending at least 2 nights on the island in order to truly get the full experience. (I totally realize that this makes for an expensive trip, but if you can afford it I promise you won't regret it!)
Here's my 2-day itinerary for Mackinac Island, which you can feel free to steal!
Pro tip: On your way over on the ferry, if you're offered a visitor's guide booklet for purchase, get it! This $2 book is FULL of good tips and historical tidbits for the island, and helped a lot on our own first visit.
Day 1 on Mackinac Island
1. Arrival and check-in
I recommend catching a morning ferry over to Mackinac Island if possible so you can have most of the day today to explore. Once disembarking the ferry, you'll probably want to make your way to your accommodation to drop off your things.
Some of the bigger and more luxurious hotels on the island (like The Grand, the Island House, and Mission Point Resort), include luggage service with your stay, meaning your luggage will be automatically loaded onto a carriage and transported to your hotel. (Check with your hotel to see if they offer this service.)
If your luggage is being transported for you, then you can either catch a horse-drawn taxi, or simply walk to your hotel. Most of the hotels on the island are within walking distance from the ferry docks. It took us 10-15 minutes to walk from the Shepler's dock to the Island House Hotel.
If your luggage isn't being transported, then you'll probably want to grab a carriage taxi unless you're staying at one of the hotels right on Main Street downtown.
You'll probably be too early to check-in to your room, but you can drop your bags off at reception and head back out to start exploring!
2. Visit Fort Mackinac
No matter where you're staying on the island, chances are you're just a short walk from Fort Mackinac. You can't miss this historic fort, perched on top of a cliff-like hill above Marquette Park.
There are two entrances to the fort, one that can be reached from the bottom of the hill, and another at the top, around the back of the fort. The fort is open from 9 a.m. until either 5 or 7 p.m. depending on the month, and admission is $13.50 for adults and $8 for kids.
Elliot and I entered from the “front” entrance, which does include a relatively steep walk up the hill. But the views out over the town are just incredible!
Once inside the fort, there's a lot to look at. As I mentioned before, Fort Mackinac was built in 1780 by the British, and was used as a military fort until the end of the 19th century.
In 1875, Fort Mackinac became the headquarters for Mackinac National Park – the second US national park after Yellowstone! It only remained a national park for 20 years, though, being handed over to the Mighigan State Park service in 1895.
Fort Mackinac is still managed as part of the larger Mackinac Island State Park, and has some excellent exhibits on everything from military training to family life within the fort. There's a small museum about the history of Mackinac Island here, too.
The kiddos will probably want to stick around for the rifle demonstrations and the firing of cannons; check the daily schedule to see when these are happening.
Fort Mackinac is home to The Tea Room, which is an informal cafe operated by The Grand Hotel. They serve lunch here from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., and snacks, beverages, and desserts all day. The patio here has an amazing view out over Mackinac Island, so you may want to grab lunch here before heading back down the hill.
Otherwise, all the restaurants along Main Street are just a short walk away.
4. Art Museum and/or Biddle House
After lunch, you may want to visit another museum or two. Most of them on the island are also part of the larger Mackinac Island State Park, which covers 80% of the island.
The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum near Marquette Park houses a collection of Mackinac-related art and photography, and a visit is included with your Fort Mackinac ticket (otherwise it's $8.50 for adults).
If you're more interested in history than art (or maybe if you have time to do both!), then I would also recommend a visit to Biddle House. There are several historic homes you can explore on Mackinac Island (and they're all included with your Fort Mackinac admission ticket!), but Biddle House stands out because it attempts to tell the story of the local Anishnaabek people on Mackinac Island.
Biddle House was the home of Edward Biddle and his Odawa wife Agatha, who lived in the house in the 1830s. Costumed interpreters tell the Biddles' story, and there are also exhibits and galleries that explore Anishnaabek culture and history on the island.
Indigenous history is often glossed over in American tourism, so I really appreciate that this is available to visitors on Mackinac Island. The island could do more to highlight its Indigenous history, sure, but at least they aren't completely ignoring it.
5. Downtown walk / drinks
It's already been a long and busy day, so you may want to wind down your evening with a stroll through downtown for some shopping. Fudge is still the must-buy souvenir from Mackinac Island, and Murdick's Fudge was the first to open on the island back in 1887.
After a stroll, why not a drink? Mackinac Island has no shortage of bars and restaurants to choose from. And while Elliot and I didn't partake since we were visiting Mackinac Island in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, some popular places to grab a drink in other years include:
- Pink Pony – This is THE place everyone will tell you to go for a drink. (They have food, too, but are most well-known for their drinks and patio.) Try the Famous Island Rum Runner (with optional pink souvenir tumbler), or maybe a Pink Pony Punch.
- Draught House – Next to Mary's Bistro, the Draught House is a good option if you like beer, since they regularly have up to 50 craft beers on tap.
- Great Turtle Brewery & Distillery – While there's not a brewery or distillery ON Mackinac Island, Great Turtle is a good alternative. They get their signature craft beer from Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City, and their private label spirits from Les Cheneaux Distillery on the Upper Peninsula.
Almost everywhere on Mackinac Island serves both drinks AND food, so you could certainly just stick around for dinner wherever you end up for drinks. But if you want other recommendations in town, here are a few:
- Horn's Gaslight Bar & Restaurant – This saloon-style bar/restaurant is known for its live music, along with its American and Southwestern food. We had really good Mexican take-away from Horn's, and would definitely recommend it for the food.
- Mary's Bistro – We got food from Mary's, too, which does tasty American-style fare.
- Seabiscuit Cafe – This horse racing-themed spot offers up a mixture of seafood and BBQ, along with good cocktails.
- Millie's on Main – This family-owned spot calls itself a “homestyle pub,” and does mostly burgers and sandwiches. You can get a pasty here, which is a famous Upper Peninsula dish.
- 1852 Grill Room – Looking for something a bit more upscale? This restaurant at the Island House Hotel is a good option. Reservations are recommended here.
7. Evening walk
If you're visiting Mackinac Island during the summer months, then you can expect very long days; the sun won't set until about 9:30 p.m. in June and July. So take advantage of the quieter downtown area after all the daytrippers have left and go for a walk.
The boardwalk past the ferry docks is a lovely spot for a stroll, and to catch a sunset from. Also, keep your eye out for the Mackinac Bridge to illuminate at dusk in the distance!
Day 2 on Mackinac Island
1. Coffee and breakfast
There IS a Starbucks on Mackinac Island (because of course there is), but supporting local is always a better option. For coffee and good pastries, head to Lucky Bean Coffee House on Market Street.
If you want a more substantial breakfast, The Chuckwagon on Main Street is a small-but-mighty local favorite for breakfast or brunch.
2. Take a carriage tour
The most popular activity on Mackinac Island is to go on a horse-drawn carriage tour. I'm usually one to balk at activities that involve animals, but horse-drawn carriages aren't just an attraction here; they're literally a way of life.
Draft horses and carriages/carts are used for everything from taxis to bar delivery to even garbage collection on Mackinac Island. All the horses I saw during our stay looked healthy and well-cared-for, so I think if you want to take a carriage tour you can feel okay about the animals.
Carriage tours are offered by Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, and their public tours start at 9:30 a.m. each day. You can't buy tickets in advance, however; tours are on a first-come, first-served basis. Your best bet of getting on the tour you want is to go early on a weekday, so I'd head to their carriage stand as early as possible.
These tours last about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and include live commentary by your carriage driver, along with a couple sightseeing stops. In normal years, you'll get the tour and admission to the Surrey Hills Carriage Museum.
Carriage tours cost $38 per person for adults, and $14 for kids.
3. Visit The Grand
If you're not staying at this opulent hotel (and, honestly, I don't think you *need* to), don't worry! You can visit all the best parts by paying $10 for a guest pass.
The Grand was one of the first hotels built on Mackinac Island, dating back to 1887. The palatial hotel is iconic, and is home to the longest front porch in the world at 660 feet. The hotel also still feels very Victorian in its decor, and is a delight to wander around.
If you take a carriage tour, you can opt to be dropped off at The Grand at the end of your tour.
The top must-do on a visit to The Grand is to head out to that massive front porch and pull up a rocking chair to enjoy the view. There's a bar just off the porch that you can order drinks from, or you can do what Elliot and I did and grab a coffee from the little coffee shop inside The Grand's lobby.
We also wandered through the Parlor, poked our heads into the Audubon Wine Bar, and went up to the fourth floor to see the Cupola Bar. The latter of which is a popular spot to enjoy sunset drinks.
We ended our visit with a walk through the hotel's beautiful gardens.
The gardens at The Grand are filled with perennials and annuals, and are at their peak during the late spring and summer; but even in fall, there were things in bloom. Look out for the “Secret Garden,” and the little walking labyrinth too.
Pro tip: The Grand Hotel technically has a dress code, especially in the evenings. If you're visiting for a meal or just to look around after 6 p.m., note that men are supposed to be in a jacket and tie, and ladies should wear skirts or dresses. (Yes, this is real, and it's posted at various points before you enter the hotel.) During the day, though, the dress code is casual.
In more “normal” times, I would have insisted we book Afternoon Tea at The Grand. Tea is served from 3:30-5 p.m. in the red and green Parlor looking out at the porch, and costs $59 per person. (I have a thing about unique afternoon teas, what can I say?)
But since we were visiting while COVID-19 restrictions were still in place, we opted to eat outdoors just across the street at The Jockey Club at the Grand Stand.
This casual restaurant is situated at the first tee of The Jewel, The Grand's own golf course. You'll find mostly soups, salads, and sandwiches here, which is perfect for a lunch break.
3a. Bike around the island
My favorite thing we did on Mackinac Island was renting bikes for an afternoon to bike the 8-mile “highway” that runs the circumference of the island. This is actually an official highway – the M-185 – but of course you won't encounter any cars on it; only bikes!
There are many bike rental places all over the place, which isn't surprising since bicycles are the most popular way to get around here.
A few people will bring their own bikes over to Mackinac Island, but most likely you'll be renting yours. Rental prices are pretty standard all over the island, and have one thing in common: they aren't cheap! Expect to pay around $10 per hour for a bike rental. This is why we decided to only get bikes for one afternoon.
The highway that circles the island is nice and flat, so don't worry about this ride being too strenuous. (On the other hand, if you have extra time and want to head up into the center of the island, then you DO need to expect to encounter some hills!)
There are plenty of places along this circular route that you might want to stop, so I'd allow at least 2 hours total for this ride.
Some stops worth making include:
- Arch Rock – This iconic rock arch has been drawing tourists on Mackinac Island for more than 150 years. From the bike trail, you'll have to climb 207 steps to reach the best views of the arch, but it's worth it if you stop to make the climb.
- Lake Shore Nature Trail – Park your bike and go on a short walk around a pond, with interpretive displays about the island's flora.
- Native American Cultural History Trail – There are six different pull-outs along the trail that feature interpretive signs about the island's Indigenous history.
- British Landing – There's a nature center here, as well as a half-mile nature trail, restrooms, and a bike repair station.
- Devil's Kitchen – A cave-like formation in the breccia rock that's good for a quick photo stop.
- Mission Point – Ride back through town, and head out to Mission Point Resort where you can congratulate yourself on a successful ride with a drink while you lounge on the resort's lovely front lawn.
Note that you don't need any special kind of license to rent or ride a bike on Mackinac Island (and helmets are not mandated, either), but you DO still have to follow traffic rules and speed limits – yes, you can get a speeding ticket on a bike here!
3b. Play a round of golf
If cycling isn't really your thing, another popular outdoor activity on Mackinac Island is golfing. Even though the island covers less than 5 square miles and is mostly state park land, it nevertheless has three different golf courses!
The courses you can play include:
- Wawashkamo Golf Course – The oldest course on Mackinac Island, this historic golf course tucked away in the center of the island was built in 1898. Its 9 holes are built in the traditional links style, just like the great golf courses of Scotland, and the course was named as one of America’s Historic Golf Landmarks by Golf Digest in 1996. Summer rates start at $55 for 9 holes.
- The Jewel at The Grand Hotel – This award-winning golf course comprises The Grand nine (originally built in 1901), and the Woods nine. 18 holes costs around $150.
- Greens of Mackinac at Mission Point Resort – This is an 18-hole putting course on the edge of Lake Huron, suitable for the whole family.
And, while cars are banned on Mackinac Island, golf carts ARE permitted on both Wawashkamo and The Jewel.
Head back into the downtown area for dinner – or perhaps have a meal at Mission Point Resort if you've ended up there after your bike ride and you still have some time left on your rental.
5. Take a walking ghost tour
This one is optional, of course, but it's a fun last-night activity if you're into legends and the paranormal. Haunts of Mackinac offers several different ghost tours on the island, with their most popular being their Downtown Haunted History Tour, which lasts for 90 minutes and runs most summer nights.
They also offer haunted tours of the Mission Point Resort, and even ghost-hunting tours if you're into that.
If you have more time…
While you can certainly see all the highlights of Mackinac Island in two days, you may be tempted to stay a big longer in this Victorian time warp. And I wouldn't blame you!
If you're staying 3 or 4 nights, you could spread out some of the above activities, and maybe add one or two more. Like:
1. Explore the island's center
Most people stick to the outside edge of Mackinac Island, but there ARE roads that lead up through its center, too. Rent a bike or simply set out on foot, and you can walk from downtown to British Landing, cutting through the center of the island.
Points of interest along the route include Fort Holmes, Skull Cave, and a couple old cemeteries. This is also the road you need to take if you want to visit the battlefield where the British and American forces fought a battle in 1814.
2. Go kayaking
Summer is the perfect season for kayaking in Michigan, and there are options to do so on Mackinac Island. Great Turtle Kayak Tours offers guided tours around Mackinac Island, as well as kayak and paddleboard rentals.
Kayaking was already done for the season when Elliot and I visited in October, otherwise we probably would have tried to squeeze it in!
Where to stay on Mackinac Island
There are actually a LOT of hotel and B&B options on Mackinac Island. You'd think this would mean there would be some budget options, too… but, I'll be honest with you: you're not going to have a “cheap” overnight stay on Mackinac Island. You're just not.
Staying overnight on Mackinac Island is going to be a splurge, and you should plan accordingly for that.
Here are some of the most popular places to stay on Mackinac Island:
1. The Grand Hotel
The Grand is an iconic hotel that is equal parts jaw-dropping and kind of kitschy in a Dirty Dancing kind of way. Be prepared for loud prints and patterns on just about every surface, and to pay a premium if you want to stay here. (In high season, rooms frequently cost $800+ per night.)
The Grand is a true resort hotel, with a big swimming pool, a golf course, and several restaurants and shops inside.
But because you can visit most parts of The Grand as a guest, I don't think you really need to stay here unless it's a bucket list item for you.
2. Island House Hotel
This is where Elliot and I stayed on Mackinac Island. The Island House Hotel is even more historic than The Grand, having been built in 1852. The hotel oozes historic charm, has a nice front porch and front lawn to enjoy, and is within walking distance of almost everything.
We paid about $500 per night for a Premium View King room, which included luggage transfers and breakfast at the 1852 Grill Room. This was a high price for October, but the island was basically full on the weekend we visited, so know that prices do absolutely reflect demand.
Other hotels I looked at on Mackinac Island included:
- Hotel Iroquois – Right off the boardwalk in the downtown area, this historic hotel is the top-rated hotel on Mackinac Island, according to TripAdvisor.
- Bicycle Street Inn & Suites – This waterfront hotel is in the heart of it all, located on Main Street in the center of downtown.
- Cottage Inn – One of the top-rated bed and breakfast options on Mackinac Island.
- The Mackinac House – A newer, luxury boutique inn on the island.
- Mission Point Resort – Located a little beyond the downtown area, this historic resort offers some slightly more budget-friendly room options.
One thing I want to make sure you're aware of at ANY hotel on Mackinac Island: most of the hotels and B&Bs here are in historic (i.e. OLD) buildings. Expect to find creaky floors, plumbing quirks, and other things that go along with hotels and houses that are 100+ years old.
The thing people complain about the most on Mackinac Island is the lack of soundproofing; no matter where you stay, you may end up being able to hear your neighbors through the walls or ceilings. If you are a light sleeper, definitely pack your ear plugs!
Prefer a renta to a hotel or B&B? There aren't that many choices on the island, but there are a few that you can rent through Vrbo:
- Condo with water views – This third-floor condo is just a short walk from the city center, and has two bedrooms.
- Historic cottage – This historic cottage has harbor views and can sleep up to 10.
Even though 2 days on Mackinac Island can definitely be a bit of a travel investment, I think it's worth it. The island reflects an interesting part of Michigan history, and is still a really unique place to visit.
I would definitely plan and book ahead for any trip to Mackinac Island, and then relax as much as possible once you get there!
Have I convinced you to want to plan a trip to Mackinac Island?
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