Many visitors use the words “Traverse City” as a kind of shorthand for the entire region of peninsulas, islands and forested highlands surrounding Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. 

But that tends to gloss over the many vibrant communities strung across the region in a glittering constellation, each with its own history, personality and charm. And no trip to the Traverse City area can be complete until you’ve made a visit to one or two of them, to wander their streets, explore their shops and meet the people who call these places home. 

Just north of Traverse City, for instance, lies the narrow Old Mission Peninsula, home to the hilltop community of Mapleton with its cluster of restaurants, the Mapleton Market and the peninsula’s only gas pump, and the historic village of Old Mission -- the first permanent settlement in the region -- with its picturesque church, general store and historic Old Mission Inn

Suttons Bay Leelanau Peninsula

To the northwest is the broader Leelanau Peninsula, home to a half-dozen lakeshore towns and inland villages. Just a half-hour away, on its own lovely inlet of West Grand Traverse Bay, is Suttons Bay, an artsy community with a vibrant downtown that includes a classic small-town department store, a historic movie house called The Bay Theater and several fine restaurants.  

Just a few miles beyond is Peshawbestown (headquarters of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and home to the Turtle Creek Casino) and the small village of Omena. Finally, near the very tip of the peninsula, is the village of Northport, an important yachting port with its own bustling downtown and some great restaurants. (A bit father up the road is the scenic Leelanau State Park and the historic Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum

On the west shore of the peninsula facing the open waters of Lake Michigan, are three more port villages: Leland, with its marina and celebrated Fishtown shopping district; the resort community of Glen Arbor, home to the original Cherry Republic store; and the laid-back beach town of Empire with its beautiful beach at the base of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. But there’s more to the Leelanau peninsula than its shoreline. 

Southwest of Traverse City you’ll find the lively village of Interlochen, site of the world-famous Interlochen Center for the Arts and Interlochen State Park (Michigan’s first state park!) Just beyond, are the traditional lakeshore resort communities of Beulah (on Crystal Lake) and Frankfort (on Lake Michigan), home to Stormcloud Brewing Company

A trip to the southeast, on the other hand, will take you through deep forests up the scenic Boardman valley to the woodsy village of Mayfield and its big sister, Kingsley, a former lumber town that’s undergoing a community renaissance of sorts, with new streetscaping and economic activity. Farther east, and deeper in the woods, are the rustic villages of Fife Lake (located along the North Country Trail) and Kalkaska, at the upper reaches of the Boardman River, home of the National Trout Festival and a popular jumping-off spot for hunters, anglers and snowmobilers

Short's Brewery in Bellaire

Northeast of Traverse City, along the shore of East Grand Traverse Bay, is the bustling port of Elk Rapids, site of another busy yachting harbor and another historic downtown with cute shops and great dining choices including Pearl's New Orleans Kitchen. Elk Rapids is also the gateway to the charming Chain of Lakes region of Antrim County, a scenic area that includes many quaint lakeshore towns -- from scenic Torch River and the storybook village of Alden at the edge of Torch Lake to the village of Bellaire, home to Shanty Creek Resorts and Short’s Brewery.