Marvelous Manistee

A 154-year-old Victorian-influenced port city undergoes a 21st-century renaissance
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The Manistee River
The Manistee River flows through the national and state historic districts along the downtown riverwalk.
Photos courtesy of Visit Manistee County

Manistee is a gem along Michigan’s west coast, and its many riches make for a cozy and captivating fall foray: Miles of trees for leaf-peeping, two Lake Michigan beaches, two lighthouses, a vibrant downtown, great lodging, and outdoor activities galore. 

Dubbed the Victorian Port City, Manistee is listed on both the national and state Register of Historic Places. The 154-year-old town’s enticing architecture is well preserved, and many of the gracious Victorian mansions built downtown by the lumber barons are still standing. During that era, at the end of the 1800s, Manistee was home to the most millionaires per capita in the nation. 

It’s also noteworthy that the ornate and lavishly restored Ramsdell Theatre, circa 1903, is where actor James Earl Jones began his career. The facility also houses the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts, offering the Met Opera Live in HD series, live music, and many other events. 

Another arts revival — the $2.6-million restoration of downtown’s Art Deco-styled Vogue Theatre, built in 1938 and now featuring first-run flicks along with 25-cent family matinees, $2 classics, and Port City documentaries, plus “Dinner and a Movie” packages and other enticements — was spearheaded by actor/director Michael Moore and an army of volunteers. 

Speaking of dinner, there’s much to be savored here, and Kim Skeltis, who lives in nearby Ludington, says she spends loads of time checking out the new and venerable spots in Manistee. Some of her picks: For great barbecue, the North Channel Brewing Co.; for craft beer, the Third Life Brewing Co. in the circa-1871 Iron Works Building; for dinner on the water, Taco ’Bout It Mexican Fusion or the New American eatery, The Bluefish Kitchen + Bar, both on River Street. 

If you dine at the right time and are seated at a big window or on an outdoor deck, you can watch huge freighters squeeze through the Manistee River channel into Manistee Lake — a sight and sound that never ceases to amaze.

Beyond restaurants, Manistee’s revitalization includes new shops and young entrepreneurs who are adding pizzazz to an already fascinating town. Take Anita Shaffer, who says Manistee’s architecture is part of what lured her and her husband, Patrick, to move from Ann Arbor, where both had businesses.

“It was during COVID, when all the businesses were closed,” Anita says. “We had never been to Manistee, so we walked around the town and fell in love with it — and also saw that it was still affordable.”

The couple bought a home downtown and in 2020 opened their Port City Emporium, which showcases more than 50 Michigan artisans, small-business products from around the U.S., fair-trade products from around the world, and Patrick’s Mid-century Modern furnishings.

“Nothing is mass-produced,” says Anita, who adds that they’re expanding the interior with a new tea nook.

Several other fun shops include The Daily BakeHouse on Division Street, whose cinnamon-swirl bread has a cult following; Northern Spice Co., which features house-made blends; and Wellnested, with beautiful home décor and interior design services.

Lake Michigan in the Fall at Manistee
Visitors will discover exciting fall adventures throughout this charming Lake Michigan community.

Recreation Aplenty

Some of the best swimming in Lake Michigan actually happens in the early fall, and Manistee boasts two pristine beaches, a modern marina with open space for weddings and other events, and lots of charter fishing. 

A handicap-accessible, 1.5-mile Riverwalk follows the Manistee River from the end of Jones Street to the First Street Beach + Douglas Park, with access along the way to the downtown shops and restaurants, as well as a place for picnicking on Spruce Street. A feature that debuted a year ago, the Origins Walk, tells the story of Manis-
tee’s history, from its Anishnaabek Native American roots through today.

Hundreds of miles of marked trails can be enjoyed in the Manistee-Huron National Forest, which offers excellent hiking, biking, and camping for all levels of outdoors lovers. For birdwatchers, the 75-acre Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary, high above Lake Michigan, is worthy of a visit. If you bring binoculars, you’re sure to spot many birds you’ll never see in your backyard. The former arboretum boasts some interesting trees, too: a California redwood, a ginkgo, two Michigan Champions, a giant sequoia, and a sycamore maple.

historic mansions
Dozens of preserved historic mansions can be seen on city tours. Check out the excellent Historic Guide online at visitmanisteecounty.com.

New and Vintage Lodgings

The 102-room, five-story Hampton Inn & Suites Manistee Waterfront opened in July. “We’re really excited about it, since most of us who work here are locals,” says General Manager Eliza Carlson. She adds that there’s an indoor and outdoor pool with a hot tub, a patio with a fire pit, and a bar with a limited menu. On the top floor there’s meeting room space and a restaurant with a spectacular view of the channel, Lake Michigan, and the North Pierhead Lighthouse.

Food and beverage director Natasha Partridge says the hotel’s nautical-themed eatery, the Windward, “is family-friendly, casual dining,” with Chef Dustin Lear at the helm. Douglas Park, with all kinds of outdoor facilities and boat-launch ramps, is next door.

For a more intimate stay, downtown’s 10-room, 1891-vintage Ramsdell Inn, with the popular TJ’s Pub below, is another good bet. 

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