Nevermind trekking all the way Up North. The Great Lakes Bay Region is filled with incomparable attractions and unusual cultural landmarks that are worth a trip all on their own.
MICHIGAN—The Great Lakes Bay Region—also known as the Greater Tri-Cities Region, or more plainly, the Saginaw area—can sometimes be overlooked by locals and tourists who explore Michigan for its “Up North” splendor, and the campier vibes of the Upper Peninsula.
But don’t be fooled: there’s plenty to do along the base of the Thumb. In fact, it hardly took us anytime at all to compile 10 of them right here. Check out the links for more details, and don’t drive too quickly, or you might just miss some of these hidden gems of the Tri-Cities.
Castle Museum of Saginaw County (Saginaw)
This attraction looks much more like a castle than an old post office—and that’s because the building’s architect, William Martin Aiken, designed it that way.
Aiken was inspired by French Renaissance Revival architecture from Saginaw Valley’s early French settlement history. Today, the building hosts three floors of exhibits and displays documenting Saginaw’s history, including its longtime lumber and automotive industries.
Though only an in-person visit will allow those truly Instagram-worthy selfies, you can still tour the museum virtually via YouTube. If you go, make sure to respect the gargoyles.
Japanese Cultural Center and Tea House (Saginaw)
This one might be unexpected: Saginaw lays claim to the only authentic Japanese tea house in the Midwest—mostly thanks to its sister city of Tokushima, Japan. This nonprofit organization has been infusing Japanese culture into the local region for over three decades.
Traditional tea ceremonies are featured on the second Saturday of every month. As a cultural center, it also hosts classes in traditional Japanese arts like origami (paper folding), Ikebana (flower arranging), bonsai (nurturing dwarfed plants), and Shodo calligraphy).
The strolling garden is also available for all visitors at no charge. Can’t make it to the Japanese Cultural Center in person? Check out the virtual tour on their YouTube channel.
Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens (Midland)
Midland claims the title of the country’s longest canopy walk at the 54-acre Whiting Forest within the Dow Gardens. The walkway rises 40 feet above the ground and overlooks the grounds of the Whiting estate, designed by Alden B. Dow of the Dow Chemical family.
How many tons of steel did it take to make for these gorgeous views? About 2,000.
Stevie Wonder Landmark (Saginaw)
Did you know Stevie Wonder was born and raised in Saginaw? The singer-songwriter of hits like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” and “Superstition” spent the first four years of his life there before moving to Detroit and eventually getting more involved with Motown.
About three miles north of his birthplace at St. Mary’s Hospital, there’s a tribute to the famous musician. Though the landmark has deteriorated from lack of upkeep since it was erected in 2005, it still stands to commemorate his connections to the Tri-Cities area.
The address is 1315 N. 5th Ave. in Saginaw. Read more about it—right here.
Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland (Frankenmuth)
Little Bavaria is worth the trip alone, but Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland—the world’s largest Christmas store—makes it all the more beloved in Michigan and across the world.
The store is open year-round, 361 days a year, and typically welcomes over 2 million visitors annually. Aisles upon aisles of ornaments and other decor fill over seven acres of space.
Antique Toy and Firehouse Museum (Bay City)
Both the largest collection of fire trucks and the largest collection of Tonka toys and trucks can be found in Bay City. Founder Jimmie Dobson dedicated the museum to the shared love of toys and trucks that he had with his late son, Jeffrey. And today, the museum features more than 60 vehicles and over 12,000 toys.
The focal point of the collection is the world’s largest fire truck, the FDNY Super Pumper. Visitors also love the NASCAR Room, which has a model of almost every model to race.
Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum (SVSU)
Everyone knows about Detroit’s iconic “Spirit of Detroit” sculpture. Far fewer know about the artist who created it: Marshall Fredericks. A museum honoring the life’s work of “America’s Public Sculptor,” as he was known, can be found on the Saginaw Valley State University campus. With over 200 sculptures from the artist alone, this free collection is worth a trip.
Creative 360 John Pratt Mosaic House (Midland)
Artist John Pratt, who lived with schizophrenia, expressed the inner machinations of his mind and his past by layering his childhood home in mosaics of mirrored tiles, ceramic shards, bottle caps, and more. The result is one of the most interesting pieces of art in the Mitten.
Though Pratt died in 1997, the creative nonprofit organization Creative 360 has taken charge of the remarkable house. And now tours are provided for a small fee of $5 per person.
Dick’s Last Resort (Saginaw)
One of Saginaw’s newest restaurants is from a chain with a rather interesting gimmick.
Instead of polite customer service, Dick’s Last Resort is notorious for intentionally employing the rudest workers imaginable—and they all serve up plenty of put-downs and sarcasm.
The restaurant is a sleazy, rowdy roadhouse with Southern-style fare that puts a new spin on “dinner and a show.” Calling itself the “Shame O’ Saginaw,” the Dick’s Last Resort chain has finally come to Michigan to some understandably mixed reviews. But if you’re in on the joke and ready for a good time, bring your sense of humor and some thick skin over to Saginaw.
Bay Antique Center (Bay City)
OK: Antiquing isn’t for everyone. But for those who go wild for the old days, the Bay Antique Center is proud to be Michigan’s largest antique store. With over 60,000 square feet of antiques—enough to cover an entire city block—the two-story Bay Antique Center offers all the best knick-knacks and tchotchkes of yesteryear. Everything from Victorian furniture and vintage clothing to military memorabilia and comic books can be found inside.