Blake Walsh

21 Best Things to Do in Empire, MI

  • Published 2023/03/10

Empire, Michigan, is a delightful small village with some of the state’s most gorgeous landscapes and shorelines.

Empire will offer you everything you need to make your vacation memorable, whether stunning vistas or relaxing spots.

Travelers who enjoy nature will love the village’s white-sand beaches, parkways, towering dunes, and infinite paths.

There are also nearby tourist attractions you must not skip, such as the South Bar Lake and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

Here are the best things to do in Empire, MI:

Tour the Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse

Exterior of the Manning Memorial Lighthouse

karenfoleyphotography /

The Manning Memorial Light is a lighthouse in Empire, Michigan, popularly known as the Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse or Manning Light.

The lighthouse is also an homage to Empire’s long-time native and fisherman, Robert Manning.

He constantly expressed his desire for a lighthouse in his city.

Manning loved offshore fishing and frequently returned late at night from his boat adventures.

The lamp of Manning Memorial Lighthouse

Kenneth Keifer /

Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse aids fishers by releasing a white light every four seconds.

The light helps them traverse the ocean safely during their nightly journeys to the shore.

The ancient lighthouse that stands tall on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan is one of the attractions you shouldn’t miss.

Learn about History at the Empire Area Museum

The Empire Area Museum traces the village’s history from its modest origins to a modern community, showcasing hundreds of historical items and relics.

You’ll find the Roen Saloon, a community watering spot famous during Empire’s lumber industry peak in the 1900s.

The original parlor from the salon is on the main floor, while the lower level features a blacksmith and woodworking shop, buggies and sleighs, and railroad and timber business displays.

Its ancient one-room schoolhouse, barn, and 1911 Hose House are all behind the main structure, letting tourists and locals learn more about Empire’s past.

Grab Snacks at the Little Finger Eatery

Are you looking for a delicious meal with a diverse food selection?

Empire’s Little Finger Eatery is a trendy eatery.

The Little Finger Eatery, inside Tiffany’s Café in central Empire, serves artisan sandwiches, paninis, and wraps cooked to order.

Try the curry, Mediterranean chicken shawarma, and sandwiches served with local grilled asparagus plus roasted red pepper.

Likewise, grab the grilled cheese, hot dogs, and tangy Reubens.

Come by the Little Finger Eatery after a long day walking around the Empire village.

Play a Game at the Dunes Golf Club

The Dunes Golf Club first opened its doors in the fall of 1991.

It’s a relaxed, pleasant course in the Glen Lake – Sleeping Bear Dunes area, offering 5,730 yards of leisurely golf.

The Dunes Golf Club provides several opportunities for outdoor recreation in Northern Michigan.

It’s noted for its course rollers, swirls, winds, and its location showing some of Bruce Peninsula’s most beautiful scenery.

This is the ideal place for folks who enjoy outdoor activities such as golf.

Buy Chocolate Bars at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate

Since 2004, Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate has produced high-quality chocolate desserts in the charming small village of Empire.

Mimi Wheeler, a Danish native, founded Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate over years of preparing bonbons for her pals for holidays and other occasions.

She was never content with the chocolate available in the United States.

So, she started GDC in a tiny building just south of Empire after working as a social worker.

Mimi’s childhood memories of her family owning a small grocery shop in the remote area she grew up in inspired the moniker ‘Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate.’

Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate is where to go to satisfy your chocolate cravings or souvenir needs.

Wander the Empire Bluff Trail

Scenic view at Empire Bluff Trail

LukeandKarla.Travel /

Empire Bluff Trail is probably one of the most beautiful routes in Sleeping Bear National Park.

It’s pretty tricky, but you can finish it if you take the time and appreciate the magnificent beech and maple forest around you.

The round trip distance is roughly 1.5 miles.

Sandy boardwalk at Empire Bluff Trail

Ann NR /

On the Empire Bluff Trail, you can see the spectacular scenery of Lake Michigan and also the peninsula’s northern shore.

The trail tends to be crowded in the early evenings as people try to watch the sunset.

Relax and enjoy the rare delights of calm, naturally gorgeous settings.

Nature view at Empire Bluff Trail

Paper and Lens Co /

Book a Room at Empire Village Inn

The “Village Inn” first opened its doors in 1959.

The original Village Inn offered beer, wine, and very rudimentary bar cuisine, as seen in old photographs.

It also had a pine-paneled bar and a brick wall with a fireplace.

They erected an extension with a kitchen on the north end of the building in 1971.

When Mike Wiesen acquired the tavern in 1987, he renamed it “The Empire Village Inn.”

The Empire Village Inn is a family-friendly restaurant serving pizza, local beers, drinks, and sandwiches.

Mike added bigger, wider windows as well as a dance floor.

He removed the fireplace, installed a complete kitchen, and added pizza, snacks, and sandwiches to the menu.

Visit this popular tourist spot for great appetizers and rich history.

Eat and Make Friends at Joe’s Friendly Tavern

Joe’s Friendly Tavern opened in Empire in 1946.

It is a well-known burger joint in Empire, Michigan, in the middle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Empire Beach’s magnificent sights of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands are just a few miles down the road.

Joe’s Friendly Tavern is famous for its award-winning burgers, freshly ground daily in a welcoming environment for families.

Many publications have recognized their award-winning burgers, such as The New York Times, Traverse the Magazine, and the Detroit Free Press.

Nowhere can you find a tastier burger than those served at Joe’s Friendly Tavern.

Feast Your Eyes on Jojo and Bucky’s Art

Jojo and Bucky’s gallery features a great collection of art and treasures.

Whether you’re an antique dealer or enjoy unusual works of art, Jojo and Bucky will offer only the finest artworks.

You won’t be able to resist their local art to stunning jewelry.

You’ll see a charming tiny white structure with a minimalist touch when you arrive.

However, the inside is far superior to the outside.

You’ll find something to capture your attention in every nook and cranny.

Jojo and Bucky is a worthwhile destination.

Go Camping at South Bar Lake

Scenic view of South Bar Lake

Craig Sterken /

Located near Empire, Michigan, South Bar Lake is around 69 acres and has a maximum depth of four meters.

A public swimming beach sits in a local park on the west border of the lake.

While its breathtaking beauty will entice many visitors, South Bar Lake is also a fantastic place for outdoor leisure.

You can go swimming, fishing, kayaking, camping, and trekking here.

Try to catch the lake’s bluntnose minnow, yellow perch, Johnny and Iowa darter, plus largemouth and smallmouth bass.

Try Homemade Cooking at Shipwreck Cafe

In 2017, Steve and Jennifer Nowicki established Shipwreck Cafe.

They intended to introduce the Gateway to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, a new alternative dining option at Empire.

They happily prepare sumptuous meals in a pleasant family atmosphere with their children, Hannah and Rebecca.

At Shipwreck Café, they prepare freshly made pretzels, regular buns, and Italian herbs.

You can find meats, cheese, fresh produce, homemade Delights, and local greens when in season.

Grab Surfing Gear at Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak

Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak opened out of a passion for the great Lake Michigan.

It’s the best and first freshwater surf store in Northern Michigan.

Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak has evolved into much more than a surf shop with the latest, highest-quality gear and apparel.

It’s also become a hub for Northern Michigan kayakers and a strong and growing surf community.

They also offer an assortment of swimwear, leisure items, accessories, and more.

Bask in the Sun at Empire Beach Village Park

National Geographic ranked Empire Beach as one of the best 21 beaches in the world.

You can find pure, clear water, 450-foot cliffs for swimming, and expansive sights of Lake Michigan.

Find a drive-in boat ramp and the Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse on the shore.

This beach is ideal for families of all ages, with a pavilion, barbecue grills, and a large playground.

There are also vault bathrooms and drinkable water available.

Visit Empire Beach Village Park for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Ride a Horse at Michigan Shore-to-Shore Riding and Hiking Track

The Michigan Shore-to-Shore Riding and Hiking Track is a 354-kilometer trail accessible to explorers.

It offers a whole wilderness experience that travelers will undoubtedly appreciate.

Horse riders and trekkers are both welcome.

It’s the most pleasing encounter to make you feel lively, with lush trees along the pathways and the sun shining down on you.

Additionally, spectacular vistas will greet you as you approach the route.

Michigan Shore-to-Shore Riding and Hiking Track is an excellent pastime for connecting with nature.

Trek the Woods of Chippewa Run Natural Area

Chippewa Run Natural Area is one of the more underrated spots in Empire, as it’s tucked in an unassuming area along Leelanau Highway that you can easily miss when driving.

However, this is a must-see, especially if you have an affinity for outdoor trekking in rustic woodlands.

Lined with beautiful maple trees and an abundance of grasslands, Chippewa Run Natural Area is an ecological wonder that’s perfect for exploration.

There are plenty of wildflowers along with a sizable creek that’s home to a variety of animals, making this a great place to do photography as well.

As a bonus, trekking at Chippewa Run Natural Area also means traversing historic lands that were once occupied by the Anishinaabek.

See the Exhibits at Philip A. Hart Visitor Center

Philip A. Hart Visitor Center isn’t just your run-of-the-mill tourism center, as it doubles as a top attraction of Empire itself.

With a lot of interactive exhibits, this is a popular destination to both do some sightseeing while also getting invaluable information from Empire’s rangers.

Some of their leading exhibits here include a comprehensive display of the flora and fauna in Empire, as well as a state-of-the-art digital topographic map of the Sleepy Bear Dunes.

There’s also a section for art here, making it a great all-rounder for all kinds of tourists.

Philip A. Hart Visitor Center is a pleasant addition to your itinerary because of its practicality and beauty, find it along West Front Street.

Go Back in Time at Cottonwood Inn Bed and Breakfast

If you want more options for accommodation in Empire, another good choice is Cottonwood Inn Bed and Breakfast that’s located along West Front Street. .

The aesthetic and historical beauty of the inn is what makes this a popular place to check-in if you’re staying in the village.

A house that dates back to the 20th Century, staying here will give you some vintage vibes without sacrificing comfort and convenience.

That’s because the service here is top-notch, and the food itself is amazing which is important for its business model.

While the facade of the house may seem rustic, the rooms manage to combine elegance and history to give you a pleasant experience.

Go Biking at Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a scenic place to do some biking or jogging in Empire, giving you access to the village from the northern point to the south.

Spanning several miles long, Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail takes you to the coastal zones of Empire, making it a fun way to see the length of the village’s shore along Lake Michigan.

The trails are paved, so all kinds of bicycles are capable of traversing Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.

This will also take you to a couple of wooded forest areas in the village, so it’s another fun way to do some trekking as you explore each section of your trip.

The trailhead that has a comprehensive map can be found along North Bar Lake Road.

Pitch a Tent at Empire Township Campground

Another nice option to experience camping in the village is at Empire Township Campground.

Empire Township Campground is one of the leading campsites in the village, allowing you to pitch tents in the dense forests that the camping ground boasts.

Sprawling with high-arching trees, you’ll get a lot of cool shade when you camp in this area.

Best of all, while the place feels rustic, Empire Township Campground has flushing toilets and shower areas to aid in your camping experience.

You can find this campground along West Osborn Road, by the southeastern end of Empire.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Take a Trip to the Past at Glen Haven Historic Village

The road of Glen Haven Historic Village

Royalbroil, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Glen Haven Historical Village is a little neighborhood on the shores of Lake Michigan that transports you back in time.

Find it in Glen Haven, Michigan, ten minutes from Empire.

This village has historic structures dating back to its first inhabitants.

Interior of the Cannery boathouse at Glen Haven Historic Village

MJCdetroit, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Find the Glen Haven Inn, Glen Haven General Store, Blacksmith Shop, and Cannery Boathouse.

The village tells the tale of the Glen Haven community’s growth from a stopover for steamships traveling the Chicago route in the 1800s.

After seeing the historical sites, take a stroll down the beach while taking in the breathtaking vistas, or better yet, go for a refreshing swim.

Take a Road Trip to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

A covered bridge along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive


The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive offers breathtaking views of the dunes, Lake Michigan, and Glen Lake.

The journey between Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Empire takes about 13 minutes to drive.

It’s a beautiful drive through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The route has beautiful scenery and mild curves that will make your trip pleasurable.

An overlook along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Craig Sterken /

Hike the Cottonwood Trail and picnic at one of the gorgeous overlooks.

The seven-mile trail also offers stunning views of the dunes, Lake Michigan, and Glen Lake.

If you enjoy scenic drives and lovely scenery, consider taking a journey along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

A road trip will provide you with an unforgettable experience, whether you want a relaxing pastime or adventure.

Pine forest along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Craig Sterken /

Final Thoughts

Tourists would never run out of things to do in Empire, Michigan, with its beautiful coasts, towering dunes, countless trails, and multiple campsites.

Empire will provide you with the finest of both worlds, whether you want relaxation or action.

Empire is also home to various well-known restaurants, museums, natural wonders, and tourist sites you want to see on your holiday.

Don’t miss out on this must-see tourist attraction.

Make your reservations now!

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