Strolling down the streets of Frankenmuth, Michigan, is like stepping into the pages of a German fairy tale. The gingerbread architecture of each storefront reflects the city’s Alpine heritage, as do the Glockenspiel clock that chimes hourly, the dirndl-clad waitresses in each restaurant and the polka music that gives the town an Oktoberfest air year-round.
Much of the town’s charm can be attributed to the fact that, with the exception of a new hotel or two, not much has changed over the years, allowing families to relive old memories and make new ones with a new generation.
Frankenmuth was founded in 1845 by 15 German Lutheran settlers who traveled from the Franken province of Germany to teach Christianity to the Chippewa Indians of the Saginaw Valley. Their new home’s name combined “Franken” for their native Franconia and “muth,” the German word for courage. For most of Frankenmuth’s 160-year history, the village economy relied on farming. Fifty years ago, however, the residents decided to convert the town’s German heritage into a haven for out-of-towners. Today, “Michigan’s Little Bavaria” is one of the state’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than 3 million people each year.
Frankenmuth’s focal point is food. No visitor should leave without partaking of the fare at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant (713 S. Main St., 800/228-2742) or Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth (730 S. Main St., 800/863-7999), famous for platters of home-style fried chicken and all the trimmings. Combined, the two restaurants serve nearly 2 million dinners — including 700 tons of chicken — each year. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, there are plenty of German Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten and bratwurst alternatives.
One of the town’s most popular attractions is Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (25 Christmas Lane, 989/652-9931), billed as the world’s largest Christmas store. Bronner’s is crammed with every decoration imaginable, from life-sized Marys and Josephs to hard-to-find twinkling light strands for miniature trees. Upon entering the store, customers receive maps so they can easily navigate the emporium, which is roughly the size of four football fields. Adjacent to Bronner’s stands the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, a replica of the chapel built in Austria on the site where the most famous holiday hymn was first performed in 1818. The Frankenmuth chapel is surrounded by plaques bearing the song’s lyrics in more than 250 languages.
In addition to permanent attractions, Frankenmuth is home to a variety of festivals and more than 90 specialty shops, most within easy walking distance of each other. For more information, call the Frankenmuth Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 386-8696.
Where to Stay
» Bavarian Inn Lodge (One Covered Bridge Lane, 888/775-6343) is a seven-acre resort featuring five indoor pools and three whirlpools, four tennis courts and 18-hole miniature golf.
» Marv Herzog Hotel (501 S. Main St., 877/400-4210), which opened last year, is named in honor of the town’s popular polka bandleader, who passed away in 2002. The ambiance of this 38-room European-style boutique hotel, located on the banks of the Cass River, is akin to having a room on the Rhine. Beds feature duvets, and rooms with Jacuzzis are available. The complimentary breakfast buffet features biscuits and gravy, French toast and Belgian waffles.
Daily: Bavarian Inn Glockenspiel Tower, a 35-bell carillon with moving figures, tells the story of the Pied Piper at noon, 3, 5, 6, 9 and 10 p.m.
Nov. 28: Holiday Celebration and Candlewalk features Christmas carolers, shopping and complimentary refreshments from local merchants.
Jan. 21-26: Zehnder’s Snowfest includes snow sculpting and ice-carving competitions, fireworks and entertainment.
Mar. 27-Apr. 24: The town’s annual Easter celebration features colorful egg displays throughout Frankenmuth.
May 15-16: World Expo of Beer includes offerings from more than 50 breweries from five continents.
Jun. 11-14: Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival showcases Bavarian music played by colorfully costumed German bands, along with plenty of ethnic food, barbecued chicken and homemade pretzels.