Why We’re Big Fans of This Michigan Town
You might know Ann Arbor as the home of the University of Michigan. On certain fall Saturdays, the football stadium affectionately known as the Big House becomes Michigan's 7th-largest city by itself as fans flock to cheer on the Maize and Blue. What you may not know is that the city and the surrounding area are much more than just a college town.
Located about 45 minutes west of Detroit, and easy to get to via I-94, Ann Arbor (or A2 to locals) is a destination in its own right, with outdoor pursuits, an inventive culinary scene, thriving arts culture and walkable downtown. Layer that in with the benefits of hosting one of the nation's top universities—world-class museums, creative energy and those sports teams, among others—and you have a ready-made weekend (or midweek) getaway.
So even if your college days are behind you, here's what you can "major" in when you visit the Ann Arbor area.
For a city its size, Ann Arbor punches well above its weight when it comes to both creative outlets and creative output.
You'll find the best example of this just by walking around the city. The mural lineup has exploded in recent years, first with the 10-story "Challenge Everything, Create Anything" painting on South 4th Avenue in 2019, and then with a series crowdfunded by the Ann Arbor Arts Center to help artists during the pandemic. On a self-guided art tour through Ann Arbor's Creative District just west of Main Street, you'll discover 15 murals depicting everything from a field of black-eyed Susans to a Korean folk legend.
Continuing on your walkabout downtown, you'll find made-for-the-'gram murals that include a chance to hang from a lamppost with Fred Astaire in "Singin' in the Rain" by David Zinn, the Bookstore Mural featuring authors from Edgar Allen Poe to Anaïs Nin, and of course, University of Michigan-themed wings by #WhatLiftsYou artist Kelsey Montague.
Less obvious, but just as fun to find are the Urban Fairy Doors, scattered downtown near coffeehouses, bookstores and even the children's hospital.
If the weather isn't cooperating, head indoors to a museum. The University of Michigan Museum of Art (or UMMA) is one of the largest university art museums in the country, with 20,000 objects in its collection in addition to thought-provoking exhibitions and events. Just around the corner is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, with a rich collection of Mediterranean and Middle East artifacts, including a mummy with his own Twitter handle (though with no tweets since 2019, it might be "dead"). While on campus, walk over to The Cube and give the tilted art installation a spin or walk amid the Gothic towers in the Law Quad.
On or off campus, student productions and famous venues provide visitors plenty of chances to "take in a show." Keep the playbill if you see something on the U of M campus -- alumni include James Earl Jones, Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, Gilda Radner and Madonna. In downtown Ann Arbor, both the State Theatre and Michigan Theater are iconic spots to enjoy a night out—whether it's to catch midnight showings of cult classics like Alien (sometimes with live accompaniment from the 1927 Barton Theatre Pipe Organ), a first-run film or a concert by the likes of Elvis Costello (playing Nov. 2). For live music, you can't go wrong by stopping in at The Ark, an intimate 400-seat venue that hosts a who's-who of the folk music scene. In nearby Chelsea, actor Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre Company will re-open in January 2022 with two world premiere plays on the schedule.
It all comes together every July in the Ann Arbor Art Fair, the nation's largest juried art fair, typically attracting over 1,000 artists and covering 30 city blocks downtown. The 2022 event is slated for July 21-24.
While this major isn't on the menu at the University of Michigan, just about everything else is on the table in the Ann Arbor area.
Last in the alphabet, but one of the first places you should visit is Zingerman's Delicatessen. It's been called the "best deli in America" by Zagat, and the founder has written not one or two, but four, books on customer service and management—as well as one on making better bacon.
You can shop in the deli for specialty items such as smoked fish, vinegar varietals and unique olive oils, but the overstuffed sandwiches are why foodies travel hundreds of miles to this mecca of meats and cheeses in Kerrytown. Order online or by phone (you're getting the #2 Reuben with extra napkins)—it's worth the wait. The deli dynasty now includes a coffee shop, a creamery, a candy shop and two restaurants nominated for James Beard Awards in 2020—Zingerman's Roadhouse (get the mac and cheese) and Miss Kim, (try the tteokbokki, or rice cakes, made using a centuries-old Korean royal palace recipe).
If you're in Downtown Ann Arbor, there's no wrong answer to the question, "what's for dinner?" You could go old school (Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger) or new age (the 100% vegan Detroit Street Filling Station). There's Spanish tapas (Aventuras), Japanese ramen (Slurping Turtle), Korean BBQ (Tomukun Noodle Bar), farm-to-table goodness (Grange Kitchen) and elevated pub grub with a side of school spirit (The Pretzel Bell) all located within a few blocks of each other.
Throughout the area, you'll find a diverse international food scene, ranging from Ethiopian to Eastern European to Caribbean cuisine. One yummy example: Chef Eve Aronoff Fernandez brings Cuban-inspired street food (and Top Chef street cred) to life at Frita Batidos. You want a Frita, a Cuban burger topped with a sunny-side up egg and shoestring fries. And you want a Batido, a tropical milkshake with fresh fruit, sweetened milk and vanilla ice cream from the local Guernsey Dairy.
Wash all that goodness down with a craft beer. Close to 20 microbreweries operate in the Ann Arbor area, and several pair food with what's on tap. HOMES Brewery (named for the acronym made by the Great Lakes) focuses on sour beers, but their patio is sweet. Jolly Pumpkin features a rotation of artisan sour ales that you can order along with truffle fries or other small bites at their rooftop patio downtown.
For a cocktail, the final advice we'll give is to go to The Last Word. This underground speakeasy exudes cool, along with an extensive cocktail menu, including the bar's namesake cocktail (gin, green chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur and fresh lime) that originated at the Detroit Athletic Club in the 1920s.
One recent estimate put the number of trees in Ann Arbor at roughly 1.45 million, so it's no surprise that locals affectionately call it "Tree Town."
Beyond the tree-lined streets, several parks and nature areas provide the chance to get out and enjoy nature no matter the season. Gallup Park hugs the Huron River, and is one of the closest options to downtown. You can rent canoes or kayaks in the park, or take a loop on the pathway that includes several bucolic pedestrian bridges to small islands. The park is part of the Border to Border Trail (aka B2B Trail) that connects Ann Arbor with nearby towns Dexter, Chelsea and Ypsilanti. The paved paths run alongside the Huron River, and are perfect for an easy hike, jog or bike ride.
On the edge of the U of M campus, you'll find the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, called the Arb by locals. Free to visit and popular year-round for their gardens, forests and well-maintained trails, these spaces burst into color in the fall months.
For a special fall treat, head to the Dexter Cider Mill on the banks of the Huron River. Squeezing apples since 1886, this is the oldest operating cider mill in Michigan. Stop by for a swig of cider, freshly baked donuts and other apple goodies to get your full fall fix.
Retail therapy might not be covered in Psych 101, but you can find plenty of chances to get your shop on in the Ann Arbor area. Downtown Ann Arbor has a thriving collection of boutiques, indie bookstores and small shops, some of which were started by pioneering college students.
Located just off campus on State Street is one of Ann Arbor's coolest spots to shop. Walking the mosaic tile of the Nickels Arcade under a glass roof feels more like shopping in a European city than in the middle of Michigan. Along the 261-foot-long alley, you'll find shops that sell outdoor gear (Bivouac), unique gifts (Caravan) and a serious cup of joe (Comet Coffee).
Across the street from Zingerman's Deli and next to Ann Arbor Farmers Market, you'll find the Kerrytown Market & Shops, which houses an eclectic mix of stores. Come with an open mind and you may leave with gourmet groceries, artisan jewelry made from recycled materials and a cool kids' toy that you secretly want to keep for yourself.
While we're on the topic of economics, anyone that took Macro 101 will know that the supply/demand curve means that hotel prices will be super high during football weekends. However, if you plan a midweek getaway, you'll find much better deals on hotels. Lodging options run the gamut from budget-friendly chain hotels located near the interstate to boutique hotels (such as the Graduate Ann Arbor or Bell Tower Hotel) located close to campus.
Grab some U of M swag at the M Den on Main Street, and then go cheer on the Wolverines with 100,000 of your closest friends (who are all wearing the exact same shade of yellow). The energy surrounding a football Saturday at U of M is palpable (which is why the weekend usually starts a few days early). Even if you aren't lucky enough to score football tickets, you can catch the game at a bar in town.
But football is not the only game in town. The University supports 27 varsity sports, many of which are nationally ranked. You might catch the next Derek Jeter on the baseball field or the next Michael Phelps in the pool.
Late in the fall is a sweet spot for fans to visit when you'll find sports such as soccer and volleyball wrapping up their seasons against Big Ten rivals, while basketball and ice hockey are just getting started. The University's sports complex is located just south of the main campus and downtown, so you're never far from the action.