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Every week we'll be asking you to come with us to some of our favorite small towns and cities—and we'll show you the places, secret spots, and nooks we love.
Today: Our Contributing Editor Lindsay-Jean shows us around her hometown—and we already don't want to leave.
The city of Ann Arbor is nearly synonymous with the University of Michigan. That might lead you to believe that a visit to the city means you’ll see swarms of students, dressed head to toe in maize and blue, drinking (juice?) out of blue Solo cups on the front lawns of frat houses, then heading en masse to The Big House (U of M’s football stadium) while singing “The Victors” at the top of their lungs. And it’s true, you might see that—but only if you’re visiting on a game day in the fall.
Other days of the year, university life and town life blend pretty seamlessly together: Ann Arbor is a college town you’ll want to visit long after your college years are over. It has a small-town feel—the population is around 115,000 (just a bit more than the capacity of the football stadium!), which includes the sizable student population. But while Ann Arbor isn’t a big city, it does have big-city amenities: a vibrant downtown, eclectic shops, hundreds of restaurants, and dozens of independent bookstores. Plus there are an abundance opportunities to enjoy the arts and cultural offerings with galleries, museums, performances, and festivals. Ann Arbor’s a unique city (and the name is, too—it’s the only city with the name in the world)—here's the best way to spend a weekend visiting.
Head to Cafe Zola for breakfast. Ignore the fact that there’s probably a wait, you’ll probably get elbowed in the entryway, and your odds of friendly service are hit or miss—the food more than makes up for all of it. The crêpes and open-faced omelets are popular, but the Turkish Eggs are a personal favorite.
More: Can’t make it to Ann Arbor? Make your own Turkish(ish) Eggs.
Stay downtown in the Main Street area and shop 'til you drop. Literati Bookstore is a newish addition to Ann Arbor’s large collection of independent bookstores, but it’s thoughtfully stocked and such a comfortable space that feels like it’s been a part of the fabric of the downtown for ages. Other favorites include Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery Shop for artwork; Dear Golden for vintage clothing; The Peaceable Kingdom for gifts; and Bed & Butter for home and kitchen goods. Shinola recently opened an Ann Arbor outpost, and it’s a lovely store for window shopping (or real shopping, depending on your budget) their American-made wares like watches, bicycles, and more. If you're in the market for music, my younger, hipper brother recommends a visit to Underground Sounds and Wazoo Records. And wherever you wander, keep your eyes peeled for fairy doors scattered around downtown and beyond.
Left: Keep an eye out for local artist David Zinn's chalk drawings around town. (Photo courtesy of David Zinn via Instagram) Right: Grabbing a sandwich to go at Zingerman's Deli. (Photo courtesy of sammygfaye via Instagram)
Head to Zingerman’s Deli for lunch. Yes, it’s on every Ann Arbor travel guide there is—for good reason. But don’t just take my word for it, it’s President Obama- and Oprah-approved, too. Make a quick pit stop at the nearby consignment store Treasure Mart, and if you aren’t shopped out after three floors of treasures, visit the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the Kerrytown shops as well.
Then take some time to enjoy the great outdoors. Ann Arbor not only has thousands of acres of park land, but there's also a river running right through the city. Get a better view of the river in one of three ways: Stroll alongside of the river as you walk one of the many paths in the expansive Nichols Arboretum (the Arb), bike the Border-to-Border Trail, which largely follows the river, or take a trip down the river in a kayak or canoe.
Left: Ride down the Argo Cascades in a tube or kayak. Right: The Michigan Theater. (Photo courtesy of uofmichigan via Instagram)
Start with a margarita, chips, and guacamole at Prickly Pear Café—on the patio if it’s nice. Resist the urge to order more, and move on for dinner. Choose Grange Kitchen & Bar if you’re feeling like a more formal(ish) sit-down dinner. Chef Brandon Johns is extremely committed to supporting local and sustainable food sources: over 90% of their food comes from local farms. If you're feeling like a more casual option, pull up a bench at one of Frita Batidos' communal tables and enjoy a frita (a Cuban-inspired burger) and a batido (a tropical milkshake). After dinner, head to The Last Word for an expertly mixed cocktail and maybe a little something to snack on—if the fennel pollen fries are on the menu when you go, they are not to be missed.
If you’re still going strong, take in a show. Head to the intimately sized but nationally renowned music venue The Ark for folk and roots music performances. Or go to the historic Michigan Theater, which shows films in addition to hosting events and live-on-stage attractions—for the past 5 years, it's been one of the few official venues in the country for the Sundance Film Festival.
The Wave Field by artist Maya Lin
New York City may be the birthplace of the cronut, but Ann Arborites have their own famous hybrid baked good: the fragel. A fragel is a deep-fried raisin bagel tossed in cinnamon sugar, found at MD Bagel Fragel. (A variety of cream cheese flavors are available to pair with your fragel if you want to gild the lily.) If, like me, you prefer to start your day on a savory rather than a sweet note, stick with Zingerman’s Deli for a cup of Roadhouse Joe coffee and regular bagels—but don't confuse regular with average—Zingerman's bagels are the real deal. Get your breakfast to go, and eat it at The Wave Field: a sculpture in the earth that represents a naturally occurring wave pattern. It was created by artist Maya Lin, best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Then take some time to see the campus: Walk around the large open space in the center of campus called the Diag—there are trees and grassy spots for relaxing and reading, as well as an intersection of sidewalks that are abuzz with students zipping to class when school is in session. Even on the busiest of days, though, you'll notice some students change course to avoid stepping on the brass inlaid "M"—legend has it that freshmen who step on it will fail their first exam. Walk over to the Law School to see the Quadrangle (the Law Quad) and then take the time to duck into the Law School's Reading Room. You'll be forgiven if you channel your inner Harry Potter for a moment—as long as you do so quietly. Near the Law School is Dominick's, where locals come to enjoy sangria out of mason jars on the patio. And if you have time, visit the newly expanded University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA).
Left: A warm, sugary fragel. Right: The University of Michigan Law School's Reading Room (Photo courtesy of gcb728 via Instagram)
Take a break for lunch at Jolly Pumpkin. There’s something here for everyone, and Chef Maggie Long is another serious supporter of local farms. Or if you’re in the mood for less of a sit-down affair, pick up a bowl of soup at Le Dog = La Soup. The refreshment stand-style eatery is famous for its soups—especially the lobster bisque—but started out serving only lemonade and hot dogs, hence the original, shorter name: Le Dog.
You saved room for dessert, right? Visit the year-old Blank Slate Creamery for all-natural flavors with many locally sourced ingredients. They have all of the standard flavors you’d expect, plus a slew of unique ones like Blueberry Pancake and Fresh Basil, the latter of which they'll drizzle with olive oil and lemon zest if you ask (and you should). Then duck into Argus Farm Stop, just down the street, and pick up a jar or two of The Brinery's products: Stimulus Package Sauerkraut taught me that I didn't dislike sauerkraut—I just didn't like bad sauerkraut.
Or, for a classic ice cream experience, visit Washtenaw Dairy, a dairy-delivering pillar of the community since 1934. They offer a wide variety of rotating familiar favorites, including my daughter’s go-to flavor—Superman. By siding with Washtenaw Dairy, she’s making an early pledge for her townie status, a term for someone who was born and raised in Ann Arbor. Though that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, as poet David Julius Caesar Salad says in his “What is a Townie?” poem: “To be a true Ann Arborite/ There is no need for a birthright/ The longer you linger, the more you will find/ Being a townie is a state of mind.”
Left: Wallace the cat snoozing in Downtown Home & Garden. Right: Tasty beverages ready to be enjoyed at The Beer Grotto. (Photo courtesy of evhendo via Instagram)
Duck into Downtown Home & Garden and take a peek at the extensive collection of gardening supplies, kitchenware, and canning supplies before it closes. Then stick around, because when the shop closes and the cars clear out of the parking lot, Bill’s Beer Garden comes to life (select days in the spring and six days a week during the summer) serving Michigan craft beer and wine. Find a spot to sit, and then send a member of your party over to the adjacent Mark’s Carts to pick up dinner. As you might suspect from the name, it’s a collection of food carts serving fresh ethnic dishes, and you can travel between the two spots through a corridor in Downtown Home & Garden. After you eat, head across the street: Kitty-corner from Bill’s Beer Garden is The Beer Grotto, which has a wide variety of unique craft beers on tap. If wine is more your style, right down the street is VinBar.
That’s the end of Day 2, but that’s just scratching the surface of what Ann Arbor has to offer. On second thought—maybe you should stay another day?
Where do you love to go in Ann Arbor? See all of our picks on the map below and leave your suggestions for us in the comments!