Ann Arbor is to Detroit what the Hamptons are to New York City—an escape from the city grime and daily grind. Hugging the banks of the Huron River, Ann Arbor is less than an hour drive from Detroit, yet the tree-lined streets of this college town might as well be in California for the lack of similarities between the neighbors.
Businesses and culture are ever-expanding with a burgeoning microbrewery scene, the award-winning Ann Arbor Art Fair and boutique shops flourishing on Main Street. Ann Arbor is a refreshing departure from the typical sleepy college town. (Note: However, more than 40,000 students still do romp about town—this is the home of University of Michigan, after all.) From Wolverine football games and outdoor activities to theater performances and diverse cuisine, you would be hard pressed to find a reason to dislike this thriving small town.
1. Argo Park Canoe Livery:
Slightly downriver from Argo Park, you can put your arm strength and to the test by paddling or rafting the manmade Argo Cascades that bypass the dam. Close to 60,000 people a year conquer the rapids, which include nine drops with recovery pools. But if you’re a sucker for water theme parks’ “lazy river” rides, then drop a tube in at Argo Park Canoe Livery. The park is Michigan’s largest livery and stretches for two miles along the Huron River—peaceful still water ideal for tubing or leisure paddle.
2. The Last Word
In today’s culture of bars and clubs one-upping each other with “unique” themes and outlandish décor, it can be difficult to find a bar that’s, well, simply a really good bar. But The Last Word is a respite from glitzy lights, loud music, and other shenanigans distracting from superior whiskey and good conversations. Bare bulbs softly illuminate windowless walls adorned with old photos and sketches. Live jazz enriches the intimate atmosphere.
This establishment is named after The Last Word cocktail (gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, fresh lime) first crafted in 1921 at the Detroit Athletic Club. Choose from a wide selection of Michigan beers and a sampling of U.S. brews, such as Brooklyn Lager and Left Hand Milk Stout- a nod to my homestate of Colorado!
To try to describe The Last Word’s impressive selection of fine whiskeys would be a feat unto itself. Their extensive menu won’t disappoint. If you’re feeling wily, challenge the bartender to create an off-the-menu cocktail.
3. Art Scene
Purchasing original local artwork that will become a fabulous conversation piece in your house is no problem in this art focused town. The WSG Gallery is home to 16 contemporary regional artists who are featured on a rotational basis, in addition to visiting artists. Special exhibits alternate every six weeks, showcasing drawings, prints, paintings, sculpture, ceramics and art glass.
Admire beautifully crafted, handmade tiles at Motawi Tileworks. Founder and principal designer Nawal Motawi designs the handmade tiles to be featured as art in homes and for installation. The 30-plus-person business creates a mosaic-like effect on polychrome for residential and commercial projects. The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Dwell Magazine have recently spotlighted Motawi tiles.
4. Tour the University of Michigan Stadium
Whether reliving the glory days or a die-hard Michigan football fan on vacation, don’t miss the opportunity for a guided tour of the largest college-owned stadium in America. As the product of Fielding Yost’s vision, the stadium was first constructed from 440 tons of reinforcing steel and 31,000 square feet of wire mesh with a price tag of $950,000 (an especially hefty sum considering it was the 1920s).
The first game was held on October 1st, 1927 against Ohio Wesleyan, whom Michigan naturally destroyed with a score of 33 – 0. Today, the stadium seats 109,901 loyal fans. To arrange a tour of the stadium, call Bill Austin at 734-764-4599.
5. Main Street Experience
Nothing illustrates “small town America” quite like a pedestrian-friendly Main Street peppered with restaurants and shops. So squeeze in a trip to Ann Arbor’s Main Street to rub elbows with the locals to round out your vacation. Purchase a U of M shirt, sweatshirt, or countless other college paraphernalia at M Den and satisfy your inner Wolverine. (Even dog rawhides emblazoned with a ‘M’ and a tiny blue paw print are available.)
Catapult back many a decade at Get Up Vintage while browsing among clothing and costume jewelry that are relics from the 1940s – 1970s. But if you’re more of a fan of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory than Antiques Roadshow, Schakoland Chocolate Factory will be a dream realized. All European style chocolate is created on the premises at this boutique shop specializing in truffles.
6. Ann Arbor Farmers Market
Sample the local flavors of Ann Arbor at the 94-year-old open-air farmers market in the historic Kerrytown neighborhood. More than 160 local producers, artisans, and prepared food vendors offer a staggering array of baked goods, meats, fresh produce, flowers, and more. Snack on ripe blueberries or hand-spun cotton candy from Brookside Blueberry farm. Energize your day with an espresso shot from Black Swallow. Learn how to eat like a local by spending a leisure morning at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.
7. Michigan Theater and State Theater
Liven up your evening festivities at the Michigan Theater –a nonprofit center for films and live performances. The theater boasts one of the only theater organs in the U.S. that is still played at its original location. An evening trip to this cinema (Thursday – Monday) includes a delightful Barton Theatre Pipe Organ performance. The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra has held concerts here since 1984. Jazz and rock groups frequent the theater, as do other live performances and films.
And less than one block away, the State Theater offers more choices for movie lovers, from cult classics to the latest indie flick. In operation since 1942, the art deco cinema offers a diverse film selection films spanning the decades at any given time, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Batman.
8. Good Eats
Embark on an international culinary adventure without ever leaving the vicinity of the great Wolverines. Ditch the silverware for bread and share platters at The Blue Nile restaurant for a traditional Ethiopian dining experience. Sip a cup of spiced Ethiopian tea (natural ingredients including rose hips, orange and lemon peel, cinnamon, chamomile and cloves) while using bread to scoop up Doro Wat (chicken simmered in niter kibbe herbed butter, onions and berbere sauce).
But if noodles are what you desire, then grab a table at the somewhat aptly named Slurping Turtle, specializing in Japanese Comfort Food. Their Curry Yaki Udon dish (stir-fry udon noodles, chicken, Japanese mushrooms, broccolini, and bean sprouts) will surely bring comfort to your belly and tranquility to your soul … unless you are savagely against sprouts.
Locally grown ingredients and fresh seasonal dishes are infused into traditional Turkish home cooking at Ayse’s Café. Pronounce the restaurant name as “Eye-sheh” to blend with the regulars in the know. And having fed the community for more than 20 years, Ayse’s does have a devoted following. Soups are a specialty at this café--start with a cup of cold yogurt soup to cool off on a sweltering summer day or warm your body by dipping pita wedges into a hot bowl of spicy red lentil soup.
9. Fairy Doors
Yes, you read that correctly: Fairy Doors. In Ann Arbor, it’s a thing. Find doors that are installation art appearing in both residential and business areas. No one knows for certain who’s the mastermind behind the whimsical doors, but locals believe the person to be Jonathan B. Wright—author of the children’s book Who’s Behind the Fairy Doors? and responsible for the fairies website. The unique fairy doors have been met with both reverence and intrigue. Can you track down all of these tiny gateways into fairy life and crack the mystery surrounding the small structures?
One might make the claim that Zingerman’s has cornered the market on all things surrounding artisan food. Want a food-focused book? Check out the Zingerman’s Press book list. Have a hankering for some peanut brittle? You’re in luck because Zingerman’s Candy specializes in crafting old-fashioned American sweets. Need a strong cup of Joe to start the day? You guessed it—Zingerman’s owns its own coffee company supplying cafes, restaurants and businesses. The company owns more than 10 enterprises that cater to most every foodie whim, including a creamery, delicatessen and bake house. To truly get a handle on the great Zingerman Empire, sign up for one of their food tours.