Consistently rated among the top on various “best college towns” lists, Ann Arbor, Michigan is actually so much more than a simple college town that’s full of students and alcoholic beverages. While the University of Michigan does play a big part in the city’s history, architecture, and population, this town 45 minutes from Detroit has a lot to offer that’s not related to the university. And those students, who love their city as much as they love their school? They tend to depart in the summer, making the town much more peaceful.
Whether you’re in town for orientation, the summer art fairs or are just passing through on your way to the northern part of the state, here’s what you should see that’s not on campus or in the Big House.
Main Street is sort of the antithesis of Ann Arbor’s university area and it’s the first place you should go if you want to get a feel for the city beyond the university’s borders. Filled with fancy shops and restaurants, this is where locals go for an upscale night on the town. If the night is warm enough, take a seat on the rooftop patio at Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery or Palio, then take a stroll to grab some Michigan-made tchotchkes and gift baskets at Cherry Republic.
Cuban food isn’t exactly synonymous with the Midwest, which might be why the high-quality food at Frita Batidos is so surprising. The menu is heavy on tropical flavors, black beans, and plantains. Located just off Main Street, this cozy restaurant with picnic tables inside and out brings locals in for small bites, games of dominoes, and a robust happy hour Sunday-Thursday (three hours, if you want to get technical).
Sure, Ann Arbor is not exactly the kind of big city that’s lacking green space, but it’s still nice to find a place to take a quiet walk and get lost in nature. This arboretum (better known as The Arb) boasts 123 acres of all the nature you’d expect—scores of trees, fields of flowers, and plenty of wetlands included. Spring is a popular time here because that’s when the Peony Garden is in full bloom. Go on a weekday to avoid the crowds who all want a flower-filled selfie to post on social media.
This legendary venue celebrated 50 years of music in 2015 and has a mix of acts gracing the stage every week, but it’s often heavy on folk music. Leon Russell, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Marc Cohn, Suzanne Vega, and The Verve Pipe are the types of artists you’ll generally find at this intimate venue. Occasionally non-musical acts also take the stage, like when Chicago’s improv comedy act Second City comes around. A nonprofit organization, The Ark holds a yearly fundraiser, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
It turns out Netflix isn’t the only place to watch a stand-up show; some people actually watch comedy in person. The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, in its relatively new space, hosts local and internationally-known comedians two or three nights a week. Food and drinks are offered, but unlike many big city comedy venues, there’s no drink minimum.
Though not as well-known as libations from other states, Michigan-made beer is very much a thing, as Grizzly Peak proves. The taps have been flowing here since 1995. The food menu has seasonal specials and the beer menu is, of course, large. There’s a dog-friendly outdoor patio, and they’ll even cook up something special for your pup if you’d like—Pup Patty, anyone?
It might seem counterintuitive, but this college town has a lot for children to take part in, too. The Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum is likely the best example, with multiple floors of hands-on exhibits like “All About You” where children can explore an ambulance and “World Around You” where they can enclose themselves in a giant bubble. Housed in a former firehouse, the Hands-On Museum has been providing children with hands-on knowledge of the world since the 1980s.
Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown neighborhood is a mix of residential and business. In between the historic houses, there’s Kerrytown Market & Shops, which, as the name suggests, hosts a variety of businesses inside. There’s Found, with vintage-inspired décor and gifts; the children’s toy heaven that is Elephant Ears; and Hollander’s, every paper lover’s dream shop. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, The Ann Arbor Farmers Market sets up next door, too, so you can grab some handmade goods or fresh flowers before leaving.
The eye-catching sign outside the Michigan Theater is just a glimpse of the tasteful décor inside. Built in 1928 and revitalized after it was set for demolition in the 1970s, there are plenty of gorgeous details for visitors to take in. Theaters are for more than just movies, and this iconic theater is an example of just how diverse their offerings can be. There are movies, yes, but also intimate concerts featuring big acts and plenty of children’s programming.
Elizabeth Xu writes about travel and pets from the Midwest.