If I told you I’d gone to the city to see a few shows, listen to some impressive live music, catch a cutting-edge film festival, spend time in world-class museums, and chow down on an astonishingly diverse and multicultural dining scene including Cuban, Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, Asian and Turkish food, you’d probably assume I was talking about a big city. Somewhere like Chicago or Seattle or New York.
Ann Arbor, with a population of around 116,000 and home to sports and academic powerhouse, University of Michigan, rivals big urban destinations in terms of food, entertainment, and culture.
I spent a few days looking, tasting, and exploring. Here’s a roundup of my favorites:
Feed Your Mind
Ann Arbor boasts a number of superior museums. The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) offers an impressive collection of fine art and artifacts. Two of my favorite pieces were the Samurai armor in the Asian collection and John Stanley’s “Mt. Hood from the Dalles”, a beautiful landscape painted in 1871 with an iconic view of Mt. Hood from the Columbia River.
Another fascinating stop is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This state-of-the-art facility, housed in an exquisite Victorian-era Romanesque building complete with turret and Tiffany window, is centered around the late-19th Century and early-20th Century collection of it’s namesake, Francis Kelsey. Some highlights of the more than 100,000 artifacts include Roman glassware, Egyptian masks, and an elaborate sarcophagus. The coffin’s owner, the missing Mummy Djehutymose, has his own popular Twitter feed and Facebook page.
The nearby Gerald Ford Library Museum and archives is also worth a visit. Primarily a holding place for more than 25 million pages of historical documents pertaining to Ford’s political career and the Cold War era, the center offers an intriguing view of the man, including the story of Ford’s birth and childhood.
Taste the World
My first meal in Ann Arbor, a Cuban burger and batida ( a frozen concoction of mango, pinaeapple, scoop of ice cream and a splash of dark rum) and a basket of what may be the best fries I’ve ever tasted, at Frita Batidas, set the tone for the rest of the week. Everything was delicious and often unexpected. Some of my other favorites were the Ethiopian Injera (soft bread) and Gomen (collard greens cooked with spices, onions and jalapeno peppers) at Blue Nile and lamb-stuffed grape leaves and cold vegetable salads at Ayse’s Turkish Cafe. Of course, no visit to Ann Arbor counts unless you stop by world-famous Zingerman’s Deli. For beer lovers, there are a growing number of microbreweries in the area and you won’t regret a day spent tasting local brews.
Football may draw the crowds in the fall, but Ann Arbor hosts large events throughout the year. Seasonal favorites include the winter Folk Festival, a springtime FestiFools puppetry and public art festival, and a three-week summer festival with art, music, food, and film.
The number of antiques, collectibles and vintage shops within walking distance of Main Street was a nice surprise. Treasure Mart, in the Kerrytown area near the farmer’s market and Zingerman’s Deli, is a rambling historic building full of all kinds of interesting things. Some of the rooms are decorated and arranged like an antiques mall, others are crammed with goodies strewn on tabletops or piled in corners just waiting to be discovered.
Located in the Nickles Arcade, a 1918 covered passage lined with unique shops that make the place feel like a bit of Paris in the mid-west, The Arcadian antiques is a jewel box. Crystal and china line the shelves and the store stocks fine antique furniture, but the highlight is a collection of beautiful estate jewelry. I watched a couple shop for wedding rings, trying to choose from trays of lovely old diamonds and gemstones.
I did a lot of window shopping but I didn’t come home empty-handed. At Antelope Antiques and Coins, a funky store on the lower level of a downtown building. I plucked an autographed photo of Woody Herman ($10) out of a box of old photos and postcards, and did a little happy dance when I found a Waterford goblet in my (somewhat obscure) "Kylemore" pattern, for only $15.
Like most travelers, I have a fantasy “I could live here” list in my head made up of places I’ve been and couldn’t forget. After this first visit, Ann Arbor moved to the top of the list. A robust arts scene, a vibrant main street, an energetic farm-to-table movement and a cosmopolitan foodie-friendly ethos, paired with a dedication to preserving the past, makes Ann Arbor, Michigan hard to resist.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org