Ann Arbor: A Place to Be Inspired

Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor

Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor is consistently ranked among America’s great cities as a foodie mecca, a college town, and a retirement haven. Home to the University of Michigan, the city of 114,000 inhabitants offers a variety of cultural attractions that are both affordable and accessible. The city’s vibrant, walkable downtown earned a spot in Fodor’s Travel 2014 as “America’s Best Main Streets”—chock full of galleries, boutiques, and unique eating and drinking establishments.

Known as the “Tree Town,” Ann Arbor prides itself on having more than 50,000 trees along city streets and a friendly sidewalk culture with cafés and outdoor dining in warm weather. Although I visited during December, I found the lively arts and culinary scene a good reason to visit any time of year. And, heralding the holiday season, there was food, grog, and outdoor fun to warm the soul at KindleFest, Ann Arbor’s traditional Christmas market with artisan vendors and music. Along with the annual KindleFest, the city hosts Midnight Madness, an event with carolers, street performers, and shops open until midnight.

KindleFest Santa

From craft cocktails and microbrews to creative small plates and cosmopolitan menus, Ann Arbor is at the heart of a growing food culture. A strong slow food movement combined with community-supported agriculture has led to an abundance of independently owned restaurants featuring farm-to-table and chef-inspired contemporary cuisine. In addition, a variety of ethnic dining options reflect Ann Arbor’s international diversity.

New and notable choices for downtown dining with wonderful ambience, fresh ingredients, and international fusion include Mani Osteria & Bar for wood-fired pizza and shareable plates; Aventura for Spanish dishes including Basque pinxto, cocas, tapas, and Paellas; and Slurping Turtle for Japanese comfort food. Mezzevino is a delight for Mediterranean-inspired small plates and wines served a la ficelle, where you pay for only what you drink from a bottle to encourage tasting several wines.

The chef presents cochinillo at Aventura

Ayse’s Turkish Café offers amazing flavors and healthy choices, specializing in Turkish home cooking and vegetarian options. The menu varies, but the mouthwatering dishes we sampled included lentil soup, white bean stew, chicken eggplant kebap, zucchini stuffed with lamb, moussaka, and the traditional dessert, Noah’s Pudding, made with grains, nuts, and fruit.

Selection of specialty desserts at Ayse’s Turkish Café

Zingerman’s, a legendary name in Ann Arbor, is a community of food-related businesses that includes a creamery, a bakehouse, and, surprisingly, a dose of authentic southern cooking at the American brasserie Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Zingerman’s Deli, the first of the Zingerman businesses, has been recognized as one of the “10 Best Jewish Delicatessens” by The Daily Meal.

For tips on cheese making, Zingerman’s Creamery offers classes and specialty cheese tastings. We donned hairnets and shoe booties to get up close with aromas of the creamery and learn about bacteria and enzymes in the cheese making process. Although famous for cream cheese made the old-fashioned way, Zingerman’s makes 13 different cheeses from local cow’s and goat’s milk, and its delicious Pimento cheese is an all time favorite.

Zingerman’s Creamery cheeses

Foodies can find local foods year-round at the Ann Arbor producers-only farmers market and sample fresh sauerkraut made at The Brinery, a local producer of handcrafted kraut. For something new and different, visitors can take a workshop at the Brinery to learn the creative yet simple process of making sauerkraut, including basic fermentation techniques, and making kimchi, pickles, and different flavors of kraut. It is amazingly fresh tasting, crunchy, and delicious.

Brew hounds will delight in Ann Arbor’s endless choices for craft brews and several microbreweries with intriguing names such as Jolly Pumpkin, Grizzly Peak, and the Blue Tractor. I visited two of the mainstays for beer aficionados: Ashley’s, offering more than 500 different beers from all parts of the world, and Arbor Brewing Company, the first craft brewery founded in Ann Arbor in 1995. Our group chatted with Arbor Brewing proprietor Rene Greff, who gave us a tour of the brewing facility and some tasting tips on the award-winning IPAs, Stout, Ales, and sour beer.

The artsy ambience of Ann Arbor immediately struck me as I strolled downtown and discovered the “urban fairy trail” of fanciful, secret doors on storefronts. Visitors can obtain a map from the Visitors Bureau to find the select locations where artistic renditions open a world of fantasy.

Then, on to more traditional and modern art, I toured the University of Michigan Museum of Art, considered one of the best college art museums with its dramatic architecture and extensive collections. The museum features a three-story vertical gallery with unique exhibits including Chinese, Cambodian, and African art; works by Picasso; Tiffany glass; and an entire room dedicated to Lego art.

A number of public art installations can be found on the University of Michigan campus, including Maya Lin’s “The Wave”—a garden of grassy knolls in the pattern of an ocean wave. The university also has an excellent Museum of Archeology and Natural History Museum.

More than 30 galleries throughout the area represent mostly regional artists, including Motawi Tileworks featuring locally made but nationally known hand-made tile work for décor, fireplaces, and flooring. For contemporary paintings and ceramics, I enjoyed WSG and Dancing Dog Gallery and Ann Arbor Art Center.

Motawi Tileworks

Antique lovers will enjoy browsing numerous antique stores in the area. In nearby Ypsilanti, two standouts are Bowerbird Mongo, for its very reasonably priced pottery, and Materials Unlimited, a treasure trove with three floors of architectural salvage and restoration parts including ironworks, windows, doors, lighting, and hardware.

Ann Arbor boasts a dynamic performing arts scene, including music at The Ark, a historical venue that began as a coffeehouse for local jammers and is now in its 50th year. Called “one of the country’s top Folk Clubs” by the New York Times, the Ark offers 300 performances a year with acoustic, folk, roots, and jazz music. I attended a jazz performance by local musicians that was a lively tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong.

At Hill Auditorium, known for excellent acoustics, I took in a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Grammy Award winning University Musical Society and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. All genres of music can be found at countless other venues and bars, including favorite nightspots Blind Pig for pop music and Conor O’Neill’s for Irish tunes and jam sessions. The Last Word, known for its craft cocktails and voted “The People’s Best New Bar in the Midwest” by Food and Wine, also offers live music.

In addition to university theater productions, two main theater companies, the Purple Rose and Performance Network Theatre, offer a choice of quality productions from classical to contemporary. Purple Rose was founded by local actor/playwright Jeff Daniels to create opportunities for Midwestern theater professionals.

With a diverse mix of clothing and bookstores, home décor, and design-centric boutiques mostly within walking distance of each other, Ann Arbor invites browsing. In addition to Main Street, favorite areas include the architecturally attractive Nickels Arcade—an enclosed arcade of quaint shops that reminded me of the famous Paris arcades, and Kerrytown, an indoor shopping space with about 20 locally owned shops and specialty items.

Some of Ann Arbor’s most exceptional shops include Hollanders, a paper goods store where one can get lost for hours in the largest collection of decorative papers in the US, and Rock Paper Scissors for eclectic home décor and accessories. For the fashionista, MIX carries a curated collection of artistically chic clothing and accessories, and the quirky and hip Literati Bookstore is pure pleasure for the bookworm. Visitors would be remiss not to do some tasting at The Cherry Republic, the largest exclusive retailer of cherry products in the US.

A selection of nut mixes from the Cherry Republic

With Ann Arbor’s friendly culture and cosmopolitan flair, excellent cultural arts, unique shopping, and eclectic dining, it’s easy to become inspired by a visit to the Tree Town and understand why it holds up to its many accolades.