Header Image Photo Credit Michael Kumm
I love a road trip. There’s something irresistible about packing up the car (or van) and heading off to a new destination. Aside from the enforced family togetherness which can spark some fantastic conversations, travelling by vehicle is often more affordable than flying and you have the added bonus of having your own wheels once you arrive to explore the area you’re visiting. My family’s most successful road trips involve checking out new places that offer something to satisfy everyone. I am usually looking for great food, my husband wants something sporty, and our kids are interested in music, museums, and funky shops.
A recent trip to Ann Arbor has put it high on my list of places to which I would like to return with my family. As a foodie, I may have spent a little too much time eating and drinking in Ann Arbor, but not so much that I didn’t notice the diversity of activities available, making it an ideal, family-friendly road trip destination. About an hour from downtown Detroit (and an easy four and a half hours’ drive from Toronto), it’s a charming college town that has a lot to offer; buckle up and enjoy this small sampling of what you and your family might enjoy.
The Hands-On Museum - This interactive museum is appealing to kids of all ages, even grown-up kids! There are over 250 different exhibits that encourage exploratory play, with a nice amount of science served up subtly on the side. From the preschool gallery to the musical stairs to the popular H2OH! exhibit, this museum is good for a few hours of engaging playtime.
Downtown Fairy Doors – I stumbled across a few these charming little magical portals and soon learned that it’s a big feature of Ann Arbor. I even found a map of where they’ve been tucked into gardens, sides of buildings and other locations but I won’t spoil the surprise by letting you know where I found some not located on this map. Searching for fairy doors would make for a very fun family scavenger hunt as even when you know approximately where to look, the doors are not always easy to spot.
The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History offers a treasure trove of fossils, rocks, minerals, and more. Be sure to check out the Butterfly and Pollinator Garden, Hall of Evolution and the Wildlife Gallery. There are also informative, entertaining shows open to the public in the museum’s planetarium.
The Ann Arbor District Library is worth a visit, thanks to rotating seasonal exhibits, an impressive art collection and ongoing kids programs including crafts and story time (check out the schedule at http://www.aadl.org/events/downtown). There’s also fairy doors hidden throughout the children’s section!
Among the many entertaining possibilities, I’d recommend a concert by the Ann Arbor Symphony if possible. It is renowned for the calibre of its performances, most of which take place in a spectacular downtown concert hall with fantastic acoustics. Nearby, the iconic, historic Michigan Theatre is home to both films and live performances.
One of the most well-known Ann Arbor companies is Zingerman’s, a collection of nine wildly successful businesses that includes a deli, roadhouse, bakery, creamery, coffee roaster, event venue and more. They ship products around the country and operate each entity in a very open and ethical manner. On top of their strong business practices, they also happen to supply some fantastic food. Zingerman’s Deli is a great spot for a grab-and-go meal, although there is seating, and the associated food shop is crammed to the rafters with fantastic products from both local suppliers and merchants around the globe.
There is no shortage of restaurants to visit in Ann Arbor – it truly is a diner’s paradise. One of the most memorable meals I enjoyed was Turkish fare at Ayse’s Café. Prepared by chef/owner Ayse Uras, the food was a delicious introduction to the subtle, layered flavours of Turkey.
I’ve not been able to stop thinking about the Japanese-influenced fare I enjoyed at the Slurping Turtle and the Mediterranean small plates dinner at Mezzevino, both of which rivalled the best meals I’ve eaten anywhere else.
Naturally, as befits any college town, there are lots of coffee shops in Ann Arbor. There’s also a very cute spot called the Tea Haus, a tearoom and café with a lovely atmosphere and sublimely delicious food. I’d have breakfast and a cuppa there every day, if I could.
What Ann Arbor is best known for in the beverage department is beer. Michigan is the fourth largest craft brewing state in the Continental U.S. and Ann Arbor is home to nine thriving microbreweries. I visited the Arbor Brewing Company, Grizzly Peak Brewing Company and null (Northern United Liquid Libations) and was impressed by the calibre and range of products each had to offer. Ashley’s Pub, self-described as Michigan’s premier multi-tap establishment, has scores of international beers on tap, changing the roster frequently. They also serve up some great pub fare – the soft pretzel sticks were particularly memorable.
One more option is a guided tequila and tapas tasting at Isalita Cantina Mexicana – I have a whole new appreciation for this often-underrated beverage now!
Downtown Ann Arbor is a walk-able, friendly place with a unique selection of boutiques and chain stores; it’s a lot of fun just to wander through the relatively compact area and see what catches the eye. The Kerrytown district is home to the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, an Artisan’s Market on Sundays as well as a charming collection of shops including toy stores, food and spice merchants, handcrafts, kids’ clothing boutiques and more. The M-Den is the place to buy University of Michigan apparel and Cherry Republic is home to great made-in-Michigan souvenir finds.
Tour the Big House – if you’re lucky enough to be able to arrange tickets, a tour of the University of Michigan’s Football Stadium, dubbed the ‘Big House’, is an unforgettable experience. With a seating capacity of 109,901 fans, it is the largest stadium in North America and the second largest in the world. The tour includes a visit to the broadcast booths, locker room – which includes a sacred spot emblazoned with an M that no one can walk on – centre field and more plus all the sports fanatics in your family will love picking up some fascinating trivia like how to care for the artificial turf (power rake it, then rub it down with fabric softener to reduce the static).
Bonus: if you’re a fan of the quirky 2012 movie The Five Year Engagement starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, you’ll have a lot of fun spotting familiar places as the movie was filmed in Ann Arbor!
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Ann Arbor Visitors and Convention Bureau, however, all opinions expressed are my own.
Before You Go: Preparing for a Safe Family Road Trip