Photography by Susan R. Pollack

Hordes of Ann Arbor visitors this fall will head to the Big House—the large and legendary Michigan Stadium—to watch the University of Michigan Wolverines and their Big Ten rivals play football. But for non-pigskin fans, there’s plenty to do beyond tailgating that makes this vibrant college town ideal for an autumn getaway, and it’s just an easy four-hour drive—or Amtrak ride—from Chicago.

You at the U

Start with a stroll around the pretty, tree-lined central campus, blessedly tranquil and tinged with color on fall football Saturdays (everyone’s at the game!). Relax on a bench near the Diag and admire the mix of modern and ivy-covered buildings. Then head to the Law Quad, where dogs romp and Frisbees fly in the green space between Gothic-style buildings. Inside the Law Library, the sound of silence takes on new meaning amid yards of mahogany, stained glass and high, chandelier-lined ceilings.

Museum fans have two choices on central campus: the University of Michigan Museum of Art, with a strong collection of Chinese paintings, Asian ceramics, Tiffany architectural glass and exhibits such as Cosmogonic Tattoos (through June 2, 2019), and the renovated Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, in a Hogwarts-style turreted building.

Enter Kelsey’s new Upjohn Wing and you’ll find a treasure trove of ancient art—magical amulets, mummy masks, coins and sandals—offering a window into the lives of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Middle Eastern civilizations. As Cathy Person, education outreach director, puts it: think of amphora, two-handled storage jars used for wine or oil, as “the Tupperware of antiquity.” Also check out the mummy of a youngster with a six-fingered hand, and the empty coffin of Djehutymose, which has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed (@Djehutymose), that’s still seeking its missing mummy.

Ann Arbor’s fall culture calendar includes live music at The Ark (folk, Western, blues and open mic), as well as a healthy classical music, concert and theater scene. Scheduled for September 20-December 29, for example, is the new Jeff Daniels farce, “Diva Royale,” at the Purple Rose, the theater founded in 1991 by the award-winning actor in his hometown, Chelsea, 15 miles west of Ann Arbor.

Shop and Stop

Head for downtown Ann Arbor to browse art galleries, atmospheric bookstores (Literati, Nicola’s Books, Dawn Treader and Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop) and shops such as Cherry Republic, with cherry items galore—salsas, barbecue sauce, candy—even a cherry soda and wine tasting bar. Don’t miss Hollander’s in nearby Kerrytown, showcasing scores of decorative papers, bookbinding and stationery supplies. And join the crowds hunting vintage consignment goods at the venerable Treasure Mart or stocking up, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, on local produce and provisions like honey, jams, flowers, apples, baked goods and cheeses, at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.

Beverage fans delight in sampling craft beer at more than a dozen area breweries and brewpubs. For starters, try HOMES Brewery, where Asian fare complements imaginative beers; lager-centric Wolverine State Brewing Co.; and Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery, which specializes in sour beers. Stop by the tasting room at Ann Arbor Distilling Co., which locally sources ingredients for its vodka, seasonal gins and coffee liqueur. Or, settle into an aromatic coffee or tea shop, such as TeaHaus, with its resident tea sommelier.

With scores of ethnic and fine dining restaurants, Ann Arbor offers a taste of the world with no passport required. From Turkish delights at Ayse’s Cafe to traditional Jewish specialties and globally-sourced artisanal items at Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Kerrytown, there’s no shortage of choices. Cuban-inspired street food stars at Frita Batidos, seasonal Korean fare at Miss Kim, upscale Spanish tapas and paella at Aventura, Italian casual fare at Mani Osteria and Japanese comfort food at Slurping Turtle, founded by noted Chicago chef Takashi Yagahashi.

Diners can get their French fix at Mikette, a Parisian-inspired bistro that also serves American favorites, or The Standard Bistro & Larder by former Zingerman’s Roadhouse chef Alex Young. Vegan fare takes center stage at Detroit Street Filling Station, an offshoot of The Lunch Room in Kerrytown, while Fred’s Café draws high marks from health-conscious foodies and vegetarians for farm-fresh cuisine.

Two new spots in neighboring Ypsilanti are getting rave reviews: Casablanca, in a nondescript former Taco Bell, for its tasty menu of Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine, and Ollie Food + Spirits, a pub-style café catering to vegans and vegetarians as well as meat-eaters.

Active Endeavors

To counter calories, outdoor activities are in order, from paddling the Huron River to hiking, leaf-peeping and strolling through Nichols Arboretum, known to generations of college students as “the Arb.”

A Huron River float trip provides some thrills, especially for kayakers and tubers who “Run the Cascades.” A man-made series of nine chutes and pools, Argo Cascades, with Class 2 rapids, was created six years ago within view of downtown. There’s also a “stillwater” paddling option on a two-mile section of the river that’s “more like a skinny lake,” says Cheryl Saam, city recreation supervisor. River trips range from 3.7 to 5.7 miles, with shuttle service and rentals of canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards available (through October 21). Paved riverside walking/biking paths and picnic spots beckon landlubbers.

Fall also is a great time to visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens, near the Arb, for easy walking trails and views of gardens and a conservatory of tropical and desert plants.

Night owls will find cool scenes and creative cocktails at Nightcap Lounge, the Last Word and La Dolce Vita. Film buffs can catch first-run flicks or cult classics at the State Theatre, renovated to its 1942 glory.

Ann Arbor accommodates romantics at Muse Atelier Vintage, a boutique with an upstairs Airbnb guest suite done up in gold, pink and white; the shop’s bubbly proprietor, Tanya Luz, will custom-design your stay. Boasting a prime campus location, the pet-friendly Graduate Ann Arbor is a stylish, contemporary hotel with artsy and innovative touches, a 24-hour fitness center and free bike “rentals.”  South of downtown, the independently-owned Kensington Hotel offers comfy beds, a large indoor pool and hot tub. Check for hotel packages and specials.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Susan R. Pollack is an award-winning travel writer in suburban Detroit.