At Argus Farm Stop, a modern farmers’ market that sells locally sourced meat, produce and dairy, co-founder Kathy Sample considers her place in the world. “Ann Arbor isn’t a food desert,” she muses. “It’s a food jungle.” Clad in khaki overalls, Sample looks a little like a jungle explorer, lacking only a safari hat atop her silver bob. And though we’re standing on a bucolic, decidedly well-groomed farm a few miles outside of the city center, the cuisine is far more than farm-to-table, however.
Within the lens of local, Ann Arbor offers an impressive array of international offerings. Our menu over a four-day weekend there reads like an epicure’s vision of Epcot: succulent plum chicken from Turkish café Ayse’s, perfect pot-au-feu from French-American fine dining spot The Standard, a classic Reuben from Ann Arbor institution Zingerman’s Delicatessen and a roasted radish and turnip salad complete with microgreens and a ramp pesto from Ollie. And don’t even get me started on the Spanish tapas at Aventura or the authentic Italian at Mani.
It makes sense. Ann Arbor is, after all, home to the melting pot that is the University of Michigan, with enrollment hovering around 45,000 students from 122 countries (and an enormous medical system). Like Baltimore, it’s a mecca for “Eds and Meds,” supplemented by a wealthier-than-average population that’s willing and able to spend money on entertainment.
Microgreens to museums
The university also supports a number of can’t-miss cultural offerings. Between sumptuous multiple-course meals, we managed to waddle our way into the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, a stunning collection of ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and other classic civilizations. While the sheer history within the museum’s walls is impressive, the similarities between life thousands of years ago and contemporary society were most shocking. Take, for example, a glass-encased sandal from first century A.D., indistinguishable from today’s flip-flop, save for a little dirt.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) offered another trip into antiquity. The museum is home to more than 21,000 pieces of century- spanning art, including a large (and largely unprecedented) collection of Korean art. Though not a huge museum, it still houses the heavy hitters with original works from Monet, Picasso and Whistler and windows from Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright. Another of the most interesting historical finds? A scathing letter written by the real Maria Von Trapp to Betty Ford after the first lady’s candid and controversial “60 Minutes” interview, discovered in the Ann Arbor-based Gerald Ford Presidential Library. Don’t miss the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, either — especially if you love peonies.
The city is home to far more than ivory tower-esque cultural experiences, however. While in A-squared (as some call it), we had the chance to visit Theatre Nova, an experimental venue a few blocks from the main drag. There, we saw “Miss Fifty Bakes a Pie,” an original play making its world premiere that evening about a housewife who finds the confidence to challenge her husband through S&M. Another night brought music at The Ark, the city’s long-running music venue. Opened in 1965, it hosts live music more than 300 nights a year from a range of local to national names.
Also in town: cool cocktail bars like The Last Word, where a 30-something bearded and man-bunned trio entertained us with a strange hybrid of folk, big band and blues; a smattering of nightclubs and trendy restaurants aplenty; and lovely shops like the excellent Literati bookstore and Muse, a body-positive vintage shop, where I picked up a most spectacular pair of gold dangly ’80s earrings (with the cutest Airbnb above the shop).
Booze to Brooklyn-esque
Ann Arbor’s craft beer scene is burgeoning, too. While not much of a suds lover myself, my fellow travelers enjoyed beer tastings from HOMES Brewery (named, naturally, for the Great Lakes), town favorite Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, the Arbor Brewing Company, the Pileated Brewing Company and Wolverine State Brewing, to name a few. If it’s all getting a little too cool for you, drive a few miles south to Ypsilanti, a former automotive manufacturing town more known for its Elvisfest and water tower, once declared the “World’s Most Phallic Building.” The charming little town is spilling with character, from cute shops and restaurants (including Casablanca, which I would highly recommend) to historic Depot Town to its long record of progressive decisions regarding marijuana legislation, discrimination, diversity initiatives, living wages and more. It’s been called “the Brooklyn to Ann Arbor’s Manhattan,” but the locals just call it Ypsi.
Though it wasn’t on during my stay, I’d be remiss not to mention the Ann Arbor Art Fair and its simultaneous rival, the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original — seriously, that’s what it’s called. No matter which side you support, however, both parties host their massive outdoor art show the third weekend in July and flood the city with thousands of artists and hundreds of thousands of art lovers. (Think Artscape but bigger.)
While Ann Arbor is a food jungle, there’s more to do in the city than eat (though if that’s your main goal, there’s more than enough to keep your stomach and schedule full). I’d say it’s more like a friendly forest — big and busy, but if you spend some time there, you just might begin to feel at home.