Ann Arbor, Michigan enjoys a relaxed vibe that is well suited to visiting families. Home to the University of Michigan, students are everywhere, filling coffee houses, bookshops and inexpensive eateries. The genuine friendliness that you will encounter here is pure small-town America. What makes Ann Arbor so special is that it packs a big city punch mingled with Midwestern cordiality.
For families desiring a vacation destination with a variety of art and cultural offerings, the scene here as stimulating as that of a metropolis but without the urban hassles. This town is livable and it’s just plain fun to walk around and soak it all in. It’s compact too, so you can walk to most everything. You won’t want to miss the Hands-On Museum, a crown jewel of children’s museums. The Chelsea Milling Company is where they make Jiffy Muffin Mix and it’s one of the best factory tours we have ever experienced. Shopping here is a treat, as the pedestrian-friendly downtown is brimming with an eclectic assortment of one-of-a-kind shops that are like nothing you would ever find at the local mall.
Here are 25 fun things to do in Ann Arbor:
1- Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum
This is one of the best children’s museums we have ever visited. Large and airy, it is a shrine to the hands-on experience and the benefits of learning through play. There are 250 exhibits for all ages, with a special emphasis placed on capturing the interest of hard-to-please tweens and teens. Highlights include a terrific toddler space with lots of water activities and a ham radio station.
2- University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This collection has two things that preteen Egyptomaniacs will love: a mummified child and a mummified cat. The gift shop is flush with reasonably priced Egyptian and Greco-Roman puzzles and books. Admission is free.
3- University of Michigan Museum of Natural History
Four floors of exhibit space include a large display of dinosaurs and a Planetarium. For older kids, the museum offers a glimpse into the research that the University of Michigan is doing in the fields of geology, paleontology, astronomy and anthropology. Free.
4- University of Michigan Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments
A visit to this depository of over 2,500 musical instruments representing six continents is an awesome experience. You will find historical and contemporary instruments on display. No admission is charged, open Monday-Friday. If your kids are true music lovers, a concert at Hill Auditorium may be in order. The venue is said to be acoustically perfect and top musicians regularly play here.
5- University of Michigan Stadium
Football loving kids will want to visit the largest college football stadium in the country, affectionately known as “The Big House”. The faithful fill the 109,000 plus seats for each home game. Attending a game here is a sports fans fantasy. Scoring a ticket is no simple matter, so plan to reserve ahead.
6- Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum
Both of these green havens are part of the University. The Gaffield Children’s Garden, located within the Mattaei Botanical Gardens, is a wonderful place for families to have fun in a natural setting. Kids may climb inside a giant bird’s nest, get down and dirty in a digging pit and wind their way through a maze. Locals call Nichols Arboretum the Arb. It is much loved for its landscaped collection of tress and shrubs. The 123 bucolic acres are tucked along the Huron River. This is a great spot for a family nature stroll.
7- Domino’s Petting Farm
You can pet the unusual assortment of farm animals, hitch a hayride and ride a pony at this farm that includes 20 acres of open pasture. Spend a few hours here and the entire family will increase their knowledge about farming and farm animals.
8- Planet Rock
One of the biggest indoor climbing gyms in the U.S., its variety of terrain caters to first timers, experts and everyone in-between. The minimum age to participate is five.
9- Michigan Theater
This old fashioned theater is a not-for-profit center for the arts. It offers an eclectic program of indie films, plus a terrific family-friendly film series that is free for kids twelve and under. The free screenings take place once a month on Sunday afternoons. If you are in Ann Arbor for the holidays, there are free film screenings of classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life”. They also have an interesting program of family-oriented live performances. Don’t skip the popcorn, deliciously drenched in real butter.
10- Chelsea Milling Company
Is there anyone who isn’t familiar with that little blue box of Jiffy corn muffin mix? It is a made-in-Michigan product and you can experience a 45-minute factory tour in Chelsea, about a 10-minute drive from Ann Arbor. The free tour includes a sample of the muffin of the month, a fun video screening on the history of this family-owned company and a guided walk through the factory floor. Everyone is required to wear a hairnet once you venture out on the factory floor. It is not stroller-friendly, but kids 5 and up should enjoy it. You get a free box of muffin mix at the end, plus a cute coloring book. The tour is offered Monday-Friday.
11- Chelsea Teddy Bear Factory
Hang out with the plush and cuddly creatures at this stuffed animal factory and toy museum. Learn how teddy bears are made as well as their history. It is located in downtown Chelsea, which is filled with art galleries, restaurants and shops.
12- Search for Fairy Doors
Ann Arbor is home to an unusual assortment of miniature doors that have unexplainably appeared around town. These tiny doors have a cult-like following, and new ones mystically appear. Most of the doors are inside local shops and galleries. The doors are an unusual touch of magical whimsy that some kids will love. You can pick up a Fairy Door map at the Visitor’s Center and take a self-guided tour that will lead you to many of these dollhouse-style doors.
Shopping in Ann Arbor is unique. You will find stores with loads of kid-appeal. In a time when many downtown shopping districts have rising vacancies, the Downtown/Main Street area is thriving.
13- Mudpuddles Toys
Located in the Kerrytown Market, creative, handcrafted and educational toys are for sale. Quality is key at this toy store, and much of the eclectic merchandise has a vintage feel.
14- Vault of Midnight
This store is legendary for its huge selection of comics. Collectors and aficionados from near and far congregate here to search for hard-to-find issues and be among others obsessed with comics. Graphic novels, action heroes and comic-inspired toys are also for sale. Lots of regulars hang out for hours, so no need to rush.
15- Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repairs
A store devoted to robots seems like many a school-aged kid’s fantasy. Robots, robot-themed books, and a fun make-your-own-robot postcard are all available.
16- Cherry Republic
Northern Michigan is justifiably famed for its cherries. At Cherry Republic you will find dozens of delicious, cherry-infused products. The best news is that you can sample anything in the store, just ask. White chocolate covered cherries, cherry jams, and cherry peanut butter are just a few of the goodies.
When to Visit
This German-style Christmas market is held annually on a Friday night in late November or early December. Holiday crafts, a fire pit, live music and traditional German food like handmade pretzels, hot mulled cider and succulent sausage are sold. There is a children’s tent with activities and games plus a festive lantern parade.
18- Ann Arbor Art Fair
This collective of four different fairs is held for four days each July. With half a million visitors attending, the streets of Ann Arbor get crowded during the fair. Art exhibits, live entertainment, food, artist demos and lots of hands-on art projects for kids fill the sidewalks.
19- Ann Arbor Summer Festival
This festival is a celebration of performing arts and outdoor entertainment. For three weeks each June, over 100 free and ticketed events celebrate the artistic spirit that defines this community. Dance, film, theater, music, circus arts and comedy troupes are just some of the entertainment that you can expect.
20- Zingerman’s Deli
This place is legendary among foodies and the casual atmosphere is perfect for kids. The pastrami and corned beef are excellent, traditionally served on hand-sliced Jewish rye bread.
21- Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger
This true dive has been satiating local hunger pangs for generations. It is a bargain-priced, cafeteria-style joint that serves a delectable hamburger, worth the lengthy wait. When you order your meal, you must follow the time-honored “right” way to order. Listen to how the regulars do it and you will be served a burger that tastes made in heaven.
This old-fashioned ice cream parlor sells delicious ice cream, waffle cones, homemade caramels, hand-paddled fudge and hand-dipped caramel apples, all made on premise. Take some time to watch them dip fruits, Oreos and pretzels in melted chocolates.
23- Le Dog
This little sidewalk shack is open for lunch weekdays. It serves exceptional homemade soups to legions of University of Michigan students. They do sell decent hot dogs, but the rotating list of soups, served with a pretzel roll, is what brings the crowds. Friday is especially packed, as it is lobster bisque day. Cash only.
Where to Stay
24- Hilton Garden Inn
This new hotel has a large indoor swimming pool with a basketball hoop and sprinklers that will keep the kids happy after a day of sightseeing. Everything is clean as whistle in the amenity-loaded rooms. Cribs, high chairs and playpens are available.
25- TownePlace Suites
Also new, this extended-stay property caters to short-stay families. All rooms have fully-equipped kitchens, so you can prepare money-saving snacks and light meals. Complimentary Continental breakfast and free Internet access are just some of the many perks that the reasonably priced hotel offers.
For more information on planning your trip to Ann Arbor, go to www.visitannarbor.org.