Ann Arbor Michigan named one of the ‘Happiest cities in the U.S’ – home of the Wolverines, Yankee Air Museum, and more
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – Situated in Washtenaw County, this town of over 117,000 residents (of which about 45,000 of them are students) offers the idyllic, rural charm of a small town with a major college as part of its nerve centre … but with the added bonus of the sophistication and bustling atmosphere of a major urban centre, that makes it such an attractive destination for students and tourists.
However, don’t just take my word for it; consider these facts and figures about Ann Arbor: more than 300 restaurants within a 20-mile radius; the most bookstores per capita than any other city in the U.S.; home to over 100 arts and entertainment venues; named as the best city to live in America by “Niche” magazine; ranked by Time magazine as #10 in its list of “Best in Travel” cities; named as one of the “Happiest Cities in the U.S.” by Travel & Leisure magazine; and named by Esquire magazine as one of the “15 U.S. Towns Worthy of a Day Trip”.
During a recent press tour that I participated in, I could easily understand why Ann Arbor has garnered so much acclaim as a college town and tourist destination. You don’t have to be a student at the University of Michigan to enjoy what this city has to offer; yet you are quickly swept up in the academic atmosphere that envelopes much of Ann Arbor, and the friendliness of its people certainly makes you want to become more than just a visitor (and believe me, the plethora of bookstores could have quickly made up my mind).
The University of Michigan – which marked its 200th anniversary last year – forms the nucleus of life in Ann Arbor. And no matter where you go throughout the town, you can’t help but see residents and students alike wear the navy blue and maize yellow gear that not only represents the university, but also its legendary football, hockey and basketball teams, which all carry the nickname of the Wolverines.
And speaking of the football team, you can’t visit Ann Arbor without stopping by its massive home venue since 1927, Michigan Stadium, which is better known as the “Big House” (www.mgoblue.com/facilities/michigan-stadium). Known as the largest sports stadium in the Northern Hemisphere, the Big House has a seating capacity of over 107,000 (and all of them are always filled during a Wolverines home game). And how did it get its “big” name? That was thanks to the late ABC sports caster Keith Jackson, who dubbed it the “Big House” while doing the play-by-play during a game at the stadium.
Tours are given three times a day at the Big House, and admission is only $15. During the VIP tour we got at the stadium, we were shown practically every aspect that proved why Michigan Stadium earned its nickname, and why it is such a gargantuan sports experience, from the 78 private suites, to the press box and announcer’s booth, to the Wolverines’ locker room, to walking onto its enormous field and getting our pictures taken on the big “M” situated on the 50-yard line. As well, the suites and reception rooms are available for rent during the off-season for weddings, receptions and even high school proms.
As I was taking in what the Big House was all about, I couldn’t help but be awed by the history and tradition that the Wolverines created within these walls over the past 90 years, and whether they be a coach (like Bo Schembechler, who guided the team to 14 championships), a broadcaster, or a player (such as Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson and Tom Harmon, who is the father of actor Mark Harmon, and 1932-33 All-American player – and future U.S. President – Gerald Ford), you can see how such a huge sense of pride echoes from these walls. And by the way, if you like to catch a Michigan Wolverines football game during the season, ticket prices for non-students range from $65 to $125 ($25 for students); and games against rivals Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State are hard to come by.
With more bookstores per capita than any city in the U.S., Ann Arbor is a true book worm’s haven. Whether it be first hand or second hand, Ann Arbor has a bookstore for any budget or literary genre. Although my time in Ann Arbor was brief, I managed to visit three of its bookstores: Dawn Treader (www.dawntreaderbooks.com), which has one of the largest selections of second-hand books of all categories under one roof; West Side Book Shop (www.westsidebooksop.com), which also boasts a large collection of second-hand and antiquarian books, but in a drawing room setting; and to me the store that is the jewel in the city’s literary crown, and is a vivid example that the independent bookstore is indeed alive and well and thriving: Literati Bookstore (www.literatibookstore.com).
Run by the husband and wife team of Hilary and Mike Gustafson (she was a sales rep for Simon & Schuster, he was a freelance writer and both lived in New York) over the past four years, they proudly proclaim that Literati is more than just a book store, because the key to its success is how they manage to stay in touch with and respond to the literary needs of the Ann Arbor community at large. Besides the wide selection of titles within its three floors, Literati holds over 150 events a year from live readings and book signings, to its many specialized book clubs, ranging from first editions, to small presses, to paperbacks, to new voices in fiction.
“We’re surprised at the growing number of young people who come to the store too,” said Hilary. “They not only come to buy books, but also journals, notebooks and pens.”
Besides its award-winning coffee shop (which was voted the best coffee shop in Michigan), events and sizeable selection of books, another aspect of Literati that has become a major attraction for its customers is the old-fashioned typewriter that is placed on a small table in a corner of the store’s lower level (next to the humour section), in which visitors are encouraged to peck out a brief message on a piece of paper from this original word processor. Store employees collect these type-written messages and the best ones are painted on the outside wall of the store facing Main Street.
For aviation buffs, a visit to the Yankee Air Museum (www.yankeeairmuseum.org) is a definite must. Located just outside of Ann Arbor in the nearby town of Ypsilanti, near the Willow Run Airport, the museum’s current location is in the area where the Ford Motor Company built a series of assembly plants during World War II to build a number of bombers for the U.S. Army Air Force (including the B-24 Liberator and the B-17 “Flying Fortress”). Although the location is small, the collection of authentic military and civilian aviation items the museum possesses and displays are quite impressive, from fighter planes dating back to World War I, to Vietnam War helicopters, to weaponry, uniforms and other related artefacts. The tours are run by volunteers who are either retired commercial or military pilots, and their encyclopaedic knowledge about each aircraft that are displayed is quite impressive and really adds to your visit to the museum.
The museum is aiming to move to its new quarters – which will be housed in the last surviving Willow Run bomber plant building – by the summer of 2020. The structure is going through renovations and the museum is currently undergoing a major $20 million fundraising campaign to make this new home a reality (so far, over $7 million has been raised). One way the museum is raising the much-needed funds is by taking one of the four restored authentic World War II era aircraft in their collection (including a B-25 bomber, a B-17 bomber and a C-47 transport plane) to air shows across the state and charge admission for people to ride in one of these vintage aircraft. During my visit to the museum, we had the golden opportunity to have a brief 45-minute flight over Ann Arbor in the C-47 plane, which was used by the army’s airborne divisions as a jumping off point during their missions in the European theatre of the war (and the cable the paratroopers used to attach their carabiners onto and the lights near the door to signal their jumps were still evident inside the plane). From take-off to landing, and the ride in between, was an adventurous experience of a lifetime, to say the least. Basically, you get a first-hand feel of what it was like to fly in a 75-year-old aircraft that were mass-produced around the clock, and helped the Allied war effort tremendously. It’s not to be missed.
Of course, the Ann Arbor area has its share of live entertainment venues that offers plenty of quality local, regional and national performers. The Purple Rose Theatre Company (www.purplerosetheatre.org), located in the nearby town of Chelsea, was founded in 1991 by actor Jeff Daniels (the name came from the 1986 Woody Allen movie he appeared in, “The Purple Rose of Cairo”). The 168-seat theatre space produces four plays a year and attracts 40,000 spectators annually to see well-known plays, as well as productions that are written by Michigan playwrights that always have a regional flavour to them. “The Purple Rose always puts on plays that people want to see. We try to do good plays, and not propaganda; plays that make audiences aware of both sides of an issue with equal sides and clarity and has the power to move, enlighten and entertain at the same time,” said the theatre’s artistic director Guy Sanville, before we caught a matinee performance of Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed play “God of Carnage” at the theatre.
By the way, Jeff Daniels still resides in the area (he lives about five miles from Chelsea), and recently shot a movie there called “Guest Artist”. He also regularly performs in the Ann Arbor area during the Christmas holiday season, when he headlines eight concert shows.
The Ark (www.theark.org) is a live music venue in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor where music lovers gravitate and enjoy an evening of live music in an intimate setting that’s reminiscent of the hootenannies and coffee houses at the height of the folk music era more than 50 years ago. Volunteer driven, the Ark is a highly-organized, tightly run operation where locals and college students alike can take in a variety of live shows from country, folk and Americana music, to regional entertainment and even spoken word. I happened to check out the Ark on two separate evenings: one was to catch “The Moth”, a popular series of first person storytelling that’s run in clubs and theatres across the U.S.; and Cold Tone Harvest, a Michigan folk/country group that has a tremendous cult following in the state thanks to their repertoire of lively original songs that deal with the blue collar life in the Rust Belt.
If you plan to visit Ann Arbor during the early part of the Christmas holiday season, here are some suggestions that must be on your itinerary. Kindle Fest, which takes place at the Farmer’s Market in nearby Kerrytown, is a traditional outdoor holiday market, where you can purchase handmade gifts, crafts and food products, not to mention enjoy plenty of free entertainment, from Christmas carollers to Klezmer bands. And don’t forget to purchase your souvenir boot-shaped Kindle Fest mug for only $10 (and for an extra $5, you can fill it with a traditional hot spiced wine beverage that’s exclusive to the region).
Midnight Madness is an excellent way to do your Christmas gift shopping in a fun, festive manner for the night owl in you. Usually held during the first Friday in December, Midnight Madness involves every store in the downtown area, where they are not only open until midnight, but offer special sales and discounts that only happen during that event, and with plenty of entertainment and activities to boot. And one store that gets plenty of visitors is the M Den, the University of Michigan’s official pro shop. This massive two-storey outlet is where students and visitors alike can get their official navy blue and maize yellow Wolverine gear, and has a huge selection of merchandise that caters to any sport, type of item or budget, whether it be t-shirts, caps, mugs, leather briefcases, authentic Wolverine football jerseys or bobble heads bearing the likeness of coach Bo Schembechler.
And while you are wandering around from store to store during Midnight Madness, and you see a multitude of costumed university students on practically every street corner, it’s not a freshman or fraternity prank. Actually, it’s all part and parcel of the Midnight Madness experience. Called “Galens Tag Days”, it has been an Ann Arbor tradition since 1927, as the Galens Medical Society and University of Michigan medical students take over the streets of Ann Arbor throughout that weekend and brave the cold weather to raise money in order to benefit the social programs and extracurricular activities that help to promote the health and well-being of the children of Washtenaw County. The students collect funds from passers-by, and are given a tag that they can attach to their jackets as an indication of their donation to the cause (hence the name “Tag Days”). However, people give more than a single donation, because they like to collect the tags that are available in four different colours. During the 2016 Tag Days campaign, the students amassed over $91,000.
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For more information about visiting Ann Arbor and what it has to offer tourists – and potential University of Michigan students — check out the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website at:
Feature image: The exterior of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber ( All photos by: Stuart Nulman)