College towns have a built-in advantage when you’re traveling with teenagers and, with its sky-high cool quotient, Ann Arbor, Michigan is the king of college towns. Home to the University of Michigan, it is hip enough for adolescents with lots of activities geared to tweens, teens and students, yet sophisticated enough for savvy moms and dads. Considering that the year-round population is just over 100,000, there is a surprising range of activities that will appeal to a variety of interests.
If your family is drawn to arts and culture, Ann Arbor is home to several terrific museums, dozens of galleries plus a rich offering of performing arts. If you are a sports enthusiast, you can watch a football game at the largest college stadium in the country. For tween shopping mavens, there is an eclectic assortment of merchandise that assures you can bring home something that your friends will envy. If you are a family of foodies, few Midwest towns present such a wealth of dining options. If you love a good free factory tour, the Jiffy Muffin Mix Factory is in nearby Chelsea. Many of Ann Arbor’s top activities are located downtown, so you can walk to nearly everything. It is easy to reach, located only a few minutes drive or shuttle bus ride from Detroit Metro Airport. If you’re on a tight budget, there are many free or low-cost activities, inexpensive motels and easy-on-the-wallet eateries.
Culture Vultures Theatre, Museums & More
The University of Michigan has two must-see museums for families, both free of charge. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology is a gem, filled with ancient treasures that include a mummified child and a mummified cat. The permanent collection contains over 100,000 objects, plus there are regularly changing special exhibits. The Museum of Natural History’s collection is filled with dinosaurs, taxidermy mounts, rocks and minerals and a Planetarium. Stellar public programming includes a summer camp, and science workshops each Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
The Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum is another terrific museum. Part of its charm is its considerable efforts to appeal to hard-to-please tween and teen visitors. A working ham radio station, a climbing wall and a tween-perfect display on toilets that explains what happens after you flush should hold the interest of older kids. A developmentally appropriate area especially for babies and toddlers is spacious and includes lots of water play.
Many artists and craftspeople call Ann Arbor home and their work can be seen in the scores of galleries around town. They are family-friendly and invite you to browse, as do the many bookstores that are clustered downtown. The Sunday Artisan Market in the funky Kerrytown neighborhood is held outdoors from April through December. All the work is sold by the person who made it, so kids can ask the actual artist any questions they may have.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company is located in nearby Chelsea, just west of Ann Arbor. Founded by the actor Jeff Daniels, it is committed to producing professional-caliber American plays in Daniels’ hometown. Blossoming thespians should enjoy a visit, and ticket prices encourage families to watch live theater.
Music lovers should not miss the opportunity to hear a concert at Hill Auditorium. This venue is said to be acoustically perfect, making it a popular stop with top-billed musicians. The price is right, as teens are allowed to purchase up to two $10 tickets per performance.
Film buffs may already be familiar with Ann Arbor, thanks to its famous experimental film festival. Indie movie fans of all ages should visit the old-fashioned Michigan Theater. The monthly Family-Friendly Film Series is free for kids 12 and under. They also present live music and theater as part of their Not Just for Kids series.
Foodie Families find Ann Arbor Delicious
The dining scene is thriving in Ann Arbor. Whether your family prefers a casual burger or a culinary adventure, dozens of restaurant choices assures that no one will go hungry.
Despite its somewhat exotic flavor profile, don’t be shy to try Ethiopian Food. That you don’t eat it with silverware makes it an instant favorite with some kids. Clean hands are all you need to enjoy a delightful dining experience at The Blue Nile. It is family owned and operated by a charming Ethiopian couple who treat guests of all sizes like kings. In fact, the owner was the personal butler to His Majesty before leaving his native land. Traditionally eaten from a shared plate placed in the center of the table, you use spongy bread to sop up the fragrant meat and vegetables. The Ethiopian Feast is a reasonably priced way to sample the most popular menu items. Children can try the feast for half price Don’t miss the spice tea, naturally sweet and caffeine-free.
The super-casual Blimpy Burger is a must for burger lovers. You wait on a long line to order your single, double, triple or larger, before moving down the queue to select your garnishes. French fries, onion rings and other deep-fried veggies are house specialties.
Zingerman’s is reason alone for many foodies to make a pilgrimage to Ann Arbor. It is a community of related food businesses all under the Zingerman’s umbrella, all passionately committed to selling fresh, high-quality food. The Deli’s house-made corned beef is legendary, as is the size of the sandwich. Consider trying one of their hands-on baking classes just for families. Parents and kids over age 7 can spend quality time in the kitchen learning to make a variety of delicious baked goods. Most family classes are scheduled for Sunday afternoons and last for three hours.
Ann Arbor Welcomes Shop-Till-You Drop Students
In a time when many downtown and main street districts are permeated with a sense of austerity, Ann Arbor’s shopping areas (Kerrytown and Downtown/Main Street) are thriving. Don’t expect to find big-box stores here. Independently owned shops are the rule. Everyone walks from shop to shop, so the feel is decidedly urban.
If your kids are looking for a unique piece of jewelry, a one-of-a-kind bag or a hand-woven scarf, Ten Thousand Villages sells fair trade handicrafts from 38 countries. If your children prefer to make their own jewelry, The Bead Gallery is the place for crafty kids to create handmade goods from the giant selection of beads. Hollander’s sells decorative paper. You can choose from thousands of different styles of quality paper from around the world. Even if you don’t buy anything, the rainbow of colors, patterns and motifs is a treat for the eyes.
Vault of Midnight is one of the top comic book stores in America. Comic book junkies spend hours here searching for hard-to-find issues and enjoying the company of like-minded folk. This place has the vibe of a 1970’s Star Trek convention, where it is just plain cool to let your inner geek shine.
Sports Fans Love Ann Arbor’s Big House
College football fans from around the country come to Ann Arbor to visit “The Big House,” Michigan Stadium’s nickname. This is the largest college stadium in the country, and its 100,000 plus seats are packed with famously die-hard fans. Games sell out regularly, so you will need to book your tickets well in advance.
Jiffy Muffin Mix Factory Tour
My family enjoys a good factory tour. Some of our favorites include Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory and the Synder’s of Hanover Pretzel Bakery in Pennsylvania. But none surpasses the Jiffy Mix Plant in Chelsea, a 15-minute drive from Ann Arbor. The little blue and white box of Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix is found in many homes around the U.S., and a visit to this family-owned factory is perhaps the ultimate free factory tour. They do everything on site, from the milling and grinding of the grains to printing the boxes, so it is very comprehensive. You start with a sample of the muffin of the month, accompanied with a beverage.
Next you view a slightly corny video featuring an animated box of muffin mix, appropriately named Corny. Hairnets and slippers are required as you move onto the factory floor and watch the assembly line’s precision. You end with free boxes of muffin mix and a coloring book. The tour lasts for one hour, and the factory floor is not stroller accessible. Recommended for kids ages 5 and up.
Where to Stay with Kids in Ann Arbor, Michigan
There are many lodging options in town, but we always try and opt for a property with a pool so the kids can burn off some energy after a long day of sightseeing. Weber’s has a large indoor pool and poolside rooms. Free High Speed Internet access, an on-site restaurant and comfortable rooms make it a favorite with families.
The Hilton Garden Inn has a large indoor swimming pool with a basketball hoop and sprinklers. This new property is very clean and rooms are spacious. Cribs, high chairs and playpens are available.
When you plan your trip, keep in mind that school events, big sports games and dates like graduation drive up hotel rates, especially on weekends. Otherwise Ann Arbor is a top value getaway. For more information on planning your trip, go to Visit Ann Arbor.
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