When I first accepted an assignment to visit Ann Arbor, I was skeptical.
If I wanted to go to a college town, I thought, I'd go to my own. But immediately after arriving, I realized that Ann Arbor is far more than fraternity houses and college bars. An exurb of Detroit but a thriving city in its own right, Ann Arbor is as cosmopolitan as it is charming, more progressive than provincial, and a wonderful weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of Chicago.
That's part of the charm of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Being a modern city of more than 100,000 people, downtown Ann Arbor is so walkable and intimate that it retains a small-townalmost antiquecharacter. With its long rows of historic edifices and bustling local business, walking down the bustling streets ( some with their original brick ) is like walking through a Currier and Ives print.
Those businesses include some amazing shopping. Cherry Republic ( 223 S. Main St., Ann Arbor ) offers an amazing cherry soda but, beyond that, it has a myriad of products made out of Michigan cherries, from mustard to salsa. Common Language Books ( 317 Braun Court, Ann Arbor ) is an LGBT and feminist bookstore in historic Kerrytown that offers an array of fiction and nonfiction. But the real gem of Ann Arbor shopping is Dear Golden ( 211 S 4th Ave, Ann Arbor ), a vintage clothing store that sells women's clothing from as far back as the 1900s. Founded as an Etsy store by Lauren Naimola, it now occupies a beautiful downtown storefront and sells vintage and antique pieces ranging from $20 all the way to $2,000. It's worth checking out just to see clothing from a bygone era.
Ann Arbor may be an all-American town, but it has a surprising international flavor. Among the best restaurants in the city is Amadeus ( 122 E. Washington St. ), an Austrian and Polish restaurant nestled in the historic downtown area. With its exposed brick and Old World ambience, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a Vienna cafÃ©. Their cold borscht was just the thing to cool down on a humid summer night. Similarly, Gratzi ( 326 S. Main St., Ann Arbor ) offers authentic Northern Italian cuisine in an open, airy atrium of an old theater dating back to the 1910s.
Neighboring Ypsilanti, with its historic African-American community and own distinct charm, likewise offers a diverse range of restaurants. By far the best place I ate on this trip was Casablanca ( 2333 Washtenaw Rd. ), which reclaimed an old Taco Bell and turned it into a locally, family-run piece of Morocco in Michigan. Don't let the humble facade fool you: The sweet lamb tagine is fine dining at its best.
You'll need all these restaurants to soak up the beer you'll drink. Michigan is the microbrewery capital of the Midwest, and the Ann Arbor area has some amazing options for the beer aficionado. The Ypsi Alehouse ( 124 Pearl St., Ypsilanti ) opened earlier this year and has already established itself as a leader in the local beer scene. Its Blue Racer honey wheat is made with real Michigan blueberries, and has the perfect hint of sweetness for a relaxing summer night. Wolverine State Brewing Company ( 2019 W. Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor ) sells beer throughout Michigan, but has a laid-back tap room with a revolving selection and comfortable atmosphere, making it the perfect place to kick back with friends while drinking a pint of Cereza Rey, a sweet stout incorporating Michigan cherries.
It's in Ypsilanti, though, that you'll find the area's most unique brewery. Unity Vibration ( 93 Ecorse Road ) makes its own artisan kombucha tea and kombucha beer. Never had kombucha beer before? Neither had I, which is what makes it so novel. Tucked away in an old auto repair shop, Unity Vibration's tap room is adjacent to its actual brewery, and the place smells as amazingly tart as the beer tastes. The Hookie Bookie, which tastes something like sweetened grapefruit, is only available in the tap room and is a must-try. However, you can find Unity Vibration kombucha throughout Chicagoland, including at the Whole Foods in Boystown and at Logan Square's Small Bar.
The city has a fabulous nightlife that is well worth experiencing. The Ark ( 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor ) is a fabled acoustic music venue that hosts the likes of The Decemberists, Jay Brannan and, the night I went, acclaimed folk singer Judy Collins. If you're still up for a beer, Aut Bar ( 315 Braun Court ) is Ann Arbor's oldest LGBT bar, tucked away in an old house in Kerrytown. It's a quaint, quiet and inviting place to grab a drink and mingle with the locals. I went to Aut Bar to meet Amanda Edmonds, Ypsilanti's out lesbian mayor, and her wife, Hollie Pietsch, for a discussion about the local community and LGBT scene. "You can walk down the street holding hands and probably see other LGBT couples walking down the street holding hands," said Edwards. "It's really integrated and welcoming in that way."
Aut Bar is a great place to grab a glass of wine and relax, but if a night of dancing is more your speed, Club Necto ( 516 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor ) offers two stories of a big-city nightclub at small-town prices. Friday night is Pride night, and the club plays the best of modern techno and dubstep on the main floor while throwing back to old-school and contemporary pop in the downstairs Red Room. There's a back patio and even a smoking shack where you can light up a cigarette without putting down your drink. Anyone older than 18 can enter Necto, which means the crowd is not only larger, but skews younger.
To really get to know Ann Arbor's LGBT scene, though, Live ( 102 S. 1st St., Ann Arbor ) is unmissable. Each Thursday the club turns into "Candy Bar," an LGBT night hosted by local drag queen Deja D. Complete with a drag show and a large dance floor, Candy Bar brings the local queer community together in a very special way. While the bar itself is your run of the mill club, the people truly set it apart. Candy Bar is a community, attracting a diverse crowd of people of different races, ages, and genders from across the LGBT spectrum in a way that isn't seen in many big city clubs. My fellow clubbers were not just polite, but friendly, ensuring this out-of-towner had a damn good time by making me feel right at home. The tall $10 Gummy Bear cocktails made drinking cheap, and DJ Selina had me dancing all night long.
Unfortunately, after a night out, you're unlikely to be stumbling back to your hotel. While downtown Ann Arbor offers a lot, it includes only three hotels. Most of the city's lodging is on the outskirts, meaning you'll need a designated driver. While cabs are rare and locals tell me the public transit is unreliable, Uber has a heavy presence in the town, so you should be able to drink up the atmosphere and the booze without having to worry about getting home safely.
Of course, going back to your actual home will be bittersweet. I wasn't ready to leave Ann Arbor. The people were so friendly and hospitable that in my brief time there, it began to feel like a home away from home. With its diverse array of shops, breweries, restaurants and clubs, there was much more to see than I could pack into four days. Luckily for us, it's only a four-hour drive away, meaning another trip to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is in my future. It should be in yours, too.
A special thanks goes to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Convention and Visitors Bureau and Geiger Public Relations.