When I visited the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the first time earlier this summer, I was struck by how cool and how livable a city it was.
I also found myself fast falling in love with the quirky vibe that gives Ann Arbor much of its character.
I think you can attribute this quirkiness to the fact that Ann Arbor has aways been somewhat of a cultural center in Michigan, thanks at least in part to it being home to the University of Michigan. It's always been home to forward-thinkers and creative types, which tends to nurture all sorts of quirks in a place.
5 Quirky Things to Do in Ann Arbor, Michigan
With its historic theaters, vintage clothing shops, independent bookstores, and a diverse food scene, I've said before that Ann Arbor is unlike any other college town I've visited in the US. If you're looking for some particularly unique things to do in the city, here are all my quirky favorites.
Note: This post was written in partnership with Wanderful and Destination Ann Arbor, who I'm currently an ambassador for! As always, though, all opinions are 100% my own.
1. Check out the street art
Like many mid-sized cities in the US, Ann Arbor has a growing street art scene. Here, it takes the form of both large wall-sized murals, as well as smaller works like stylized utility boxes.
Looking for pops of street art is one of my favorite ways to explore any city, and in Ann Arbor I wasn't disappointed.
My favorites were a University of Michigan-themed wings mural by #WhatLiftsYou artist Kelsey Montague, and a “Singing in the Rain”-themed mural by David Zinn, in which the painted Gene Kelly looks like he's hanging off a real-life lamp post if you stand at the right angle.
I didn't know “interactive” murals were even a thing, but Ann Arbor has me obsessed with them now.
Ann Arbor even has a “graffiti alley,” and more murals planned – a massive one was being installed as I was leaving!
2. Look for the fairy doors
A smaller form of street art that you can look out for are the “fairy doors” that can be found outside several businesses in downtown Ann Arbor. These tiny little doors are usually installed beside bigger doors or windows, and sometimes give a little glimpse into the lives of the fairies who “live” beyond.
The story of the doors is just as quirky as their existence in the first place. The first public fairy door appeared in downtown Ann Arbor in 2005, installed by Jonathan B. Wright. But Wright, preferring to keep things whimsical, doesn't call himself the artist – instead he refers to himself as a “fairyologist” who just reports on fairy doors found throughout the city.
Several dozen fairy doors have come and gone in Ann Arbor over the years, which is half the fun. I managed to spot a couple while I was in town, including ones at The Red Shoes shop and Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea.
What I love about these doors is that they've become such a hit locally. People often leave gifts at the doors for the fairies, from notes to toys to even coins (see the righthand photo above!).
3. Shop in an independent bookstore
I always get excited when I come across a city with a good bookstore. But Ann Arbor doesn't have just one good bookstore – it has many!
Popular independent bookstores in town include Nicola's Books (home to a fairy door, too!), Literati Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor (a lovely store with a small cafe on the second floor), and used book shops like Motte & Bailey Booksellers, West Side Book Shop, and Dawn Treader Book Shop.
Dawn Treader is my favorite kind of used book shop, with shelves organized in a manner that probably only makes sense to the owner, and piles and stacks of books in every spare inch of space.
There are even some specialty book shops like Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room, and Vault of Midnight, which is a comic book store.
4. Attend an art fair
If you've made it this far down the list, then I probably don't have to remind you that Ann Arbor is a very artsy place. But just in case you forgot, the city also plays host to several arts and crafts fairs throughout the year, including the massive Ann Arbor Art Fair, which takes place downtown each summer.
The Ann Arbor Art Fair is actually made up of four separate art fairs (the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Summer Art Fair, the State Street Art Fair, and the South University Art Fair), and is one of the largest outdoor art fairs in the United States.
Each year, the Art Fair spans four days and brings more than 500,000 people to Ann Arbor to see the artwork of more than 1000 artists.
Visit the Ann Arbor Art Fair site here.
5. Find quirks on campus
It might seem odd to tell you to visit a university campus on a travel blog, but the UofM campus is so integrated into the essence of Ann Arbor that you can wander onto it without really even noticing.
The University of Michigan's campus is a beautiful one, too, with lots of public artwork and even the 123-acre Nichols Arboretum in the middle of campus. And if you're looking for quirks? It has those, too.
The first quirky stop I would make would be at the law school. There's a beautiful quad, a stunning library that you can visit (it might make you feel like you've walked into Hogwarts), and the great Hutchins Hall.
In Hutchins Hall, take a stroll down the entrance corridor and pay attention to the round painted glass sections in the windows. Each represents a crime or case that a lawyer might have to deal with, and some are rather funny.
After the law school, consider heading to North Campus to visit The Wave Field next to the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building. Designed and created by Maya Lin (who was responsible for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC), the Wave Field is exactly what it sounds like: a patch of ground that undulates beneath the grass, looking different depending on the time of day.
It's said that the rippling earth is supposed to mimic the patterns of mathematical sine waves, which is fitting since the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building houses the university's Aerospace Engineering department.
BONUS: Stay in a quirky hotel
Okay, so it may be a stretch to call a small chain hotel “quirky,” but I really do think the Graduate Ann Arbor is unique. The hotel is (tastefully) university-themed, with University of Michigan colors scattered throughout the property, a long library-style table and chalkboards in the lobby, and rooms that make you feel like you're a college professor.
I also liked the added touch of your room key looking like a student ID card from someone famous who attended the university (I got Iggy Pop!), and the branded bikes that guests can borrow to get around town.
This of course isn't an exhaustive list. If I were to write about every single quirky shop and corner of Ann Arbor, you'd be here reading all day. Suffice it to say that this city is full of character, and deserves to be explored!
Do you like to seek out quirky spots in the cities you visit?
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