Small Town America: Getting to Know Ypsilanti, Michigan

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I grew up in a small town (population: less than 7,500). I went to a small high school, and then a small university in a similarly small town.

Small towns, as it turns out, are sort of my jam!

And while a lot of people aim to escape small-town life, small towns will always hold a special place in my heart. I love exploring big cities, but I find myself equally drawn to the smaller, often-overlooked corners of the world.

While visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan, a couple times last year, I also found myself in the nearby town of Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti is similar to Ann Arbor and is only about 20 minutes away – but it's unique enough that I felt like it deserved a post all of its own!

Painted door in Ypsilanti
Painted door in Ypsi
Ypsilanti water tower
Ypsilanti Water Tower

Note: I visited Ypsilanti as part of a paid ambassadorship with Wanderful and Destination Ann Arbor. As always, though, all opinions are 100% my own.

An introduction to Ypsi

First things first: Ypsilanti is pronounced “IP-sill-ANN-tee.” But most locals simply call it Ypsi (“IP-see“).

Long before white settlers came to this part of the world, local Indigenous peoples used a trail near present-day Ypsilanti to cross the Huron River. It was used as a camping and trading ground for several Indigenous groups, including the Anishinabewaki, Potawatomi, and Meskwaki (Fox) peoples, among others.

In 1809, three French-Canadian fur traders established an official trading post in roughly the same spot beside the Huron River. In 1823, Major Thomas Woodruff established a permanent settlement nearby, which became known as Woodruff's Grove. Two years later, another settlement was established not far away and named Ypsilanti after Demetrios Ypsilantis, a hero in the Greek War of Independence.

Woodruff's Grove and Ypsilanti merged just a few years later, retaining the latter village's name.

What is Ypsilanti known for?

Ann Arbor is best-know for being home to the University of Michigan, which traces its history all the way back to 1817.

Ypsi has similar ties to a university – in 1849, a teacher training school known as the Michigan Normal School was established in Ypsilanti. This would eventually turn into Eastern Michigan University, which is still operating today, with an enrollment of around 19,000 students.

But for many years, Ypsilanti was best-known for its industry and manufacturing.

Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum

Ypsilanti was consistently home to automotive manufacturing companies, including the likes of Hudson Motors, Kaiser, Tucker and more. In 1941, Ford Motor Company built a big plant in Willow Run (just outside of Ypsilanti). The Willow Run plant was soon converted to wartime production when the U.S. entered WWII, and produced B-24 bombers at a rate of roughly one per hour.

I visited Ypsilanti for the first time during a local craft festival that had a Rosie the Riveter theme, and got to meet four “real Rosies” – women who worked on the assembly line at the Willow Run plant back in the 1940s. It's such a fascinating history, and one you can learn more about if you visit Ypsi.

Real life Rosies
Real life Rosies in Ypsilanti – I loved chatting with these spunky ladies!

Things to do in Ypsilanti, Michigan

Today, you can enjoy a visit to Ypsilanti whether you love classic cars, good music, craft beer, outdoor activities, or just shopping at quirky local shops.

Here are all the unique things to do in Ypsilanti, Michigan:

1. Shop and eat in the historic district

Depot Town in Ypsilanti

Fun fact for you: Ypsilanti is home to the second-largest connected historic district in Michigan. This district includes downtown Ypsi along Michigan Ave., and the area near Frog Island and Riverside parks that's simply known as “Depot Town” because of the railroad depot there.

These two parts of town are divided by the Huron River and Riverside Park, but each is worth exploring for quirky shops and good food.

Along Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsi, some shops worth checking out include:

  • Unicorn Feed & Supply for toys, plants, and other magical novelties and gifts.
  • ModelCave for anyone interested in building models of things.
  • a2vintage, which is a record store.
  • The Rocket Gifts, Toys and Candy for old-fashioned treats and Michigan gifts.
  • Plus several clothing and antiques shops.

There are also several non-chain restaurants in this part of Ypsi, including Bobcat Bonnie's, Red Rock Downtown Barbecue, Ypsi Alehouse, and Encuentro Latino Restaurant, and specialty spots like Terry Bakery, Beezy's (for breakfast), 24th Cheesecakerie, and GO! Ice Cream.

Over in Depot Town you'll find colorful old buildings, along with more independent restaurants and unique local shops.

Brick & Mortar Modern General Store in Ypsilanti
Brick & Mortar Modern General Store

Some must-visit shops in Depot Town include:

  • Brick & Mortar Modern General Store for Ypsi gifts, candy, and handcrafted goods.
  • This, That & the ODDer things for all sorts of novelties and treasures.
  • Apple Annie’s Vintage Clothing
  • Schultz Outfitters for your fishing needs.
  • Plus several antiques shops to peruse.

Restaurants and bars to try in Depot Town include Sidetrack Bar and Grill, Aubree's Pizzeria & Grill, MAIZ Mexican Cantina, and 734 Brewing Company (for craft beer). You can also visit Hyperion Coffee Co for some caffeine, and the Ypsi Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings from late June through October.

2. Grab a coffee or beer at Cultivate

Cultivate Coffee And Tap House

I didn't include Cultivate in the list of restaurants/bars above because I feel like this multi-use space deserves a section of its own.

On the surface, Cultivate Coffee And Tap House is part coffee shop and part tap house – the name says that much. But once you visit, you realize that it's a whole vibe. With a beer garden out back, a vegetable garden, and (normally) a calendar of events to enjoy, Cultivate is truly a space for the whole community to enjoy.

From its beginnings, Cultivate has focused on things like sustainability and giving back to the community. They call it “social entrepreneurship,” and since opening have donated lots of food from their garden, and over $100,000 in funds to community nonprofits.

Cultivate beer garden
Live music in the Cultivate beer garden in summer (pre-COVID, of course)
Coffee from Cultivate

This is an excellent spot to spend either a rainy day or a warm summer evening. I am partial to their lattes, but the also have an extensive craft beer list.

3. Visit the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum

As I mentioned earlier, Ypsilanti has a long history with the automotive industry. If you want to learn more about it (and see some really cool old cars in the process), then you'll want to visit the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum.

Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum

Located in what was once the longest-operating Hudson Motor Car dealership, the museum now shows off cars made by Hudson Motors, Kaiser, and Tucker – many of them made at the old Willow Run Plant.

This museum is packed full of shiny old cars, plus a fair bit to read about Ypsi's automotive history. Admission to the museum is only $5 (with kids under 12 free), so it's definitely worth an hour or so of your time. Just note that the museum is only open from 1-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

In the summer, the museum also hosts several different car shows and events, including “Cruise Nights” where residents show off their classic cars along the streets in Depot Town.

Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum

4. Get up close with history at the Yankee Air Museum

I've talked a lot about the Willow Run Plant in this post (the one that manufactured cars, but also famously made bombers during WWII), so you might be curious as to whether you can tour the old plant.

Well, you can't really visit Willow Run itself. But you CAN visit the adjacent Yankee Air Museum, which is probably even cooler. This Smithsonian-affiliated aerospace and science museum is chock full of cool things to see and do.

There are exhibits about the history of aviation, real historic planes to see and learn about, and hands-on exhibits, including one where you can learn to “Rivet Like a Rosie.” The museum and nearby Willow Run Airport also host the annual Thunder Over Michigan Air Show.

But the coolest thing you can do at the Yankee Air Museum is take a flight in one of five historic planes. Hop into a B-17 or B-25 bomber, or maybe a UH-1 Huey for a true aerial adventure.

The Yankee Air Museum is just a 15-minute drive away from Ypsilanti, and is open Tuesday-Sunday year-round. Museum admission is $12 for adults and $8 for kids, while flights on the historic planes range anywhere from $100-$475 per person – learn more about those flights here.

BONUS: Other Ypsi museums

Other museum you can visit in the Ypsilanti area include the Ypsilanti Historical Museum (housed in a Victorian mansion built in 1860), and the Michigan Firehouse Museum.

5. Enjoy outdoor spaces

Ypsilanti is located in Michigan's Washtenaw County, which is home to more than 23,000 acres of public land. Ypsilanti has Riverside Park and Frog Island Park right in town, which are connected to one another by a bridge. Both parks have trails and picnic areas to enjoy.

The Huron River runs right through Ypsilanti, too, offering up activities to enjoy like kayaking and fishing.

Ypsilanti is also connected to Ann Arbor and other areas by the Border-to-Border Trail, which currently consists of 40 miles of paved trails perfect for walking or biking.

Ypsilanti train depot
The train station Depot Town gets its nickname from

6. Go to a festival

Ypsilanti has actually become known for its summer festivals, especially in the Depot Town area and surrounding parks.

A few annual festivals to look out for include:

  • Summer Beer Festival – Hosted by the Michigan Brewers Guild, this beer fest takes place at Riverside Park in July and includes samples from 150 Michigan breweries.
  • YpsiFest – Held yearly in August, this festival used to span Depot Town and both Riverside and Frog Island parks, but sounds like it will move to a new location in 2021.
  • Orphan Car Show – This autofest is put on by the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum every September, and showcases vintage cars.
  • Michigan ElvisFest – This annual 2-day festival is usually held in July at the Wayne County Fairgrounds, and celebrates (you guessed it) Elvis.
Live music in Ypsilanti
Ypsi loves festivals and live music

And this of course isn't an exhaustive list, either! I've only visited Ypsi twice, so don't pretend to be an expert. But I enjoyed both my visits, and would say that if you're going to be in the Ann Arbor area anyway, you should definitely pop over to Ypsilanti, too, for at least half a day.

Want to read more about this part of Michigan? Here are all my posts about Ann Arbor:

Have you ever heard of Ypsilanti? Is it a place you'd like to visit?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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7 Comments on “Small Town America: Getting to Know Ypsilanti, Michigan

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Ypsilanti, Michigan, my home town. It brought back many memories and my longing to return. I have been in Tennessee for 23 years and miss Ypsi every day. Especially in the summer when the temperature hovers in the upper 90’s, threatening and sometimes going over the 100 mark. I was dissappointed that you missed two of the oldest restaurants in town. The Bomber (named after the Willow Run Bomber Plant) serves the best breakfast in town; and Hobbs, where you can get a burger or the best Steak Dinner in town. Both have been serving meals continuously over at least 80 years that I know of as I am 87. Thanks for the memories and the update of a great town.

    I was born In Ypsilanti and lived there until I got married in 1965. I still have family there and such happy memories of growing up there.Loved the article about Ypsilanti.

    Lived there from the time i was two until i was nineteen. Loved the town and still think of it as home but a lot has changed and would love to see it again. Great place and good food.

    Ypsilanti looks like such a fun little area! I had no idea there were even Smithsonian affiliated museums outside of Washington DC let alone in Michigan! And how fun for Cultivate to have a beer garden AND vegetable garden. I wish more businesses focused on the environment a little bit.

      Yes! The Smithsonian has several museum affiliates outside of DC, but I agree that I never expected to find one in little Ypsi! And I agree about Cultivate – I love everything about that spot, from their coffee to their garden to their philanthropy.

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