Football, fall foliage make Ann Arbor, Mich., hard to beat
There’s no better place to be in fall than a college town. Not a biggish city that happens to have a college. Not a tiny town with a tiny private school tucked away somewhere.
A college town: the kind of place that would be a shell of itself without its university, but still has enough charm and character to be worth a visit on its own.
The Midwest is not blessed with mountains and canyons, but it is rife with charming college towns. We love you, Madison, Iowa City, Columbia and Bloomington — you, too, Chambana — but the most charming of them all, especially in fall, might be Ann Arbor.
While much of the charm is rooted in an inextricable relationship with a university that has called Ann Arbor home for 179 years, the draw runs even deeper. The downtown, assembled of two-story brick buildings, is full of places quite happy to sell you a University of Michigan sweatshirt, but it is also rife with businesses and restaurants that have been here for decades. If you were to build a college town from scratch, Ann Arbor would be it. The city of 120,000 exists in its own sweet little bubble. Or, as a T-shirt aptly says in a storefront window along Main Street: “Ann Arbor: Six square miles surrounded by reality.”
I’ve been to Ann Arbor in winter, and I’ve been in summer, but like many of the most idyllic places, it becomes its finest self in fall: sweaters, cider, colorful leaves, that religion known as college football. For a couple of days last autumn, I reveled in Ann Arbor with long walks, even longer meals and an embrace of college town charm.
Some of the best strolls can be had right on campus. As a generations-old school, the University of Michigan is just as handsomely worn and leafy as you might expect. You could easily spend a couple of hours wandering around the school; just don’t miss the Law Quad (625 S. State St.). It’s a broad lawn surrounded by old stone buildings and hemmed in by trees with leaves that turn brilliant red, yellow and orange. There’s a reason that the Law Quad is a favorite among local wedding photographers, and it’s the same reason that the quad is a must during the heart of fall, preferably with a magazine and coffee in hand.
While you’re there, duck into the law library, on the west end of the quad, where the tall stone walls and long wood tables reek of history. As tomorrow’s lawyers sweat away, breathe deeply and be glad you’re not one of them.
Then move on to a requirement of fall in Ann Arbor: Nichols Arboretum (three entrances; the visitor center is at 1610 Washington Heights). Called simply “The Arb” by locals, Nichols has more than 700 acres of trails and leafy views that see a 270-foot change in elevation — not bad for the middle of a city in the Midwest! Several miles of trails are fairly manageable but remote enough to be able to forget you’re in an urban environment.
But since you are in a city, you might as well eat and drink well.
College towns tend to be fairly well off when it comes to food and drink, and that’s especially true in Ann Arbor. The most legendary meal of all probably isn’t quite worth the hype — particularly when the reuben costs $19 — but if your wallet is up to it, Zingerman’s (www.zingermansdeli.com), in the Kerrytown neighborhood, is worth a stop. Ann Arbor’s most famous deli has been at it since 1982 and has endured for a reason. For more of a sit-down Zingerman’s experience, Zingerman’s Roadhouse (www.zingermansroadhouse.com) offers a gut-busting menu of mostly barbecue and Southern fare.
Quality meals can also be found at Mani Osteria & Bar for wood-fired pizza, Jolly Pumpkin for hearty, vegetarian-friendly meals and legendary farmhouse ales, and Sava’s for a very satisfying Saturday morning brunch, just before the Michigan football team kicks off and locals gear up in their maize and blue.
To eat like a local, check out the nearly century-old farmers market in Kerrytown, open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday though December, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday from January to April.
One Saturday afternoon, I met a family from Chicago that visits Ann Arbor every October for what they call their “fall spectacular.” One rite of the annual autumn visit was the place where we stood: Dexter Cider Mill (www.dextercidermill.com), in the nearby town of Dexter. Lore says the 130-year-old mill was built by a Civil War veteran. The creaky floors and wood walls make it easy to believe.
The mill is closed most of the year, but it will open for the upcoming season Aug. 26. When the apples are ready to be picked, throngs of locals and travelers descend on Dexter in search of fresh-pressed, nonpasteurized cider. Don’t forget about the cinnamon-sugar and pumpkin doughnuts and cinnamon muffins aglow with cider glaze. Head downstairs, and you can see the apples pressed, their rust-colored juice spilling down the stacks of wooden pallets. A leafy view of a creek sits out back and makes for an ideal place to eat that doughnut and drink that cider.
Dexter Cider Mill is so popular that the line often winds outside the front door and into the parking lot. That was the case when I was there, even though the Michigan Wolverines were playing. So you know it’s serious business.
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