Monday, August 29, 2011

A Visitor's Guide to Ann Arbor

We're only days away from the 2011 season, and some people might be visiting Ann Arbor for the first time. This friendly little post is for anyone coming from other schools who are interested in Michigan's campus and the college town of Ann Arbor. (It might also be handy to anyone already in Ann Arbor, especially new U-M students who don't know the area quite as well.) Even if you're a fan or student of one of Michigan's rivals, don't worry: we'll approach this with safety and fun in mind, so you can have the best experience in Ann Arbor and will hopefully want to come back for another game. So, welcome!

A quick note: MGoBlog has posted a somewhat-aggressive guide to Ann Arbor that primarily focuses on places to eat and drink, but it's littered with inside jokes and references to things that very few outside of the Michigan fanbase (and permanent residents of Ann Arbor) will understand. Here, we'll take a somewhat softer approach and will assume that this is your first visit to Ann Arbor, and what to expect.

I wanted to post this earlier, but my procrastination got the better of me, and MGoBlog beat me to the punch. Oh well, it's a different perspective. Anyway, without further ado, here's a relatively brief run-down of what to see and expect from Ann Arbor. We hope you enjoy your visit!

You can find maps of Ann Arbor, Central Campus, and South Campus here. (South Campus is where Michigan Stadium is located.)

When You Should Arrive

Ideally, you have a ticket for the game and want to arrive in time to see kickoff. However, not every visitor from other schools necessarily has a ticket—or even sees the game. They're mainly in town to hang out with friends who either go to Michigan or friends from their school who do have tickets. Either way, there's plenty to do even if you're not seeing the game.

The exact day or time you should arrive depends entirely on what you want to get out of your visit. If you're visiting from somewhere close (e.g. Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, etc.), you can probably get away with arriving and leaving the same day as the game—especially if you have no interest in seeing what Ann Arbor has to offer. If you're coming from somewhere far away (e.g. Nebraska), then I highly recommend planning your trip so that you arrive the day before the game and leave the day after. Ann Arbor goes nuts on game day, and arriving the day before it allows for you to have the least amount of stress in finding a place to stay, getting something to eat, and leaving the town at a comfortable time when the streets aren't packed.

If you can't swing the finances to arrive the day before the game, try to get there as early as possible (6 a.m to 8 a.m.). This will give you plenty of time to explore the town and relax after your trip.

Make sure you know when the game starts (usually it's 12:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.), because tailgating typically starts four hours before that. Ann Arbor is generally still asleep around 6 a.m., but people could be moseying over to the stadium the closer it gets to noon.

Where You Can Park

As a rule, parking in Ann Arbor is a nightmare. It's usually worse on weekdays than on weekends, but everyone's going to be rushing for something on game day. There are, however, a few options at your disposal. There is a great parking structure on Thompson Street. You'll have to pay to use it, but it's worth it if you're visiting short term. For several hours it will cost you $6 to $10, and for days it climbs upwards of $20. It's free on Sundays. You can take your chances with street parking, which is almost always full. The meters stop after 6 p.m., Monday-Saturday.

If you don't mind walking a few blocks to Michigan Stadium, then downtown is really your best bet. (This is where Thompson and street parking are.) If you park in downtown Ann Arbor, you'll have to walk down Main Street to get to the Big House. It shouldn't be hard to spot on game day. It's generally the most crowded street that day, but it's the most direct way to the stadium.

If you can't stand a walk, parking closer to the Big House is possible but becomes more difficult and more expensive. There are plenty of residential homes that offer all-day parking for $20 or $30 and will take care of your vehicle. These are Michigan fans of varying degrees of intensity, who may have consumed varying amounts of alcohol. So, if you happen to be a hated rival, choose your residential home carefully. Try Berkley Ave., Potter Ave., or Snyder Ave. for some spots to rent; all three are directly adjacent to Michigan Stadium. The Boy Scouts typically rent out a parking area in front of the Big House and charge $15-$20, and they're always reliable. I would also advise looking for older fans to rent a parking space from rather than younger ones, as the latter are usually less trustworthy. Be warned, though: the closer the parking is to the stadium, the more expensive it is likely to be. Don't be surprised if someone wants to charge upwards of $100 for parking.

Where You Can Tailgate

If tailgating is your thing, Pioneer High School is directly across from Michigan Stadium and its vast parking lot is open to tailgaters. There is almost always a reserved area for fans of the visiting team (yes, even from rival schools), so you'll certainly be able to find something. Generally, there is no permit required, but you'll have to pay cash to use the lot. It opens at 6 a.m. You can check out the Michigan Event Parking website for more details.

Another option is to tailgate at the U-M Golf Course. Parking is first come first serve, so try to get there early. You can park directly on the grass. The golf course is a favorite of Michigan fans, so expect to see a lot of them out in droves. In fact, sometimes fans just show up to tailgate and don't even go to the game.

If you know someone in the Ann Arbor area, you could always try tailgating at their house.

If the game at Michigan happens to be a rivalry game, expect to find very little available either way. Again, your best bet is to show up as early as possible and be flexible. (If you arrive the day before, you won't be allowed to spend the night at either Pioneer or the golf course, but you can park at nearby Briarwood Mall and move into position when gates open at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Where You Can Stay Overnight

If you're making a long trip from out of state (i.e. Nebraska), then maybe you've decided that the smart thing is to arrive the day before the game, but you need somewhere to sleep. Not a problem. Ann Arbor has plenty of places that can accommodate. To my knowledge, visiting teams usually stay in Ann Arbor's Campus Inn. (It's the building with all the Big Ten team flags.) If you can swing the money, it's a comfortable stay. There is also the Bell Tower Hotel, which is right smack in the middle of campus.

If expensive hotels aren't your thing, there are also a few bed-and-breakfast houses that accommodate customers. One of those closest to campus and Michigan Stadium is the Burnt Toast Inn on Williams Street. It's comfortable, cozy, and cheap. And then there's the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast on East Huron Street.

Finally, if you happen to have friends in the Ann Arbor area, you can consider staying with them. (Of course, if you have an RV, then none of this is really relevant.)

How You Can Get Around

You'll most likely be getting around on your feet. Everything in downtown Ann Arbor is in walking distance to the Big House, the Campus Inn, restaurants, and parking structures. Although it might feel like an advantage to have a car, it's actually a disadvantage in Ann Arbor. During game day especially, pedestrians will crowd the streets. So, overall, your best bet is to walk.

If you'd like to explore some other areas of Ann Arbor and Michigan's campus, the university employs Blue Buses that are absolutely free to anyone anytime. (They usually go until 3 a.m., so don't assume they're a 24-hour service.) The Blue Buses go almost anywhere on campus. You just have to make sure you hop the right one. On the front and sides of the bus, an electronic sign will tell you where it's going. "Northwood" goes up to the university's North Campus, which features more university housing (Bursley/Baits dormitories, and undergrad apartments) as well as parts of the engineering school, music school, and drama center. "Glazier Way" also goes to North Campus but makes a stop at the U-M Hospital. "South to Crisler Arena" is your best bet to get back to the Big House if you've strayed too far or found yourself on North Campus. If you're stranded on North Campus, any Blue Bus heading in the direction of the hospital will eventually make its way back to Central Campus (i.e. downtown Ann Arbor).

Another bus that travels around Ann Arbor is called The Ride. This one is only free to U-M students with their student ID card. All others have to pay a minor charge. The Ride will take you generally anywhere just outside of downtown. It will go to Stadium Blvd. or to Briarwood Mall. Make sure you ask the driver where the bus is going before you get on.

If all else fails, there are Yellow Taxis and Go-Blue Cabs, which service all customers. They'll take you anywhere you want to go for a moderate price. (They also expect a tip.)

The Culture

The general mood in and around Ann Arbor is artsy, progressive, and liberal. Don't be surprised if you see student political activists on the sidewalks, especially if you're visiting during election season. (It was pretty crazy in 2008.) People there are generally nice, but with so many political opinions these days, someone is bound to say something offensive on either side. Try to understand the context: Ann Arbor was one of the main activist campuses back in the 1960s during the Vietnam protests. It also featured President John F. Kennedy's speech in which he announced the formation of the Peace Corps. The student body is both Republican and Democrat, but it tends to lean more towards the left. It's also extremely diverse, something which the university makes a priority.

Ann Arbor's artistic side is reflected a lot in its shops, theatres, and art galleries. While the city officially does not condone graffiti, you'll probably see some of it—less on the "gang" side and more on the "expression" side. There are also amateur musicians constantly playing on the sidewalks.

Finally, Ann Arbor has a reputation for being especially generous to homeless people. Don't be confused or feel threatened if someone sitting along a way asks for money. It's actually quite common. There was an interesting story that said homeless people come from all over Michigan to Ann Arbor because the people there are so generous, and the city has numerous programs and shelters that provide for the homeless.

Places to Avoid

Ann Arbor is actually one of the safest college towns in the U.S. While petty crime does occasionally surface, the university monitors even the slightest outburst so intensely that it sends out a mass email to students and faculty about something that's happening all the way on the other side of campus. (I'm sure that other college campuses have this system, and if they don't, they should.) Ann Arbor's police run a pretty tight patrol, especially between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., but this is generally meant to keep the college kids in line.

On game day, State Street should generally be avoided after the game, as this is where the majority of the fraternity houses are and where the loudest parties emerge. If you're a traveling family, taking Main Street is generally a better idea, as it runs parallel to State Street. If you get lost, you can find your way to either street by looking either for the Big House (Michigan Stadium) or Bell Tower. The Big House is on Stadium Blvd and Main Street, and Bell Tower is in the middle of campus. Once you get closer to downtown (i.e. heading in the direction Bell Tower), State Street is fine. It has most of the town's businesses and is one of the most traversed streets on campus. It's only around State Street and Monroe that you have to be cautious. There you run a risk of getting insulted by a drunken frat guy and such.

If you're looking specifically for a place to eat after the game, pretty much every sit-down restaurant is going to be packed. You should generally avoid Ashley's, a popular undergrad favorite: despite its popularity and recommendations, the place is so frequently busy that the service is lousy. If you don't get the attention of a server, you could go an hour without being asked what you'd like to have. It's also more of a bar than a restaurant. If you're more into drinking, then take a chance on Ashley's.

Blimpy Burger is also known for its terrible service. This, however, is more of a quirk than a detraction, more like being infamous or having "positive notoriety." If you're not expecting the chefs' curt attitude, it's definitely off-putting. If you do expect it, then it's kind of amusing. If you can stand through a very specific ordering system, they have excellent burgers, made from daily fresh ground beef. Blimpy hasn't expanded architecturally at all since it was founded in 1953, so the restaurant itself is very small and very old. On game day, it gets packed.

Pre-Game Plan

What you do before and after the game will depend entirely on how much time you can spare and what exactly you'd like to get out of Ann Arbor. So, even if we suggest a vast array of things, you might not be able to get to them all if your schedule doesn't allow it. That's okay; you can always come back to Michigan for another game or the following year if our teams play.

Let's enter scenario number one. You've arrived the day before the game (so, Friday) and are looking to explore Ann Arbor a little bit. This is good. It'll give you time to relax and get ready for the game at your own pace. Ann Arbor will be pretty laid back but will gradually get more intense as the time nears kickoff. Even if you wear gear supporting your school, no one should give you much of a problem before the game (certainly not the day before the game). Problems you may encounter after the game depend largely on where you are (See: Places to Avoid).

You can catch a movie at either Michigan Theatre or State Theatre; both are in very close proximity to each other, on State Street and Liberty Street. Michigan Theatre tends to show foreign and art films, while State Theatre tends to show popular releases that you'd normally find at movie theaters.

If you're itching to check out some of Ann Arbor's homey, cozy art scene, then a small area of the city called "Kerrytown" is your destination. You'll find a lot of history and cobblestone roads in this area, and on Saturdays (though I'm hesitant to say Game Saturdays), Kerrytown features the weekly Farmer's Market. Not surprisingly, Kerrytown is generally very quiet during the actual game time, although on most days it is one of the more popular areas of Ann Arbor. If you're in Kerrytown during the game (don't know why you would be, but whatever), you might hear the faint rumble of the Big House in the distance.

You should have little to no problem finding something to eat before the game. It's only after the game that all the places and restaurants get packed. Downtown Ann Arbor has a very eclectic mix of all different types of restaurants, so you could pretty much try anything. Most of the unique restaurants are along State Street and South University road, and around Packard street. I would highly recommend a restaurant called the Brown Jug. Service is good, and you get a great sense of fan pride.

If your food tastes are more mainstream, Ann Arbor just opened up a Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and has Chipotle Mexican Grill, Starbucks, Jimmy John's, and Buffalo Wild Wings. All of them are on State Street. Ann Arbor is a health-crazy town, so fast food has been driven underground. You can find Wendy's and Taco Bell in the Michigan League building. There's also Subway, Wendy's, and Pizza Hut in the Michigan Union. Both are very popular with students.

A lot of guides make the mistake of limiting the suggestions to Downtown Ann Arbor. Generally, downtown is good because everything is in walking distance. However, if you've got a car, you can head down Stadium Blvd. for tons of other options. Fast food choices are less stifled here as you've got Burger King, Little Caesar's (a Detroit favorite), KFC, Subway, and McDonald's. Michigan students almost always recommend a sandwich shop called "Zingerman's," but I'm personally not that into sandwiches. If you are, then I hear it's the place to be.

If you're short on supplies, you can make a quick run at Big K on Stadium Blvd. Right past the Big House on Main Street (off Stadium Blvd.), past Pioneer High School, you can check out Briarwood Mall. Parking there is free. It's very close to the Big House that you should be able to do some things in there and still be able to make the game.

Other scenarios: if you arrived the day of the game but early enough to get a spot, you'll have to make a choice if you want to explore Ann Arbor or tailgate. You generally won't have time to do both unless you arrived in a large group that can take turns manning the truck. Most people tailgating get there pretty early, and game day is typically an all-day event. If you aren't interested in tailgating but arrived the day of the game, you don't want to get too far away from Michigan Stadium, as it will become increasingly difficult to park the closer it gets to game time. I'd say your best bet in this scenario is to limit your exploration of Ann Arbor to downtown. It's in walking distance from the Big House.

The Campus

Okay, so you're here for the game. You either have no interest in Michigan's campus or maybe you've got some interest. It's obviously not required to check out the campus, but if you've got some time to kill, it's a great way to get a glimpse at what a student's life is typically like. Generally all college campuses are the same, so we won't pretend like your campus is somehow inferior to Ann Arbor's.

What I've found that's different is the sheer amount of spirit. A lot of other student bodies (even at other Big Ten schools) don't showcase their fervor all the time, or often enough, when they should. (Pasadena, California, for instance, is hardly interested in the UCLA Bruins or the USC Trojans during the spring, summer, or even the fall. By contrast, Ann Arbor has Michigan fanatics all year round.) Especially on gameday, that intensity just skyrockets.

A very popular student stop is the Michigan Union, located right along State Street. It's the big brick building covered in vegetation and with a big, blue, Block-M flag at the top. Here you'll find some quiet study areas and the Ivy-League type Michigan club and ballroom. Downstairs has some fast food stops (Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Panda Express) as well as a Barnes and Noble Bookstore. There's also a computer lab around the corner—but you probably won't be able to log in without a student ID.

Right next to the Union is an interactive sculpture known as the Cube, which is both powered by hydralics and the human touch. It's essentially a giant cube that stands on one of the corners that people can spin by pushing it. It's great fun for kids. (Don't worry, it's not covered in Michigan stuff (at all), so if you're a rival and have kids, they can enjoy it too.) Across the street from the Cube is the Student Activities Building, where you can check out where visiting prospective students check-in and start their campus tours.

There's no rule of where you have to start. (You don't have to start with the Union, for instance.) It really all depends on how much time there is before kickoff. There are two unofficial "centers" of campus: Bell Tower and the Diag. Bell Tower is the large clocktower that you can see from almost anywhere on campus. It usually provides a good point of direction. Next to Bell Tower is this crazy-looking sculpture fountain. Don't ask me to describe it because I can't. The fountain is something of a tradition at Michigan: new students take off their shoes and stand in it, face the Library, and sing The Victors.

The Diag is directly in front of the Library. It is sometimes considered the "more official" center of campus because students are more likely to walk around the Diag than they are to explore Bell Tower. There's a superstition concerning the Diag: if you step on it, you will fail your first blue-book exam. (Western Michigan University has a similar superstition with the metal seal between their library and computer lab, only if you step on it you fail your entire first semester. Harsh? Yeah.)

There are actually two main libraries by the Diag. The first is the more noticeable one: the Hatcher Graduate Library ("the Grad Library"). It has large columns and the inside makes you feel like Michigan is an Ivy League school, especially in the reading area where the ceiling is crazy high up. The second library is the Shapiro Undergraduate Library ("The Undergrad" or "the Ugly"). It's more of a media-based library with a built-in café that is popular with students.

There's far more to the campus, but this post is already getting really, really long, so I can't go much more into it. If you're interested in checking out more of the campus, click here.

The Weather

Obviously, this is Michigan, so the weather will be unpredictable. If you've been to outdoor college football games before, you should already know that you can dress light early in the season when it's warm, and you can dress heavy late in the season when it's cold. In Ann Arbor, even when it's September, it can get very cold or very hot. In 2010, the outside temperature for the game against Michigan State (October) reached the mid-90s. You can find weather predictions here.

Concerning the rain, you might be surprised to know that Michigan doesn't allow umbrellas inside the stadium. The reason: U-M's security has really cracked down over the years, and they know how intense it can get. An umbrella can sometimes be used as a weapon. If it is supposed to rain, you're far better off wearing a poncho or something with a hood. The stadium has ponchos for sale inside if you realize you're unprepared, but don't think you can slip in an umbrella.

The stadium also forbids bags of any kind (backpacks, purses, etc.) because of the ability to conceal weapons. You're better off traveling light. They do allow you to bring seat cushions, but no flags or signs. If you're a parent, and it becomes a problem because you have an infant who needs their diaper bag (for supplies, etc.), then you might want to consider having the newborn sit this one out. Diaper bags are not allowed for the same reason.

Post-Game Plan

Win or lose, Michigan fans and Ann Arbor residents will be polite and respectful—even if you're from Ohio State. However, there's no accounting for what's going to happen in bars when someone gets a little too hammered. If you're itching for a place to grab a meal or grab a drink after the game, downtown is actually the least feasible place to do that. The streets will be packed, and almost all of the restaurants will be filled.

Stadium Blvd., too, will be a difficult terrain. Most people will be aiming for Zingerman's, since everybody and their brother recommends it. Others will be packed on Division street trying to get into Blimpy Burger. Either place is going to be stuffed, and unless you're a V.I.P., the wait time is going to be long.

Briarwood Mall is big enough to handle a multitude of cars, so you could try there. (Can it hold 110,000 fans? I doubt it.) There are plenty of restaurants in the mall available, as a lot of people prefer to check out the places that everybody else is going.

Even if you're on a schedule, I'd say it's a bad idea to try to rush out of Ann Arbor. US-23, the highway that leads out of the city, will be bumper-to-bumper in the hours following the game. Your best bet is to take some time, relax, walk around (if you've parked), and wait it out. A lot of people go tailgating all night, so if that's your thing you could try that.

If you've got the time, you can head down South University street and grab a drink at the Brown Jug. It's one of the more popular places to drink, though not as popular as Ashley's, so availability is going to be a risk. If you can squeeze in, it's worth it.

Whatever your decision, your best plan is to take your time when leaving and anticipate that it's going to take a while. Michigan football is really big and has a lot of fans who pack the streets. Don't rush out and, if possible, try to avoid the highways or at least wait for the traffic to die down.

I hope that's been helpful and that you have a good time in Ann Arbor. Enjoy the game!


  1. Is this serious? Have you ever been to Ashley's, Blimpys, or Zingerman's? Your comments on all of these Ann Arbor icons renders this article useless.

  2. This is a game-day oriented guide for visitors, not locals. It is generally unrealistic for someone who does not know the area to expect to find a seat at those three restaurants on the same day as a football game, because they are so popular and frequented. Obviously, if they visit Ann Arbor at any other time besides football season, finding a spot in those restaurants will be easier.