Academics, arts, archaeology, athletics--in the world of affordable vacations, Ann Arbor gets all A's
Stocked with heavy-hitting museums, an abundance of low-cost arts and seminar opportunities, and some of the most energetic sports fans in the country, Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a real college town's college town. A vacation there, amidst its professors and parkland, yields a festival of stimulation, and at student-level prices: Lodging is $46 a night for two, meals are priced for lean wallets, and lectures and museums can often be enjoyed for nothing at all. Ann Arbor-or A2, as its clever locals often call it-has only 114,000 residents, but about half of them are students, making the bustling University of Michigan a city unto itself. Eastern Michigan University, in adjacent Ypsilanti, also feeds the cultural life of Ann Arbor with an enrollment of more than 23,000.
The opening moments UM's bewilderingly extensive facilities are divided into two areas. Central Campus, the older, classically designed section where law, sciences, and the humanities hold sway, is across State Street from the galleries and charming small-town panache of Ann Arbor; the newer and markedly less hospitable North Campus, gleaming seat of the engineering, architecture, music, and art programs, is a seven-minute drive northeast. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., free UM-run buses shuttle every ten minutes between the two areas from well-marked stands on the main streets.
For the buzz on student-organized lectures and activities, head to the towering Michigan Union (530 S. State St.)-in 1960 JFK announced the creation of the Peace Corps on its steps. Inside is an info desk for the scuttlebutt on campus goings-on, and in the basement, you'll find a ticket office (734/763-8587) for events at seven major performance halls around town as well as at the campus's many smaller spaces. Grab a free Michigan Daily, the student paper that announces the latest seminars open to the public (one recent such mind-opener: a free afternoon lecture tantalizingly titled "Mommie Queerest: Joan Crawford and Gay Male Subjectivity"). On Thursdays, the Daily publishes an entertainment rundown for the coming week; the biggest events cost under $20 but most are much less. One recent week, appearances included Harry Belafonte, Dateline NBC's John Hockenberry, and hip comedians D.L. Hughley and Lewis Black.
A campus open to all
Because it's a tax-supported institution, you're technically allowed to audit classes, but so as not to be a nuisance, ask before you crash. You'll be welcome at big introductory lectures, but professors of specialized classes may deem your presence disruptive.
The main libraries (S. University Ave. at Tappan St.) have over three million volumes-the most in Michigan-and are open to everyone at any hour, though as a visitor you can't take anything out. Across South University Avenue, don't miss the granite-and-limestone Law Quadrangle, UM's glory, which with its Oxfordian echoes took a decade to build. Its crown jewel, the neo-Gothic Legal Research Building, is a temple to academia; its hushed Reading Room has 60-foot vaulted ceilings, cork floors, and an imposing row of stained-glass seals. Architectural guides are free at the information desk.
A host of university-run museums make for easy touring. The Museum of Art, in a Beaux Arts eye-catcher of a building at 525 South State Street ($5, 734/764-0395, umich.edu/~umma), boasts masterworks by artists you'd expect to see at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris: Whistler, Monet, and Picasso are all represented here, as is the Tiffany studio, which crafted a peacock mosaic later salvaged from a Manhattan mansion. Across State Street is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (free, 734/764-9304, lsa.umich.edu/kelsey), small but swimming with startling finds such as 1,800-year-old Egyptian dice and a piece of the Book of the Dead scratched on papyrus. The skeleton-rich Exhibit Museum of Natural History (1109 Gedes Ave., $5 suggested donation, 734/764-0478, exhibits.lsa.umich.edu) emphasizes Michigan wildlife and Native American culture and has a small planetarium ($3) presenting frequent shows.
On North Campus, the Gerald R. Ford Library (1000 Beal Ave., 734/741-2218) has a few exhibits in its lobby (like shots of studly young Gerry playing center for the Wolverines in the '30s), and by appointment, you can rove the trove of the Ford archives. (The actual Ford Museum is in the ex-president's hometown, Grand Rapids.) Maya Lin, who designed Washington, D.C.'s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, also made the 10,000-square-foot earth sculpture The Wave Field, a paean to engineer and humanitarian FranÂois-Xavier Bagnoud, who studied at UM (it's behind the building named for him). Or wend your way through the tune-filled corridors of the School of Music Building, where a collection of rare and unusual instruments (1809 French glass flute, Wurlitzer electrophone) is freely displayed. In the stairwells, check for announcements of the many free recitals by budding musicians and singers. For word of student theater costing $5Ð$10 a seat, peruse the posters at the Frieze Building at State and Washington Streets.
From September through April, the University Musical Society mounts a steady program of concerts, often for less than $20 a seat; recent appearances included the internationally celebrated Joshua Redman Quartet, Twyla Tharp's dance company, and Michael Tilson Thomas's San Francisco Symphony (734/764-2538, ums.org). Come summer, the city mounts an enormous free festival (information: 734/647-2278).
The Wolverines' exploits aren't merely popular-they're a religion. The city jams with 110,000 fans on football-game weekends, and getting a bed or a ticket is impossible then. But there are 24 other varsity sports, and tickets for some, like baseball and gymnastics, are as low as $4 (buy at 1000 S. State St., 734/764-0247).
Books and transportation Ann Arbor also supports a robust literary subculture. Borders, the book supermarket, has its flagship store at 612 East Liberty Street (734/668-7652) and attracts top-name authors for free readings. Nearby are some of the most extensive used-and-rare bookstores in America, worthy of hours of professorial browsing. The most surprising collections, at reasonable prices, are at Dawn Treader (514 E. Liberty St., 734/995-1008), David's Books (622 E. Liberty St., 734/665-8017), and Kaleidoscope (217 S. State St., 734/995-9887), a circus of pulp novels, toys, '40s magazines, and one-of-a-kind antique books.
It's best to have a car. Parking is tough, but the good hotels near campus are costly (you won't need a car if you stay at the Campus Inn-615 E. Huron St., 800/666-8693-but you'll pay $153Ð$170 a night). Because conferences book them solid, dorms are mostly unavailable in summer.
Digs and dines
Close to campus (but still a five-minute drive away) is the 64-room Lamp Post Inn (2424 E. Stadium Blvd., 734/971-8000, lamppostinn.com), easily your best option; clean motel rooms (some with kitchenette) go for $54 weekdays and $60 weekends, and there's a pool. Most budget lodging clusters near the freeways that frame town, ten minutes by car from campus. At State Street and I-94, Motel 6 (109 rooms, 3764 State St., 734/665-9900) offers the usual bed-and-boob-tube combo for $46 weekdays and $56 weekends. East of North Campus, near U.S. 23 and Plymouth Road, is a new 83-room Microtel (3610 Plymouth Road, 734/997-9100) with per-room rates of $52 (queen bed) to $72 (minisuite) seven days a week.
There are few cheap on-campus eateries; detestably, UM sold its student union space to empty-calorie chains such as Wendy's. Under the Law Library's Reading Room is a canteen serving the likes of grilled cheese and ham-and-cheese sandwiches for $1Ð$1.50. On North Campus, there's heartier fare at the Commons Cafe (in Pierpoint Commons); the menu recently included seafood fettuccine ($4.95).
Student-priced grub abounds, and you don't need our help to find it. But one popular joint worth a mention is Zingerman's (422 Detroit St., 734/663-3354, zingermans.com), just north of downtown, which some consider the best deli in the Midwest. At $10 a plate including a chubby pickle, it may also be the most expensive. Fortunately, colossal servings are standard-many of its 100-odd sandwiches weigh a pound and a half-so even ravenous couples can share an order, sustaining them for hours of touring.