Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Ann Arbor, MI

  • Published 2022/11/10

Home to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor’s progressive economy stems from the school’s high employment rate.

Technology companies and tourism are also attributed to its economic status, attracting people to work and live in the city.

The city is the county seat of Washtenaw County in Michigan, with a population of 123,851 as of the 2020 census.

It’s also known as the location of the biggest football stadium in the U.S., The Big House, and the annual Art Fair in July, the nation’s largest juried art fair that features more than 1,000 artists.

It’s also popular for its beautiful tourist spots, including its breathtaking skyline and sunset, the Huron River, and more.

Here are the free things you can do in Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Browse through World-Renowned Art Pieces at the University of Michigan Museum of Art

Sculpture on the grounds of University of Michigan Museum of Art

Jim_Brown_Photography /

Also called U-M Art Museum (UMMA), the University of Michigan Museum of Art exhibits rotating masterpieces of world-renowned artists.

This includes the works of Pablo Picasso, Helen Frankenthaler, and many other contemporary artworks.

Founded in 1946, all the school’s art collections are available to the public without any admission fees.

Interior of the University of Michigan Museum of Art

Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The museum is in the Alumni Memorial Hall; it expanded in 2009 by adding the Maxine, Stuart Frankel, and Frankel Family Wing.

It hosts yearly exhibitions and has many art collections, including African, Asian, and Western art, photography, and decorative arts.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art is located inside the University of Michigan campus on South State Street.

Asian art collection in the University of Michigan Museum of Art

Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Admire the Gorgeous Gardens at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Flora at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Rachel Wickremasinghe /

The University of Michigan offers another jewel called Matthaei Botanical Gardens, which has more than 10 beautiful gardens.

The outdoor gardens feature bonsai, native plants, and perennials from different parts of the world.

It has a Gaffield Children’s Garden, natural areas, trails, and conservatories representing plants from different regions worldwide.

Succulents at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Wiki-arctangent, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Matthaei Botanical Gardens was named after Frederick C. Matthaei Sr., a Michigan regent.

He and his wife donated most of the property, which is a part of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum organization.

You can find it on North Dixboro Road.

Enjoy Gorgeous Sunset Views at Gallup Park

The waters of Gallup Park

Shu-Hung Liu /

While there are many areas in Ann Arbor to enjoy breathtaking views of the sunset, Gallup Park on Fuller Road is one of the best spots to do it.

There are benches by the water where you can spend your late afternoon waiting for the sun to kiss the dusk.

Sit and relax on the bench while watching people wandering around, kayaking, canoeing, row boating, paddle boating, or fishing.

If you choose to do kayaking, there is no fee if you have your own kayak or canoe; otherwise, you’ll have to pay extra.

The grounds of Gallup Park

Fsendek /

There are also walking or biking trails to get closer to nature and see some wildlife.

Experience the gorgeous Ann Arbor sunset at the park and see how it beams in the water!

Gallup Park got its name from Eli Gallup, a long-time parks superintendent who purchased the land in 1955.

Wooden bench at Gallup Park

Fsendek /

Wander through the African-American Historical Sites

In the early days, many sites were built in the district in the 1800s that African-American entrepreneurs owned.

These century-old African-American Historical Sites are still standing to this date; however, several have seen a few changes in the thriving Ann Arbor district over the years.

There are about 20 historical buildings throughout the district, including barber shops, beauty salons, restaurants, churches, and many more.

The African-American Historical Sites are located in the district on Ann Street, Beakes Streets, Depot Street, and others.

Visit the Historic St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

Exterior of the Historic St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The historic St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is the oldest functional building in Ann Arbor.

It received a Michigan Historical Marker after it was originally built in 1838, 11 years after the parish’s inception in 1827.

The church has undergone several changes, such as the addition of the Palmer Tower and the Parish Hall.

It also underwent a major renovation in 2008, including a new slate roof and refurbished stained glass windows.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is located on North Division Street.

See Wildlife at Leslie Science and Nature Center

Bottlebrush buckeye plant at Leslie Science and Nature Center

Lance E Sloan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing beats getting in tune with nature and wildlife!

At Leslie Science and Nature Center, you can discover and explore nature’s beauty.

Wander through the beautiful grounds and hike up the trails and a raptor enclosure where you can see and learn about raptors and their natural history.

Get closer to the birds of prey, explore the center’s natural areas like the Black Pond Woods, or let the kids play at the Natural Playscape.

The playscape allows kids to play with mud, sand, water, hills, boulders, and plants.

Leslie Science and Nature Center is on 50 acres of woods and prairies on Traver Road.

Get Up Close with the Historic Nickels Arcade

Exterior of Nickels Arcade

CiEll /

Constructed in 1918, the historic Nickels Arcade is a 261-foot-long covered shopping gallery in the Ann Arbor district.

The mosaic-tiled corridor features a few of the city’s oldest retail shops, including Van Boven Shoes and Caravan Gift Shop.

The architecture is decorated with buff-colored terra cotta, metal-framed wire-glass panels, and red tile floors with black borders.

Interior of Nickels Arcade

Wichai Cheva Photography /

John H. Nickels owned the arcade until his death in 1934, and his children, James and Nora, stepped in.

In 1987, the historic Nickels Arcade was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

You can find it on South State Street.

See the Spectacular Murals and Artworks at Ann Arbor Art Center

At Ann Arbor Art Center, you’ll see spectacular works of art by local and regional artists on rotation.

You can also take a mural walk to get see masterpieces on about 20 building walls in downtown Ann Arbor.

The A2AC Murals and A2AC Alleys are free for all, made possible through A2AC memberships.

Ann Arbor Art Center is on West Liberty Street.

Celebrate with the Locals at Ann Arbor Summer Festival

Musical performance during Ann Arbor Summer Festival

Susan Montgomery /

If you’re visiting Ann Arbor in June, join the locals and tourists in celebrating Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

Eugene Power founded it in 1984; the three-week festival features performing arts and a contemporary circus.

Locals and tourists can enjoy admission-free concerts, open-air spectacles, movies, art exhibits, and more.

Food tents at Ann Arbor Summer Festival

Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The festival has featured many prominent artists like Johnny Cash, Michael Franti, and Ingrid Michaelson.

Ann Arbor Summer Festival draws more than 80,000 visitors annually, enhancing community spirit and unity.

Take the Kids to Ann Arbor District Libraries

Exterior of Ann Arbor District Library

Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Traveling with kids should never be a pain, especially since Ann Arbor District Libraries have something for the young ones!

Your children will enjoy weekly storytime at the libraries and other kids’ crafts where they can participate.

The grown-ups can also join the fun in many workshops and game nights that the libraries offer to everyone.

You can find many inspiring collections and recreational resources at the libraries, so don’t miss a chance to visit.

Ann Arbor District Libraries are located downtown in Pittsfield and Traverwood.

Explore the Wonders of the Huron River

The waters of Huron River

Sarah Byers /

Winding through the beautiful city of Ann Arbor, the Huron River offers relaxing views you can enjoy with friends and family.

The 130-mile-long river is home to different parks and magical trails.

If you want some water fun, go to a park where you can launch your own kayak, canoe, or boat for free.

A bridge over Huron River

Sarah Byers /

You can also drop your fishing line to catch some dinner!

Otherwise, biking, hiking, or taking scenic walks along the banks of the Huron River is enough of a memorable and magical experience.

Huron River Watershed Council maintains and protects The Huron River.

Boardwalk trail at Huron River

Famous Roger Sheldon /

Get around the Border-To-Border Trail

Border-To-Border Trail offers an exciting activity that links you to neighboring places.

There are more than 10 segments that connect you from Ann Arbor to the townships of Dexter, Scio, and Ypsilanti, along the beautiful Huron River.

There are parks, scenic paths, and other tourist attractions you’ll discover if you bike or hike around.

If you choose to stay within the border, Ann Arbor has a lot of exciting outdoor attractions to offer if you’re seeking adventure.

Paved trails within the confines of each corridor are safe enough to hike or stroll, even with young children.

Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission maintains the 35-mile Border-To-Border Trail.

Roam around the Charming Downtown Districts

Buildings along State Street

Hanson L /

Outdoor exploration is endless in Ann Arbor, especially when the charming downtown districts are involved.

Downtown has four compelling districts: the historic Kerrytown Market, Main Street District, State Street, and South University.

These vibrant downtown districts are home to quaint shops, cocktail bars, music venues, restaurants, theaters, and eclectic college town spots.

Daytime view of Kerrytown Market

Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You can also find art galleries and other outstanding historical spots.

These districts are walkable, which is more fun if you’re seeking and discovering new things in Ann Arbor.

Attend the Ann Arbor Art Fair

People at the Ann Arbor Art Fair

Susan Montgomery /

The Ann Arbor Art Fair is the largest juried festival in the U.S., which attracts almost 500,000 visitors in a three-day event.

The festival consists of three independently juried art fairs: Street Art Fair, The Original, State Street Art Fair, and Summer Art Fair.

Art pieces for sale at the Ann Arbor Art Fair

Susan Montgomery /

Almost 1,000 musicians and artists are invited to this annual event celebrated in July.

Catch free shows, art exhibits, and other fun activities with your friends and loved ones!

People shopping at the Ann Arbor Art Fair

Susan Montgomery /

Find the Magical Urban Fairy Doors

A bright red Urban Fairy Door

Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Among the most visited and talk-of-the-town attractions in Ann Arbor that have drawn many tourists to the city are the Urban Fairy Doors.

What’s more fun and magical than finding these mystic doors popping up in many commercial establishments in the city?

The first fairy door in Ann Arbor was spotted in 2005 at Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea on West Washington Street, with light and a mini coffee table with mugs.

Today, you can find many fairy doors in the city, including Ann Arbor District Library, The Ark, Found, and The Michigan Theater.

An Urban Fairy Door at a gallery

Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These Urban Fairy Doors are attributed to and inspired by fairyologist Jonathan Wright, an Ann Arbor native.

Wright considers his 100+ years old home a fairytale house where his children discovered many tiny unknown doors.

Join the fun and whimsical tours and check out the Urban Fairy Doors!

Final Thoughts

Ann Arbor, Michigan, is not only a historical city but also a flourishing community with rich culture and arts.

As they say, nothing beats the magic in the Midwest!

Try these free things to do in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on your vacation!

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