A Tale of Two and a Half Cities: Lansing, East Lansing and MSU #MittenTrip

A Tale of Two and a Half Cities: Lansing, East Lansing and MSU #MittenTrip

Lansing isn’t your typical tourist destination.

In fact, when I asked several friends from the area (and myself, I’ll admit) what the coolest, best, most exciting, can’t-miss thing to do in Lansing is… we all shrugged.

But here’s the best thing about that, and the reason you shouldn’t count out the capital city: Lansing knows this. And Lansing isn’t about to drastically change who it is just to draw in a few more tourism dollars each year. Instead, Lansing will always work a little bit harder to make sure everyone feels welcome, everyone finds something to do that they can enjoy, and everyone with a great idea gets a chance to make a dream a reality.

So, without the pressure of having to give preference to one tourist spot, one developer, one neighborhood, one infrastructure, etc., Lansing is free to support dozens or perhaps even hundreds of hidden gems. And that makes Lansing much more than just a rest stop between Metro Detroit and Lake Michigan; it makes Lansing itself a hidden gem.

The Michigan State Capitol can be seen on the Lansing skyline from Michigan Avenue. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten
The Michigan State Capitol can be seen on the Lansing skyline from Michigan Avenue. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Friday: Lansing

With the previous thoughts in mind, I wanted to start my Mitten Trip at one of my favorite holes in the wall, Mac’s Bar. As a music writer, I have been to my share of dive bars across the region, and Mac’s Bar is still my favorite for local music with exactly the type of charm every dive bar should aspire to maintain. It’s also directly next door to Theio’s Restaurant, where you can (as I did) escape a hot and crowded show to get a delicious breakfast, available 24 hours a day.

I made my way westward down Michigan Avenue, the capitol building growing larger on the horizon, for more live music. The Green Door, now known as the place The Voice contestant Joshua Davis got his start, hosts jazz, blues, cover bands or comedy acts almost every night. I stopped in for a minute before moving on to Stober’s Bar and then Moriarty’s Pub for a blues band that wowed the small but grateful audience. My toes were tapping as I reviewed my notes for the upcoming days, and then I made my way back to the car and up to the beautiful new Hyatt Place hotel behind NCG Cinema in Eastwood Towne Center.

Open since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Stober's lays claim to being the oldest bar in Lansing. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten
Open since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Stober’s lays claim to being the oldest bar in Lansing. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Saturday: Lansing, cont.

Day two started a few buildings away from where the previous night ended, with a decadent breakfast at Soup Spoon Café. I continued my trek toward the middle of downtown with a stop at the Lansing City Market for some fresh fruit from one vendor, and it took some serious willpower not to buy at least a dozen various flavors of jerky from another vendor. The Historical Society of Greater Lansing was leading a walking tour, and I crossed the Grand River to make a loop around the capitol. I passed two separate festivals (Lansing is known as a city of festivals), several government offices (including our friends at Pure Michigan), and Lansing Community College.

If I had utilized the Capital Community Bike Share, I could have ridden along the Lansing River Trail to my next destination, Potter Park Zoo. Instead, a short drive took me southward to the sprawling park and picnic grounds near the banks of the Red Cedar River. Unfortunately several of the animals were inside hiding from the hot sun, but some either didn’t mind or had adjoining indoor enclosures where they could also be seen.

Another short drive, this time north past downtown, took me to Old Town for some window shopping. Preuss Pets, Old Town General Store, and The Cosmos pizzeria caught my eye, but it was the smells of MEAT BBQ and Cravings Popcorn that got me to stop for some food. After trying several popcorn flavors and combinations, I grabbed some Traditional Caramel to munch on and got back in the car.

Traveling from one end of Lake Lansing Road to the other as the temps passed the mid-80s, I parked on the shore of Lake Lansing for a quick dip to cool off. The sand between my toes was a welcome feeling, and I walked just outside the park gates to get a hot lunch and cold beer on the patio at Blue Gill Grill. There wasn’t time for much else though, as I had to get back to the hotel to shower and change for the upcoming evening.

Lake Lansing can provide all the enjoyment of a day at the beach without a two-hour trip to the coast. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten
Lake Lansing can provide all the enjoyment of a day at the beach without a two-hour trip to the coast. Photo by Joel Heckaman

I parked downtown for the last time as the sun started to sink lower in the sky and closer to the dome of the capitol, covered in scaffolding for some much-needed cleaning and restoration. A sea of matching red t-shirts – employees from a local company here for a work outing – surrounded me as I approached Cooley Law School Stadium (formerly Oldsmobile Park) to enjoy a Lansing Lugnuts baseball game. Everyone in the stands cheered and laughed along as the mascot (a purple dinosaur named Big Lug) and on-field emcee provided entertainment between every half-inning. The team fell behind early before making a late push, but it was not enough as they fell short by one run. No one was in a sour mood as the players left for the lockers rooms though, as a pyrotechnics crew appeared immediately to put on an impressive fireworks display from the outfield, something they do after every weekend game.

Directly across the street from the stadium turnstiles, under a smokestack capped by a giant lug nut-shaped façade, is the go-to bar for post-game gatherings, The Nuthouse. I played a game each of darts and Photo Hunt before, as I had been all weekend, heading farther up Michigan Avenue. Tin Can, Taps 25, The Loft, and the most recent addition, Duke’s Saloon, share a patio that is a prime location for relaxing outdoors with a drink and doing some people-watching. On the far edge of the building is The Big Deck, another patio but with a DJ and dancing. If you dislike clubs for being too hot and stuffy, this is a great alternative. I was tempted to bust a move or two, but I wanted to save my energy for all the adventures yet to come on day three.

Sunday: MSU and East Lansing

After what can only be described as a perfect cup of coffee from the incredibly knowledgeable staff at Strange Matter Coffee, this time I turned east on Michigan Avenue. I passed several of the past two days’ destinations before I crossed under US-127 and Frandor Shopping Center, into East Lansing and onto the Michigan State University campus.

Parking is free on Sundays, so I went right for the lot at the biggest, best known, and most centrally located landmark: Spartan Stadium. I know campus backward and forward, but for those of you who don’t, parking near a 130-foot tall, 5,300-square-foot video board is a good way to make sure you know which way to go to get back to your car.

I started my campus tour by continuing a tradition I first joined as a toddler, feeding the ducks on the banks of the Red Cedar River behind Hannah Administration Building. From there I continued north, into the heart of the original campus grounds and past the Museum, which was not yet open for the day. I found brief refuge from the high sun in the shadows beneath the pines and countless other trees surrounding the majestic Beaumont Tower, where I might have stopped for a picnic if there weren’t so many more places left to visit.

The Red Cedar River runs through the north half of MSU's main campus. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten
The Red Cedar River runs through the north half of MSU’s main campus. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Across West Circle Drive and past the looming façade of the Library, I snuck down a small staircase to one of MSU’s nestled treasures, the nationally recognized Beal Botanical Garden. I of course stopped to smell the roses, as well as many other aromatic flowers, and the quiet stillness of the grounds and freshness of the air were invigorating.

I re-crossed the river on Kalamazoo Street, using the bridge the Spartan Marching Band takes on its route from Adams Field, past the Spartan statue, and on to Spartan Stadium on game days, except I turned the opposite direction and headed toward Brody Hall for lunch.

Brody Neighborhood, once known for being run-down and over-crowded, is now one of the most sought-after residential areas of campus. One reason for this is Brody Square, the expansive and top-quality dining hall that sits in the middle of the complex. Renovations of the building and dining hall were completed in 2010, and the facility now features nine restaurant-style dining stations, including everything from stir fry and sushi to rotisserie chicken and cornbread, as well as vegan and vegetarian options.

Refueled and refreshed, I zig-zagged my way through all of the athletic facilities on the west side of campus. The soccer, softball, and baseball stadiums gave way to Jenison Field House and Demonstration Hall, followed by the Breslin Center and Munn Ice Arena. This put me back in the vicinity of Spartan Stadium, and I crossed Shaw Lane to peek at the football trophies displayed behind the windows of the Skandalaris Center. Around the corner of the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, the practice field is empty for now as fall is still several weeks away.

At the intersection of Shaw Lane and Farm Lane, I stepped out of the sun and into Anthony Hall for a treat at the renowned and revered Dairy Store. The line was long but moved quickly, and I all but drooled as I looked over the flavors named for each team in the Big Ten. A waffle cone of my favorite flavor, Buckeye Blitz, didn’t last long in the summer heat.

Outside the Abrams Planetarium, a faculty or staff member had set up a large Newtonian telescope and was showing kids a crescent Venus visible even in the daylight, as inside a long line of teenagers awaited the afternoon show inside the domed amphitheater. Visions of the universe at immense scale were still in my head as I continued past the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams—known as FRIB, a national nuclear science research facility currently under construction—and the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. Now thinking in the submicroscopic, I turned toward the south end of main campus to find some life-sized science in action.

Hidden from the street by the Plant and Soil Sciences Building, the Horticulture Gardens were as beautiful as ever to stroll through. For the first time in years, I was able to walk the grounds freely, as there always seems to be at least one wedding ceremony taking place in either a greenhouse or open plaza each time I’m there. Connected to the main gardens are the Michigan 4H Children’s Gardens, which feature easily recognized plants in fun themes, an outdoor theater, mazes, and play areas for kids of all ages.

With only the northeast corner of campus left to be explored, I made sure to pass the uniquely shaped Broad Art Museum, which you will recognize in the upcoming “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” movie. That ended my round-about tour of campus, as I crossed Grand River Avenue to enter downtown East Lansing.

The MSU Broad Art Museum was given its unique shape by famous architect Zaha Hadid. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten
The MSU Broad Art Museum was given its unique shape by famous architect Zaha Hadid. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Unfortunately most businesses were closed by the time I arrived on Sunday evening, but I still peeked through the windows of Flat, Black, and Circular record shop, Espresso Royale cafe, and Campus Corner spirit shop before stopping at The Peanut Barrel for a famed Long Island Iced Tea. After that, I continued past the large, colorful parking structure — locally known as “the hamster cage” — and window shopped The Record Lounge record shop, Student Book Store with its huge selection of MSU apparel, and Curious Book Shop’s rare finds and antique charm.

Farther down Grand River Avenue, I passed the eastern-most end of Michigan Avenue and arrived at Crunchy’s just after sunset. I took my time browsing the dozens of Michigan-made brews on their extensive beer menu and sampled a few (easy to afford when they’re half off on Sundays) as I munched from a bucket of pizza nuggets and reviewed my notes from the weekend.

For my last stop, I walked next door to the original location of Biggby (formerly Beaner’s) in what I still faintly remember being a Greyhound Bus station. It’s one of, if not the only, 24-hour Biggby, and that allows it to serve as both a reliable study spot and a sort of cultural gathering place for those who stay out until the wee hours of the morning. That was not me on this occasion, as I was plenty worn out from a successful Mitten Trip!

Special thanks to our sponsors for making our #MittenTrip to Lansing possible: VerizonShorts BrewingGreat Lakes ProudNew Holland Brewing, Proper Soda Company and High Five Threads

  • Katy

    Hey! Weren’t you the MSU Surplus Store Facebook Guy? (I’m pretty sure that was your official title.) I miss your posts. Glad you had a great time in Spartan Country!

    • Joel Heckaman

      I was! If Jabber Jaw weren’t retired in the Sustainability offices, he could have joined me on the trip 🙂

  • Margaret Clegg

    My husband has the most amazing story about feeding ducks along the red cedar river. It involves popcorn and a very determined water fowl. I’ll have to share it with you some time.