I have to admit, I was a little leery of tackling this particular city for our Mitten Trip campaign. Not only had I never been to Saginaw, but hardly anyone could seem to come up with suggestions for me of things to do and see. People seem to shy away from Saginaw – not in a fearful way, but rather in a hushed “don’t bother” kind of manner.
I am here to tell you, though, after a weekend of genuine exploration and discovery in the heart of Michigan’s Great Bay region, that Saginaw is worth the trip. From the street art around every corner to the huge selection of unique bars and quirky antique shops, the small-town vibe sucks you in, making you feel at home almost immediately. Yes, the city has fallen on hard times lately (what Michigan city hasn’t?), and yes there are a decent number of boarded up shops and vacant buildings. But for all that, there are an equal number of businesses popping up and adding their distinctive charm to the mix. The whole scene flies under the radar, making the city open, accessible, and – the best part – cheap!
After dropping our bags off at the Ramada Inn on Davenport Ave. (simple and clean with really excellent service), my husband and I headed to the Red Eye Coffeehouse, a funky little coffee shop located in Old Town, to plan our weekend adventures. Red Eye has tasty coffee, a really great atmosphere (complete with tiny notes stuffed into the array of cracks in the old brick walls), and a friendly staff who offered us tons of suggestions for things to do.
Our first stop after fueling up was the Castle Museum, a stunningly beautiful building that served as a federal post office until 1979, when it was converted to a museum celebrating Saginaw’s history and culture, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With an elaborately detailed LEGO brick replica of the city, a beautiful turquoise wrought-iron spiral staircase from the original 1898 construction, a mix of easily palatable exhibits showcasing Saginaw’s unique history, and a passionate and cheerful staff, the Castle Museum is a must-see. Plus, it’s only $1 admission for adults, and $0.50 for kids! Can’t beat that!
After the Castle, we needed a different kind of fuel, so we made a beeline for Mac’s Bar in Old Town, one of the many places that make this part of the city worth more than just a passing glance. With a dark interior, real candles that were being lit by the bartender as we walked in, and old tunes (think Sinatra and Bobby Darin) perfectly contrasted by modern skeletal pop art, Mac’s has a great ambiance and a huge number of Michigan beers on tap – not to mention mouth-watering fried zucchini!
With our bellies full, we crossed the lazy, gleaming Saginaw River and headed out of Old Town and into downtown proper for “Friday Night Live” in Morley Park, which we’d heard about from the front desk clerk at the Ramada. This particular Friday happened to be “Caribbean Night,” so after giving a small donation to the volunteer at the gate, we wandered around the small park to the pinging of steel drums and the glorious smells of elephant ears and bacon wafting from the food trucks. Although Friday Night Live is seasonal, Morley Park is located right next to the Temple Theatre and across from the Dow Event Center, where visitors can check out any number of shows year-round. After a quick stop up the block at Bancroft Wine & Martini Bar on South Washington for some Caribbean-themed drinks to match the nearby festivities, we zipped back to Old Town for dinner at Jake’s Old City Grill, an upmarket steakhouse with a surprisingly casual feel. Jake’s has really delicious food – the orange creamsicle cheesecake stole the show! Then, it was back to our hotel where we parked ourselves at Rainmakers, the adjoining bar/restaurant, for one more brew and some bone-rattling beats from the local DJ while we organized our notes from the day and prepared for round two.
We started our second day with an early breakfast at Fuzzy’s Restaurant, a charismatic mom and pop diner with homemade food and baked goods, excellent coffee, and hand-dipped Mooney’s ice cream (a local favorite). My husband and I both went for the “famous cinnamon French toast,” which is made from glazed cinnamon bread, boasts an enormous star on the menu, and is described as Vice President Joe Biden’s favorite. Guys… it. was. amazing! It was too early to try the Mooney’s, but I have a feeling we’ll hit up Fuzzy’s the next time we’re in the area…
After breakfast it was back downtown to the Saginaw Farmer’s Market, a small but heartfelt operation with beautiful local produce and friendly vendors. We took advantage of the free samples and picked up a few goodies to bring back home. One of the few suggestions I received before our trip was the Morning Emporium Coffee House, so we headed there next to organize the rest of our day with some refreshing iced beverages. We made an impromptu decision to head north about 30 minutes to the Bay City State Recreation Area for a quick glimpse at Saginaw Bay before our next destination opened. Bay City is a great park with hiking trails, pavilions, a really neat wooden play structure, and a splash pad for the kids on hot summer days, and all you need to get in is a state recreation passport.
We headed straight to the Japanese Cultural Center when we got back to town and strolled through the (free) gardens before paying the $3 entry fee to have a traditional tea tasting and history lesson from the staff. I’m going to save more details for a later article, but for now I’ll just say make a point to stop here.
After a delicious sandwich at Fralia’s in Old Town, we hit up a few antique shops, each with their own unique specialty (estate sales, costumes, etc.), before taking a little breather with our drinks from Michigan’s Proper Soda Co. on the banks of the river near Ojibway Island. After catching our breath, we continued our mission of seeking out good craft beer. We went slightly out of our way to Stardust Lanes, a bowling alley with a great retro feel and a “Michigan Tap Room” with a huge selection of local brews. Finally, it was onward to Retro Rocks, another bar nestled among the many in Old Town. Friendly, chatty staff, tasty potstickers, and endless nostalgic music videos projected on a giant screen make this yet another place worth your time.
We got quite an early start on Friday and had a whirlwind couple of days, but we still wanted to wrap up our trip with a few more stops. We couldn’t resist a revisit of breakfast at Fuzzy’s, and from there headed down to Celebration Square to the Children’s Zoo (we’re kids at heart, okay?). Five dollars gets adults and children through the door to a handful of great exhibits and, on a Sunday morning, we almost felt like we had the place to ourselves! We really wanted to stop at Spatz’s Bakery, which is supposed to have great bread (and a grilled cheese sandwich to write home about), but alas, they are closed on Sundays. Plan ahead if Spatz’s is on your list! Stay in town a little longer than we did, and you’ll catch Sunday nights’ Lawn Chair Film Festival. Each weekend in the summer, movies are projected onto the side of one of Old Town’s beautiful buildings near the Red Eye Coffeehouse. We were pretty bummed to miss this, but we’ll be back!
We ran ourselves ragged trying to soak in as much of Saginaw as we possibly could and left the city – to our surprise – with a genuine affection for it. There is so much more to see and do than meets the eye, and we were honored to spend our Mitten Trip in such a fun place.