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Awesome Mitten’s Guide to the Best Things to Do in Ypsilanti Michigan

Often overlooked due to its proximity to the iconic college town of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti Michigan is one of Southeast Michigan’s best hidden gems.

With small-town heart and urban flair, Ypsilanti has found a way to cherish its past and preserve its history while allowing for growth and development along the way. Today, Ypsilanti Michigan is a vibrant city where people get a sense that they can be the most authentic version of themselves.

Ypsilanti, Michigan I photo credit: Nicholas J Klein / Shutterstock

Getting to Know Ypsi — A College Town With Cosmopolitan Charm

You are rarely going to hear anyone in Michigan referring to Ypsilanti by its full name. Most simply call this community Ypsi, and its unique nickname lends itself to the eclectic nature of this vibrant town.

Today, Ypsi is commonly associated with Eastern Michigan University, the public research university that is located in the heart of the city. However, it’s also home to a historic downtown area, a vibrant, retro-inspired food scene, and some of the most scenic parks in Southeast Michigan.

While much of Ypsi’s preserved history centers around its 20th-century buildings and industries, the community’s past dates back much further.

Before European settlers arrived, the land that became Ypsilanti was located along a vital Native American trail, where tribes would camp near the Huron River. In addition, it was a burial ground for many tribes, making the land in this area particularly sacred.

When settlers and fur traders first arrived in the area in the early 19th century, development was slow. Initially, there were a few simple trading posts located in the area, but the tribes were relatively undisturbed.

By the time the railroad from Detroit reached Ypsilanti in the mid-19th century, development increased exponentially, and soon, there was a burgeoning town.

Prominent settlers from the area settled on the name Ypsilanti for their new town, as an homage to a Greek general who fought battles for independence — just like the Americans who were trying to make their way in a new country.

Yes, it is the Home of That Water Tower

Of course, no one can manage to bring up Ypsi without also mentioning its iconic water tower.  The massive tower — which stretches more than 147 feet into the air and has an 85-foot-wide base — is perhaps most famous for its phallic shape.

Built in 1899, the tower has been making people of all ages stifle a few giggles for more than a century, and it’s even earned recognition from Cabinet Magazine as the world’s “Most Phallic Building.”

Given its prominent location at the highest point in the city, it’s not surprising that most locals rely on the water tower to give directions to help people navigate the city.

Depot Town-Ypsilanti
Depot Town | photo via michigan_travels

Amazing Outdoor Things to Do in Ypsilanti

With its prime location along the sparkling Huron River, there are always plenty of outdoor things to do in Ypsilanti Michigan. These are a few of our favorite outdoor activities in the city:

Soak Up the Sights and Sounds of Depot Town

Seeming like a city within a city, Depot Town is perhaps the most colorful and eclectic neighborhood in Ypsilanti. This historic district has become a hotbed of activity in recent years, thanks in large part to restoration efforts and the commitment of local business owners who have ushered in a new era in this community.

Located along East Cross Street in downtown Ypsilanti, Depot Town is instantly recognizable thanks to the brightly colored, Victorian-era buildings that line the street. In Depot Town, you will find some of the most unique boutiques in the region as well as some of the tastiest restaurants.

In addition, this historic district is home to the city’s collection of historic museums, including the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum and the Michigan Firehouse Museum.

Traverse the Border to Border Trail

Affectionately known as the B2B Trail, the Border to Border Trail is an extensive trail that spans 35 miles across Washtenaw County. In Ypsilanti, locals and visitors alike can enjoy an 11-mile stretch, which includes waterfront views of the Huron River and Ford Lake.

The trail is open to both hikers and bikers, and many find that it is one of the best ways to get from one place to another in the city.

The Ypsilanti corridor consists of both paved trail sections and road-separated pathways, and it connects trail users to prominent destinations in the city, including the Eastern Michigan University campus, historic Depot Town, and St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital. During the winter, the hospital section of the corridor is maintained.

Riverside Park-Ypsilanti
Riverside Park | photo via yaz44usa

Relax Along the Huron River at Riverside Park

Centrally located in the city, Riverside Park is considered by many to be the beating heart of Ypsilanti. This 16-acre park allows visitors to enjoy all that the Huron River has to offer, yet it also serves as a bridge between the city’s downtown area and historic Depot Town.

Most of the major events that take place in Ypsilanti throughout the year are hosted at Riverside Park, including the Heritage Festival, Michigan Summer Beer Festival, and ElvisFest.

When there aren’t festivals taking place on the park grounds, you can almost always find residents and visitors enjoying every inch of its 16 acres.

Some of the most popular activities to enjoy at Riverside Park include fly-fishing on the Huron River, paddling, picnicking, and fishing at the river’s edge. With picnic tables and a playground, it’s the perfect place to let the kids burn some energy on a spring or summer afternoon.

Meander Over to Frog Island Park

Famously connected to Riverside Park via an innovative three-pointed bridge, known to most as the “tridge,” Frog Island Park is a peaceful respite in the heart of the community.

With just a little more than five acres of space, Frog Island Park is an idyllic gathering space that is preferred by those who are searching for a little bit of peace and quiet. With an amphitheater, a soccer field, and a community garden, it’s a favorite spot among residents.

Rolling Hills County Park-Ypsilanti
Rolling Hills County Park | photo via rollinghillspark

Catch the Waves at Rolling Hills County Park

Rolling Hills County Park is operated and maintained by Washtenaw County, but it is considered to be one of the best outdoor attractions in Ypsi. Endless summer memories are made at Rolling Hills County Park each year, thanks in large part to the iconic Water Park that is located on the park grounds.

The Water Park is most well-known for its massive wave pool, which allows water lovers of all ages to enjoy catching the waves in inner tubes. In addition, the park has several water slides and a lazy river, making it a favorite destination among local families.

Even when it’s not warm enough or sunny enough to splash around in the Water Park, you will find things to do in Rolling Hills.

This year-round destination includes nature trails that wind through stately, mature oak trees as well as a fishing pond and playground area. During the winter months, you can go sledding and cross-country skiing on the hills in the park, and you even have the opportunity to warm up by the fire in the Lodge.

Embark on a Public Art Scavenger Hunt

Known for being a progressive and welcoming city, Ypsilanti Michigan has long been committed to preserving and promoting the arts.

It seems that around every corner, there are new public artworks to discover, and many people have found that it’s easy to spend the entire day away simply searching for these hidden treasures.

Some of the best places to find public art in Ypsilanti include:

  • The Ypsilanti District Library Park
  • The Downtown Area (Look for the murals!)

Perhaps some of the most surprising public art in the city is the new trend of “yarn bombing.” Keep an eye out — you never know when you are going to find woven tapestries in surprising places, such as on stop signs or streetlights.

These woven displays include colorful strands of yarn, adding a sense of brightness and intrigue to any day in Ypsi.

Yankee Air Museum In Belleville
Yankee Air Museum in Belleville | photo via Sara Grivas

Exciting Indoor Things to Do in Ypsilanti

With its endless commitment to the arts, culture, and history, Ypsilanti offers a surprising number of indoor attractions for people of all ages and interests. These are a few of the best indoor things to do in Ypsilanti:

Soar to New Heights at the Yankee Air Museum

It may be known as Michigan’s premier aviation museum, but the Yankee Air Museum is more than just an interactive space where historic aircraft are on display. It’s an immersive experience, allowing visitors to touch, feel, and interact with the planes that are located there.

While exhibits rotate frequently at the museum, some of the most awe-inspiring exhibits that are currently on display include:

  • Women Answer the Call — This is a World War II exhibit that showcases the powerful role women played during the war effort when they went to work building much-needed aircraft, and it includes hands-on riveting stations.
  • World War I Exhibit — Featuring a rare, hand-constructed World War I-era aircraft, this exhibit is one of the most well-known at the museum.
  • The Tuskegee Exhibit — Telling the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, this exhibit includes genuine artifacts from the men who flew the Red Tails.
  • KC-135 Cockpit — This hands-on exhibit gives visitors of all ages the chance to sit in the cockpit and learn more about the controls that allow pilots to fly planes through the sky.

See the Last Hudson Ever Made at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum

Located adjacent to the last Hudson automobile sales and service shop, the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum pays tribute to the important role the automotive industry played in the growth and development of the community.

While the most famous car in its collection is the last Hudson vehicle ever manufactured, this museum also has dozens of other historic vehicles on display.

Though I’m not very knowledgeable about cars, I loved looking at the old vehicles, and the attention to detail it took to preserve them and the dealership that now serves as the museum. Though it only took 45 minutes for us to go through the museum, the $5 entry fee was well worth it!

Chad Cramblet, guest contributor
Black Stone-Ypsi
Black Stone | photo via ypsireal

Shop at Vibrant and Eclectic Shops in Ypsi

Most cities have at least a few local boutiques to check out, but few have the unique offerings that can be found in Ypsilanti’s historic downtown area.

If you are up for a day of shopping, be sure to visit these one-of-a-kind Ypsilanti stores:

Step Back in Time at the Michigan Firehouse Museum

Located in an original firehouse that was built in 1898, the Michigan Firehouse Museum is the largest of its kind in the state. Restored and redeveloped as a museum in 1998, this multi-level museum includes a variety of engaging exhibits that tell the story of firefighting in Michigan.

I loved walking through the displays and thinking about the days when firefighters were hauled to fires by horses and had to hand-pump water from ponds. Luckily we’ve come a long way since those times!

Chad Cramblet, guest contibutor

Visitors to the museum can see many incredible displays and artifacts, including fire engine steamers that required horses for transportation, antique fire trucks, historic firefighting equipment, and the country’s largest collection of fire truck bells.

Maiz Mexican Cantina-Ypsilanti
Maiz Mexican Cantina | photo via okoneats

Enjoy the Best Local Restaurants in Ypsilanti

If there is one word that describes the Ypsilanti food scene, it’s authentic. The city has long been known for its local restaurants, with some dating back more than 100 years.

Take The Sidetrack Bar & Grill, for example, which has been a mainstay in the city since 1850. Today, it’s a modern bar with a saloon-style atmosphere and railroad theme, and its most famous menu item is its handmade burgers.

Another deliciously authentic restaurant to try in Ypsilanti is Maiz Mexican Cantina, a Depot Town establishment that is known for its made-from-scratch Mexican cuisine.

Throughout Depot Town and downtown Ypsilanti, you will find a plethora of local restaurants that offer a distinct atmosphere and flavorful meals, but perhaps the most surprising trend in the city is its retro dining options. Appearing like relics from an era gone by, the retro restaurants in Ypsi allow locals and visitors alike to enjoy classic American fare from the mid-20th century.

The Chick Inn Drive-In, for instance, has been serving up burgers and fries in the city since 1953, and today, visitors come from near and far to grab one of their famous milkshakes — there are 16 flavors to try, after all!

Another must-visit retro dining spot in Ypsi is Bill’s Hot Dog Stand. This seasonal stand on Michigan Avenue keeps it simple — in fact, they won’t even have a menu to hand you. Your options are hot dogs, chili dogs, and loose burgers. And you can wash your meal down with a refreshing glass of homemade root beer — one of the tastiest surprises in Ypsilanti.

The Newton Of Ypsilanti
The Newton of Ypsilanti | photo via naroozpaints

Where to Stay in Ypsilanti

Ypsilanti has plenty of lodging options for visitors looking to spend more than a day in town. To truly absorb the spirit and heart of Ypsilanti, you will want to stay in a local hotel or bed and breakfast.

If you are traveling for business or hoping to stay in a larger hotel during your time in Ypsi, then you might want to consider Weber’s Boutique Hotel. Located nearby in Ann Arbor, this hotel offers the premium experience that you might expect from a luxury hotel brand, yet it also offers the personalized service visitors crave.

The Newton of Ypsilanti is also a great option right in the heart of the city. This historical house dates back to the 1800s and offers a touch of elegance in a prime location. Visitors can experience hospitality in its truest form with comfortable accommodations, fun amenities, and delicious cuisine, including a gourmet breakfast every weekend morning.

Ypsilanti Michigan FAQs

What is Ypsilanti best known for?

Ypsilanti is known for its historic charm and rugged grit. The community is proud of its ties to the aviation and automotive industries, and it is also happy to be the home of Eastern Michigan University.

Is Ypsilanti a good place for families to visit?

Yes, Ypsilanti is a family-friendly destination that offers plenty of outdoor things to do and indoor attractions to explore. Its beautiful parks, engaging museums, and retro-inspired restaurants make this a great place for a day trip with the kids.

Which university is located in Ypsilanti?

Ypsilanti is home to Eastern Michigan University, which is a public research university. Known to most students as EMU, this university was first founded in 1849 as the Michigan State Normal School.

See How Culture and Community Collide in the Eclectic Town of Ypsilanti

Whether you are planning a campus visit to Eastern Michigan University or you are simply hoping to see what Depot Town is all about, you won’t regret spending a leisurely day exploring every corner of Ypsilanti.

Now is the best time to begin planning your trip to Ypsilanti. Here, you will discover an unmatched sense of community and an incredibly inclusive culture, which allows every visitor to feel like a welcome addition to this town.

Thanks to Chad Cramblet for his contributions to this article.

One Comment

  1. Perhaps the nicest article about our town I have read in a long time, and all true! Thank you!
    Cheryl Farmer
    Former Mayor of Ypsilanti

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