For a shot of midwinter energy, college towns are the answer. With almost 100 colleges and universities across the state, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, museums and arts venues that provide a perfect winter break. Here are five of our favorite towns.
University of Michigan
From the main campus, past the Nichols Arboretum to the north campus, each branch of this sprawling university spreads culture throughout town. The arts department brings world-class performers like Yo-Yo Ma and the National Theatre of Scotland. Sports fans follow the waves of maize and blue to Crisler Center for hoops action and Yost Ice Arena for raucous Wolverines games. Everybody eventually hits Zingerman’s Deli—founded by Michigan alums—for sandwiches even a president loves (Barack Obama called the Reuben “killer”). The trendy set seeks gifts in the historic Kerrytown neighborhood, with shops like Spice Merchants & Fustini’s Oils and Vinegars. And future Wolverines launch rockets and make a splash at the Hands-On Museum.
Western Michigan University
Academia shapes Kalamazoo in quirky ways, from the deep craft beer scene at Bell’s Brewery and nearly a dozen other brew pubs (students can pursue a first-in-the-nation sustainable brewing degree) to its aviation emphasis (one of the top majors at WMU). The Smithsonian Institute-affiliated ode-to-flight Air Zoo has more than 50 rare and historical aircraft, the Midwest’s first 4-D theater and rollicking rides. Out-of-this-world exploration continues at the planetarium in the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Continue your exploration on foot with a quick walk to Food Dance for comfort food. The farm-to-fork restaurant elevates simple dishes like mac and cheese with aged cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, smoked bacon and spinach.
The few blocks between this college and community do little to separate them. A 250-year-old windmill provides tangible evidence of the common Dutch heritage, but events unite everyone. Come Chirstmastime, Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, parades to the Holland Museum, which preserves 300 years of history two blocks from campus. In the heart of campus, the new Kruizenga Art Museum displays 1,000 pieces of art and Knickerbocker Theatre presents lectures, art flicks and musical productions. Two alumni have made an art of beer-making for the past 20 years, turning New Holland Brewing Company into a major player in the suds industry; it now distills spirits and tosses creative pizzas. Heated sidewalks and an ecofriendly hotel complement the modern college setting.
Michigan State University
East of the capital, this college town is home to nearly as many students as residents—about 49,000 of each. This means about half of the town empties out at winter break, resulting in plenty of elbowroom for exploring the town without the gowns. Take advantage of the quiet to contemplate contemporary and ancient art from around the world at the steely, spaceshiplike Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, designed by London-based radical architect Zaha Hadid. For complete contrast, visit Old Town’s Victorian buildings, housing art galleries, bars, eateries and alluring shops like Polka Dots Bead-a-full Boutique. And it’s almost guaranteed that during winter break you can have a barstool—unless the game is on (Go Spartans!)—at Crunchy’s Burgers and Beer. For 30 years, it’s been the place to go for the best burger in town and, now, with 27 beers on tap, one of East Lansing’s best microbrew lists.
Northern Michigan University
Lake effect snow cloaks hemlocks and pines for a picturesque scene that makes it easy to embrace winter on Lake Superior. The norm of 200-plus inches of snow annually means it’s the perfect spot for students and visitors to get an education in ice climbing, cross-country skiing and fat biking. In town, college staples of pizza, coffee and local brews are easy to find in the brownstones along Washington Street. And at Casa Calabria, the cheese-and-lobster ravioli has warmed generations of Northern Michigan students. After all, carb-loading is key if you plan to return to the trails tomorrow. For cerebral rather than physical stimulation, book tickets early to see the Fringe Festival (each year in February); the four plays performed, produced and directed by students at the university’s beloved Forest Roberts Theatre often sell out.