5 Historic Towns to Explore Near Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor is well-known for its delicious food and lively entertainment scene, but beyond the bustling college town you’ll find a collection of small communities, each with a historic charm all their own. From festivals and public parks to motorsports and museums, these quaint communities are perfect for day trips and afternoon adventures.

A boy and two adults biking on a trail through a forest
DTE Energy Foundation Trail in Chelsea | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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1. Manchester – History to Discover

Manchester may just be one of the most charming historic towns in the Midwest - with a rich history, enchanting architecture, lovely parks, exciting outdoor recreational opportunities and family-friendly events. In Manchester, you’ll find a small town that’s passionate about - and fiercely protective of - its historical preservation. Founded in 1826, during the time John Quincy Adams served as President, Manchester has a  community-based culture that still runs deep today. Locals love to gather for annual canoe races, Fourth of July celebrations, community picnics, and the famous annual Manchester Chicken Broil - held for the first time in 1953 (the same year that Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, and the first color television became available for sale).
Manchester is a proud historic village, with architecture dating from the mid-1800s. If you’re a historic architecture enthusiast, you won’t want to miss the annual Christmas Home Tour held each December, when five gorgeous historic homes, beautified for the holidays, are available for tours, with proceeds from the tour benefiting the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Another historic building, the Manchester Blacksmith Shop, is home to the Riverfolk Music and Arts’ Music Series, which draws visitors from around the Midwest to experience exquisite live music paired with local food and beverage.

2. Chelsea – Simplicity with Sophistication

This picturesque community just west of Ann Arbor is a brilliant year-round escape, complete with renowned restaurants, award-winning theatre, and downtown shopping. Stroll along Main Street, admiring the outdoor public art sculptures and historical plaques throughout the town, which will introduce you to Chelsea’s rich history and culture. Be sure to stop in the local boutiques and galleries for some great shopping — Bumble’s Dry Goods features pieces from independent producers and artisans throughout the Midwest.

Enjoy a memorable performance at the Purple Rose Theatre, founded by actor Jeff Daniels, where world-class, American theatrical productions take place year-round. Evening performances begin at 8 p.m., making dinner at The Common Grill the perfect co-star. The Common Grill features inspired meals from the creative mind of owner and executive chef Craig Common, a James Beard ‘Best Chefs in America’ semi-finalist. For almost three decades, the restaurant has been earning critical praise from publications such as Gourmet and Bon Appetit. It was also heralded as one of Detroit’s top 10 restaurants by Zagat. Insider recommendation: enjoy dinner before the play, and then return to The Common Grill after the actors’ final bow for a nightcap, dessert, and conversation!

 3. Saline – A Taste of the Good Life

Saline’s motto, “Lightly Salted” is derived from its nearby natural salt springs - and Saline is a tasty town indeed. Salt Springs Brewery, an aptly-named brewpub in the downtown area, is known for its extensive list of craft beer options, delicious flatbread pizzas, and exquisite brunch. A few doors down, the Brecon Grille takes its name from Saline’s sister city of Brecon, Wales, and serves English-style lagers and ales, fish & chips, and the famous “Brecon Burger”.

Ranked as one of America’s “Best Places to Live” by CNN Money Magazine, Saline is a vibrant community with tons of small-town charm and a thriving downtown area. You’ll find Scottish Highland Games at the annual Celtic Festival, live music from locals at the Summer Music Series each year, and an Oktoberfest in autumn where beer, music and heritage is all center stage. If you’re an outdoors-lover you’ll enjoy Saline’s 12 neighborhood and community parks with green space, biking trails, boat launches, dog parks and more.

4. Milan – A Remarkable Renaissance

Milan has one of the most popular coffee shops in the area. The former “Morning Owl” was voted among the Top Five coffee shops in Washtenaw County by MLive readers. This coffee shop has put Milan on the map for people across Michigan with a fine selection of pastries, personable service, and ethically sourced coffee beans. Recently, this destination restaurant has rebranded itself as simply, “The Owl” - because now they serve both morning owls and night owls! With a new wine and beer list that features Michigan drinks from Black Star Farms, Short’s Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Company and more, you can enjoy “The Owl” from early morning to late evening.

Nearby, Mother Loaf Breads opened in 2015 and specializes in true sourdough bread, a feat difficult to perfect because of Michigan's ever-changing climate. The sourdough is all natural and the process to prepare it takes 2-3 days. Even if you don't like sourdough, they'll likely have a bread for you including brioche, chocolate-espresso rye and more.  
Michigan is known as the “Great Beer State” and ranks 5th in the nation for its communities’ number of breweries - and Milan is no exception. Original Gravity has been around for eight years and is a favorite among locals and tourists. Go there and get some great pub sandwiches and craft beer. Watch a sports game, play a video arcade game or board game, or just hang out with your friends. 

5. Dexter – Picturesque in Every Direction

Monet, Van Gogh, and O’Keeffe (just to name a few) found their deepest inspiration among rolling hills, calming streams, and vast meadows. Dexter is the perfect getaway for people who enjoy bringing art and nature together. Dexter may be best known for the annual Dexter Plein Air Festival. Hundreds of artists and spectators travel to Ann Arbor’s neighboring city to participate in the four-day-long challenge in which artists paint outdoors in the Dexter area. This well-loved event provides amazing exposure to artists from around the country, and the beautiful scenery of Dexter. The city's beautiful landscape is accompanied by a strong arts community, so if your creative spirit thrives in the great outdoors - plan a trip to Dexter.

Beautiful outdoor scenery is easy to find - for example, the 35-mile Border to Border Trail concludes on the gorgeous wooden bridge surrounded by trees, streams, and small critters! Visit the Dexter-Huron Metropark - a 122-acre natural beauty for kayaking, fishing, and picnicking options. Once you have enjoyed the sights and sounds of nature, explore the vibrant arts and culture scene throughout the city! Encore Musical Theatre is home to year-round entertainment by professional theatre artists. With a specific focus on musical theatre, you can enjoy everything from Mary Poppins to Sondheim to live music performances by local musicians and bands. Take something home with you from Dexter’s Artistica - a downtown shopping hot-spot completely stocked with the works by local artists. Everything from intricate wall-hangings to utilitarian homemade mittens, Artistica is a one-stop shop to support the local arts scene.