Sooner or later, almost every place has its day in the sun—the time when the outside world learns what most of the locals have known and been nurturing for years.

Well, Ann Arbor, Mich., is slathering on the metaphorical sunscreen. Check out these accolades: “America’s Best/Greatest Main Streets” (Fodor’s Travel, Travel + Leisure), “Best Midwest Food Towns” (Midwest Living), “10 Coolest Cities in the Midwest” (MSN Travel), “Top 10 College Towns” (Livability.com) and “Most Walkable Cities” (Governing.com), among others.

Several aspects among those were speaking my language, so off I went to check it out for myself. What I found is that Ann Arbor is all that and much more.

EARLY HISTORY

Located about 40 miles from downtown Detroit, the original “Annarbour” was founded in 1824 by two early pioneers who derived the town’s name from a combination of their wives’ name (Ann and Mary Ann) and the word that defines a shady or leafy grove or alcove sheltered by trees, which were dotted all over the area. Eventually, the name was changed to Ann Arbor and the 50,000-plus trees lining the streets today have earned it the nickname “Tree Town.”

A boutique town spanning just over 28 square miles, the population hovers around 114,000 (close to 323,000 in the entire Washtenaw County), with students comprising 40,000 of those denizens at the University of Michigan. Despite its intimate size, Ann Arbor offers a great deal of big city sophistication, without the rat race ambiance.

Because of its location, Ann Arbor’s early history is inextricably tied to much of the history of the region, the state and the country. Way back in the day in 1837, Detroit became an important station along the Underground Railroad, with more than 5,000 ex-slaves passing through the city to freedom just across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Some of the history of this turbulent time also took place in the Ann Arbor area, and visitors today can learn more by embarking upon the “Journey to Freedom” tour offered by the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.

To get a good grasp of area history, visit the Washtenaw County Historical Society Museum. Situated in a historic home built in the 1830s, the museum possesses more than 7,500 artifacts relative to Washtenaw County through permanent and changing exhibits.

Other interesting sites and attractions in town include the Burton Memorial Tower and the Charles Baird Carillon. The tower, featuring an observation deck offering spectacular bird’s-eye views of Ann Arbor, is home to the University of Michigan School of Music classes, as well as the Charles Baird Carillon. Comprising of 55 bells weighing between 31 pounds and 12 tons, and consisting of at least two octaves of bells in a series and played from a keyboard, the Carillon is the third heaviest in the world.

Attractions suitable for the entire family within the county include both indoor and outdoor entities. Zap Zone Laser Tag is billed as “the most advanced laser game entertainment system in the world,” while the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum features 250 hands-on, interactive exhibits. The Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center delves into the natural animal habitats found in the Waterloo Recreation Area, which spans more than 20,000 acres and offers a wealth of year-round activities, including swimming, boating, ice and warm weather fishing, cross-country skiing, hiking and biking.

Speaking of al fresco adventures, there’s also the Leslie Science and Nature Center, with 50 acres of wild Michigan forest and fields and their respective creatures. The Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum is a split location entity that together encompasses 475 acres of trails, display gardens, several collections of historic and native plant habitats, a conservatory and more.

Golfers will find more than a dozen public golf courses within a 25-mile radius of the city, and car race fans will enjoy all of the action at the Michigan International Speedway. This is just the beginning of all the area has to offer.

HOMETOWN HEROES

Ann Arbor boasts numerous famous native sons, including actor Jeff Daniels, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, NFL coaches and brothers Jim and John Harbaugh, artist and author Iggy Pop, sportscaster Mike Tirico, founders of the now defunct Borders Bookstore chain Tom and Louis Borders, cartoonist Fred Gallagher, and rock and roll singer-songwriter Bob Seger.

Another is former President Gerald Ford. Part of the life and legacy of our 38th president is detailed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, one of the 13 institutions in the Presidential Library System and the only split library/archives (in Ann Arbor) and museum (30 miles away in Grand Rapids, where he was born and raised) among them. Here, visitors can begin to learn about his life as a football star at the University of Michigan, his service in the Navy, 13 terms in Congress, and two and a half year administration as president after Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon resigned their respective posts because of the Watergate scandal in 1974.

His local working office, artifacts and exhibits about Ford and his wife, Betty, along with millions of audiovisual materials and documents and a number of public programs are part of this international attraction, which has close to 12,000 visitors a year (and is free of charge).

GOING DOWNTOWN!

Downtown Ann Arbor is the heart and soul of the city, featuring a wide array of one-of-a-kind shops, independently owned bookstores, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants and specialty boutiques. One of my favorite aspects is that there are very few chain stores or restaurants, which really set the city apart as a unique gem, particularly for being so close to a major U.S. city.

The 11 or so block grid here is very walkable and pedestrian friendly. In fact, there is so much to see within this intimate area that once you get here and park, you can spend literally hours with no need to move your vehicle. And if staying at an accommodation outside of the downtown area, visitors can take advantage of the free shuttle offered by most of the hotels.

We’ve barely scratched the surface here and will have more in our next Ann Arbor adventure!

Lysa Allman is the publisher and editor of Amazing Escapades, offering “Adventures for the Mind, Bod and Belly” (www.amazingescapades.com). She can be reached at editor@amazingescapades.com.