The Ann Arbor Summer Festival is the best part of the summer in Ann Arbor.  Out of all the other events, the Art Fair, the outdoor plays, lunchtime concerts, this one takes the cake. The weather isn’t the scorching hot and heavy humidity of late July and there’s 21 days of outside entertainment – most of it free.

Ann Arbor Summer Festival LogoCredit: three weeks of festivities usually start in mid-June and go through early July, leaving just enough time for the locals to feel boredom sneak up on them before the Art Fair starts. The first festival was held in 1984, and from the beginning it has been a joint venture between the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan to celebrate art and bring vibrancy to the city.

While originally known for showcasing classical music and theater, the events scheduled now are a lot more broad and diverse, celebrating different genres as well as different cultures. There are over 100 events scheduled each year and more than 60,000 people of all ages come to have fun.

Traditionally, the Summer Festival has been divided up into two parts, “Top of the Park” which at times is used by the locals to refer to the festival as a whole, and the“Mainstage”.

Top of the Park

Located on Ingalls Mall, part of the University of Michigan’s campus next to the Burton Memorial Tower, this is the heart of the festival.  Every day there is something new going on.  Face painting, rock climbing, and a variety of interactive activities for the kids take over the day and as the evening settles in the stage rotates through bands performing for free as event goers settle into the chairs and grass with elephant ears and hot dogs.  All cart venders at the festival are serviced by local restaurants, and you can't go wrong with the fresh crepes by Rendezvous.

The real highlight of the festival though is the free movies, ranging from new releases to old Top of the Park Movie ScreenCredit: Jennifer S. Johnsonclassics.  At night, the town inflates a large screen to show the film, and it’s best to show up at least a half hour early to find a good spot to spread your blanket on and have the time to start in on your picnic dinner. A good bed rest pillow is also a great idea to bring, and an extra blanket isn’t a bad choice either.  It cools down at the night progresses. And don't forget the bug spray.  

Keep in mind too that the larger your party, the harder it will be to find a spot as the start time approaches.

What bands and movies are playing can be found on the festival’s event website, but also check to see if there are any events associated with a particular night’s movie.  Last year for the showing of the new Star Trek movie the festival encouraged people to arrive in costume and wear the geekist shirt they had.

On Friday and Saturday nights, instead of a movie, Ingalls Mall is transformed into a club scene once the bands are done playing.  You have to be 21 to enter the area, but the music’s loud enough were younger kids still up at 11pm can dance along to the beats outside of the designated area.

Dark Mondays are when Ingalls Mall is closed and there aren’t any Top of the Park events scheduled.  The area is still open to walk through, and that’s not to say there aren’t other Summer Festival events going on.


Mainstage events don’t actually take place at a main stage, but rather at a variety of the indoor performance centers at the University.  These events, unlike the outdoor happenings that occur at Top of the Park, are not free.  Instead they are big name dance troops, singers, and other performers.  This year, Steve Martin is scheduled to put on a show, but tickets have been sold out for awhile.  However, other events are still selling tickets, such as k.d. lang and Andrew Bird.

Other Events

Not all free events take place in Ingalls Mall, and not all that occur in the Mall are free.  While locals still include these activities under the label of “Top of the Park”, they can’t be found listed as such on the festival’s website, just to warn you.

Wind Down Wednesday is a yearly event that occurs every Wednesday during the festival.  It’s a wine tasting event in Ingalls Mall that offers the opportunity to sample wines from different countries around the world. Similarly, the music featured on Wednesdays is of an ethnic flavor.

Retreat is a series of free mind-body sessions on the lawn in front of the Power Center.  Each class teaches something new and subjects this year include Bollywood dancing, yoga, and Tai Chi. If you attend, make sure you wear something that you can move in.

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The Summer Festival is always a fun event, always a good time and always affordable. It’s always one of the most memorable events of the summer, and a sure reason to stay in the city for the summer.