The Motor City renaissance shows no signs of letting up: artists, creatives, chefs and the like are bringing buzz to the city and ensuring there are things to do in Detroit for people of all stripes. They’re busy opening some of the country’s best coffee shops and setting up great bars and hip bohemian stores. And they’re bringing the streets to life with colorful art. But it’s not just the new that should excite visitors to Detroit. Want one of the best art museums in America? Yeah, Detroit’s got that. Some of the nation’s best pizza? Got that too. Then there’s Motown, Eastern market and the country’s oldest museum. Stuck for things to do in Detroit? You’re just not looking hard enough.
Best things to do in Detroit, Michigan
The Motown Historical Museum (2648 West Grand Blvd, 313-875-2264) might be no bigger than a small house, but it’s rammed to the rafters with musical memorabilia (don’t miss the Jackson Five’s psychedelic bell bottoms). In the 1960s, this was ‘Hitsville USA’, and today you can grab a microphone and cantillate to your heart’s content in the famous ‘Studio A,’ on the same spot where the likes of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder stood decades before, belting out their mega tunes.
Uncork your inner hipster
Originally settled by Irish immigrants, Detroit’s up-and-coming Corktown district was recently named as one of the 10 hippest communities in the world. Here, artists’ collectives and vintage stores cozy up next to cool coffee shops like Astro (2124 Michigan Ave, 313-808-0351) and cocktail bars like Bill Murray—f.k.a. Sugar House (2130 Michigan Ave, 313-962-0123), home to some of the finest mixologists in town. But the most famous Corktown venue of them all is the legendary Slows BBQ (2138 Michigan Ave, 313-962-9828), a Detroit staple justifiably renowned for its exquisite brisket and baby back ribs.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Brixton
Unfurling alongside the city’s spectacular waterfront, the RiverWalk (340 Atwater St, 313-566-8200) is a 5.5-mile promenade boasting outstanding views of the Detroit River beyond. During the summer months it offers a cooler place to exercise than the heat of the city, with locals flocking in their thousands to run, walk or cycle its picturesque course. There are plenty of way stations en route too—for eating, drinking and bike or kayak renting. For those visiting for the first time, there are also free RiverWalk tours given by the excellent Detroit Experience Factory (23 Monroe St, 313-962-4590).
For a truly surreal experience, head over to the Heidelberg Project (3600 Heidelberg St, 313-974-6894) to engage with local artist Tyree Guyton’s mind-bending outdoor installation. Made up of ‘found objects’ from across Detroit (think wooden clocks hanging from trees and steel car panels fanned out like giant, misshapen playing cards), Guyton’s enormous, colorful exhibit has been growing for 30 years now, and draws 275,000 visitors annually.
No trip to Detroit is complete without a visit to the Henry Ford (20900 Oakwood, Dearborn, MI, 313-982-6001), which remains the most popular attraction in Michigan. The sprawling indoor-outdoor complex in the suburb of Dearborn is split into three main sites: The Henry Ford Museumitself (showcasing Ford’s eclectic personal collection of historic memorabilia, including the limousine in which JFK was assassinated and the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat); Greenfield Village (a large selection of historic buildings, reconstructed in a “village” environment to showcase how Americans have lived since the founding of the country); and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour (an interactive, behind the scenes look at state-of-the-art car manufacturing, which still happens here today).
Fowl up in Hamtramck
Ever wondered what would happen if the sports of football and bowling had a lovechild? Well wonder no more, because Detroit is home to their hybrid offspring, Fowling. A fun bar game (which involves tossing a football at bowling pins), it’s best practiced with a round of beers at Fowling Warehouse (3901 Christopher St, Hamtramck, MI, 313-264-1288). Or, if you’re more serious about your ten pins, head straight to the stately Garden Bowl (4140 Woodward Ave, 313-833-9700), which opened in 1913 and remains America’s oldest active bowling alley.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/mjo59
A Saturday morning institution in these parts, Eastern Market (2934 Russell St, 313-833-9300) is a one-stop, six-block shop of foodie heaven. The largest historic market in the country, it covers an enormous 43 acres, selling pretty much every kind of food imaginable—as well as hosting the largest open-air flowerbed market in the U.S. It can get very busy—some 45,000 people come here every Saturday—so if you need a breather, head to the Russell Street Deli (2465 Russell St, 313-567-2900), where a delicious breakfast menu is served all day, including their famous fresh hotcakes with roasted pecans and maple syrup.
Justifiably renowned worldwide, the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave, 313-833-7900) houses an incredible permanent collection, including masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, Caravaggio, Brueghel and Van Gogh, among others. But the museum’s coup de grace is ‘Rivera Court’, an entire room of outstanding frescoes painted in situ by Mexican artist Diego Rivera during a visit in 1932 with his wife Frida Kahlo. Visit on a Friday evening, when the museum stays open until 10pm and Rivera Court hosts free concerts at 7pm and 8.30pm. And if that’s not enough for your artistic appetite, there’s also the outstanding Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Ave, 313-832-6622), housed in a former Albert Kahn auto dealership.
Roll through Detroit with a happy crew
The Slow Roll—Michigan’s largest weekly bike ride—has two outspoken aims: to showcase the beauty of Detroit, and to spread positivity. Each Monday evening more than 3,000 riders of all ages, abilities and fitness levels come together at a different meeting point in the city, to cycle a new route through its streets. The slow pace of the posse makes it suitable for everybody, and a safe way to grab a unique perspective on Motor City’s ever-accelerating renaissance.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Russ
Experience the real drama of Detroit
Detroit is home to the second-largest performance arts district in the United States (after Broadway), with many of its theaters housed in grand historic buildings. Standout venues include the lavish Fox Theatre (2211 Woodward Ave, 313-471-3200), a 5,000-seater former movie palace, and the breathtakingly renovated Detroit Opera House (1526 Broadway St, 313-237-7464). Comedy fans should check out the quirky, cabaret-style Century Theatre (333 Madison St, 313-963-9800), while lovers of musicals need look no further than the lively Fisher Theater (3011 W Grand Blvd, 313-872-1000).
Photograph: Courtesy Detroit CVB/Bill Bowen
The “point of origin” of Detroit’s coordinate system (seven miles north of here is Seven Mile Rd, eight miles north is Eight Mile Rd, and so on), Campus Martius Park (800 Woodward Ave, 313-962-0101) remains one of the city’s most important focal points. It’s also one of the best places to hang out for a chilled afternoon: in the summer for iced tea outside the Parisian-style Fountain Bistro (313-237-7778), or in the winter for a spin round the seasonal ice rink and a hot cup of cocoa. Look out for free movie screenings and concerts in the evenings, as well as the park’s resident fleet of food trucks—particularly Buffy’s Mexi-Casian Grill (313-399-8560), where the chicken chimichanga is a major favorite.
Buy Bohemian on Cass Corridor
Cass Corridor in Midtown is two miles of intriguing bohemia, including storefront artists’ spaces, old warehouses converted into art galleries, endearing boutiques and intimate low-cost restaurants and clubs. Here you can shop at the famous music store owned by Jack White of the White Stripes, Third Man Records (441 W Canfield St, 313-209-5205), as well as eclectic homeware boutiques like City Bird (460 W Canfield St, 313-831-9146) and Nest (460 W Canfield St, 313-831-9776). Not to mention the flagship Shinola store (441 W Canfield St, 313-285-2390), where the renowned bespoke watches and bicycles are produced and sold.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Vasenka
Like many major American cities, Detroit is currently undergoing a craft brewery revolution. And leading the delicious, frothy charge up here in Michigan is HopCat (4265 Woodward Ave, 313-769-8828). Swing by for a quick tipple from their 130-strong menu (top tips: ‘The Hump’ and ‘The Gigawatt’), or settle in for a thorough evening of “research,” fueled by HopCat’s ‘super mega crack’ French fries.
Ask a patron about Rose’s Fine Food (10551 E Jefferson Ave, 313-309-7947) and “charming” will almost certainly be one of the first words out of his or her mouth. This is hearty, traditional fare served the family way—and not just because it’s run by a pair of cousins, either. Lucy Carnaghi and Molly Mitchell, the two thirtysomething cousins in question, named the restaurant after their grandmother’s favorite flower, and the whole place feels wonderfully old-fashioned, from the antique china cups to the comfort food on the menu, which includes an extensive selection of pancakes and pastries.
The Detroit Historical Museum (5401 Woodward Ave, 313-833-7935) is home to a number of bite-size permanent exhibitions showcasing the city’s rich 300-year history, including America’s Motor City and Streets of Old Detroit. But it’s the ever-revolving temporary exhibits that keep the locals coming back to this quaint Midtown institution, particularly those focusing on the city’s rich artistic heritage, often unjustly left for dust by its automotive accomplishments.
Entering Cliff Bell’s (2030 Park Ave, 313-961-2543) is like walking onto the set of a Fred Astaire movie. The sultry Art Deco jazz club first opened its doors in 1935 and—after extensive renovations in 2005—is now one of the places to see and be seen in Detroit again. Grab a happy hour cocktail at the gorgeous mahogany bar (preferably a ‘Tiger’s Tail’ or ‘Mudlark’), or make a dinner reservation and enjoy the evening’s live jazz ensemble as you peruse the excellent menu (the spicy duck wings are our hot tip).
There’s a certain sense magic about John K. King Used & Rare Books (901 W Lafayette Blvd, 313-961-0622), a Detroit institution that’s home to one of the most fascinating book collections in the world. With over a million second-hand volumes in stock at any time, the four-story property is a treasure trove of rare stories, vintage volumes and forgotten tales. Lose yourself here for a couple of well-spent hours (which isn’t difficult: the collection remains completely un-computerized, making for a unique shopping experience as you plot a meandering path through its dusty aisles).
In 1908, the Ford Model T revolutionized transportation, swiftly becoming the most popular car on the planet. And it was conceived, developed and built right here in Detroit. Today, Henry Ford’s (meticulously restored) first factory, where the “car of the century” was born, is not-to-be-missed museum. The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant (461 Piquet St, 313-872-8759) is so full of classic vehicles it looks like a parking lot from 100 years ago. Be sure to visit the “secret experimental room,” where Ford invented the vehicle that made driving popular.
Sign up for one of the intriguing group classes at Salt & Cedar (2448 Riopelle St, 207-671-3462), a letterpress studio in the heart of the Eastern Market. Here, creative events range from farm-to-table dinners at one end of the spectrum to bookbinding workshops at the other. Not to mention wonderful blends of the two: their famous “Book & Bread” evenings involve guests enjoying a feast of locally grown ingredients before hand-sewing a journal.
One of Detroit’s truly historic icons, the Belle Isle Aquarium (900 Inselruhe Ave, Belle Isle State Park, MI, 313-331-7760) is the oldest public aquarium in the U.S. Opened in 1904, this ornate building features a single large gallery under an arched, green tile ceiling, to evoke a spookily-accurate underwater ambience. The aquarium (which also served as a speakeasy during Prohibition) is now run by volunteers and opens every Saturday and Sunday from 10am-4pm. If you’re heading over to Belle Isle—a 982-acre island park on the Detroit River—take time to check out the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (7000 Inselruhe Ave, 313-331-7760) too, a beautiful 13-acre botanical garden and greenhouse a short walk from the aquarium.