It’s not very often that I visit somewhere that defies my expectations. Having seen a fair chunk of the world, I’ve gotten pretty good at guessing the vibe of a place long before I land. Beaches, cities, tiny towns – most often my presumptions are pretty spot on.
And then I went to Detroit.
If you believe the media, Detroit is one hot burning mess. The chances of getting shot are close to inevitable and there’s not a single building with its guts still intact. Okay, there’s a slow churning momentum of revival stories but they’re not at the top of the tree. To read those positive pieces, you have to wade through a tar pit of doomsday articles first.
Still, I went. I put my faith in the word of a few travel writers I trusted and I added Detroit sightseeing to my plans.
I’ll admit, I was anxious when I arrived in the city. I didn’t quite expect to be shot (even in a city with high crime stats, the chance of becoming part of that data is pretty low if you’re smart and stick to the right areas), but I did expect to see the destruction I’d read so much about.
And that’s how Detroit surprised me the most.
Yes, there were pockets where neglect was apparent but on the whole, the city looked no different to the other cities I’d traipsed through on this and previous trips to the USA – smart downtown Detroit sights and cute, creative hubs.
I didn’t go looking for the ugly sights of Detroit. I didn’t take an abandoned building tour of the city. I didn’t want to. I’ve seen enough of that bad PR online. And, generally, I prefer to see pretty things on my travels. So, I decided to focus on Detroit’s prettier parts so I can share with you a side of Detroit you’ve probably never seen either.
Related article: Is Detroit Safe? The Answer from Someone Who’s Been
Here’s my list of the best things to do in Detroit…
I stayed in Detroit for two days and three nights, arriving pretty late on a Sunday night. With two full days to explore, I spent day one on a self-guided Detroit walking tour of downtown. On the second day I visited the Henry Ford Museum – I was in Motor City, after all.
Here are the highlights of what to do in Detroit.
1. Check out mile zero – Detroit’s Point of Origin
Remember Eminem’s movie, 8 Mile, which was set in Detroit? Did you ever wonder what 8 Mile was a reference to? As well as being a multi-lane road that runs for several miles through Detroit, this infamous part of Detroit is located 8 miles from Detroit’s ‘centre’ or Point of Origin…which I guess you could call Mile-0.
The point of origin, which you can see on the pavement in downtown, was determined when the city was rebuilt after a raging fire in 1805.
Detroit travel tip: there really is no good reason for you to go searching for 8 mile. It’s long been a dividing line in the city between poorer and richer neighbourhoods and although there is work being done to clean up the area, the more destitute parts are still dangerous. Plus, on a more fundamental level, ogling and taking photographic delight in a city’s more difficult parts, where good, honest people own businesses and homes – just plain rude.
2. Step inside the Guardian Building
Why people don’t scream about the beauty in Detroit is beyond me. Stepping into the medley of Aztec and Art Deco designs inside the Guardian Building, which was built in 1929, I couldn’t fathom why people would go out of their way for photo ops of abandoned buildings when there is real exquisiteness slap bang in the centre of downtown.
And the Guardian Building’s exterior is pretty damn impressive, too.
3. See the Spirit of Detroit
There’s something particularly poignant about standing in front of this statue. Although it was dedicated in 1958 “to express the spirit of man through the deity and the family,” its importance seems just as relevant in 2015 where the spirit of Detroit continues to be tested and continues to hold strong.
Fun fact about Detroit: the statue is regularly dressed up – he’s worn a football jersey when the Detroit Red Wings made it into the playoffs and he’s even donned a tuxedo when the Three Tenors were in town.
4. See the Transcending Sculpture in Stand in Hart Plaza
Hart Plaza can hold over 40,000 people. Today, that makes it an ideal location for music festivals but once upon a time Martin Luther King came to the city and, at nearby Cabo Hall, gave the first iteration of his “I have a dream” speech (which he later delivered to worldwide acclaim in Washington DC).
The large steel arch in Hart Plaza, called Transcending, is an impressive 65 feet tall and is a tribute to Michigan’s contributions to labour movement. You can read more about the sculpture and its significance here.
5. Stroll along Detroit riverfront
Perhaps one of my favourite places in Detroit was the riverfront. With some dry weather, blue sky and views of Canada just across (picture below), I was happy to stroll up and down the riverfront long enough to catch a chill (I did visit in October). And with this paddle boat as a backdrop, I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t back in New Orleans.
6. Dine out in Detroit’s Greek Town
After spending a few weeks in Greece this summer, it was nice to see some of my favourite foods on the menu in Greektown. Saganaki, basically cheese that’s fried in a pan, is a real staple here but you’re not going to struggle to get your hands on some gyros either.
If you can make yourself wait, save Greektown until the evening when the bar, restaurant and even casino combo (if that’s your thing) will keep you entertained well into the night.
7. Tuck into a Coney Island hotdog (or two)
Speaking of food, and assuming you’ve decided to hold out until dinner for a trip to Greektown, a coney dog (a hotdog loaded with mustard, chilli and onions) is the dish to try in Detroit. (I presume we agree that food it allowed to be on a list of the top things to do in Detroit.)
Completely confusing if you’ve been to New York and Coney Island, all you need to know is that there is no connection between the hotdog and the fun fair island. What’s more important to know is that there are two rival Detroit restaurants to choose between for your hotdog – Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, owned by warring brothers.
Fortunately, they’ve done you the great service of opening up shop next door to each other (as all good rivals should) so pop your nose in and see which one might tickle your taste buds or, if you’re really dedicated, try one of each for the ultimate comparison.
I wasn’t able to chomp through two but word on the street is that Lafayette is the better place, so I ate there. Verdict: delicious, even if it was scornful to, and I therefore resisted, dolloping ketchup on top.
8. Spot some street art at Z Lot
You don’t need to traipse into derelict buildings in Detroit to find spectacular street art. Right in the centre of downtown is Z Lot where the alleyway or ‘Belt’ between two parts of the Z Garage showcases the work of local artists. If you’re looking for free things to do in Detroit, checking out the street art scene should be on your list.
9. Check out the Theatre District
Whether you’re there to see a show or a gig (Paul McCartney was playing while I was in town), or you’re just there to check out the divine Art Deco buildings, the Theatre District has some amazing photo potential.
10. Catch a baseball game at Comerica Park
Sport can be a tricky topic in a city when the local team isn’t doing so well, and that’s definitely the case in Detroit – raise the subject and the locals often reply with a shrug or resigned sigh. Nevertheless, Comerica Park, which is home of the Detroit Tigers, is right in downtown and no doubt a good place to catch a game if one happens to be playing while you’re in town.
11. Visit the Henry Ford Museum
A short (20ish minute) drive or Uber ride from downtown, you’ll find the Henry Ford Museum – and given Mr Ford bought so much business to Detroit, it would be a shame to visit the city and miss the museum.
Vast and packed with more automobile history than you can imagine, the museum is on the list of cool things to do in Detroit even if you’re not a petrol head (I’m certainly not). As well as being expansive – you could easily spend a day there if you visit the iMax and shopping village – the displays are beautifully put together making for a fully immersive and visually stimulating visit.
Highlights (although a bit morbid) include: the car JFK was in when he was shot, the chair Abraham Lincoln was in when he was shot and, Edison’s (apparent) last breath sealed in a tube!
Oh, there’s also a cutesy exhibition about roadside America and the birth of motels complete with a replica of a 1960s Holiday Inn…that looks strangely like a 2015 Holiday Inn minus the shag pile carpet. IMO.
Plus, if you’re really interested in motor history, you can also take a tour of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, Ford Motors second centre of automobile production and the home of the iconic Model T, in the Milwaukee Junction area of the city.
12. See where Motown was born at Hitsville U.S.A.
This is by far one of the top things to see in Detroit. Motown’s first headquarters was based in Detroit in the tiny house now known as Hitsville U.S.A. Previously a photography studio, it was turned into a recording studio and the creative foundations for Motown music were laid. Today, the building has been turned into a museum. You can check out the studio, learn about the history of Motown and see Michael Jackson’s famous black Fedora hat and white studded glove.
Sadly the museum was closed for renovations while I was in Detroit but is now open again.
Detroit travel tip: If you’re looking for free things to do in Detroit or prefer to do your Detroit sightseeing independently, check out this self-guided walking tour, which includes many of the places above. I did this walk. With a coffee break and lunch in between, this walk took me about half a day.
13. Take a local tour of Detroit
If you’d prefer to have a local show you around, there are plenty of Detroit tours to choose from. Here are a few to check out:
Downtown Detroit Walking Tour: let a local guide take you around the best things to do in downtown Detroit. You’ll see the most famous landmarks, take a ride on the elevated People Mover train and taste Detroit’s traditional Coney dog.
Detroit Architecture Tour: on this Detroit tour you’ll visit the best architectural landmarks and find out about the city’s rise, fall and renewal in this tour that takes you to the city’s most iconic and grandest buildings.
Detroit Segways: a Detroit tour that takes you sightseeing on two wheels. Taking a Segway one of the most fun things to do in Detroit – in fact, anywhere.
Detroit Hotels – Where To Stay in Detroit
Detroit Downtown Hotels
These Detroit hotels are perfectly situated for Greektown and the Theatre District:
Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney
The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit
Detroit Downtown Hotels close to the Riverfront
These Detroit hotels are in the downtown area but a bit closer to the riverfront.
Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Centre
Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverside
On a budget
Detroit has one hostel but the fact it had any hostel at all was inspiring. I stayed here and as well as well as having all the wonderful facilities of a hostel (kitchen and cool people to chat to), the hostel is run by a group of people who love Detroit and know their city inside out.
If you’re looking for the local scoop on the best restaurants in Detroit, which bar has Mystery Monday (everything costs a dollar and you get whatever comes out the fridge) and where the go/don’t go areas are, you’re in the best place to find out.
Tip: the hostel is based in Corktown (a place where I felt safe) and it was within walking distance of local shops and restaurants.
How to Get To Detroit
Detroit Airport: Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport is the main (only) Detroit airport. It’s located 20 miles (about a 30 minute drive) from Detroit Downtown. You can either hire a car at the airport or use Uber or Lyft to get around.
By train: Detroit train station is located less than 3 miles (10 minute drive) from Downtown and is part of the Amtrak network. You can reach Detroit on a direct line from Chicago.
Coming from Europe: Did you know you can now fly direct from London to Detroit with Virgin Atlantic?
Looking for a Guidebook for Detroit? Check out this one by Moon Guides
Detroit Restaurants and Bars To Try
If you’re worried about getting around Downtown at night, simply take a taxi or Uber.
There were far more Detroit restaurants to choose from than I expected and I was therefore disappointed I didn’t have more time to try more. As well as Greektown and Lafayette Coney Island, I also ate at Slow’s BBQ in Corktown (one of the best restaurants in Detroit according to my stomach) and had an impressive head-sized meat sandwich from Rubbed (since closed).
And then, last but not least, if you’re looking for things to do in Detroit at night, I’d highly recommend checking out the bar scene. The place that offered me the warmest welcome, the best memories and the biggest hangover during my time in Detroit, Nancy Whisky. Be sure to mention that you’re from out of town and it’s your first time in the bar – a free shot of whisky will be coming your way. And I accept zero responsibility for any sore head you suffer the next day.
Have you got any questions about the best things to do in Detroit? Let me know in the comments below.
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44 thoughts on “Things To Do In Detroit – Detroit’s Pretty Parts”
Albert Kahn’s Fisher Building is the most beautiful pre WWII building. Philip Johnson’s Alley Detroit Center is the most beautiful post WWII building. This is in the world not just Detroit.
I don’t think I saw those. For next time. Thanks 🙂
If you stayed near Lawton street you were definitely in the hood!!
I was very happy with where I stayed 🙂
I very much appreciate your article. I haven’t read that type of honesty hardly ever. Detroit is 142.9 SQUARE MILES. Not the largest, but HUGE! Therefore it is accommodating for any income. Whether you are rich or poor there’s a place for you. There’s more beautiful area’s than there are slum. You just have know how to navigate your way around. I will admit it’s NOT a playground, but if you know your way around, you know where you can be and where you should NOT be.
Having written that: the media of course only wants to display the unsavory aspects of Detroit. They don’t want you to use GOOGLE and surf across Detroit’s Palmer Park, Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Rosedale Park, North Rosedale Park, Indian Village, Mayfair Park subdivision, Russel Woods, Boston Edison District, The University District of Detroit, Wayne State University District, Bagley Area and many other beautiful areas I could name. Anyhow; Detroit is The State of Michigan’s cash cow! The state of Michigan collects more in revenue in property taxes, automobile registrations,
license plates, liquor licenses, lottery revenue and etc than ANY OTHER city in the state of Michigan and everybody knows it. And that includes the ultra rich city and the residents of Bloomfield Hills. That’s why the state of Michigan stepped in during the bankruptcy of 2009 because of the mismanagement of funds.
Hi Allan, thanks for your comment and insights. (I saw you tried to leave the comment a few times – I don’t auto publish because there have been some pretty rude and racist comments from others on here. It’s frustrating for the rest of us but that’s why I personally and manually read every comment before publishing. Sorry, I know it’s annoying.)
Hi Jo, you do not have to publish this reply. I really just wanted to say thank you very much for publishing my comment and for your excellent explain- ation as to why a post does not auto-matically post. I’m thinkin “like wow did I write something inappropriate” anyhow thank you once again….peace
Thank you for writing this article!
As stated in another comment, when you return for a visit be sure to visit Belle Isle Park, the Dequindre Cut and the Eastern Market.
So many more beautiful things to see. Thanks for the suggestions 🙂
I am a native Detroiter living in Charlotte now. I miss home. So, I visit for concerts and shows often which far exceed the entertainment in Charlotte. Aretha Franklin Ampitheater has great lineups every Summer to Fall.
I’ll have to check that out next time I got. Thanks!
When you wrote about the spirit of Detroit you had the wrong team the red wing are the hockey team not the football ball team that the lions
Ooops! I’m still trying to understand the rules of cricket. I have a long way to go on the sports front 🙂
Thanks fir coming to our great city. Hope to see you again!
Thanks, Brenda. I hope to be back some day soon 🙂
As a former resident of the city, it was refreshing to see my hometown again through someone else’s eyes. Thank you for your in-depth, and honest commentary.
Awww, happy to give you an outsider’s fresh insight. You have a lovely city there.
I was there and May 2021 I seen downtown Detroit and Belle Isle beautiful Island on the riverfront I stayed with a friend who lives there it amazed me that you still called the wine and spirit stores liquor stores there would love to visit again one day I stayed in the area around Lawton street when I was there and Detroit.
I’m a former Detroiter! I was a former EMT/ Paramedic for a long time! Unfortunately I left Detroit back in 1984…. long story , but after all these yrs. I still miss Detroit. Back then, Detroit had a lot of bad areas, but Detroit had its beauty as well. Loved Gross Pointe, Mt. Clemens, Gross Pointe Farms, Farmington Hills & so-forth. Use to go to White Castles all the time because I loved there burgers. Loved the Renaissance Center downtown there on Jefferson and Woodward Avenue. Detroit sure has changed after all these years. It’s a beautiful city. I miss it.
Thanks for your story, Ron. I miss Detroit too and I only had a short visit. Perhaps time for you to re-visit?
I have been a guide in Detroit for the last 6 years. I would love to show you around our beautiful city. Our website is citytourdetroit. com.
Hi Pat – thanks for the invite. I truly love your city. Next time I’m in Detroit, I’ll look you up 🙂
We moved to the Detroit area 3 years ago. At first I wasn’t thrilled, but now I really enjoy showing off the city. Places I love to take visitors are Eastern Market, the Detroit Historical Museum, Dequinder Cut, Rouge Factory Tour, African Bead Museum and Belle Isle. Also take advantage of all the free outdoor concerts, art exhibits and festivals around the city.
Hi Tanya, thanks for all these amazing tips!!!
I grew up near the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, now called MexicanTown. You must have dinner at Mexican Village, and visit St Anne, founded by Cadillac in 1701.
Motown museum on West Grand Blvd is where almost all the fabulous Motown hits were recorded. It’s open for wonderful tours.
Belle Isle has been the jewel of Detroit for over a century, located on the Detroit River a short distance from downtown. Lots to see and do.
So many wonderful restaurants and sites to enjoy.
Enjoy Detroit’s resurgence.
Thanks for sharing. I’m making a list for when I come back!!
Hello, I grew up in Detroit you should have toured some of the beautiful neighborhoods like Palmer Woods and Indian Village gorgeous homes. Also the DIA on Woodward Avenue. Glad to see you enjoyed our city it is coming together nicely!
Hi Cecilia, great suggestions for my next visit. Thanks, you have an amazing city 🙂
Fun fact: The Spirit of Detroit would be wearing a hockey jersey when the Red Wings were in the playoffs, not a football jersey.
I will take anybody’s knowledge of sport over my own – thanks for the fun fact 🙂
Love your upbeat article about Detroit!
I was born and raised in Detroit proper, where my dad was a police officer.
You paid wonderful homage to our city. I would only add the DIA and Campus Martius park. Many fantastic churches to see as well!
Thanks Christina. I love getting feedback from local people. Thanks also for the extra tips 🙂
I was born in Mt Clemens in 1943, and we moved to Utica, 20 mile road (Van Dyke Rd) when I was in my early teens. Later my mom and dad moved us to Traverse City, MI where we live to this day. It was my mom’s goal to keep us away from the blacks. I remember them taking us to Belle Isle as kids. I also remember Mom taking us to Eight mile Rd, and we then took a bus down to Detroit to shop at Hudson’s on the twelfth floor at Christmas time.
Then, the North Land Mall opened. I have many good memories from those years. Reading this article above tries to portray today’s downtown Detroit with an innocence that it does not possess today. It is not my intent to portray downtown Detroit as a dangerous place to live, but that is exactly what it it.
No matter what race you are, or where you live, I have to say “thank you” to my Mom and Dad for having the foresight to look out for our safety at the time. I do not want to discredit the Detroit area with my comments, but I am thankful for the protection that was provided to my brother and I over the years by our parents.
Hi William, I’m afraid it sounds like racism has been drilled into you from a very young age and has perpetuated in your adult life. What you perceive as protection was, in fact, further embedding of the racist beliefs your parents held about people of colour in Detroit. I don’t want to get into a racist debate here, especially as your comment seemed to come with the best intention (despite the racist bias). I would highly recommend reading ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’
It sounds like you have no current knowledge or experience regarding Detroit or the people who reside there. Your comments reveal how very little you know of Detroit.
I pity you for the racist upbringing you’ve had. I also pity you because it seems you’ve not educated yourself otherwise.
Sorry to say it’s such thinking which has lead to the atrophy of Michigan. Once a state to attract wealthy and development, thus sort of fear now repels prosperity, growth, affluence. In my 5 decades of life we’ve lost 5 congressmen. We created a college prep diploma (only option) and fund college which fight each other and what’s the result, college educated people leave (think Larry Page). We should lead the computer and pharmacy industries (research the history of such) and we do not. I love Traverse City (I spend a lot of time in Petoskey), but such can’t replace the economic development of a diverse and healthy city. Blacks didn’t destroy the city, white abandonment did, the difference between Detroit and other world class cities. Just compare state funding. Fear isn’t capitalism. Calls for gutting infrastructure development aren’t either. Fear is what generations to follow will scorn. It’s unAmerican when looking at the bravery of our founding fathers and the greatest generation which proceeded you. Fear is a travesty and a shame yours and my generation will bare. It’s why all the sad stories of Detroit get so much media coverage. Fear isn’t something my children’s generation tolerates. Good for them. Vive la Detroit. Now hold onto your boots as they take back the state from the cowards who think it’s theirs who hid out in rural enclaves expecting Detroit subsidies. There’s a price to pay for cowardice and it’s due.
Other great places to eat and drink
Detroit Institute of Bagels (especially the small batch Rosemary, Olive Oil and Salt bagel with local cream cheese)
Johnny Noodle King – awesome ramen bar with super adaptations
Selden Standard – trout in wood fired oven that is just amazing
The Sugar House – fab cocktails!
Cafe D’Mongos Speakeasy
Thanks for the extra tips!
Oh I loved reading this! Glad you had a wonderful time. I’m heading back to Detroit over Thanksgiving. Cheers!
Caroline, so glad you enjoyed it! Say hi to Detroit from me and have a great Thanksgiving.
I loved Detroit! It’s one of the best U.S. cities for outstanding architecture, and the DIA is one of the country’s best art museums. Brush Park and the ruined auto factories were fascinating. And the Inn on Ferry Street is a fantastic place to stay.
Darn, I missed a few spots there…so, I’ll just have to return! Thanks for the tips, Stephen.
Hart Plaza was opened in 1975, making it impossible for MLK to have spoken there. He concluded his march at Cobo Hall, the city’s convention center, and spoke there.
Also, Eight Mile forms Detroit’s northern border between the city and the northern suburbs.
Thanks for the info Scott – duly corrected above 🙂 Are you from the city? Any other cool things people should be checking out?