So, you’re coming to Detroit. Nicely done. You’re our kind of travelers; the kind that see violence and spray paint as part of the adventure.
While Detroit was once a flagship city of our nation, what’s left is a cautionary tale of industrial decay and poor civic management. In spite of the city’s well-earned reputation for crime and dilapidation, there are absolutely worthwhile things to do in Detroit.
We never considered Detroit for a minute until a new co-worker (who recently moved from Detroit) told me the city had greatly improved. He said they cleaned up downtown. He said the parks are beautiful. Every attraction was “incredible” and “amazing”! He was so enthusiastic that we reserved six nights in the Motor City during our most recent trip.
We still curse that co-worker’s name. Honestly, Will Bennett, there is very little about Detroit I would call “incredible” or “amazing”. Nonetheless, the place has its merits so we’ll highlight them, but we won’t mince words. Here is what you can expect in the article:
1. The Best Things to Do in Detroit
The most noteworthy thing about Detroit is the saddest thing about Detroit: The city used spray paint to hide how ugly everything looks. On one hand it is a creative solution to obscure condemned buildings. On the other hand, it hardly disguises the situation. On the third hand (which is a rottweiler’s paw), it takes your eyes off the dumpsters.
Spray paint is to Detroit as _______ is to a struggling relationship?
A. An Unexpected Pregnancy
B. Additional Partners
C. Debt Collectors
Every answer is depressing, but B is most correct. Give yourselves five points if you chose B.
Well, that’s enough of that (more later, promise). Now that your expectations are set at an appropriate level, let’s talk about all the cool things to do in Detroit Michigan!
The Henry Ford resides in the upper echelon of U.S. museums and belongs on any traveler’s cultural short-list. Broken into four separate parts — Museum of Innovation, Greenfield Village, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, and Giant Screen Experience — each section of the Henry Ford is a separate event and requires its own admission.
For tour costs and information, here is a link to their website.
A Little Advice…
The Museum of Innovation and Greenfield Village are large. Visit them separately and don’t combine them with other tours.
The Museum of Innovation is the best thing to do in Detroit. Here you can spend the day gawking at an enviable collection of cars while exploring the historical landscape of the automotive industry. Along the way you’ll learn how the US was developed through automobiles, giving birth to gas stations, hotels, campgrounds, and an abundance of commerce.
Some of the highlights are the Rosa Park’s Bus, Abraham Lincoln’s “theater seat”, presidential limos, and an Allegheny steam locomotive (the most powerful ever built). There is an fine collection of Indy-500 victory cars and a theatre showing a rib-rattling film about auto racing. If none of it sounds exciting, Henry Ford collected 10,000 other items to impress you.
If you find yourself near Dearborn, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit), don’t miss your chance to experience this peerless collection of Americana.
If the Museum of Innovation is the best thing to do in Detroit, then Greenfield Village is the second best. Some would argue we should reverse the order, so you cannot go wrong visiting either or both.
Greenfield Village is Disneyland-esc with seven separate districts showcasing various components of early American society. If you’ve ever wondered what life was like 100 or 200 years ago, Greenfield Village is probably the best place to experience it in the USA.
At Greenfield Village you will explore 80 manicured acres of influential buildings, crucial workshops, famous homes, and industrial facilities. Within the hour you can step inside George Washington Carver’s log cabin, Thomas Edison’s workshop (where the lightbulb was invented), and a sawmill that was among the first structures ever built by Euro-American settlers.
Entire towns from yesteryear have been transported by truck and assembled at Greenfield Village. Ride in a Model-T or horse-drawn carriage, learn how to blow glass, watch a baseball game from 1867, learn how textiles are manufactured in a factory or how wool is carded by machine or and how women redecorate their hats at a millinery. There is so much to do at Greenfield Village.
Belle Isle Park is an island that rests in the Detroit River between the USA and Canada. The 982-acre park was developed in the late-1800’s and provides an outsized share of the great things to do in Detroit.
In the photo above you can see the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. If Belle Isle Park is the crown of Detroit, then the ASW Conservatory is the brightest emerald. It sits on 13 acres and features a lily pond on its north side, fronted by formal perennial gardens on the west. Inside you will enjoy an incredible collection of plants and arrangements. The conservatory is free to visitors.
Sitting directly next door to the conservatory, the Belle Isle Aquarium is also free to visitors. We found the aquarium to exceed any expectations we had for a free exhibit. There are an abundance of fish to enjoy, including some particularly odd ones.
Other incredible Belle Isle exhibits are the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the Belle Isle Nature Center, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, Belle Isle Sunset Point (photo below), the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, and Belle Isle Beach.
To learn more, check out 7 Beautiful Things to Do on Belle Isle!
So you wanna see some spraypaint? The Dequindre Cut Greenway is a 2-mile urban recreational path that opened to the public in May of 2009. Once known as a railway, it is now known for its stunning collection of urban artwork and graffiti.
We didn’t know what to expect from this “urban recreational path” and were astounded at the grittiness of the place. Between the quality/quantity of the graffiti and the unabashed decay we would call this public park a quintessential thing to do in Detroit. Undoubtedly “The Cut” is underutilized by tourists.
The Cut runs from the Detroit Waterfront to the Eastern Market with separate lanes for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Entrance ramps to the Cut are located at a half-dozen streets. Because it is below street level, you have to enter The Cut at an entrance point.
True Story: We were at the Eastern Market, trying to find our way down into The Cut (remember, it is below street level), and were standing above it but couldn’t see a way in. We crossed a bridge over the cut toward a different neighborhood to look for an entrance….
When a delivery truck driver noticed us and hollered out, “You guys lost? Need some help?” Apparently, we were about to enter a dangerous neighborhood and like an angel he turned us in a different direction. He directed us through some sketchy-looking streets and told us to turn right at the old, abandoned house — none of which seemed safer than what we were doing before his help — but about ten minutes later, we were walking down into The Cut.
The Stadium District is probably more tourist friendly than the Dequindre Cut, but that doesn’t make it better (just safer, which is also important). We found this general area to be the cleanest, best revived part of the city. Other than playing host to Comerica Park (Detroit Tigers), Ford Field (Detroit Lions), and Little Caesars Arena (Detroit Pistons), the Stadium District is also home to The Fox Theatre, The Fillmore, the Detroit house of Comedy, and the Opera House.
Our adventure to the Stadium District was highlighted by a Tiger’s game. The view of downtown Detroit backdrops the field view at Comerica Park spectacularly and creates one of the most picturesque settings in Major League Baseball. Tickets are cheap, too.
After the game we walked around the district and had dinner at Eminem owned restaurant Mom’s Spaghetti. We ordered the spaghetti w/ balls and the spaghetti sandwich. Both were extraordinarily delicious. We would recommend the spaghetti w/ balls at $12 for best value.
The mission of the Eastern Market is to nourish a healthier, wealthier, happier Detroit since 1891. The Eastern Market is made up of three separate markets:
Saturday Market: Over 225 market vendors share their produce and stories with up to 40,000 visitors in one day during our busy season. A Detroit tradition for 125 years. Every Saturday 6am – 4pm year round.
Sunday Market: This street market seeks to showcase the work of local artists, cooks, jewelers, musicians, and is a chance to discover items that are uniquely Detroit and Michigan made. June – Sept. 9am – 3pm.
Tuesday Market: Scaled-down Tuesday Market is perfect for stocking up on fresh produce, baked goods, and meats. Also has special offerings including free Zumba and yoga classes. June – Sept. 9am – 3pm.
Our honest assessment is the Eastern Market is located in a gross part of town. The market itself is battered, and if you wander outside the area the scenery degrades instantly. Other than one particular strip of storefronts, the Eastern Market looked post-apocalyptic. We would strongly recommend not walking here from Downtown Detroit.
The waterfront riverwalk in Detroit is full of parks and perfectly nice views. Across the water is the city of Windsor, Canada. Along the path you will find tasteful murals, playgrounds, and commemorative plaques and statues.
The William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor is one of the riverwalk’s highlights, and one of the best things to do in Detroit. Here you will find an attractive lighthouse (above photo), walking gardens, and educational signage. Adjacent to the state park you will find the Cullen carousel and Diamond Jack’s Riverboat tours.
Always looming on the riverfront is, the GM Chevrolet headquarters, a monstrosity in the Detroit skyline. We aren’t sure if it’s a sentinel of foreboding doom — something akin to Skynet in the Terminator movies — or an office building in need of a thorough feminine sprucing.
Once you pass the GM headquarters there is an attractive park where they host outdoor concerts. This area is pleasant and worth spending some time relaxing. Here’s a map.
Greektown is one of the most attractive streets in downtown Detroit. The vibe here is excellent and the buildings are clean and attractive. Here you will find good restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. We especially enjoyed the bakery — we busted our ketogenic diet that day as the treats were irresistible.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge: We did not do this because we had children with us always. They say it’s a fine thing to do in Detroit. Let us know if you’ve been and enjoyed it!
The Motown Museum: It was closed when we visited. We would absolutely have done this. For all we know it is the best thing to do in Detroit outside the Henry Ford. Other folk seem to appreciate it.
American Coney Island / Lafayette Coney Island: It is kind of hilarious that these two restaurants sell the same foods right next door to each other. We ate at both and preferred Lafayette. You can read all about the history of these restaurants in this Smithsonian article.
We did over 50 noteworthy things this past year across a large swath of the United States, and Downtown Detroit was the single biggest disappointment.
The Henry Ford is incredible. It depends on what you’re into, but it could be worth a trip to Michigan for the sole purpose of exploring the museums, especially if you have kids.
If you told us to spend one full day in Detroit, we’d enjoy some of the Belle Isle sights, specifically the conservatory, aquarium, and sunset point, then catch a show or sporting event in the Stadium District. If you forced us to go back, we’d probably fight you.
Detroit continues to be intimidating despite my co-worker Will’s “tales of renewal and beautification.” We found poverty and unsmiling faces defined the landscape, and while painted murals are a novelty, they just can’t obscure the ominous nature of civil putrefaction.
We felt unsafe walking around most every place we went. If you cannot handle the inherent menace of a high-poverty-murder-city, do not come to Detroit; and if you do come, don’t expect the people who live there to welcome you.
Well, that was enjoyable! We are sorry for the negative review if that’s not what you were expecting, but we would expect the same from any honest friend. I’m sure some folks — cough cough, co-worker Will — would disagree, but their tolerance for run-down towns is higher than our own.
We are happy you stopped by to check out or website! Please feel free to leave a comment. Whether you agree or disagree with our Detroit review, or want to discuss something else entirely, we would love to hear from you. In the meantime, God bless, travel happy, and always remember to look over your shoulder in Detroit.
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