Belle Isle is an island state park nestled along the Detroit River, with beautiful views of the city skyline and the shore of Canada. It’s home to the United States’ oldest continuously operating aquarium (a throwback that is fun to see), a gorgeous conservatory, maritime history museum and a beach. Yep. A beach. In Detroit.
Belle Isle Park, the “Jewel of Detroit,” is the public urban oasis that lies between Detroit and Canada on the Detroit River. With a stunning view of both the Detroit and Canadian skylines, the 982-acre island park is a short jog east of the hustle and bustle of downtown Detroit.
The island features seven miles of natural shoreline, three lakes, a lagoon, acres of wet land and lots to space for walking, running and biking.
One of the best places to find free things to do in Detroit, this is the place where Detroit families gather to celebrate one another and Mother Nature. On a summer day, the picnic shelters will be packed with families assembled for family reunions, the air filled with the tantalizing scent of barbecue grilling. Other families will be cheering on their kids as they compete on the athletic fields. Still others will be lounging on the beach. (More on that in a minute.)
Belle Isle History
The island was converted to a public park in the 1880s when famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to shape the park into the natural wonder it is today. (Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, is best known for designing New York’s Central Park as well as his pivotal role in the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago.)
The island, now a Michigan state park, is meant to serve as a public gathering place that celebrates the natural beauty of the island. Nearly a third of the island is in its natural state, with beautiful verdant paths that lead to architecturally exquisite red bridges that cross the various creeks.
One of the best things to do on Belle Isle with kids is to simply wander through Olmstead’s luscious hidden walking paths. You can stumble upon the iconic bright red bridges that are tucked throughout the island and sit for a spell with your feet dangling above the babbling creeks that run throughout the island while the kids run and play on the expansive lawns.
Best of all for families, Belle Isle is much more than a natural beauty. It’s also a destination with plenty of free things to do, ranging from educational to thrilling!
TravelingMom Tip: Check the opening days and times of the Belle Island attractions before planning your trip. While the natural wonders of the island are available all of the time, the indoor attractions have limited opening times. It’s best to plan a visit to Belle Isle if you’ll be spending a weekend in Detroit.
Free Things to Do on Belle Isle
Belle Isle Aquarium
The Belle Isle Aquarium is a Detroit gem. It was designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn and boasts the title of the oldest aquarium in the country. Opened in 1904, the aquarium houses aquatic creatures from Africa to the Great Lakes. There are 118 species housed in this historical attraction. Show the kids the way aquariums used to be — with tiny windows looking into the world of the fish swimming inside. It’s a one-way u-shaped walk-through that will take only a few minutes. Plan to pick up little ones so they can see. This aquarium is nothing like the modern aquariums with their floor to ceiling tanks!
The most breathtaking part of the facility may be the beautiful green opalite glass tiles that line the vaulted ceiling.
Hours: Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Another historical site, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is the oldest continually-running conservatory in the country. Like the aquarium, it also was designed by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn. The conservatory is divided into various houses, from the tropical and steamy Palm House to the mossy and refreshing Fernery. It’s a welcome spot of warmth on chilly days.
The formal gardens make a great spot for a family photo. Don’t miss the breathtaking Lily Pond nestled on the north side of the stunning glass structure. The Belle Isle Conservancy, the Department of Natural Resources, and their loyal volunteers have restored the Lily Pond to its original 1930s splendor.
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum
A free museum dedicated to telling the story of the Great Lakes with an emphasis on Detroit’s role in maritime history, this 16,000 square foot museum covers more than 300 years of maritime history. The Detroit Historical Society has run the museum since 1960 with the financial help of the Dossin family.
The highlight here is the family’s prized championship hydroplane, “Miss Pepsi,” on display just outside the museum.
Artifacts inside the museum range from the massive bow anchor of the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald to the entire pilot house of the S.S. William Clay Ford, where kids and adults alike can feel like the captain of their own vessel.
There are plenty of interactive activities for the kids, from knot-tying to a barge simulation where you have to successfully dock your large vessel. The kids can hustle up and down the narrow stairs of the pilot house to the captain’s wheel, and the geographically inclined can lose themselves in the drawers of maps just behind the control room.
Don’t fret if you’re not a nautical nut! The most impressive installment in the facility is called the Gothic Room, a completely restored gentleman’s smoking room from the S.S. City of Detroit III. The vessel set sail in 1912, the same year as the less fortunate Titanic. It’s like stepping right back in to the golden age of Great Lakes cruise ships.
Summer hours (early June through Labor Day): Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m-4 p.m. . Remaining year: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Scott Fountain and Sunset Point
Belle Isle is known for its breathtaking views, none so beautiful as the vantage point from the James Scott Memorial Fountain and Sunset Point. Located at the Western tip of the island, the historic fountain is a gorgeous white marble. It’s another nice spot for a family photo.
Operates daily mid-June to mid-September, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
If you have an animal lover in the family, then a stop at the Nature Center is a must-do. It’s another of the amazing free attractions on the island. The center conducts a variety of educational programs managed by the Detroit Zoological Society. Have a face to face experience with the demure deer of the island, observe birds natural to the region, and get an insider view of an actual beehive. The nature center teaches kids and adults alike about conservation, water quality and protection, and nature preservation, all in the shadow of a metro urban area.
April-October: Daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
November-March: Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
More Fun Things to Do in Belle Isle
Another throwback to a more innocent time, the Giant Slide costs just a buck for an exhilarating ride. Be careful and make sure you bring long sleeves for the kids (and you, because you’ll want to ride, too!) to cover exposed skin to prevent friction burns on the slide. I have yet to meet a native Detroiter who doesn’t have a story about the burn he or she got riding the gargantuan slide. Kids must be at least 48 inches tall to ride.
Open Wednesday-Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Noon-8 p.m.
Belle Isle Beach
A beach in Detroit? Yes. Well, sort of. The locals definitely use it as a beach; the brave ones even wade into the not-so-pristine waters of the Detroit River to cool down on a sultry summer day. Even if you aren’t into swimming in the river, find a spot on the shore and spread out your beach towels. This is a great place to people watch and get a feel for the spirit of Detroit.
Belle Isle is a sacred spot for Detroiters, especially in the summer. Pull up with your picnic, bring some sand castle molds for the kids, and put your feet up.
TravelingMom Tip: If you think the kids will insist on wading into the water, bring water shoes for them. And plan to head to the nearest shower as soon as you can. Also a note: there are no lifeguards on duty.
The Belle Isle swimming beach is open daily from mid-June through Labor Day, 5 a.m.-9 p.m. Bikes, watercrafts, and kayak rentals are available in the summer season at the Flynn Pavilion.
Getting to Belle Isle
To get to Belle Isle from downtown Detroit, take Jefferson about five miles east. (If you’re downtown and looking at the river, you’ll turn left). I recommend driving a car as the island is large. Orient yourself by driving a full lap to get your bearings before deciding where to park. There are also buses that run onto the island. And you can always walk across the bridge if you’re looking to take it slow.
There is no cost to enter the park, however a Recreation Passport is needed to drive onto the island. This costs $11/car and $5/motorcycle for Michigan residents. The passport is good for a full year.
For non-Michigan residents, the annual passport fee is $31, although there is a daily rate of just $9/car. Pay at the entry booth to the island or at the Administration Building.
About the Author
Tess Fisher has always had wanderlust in her blood–most likely because her mother, Cindy Richards, is a travel writer and the editor-in-chief of TravelingMom. Tess is a nonprofit worker and former museum manager. She lives in the inspiring city of Detroit with her brother and two cats, Bo and Mr. Kitty. She has been a part of TravelingMom for nearly 10 years, assisting as an editor, writer, and graphic designer. She’s passionate about budget travel, art, and cooking, and she’s constantly looking for an excuse to use her Spanish. She may not be a traveling mom, but she sure does love traveling with her mom!