A vacation in Detroit is as essential as it is unique.
It provides witness to devastation on a scale unknown before in this hemisphere. It delivers emotional uplift to see the pure and ungoverned response to reclamation against all odds. It renews faith that from the ashes of abandonment can emerge a 21st Century city rebuilt and re-conceptualized with the powerful and palpable tool of human ethical compulsion. And it commands a recalibration of our fears, making us stronger.
I can think of no alternative, from summer camp to an ocean cruise, that can make those claims.
Oh yeah, did I mention it’s fun?
Here’s our guide to breathing in the spectacle and inspiration of Detroit while having a blast, staying in hotels of boundless character, and eating exceptionally well. Here’s our guide to more than 50 things to see, play, eat and stay in and around Detroit.
1. Start Downtown
The city converges at the 2.5-acre Campus Martius (pronounced MAR-shus) Park. It is the point from which all of Detroit’s famous “mile roads”are measured (Eminem’s 8 Mile is eight miles from the park). It is surrounded by some of the greatest architecture in Detroit, both renewed, like the Compuware Building which now houses Quicken Loans headquarters, and the green glass of the Ernst & Young building. A block away on Griswold Street are the Penobscot Building (named after a Native American tribe) and the truly over-the-top Guardian Building, two Art Deco gems designed by architect Wirt C. Rowland. To the south toward the Detroit River and Canada beyond, is the One Woodward Building, a Minoru Yamasaki “new formalism” masterpiece and a precursor to his most famous building, the former World Trade Center.
The park itself has shooting fountains and a restaurant, but its most memorable and whimsical feature is its sand beach to nowhere and night time tiki bar. In winter, it converts to an ice skating rink that resembles but is bigger than New York’s Rockefeller Center rink. It is also where the city Christmas tree lighting takes place, as well as the Motown Winter Blast, one of the many festivals in the city throughout the year that features a 200-foot snow slide and more than 50 entertainment acts.
Around the park you’ll find living street art, including hand-painted dueling pianos that anyone can just sit down and play, as well as a giant chess board, out-sized lounge chairs and what may be the world’s biggest Jenga set. The kids will love it.
The city has also revitalized its waterfront, with Riverwalk running 2.5 miles from Joe Louis Arena, the current home of the beloved Red Wings, and passes the John C. Portman-designed Renaissance Center (where General Motors has its corporate headquarters). RenCen’s massive atrium provides a glass-framed view of Windsor, Canada across the Detroit River. Riverwalk is also the center for festivals and major events, of which Detroit has an inordinate amount, including Rockin’ on the Riverfront every Friday night in summer.
We were fortunate enough to be guests at the spectacular Ford Fireworks, in late June. The Ford Motor Company-sponsored event covered three floors of a parking garage with endless grills and wine bars, arcade games and hair painting and bags of giveaways. It ran from late afternoon through 10 at night when the far Western end of the Eastern time zone finally gets dark enough in summer to accommodate the pyrotechnic extravaganza on the Detroit River. It is not to be missed.
At the far end of the Riverwalk just off Atwater Street is Wheelhouse Detroit, where you can rent state-of-the art hybrid bikes and take off on your own unguided tours. The staff there was great and accommodating, and the bikes made our 8-mile long riding tour a breeze. We couldn’t recommend them more highly. Best of all, Wheelhouse Detroit is located just a few blocks from Dequindre Cut Greenway, making its location absolutely ideal.
The Dequindre (pronounced de-KWIN-der) Cut, was originally a 1.35 mile Grand Trunk Railway line that ran from the river docks to the huge and splendid Eastern Market, itself open to everyone on Saturdays and Tuesdays and the place where you can get locally-sourced foods and dine on beignets or outlandish mac and cheese from one of the food trucks. The railroad became abandoned and overgrown to the point of blight, and because it was below-grade, it was a safe haven for elaborate graffiti art that still remains. Reclaimed and re-opened in 2009, it is now a manicured and remarkable biking and walking path. The before and after is amazing and a true representation of the reclamation of the city. Photo ops abound.
If it's music you want, you came to the right city. The waterfront has its Detroit Jazz Fest, among others, but there are also major music venues including The Filmore Detroit, the elaborate and huge Fox Theater, and smaller stops from the speakeasy era like the inimitable jazz club Cliff Bell’s, and on Friday nights, Cafe D’Mongo’s on Griswold that the Detroit News described as “a cross between Liberace's living room and an ode to jazz musicians and Detroit gangsters.”
There are terrific and often historic high-end eateries downtown including the re-opened see-and-be-seen London Chop House, and Joe Muer Seafood, on the street level of Renaissance Center, which was Hour Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year in 2012. But there are two less expensive places you shouldn’t miss.
The more classic of the two is Lafayette Coney Island, a narrow shot-gun flow-through from Lafayette Boulevard to Michigan Avenue that serves hot dogs smothered in coney sauce and chopped onions from breakfast until 4 a.m. There is the competing American Coney Island right next door, the result of a long-ago brothers’spat. Detroiters will go to one or the other but never both and Lafayette seems more bustling any time of the day or night. Make sure to get the sauce poured over your fries, too.
The other is Colors, tucked away on a side street in the Harmony Park section not far from Comerica Park, where the Tigers play baseball, and Ford Field, where the hapless (wait, this will be the year!) Lions play football. Colors hires only unemployed and returning Detroiters and trains them for jobs in the restaurant service business. The food, overseen by master chef Phil Jones, is the finest you’ll have anywhere in the city. Eat well and do good. What a combination.
Speaking of Comerica Park, it is a great place to watch a ball game. However, when the Tigers are out of town, you can tour the David Rockwell-designed (under the watchful eye of team owner and Little Caesars Pizza magnate Mike Ilitch) stadium several days a week. The tour ends with a stop in the Tigers dugout and a walk on the field (although the grounds crew won’t let you step on the grass).
We stayed in the ornate Louis Kamper-designed Westin Book Cadillac, on Washington Boulevard, which has been restored in all its grand splendor and reopened in 2009 after being closed for 25 years. It’s the perfect headquarters for your city-part of the trip to Detroit. The accommodations are fresh and sublime and the room rates on any of the hotel apps are about the price of a roadside Hampton Inn. It also has two restaurants, 24Grille and Roast, the chophouse owned by James Beard Award-winner and Iron Chef TV personality Michael Symon. Roast has a $4-tasting plate menu during happy hour at the bar.
Standing in front of the hotel, the vista gives a full-force view of the abandonment that pervades the city. Looking north you see the spectacular shell of the Book Tower and u-shaped Book Building, also a Kamper Renaisance design, which is shocking by its complete emptiness and awe inspiring by its square-block size and ornate detail. Just north of that, however, is a more recent apartment building, where the influx of Quicken Loans and other employees who received company-subsidized rents has led to $1,500-a-month studio apartments. Detroit is a city of incredible contrasts.
2. The art-filled college section of Midtown
Just north of Downtown is the Midtown section, anchored by the amazing Detroit Institute of Arts, with its Diego Rivera murals and master works by Picasso and Matisse, and the city’s biggest college, the largely Yamasaki-designed Wayne State University. The area abounds with culture and great, reasonable food. Good Girls Go To Paris, is a crepes haven, Cass Cafe, is a restaurant and art gallery, and Woodbridge Pub, boasts some of the best burgers in town. For a change of pace (and price point) there is the more formal Whitney, housed in a 52-room mansion that is reputedly haunted. Ghost tours are offered with dinner packages.
But the greatest place in Midtown is the iconic and quirky The Majestic entertainment complex. In addition to the main music venue, the Majestic also houses a surreal black-light bowling alley with a bar and pizza stand. When you’re done bowling, head upstairs to the Magic Stick, a loft space that features established bands (the White Stripes and Kings of Leon have played there) and up-and-comers. It is one of the truly great places to hear live music. Unlike most other music venues, Magic Stick shows are open to all ages. The night we went, we saw the Canadian band Arkells, and the warm-up indie-rock band George Morris and the Gypsy Chorus. You’ll be hearing more about them, we’re sure. Whatever you do, don’t miss Magic Stick. It rocks, literally.
Also not-to-be-missed is the re-gentrified West Canfield section on the street of the same name. Its strip of spanking new retail includes the Shinola store, featuring an artful and eclectic mix of watches, bicycles and leather goods, all manufactured in Detroit. Its sister clothing store Willys, is a few doors down and features the latest urban forward fashions. Across the street is the laid back, good vibes Motor City Brewing Works, which makes its own craft beer on site and serves up pizza and cheese and bread plates in its open and airy restaurant. It’s a gem. The whole West Canfield area gives a preview of what much of the city will become. Everything about it just feels good.
3. Corktown and the Heart of the City’s Reclamation
Just west of Downtown is the former Irish enclave of Corktown. It is a scene.
On its eastern edge at Trumbull Avenue is the former site of Tigers Stadium that was torn down when Comerica Park was built. The centerfield flagpole still stands, however, just enough to let old-time Detroiters like me picture Jim Northrup or Billy Bruton chasing down deep fly balls.
Along Michigan Avenue there is an endless and growing stream of restaurants and bars, all filled with the happiest people and the most craft beers and great food you can find. Ottava Via, one of the newer spots at Michigan Avenue and 8th Street, is the first you’ll encounter heading out of downtown. Its artisan pizza is a sight to behold. It looks almost too perfect to eat, but don’t let that deter you from digging in.
The main stretch, however, is anchored by Slows Bar BQ, which offers 56 craft brews and five types of bar-b-q sauce. Upstairs is a small bed-but-no-breakfast inn called Honor & Folly, which has two bedrooms and a common-room living area that you might share with small groups getting cooking lessons. It might not be for everybody, but what is? It is certainly one of the most unique and uniquely new-Detroit places you can stay.
Across Michigan Avenue is the Mercury Burger Bar, which serves up 13 different kinds of burgers and milk shakes to boot. It is open late and, as attested by my teenaged daughters, a not-to-be-missed experience.
In the outlying areas of Corktown are unique, terrific and trendy restaurants. Don’t be turned off by the pervasive Yelp condemnations of the “hipster”clienteles. While you’re likely to see a whole lot of fashion-forward plaid shirts, no one will be voguing —they’ll just be having a good time.
Green Dot Stables, serves up a vast assortment of one-of-a-kind sliders in what is reportedly a former late night cop bar. It has become so popular, there are lines to get in most hours of the day and night. Mudgie’s Deli, has a full bar and more than 100 craft beers, uses primarily locally sourced products and seems unanimously rated the best sandwiches in town. St. Cece’s, on Bagley at Trumbull, butchers its own Michigan organic meat and is famed for its $10 burgers. Brooklyn Street Local, is a diner on Michigan Avenue owned by Deveri Gifford and Jason Yates, two ex-pat Canadians, and is the most authentic place to get gravy-ladled french fries called poutine in the finest Canadian tradition. No matter your first reaction to that description, try it and you’ll never buy ketchup again.
The signature edifice to the whole area, though, is the ever-looming, gargantuan and tragically beautiful Michigan Central Station, which has been abandoned and gutted by scrappers and vandals since 1988. It is the most photographed of the Detroit ruins, and people drive up by the dozen to take family portraits and marvel at its haunting affect. The park in front, with its mystical waist-high grass, frames the view and was restored by volunteers. In Detroit, people don’t ask, they just do.
4. East Jefferson Avenue
East Jefferson, one of Detroit’s grand boulevards, runs from Downtown past Lafayette Park, part of the Mies van der Rohe Residential District listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the entrance to the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle State Park, a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River with an aquarium, zoo and beach. Belle Isle is also the best viewing spot for the annual American Power Boat Association Detroit Gold Cup hydroplane races.
The avenue is a centerpiece of Detroit’s revitalization, lined with new apartment buildings and shops amid the remnants of the city’s southeastern deterioration. Indian Village, established in 1895 with homes designed by Albert Kahn and Louis Kamper among others, is a charming neighborhood with 5,000-plus square foot mansions selling for $300,000 that would fetch several million in Los Angeles.
Off Mt. Elliott Street towards Mack Avenue is The Heidelberg Project, a living urban art museum started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, who now teaches at Wayne State University, and his grandfather Sam Mackey. As a political protest after returning home to the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood where he grew up and losing three brothers to street violence, Guyton took his grandfather’s advice to “pick up a paintbrush instead of a weapon and look for a solution.” He began painting abandoned houses with neighborhood children. The Dotty-Wotty House, perhaps its most famous piece, was covered in brightly-colored polka dots. Several of the structures were destroyed by arson in 2013, and in March of this year, Dotty-Wotty was also burned. Still, the Heidelberg Project continues to draw visitors to its unique and oddly controversial “lots of art.”
At 10551 East Jefferson is Rose’s Fine Food, a from-scratch diner that was started with $20,000 raised on Kickstarter by Lucy Carnaghi, and her cousin Molly Mitchell, who returned to Detroit from San Francisco where she worked at the James Beard Award winning Tartine Bakery. The most expensive item on the menu is $8.50, and while there is no tipping, any tips patrons do leave are pooled and donated to the charity of the month as selected by the staff. Only in the new Detroit.
East Jefferson runs east to the Grosse Pointes, where it turns into Lake Shore Drive along Lake St. Clair, a 430-square mile fresh water lake that connects Lake Huron with Lake Erie and is part of the Great Lakes system. Two feet past the city line, you enter into another world filled with greenery, immaculate houses, posh shopping districts and yacht clubs. It is everything most people strive for in life. And yet, we’d seen privileged towns before. Our first instinct was to turn the car around and head back into the city, and that’s what we did —a sure sign that our faith in mankind and the future of the American city was fully restored.