What to do in Detroit
It's hard to think of the Motor City — a popular symbol of urban decay — as a vacation destination. But somewhere behind its neglected, graffiti-covered skyscrapers are charming reminders of a city that was once among the world's wealthiest. Today, rows of homes and stores that had been abandoned for decades are finally being demolished, making way for lush green spaces that give some sections of the city an odd rural vibe. Several new hotels, restaurants and art galleries have the potential to burnish Detroit's image further and revitalize the downtown area.
Detroit's premier event is, of course, the North American International Auto Show, held each January — but that's hardly the most appealing time to visit the Midwest. So unless you're an auto-industry exec, advertiser or journalist, it's better to visit Detroit in summer. Toward the end of the season, in August, you can catch the Woodward Dream Cruise, a one-day, multi-city celebration of the automobile, replete with parades, music and food. Or visit over Labor Day weekend for the annual Detroit International Jazz Festival. In any season, Detroit is a sports mecca, so be sure to catch a Tigers, Red Wings or Lions game during your stay. Read on for Detroit's other key attractions.
Start your Detroit tour at DIA, the city's crown jewel. The Detroit Institute of Arts opened at its current location, near downtown, in 1927, during the post–World War I auto-industry boom that made Detroit one of the world's wealthiest cities. The museum's Beaux Arts building is massive, with more than 100 galleries, but if you choose carefully among the collections, you can be in and out in two hours. Check out the works by Degas and Cézanne and the collection of pieces by African-American artists; also, definitely see Diego Rivera's expansive mural known as Detroit Industry. Finally, spend a few moments to reflect in the Kresge Court, an inner courtyard and café.
DIA locates you in the center of Detroit's cultural scene, and there are other museums worth visiting in the area, notably the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which houses the world's largest exhibit on African-American culture.
For lunch, walk — yes, people walk in Detroit, at least in this neighborhood — to a popular creperie nearby, Good Girls Go to Paris, or check out Wasabi Korean & Japanese Cuisine in the same building.
When Michigan Central Station was built in 1913, it was intended to be a key gateway to the Midwest. By the late 1970s, however, the massive depot southwest of Detroit's downtown had fallen into disrepair, and the last train left the station in the late 1980s. Now it's shuttered, a failed modern Greek temple. Graffiti covers the train station and its 18-story tower. Nearly all the windows are blown out. For many Detroiters, it's a painful symbol of the city's collapse.
Yet the station is also an odd marketing tool. It's been a popular backdrop for Hollywood films, including Transformers and Four Brothers. In 2009, the city government moved to demolish the building, which is owned by a reclusive billionaire, Manuel "Matty" Moroun, but preservationists have stalled those plans, arguing that the station should be rehabilitated in the mold of central train stations in Washington and Kansas City, Mo. The question is, Who will pay for it?
Note: Access to the building is restricted, so the best way to see the station to drive by, get out of your car and snap a few photos.
This island lies in the Detroit River between the U.S. and Canada. Detroit bought the island in the late 1800s and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, a chief architect of New York City's Central Park, to oversee Belle Isle's landscaping. For decades, the island was a central part of life in the region, home to a zoo and an aquarium, the latter of which the city has kept closed in recent years because of budget cuts. But other attractions, including a private yacht club, remain. In the summer, stroll or jog along Belle Isle and get terrific views of downtown Detroit and Windsor, Ont. You can get there by crossing the MacArthur Bridge, which is about 3 miles east of Detroit's downtown.
The auto industry remains central to Detroit's economic and cultural identity. To understand the industry's rise, take the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn, Mich., less than a 20-min. drive southwest of Detroit. The factory that Henry Ford built along the Rouge River was the scene of the Battle of the Overpass, a key moment in the rise of American unions. You'll get a peek at a Ford F-150 truck's assembly line and a set of classics like the 1965 Ford Mustang. If you've got a half hour to spare, watch two short films about the plant's history. In the summer, it's smart to get a reservation for the tour.
Ford's not the only game in Dearborn. This suburb of Detroit is the country's Middle Eastern capital, and there are plenty of Lebanese and Yemeni restaurants and bakeries, especially along Michigan and Warren avenues. Try Al-Ameer on Warren.
On Saturday mornings, especially during summer, Detroit's Eastern Market teems with people buying fresh apples, blueberries and roses from farmers who have driven here from across the Midwest. Many Detroiters say they buy their entire week's worth of food at the market, partly because there are few decent grocery stores within city limits. The Eastern Market is almost like a town square — one of the few places a cross section of folks from the region regularly gather.
On one side of the market, there's R. Hirt Jr. & Co., one of the best places to pick up fresh-cut meat and gourmet cheese. On the other side is the Russell Street Deli, whose breakfast — omelets, pancakes, etc. — draws a long line, especially on weekends.
Don't forget Detroit's music legacy — it's the hometown of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Madonna. The Motown Historical Museum, near Detroit's downtown, is where Berry Gordy Jr. built Motown's powerful roster, which at its peak included Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5. There, you'll see Motown's first recording studio, known as Studio A, and one of Michael Jackson's hats.
For an unexpected taste of Detroit, visit Palmer Woods, a leafy neighborhood in the city's northwest corner. Many of the historic district's 300 or so homes — mostly neo-Georgian and Tudor Revival — were built in the early 1900s at the behest of auto-industry barons. Now they house a diverse mix of doctors, attorneys, auto executives and teachers. In 1955, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a massive home in the neighborhood; today, the long-neglected 4,000-sq.-ft. Dorothy Turkel House is undergoing a million-dollar-plus renovation at the hands of two local businessmen — Norman Silk and Dale Morgan, co-owners of Blossoms, a flower boutique in nearby Birmingham — who bought it in 2006. Also worth visiting: the Sherwood Forest neighborhood, right next door to Palmer Woods.
This Art Deco office building is one of Detroit's architectural gems. Designed by architect Albert Kahn and built in 1928, the Fisher Building was supposed to have a second tower, but the Great Depression nixed those plans. At the time, the now defunct Detroit Times wrote, "The tower will be to Detroit what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris." Today, there are several restaurants, cafés and shops on the building's first floor, as well as the Fisher Theatre, which, at press time, was scheduled to stage productions of West Side Story and Mary Poppins. In the lobby, be sure to look up at the ornate ceiling.
Greektown — so called because it was home to Greek immigrants throughout much of the 20th century — is one of Detroit's livelier neighborhoods. It's got a bundle of casinos, bars and restaurants, which get especially crowded right after Red Wings and Lions games. The neighborhood's most popular attraction is the Greektown Casino, but before you gamble away your meal money, drop into Mosaic Restaurant, an upscale spot with a global menu; it's not far from the casino, in the heart of downtown.
Detroiters love to eat. A lot. And there are plenty of terrific restaurants in and around Detroit. One of the first places locals will take you is to a get a "coney" — basically, a hot dog (despite the name, it's not directly associated with New York City's Coney Island, which is also known for dogs). Two of the best coney spots in Detroit are American Coney Island (Grace Keros, who runs the family business, will take care of you) and its next-door rival Lafayette Coney.
Just a few steps away, inside the wonderfully restored Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, is one of the sleekest restaurants in town: celebrity chef Michael Symon's Roast, where there's often a giant pig roasting within view of the main room. We recommend the filet mignon with rosemary fries and fried brussels sprouts. This is a place to see and be seen, and one of the few restaurants in town where it would be smart to make reservations for dinner.
In Ferndale, one of Detroit's eclectic suburbs, try Anita's Kitchen for terrific, relatively inexpensive Middle Eastern fare such as chicken shish kebabs and tabbouleh.