In the common imagination, Detroit appears as a grey and decayed industrial city with a turbulent past, an unsafe city that can only intrigue car enthusiasts. I won’t deny that I had this impression too, until I became curious about what it had to offer and what to see in Detroit, and I immediately changed my mind.
I discovered a city that first and foremost – and this was the main reason that led me to get curious and include it in our on-the-road itinerary – has been the backdrop for so many movies (from Gran Torino to Batman VS Superman, from Transformers to 8 Mile and many others) and offers so many beautiful and interesting things to see that go far beyond the automotive industry: art, music, food, architecture and history… Detroit has something for everyone.
But what has brought Detroit this fame?
On July 24, 1701, explorer Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, accompanied by a hundred Frenchmen and another hundred Algonquin Indians, founded Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, at the spot still visible today at Campus Martius Park. The name comes from the river the town overlooks, which is more of a strait between two lakes – Lake Huron and Lake Erie – in fact, Dètroit means ‘strait’ in French.
Soon, a settlement developed around that small fort, but in 1760, during the Seven Years’ War, Detroit was conquered by the British, until 1812 it was taken and lost several times by the Americans, until in 1815 they succeeded in conquering it for good. In 1825 the Erie Canal was opened, which facilitated transportation from Detroit. The city’s manufacturing industries boomed, such as the production of ships, wagons, carriages and steam engines. In 1837 Michigan was admitted to the Union, and since the state constitution prohibited slavery, Detroit became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, that helped slaves escape from the South. In the late 19th century, Detroit continued to overgrow. Pharmaceuticals became a major industry in the city, and manufacturing continued to flourish. Soon after, Henry Ford began mass-producing the first cars, making Detroit a “Mecca” of employment, and the number of residents increased tenfold. In the 1920s, the city followed the trends and progressive revolution of the Roaring Twenties: numerous theaters, the zoo, and the Guardian Building opened. Between a roaring automobile industry and the illicit but lucrative liquor trade, the Detroit of the 1920s was one of the most exciting and frenetic cities in the world.
By 1950, nearly two million people lived in Detroit, nicknamed the “Paris of the Midwest” for its French origins, architecture and streets designed like Parisian boulevards by Augustus B. Woodward. It was in the Motor City that the first mall in the United States opened: the Northland Center. The 1960s saw riots but also the success of Motown, the black music-based record label that launched such great artists as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Then came the machines and technology, which put thousands out of work. Factories fired large numbers of workers because they no longer needed them: one-fifth were enough to process the same production.
The economic crisis of 2008 hit the city hard, which was already under the very bad mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was charged with 24 federal crimes including abuse of office, money laundering, obstruction of investigation, fraud, bribery, perjury, mail and wire fraud, racketeering… He was sentenced to 28 years in jail. The automakers were choked with debt and asked the Obama administration for help. No one was paying their bills, and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department blocked water to those who did not pay within 60 days, cutting off a primary commodity to 15,000 homes. In 2013, the city declared bankruptcy with a $19 billion debt. People began to flee, public transportation was virtually nonexistent and the amount of abandoned homes was disproportionate. You can imagine the climate and crime rate at the time: it was a struggle for survival.
Since then the city has recovered a great deal and is rising from its ashes, although it still bears the marks of those scars: it’s the open spaces of the suburbs, those empty fields with no houses. It is not the most dangerous city in the United States, not anymore. It is a city that is healing its soul and it’s doing it well.
Note: This is a very tight itinerary, especially on the second day. Consider how many days you have available (over 4 days would be perfect), the things you want to see and your pace of travel. For any advice on modifications, I am available.
What to see in Detroit: a 3-day itinerary in the Motor City
In collaboration with Visit Detroit, I designed a full three-day itinerary that would allow us to discover the best of the city – according to our tastes – among must-see sights, movie locations and attractions off the classic tourist routes.
The first day is ideal for exploring Downtown.
Start with a walk along Woodward Avenue, considered one of America’s most iconic streets (it has also been declared an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration and included in the Motorcities National Heritage Area by the U.S. Congress). The street begins in Campus Martius Park, the heart of the places where Augustus Woodward – the first Chief Justice of Michigan after whom the road is named – diligently and passionately planned the redevelopment of the city after the fire that destroyed it in 1805.
Also nicknamed Detroit’s Main Street, the road is 27 miles (about 43 km) long and runs to Pontiac, although long before Detroit was founded, the same road was the Saginaw Trail, used by Native people to travel south from Saginaw, 100 km north of Detroit. Two events, in particular, make this road special: it was the first paved road, in 1909, and the first where a three-color traffic light was installed, in 1919.
Also held along this street each year is the Woodward Dream Cruise, an annual gathering of classic cars that is considered the largest single-day automotive event in the world. The event grew out of a custom from the 1950s and 1960s when classic car enthusiasts would meet at drive-ins along the street to show off their cars. It was called “woodwarding.“
Walking down Woodward Avenue toward downtown, you end up straight at Campus Martius Park, the point where the street begins. If you happen to be here during the Christmas season, you’ll find everything set up for the holidays with the big Christmas tree, the ice skating rink (designed to resemble the one in New York‘s Rockefeller Plaza, although this one in Detroit is larger), the Monroe Street Midway Market, and the plaza full of family-friendly activities, such as mini golf, Santa’s house, bumper cars, and more.
Opened on November 19, 2004, the new Campus Martius Park is the point of origin of Detroit’s road system: seven miles from the plaza is Seven Mile Road, eight miles is 8 Mile Road (does this name ring a bell?) and so on. Here is also the exact spot where the city was founded, marked by a medallion on the pavement near Woodward Fountain, and Detroit’s largest Christmas tree, which is lit with an official ceremony and countdown, attended by thousands of people, on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Once in this area, you can easily get to some of the city’s most beautiful buildings, such as the Fisher Building, which also houses the Fisher Theatre. Built in 1928 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1989, it is called Detroit’s “largest art object”. This building is also related in a way to the automobile industry; in fact, it bears the name of the Fisher Brothers: Frederick, Charles, William, Lawrence, Edward, Alfred and Howard. Who are they? The ones who invented the Cadillac and turned the automobile into the most widely used means of transportation in the world. Having become rich, they wished to have the most beautiful offices in the world and were willing to spend any amount of money to realize this desire. They entrusted the project to architect Albert Kahn, who used the best materials, craftsmen and contractors to build what would be voted the most beautiful commercial building of the year.
In the Art Deco style, the Fisher Building features hand-painted vaulted ceilings and interiors using 40 varieties of marble and several varieties of brass and bronze. It is worth a visit if only to admire its splendor.
Another building not to be missed is the Guardian Building, built in 1929 and also declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It is still one of the tallest brick buildings in the world and among the most significant and striking Art Deco skyscrapers in the world. It originated as the Union Trust Building to house the offices of the Union Trust Company, which declared bankruptcy after the 1929 crisis. It was reincorporated as The Union Guardian Trust Company and the building was renamed The Union Guardian Building.
The distinctive orange-brown exterior brick was later marketed as “Guardian Brick.” Inside, the decorations were influenced by Aztec and Native American art, while the structure is made of Italian marble and Belgian black marble, which is now depleted in the mines from which it was harvested. The red marble from which it is made is even rarer: it is Numidian, chosen for its unusual blood-red color. At the time, no mine in the world was extracting it, so Rowland went to Africa, where a mine that had been closed for 30 years was reopened just long enough for Rowland to choose the marble he needed for the atrium. Because of its decorative and architectural features and the companies it has always housed, it has been dubbed the “Cathedral of Finance.”
If you need a food stop, near the Guardian Building you will find the Grand Trunk Pub, the pub carved out of the space that originally housed the Traub Brothers’ jewelry store, which made the “Orange Blossom” engagement ring (the classic engagement solitaire) famous. As they became famous and rich, they needed a larger space, so they sold the space to Grand Truck Railway.
Today the pub serves exclusively “Made in Michigan” craft beers and ingredients and proudly prides itself on representing true Detroit grit.
To continue the Downtown tour, next is to the Spirit of Detroit Plaza, where you will find the beautiful bronze sculpture with the same name. Opened in 1958, it is considered the largest bronze sculpture in the world since the Renaissance. The work was entrusted to sculptor Marshall Fredericks – the same man who worked on Detroit’s subway system – who renounced his fee, considering the work his civic responsibility. The statue depicts a man holding a family in his right hand, representing human relationships, and in his left hand a golden orb representing the divine. On the wall behind the statue is carved an inscription taken from Corinthians 3:17: “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” while the plaque below the statue reads, “The artist expresses the concept that God, through the spirit of man, is manifested in the family, the noblest human relationship”. The statue soon became a symbol of Detroit, and on occasion of important events or sports victories, it is properly dressed and often dressed with the Detroit Red Wings jersey (a tradition that, for fear of ruining the statue, is now followed only if the team wins major national trophies or the championship).
A little further on is The Fist, the monument dedicated to boxer Joe Louis. Sculpted by Robert Graham – the same as the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington – the statue pays tribute to boxer Joe Louis, who defeated German Max Schmeling in 1938 and, given the stormy times, was considered an American victory over Germany (although the outbreak of the War was several months away and several years before the U.S. entered the conflict). The sculpture was commissioned by Sports Illustrated and donated to Detroit on the occasion of the centennial of the Detroit Institute of Art. Graham worked in complete secrecy and never revealed the true meaning of the work, leaving everyone to form their own opinion.
Beyond this sculpture is Hart Plaza, the spot where Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac landed in 1701, a moment celebrated by a statue dedicated to him right in the plaza. It is a place rich in artwork: at the entrance to the plaza is Pylon, a work by Isamu Noguchi inspired by DNA spirals, while in the center is Transcending, which represents Michigan’s labor heritage and commemorates the achievements of the American labor movement such as the prohibition of child labor, free public school education, and employer-paid pensions and health care. It is located near the site where Martin Luther King Jr. first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on June 20, 1963, a speech that was repeated later that year at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The phrase uttered by Dr. King, “The arc of history bends toward justice“, is carved into the sculpture.
Another important sculpture in the square is the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad, which commemorates the important role Detroit played in the Underground Railroad. The sculpture depicts six slaves ready to board a boat to reach Canada, whose direction is indicated by the statue representing George DeBaptist, a Detroit man who helped the slaves in their escape. The other figures are a former slave raising his arms to celebrate his emancipation, a Quaker woman offering assistance to another woman and her child, and behind them two children who look back toward Detroit.
But what actually was the Underground Railroad?
Literally it translates as “Underground Railroad,” but in reality it was not underground and it was not a railroad, nor was it a subway. It was a network of people, both free blacks and whites, who between the late 1700s and the abolition of slavery cooperated to help fugitives from slaver states reach the Northern states and Canada, where slavery was illegal.
Several escape routes passed through Michigan, and the code name for Detroit, used along these routes, was Midnight. It was one of the most important points of the Underground Railroad.
Returning to Hart Plaza, the plaza is also home to the Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain – a fountain with 300 water jets and 300 lights that Anna Thompson Dodge wanted to dedicate to her husband and son – and the exact spot where the Ford Motor Company’s certificate of incorporation was signed in 1903.
The rest of the day can be used to visit Belle Isle, the “Jewel of Detroit,” the small island in the middle of the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. Consider, however, that just getting there from Downtown takes about an hour by public transportation, so the more time you have, the better. If, on the other hand, you are driving, the trip is only 15 minutes. To enter the island by car you will have to pay a one-day pass ticket of $11, but if you are on foot, entry is free.
It takes at least 3 hours to visit the island, or you can even spend the whole day there, depending on what you prefer. Consider that it is much larger than Central Park, it’s the largest island park in the United States, and is home to many things worth seeing:
- The Belle Isle Aquarium, the oldest aquarium in the United States and the third largest in the world when it opened in 1904 (by today’s standards it looks small instead). It houses the only known collection of all seven Gar species in North America and fish from around the world, as well as all species found in the Great Lakes and other marine species from around the world;
- The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (currently closed for renovation, expected to reopen in May 2024), the oldest botanical garden in the United States still in operation. It houses plants from all over the world and is divided into 5 wings with 5 different climates. It houses the country’s largest collection of orchids (about 600, donated by Anna Scripps Whitcomb to whom the botanical garden was dedicated in gratitude) owned by the city, palms, ferns, a rose garden, flowering plants and many, many other species;
- Belle Isle Nature Center, a nature center with a large wooded area where, among other things, you can meet and feed fallow deers, which are part of a Michigan flora and fauna revaluation and conservation project. The BINC also features a native turtle exhibit, a covered and protected beehive for the study of bee behavior and conservation, and a spider exhibit, all species cared for in their natural habitats;
- Dossin Great Lakes Museum, which preserves and celebrates the maritime history of the Great Lakes and Detroit’s role in national maritime history. It houses one of the world’s largest collections of model ships and the bow anchor of the legendary SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the wheelhouse of the S.S. William Clay Ford, and the high-speed racing seaplane Miss Pepsi;
- Also on the island are the James Scott Memorial Fountain, whose jet reaches 38 feet high; a Coast Guard station and the William Livingston Memorial Light, the only marble lighthouse in the United States; the elegant and historic Detroit Yacht Club; and the nation’s oldest rowing club, the Detroit Boat Club.
To end the day on a high note, you can have dinner at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the oldest Jazz Club in the world still in operation, with its distinctive piano keyboard-shaped bar. It opened in 1934 and has since hosted the most famous jazz musicians and more, including Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Flanagan, Charlie Parker, Gene Krupa, Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt, and many, many more, such as a still-unknown Barbra Streisand in 1961. In 1986 it was declared a Historic Site.
If you are traveling with children, keep in mind that after 7 p.m. they cannot enter (as in many other establishments where alcohol is served).
What to see in Detroit, day two: the “Ford Tour”
Day two is devoted to Ford sites; they are unmissable if you come to Detroit, which is why I called this the Ford Tour. I will devote a full article to it because it deserves it, but in the meantime, I will write about it in brief.
The first stop is the Ford House at Grosse Pointe, the house where Edsel Ford – Henry’s only son – and his wife Eleanor lived from 1929 until their death. It is part of the Motorcities National Heritage Area and is inspired by traditional English cottages in the Cotswolds. You enter through the new Visitor Center, which houses a small display of Ford automobiles and a bronze map of the estate, as well as various activities throughout the year. At Christmas time, when we were there, there was a workshop to create a do-it-yourself Christmas card!
From the Visitor Center, you take a bus to the beautiful house. The tour offers a unique glimpse into the Ford family’s private life and their deep love of art and design (they had an extensive art collection in the house, including original paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Degas and Diego Rivera, many of which were donated to the Detroit Institute of Arts after Eleanor’s death). Visiting the house is like visiting a friend: it is cozy and still looks the same as it did when they lived there, complete with photographs and personal items scattered here and there. It was Eleanor who wanted to open the house to the public after her death, to make it an open place for everyone to walk around and relax.
The second stop on the tour is the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, the birthplace of the Model T and the oldest Ford factory still in existence. Built in 1904 and in operation until 1909, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of my favorite places in Detroit. The building is inspired by New England mills, and entering here is like stepping back in time to the early 1900s: everything is exactly as it was when the factory was in operation. Just think, when the construction was finished, employees asked Ford if he was sure he could produce enough cars to fill all that space! And it only took him five years to need a larger space. The offices, however, remained on Piquette Avenue until 1910, and the following year the entire plant was sold to Studbaker.
At Christmas time, you can also find Santa Claus on the second floor in front of a beautiful Model T and a Christmas market!
For a themed lunch break, I recommend trying Ford’s Garage Restaurant, which instantly teleports you to a 1920s gas station, complete with a Model T hanging from the ceiling above the counter. The sandwiches are great and I loved it not only for the great food but for the attention to every little detail. It’s worth a try!
The last stop of this busy day is the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, a museum that is not strictly related to Ford car production but to the history of the United States of America and its innovations. Here you will explore the technological and non-technological change of the last few decades, the story of how we got from the horse to automobiles, the evolution of airplanes, furniture, musical instruments, everyday objects, and so much more. The museum describes itself as “2 square kilometers of innovation: 300 years of history, 26 million artifacts”. And that is what you will find along the Henry Ford Museum’s exhibit trail. Among many things, here you will find the world’s only remaining prototype of the Dymaxion House, the aluminum house designed to be the strongest, lightest and most economical home ever built, the car in which JFK was killed, and Rosa Parks’ bus.
The tour also continues outside the museum, in Greenfield Village, where Henry Ford collected – meaning that he actually disassembled them from the original site, transported them there and reassembled – original historic buildings that belonged to famous people, such as George Washington’s childhood home, Thomas Edison’s workshop, the warehouse where Wright Brothers designed the prototype of an airplane, or an entire English village from the 1800s, stores from the 1700s, farms and so much more. A true preservation site of U.S. and world history. The best part? The village can be visited – for an additional fee – aboard an authentic Model T!
Finally, in the museum, you can also take a tour of the Ford Rouge Factory (consider that the museum closes at 5 p.m. but the last tour to the factory leaves at 3 p.m.. If you are interested in seeing everything, which I recommend doing, consider going in the morning and taking your time. The tour is inside a real Ford factory in operation, some areas and some days are off-limits. There are displays of some of the cars built at the factory, from the start to the latest electric models. A glimpse into the past and the future.
Notes: Schedule the visits carefully. Museums and attractions close at 5 p.m., so if you want to take your time visiting each of these places, you can change the itinerary this way:
– Day One (assuming you are already in Detroit and have the entire morning available): Ford Museum and Belle Isle;
– Day Two: Ford House and Piquette Plant in the morning, Downtown in the afternoon.
3 days in Detroit: Day Three
Start the day by visiting the Motown Museum, also known as Hitsiville, founded in 1959. Or rather, in January 1959 the Tamia Records record label was founded by Berry Gordy, thanks to a $800 loan he got from his family, renamed Motown Record Corporation the following year.
A small blue-and-white house within which walls some of the greatest voices in music history, such as the Jackson Five, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and many others recorded in its famous Studio A. It was the first African-American-owned record label, that betted everything on singles until the 1970s, when albums took over. This was the birthplace of the Motown Sound, characterized by complex chord changes and sophisticated melodies, a pop vocal style enhanced by gospel-influenced choruses, frequent use of strings and horns, and four-bars drum time. In the 1970s, Gordy opened Hitsville West in Los Angeles to expand music production into cinematography, toward which Gordy had an obsession, and in 1985 Gordy’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards transformed Hitsville Detroit into the Motown Museum.
The rest of the day can be spent to discover film locations, to which I will devote a separate article, or to street art. The city is full of it, in recent years it has become one of the most vibrant centers of street art in the United States. Starting with the Heidelberg Project, a street that has been completely transformed and reevaluated thanks to the special art of Tyree Guiton. Heidelberg Street was a historically African American street – destroyed by the ’67 riots, during which Guiton lost three brothers – where Tyree grew up. He returned there in the 1980s and decided to renew it through art, involving all the street’s residents. To do so, he uses trash and turns the area into an open-air museum while also sending a strong message against consumerism. In 1988 Guyton founded a nonprofit association, the Heidelberg Project precisely, intending to save forgotten and dilapidated neighborhoods by inspiring people to use art as a means of improving their environment.
There would be a whole article to write about Detroit’s street art, which I plan to do after we go back to visit the city again, working on a suitable itinerary. There are hundreds of beautiful murals gracing the city, created by the world’s most famous street artists but also by many local artists. The main areas in which to see them are Eastern Market, Lincoln Street Art Park, The Belt, Grand River Creative Corridor, Dequindre Cut and many others.
The first street artwork painted in Detroit was done by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband, who was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Art to paint their courtyard, now renamed Rivera Court. It wasn’t properly street art, because it was internal to the courtyard and real street art would come decades later, it was a good start, though, and the city’s first murals. Rivera painted 27 murals depicting Ford workers – who encouraged the work – and advances in science and technology.
What to see in Detroit with children
A short paragraph useful if you are traveling with children. What to see in Detroit with little travelers?
The Motor City offers so much for them, too! The Henry Ford Museum for American Innovation for example is the perfect place because it offers so many play spaces and opportunities to interact while playing within the exhibit. There even is a runway in which to fly paper airplanes!
For animal lovers, there’s the Sea Life Aquarium, the Detroit Zoo – among the top ten zoos in the United States – the Michigan University Museum of Natural History, Belle Isle with the Belle Isle Aquarium, the oldest in the United States!
Or if you love discovery, there’s Legoland Discovery Center, Michigan Science Center, Outdoor Adventure Center, Ann Harbour Hands-On Museum…in short, there’s plenty to keep the kids (and parents) busy for at least a week!
Where to stay in Detroit: the Element Detroit at Metropolitan
To stay in Detroit I recommend the Element Detroit at Metropolitan, where we also stayed. You can see a reel we dedicated to it here.
The hotel is right downtown, and the first things I appreciated about it were the cleanliness and the size (after COVID I appreciate large spaces much more). The rooms are large; we had two American-sized beds, a kitchen, a large bathroom with a tub, and plenty of space.
The hotel is located inside the Metropolitan Building, which opened in 1925. It was originally a destination for jewelers and shoppers, so much so that it was nicknamed the “Jewelers Building”. When the building opened, the Free Press wrote, “Besides being a perfect example of Gothic architecture, the Metropolitan is probably one of the most unique shopping and sales centers ever built in America”. With the arrival of real malls then the building was slowly abandoned by shopkeepers who had fewer and fewer customers there.
After 40 years of total neglect and abandonment, the building was purchased and renovated to house Michigan’s first Element Hotel. During the renovation, care was taken to preserve as many of the building’s original features as possible, including: the exterior facade, an ornate vaulted ceiling in the interior lobby, decorative interior staircases, and the original terrace floor. Even the original jewelry stores on the second floor and their display cases have been preserved and reused as meeting rooms.
But what is an Element Hotel?
Element by Westin, part of Marriott International, Inc. defies convention with its elegant and sustainable design. They want to offer guests the opportunity to “stay in their Element” through exclusive amenities. In 2008, it made history as the only major hotel brand to pursue LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for high-performance buildings worldwide.
Element Hotels also aims to enable guests to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle while on the road by offering a complimentary breakfast each morning that includes a yogurt station, a fresh range of fruits, protein pancakes, and more. Those who want to stay fit can take advantage of the 830-square-meter Motion Fitness center, which is open 24/7. Guests can also work out outside with the Element’s Bikes to Borrow program, run in partnership with Priority Bicycles: free bicycles are available upon request during your stay.
The Element Detroit at the Metropolitan has 110 bedrooms and studios, a bar, and a rooftop patio, The Monarch Club at The Metropolitan, with private event space and unparalleled views of downtown Detroit and Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.
It also has a free parking service included: you just leave your car with the valet who takes it to a nearby parking lot, and when you need to leave, you notify the valet with a call or text message and the attendants pick up your car so it is ready for you at the entrance. Everything is perfectly organized!