See the Best of Detroit with this Guide from a Local

Large round monument with a skyscraper in the background

Want to see the best of Detroit through the eyes of a local? This guide has everything you need to know for a great visit to the Motor City from the best places to stay to the top things to do in Detroit. Whether you’re looking for world class museums or a taste of nature, the city has something to offer for everyone, and I’ve got it all in my Detroit travel guide.

Sure, visiting Detroit isn’t on quite as many bucket lists as somewhere like San Francisco, but there are still plenty of great things to do. I know; I grew up in the suburbs here. Until the last few years when the city started to turn around post-bankruptcy, the only time I ever heard it mentioned was as a punchline on late night shows poking fun at the eternally frustrating Lions or the crime rate. In recent years, businesses have been returning to the city, and I love seeing new restaurants and stores opening and previously vacant street filled with cars. More and more visitors are coming and I love seeing outsiders experiencing the top Detroit attractions and seeing the side of the city that I’ve always known was there.

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The Best of Detroit

You’re probably wondering what to do in Detroit, so I’ll cut right to the chase. These are the best things to do in Detroit. Over the years, I’ve found that most people that visit here from other areas are surprised by the number of high-quality attractions Detroit has to offer. You might just find yourself pleasantly surprised as well.

Visit Belle Isle for recreation and relaxation

Domed conservatory with decorative pond

Belle Isle is one of my favorite places to go in Detroit. It’s an island park in the middle of the Detroit River that runs between the US and Canada (it can only be accessed from the American side). It’s our answer to Central Park (It was partially designed by the same man, but Belle Isle is bigger. Take that, NYC.) and is the perfect spot to spend a relaxing weekend day. There are myriad recreational activities to enjoy and there truly is something for everyone. If we’re talking best of Detroit, this is it. If you’re into cycling, there are miles of bike lanes on the main road encircling the island. Swimmers and sunbathers will love the surprisingly calm beach on the Detroit side of the island. There are also numerous picnic shelters, an aquarium, a conservatory with gardens, a nature center, and a museum about the history of the Great Lakes. And, while there is a fee to drive onto the island (pedestrians and cyclists get in free), once you’re there, all of these activities are free. Pack yourself a picnic lunch and spend a day exploring this little slice of heaven right in the river.

Vintage yellow, green, and white city bus

Explore the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village for a taste of history

Ok, this one’s kind of cheating because it’s a little outside of the city limits, but it’s super close and if there’s a world-class attraction in the area, it’s this one. It’s honestly one of the best museums I’ve ever seen, and this nerd has been to her share of them. The Henry Ford Museum features a collection of fascinating historic objects, including several Presidential limousines and the chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot, and some interactive activities for kids. Greenfield Village is a group of historic buildings that were transported from other locations. You can visit the Wright Brothers’ workshop and Robert Frost’s house among other places. How cool is that? I love wandering into the old shops, and there are some awesome Halloween and Christmas events that take place there. Tours of the Rouge River truck assembly plant are also offered, which are way cooler than they sound on the surface.

Mural of auto workers

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Check out the Detroit Institute of Arts for a culture fix

Also known as the DIA, this massive art gallery features a great collection from all around the world. For real. I took my Italian and Danish grad school roommates here one day and even they were impressed. Don’t miss the famous Diego Rivera murals that depict the city’s automotive history. Even all these years later, they still feel insightful. I’ve also always loved the section on African art, though my favorite drum has long since been rotated off display and into storage.

Replica automotive factory

Learn about local history at the Detroit Historical Museum

This museum tells the story of Detroit through the years. You can learn about Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad, how the car industry shaped the city, and how it earned the nickname “Arsenal of Democracy” during WWII – that one’s pretty cool to this girl whose gramma came to Detroit to work in a factory during the war and stuck around to marry a veteran and raise a pretty good son. The museum’s lower level also allows you to step back in time onto some of the old city streets if you’re into the whole Instagram thing.

Off-beat things to do in Detroit

If traditional museums aren’t your thing, check out one of these slightly less typical things to do in Detroit.

Try your hand at fowling

What’s fowling (pronounced foe-ling)? It’s a combination of football and bowling invented right in Hamtramck – a city within the city of Detroit. Teams line up on opposite sides of the lane to toss footballs at a set of bowling pins. It sounds way easier than it is, but it’s a load of fun.

Small house covered in paint and random objects

See a unique approach to urban renewal at the Heidelberg Project

This offbeat collection of street art on Heidelberg Street grew from an initiative to clean up a run down street and make it something beautiful. By clearing out abandoned lots and using the items found, it turned abandoned houses into an eerie collection of discarded objects. It’s pure Detroit quirk and has sparked revitalization and an increased presence of the arts in the area.

Mingle with locals at Eastern Market

This massive farmers market is swarmed with locals on the weekends. Check out the produce, flowers, and local restaurants in the area. I love wandering through the shelters and checking out all of the veggies for sale. It’s a great place to hit to grab food for a picnic lunch on the previously-mentioned Belle Isle.

Learn about Detroit’s most iconic music at the Motown Museum

See the studio that launched Hitsville USA and entire genre of music at the Motown Museum. You can check out the recording studio where famous musicians like The Supremes and The Temptations sang some of their biggest hits. There are plenty of exhibits featuring memorabilia, outfits, and photographs to explore.

Experience modern art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)

This small gallery of modern art is constantly rotating and offers fresh, occasionally interactive art exhibits. Exhibits vary from more traditional painting to 3D and digital art.

Large anchor with flags in the background

See the area’s shipping legacy at the Dossin Great Lakes Historical Museum

Located on Belle Isle, this small, free museum tells the story of the Great Lakes and Detroit River. You can learn about the history of shipping, stand on the bridge of a former ship, and learn about the famous sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Its original anchor is located outside as a memorial.

Awesome events in Detroit

Fireworks over a river

  • You probably don’t picture Detroit as a country music destination, but the Downtown Hoedown in late spring draws thousands of fans into the city for a wild few days.
  • Though Detroit is more famous for Motown music, it also has a good electronic dance music scene. The Movement festival held in late spring pays tribute to that.
  • Where better than the Motor City to have a race? For one weekend in late spring, Belle Isle changes from peaceful park to a crowded sea of racing fans eager to watch cars zipping around the track at the Belle Isle Grand Prix.
  • Motor City Pride, held in early June, is Michigan’s largest pride festival.
  • The Riverfront festival takes place in late June and features food, concerts, and carnival rides. It’s usually around the same time as the international fireworks that celebrate the Fourth of July as well as Canada Day.
  • In mid-August, the suburbs hold the Woodward Dream Cruise, a massive event that spans several towns and showcases all of the great classic cars from the heyday of the Detroit car industry.
  • The Detroit International Jazz Festival takes place in late August/early September and takes over several blocks downtown. There are even fireworks to cap off days of jazz performances and jam sessions.

What to eat in Detroit

Detroit doesn’t have any iconic dishes on the level of something like deep dish pizza in Chicago, but we have a few local favorites that you should check out while you’re in town.

Sink your teeth into a Coney dog

No one knows how coneys became so ubiquitous in Detroit, but they’re a local staple. A steaming hot dog (with just the right amount of snap) topped with thin chili sauce, mustard, and diced onions is a classic Detroit food. The American and Lafayette Coney shops, located right next door to each other, have been dueling for Detroiters’ hearts for decades. Try a dog from each and cast your lot in with your favorite. You’ll find other chains like Kerby’s and National all over the southeast Michigan area. I never realized that coney islands weren’t normal until a friend of mine visited in college and asked me what the deal was with Detroit and its coneys. I guess we just like delicious food.

Try some Detroit-style pizza

Here’s another example of something I didn’t even realize was unique to Detroit until I started traveling all over: Detroit has its own style of pizza. Growing up, we just called it square pizza, but it’s a distinct style. The local pizza is a deep dish square pizza with thick crust that has just the right amount of crunch. I’ve seen it described as vaguely Sicilian style, but I’ve never quite encountered anything else like it. Some places put the toppings beneath the cheese and the sauce on top. Buddy’s, with several locations throughout the Metro-Detroit area, is the classic, but I actually prefer the pizza from a delivery chain called Jet’s.

Sip unique flavors of Faygo pop

Unlike fellow Detroit pop brand, Vernor’s, Faygo hasn’t spread outside of the region as much. It features all kinds of quirky flavors, but Rock’n’Rye and Red Pop are the classics. Red Pop is strawberry flavored, but Faygo has kept Rock’n’Rye’s flavor a secret (I think it’s cherry cola combined with cream soda, but everyone has their own theory and you should find out for yourself). You’ll find bottles at almost every convenience store, gas station, and grocery store in the area. And yes, it’s called ‘pop’ here.

Large stack of pancakes with a swirl of frosting

My favorite restaurants in Detroit

  • Traffic Jam and Snug: This Midtown bar has delicious American food, and serves up some great drinks. I’m also a fan of their desserts.
  • Hudson Café: This breakfast and brunch spot is packed on the weekends. Their enormous pancakes and eggs benedicts are top choices.
  • Atwater Detroit Tap House: It started out as just a tasting room for the Atwater Brewery, but expanded to include a beautiful restaurant with amazing appetizers and pizzas among other things.
  • Mexican Village: Everyone has their favorite Mexicantown restaurant, but Mexican Village is my favorite. The food is delicious and the margaritas are large, and there is a killer Mexican bakery right across the street that makes the best pineapple pastries I’ve ever had.
  • Mario’s: This old school, classy Italian spot in Midtown has been serving pasta for years.
  • American and Lafayette Coneys: These are actually two restaurants, but they’re Detroit icons for a reason. You can get a meal for less than $5 in the blink of an eye, and their coney dogs are classic Detroit staple

Gilded, ornate decor over a large stage

Where to find nightlife in Detroit

The three casinos – Greektown, Motor City, and the MGM Grand – host most of the nightlife. I’ve always found Greektown to be the liveliest, with cute lights strung across the street, rooftop bars, and a variety of restaurants to pick from.

Detroit’s theater district is second in number of seats only to New York City’s, so you can catch a show or concert at one of the many venues – my favorite is the Fox.

For some jazz music in a classic club, check out Cliff Bell’s. It has a great historic atmosphere with dark paneling and is a perfect spot for a night out.

How to get around Detroit

Detroit doesn’t have much in the way of public transportation, so driving is your best option. Most of the roads were built after the automotive boom, so it’s very driveable compared to many other cities. There is ample parking, though you should use caution when parking on the street. There is an elevated train called the People Mover that makes a loop around the downtown area, and a brand new streetcar that runs up and down Woodward Avenue. City buses are also available, though I’ve never actually used those. Traditional taxis, Uber, and Lyft are all options as well.

Large airport checkin area with high ceilings and computer kiosks

Getting to Detroit

Detroit Metropolitan Airport is located about 20 minutes from the city and is a major international hub for Delta and its partners. For budget options, try Spirit, Southwest, and JetBlue. Norwegian Air recently started operating international flights from Detroit as well. Just across the river, Windsor, Ontario has a small airport that may offer affordable flights. If you’re driving from the south, you’ll likely arrive via I-75, or on I-94 if you’re coming from the west. There are two international border crossings from Windsor – the Ambassador Bridge or the tunnel. Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses drop off right in the downtown area.

The best times to visit Detroit

Michigan is at its best in the summer, and that’s when the Detroit Riverfront really comes alive. The weather is warm, the locals are out and about, and all kinds of activities are taking place outdoors. Fall is a great time thanks to cooler weather and the chance to take a day trip out to one of the many cider mills in the suburbs.

Large skyscraper with trees in the foreground

Where to stay in Detroit

Midtown is the trendy neighborhood near Wayne State University. It has lots of restaurants and breweries that you can walk to, but it’s a little light on hotels. Try The Inn on Ferry Street for its setting in a gorgeous old mansion.

Downtown hosts most of the hotels, and you can find most of the large chains there. You’ll be closer to the Riverfront, but there aren’t as many dining options available in the evening.

For expensive luxury, try the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit. It’s an old hotel that was shuttered for many years before being revived a few years ago and features some gorgeous interior designs.

For slightly more budget-friendly options, try one of the casino hotels. I’m partial to Greektown thanks to its proximity to the sports stadiums and good nightlife.

The Holiday Inn Express downtown is a more affordable option that also includes free breakfast.

Tall buildings with a purple dusk sky in the background

Where to find great views of Detroit

One of my favorite city views is from Sunset Point at the southern end of Belle Isle. When you reach the island, bear to the right and you’ll find rows of parking. There’s a huge grassy expanse that offers views of both the Detroit and Windsor, Ontario skylines, with the blue Ambassador Bridge spanning between them.
If you really want to see the full skyline, you can cross over to Windsor on the other side of the Detroit River.

The Greektown casino parking garage has a pretty good view overlooking the city too.

Safety tips for visiting Detroit

Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to the area you’re in. The Downtown and Midtown areas are safe, but watch your valuables and be sure to park in well-lit areas. Detroit isn’t the war zone some media makes it out to be, but there are still areas that would be considered unsafe. Be careful driving at night if you’re not familiar with the neighborhoods.

Things to pack for a visit to Detroit

Fun facts about Detroit

  • Detroit is the only city in the US where you cross south to get to Canada. The Ambassador Bridge runs almost due north/south, but unlike every other border crossing, you’ll find Canada on the southern end.
  • Detroit is larger than 11 different countries.
  • Detroit had the first mile of concrete road in the world on Woodward Avenue.
  • Detroit comes from French meaning “the strait” since the Detroit River is really a strait connecting two lakes.
  • The only floating zip code in the US is assigned to a mail boat that operates in the Detroit River.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. actually debuted his famous I Have a Dream speech in Detroit two months before the much more famous delivery in Washington D.C.

Check out some other great things to do in Michigan:

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Check out these guidebooks for more info on things to do in Detroit:


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About

Kris's suitcase never rests. She's either traveling the United States for business or exploring somewhere exciting and new for vacation. She's a former Disney World Cast Member and loves writing about Disney parks almost as much as visiting them.

2 Comments

  • Sarah - Borders & Bucket Lists August 24, 2018 at 10:55 pm Reply

    I love local guides! They always tell you the best places to go! Definitely saving this for the day I make it to Detroit.

  • Lindz August 25, 2018 at 12:35 am Reply

    It’s been years since I’ve visited Detroit but I’ve been meaning to get back… and your post makes me want to do that sooner rather than later! The city has changed so much and I’m loving it!

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