The Detroit Guide
Detroit is not unfamiliar with change and reinvention, and yet for all its complexity, the Motor City is often primarily thought of as the land of automobiles. While this is undeniably a piece of Detroit’s fascinating narrative, the city has a great deal more to offer, particularly in the creative arts, which have long played a prominent role in Detroit’s past (from original urban murals to an iconic record label), and in continuing to shape the ever-changing city today. Museums like MOCAD share the work of brilliant Detroit artists with natives and visitors alike, while also making the case that Detroit is a destination for a diverse, international range of art. Throughout the city, there are extraordinary examples of storied architecture. In rare record shops, music from earlier decades lives on, while contemporary indie bands play in a mix of new venues and old (outrageously awesome) dive bars. Neighborhoods like Midtown (museum district, home to DIA and a transformed retail experience), Downtown (encompasses all of the city’s major stages from economic to operatic and athletic), and Corktown (a hipster dream) have seen waves of new chefs and restaurants come onto the scene. Several new boutique hotels are promised to debut in the next year or two. So, while what in part makes Detroit cool is that it doesn’t have all the familiar amenities and trends of frequently touristed cities, it is undeniably a city of reinvention, and we expect this guide to evolve with it.
Belle Isle ParkBelle Isle | 313.331.7760
Pick a sunny afternoon to spend on Belle Isle, a 928-acre park-island situated in the Detroit River between Detroit and Canada. After you cross over MacArthur Bridge, bear right at the fork onto Sunset Drive. As you approach the eastern tip of the island, there'll be parking spots along the edge of the river. From here, you get the best view of the city across the way. It's also a good place to stop and play and/or picnic if you have littles in tow. (The beach stretch will be mostly empty if you come in the fall or winter but don't skip over it.) If you keep driving around the perimeter of the island, you'll pass Lake Tacoma and come toward the aquarium and conservatory in the middle. The aquarium (open only on the weekends from 10am to 4pm) is a famed building, designed by Albert Kahn in 1904. Right next to the aquarium is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, which is divided into five houses by fauna type. There are also plenty more outdoor activities on the island—the marshy forest is threaded with a nature trail, you can rent bikes, take out a kayak, or stop at the playgrounds or athletic fields.
Cadieux Cafe4300 Cadieux Rd., Lower East Side | 313.882.8560
Right after prohibition and the end of the first world war, this part of Detroit was home to a big Belgian community, and the Cadieux Cafe (which opened in 1933) feels like a relic of that time. The main attraction here is feather bowling, a bocce-like game played with wooden rounds that look like wheels of cheese, which are rolled down a covex court towards a single pigeon feather sticking out of the dirt. Strange as it sounds, it makes a great outing for littles during the day and a surprisingly fun late-night activity for grown-ups, as there's a huge list of beers—including plenty of Belgians—and live music until 2am.
Cinema Detroit4126 3rd St., Midtown | 313.482.9028
Paula and Tim Guthat, who met reviewing movies back in college, have built a strong community around their Midtown cinema, which specializes in contemporary, indie, cult, genre, and classic movies. They participate in several film festivals throughout the year, and you can always count on them to bring in a few stars from Sundance and Cannes that otherwise wouldn't make it to the midwest. This is also a great place to see films by local directors.
City Sculpture955 W. Alexandrine, Midtown
Robert Sestok is one of the original Cass Corridor (the name historically for the area of Midtown around Cass Ave.) artists. He still lives and works here and had previously kept some of his sculptures in a fenced-in alley that he shares with neighbors, but a dozen are now displayed in a park right near the freeway. (Sestok also has work on display elsewhere in Detroit, NYC, and North America.) Many of the sculptures—made of welded steel, bronze, stainless steel, crushed aluminum, propel tanks, et al.—stand well above human height. Stop for a coffee at Avalon before checking it out.
Clark Park1130 Clark St., Mexicantown | 313.841.8534
A community park in Southwest Detroit, Clark Park was saved by residents in 1991 when financial struggles had forced the park to close temporarily. Walking through the park you do get the sense of being far from any sort of city life—while it does feel like an escape, the park is very much tied to life in Detroit. In fall, the large trees throughout the space turn beautiful shades of red, yellow, orange, and in the winter, there's a regulation-sized hockey rink at its center. In the summer, among other things, the park provides free lunch daily to a hundred-plus students. Year round, there is artwork dispersed throughout the park and a series of community programs.
Dabls’ MBAD African Bead Museum6559 Grand River Ave., West Side | 313.898.3007
Run by Olayami Dabls, this is not the type of attraction that can (or should) be put neatly into a tourism box. The title "museum" is a purposeful, playful misnomer: The shimmering, bright house at the corner of Grand River and West Grand—it's outfitted in shiny pieces of broken mirror, installed by Dabls—is a shop in that you can actually buy beads from Dabls extensive collection of African art. If you're fortunate, Dabls will pop into the shop while you're there (or if you linger long enough); he can tell you how many hundreds of years old every single bead in the space is (suffice it to say, there are a lot, and many more not on display), and from which country in Africa. (The woman who works here at the shop with Dabls, is also very rad—if you've already been to Eastern Market, you might recognize her from a Sydney G. James portrait mural, at the intersection of Orleans and Division Street.) If the interior of the shop is the preservation of African culture, the art installments outside examine what the process of assimilation means and looks like. Using iron, rock, wood, and mirrors, Dabls (who would say he is a storyteller, not an artist) tells a gripping cultural narrative that is both sad and stirring. Dabls is currently at work to evolve the property to include a gallery space, community gathering spot, and safe, climate-controlled storage for his important collection of African art. (For more on how you can support the expansion and on-going fundraising campaign needed to match a grant from the Knight Foundation, go here.)
Detroit Institute of Arts5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit | 313.833.7900
Found in 1885 and with more than 600,000 square feet of space right across from the public library, the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the city's most valuable treasures. The city famously considered selling off some of the collection during the bankruptcy in 2014, to great uproar; it was saved thanks to an $800 million-dollar campaign called "the grand bargain," which rescued many notable works by incorporating the museum under an independent charitable trust. The Beaux Arts building is a work of art in its own right, but you'll also find permanent exhibitions of American and European art, plus a GM-sponsored center for African American art, and rotating temporary exhibitions of photography and installations. Have lunch at Kresge Court, a cute little coffee shop in the middle that makes for a great resting point if you're hoping to cover a lot of ground.
Detroit Opera House1526 Broadway St., Downtown | 313.237.7464
Opened in 1922 (it was then called the Capitol Theater), the Detroit Opera house is one of the city's architectural jewels—homegrown designer C. Howard Crane was also behind the stunning Fox Theater, and this space is every bit as grand, if a bit more classic, with painted frescoes, dramatic chandeliers, and draping red curtains hanging from the ceiling at every entrance. During most of the year, the building hosts shows by Michigan Opera Theatre, which was founded by artistic director David DiChiera in 1971—2016/2017 is his farewell season. The theatre itself also hosts visiting ballet ensembles, plays, and touring musicals—this season, they're hosting both the Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera.
Detroit Public Library5201 Woodward Ave., Midtown | 313.481.1300
The Detroit Public Library doesn't get its fair share of fame given how awesome it really is. For travelers who make a habit of stopping by the NYPL when in Manhattan, do the same in Detroit. The main branch building, which opened in 1921, and is right across the street from the DIA, was designed by architect Cass Gilbert (in part with an Andrew Carnegie gift); done in Italian Renaissance style, it's beautiful. Inside, go upstairs to the highest level, an expansive space with ornate details, murals, stained-glass arched windows, and a downright holy reading room. (For more book love in Detroit, see John K. King Used & Rare Books shop.)
Detroit Riverfront ConservancyDetroit Riverwalk, Downtown
The riverfront in Detroit stretches about five miles long (still somewhat a work-in-progress project for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, which has been connecting the east and west sides to add to the path's appeal). After checking out the Guardian Building, continue walking down Griswold toward the water. The wide path along the Detroit River is made for jogging, biking, and casually strolling alike. One cool thing is that you can see across to Canada from here—Windsor is just on the other side of the water. The impossible-to-miss GM Renaissance Center, seven looming skyscrapers, is just off the path into downtown, and the included corner restaurant, Joe Muer Seafood, overlooks the riverfront. From this area, you can also head up to the Dequindre Cut Greenway, which runs parallel to St. Aubin Street toward Eastern Market. This mostly below-level greenway has become known for its urban art and graffiti.
Fox Theatre2211 Woodward Ave., Downtown | 313.471.3200
It doesn't really matter what's playing at the Fox—while they get great shows, it's mostly worth buying tickets so you can just spend an evening in the stunning historic theatre. Opened in 1928 by William Fox (the movie executive whose company, which sold in 1930, still bears his name), it was designed by Detroit native Charles Howard Crane in the style of many grand theaters at that time, with all the old-school flourishes: grand lobby, check, Indian and Asian design influences, check, splashy marquee, check. It underwent a major restoration in 1987, and has been beautifully kept up since then. It's also worth checking the schedule at the Redford, another historic theatre that shows classic films and local musical numbers.
Heidelberg Project3600 Heidelberg St., McDougall-Hunt | 313.974.6894
The Heidelberg Project was started in 1986 by Detroit artist, Tyree Guyton, around his family's home on Heidelberg Street as part of an effort to bring art (and revitalization) to a neighborhood that hasn't historically had an organized community art center. The photographs hint at the outsider nature of the art—the block is strewn with found and recycled objects from around the city (old TV sets, discarded dolls, brightly painted tires, so, so many shoes). Seeing it in person is as strange as you might expect—but also, fascinating. You are meant to ask the obvious questions: Is this art? Is it junk? The Heidelberg Project is not without controversy: It's been fraught with various setbacks, including two arson attacks (in 1991 and then 1999), which partially destroyed the HP. The organization is currently fundraising to restore Guyton's "Numbers House"—the exterior is marked with large numerals—on Heidelberg Street, which serves as a community center for youth and neighborhood workshops and art exhibits, and is currently in dis-repair. Go here to learn more about HP and here to donate to the cause.
Library Street Collective1260 Library St., Downtown | 313.600.7443
Library Street Collective has taken a major role in bringing internationally known artists (particularly street artists) to the city, representing the likes of Shepard Fairey, Ryan McGinness, and How & Nosm. Recently, they've paired up with a local real estate firm, Bedrock, for public art projects like the Z, a parking garage filled with murals that create a museum best experienced from behind the wheel of a vehicle. They're also behind The BELT, a redeveloped alley in the former garment district where Library Street hosts rotating outdoor exhibitions.
Museum of Contemporary Art4454 Woodward Ave., Midtown | 313.832.4944
Founded in 2006, MOCAD is firmly a product of a changing Detroit, bringing local and international artists to an audience that's younger and a bit more avant-garde than what you'll find at the city's older art institutions. The museum is housed in a cavernous old auto dealership that was redesigned for this purpose (to great acclaim—the design won a prestigious award from Architectural Review), giving them plenty of space and flexibility for performance art, major sculptures, and dramatic installations. Their most ambitious project to date, Detroit City, addresses the influence of art, both new and old, and in every medium, on the city's real and perceived identity. The cafe in the middle of the space, run by Dave Kwiatkowski and Marc Djozlija (the guys behind The Sugar House) serves great sushi and well-crafted cocktails, and entry is based on a suggested donation of $5.
Self-Guided Architecture Tour
Detroit is a fascinating landscape for architecture aficionados, and arguably one of the main draws of the city. But regardless of why you find yourself in Detroit, you don't have to go out of your way to get a taste of the striking diversity of buildings here—you'll naturally come across many of the highlights (as well as the notorious ruins) just as you get around town. This is particularly true of Downtown Detroit, which has some of the country's coolest skyscrapers. Beyond skyscrapers, though, walking around Downtown, you'll quickly appreciate the range that is packed into this dense area. (It's pretty crazy, for one, that the opera house is right next to both Comerica Park, home of the Tigers, and the Detroit Lions's Ford Field.) The big Art Deco treasure downtown is the Guardian Building, which was completed in 1929 for the banking group, Union Trust Company (which was saved when the market crashed that year). The brick-granite exterior is impressive but do go inside the lobby and up the stairs to the long banking hall (the vaulted ceiling, mural-, mosaic-, and tile-work is likewise stunning). Other notable buildings in the area include: David Whitney (underwent a big renovation recently to return to its Beaux Arts glory), Book Cadillac, and the Roman Baroque former Wayne County Building. North of Downtown, in New Center, go to the Fisher Building on Grand Boulevard—another towering Art Deco masterpiece, this one by architect Albert Kahn, whose work you'll see throughout Detroit, and who was commissioned in this instance by the auto body Fisher brothers. While you're in New Center, walk the idyllic pedestrian-only stretch of Pallister Avenue west of John C. Lodge Freeway (M-10).