When you think of city breaks in the US, I'm willing to bet you usually think of either big cities like New York or Chicago, or you think of cities that are known for being great tourist destinations like New Orleans or Las Vegas. And while these are all great options (I've been to them all myself!), the contrarian in me also enjoys planning trips to places that aren't necessarily on the typical tourist trail.
Which is why, when my husband Elliot and I were looking for a city to visit for a long weekend last summer, I decided I wanted to visit Detroit, Michigan.
Detroit is one of those US cities that has a really rich and fascinating history (think: Underground Railroad, automobiles, Motown, and more). At one point, it was the richest city in all of the United States. But after decades of collapsing industry, economic crisis, and a shrinking population, most people today only associate Detroit with crime and bankruptcy.
And while the Detroit of 2022 is not the affluent, thriving Detroit of the 1950s, it's also not the completely crumbling Detroit of the 1990s.
Yes, I think Detroit is worth visiting. And if you only have visions in your mind of abandoned houses and 8-Mile, you'll probably be surprised at what you can find there.
Is Detroit safe to visit?
One of the biggest stereotypes about Detroit that you've likely heard is that it's a very dangerous city. And I won't sugarcoat it: Detroit usually IS up near the top of any list of most dangerous cities in the US. The crime rates have come way down from where they were in the 1990s, but parts of Detroit still remain areas even locals avoid.
Having said that, though, the more dangerous parts of Detroit are not the ones you're likely to be visiting as a tourist.
Even though we live near Cleveland, a city that has a lot in common with Detroit, Elliot and I didn't know what to expect during our own long weekend in Motor City. As we were getting ready to go out for dinner and cocktails one evening, I found myself suddenly curious about whether it was safe to walk the 10 minutes from our downtown hotel.
But downtown Detroit is not one of the particularly dangerous parts. When we left our downtown hotel on an August evening, we were met with bustling streets, parks decked out with twinkle lights, packed restaurants, and an overall lively vibe.
If you're expecting to find the abandoned, seedy, “scary” Detroit that you've seen on TV shows, you have to go looking for it outside of the downtown core (though of course I don't necessarily recommend that you do go looking for it, because some neighborhoods are legit still really bad).
The safest neighborhoods in Detroit (and the ones that include all the things I'm going to suggest that you do in this itinerary) include:
- Eastern Market
You of course still want to practice all the usual safety precautions you'd take going out in any big city (watching your valuables, not wandering off alone down dark alleys, etc.), but a trip to Detroit doesn't have to be fraught with fear.
Like many former Rust Belt cities, Detroit is going through a transformation period. Its Renaissance is moving slower due to lack of funds, but the city has definitely changed a lot even in just the last 5 years – which is exactly why I'm excited to introduce you to it!
Cool things to do in Detroit
If you've never considered Detroit as a travel destination before, then you may not even realize what all you can do there. I'll talk more about each of these things later in my 3-day itinerary, but here are just a few of the cool things you can do in and around Detroit:
- Wave to Canada across the Detroit River as you stroll along the Riverwalk
- Learn about music history at the Motown Museum
- See Diego Rivera's famous Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts
- Visit the tallest indoor waterfall in America inside the One Campus Martius Building
- Go mural-spotting around Eastern Market
- See native fish at a 100+-year-old aquarium on Belle Isle
- Ride in a real Model T at Greenfield Village
- Plus lots more!
The best time to visit Detroit
You can certainly visit Detroit any time of year, but the best time to visit is going to be between mid-April and late September/early October. The weather is best during these months, and all the museums, tours, and attractions are open and operating.
If you visit from late October through March, expect the likelihood of snow and cold weather.
Elliot and I visited in August, during a hot and humid heat wave in Detroit. (So yes, Detroit can get very hot, too!) It wasn't the most ideal time to be doing things outdoors, but we made it work and still had a really good time.
Where to stay in Detroit
For my own long weekend trip to Detroit, I wanted to stay somewhere central in the city. And since I'm also a sucker for historic, repurposed buildings, we ended up splurging to stay at the Detroit Foundation Hotel, which is located in a former fire station from 1929.
Detroit Foundation Hotel
Both Elliot and I LOVED the Detroit Foundation Hotel. The old fire house has been lovingly renovated into a boutique hotel, but there are fire house touches that remain – including huge red doors outside, and a fire fighters' museum inside. The rooms have an upscale industrial vibe, and the hotel's restaurant, The Apparatus Room, is exceptional.
This hotel is also located within easy walking distance to everything downtown, from the Riverwalk to Campus Martius Park and all the best restaurants and bars.
Other hotels I looked at that are also great options in Detroit include:
- Aloft Detroit at The David Whitney – Aloft hotels tend to be aimed at Millennial travelers, but this Aloft also happens to be located inside the stunning David Whitney building, which dates back to 1915. The 4-story lobby alone made me want to stay here.
- Shinola Hotel – Located on lively Woodward Ave. not far from Comerica Park, this boutique hotel is very design-centric, with cozy, mid-century mod-inspired rooms.
- The Atheneum – A slightly more affordable option, the Atheneum is located in Detroit's Greektown neighborhood.
3 days in Detroit: The perfect itinerary
Note: I do highly recommend having a car in Detroit, whether you drive your own or rent one. You *can* rely on Uber or taxis, but it's definitely easier if you have you own car. Public transport isn't great in Detroit (nor is it always the safest option), and it's not always possible (or advisable) to walk everywhere.
Day 1: Downtown Detroit highlights
Assuming this is your first time in Detroit, it makes sense to start in the center of it all and spend your first day getting to know the city center and other nearby neighborhoods.
Morning: Downtown walking tour
I recommend starting your Detroit exploration with a walking tour. I love walking tours in big cities, and even though Detroit isn't *that* big, a walking tour will help you get the lay of the land and learn a lot about the city's history at the same time.
Elliot and I booked a 10 a.m. tour with City Tour Detroit. The tour is called “See The D: Downtown Detroit Walking Tour,” and covers a lot of the main highlights in downtown Detroit.
We strolled along the Riverwalk and learned a bit about Detroit's role in the Underground Railroad, saw the inside of the stunningly beautiful Guardian Building, visited Campus Martius Park (which in the summertime has its own “urban beach”!), passed by a couple iconic statues, and even tried a Detroit Coney Island dog (a must-try right up there with Detroit-style pizza) as part of the tour.
The See the D tour runs Wednesday-Sunday from mid-April through September, and costs $35 per person for a 2.5-3 hour tour. I'd say it's definitely worth it if it fits into your visit.
If not, though, you could do a self-guided tour to most of the sites. I would recommend visiting:
- The Riverwalk and International Memorial to the Underground Railroad
- Hart Plaza, including the Horace E. Dodge Fountain and Monument to Joe Louis “The Fist”
- Spirit of Detroit Plaza, plus the Spirit of Detroit statue
- Guardian Building, which is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral to Commerce”
- Campus Martius Park, which in the summer is transformed into an urban beach complete with sand
- One Campus Martius, which has one of the world's tallest indoor waterfalls inside its lobby
- The BELT, a pedestrian alley with murals and cool restaurants and bars
- Try a Detroit Coney Island dog from either American Coney Island or Lafayette Coney Island (they are right next to each other)
Afternoon: Eastern Market exploring
After your tour, pick up your car and head over to the Eastern Market neighborhood for some exploring (it's a quick 10-15 minute drive).
There's a huge farmer's market here on the weekends, but the area around the 19th-century market stalls is now filled with street art, restaurants, shops, and so much more.
Elliot and I stopped in to The Cafe at Bea's, where you can build your own coffee and lemonade drinks, and then headed over to Detroit City Distillery to do a tasting. Eastern Market Brewing Co is also nearby, along with some really fun shops and antique stores.
You could easily spend a couple hours here soaking up the atmosphere of this fun and funky neighborhood.
Quick stop: Heidelberg Project
Since you'll be on the east side of the city anyway, you might want to make a quick stop at the Heidelberg Project. This is an outdoor art installation that covers a good portion of a block in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood.
I'll be up front with you: this is not the best part of town. But that's the point here. This project has been ongoing since 1986, when artist Tyree Guyton decided he wanted to turn a blighted neighborhood into something more whimsical. Painting abandoned homes and using all sorts of discarded materials, Guyton has created something wholly unique here.
I read a story from 2016 that said Guyton was planning to dismantle the whole thing in 2017, but I can report that it's all still there as of late 2021.
You can easily make a quick photo stop here, or spend some more time exploring the block. Guyton himself is often around to chat to.
Early evening: Riverwalk
If you didn't visit the Riverwalk and Hart Plaza earlier in the day (or if you'd just like to go back to see more of it), it makes a good spot for a pre-dinner stroll.
Dinner: Apparatus Room
If you're staying at the Detroit Foundation Hotel like we did, then I highly recommend making a reservation to have dinner at the Apparatus Room inside the hotel. Not only is the space very vibe-y and comfortable, but the food and drinks are also excellent.
Nighttime: Bad Luck Bar
If you're up for a late-night adventure, see if you can snag a table at Bad Luck Bar, a speakeasy-style craft cocktail bar. It's located not far from Capitol Park (which is decked out in twinkly market lights on summer evenings), and, in true speakeasy fashion, is a bit hard to find. (The entrance is down an alley off State Street between Griswold and Woodward.)
Inside, the space is small and dark, and the cocktails are pricey. But it's such a fun experience! Both Elliot and I loved it.
Day 2: Another side of Detroit
Today will have you visiting some other parts of the city, as well as at least one or two great museums.
Brunch: Dime Store or Folk
I say brunch, but if you want to get a table at the popular Dime Store downtown (which does NOT take reservations), you actually want to get there close to opening, or be prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. This is one of the top brunch spots in Detroit, though, and is worth it.
If getting up early and/or waiting for a table doesn't appeal to you, though, another option is to head to nearby Corktown for breakfast/brunch at Folk. This spot is part organic market and part brunch cafe. Indoor dining wasn't happening when we visited, but they do have a small outdoor patio that's really nice.
Corktown is also a cool revitalized neighborhood if you want to spend some time exploring.
Late morning: Belle Isle
Regardless of where you get your breakfast this morning, make the next stop of the day Belle Isle.
This 982-acre island park sits in the Detroit River, almost abutting the Canadian border. A lot of people don't realize this beautiful place exists within Detroit, which is why I'm considering it a must-see.
Especially in the summer months, Belle Isle is lively with cyclists and picnickers – there's even a beach here!
For me, the top things to see on Belle Isle include:
- James Scott Memorial Fountain – This multi-tiered fountain dates back to 1925, and its central spray reaches heights to 125 feet!
- Belle Isle Aquarium – Belle Isle Aquarium was designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn in 1904, making it one of the oldest aquariums in the country. Inside, you'll find gorgeous green tiles and exhibits that span from the Great Lakes to far corners of the world. The aquarium isn't large, but is free to visit.
- Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory – Also designed by Albert Kahn and opened in 1904, this greenhouse and botanical garden is a beautiful place for a stroll. It's also free to visit once you're on Belle Isle.
- Dossin Great Lakes Museum – This maritime museum focuses mostly on Detroit's role in maritime history. Entrance is $5.
The Belle Isle park is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which runs it like a state park. There IS an entrance fee to pay if you're visiting by car; you'll need a $10 day-use Recreation Passport, which you can purchase when you enter through the park gates.
Lunch: Downtown Detroit
After spending some time on Belle Isle, grab lunch on your way back through the city center. If today is a weekend day, you could stop at Detroit Shipping Company, which is a food court/bar space built in and of old shipping containers.
Another option is to get some famous Detroit-style pizza from Buddy's Pizza, a local chain that's been around since 1946.
Early afternoon: Visit a museum
Near the Wayne State University Campus are a lot of Detroit's best museums, all within a block or two of one another. Which one you visit will probably depend on where your personal interests lie, but here are a few you can choose from:
- Detroit Institute of Arts – The DIA is an incredible art museum with 100+ galleries showcasing art from all around the world. I personally wanted to visit this one to see the iconic Detroit Industry Murals painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The 27 panels of frescoes are definitely worth seeing, and we enjoyed the rest of the museum, too. ($14 admission for adults)
- Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History – This museum explores the Black experience in America throughout the centuries. Detroit is a majority Black city, and this is important history to learn if you truly want to know it. ($25 admission for adults)
- Detroit Historical Museum – This interactive museum is a lot of fun, and covers different aspects of Detroit's history. ($10 admission for adults)
Late afternoon: Motown Museum
I'm calling out the Motown Museum separately here, because whatever other museum(s) you may or may not visit in Detroit, I feel like the Motown Museum is a must*!
The museum includes the house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that was purchased by Motown founder Barry Gordy in 1959. Motown's first headquarters and recording studio were here, and the house has since been dubbed “Hitsville, USA.”
The “Motown Sound” and the Black artists that were responsible for it changed the trajectory and history of music in America. Just a few of the big names who recorded music here include Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and many more.
*Note: The Motown Museum is currently undergoing an expansion, and is slated to remain closed until summer 2022.
Dinner: Choose your own adventure!
After a full day of sightseeing and museums, it's up to you how you want to spend your evening. If you're tired and didn't try it for lunch, get a Detroit-style pizza to go and just relax in your hotel room.
If you'd prefer to go out again, another top-rated restaurant in the area is Grey Ghost Detroit, which is known for steaks and craft cocktails.
Day 3: Motor City
No trip to Detroit would be complete without learning about the city's “Motor City” moniker. And perhaps the best place to do that is at The Henry Ford in nearby Dearborn, Michigan.
And while you could spend just half a day here, there's honestly enough to see and do to fill multiple days!
The Henry Ford
The main thing people come here to see is the incredible Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Covering a staggering 523,000 square feet, don't confuse this with “just a car museum.” Yes, Henry Ford is known for cars (plus plenty of unsavory personal attributes like being very anti-Semitic), but the museum here celebrates all sorts of industrial innovation in America, and doesn't just focus on Ford.
Henry Ford was a collector of history, and took this to the extreme by collecting entire buildings of historical significance (more on this later). So it's no surprise that you'll find some incredible things inside this museum.
Within the museum portion of the Henry Ford campus, some highlights you can see include:
- An array of presidential vehicles, including the 1961 Lincoln Continental that President John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated (yes it's morbid; yes I was also fascinated by this).
- An extensive exhibit on the American Civil Rights movement, which includes THE actual bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat; you can walk through it and see exactly where she sat and everything.
- Several aircraft, including a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, and the actual Fokker Trimotor airplane that first flew over the North Pole.
- A whole Chesapeake & Ohio Railway 2-6-6-6 “Allegheny”-class steam locomotive, plus a huge train exhibit.
- A large exhibit on race cars and racing in America (which Elliot really loved).
- And lots of other random things – including the alleged last breath of Thomas Edison in a sealed tube.
You could very easily spend 4 or more hours just in this museum, and still not look at everything. I definitely recommend picking up a map and making a plan for seeing the things you want to see the most.
Tickets to the Henry Ford Museum are $27 for adults, plus there's a $9 parking fee.
Just outside of the Henry Ford Museum lies Greenfield Village. At first glance, it looks like a reproduction of a 1800s town. And in some ways it is – with the one big exception being that most of the buildings within it are the *actual* buildings they purport to be.
Remember how I said that Henry Ford took his love for collecting history to the extreme? It's all on display here. Ford literally purchased 100+ historic buildings and moved them here, re-arranging them into a village setting that celebrates American achievement and innovation.
Just a few of the buildings you can visit here include:
- The Wright brothers' bicycle shop and home from Dayton, Ohio.
- A replica of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory complex from New Jersey.
- The Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law.
- Henry Ford's own birthplace.
Plus many others including a general store, a covered bridge, a windmill, a 1913 Herschell Spillman carousel, a railroad roundhouse, and more.
And while walking around Greenfield Village and interacting with costumed interpreters inside the buildings is fun to begin with, there are also lots of other unique things you can do on a visit.
- Take a ride in an actual 100+ year-old Model T (this costs an extra $8 per person, but it was my favorite thing we did all day).
- Ride on a train around Greenfield Village.
- See glassblowing, pottery, printing, and other live demonstrations at Liberty Craftworks.
- Visit an entire working farm!
- During the summer, you also might be able to catch an 1860s-style baseball game.
- Have afternoon tea in the garden at the Cotswolds Cottage.
- Grab a meal at at Mrs. Fisher’s Southern Cooking, which celebrates the recipes of Abby Fisher, a formerly enslaved woman who was one of the first African-Americans to write a cookbook.
Again, you could easily spend a whole day just exploring this part of the Henry Ford.
Admission to Greenfield Village is $30 for adults, but if you add it on to your museum admission ticket, you can usually save up to 50%.
Ford Rouge Factory Tour
Elliot and I did not do this tour (we didn't have enough time to begin with!), but it's one of the only tours you can take in the US to a working automotive plant. The innovative Ford Rouge Factory Tour gives you an up-close look at the making of the Ford F-150.
Factory tours cost an additional $22, and leave from inside the museum.
As you can see, The Henry Ford can easily be an all-day commitment if you really want to see everything! So you might want to plan to spend this final night in Detroit, too, so you can fully enjoy all the Henry Ford attractions up until closing.
I hope after 3500 words you're convinced to give Detroit a try! Whether you plan a weekend getaway to Motor City, or maybe include it in a larger Michigan road trip itinerary, I think it's definitely a city worth exploring.
Have you ever been to Detroit? If it's not, would you like to visit?