Quick & Clean Guide: 10 Fun Things to Do in Detroit

Looking for fun things to do in Detroit, aka Motown, aka The Motor City, aka Eminem’s stomping grounds?

We got ’em.

Big D is, after all, our closest big city.

This image features street art, the Heidelberg project, and a unique coffee with a waffle topper from Bea's in DetroitPin
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But let’s face facts immediately: Detroit’s got a rep. Not exactly a quick and clean one, either. The crime rate is high, and the statistics are, diplomatically speaking, daunting. This report from 2021 is a thorough overview. In the spirit of full disclosure, we encourage you to get acquainted with it before visiting.

But here’s the thing: ALL big cities have pickpockets. ALL big cities have neighborhoods that tourists have no business going to.

And Detroit has so much to offer, in districts that welcome tourists with open arms and will do all possible to keep you safe and happy. Detroit wants and needs you to have a great time, and then come back and bring your friends. On a recent overnight stay, Steve and I logged a massive amount of steps, ate amazing food, saw all sorts of cool stuff, and had a truly glorious time.

So stay current, be a smart and safe traveler, and you can have an absolutely superb weekend in this city, which crackles and pops with its own unique and alchemic energy.

Read on, or feel free to use this handy guide to jump ahead.

Ready for a fabulous day or weekend in Motown, aka Big D, aka Motor City? Check out our Quick & Clean Guide: 10 Fun Things to Do in Detroit Click To Tweet

1. The Detroit Institute of Art, or DIA

This superb museum can keep you occupied for hours—and we’ve often left too exhausted to do anything else. So we highly recommend you go in with a little bit of an agenda.

For any first time visitor, the Rivera Court of murals is required. The Court walls are gorgeous, moving, powerful, and represent Diego Rivera at the zenith of his career.

Prior to COVID, the DIA offered iPads loaded up with exploratory apps, including one dedicated specifically to Rivera Court. Hopefully, they’ll be able to distribute them again ere long. Certainly, nearly all of the museum’s free tours make a stop there, and docents report continually finding new things.

The first time I saw it, I realized I had tears on my face. I didn’t start sobbing or anything, they just started descending of their own accord. Spend some time with this magnificent 360 experience.

Of course, there’s a great deal more. There are always fine temporary exhibits. There are extensive sections dedicated to art of Africa, Native American peoples, East Asia, India, Islamic peoples, Egypt, and Sumeria. Art from medieval to contemporary is on display, much of it with informative commentary.

A photo of Frida Kahlo, a Vitali royal portrait, and Native American masks are just some of the offerings at the DIA, Detroit institute of Art.
A photo of Frida Kahlo—Diego Rivera’s wife, and close to the museum’s heart—a Vitali royal portrait, and Native American masks are just some of the offerings at the DIA.

There’s an African-American section, which is home to this extraordinary Kehinde Wiley portrait—though it’s been loaned out since Wiley leapt to national attention with his portrait of Barack Obama.

Kehinde Wiley's Hussar shows an African-American man in jeans and tank atop a fierce white horse. The man carries a saber in one hand. The background is a rich red and gold pattern.
“Officer of the Hussars” by Maia C is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But don’t worry; there’s plenty of other amazing art, including “Something You Can Feel,” by Mickalene Thomas.

Mickalene Thomas's joyful multimedia portrait "Something You Can Feel" is a highlight of the African American collection of the DIA, Detroit Institute of Art, one of our top Fun Things to Do in Detroit.

And kids are nicely catered to, with workshops and I Spy features interspersed everywhere. (In fact, our post Favorite Things to do In Detroit with Kids will be along soon; join our mailing list to learn when it comes out.)

Our tip: Choose 1 special exhibit and 2 other sections, and really take your time. I often countdown for 30 seconds in front of works that strike a chord. It’s amazing how much you can see in just that amount of time—and also amazing (in a not so great way) to realize that we tend to give these things about a 10-second look, max, prior to moving on.

Of course, don’t feel like you need to move on after 30 seconds. You can’t see everything, by a long shot.

So go for the deep dive into the stuff that makes your heart sing.

2. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History

Right across from the DIA, you’ll find the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. You’re greeted by this joyful sculpture, “United We Stand,” by Detroit artist Charles McGee.

Maybe not so much one of the fun things to do in Detroit as an important one, The Charles H. Wright museum of African American history is graced by local artist Charles McGee's striking and massive sculpture, United We Stand, in which monumental abstract figures are covered in geometric black and white patterns.Pin

Enter into a stunning, light-filled rotunda.

The entry to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History features a floor with a large, multi-color graphic mosaic and a glass paneled dome overhead.Pin

That, alas, is all I can show you. While the Wright regularly features smaller interactive exhibits dedicated to unique chapters of African-American history—well worth your time—it’s headliner is “And Still We Rise,” a 45-minute (minimum) walk through African American history.

No photos are allowed. But this video, made by the Michigan group Power Home Remodeling, provides a glimpse—not only of the exhibit itself, but of the experience of visiting the Wright.

The 45-minute trip begins in Africa. You’re surrounded by a cacophony of sounds: drums, voices rising and falling in song and speech, animals and birds. It’s chaotic in a good way, and as you stroll past various displays featuring mannequins engaged in all sorts of daily activities, you get a sense of life in West Africa for people freely going about their lives.

The soundtrack is deeply important to the whole experience. It’s soon replaced by Europeans haggling with Africans around a table, then by the ominous creaking of a ship, the scream of a captive being branded, and eventually an auctioneer’s voice. All around you as you walk through one of the “castles” where captives were kept prior to the horrific, claustrophobic multi-layered hold of a ship, and into the New World, past town squares where people are chained like animals in order to be haggled over.

This is INTENSE. I felt choked, by anger, shame, sorrow. I’ve read a lot on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, from general histories to the outstanding books Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and Inheriting the Trade, by Thomas DeWolf. The Wright’s exhibit made the books strike that much harder.

I wish every US citizen could go through it. Particularly those who are currently bitching about Critical Race Theory.

As a parent, be forewarned of the intensity. Your kids need to see this, but make sure you set aside time to discuss their experience—and yours.

Following emancipation, there are interactive displays dedicated to businesses owned by African-Americans around the country: a barbershop, a drug store, a theater playing an old “race movie,” in itself an education. The day Steve and I went, we were behind some high school age kids, who looked to be having a ball as they kicked off an impromptu dance party using the jukebox in the record shop as the DJ.

3. The Motown Museum

Does all this museum talk prompt you to say, “Hey, I wanted FUN things to do in Detroit! I’m not a museum person!!”

Then you, my friend, have just not met the right museum.

Here ya go.

The Motown Museum tours and docents are terrific. You get a chance—if you’re brave—to sing in a part of the museum specially engineered for acoustical purity. You’ll find out which candy Stevie Wonder liked from the vending machine, and how, since he memorized the buttons, they’ve never been changed.

In other words, this is some OLD candy.

It’s a place that breathes music directly into your bloodstream. It’s a joy.

4. The Heidelberg Project

From Motown, check out another type of art unique to the city.

Provided there’s still plenty of daylight, drive across town to The Heidelberg Project, an exuberant explosion of outdoor found art constructions.

Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project is an open air found art extravaganza that takes over the Heidelberg block in Eastern Detroit. It's one of our favorite Fun Things to do in Detroit.

Artist Tyree Guyton began the project in 1986, in this neighborhood where he grew up. From the website: “Guyton claimed that his art was a medicine—a bitter pill to swallow—for the people and that the pros and cons were part of the process.”

Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project is an open air found art extravaganza that takes over the Heidelberg block in Eastern Detroit. It's one of our favorite Fun Things to do in Detroit. This photo features different rough and colorful paintings of clocks.

In other words, he met with a great deal of “That’s NOT ART!!” type of comments.

Nevertheless, and fortunately for all of us, he persisted. And persevered. And….well, this place is just brilliant.

Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project is an open air found art extravaganza that takes over the Heidelberg block in Eastern Detroit. It's one of our favorite Fun Things to do in Detroit. In this photo, shopping carts, some in ice cream colors, pile on top of each other.

The website contains tons of fascinating information, and you can book tours with a docent or Mr. Guyton himself. This is his home.

Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project is an open air found art extravaganza that takes over the Heidelberg block in Eastern Detroit. It's one of our favorite Fun Things to do in Detroit.Pin

It’s still a neighborhood that doubtless gets pretty rough at night. So we’d say unless you’re with a local, don’t push your luck. But during our daytime visit, people sitting on porches greeted us with smiles and graciously answered our questions.

Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project is an open air found art extravaganza that takes over the Heidelberg block in Eastern Detroit. It's one of our favorite Fun Things to do in Detroit. This photo features a small car crammed floor to ceiling with old cushions.Pin

5. The River Walk and our Current Favorite Restaurant, The Wright Co.

Walking past the iconic Joe Louis Monument, aka The Fist….

The iconic Joe Louis monument in downtown Detroit, en route to the River Walk, one of our favorite fun things to do in Detroit.

….peering through the Michigan Labor Legacy monument…

View the Michigan Labor Legacy Monument as you catch the breeze on the Detroit River Walk, one of our favorite fun things to do in Detroit.

You’re at the Detroit River. You can walk along it til you get to the Renaissance Center, the Ren Cen.

The restaurants at the Ren Cen tend to be busy; people love them. But I prefer hanging out back of the Ren Cen, the river breezes counterbalancing the concrete heat, the soundtrack of Detroit families catching up with each other as they watch kids play.

For dinner, we’re all over Wright and Company—no relation to the Wright museum (at least that we know of), just excellent food in a beautiful setting. Here, Steve’s snapper with roasted veggies.

A delicious seasonal specialty, snapper with roasted veggies, at Wright and Co in downtown Detroit, a great place to get dinner as you refuel to do more fun things in Detroit.

We especially love that the entrance is off the main street, via a small elevator—which opens into this a hallway, which takes you here.

The beautiful bar at Wright and Company restaurant in Detroit features a brick wall and maritime mural.

6. John K. King Books

Each of the 4 floors of legendary book store John K. King is packed with used books in every subject you can possibly imagine—and some you no doubt can’t.

With 4 floors to browse, John R. King is at the top of a booklover's list of fun things to do in Detroit.

If you find the staff, ask them about the ghosts. They’ve all got their own stories.

I was searching for a book on reading Chinese characters, Swallowing Clouds, by Todd Zee, for my daughter, who’s currently learning Mandarin. The store didn’t have it; employees have databases on their phones and, if a book is in the store, they’ll let you know.

Instead, the helpful staff member steered me to textbooks on Chinese language, then went and picked up a memoir on life in China for three generations of women in one family.

“It’s funny, but two friends recommended this book to me separately not that long ago. So your daughter might really like it,” he said.

I have a feeling I would have gotten that kind of in-depth, thoughtful help no matter what I’d been looking for.

7. Eastern Market and Vintage Market

Get to Eastern Market early on a Saturday, and you can generally find free parking. Much after 8 a.m., you’re likely to have to pay.

If you’re a serious shopper, bring a little wagon.

Shopping at Eastern Market is one of our favorite fun things to do in Detroit. Bring a cart!

Don’t miss the grafitti.

Colorful grafitti at Eastern Market in Detroit shows Aretha FranklinPin

And be sure to check out Vintage Eastern Market on the side streets, where different independent vendors fill their shelves with treasures.

Vintage Market, near Eastern Market in Detroit, offers treasures from the past, like this blue mosaic outdoor furniture set. One of our favorite fun things to do in Detroit. Pin

Finish with a truly fabulous coffee at Bea’s. We LOVE this place.

The best coffee and lemonade you can get near Eastern Market: Bea's, one of our favorite fun things to do in Detroit.

8. The DeQuindre Cut Greenway

Toward the northeast border of Eastern Market, steps lead down to the DeQuindre Cut Greenaway. Or, you can pick it up at around Mack Ave, where this sign greets you.

The DeQuindre Cut, an urban walkway east of Eastern Market, is a beautiful stretch of reclaimed greenery in downtown Detroit.Pin

We ended up walking in the general direction, through a quiet neighborhood, then looping back to the Market. Formerly a railroad line, the cut is a wide spacious trail, bordered by grass. You’ll see bikers, walkers, runners.

Bordered by grass and 25 feet below street level, the Cut feels wonderfully cool even on what can be fiercely steamy days. We especially love the grafitti that you bump into.

The DeQuindre Cut, an urban walkway east of Eastern Market, is a beautiful stretch of reclaimed greenery in downtown Detroit.Pin

Much has been there for a long time. You feel like you’re in an urban American version of the Roman forum.

The DeQuindre Cut, an urban walkway east of Eastern Market, is a beautiful stretch of reclaimed greenery in downtown Detroit.Pin

9. Belle Isle

East Grand Boulevard crosses the Detroit River onto Belle Isle, a lovely parcel of city greenery and quiet.

In non-COVID times, you can cool off in the Aquarium and at the Conservatory, the latter of which is pictured below. (Check the link for current operating policies.)

Belle Isle, a beautiful island with plenty of parkland, an aquarium, and conservatory, show in this photo, is one of our favorite fun things to do in Detroit.

But if Belle Isle still hasn’t fully reopened, it’s still a beautiful place to hang out. People fly kites, picnic, and simply chill out on the grass enjoying the view.

10. The Great Detroit Walking Tour

We booked an AirBnB tour, Je t’aime, Detroit, with lifelong Detroiter Alina. She’s passionate about her city, and absolutely fearless.

Alina met us at Belle Isle, drove us to Coffee Down Under for a fine cup of Joe, pointing out architectural gems along the way.

Coffee down under in Detroit is in a downtown basement and features its own roast for sale in pastel bags.

“I don’t have a set tour,” she said. “I like to go where you want to go.”

We and the other guest—a 20-something from Florida who’d just decided she’d do some solo exploration of different US cities—told her we were pretty much game for anything.

We then walked all over Detroit’s downtown. We spent time in the gorgeous art-festooned lobby of The Shinola Hotel before heading into the Belt, an alley bursting with street art—goofy to profound—as well as lively bars and restaurants, and general coolness.

A group of pictures taken in The Belt, a Detroit alley filled with art. This includes a protest picture in which the sign "They're Going to Kill Me" is printed against the sky.

There was a great deal more: Corktown, a neighborhood named for County Cork in Ireland, where a lot of the original residents were from. We stopped at El Dorado General Store, an eclectic delight with new and gently used goods. We tooled over to New Center, where I had a fine focaccia courtesy of Ochre Bakery.

Ochre Bakery, a new and delicious artisan bread and pastry maker in Detroit.

And….well, there’s so much more to Detroit. We’ll have more to report next time.

The Headroam post, 10 Fun Things to Do in Detroit, provides expert advice from a Michigander passionate about Motown. Pin
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How About You?

We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of Detroit. Do you have great photos, stories, and places to share? Let us know in the comments!

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About Me

Welcome to Head Roam! I’m Nan Bauer. Join me in rethinking travel in the world we live in now. Learn more about how I got here.

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