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.
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.
- The Detroit Institute of Art, or DIA
- The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History
- The Motown Museum
- The Heidelberg Project
- The River Walk and a great place for dinner
- John K. King Books
- Eastern Market and Vintage Eastern Market
- The DeQuindre Cut Greenway
- Belle Isle
- The Great Detroit Walking Tour
Meanwhile, this map from Wanderlog, the best free travel itinerary and road trip app, gives you a sense of the ground you’ll cover:
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.
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.
But don’t worry; there’s plenty of other amazing art, including “Something You Can Feel,” by Mickalene Thomas.
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.
Enter into a stunning, light-filled rotunda.
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.
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.”
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.
The website contains tons of fascinating information, and you can book tours with a docent or Mr. Guyton himself. This is his home.
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.
5. The River Walk and our Current Favorite Restaurant, The Wright Co.
Walking past the iconic Joe Louis Monument, aka The Fist….
….peering through the Michigan Labor Legacy monument…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t miss the grafitti.
And be sure to check out Vintage Eastern Market on the side streets, where different independent vendors fill their shelves with treasures.
Finish with a truly fabulous coffee at Bea’s. We LOVE this place.
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.
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.
Much has been there for a long time. You feel like you’re in an urban American version of the Roman forum.
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
And….well, there’s so much more to Detroit. We’ll have more to report next time.
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!