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After spending years in the Rust Belt and reading endlessly about the Renaissance of Detroit, I had to see Detroit for myself. This short guide to Detroit includes the highlights of Detroit within one or two days and what to do in Detroit for first-time visitors. Detroit definitely surprised me and I think that many American history lovers will fall in love with Detroit’s stunning art deco buildings. amazing street art, cool bars, and world-class museums.
Detroit is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Detroit was where the American auto industry came alive with Henry Ford. The industrialization of the United States and the success of the automobile industry coincided with the rise of Detroit, resulting in stunning buildings built in the late 19th century. Within the last forty years, large-scale riots within the city center resulted in large-scale white flight, which resulted in the Detroit suburbs growing in wealth while the city center languished. The low revenue from property taxes and the 2008 financial crisis did not help Detroit, which continues to face an abandoned house epidemic.
Within this period, a Detroit millionaire (from Quicken Loans) started investing millions into Detroit. He was able to draw some companies as well as professionals back into the city center. Soon, the downtown area’s many abandoned buildings were slowly converted into functional buildings. In 2013, the Detroit city government went bankrupt, which had serious implications for the city, however, the past five years have been a time of boom in Detroit as downtown Detroit is once again in bloom.
Around downtown Detroit, you’ll see countless people enjoying coffee and drinks at the various cool cafes around the city center, which is filled with incredible street art. Should Detroit be on your radar? Definitely, if you love history and street art. If you love a bit of grit, you’ll also love Detroit as there’s still plenty of buildings in the process of being restored, including the stunning Michigan Central Station.
Within downtown Detroit, things have changed quite a bit. Although it is good to be aware of your surroundings in general while traveling in the US, downtown Detroit is well patrolled with private security. Beyond downtown Detroit, you’ll quickly see abandoned buildings, which might unnerve a lot of visitors.
You’re best off having a rental car or taking Ubers/Lyfts to get in between neighborhoods as Detroit is a large city with neighborhoods that are far enough apart that you won’t want to walk. During the summer, you can also rent bikes at the various bike MoGo locations. I was able to function well enough without a car using Uber combined with taking the bus to/from the Detroit Airport (a lengthy ride of 50 minutes).
If you are visiting Detroit, I strongly recommend doing your research in terms of where you stay. Hands-down, the best neighborhood within Detroit’s city center has to be downtown where you’ll find a well-patrolled city center with numerous bars, restaurants, and hotels. A boutique hotel with affordable prices within the city center is the Siren with its charming Hollywood glam interior and its Candy Bar, perfect for a cocktail with a view. I traveled solo this trip to Detroit and I felt safe walking around the downtown area by myself.
One day in Detroit itinerary
In this guide, I included the highlights of Detroit possible within one day. I’d say one day in Downtown is enough to get a feeling for downtown Detroit, however, a weekend in Detroit will allow you to discover the surrounding areas and visit Detroit’s world-class museums.
I was actually really impressed by the many breakfast options in Detroit. I ended up at the Detroit Institute of Bagels, which had a surprisingly decent New York style bagel with vegan cream cheese and great coffee. It’s on the edge of Corktown, which isn’t so convenient for those without a car (unless you’re staying at the MGM Grand Detroit Hotel and Casino). Still, it was a solid meal!
On another day, I went to The Hudson Cafe within downtown Detroit for a very hearty breakfast. I loved the omelet, which came with way too many sides, but it’s a good deal if you’re brunching with no plan for lunch.
Coneys at American Coney Island
If you’re someone who loves to try the local dishes, I recommend stopping off at Lafayette Coney Island. I somehow managed to visit both American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island to try both of their Coney Islands–and I found Lafayette to be much better.
If you’re wondering what a Coney Island is, it’s a hotdog (pork/beef mix; not kosher or halal) with chili, mustard, onions, and ketchup. It’s pretty messy although it’s definitely a good budget meal. Bring cash, so that you don’t have to meet the credit card minimum.
One of the highlights of my trip to Detroit had to be the phenomenal Detroit History and Architecture tour done by Bob, a Detroit lawyer turned tour guide. His passion for Detroit teaches you about the history of the city, the fall of Detroit, and all the new changes to the city. Within the tour, he’ll take you around downtown Detroit showing you some of Detroit’s most beautiful buildings, including the Guardian building (shown above) along with some of its picturesque street art.
I’ve taken a lot of history tours and despite reading much about Detroit, I learned a lot. Even if you don’t take the tour, be sure to walk around downtown Detroit to take in its perfectly refurbished beautiful buildings. The public cannot enter most of the buildings on their own, which are mostly offices now, which is partly why I ended up taking a tour.
Enjoy street art in the Belt
Along the tour, Bob took us to the Belt. This picturesque alleyway in the center of Detroit has phenomenal street art and some really amazing cafe. Be sure to find your way down here. Be sure to peek into the Z-Lot parking lot for its massive street art. Detroit has sponsored many well-known artists to paint massive pieces within the city center, which makes for an enjoyable walk through this area.
Dinner in Corktown
I ended up following a local recommendation for supposedly the best sandwich in Detroit at Slows Bar BQ. At the recommendation of the bartender, I got the Yardbird (smoked chicken sandwich with applewood smoked bacon). It was absolutely delicious and the good selection of local beers/ciders well complemented the meal. There can be a bit of a wait, but you can get a seat at the bar if you don’t want to wait.
If you’re looking for more options, Gold Cash Gold down the street serves up farm-to-table regional dishes and Bucharest Grill is perfect for those on a budget looking for a hearty meal. (You have many options in Corktown.)
Evening drinks with a view
Downtown Detroit is full of great breweries and bars to enjoy in the evening. If you’re a lover of jazz, head to the iconic Cliff Bell’s for a beer and live music within this throwback bar with the same original interior as years ago. All the greats have played here and it’s a very romantic spot to cozy up on a date as you enjoy the atmosphere. They carry Bell’s, which is one of Michigan’s best breweries.
For a nice cocktail, head to The Candy Room for a cozy drink in this retro-style bar or the experimental Bad Luck Bar for a first-class drink. There are a million bars in Downtown Detroit, so simply do your research depending on what you’re in the mood for. For a simple pint, you can head to Detroit Brewing Company. For a craft beer with a view, head to Grand Trunk Pub for a great beer selection within this beautiful former rail station.
If you have more time in Detroit…
You’ll need to choose wisely what you do, however, a good second day in Detroit might be spent at the Detroit Institute of Art prior to enjoying Dearborn for Middle Eastern food for a late lunch before heading home!
Detroit’s legacy in music has been cemented by so many great artists who grew up in Detroit. Head to the Motown Museum to learn about the music behind this famous studio!
Detroit Institute of Art
Use your time effectively to get out of the city center to visit the world-class Detroit Institute of Art. This museum on the outskirts of Detroit’s city center is one of the best museums in the United States with a venerable collection of art. Be sure to ensure that you have at least a few hours to roam the hundreds of galleries to view its Egyptian collection as well as its modern-day collection of masterpieces. This is possible by taking a bus or taxi from downtown Detroit.
Dearborn, Michigan is one of the most notable cities in the United States. This city is home to the largest population of Arab Americans in the United States–and famous for its food. As you head from Detroit back to the airport, be sure to stop off here for a snack. I ended up carpooling with a girl with Egyptian roots who insisted that we stopped off at Al Ameer, a Dearborn institution with authentic Lebanese food.
Shatila Bakery is another institution famous for shipping their walnut baklava all over the United States. Save room (if you can) or get one of their iconic tins to bring home with you. Nearby is the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, perfect for car and history lovers. It’s a short hop to Detroit Airport from here, so it’s the perfect way to burn most of a day. You can get here via the airport bus from Detroit’s city center or by taxi/Uber without a car.
Experience street art in Detroit’s Heidelberg Project
This large-scale art project started by Detroit local Tyree Guyton was intended to help clean up the street that he grew up on. Guyton has been converting abandoned houses and vacant lots into works of art. Lovers of street art will want to check out the Heidelberg Project although it should be noted that it’s best to take a taxi out here if you’re without a car. Afterward, head to Eastern Market for a diverse space with food, tacos, and cool craft beer at Eastern Market Brewing Company.
Armed with a paintbrush, a broom and neighborhood children, Guyton and Grandpa began by cleaning up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street. From the refuse they collected, Guyton transformed the street into a massive art environment. Vacant lots literally became “lots of art” and abandoned houses became “gigantic art sculptures.” Guyton not only transformed vacant houses and lots, but he also integrated the street, sidewalks, and trees into his mammoth installation and called the work, the Heidelberg Project (“HP”).
Enjoy a stroll on Belle Island
Belle Island is one of Detroit’s most beautiful spots. This lush park in the middle of the Detroit River is home to a gorgeous greenhouse, kayaking, and gardens to enjoy during the warm weather.