“Why?” was the first question many people asked when I told them I was going to Detroit for a long weekend. It’s undeniable that the crime statistics and news reports are off-putting. However, if you know anything about Detroit’s glory days, you’ll suspect that there is still some duende in this city, and you’d be right. After three days exploring what Motor City has to offer, here are my top picks for things to do in Detroit.
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In June 1896 Henry Ford test drove his first automobile on Detroit streets. A couple of false business starts later, and Ford established the Ford Motor Company with investors that include brothers John and Horace Dodge. Chrysler and GM followed as motor companies sprung up in and around Detroit. This was the birth of the auto industry and won Detroit the nickname “Motor City.” If you’re a car enthusiast, Motor City has to be on your bucket list. A tour of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant where the first Model T was made, is now an excellent museum containing a variety of early models and knowledgeable guides to tell you their story.
Detroit Industry Murals
Detroit Institute Art curator, Wilhelm Valentiner commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera (also known as Mr Frida Kahlo), to create a series of twenty-seven fresco panels. The theme would be ‘Detroit Industry’ and take eight months to complete across 1932-33. The Ford plant in nearby Dearborn, Michigan served as inspiration for much of the frescoes contents. The murals are heavily skewed towards the auto industry and were paid for in part by Edsel Ford, son of Henry. The sometimes controversial artworks have been questioned and protested for accused Marxist, blasphemous and pornographic contents among other criticisms. They are also widely regarded as the finest examples of Mexican mural art in the U.S. Spend some time at the Detroit Institute of Art studying the narratives and symbolism within these panels and decide for yourself.
If you’ve ever sung along to Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Jackson Five or Smokey Robinson among countless other recognizable voices, then you’re already well acquainted with the Motown sound. In 1959, songwriter Berry Gordy Jr set out to establish a label that would give black artists a place in the record industry that they had long been denied. The Motown Museum is housed in Berry Gordy’s former abode which was also the label’s original home and is absolutely one of the best things to experience in Detroit.
As the record label’s success grew, Gordy and his family purchased other homes in the street to accommodate different departments and purposes, until finally relocating to California in 1972. In 1985, Berry’s sister and Motown Senior Vice President Esther Gordy Edwards established the Museum which contains memorabilia and artifacts from Motown’s history. The building conjoins “Hitsville U.S.A” – the residential home where it all began, preserved in its home/office/recording studio configuration. Stand in Studio A, “the Snakepit,” where some of the biggest artists of the time recorded. If you’re a music fan and you’ve never seen “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” – it is time! This documentary is great prep for what you will see and boogie on down to at the Motown Museum. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed inside the building, so you’ll just have to visit and see for yourself.
Monument to Joe Louis
The monumental sculpture of a swinging fist at 5 Woodward Ave, Detroit, is dedicated to professional boxer Joe Louis. The one-time Detroit resident only lost 3 out of 69 professional fights and is regarded as one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time. As well as his achievements inside the ring, the African-American heavyweight was known for breaking down racial barriers. The monument in his honour, a 7.3m long arm and fist suspended from an equally high pyramidal frame, was commissioned by Sports Illustrated magazine and created by Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham in 1986.
Pure Detroit runs free tours of some of the cities greatest architectural gems. You have to see the Aztec-inspired Art Deco of the Guardian Building or “Detroit’s largest art object” – the Fisher Building to appreciate the unique eclecticism and opulence of these landmark structures. Make sure you stop by the abandoned former Michigan Central Station. Though fast deteriorating, the beautiful details of its architecture shines through. Also, do a lap of Belle Isle Park for the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Belle Isle Aquarium and Nancy Brown Peace Carillon.
Detroit street art
Detroit isn’t the kind of place you want to go wandering off the beaten path in search of hidden murals on abandoned walls. However, with due caution and a little inside knowledge, there is some incredible street art within safe reach. I noted some particularly outstanding examples of wild style while in Motor City. Try the Z Parking Garage for hours of mural fun by the likes of Maya Hayuk and Tristan Eaton. The Z and its neighbouring urban art gallery The Belt, are both located Downtown. Check out the streets surrounding Eastern Market for local Detroit artists like the floral dreams whipped up by Ouizi.
Eastern Market dates back to the 1800s and is one of the oldest urban farmers markets in the US. Saturday is the biggest and busiest market day and runs all year round. Seasonal markets are held on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays – check the Market website for details. Saturdays see over 200 vendors covering a range of products including from fresh produce to crafts and clothing while Sunday markets are a showcase of local artists, jewellers, cooks etc. Tuesdays and Thursday nights are smaller affairs. Eastern Market is also the centre of Murals in the Market, where you can enjoy many murals commissioned from local and global street artists.
Belle Isle Park is 982 acres of public space located on a small island in the Detroit River that was initially developed in the late 19th century. Belle Isle is home to an Aquarium, Conservatory, Museum, Nature Center, golf course and beach among various other attractions to explore. It is a wonderful green space, with beautiful historic architecture and great views of the Detroit skyline. If you’re only in Detroit for a weekend, I recommend skipping Belle Isle to prioritise other, more unique attractions mentioned in this post. However, if you’re visiting for an extended amount of time, it’s definitely worth checking out especially in good weather.
Plan your trip to Detroit, Michigan
Despite the naysayers and how it looks on paper, there’s a palpable undercurrent of city pride in Motor City and I can’t wait to see how it evolves over the coming years. Help this great city get back on its feet by enjoying some of these amazing things to do in Detroit and see here for more Midwest city breaks.
Peace, love and inspiring travel,