I’ve been going to downtown Detroit ever since I can remember. When I was young, my parents took us to baseball games in the old Tigers baseball stadium, always stopping to buy peanuts from a street vendor along the way. As a slightly older child, we attended musicals and plays at the Fisher, Fox, and Bonstelle theaters. In high school, my friends and I would drive into Detroit for photo walks and to dance at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, back when it was still independent and cool. And when I chose a university to attend, I decided on Wayne State University to study Fine Arts and German because there was something about the campus that felt like home to me.
Since moving away from Michigan, I’ve observed Detroit changing in many positive ways. Every time I go back to visit my family and we spend a day or evening in the city, there are new restaurants and bars, new construction, new events. Yes, what you’ve heard is true: the city is experiencing a renaissance, and after hearing that phrase for 20 years, this time I think it’s really true. Detroit has a long and complex history which I won’t get into here, culminating in a low point when the city declared bankruptcy in 2013.
Since then, a focus on revitalizing downtown with private ventures, including the arrival of a Google office, a new transportation line along Woodward, and relocating all of the major league sports teams into the city, has brought needed visitors and money to downtown. Gentrification brings its own problems and you don’t have to go far to find areas of blight and abandoned lots. But there are countless good things happening in Detroit and I would say, there’s never been a better time to visit.
My recommendations here are focused on what those who appreciate good design will enjoy, whether it’s in the form of art, architecture, or food, but there are many other amazing places in Detroit. Please ask questions in the comments below if you’re looking for something specific!
Any guide to art in Detroit will recommend visiting the Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Art and I agree that they are a must-see.
Last time I went I paid for a handheld device to listen to the commentary and background information on the frescos, which was worth the extra cost. While you’re there, enjoy the rest of their museum’s well-rounded collection ($14 for adults, free for local residents with ID; closed on Mondays). For dinner and drinks afterward, I would recommend Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails just a block away.
Detroit Shipping Company
If you’re looking for a place to have a casual meal, snack, or drink—perhaps while sitting outside and listening to live music—check out The Detroit Shipping Company.
If you’re going to a sports game or concert in Detroit, Grey Ghost is an optimal choice, since it’s a few blocks down the street from Little Ceasar’s Arena (and the food is several steps above what you’ll find in the stadiums). You’ll need a reservation to sit inside the chic and bustling dining room, but the bar and the outdoor patio are first-come, first-served. I’ve been here a couple times and loved the inventive and seasonal food and cocktails; last time the highlight for me was a mouth-watering fried bologna on a crispy waffle.
Downtown and around
If you’re in downtown Detroit, try and step into the lobby of the Guardian Building to gape at this incredible example of art deco architecture and interior design. The lobby is free to visit whenever the building is open.
Another recent discovery for me was the restaurant and bar Apparatus Room, part of the Detroit Foundation Hotel, which is built in a former fire station. The Edison-bulb filled space is beautiful, and the chef, Thomas Lents, comes with an award-winning background, having earned two Michelin stars as Executive Chef at Sixteen in Chicago.
Detroit has many options for great cocktails, and the final one I’ll call out is Standby, located in the street art-filled alley called The Belt. To get to Standby, you’ll walk through a set of rustic wooden doors and into a dimly lit interior that’ll make you feel like you’ve stumbled on a seriously cool secret.
The newcomer to the city on this list, Detroit Vineyards, is Detroit’s first winery in 60 years which just opened in summer 2019. While it was nearly empty during our recent visit on a Sunday afternoon, I am hoping that people catch on and this place sticks around. I love the concept of wine-making in Detroit as well as the space, located in the former Stroh’s ice cream factory.
The servers were very friendly and the winemaker puts local grapes to good use, focusing on sweeter whites and sour meads. The highlight for us was the recently released sparkling wine on tap.
When you’re ready to walk off all that food and drink, head over to the Dequindre Cut, a greenway located on a former railroad line. I would recommend starting at its southern end which intersects with the scenic and popular Detroit Riverwalk. A bonus: while you’re at the Riverwalk you can take a quick look at the skyline of Windsor, Canada, which is just across the water, or maybe even walk to the towering General Motors buildings.
The two-mile Dequindre Cut has paved paths for walking and biking, and street art underneath many of the bridges. It’s a great example of making use of the empty land in the city.
If you love art, you really can’t miss the Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art environment created by artist Tyree Guyton. You’ll need to drive there and you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but trust me: it’s worth the trip.
In the late 1980s, Guyton returned to his home neighborhood and was dismayed to see it had gone downhill. He decided to try and transform the street through art, by painting vacant houses with giant polka-dots and making sculptures out of everyday objects.
The Heidelberg Project is a now a non-profit which has bought many of the houses and land on the street. Walking around the piles of shoes, painted car hoods, broken dollhouses, and all kinds of other found items is a unique and highly Instagram-able experience.
The project is constantly changing and will continue to do so, especially since Guyton announced in 2016 that he will be dismantling or selling many of the pieces as he works on creating “Heidelberg 3.0”. Read this article to learn more about the complex history, controversy around, and plans for the future of the Heidelberg Project.
Less than two miles from the Heidelberg Project, you’ll find the small and charming Sister Pie bakery and cafe, started by another native Michigander who returned home. Lisa Ludwinski has an impressive background in pastry-making (she worked with Christina Tosi at Milk Bar in NYC, which to me explains her knack for making addictively delicious pies and cookies). Be warned though: if you arrive after noon on the weekend, you might find (as we did) that they are already sold out of pie!
Luckily, we were able to return on a Monday before 11 am to find plenty of pie left. After sampling most of the options I can say my favorite two options were the Salted Maple Pie with whipped cream and the hearty Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookie.
While you’re out there, if you’re interested in architecture, stroll through the nearby historic neighborhood Indian Village to see some of Detroit’s most beautiful homes.
Even if you can’t visit Sister Pie, you can support the bakery by buying their amazing pie-making cookbook (like I did!) so you can bake all of the recipes yourself. In reading the book, I learned about the history and love the fact that they not only make great desserts; they’re also are a mission-based place with a focus on the triple-bottom line (profit, people, and planet).
A little note about crime: Detroit has long had a reputation for being crime-ridden but it’s highly dependent on the neighborhood. The places I’ve recommended here all feel very safe to me. However, as with any big city, you should always use good judgement when visiting. Park in and walk around busy, well-lit places at night and don’t leave valuables in your car—in short, just use common sense!
Where to stay in Detroit
I stayed at the Westin Book Cadillac for a few nights and would definitely recommend it for being conveniently located downtown, with super comfy beds and a pool and hot tub to relax in after walking (or driving) around all day. Or for a more unique experience, book a room at the gorgeous and historical Inn on Ferry Street, which is just a block away from the Detroit Institute of Arts. Otherwise, Booking.com has many other hotels in Detroit.
I also always recommend Airbnb to help you feel like a local, whether you’re looking for a room or an entire house to stay in. If you haven’t used Airbnb, you can earn money back after your first qualifying stay by signing up for Airbnb with my referral link.
What to read next?
I wrote another “Designer in…” post about the my recommendations for Singapore, curated of course for my fellow designers!
Or you can browse through all of my latest stories here
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