You should visit Detroit because it is both exactly what you’ve heard, and nothing like that at all. You can visit Detroit as an optimist, a skeptic, a ruin-hunter, or just as an American. But you should visit. Detroit is more than just an airport code on your Delta connection – it’s a place to linger.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Detroit is a mess. The roads are falling apart. It’s full of abandoned or burned out buildings, and the ghosts of buildings that are no longer there. There’s a lot of crime. The schools are terrible. The politics are complicated and messy. Detroit has lost more than two-thirds of its population since the 1950s. And they’re not just gone from one part of the city: the city has had a nearly across-the-board drop in density. Just imagine what your city would be like if two out of every three people disappeared. How would it hold together? How would it pay for roads that were built for three times the traffic? This is the fundamental problem Detroit faces.
As a visitor, you can go to Detroit to focus on those things. If you’re into “ruin porn,” you’ll surely get your fill – remnants of our industrial past, Gilded Age towers sitting empty, and block after block of boarded up homes.
But, please don’t do that. Visit Detroit because of all the things it has to offer. Visit Detroit because of its museums, parks, and most of all, its people.
Escaping the Bubble
There’s not much of a tourist bubble in Detroit. You can stay in a new boutique hotel downtown, an Airbnb in a neighborhood, or a chain hotel on the outskirts. It doesn’t matter too much – you’ll be doing a lot of driving no matter where you stay.
Everywhere you go, there are great opportunities to connect with locals and local life. Whether it’s at Eastern Market or one of the many smaller farmers markets, hanging out at Belle Isle, or grabbing a bite, people in Detroit love to chat. If the city motto in Austin is “Welcome to Austin, Please Don’t Stay” the city motto in Detroit should be “Welcome to Detroit, you should move into my neighborhood!”
While there are lots of sights worth seeing, you’ll have just as much fun grabbing an issue of Visit Detroit from the magical pamphlet rack at your hotel, or browsing the Events Calendar. Bands and food trucks in a park? Art opening in a new warehouse space? Go!
You’ll need a car. There’s no getting around that. In part, that’s because Detroit is motor city – a city that builds cars, built for cars. In part, it’s also because of the aforementioned issues of density. There’s a lot of empty space between things, and the neighborhoods don’t invite walking. Public transit is somewhat viable downtown, but beyond that you’ll need a car.
Detroit covers the same amount of land as Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston combined. Because the roads were built for a larger population, traffic is manageable even in rush hour. Parking isn’t a problem. Just don’t leave valuables in the car, and keep things locked.
The MoGo bike sharing system launched in 2017, and consists of 40-some stations around downtown. You can get a day pass to do some exploring on your own using the protected bike lanes and trails around town.
Seeing the Sights
Detroit punches way above its weight when it comes to sights, even taking into account the Detroit of the past. Chalk it up to a lot of very rich, competitive, civic-minded folks, and boundless optimism. Every guide will take you to places like the Detroit Institute of Art, the Detroit Zoo, and the Henry Ford museum. The last one is perhaps the most unique. It’s a physical manifestation of the very complicated figure of Henry Ford. Part of the site is a museum, with a heavy focus on mechanized transportation.
In addition to the museum, The Henry Ford has Greenfield Village, a historic village made up of buildings that Mr. Ford bought and transported to the site. This isn’t a village-from-the-past, but rather a collection of interesting or important buildings, all in one place. The centerpiece is Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, but you’ll find working farms, workshops, saloons, and much more. It manages to be Disney-esq without being campy.
While a lot of the sights in Detroit have their origins in the heyday of the city, some are newer and tell you about where the city is going. Take Dearborn. If you’ve heard of Dearborn at all, it’s probably one of two things: the place where Ford is based, or a target of anti-Islamic hatred from the likes of Fox News. Dearborn is home to a vibrant Arab American community, dating back to some of the earliest Arab immigrants to the United States. You can learn all about their community at the fantastic Arab American museum. And when you’re done there, you can walk the streets and enjoy a rebuilt downtown, a bustling civic community, and some amazing food. Just down the street, you’ll find an ambitious artist loft development in the old city hall.
The arts scene is a microcosm of the hope and despair of modern Detroit. Plenty of stories will tell you about the artists flocking to Detroit, tempted by cheap houses and ample space. Fewer stories will tell you about the multiple arsons that have destroyed large parts of the Heidelberg project. Housing may be cheap, but neither the city nor the state can support arts at anything like the level of a Minnesota or a Washington DC. And the population can’t provide the level of support of a New York or San Francisco. There’s art to be found, but it’s not utopia.
As with any great American city, Detroit has a few foods that it can claim as its own. Ironically, one of them is the Coney Island, a hotdog covered in chili and raw onions. You should probably eat one as a matter of course, but you don’t need to like it. Detroit also has Detroit Style Pizza, which pizza-snobs would more accurately classify as some sort of casserole. But let’s not get hung up on those.
First off, Detroit is a serious donut city. From Dutch Girl Donuts to the Donut Cutter to Donut Villa, you’ll find no shortage of awesome donuts. Even better, owing to the three-shifts nature of factory work, many of these shops are open 24/7. Round the clock donuts. Properly messy, low-rent shops. This is how love is born.
Dearborn is home to an assortment of fantastic Middle Eastern restaurants. Because they’re serving a local community, many of them open for breakfast. We can all agree that a really good Foul with an egg is in the breakfast top 10, and Sheeba can compete with the best.
The hipster food scene is well evidenced in parts of the city as well, though it reflects the ups and downs of the rest of the city. Plenty of hopelessly romantic coastal chefs have landed in Detroit with dreams of affordable locally-sourced new American food in converted auto shops, only to discover that the reality of a very spread out population with economic trouble makes that a challenge. Embrace the local community places and you’ll do fine.
Get yourself to Detroit
Whether it’s a quick flight or a road trip, you should get yourself to Detroit. Or give yourself a day as a layover next time you’re connecting at DTW. Get a donut and a coney. Chat with a historic re-enactor or someone sitting on a stoop. Get hooked on the math of what it would be like to own a house for the cost of a year’s rent in most cities. And don’t count Detroit out.