With its emphatic embrace of art and design, and its unmistakable impact on North American culture, Detroit is so much more than Motor City—and it’s ready for its moment.
Detroit sure has changed a lot in 15 years. The last time I visited, I did not walk 15,000 steps a day and marvel at an outpouring of art and music every time I turned a corner. Not to mention meeting random strangers and chatting up a storm—at shops, on transit, in cocktail bars and just walking around and looking lost (something I excel at).
Detroit’s decline through the early 2000s and subsequent rise over the past decade or so has been well reported in the media, though I suspect the “rise” is still a bit of a best-kept secret. This is a city that should be on any list of “Top 10 American Cities”—in fact, Time magazine declared it one of the world’s 50 best places to visit in 2022.
And I’ll tell you why.
First of all, the walkability of the downtown core quite surprised me. Isn’t this Motor City? Sure it is, but the city has many designated pedestrian zones, parks and playgrounds (for adults too) in the downtown core—a bold and smart move designed to heighten the liveability and urban culture of the city.
Hang out a bit in the Spirit of Detroit Plaza, just north of the famous installation aptly known as “The Fist” in honour of boxing champ Joe Louis, and you’ll see what I mean. Here you’ll find lunch-breaking citizens enjoying their food-truck finds or indulging in a quick game of “fowling”—a Detroit-invented hybrid of bowling and football in which you throw a football at 10 bowling pins and … the rest is pretty obvious.
The massive Spirit of Detroit bronze monument anchors the scene. To the south, just a few hundred meters across the river, you can gaze from the Detroit River Walk toward Windsor. Note that you are, in fact, looking south-southeast toward Canada. That river continues south to Lake Erie, and then there’s Pelee Island right around the corner.
The monuments, murals and displays of public art tell Detroit’s story—with noteworthy candor—in an urban narrative that makes effective use of outdoor space. Alleys have been transformed into lively gathering places, painted with scenes historical and fantastical, or purely artful. “Rising from the ashes” is a slogan you will read and hear many times, as this city—once 1.5 million in population and now about 700,000—continues its re-ascendance.
Meantime, this is a heck of a fun city. Architecture fans will find eye candy galore, starting with the monumental 40-storey Guardian Building, a fine example of Art Deco magnificence that is the de facto anchor of the downtown core.
The Fisher Theatre, too, makes a bold statement—the opulent 2,000-seater, renovated in 1961, offers a full slate of top visiting performers as well as Broadway shows. It’s located in the 441-foot-tall Fisher Building—“Detroit’s largest art object”—and another of the city’s sky-scraping landmarks. You can treat it like a museum: pop in for a coffee and take in the intricate décor, resplendent in frescoes, mosaics, marble and brass.
It’s thanks to buildings like these—and also an emphatic embrace and expression of art and design—that Detroit was designated as a UNESCO City of Design in 2015. It’s the only city in the U.S. to receive this recognition.
Detroit has the largest population of Black people in the U.S., and the permanent and rotating exhibits at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History tell their powerful story from both a global and North American perspective.
There is almost too much to see and do at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where an overwhelming collection demonstrating feats of human ingenuity are on display, with many interactive elements. History is made real here, and the Rosa Parks bus invites deep contemplation. You can board the bus, take her seat and ponder a not-too-distant past.
As for the city’s impact on North American culture, Detroit’s contributions to music of all kinds cannot be overstated. This means a visit to Hitsville U.S.A.—aka the Motown Museum—is a must for music fans, where a guided tour elicits more than a few goosebumps.
I could enumerate at least two dozen “must do’s” for this city, but space is prohibitive and there are some things best discovered on your own—but just ask any friendly citizen for advice and it will be generously delivered. That’s how I found the delightfully quirky Peoples Records, with its excellent Motown section, adjacent the city’s famous Eastern Market.
The market is a collection of mostly open-air sheds—massive garages, really—where farmers and food vendors hawk their wares. It’s surrounded by a warren of streets lined with artisan boutiques, restaurants and cafés, making it an outstanding place to while away an afternoon—even when it rains, as there is plenty of shelter. On weekends, catching the outdoor blues revue at Bert’s Marketplace—a music venue and soul-food restaurant—is an unbeatable way to relax, especially with a platter of ribs from the outdoor smoker.
Detroit feels like it’s ready for its moment. This is a great time to visit to city—it feels like a best-kept secret that’s about to go, for want of a better term, viral. Travellers who like to be ahead of the curve … you know what to do.
The Siren Hotel is full of turn-of-the-century boho chic character, and the Candy Bar, just off the lobby, is the place to indulge in late-night boudoir-inspired shenanigans. (ash.world/hotels/the-siren).
The Shinola Hotel (yes, it’s related to the lifestyle brand) is emphatically arty and bluntly hip, with a comfortable lounge chock full of artsy books and tchotchkes. The couches are dangerously comfortable. (shinolahotel.com)
The historic Westin Book Cadillac, built in 1924, occupies pride of place on Washington Avenue, an easy jumping-off point for downtown exploration. (marriot.com)
Nightlife & Music
Catch outstanding local and visiting jazz musicians at Cliff Bells, where the potent cocktails and dimly lit speakeasy vibe—and outstanding cuisine (try the seafood chowder)—make it very difficult to leave. (cliffbells.com)
For serious cocktails and a playlist that ranges from funk to funkier, Bad Luck Bar is an alley-access speakeasy (bring your phone in case you need to call for admittance) guaranteed to make you feel special—or magically transformed. (badluckbar.com)
Fancy a little karaoke with the locals and a real live piano player? Sid Gold’s Request Room is the place—and the cocktails are outstanding. (sidgolds.com)
Eat & Drink
Grab a loaded hot dog at American Coney Island—the perfect grab-and-go snack and a Detroit institution. (americanconeyisland.com)
Lunch at Baobab Fare is an immersion in the cuisine of the east African nation of Burundi, with aromatic stews and delightful service. The Detroit Free Press ranked it as one of the top new restaurants of the year. (baobabfare.com)
Dinner at Takoi is a Thai-inspired pan-Asian experience—think coconut milk curries, brightly flavoured salads and delicious cocktails—in a beautifully boisterous atmosphere. (takoidetroit.com)
Two James is a distillery and tasting bar in the artsy Corktown neighbourhood—try a classic or seasonal cocktail or a flight of spirits. The Absinthe Verte is a rare treat. (twojames.com)