City Guide 2024: A Newcomers Guide to Visiting Detroit

Art Deco goodness, world-class art everywhere, a special pair of shoes: A newcomer to ”The D” finds the city’s comeback hits all the right notes.
56
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

My life, like those of most Americans of a certain age, marched along to a strong Detroit backbeat: Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Motown, Eminem. The Motor City, where all cars came from.

I believe I visited as a child, during a family motorhome trip across Canada; we made a detour to Detroit for repairs, and I remember crossing a bridge over a river into a smoky charcoal sketch of a city. It was a long time ago, and Detroit has come a long way since then, or so I’d heard. I knew it was the city that had changed the world, and now it was changing, too; it had no choice.

As a longtime New York resident, I’ve always imagined Manhattan to be the city against which all other are judged. But I didn’t want to judge Detroit — I wanted to see it for myself.

So I must have manifested an unexpected editing job at a magazine all about, yes, Detroit. I read articles about architecture, history, and food, about clever boutique hotels and craft cocktail culture and legendary works of art. An underdog story. Pretty much all the things I love. It was a sign.

During a business trip to Detroit last fall, I took a whirlwind tour of as many iconic sights as I could squeeze in between meetings. I had a rental car and a punch list but little planned, since I like to leave room for the unexpected.

What I discovered was that like one of Ford’s early mechanical contraptions, the full story of Detroit has a lot of moving parts, and I would only experience a few of them.

It was beautiful and nostalgic and inspiring, all at once.

Part 1: The Henry Ford Museum

My first stop was the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, only 20 minutes east of the airport on the way to the city. This is Ford country. In 1929, after a newspaper called the creator of the assembly line and the five-day workweek ignorant of history (he sued), Henry Ford showed them by building his own museum.

He collected Americana from around the country and displayed the items in a museum designed to resemble Independence Hall in Philadelphia. After he died in 1947, the collecting continued. The huge, open exhibition hall holds an astonishing assemblage of machines, from tiny to massive, that once flew, chuffed, whirred, and harvested, all demonstrating what Ford called “the genius of the American people.”

Car buffs and vintage design lovers (ahem) will be in heaven. One of my earliest memories is watching President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on TV, and I made a beeline for the Lincoln convertible he was riding in when he was shot. Nearby were two neon signs, vintage McDonald’s and Holiday Inn signs, and two gorgeous 1950s Fords, plus displays on road trips and vintage motels and camping.

It was all channeling my childhood.

In the middle of it all is a 1940s diner called Lamy’s, which Ford plucked out of Massachusetts. Lunch items include chicken salad sandwiches, frappes, and Faygo Red Pop, Detroit’s official soda. It was liquid candy, and the sugar buzz propelled me through the displays on American history.

The chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. The actual bus where Rosa Parks refused to move seats and sparked a racial reckoning, found abandoned in an Alabama field and restored. I sat in the same spot while a young docent told Parks’s story and I thought about the small acts of courage that can change the world.

Ford collected buildings, too. Starting with his own childhood home and barn, he began relocating structures to a nearby 200-acre outdoor area now called Greenfield Village. So far, 100 historically significant structures — including the bicycle shop where the Wright brothers built the first flying machine — have been moved here or reconstructed and arranged into seven historic districts.

Combined with rides in a train or Model T, this canny example of world-building evokes Main Street at its most idealistic — and influenced the creation of Disneyland. I did not have time to explore, but I’ll be back — it must be especially beautiful in the springtime.

Part 2: Hotels with History

There’s no better place to stay after a day spent among 19th-century machinery than the Detroit Foundation Hotel on West Larned Street in downtown Detroit.

Located an easy walk from all the downtown sites, the former headquarters of the Detroit Fire Department is a fine example of the boutique hotel surge of the past 10 years or so, wherein old, often abandoned buildings are repurposed into luxury hotels while retaining their historic architectural bones.

The Foundation finds beauty in exposed brick, salvaged wood, and Edison bulbs. Firehouse artifacts unearthed during the project are kept behind glass. Left of the small lobby, a soaring ground-floor space that once housed fire trucks is now a glittering restaurant and bar called The Apparatus Room.

There, after a long walk, I enjoyed a late dinner of a Little Gem lettuce salad with sheep’s milk cheese and a coriander vinaigrette; sea scallops in a cantaloupe curry; roasted potatoes; and sourdough bread made from 13-year-old starter. That buzz I felt wasn’t just the two craft cocktails I consumed; it was the endorphin rush of being somewhere new, chic, and metropolitan, surrounded by strangers in a city that already felt familiar.

Just a few blocks from the Foundation is the Cambria Hotel Detroit Downtown, a brand-new hotel housed in a “broadcasting palace,” the former home of radio station WWJ.

Designed by Albert Kahn, Detroit’s favorite architect, the dramatic modernist limestone facade greeted large audiences who gathered for radio plays in its theater. The radio station left in the 1980s, and today it’s a sexy boutique hotel with original black-marble interiors, atmospheric black-and-white photographs, huge guest rooms, and an indoor golf spot in the basement.

The folks working there were the best. We compared Detroit to New York City and agreed the latter has far more rats. Indeed, not only did I never see a rat in downtown Detroit, but I hardly saw a candy wrapper or a soda can either. These are the cleanest streets I’ve ever seen in a major city, and I never felt anything but welcomed.

That Midwestern friendliness I’d heard about is real, and it’s here. This surprised me a little, because the city can assume such a gritty, defensive posture. But don’t let that fool you — Detroiters are sweethearts.

Part 3: Campus Martius and Woodward Avenue

Detroit’s downtown district is only 1.4 square miles, and you can cover a lot of territory if you know where you’re going, which I most certainly did not.

On my first day, I took a left on Woodward Avenue and stumbled across Campus Martius, a former military drill ground turned public park — and the nucleus for the NFL Draft events. In the summer, they dump 40,000 tons of sand and add lawn chairs and it becomes an urban beach in the shadow of the huge Civil War monument.

Many of the downtown’s six parks have old-school statues of founding figures, their stories on a bronze plaque. I learned that long before Cadillac was a car, it was the name of a French fur trader and explorer, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who planted his flag here in 1701 and claimed the territory for King Louis XIV.

A century later, in 1805, Detroit burned to the ground. Judge Augustus Woodward, inspired by the layout of Washington, D.C., redesigned the street plan to have five grand boulevards spoking out from a point of origin in Campus Martius.

One of those five boulevards, and the central one, is Woodward Avenue. This historic road starts at Campus Martius Park and keeps right on going to the suburbs, 27 miles in all. (Come back in August and check out the Woodward Dream Cruise.)

Woodward Avenue is the spine of the city, a grounding force. If you get turned around, locate Woodward and follow it toward the Detroit River, and you’ll find yourself again.

Part 4: Detroit People Mover

It makes sense that a city dedicated to the automobile would not have a subway, but Detroit has two aboveground mass transit options, aside from the bus system, that take you to very different places.

The People Mover (yes, Disney World has one, too) travels in an irregular loop around the downtown perimeter, making 13 stops in only 12 minutes (and it’s free in 2024). The whirring two-car monorail hits the major stadiums, convention centers, and corporate headquarters. It follows the river, giving a nice view of the Windsor, Ontario, the skyline in Canada and the Ambassador Bridge.

The People Mover stops at the futuristic cluster of glass towers of the Renaissance Center, or GM Ren Cen, General Motors’ world headquarters and home to Michigan’s tallest building. The giant atrium has a car-show vibe, with new GM models and a rotating selection of rare Chevys, Cadillacs, and Buicks. From there, the People Mover travels to Grand Circus Park close to Ford Field, Comerica Park, and the Fox Theatre. This “entertainment zone” has lots of bars and restaurants for the crowds that descend during big games.

The second option, the QLine light-rail system, travels a straight line along Woodward Avenue for 3.3 miles, from the waterfront to Midtown and beyond. I’m not sure what the Q is for, but it’s not “quick”: Waits can be long, but at least it’s free this year, too.

Like downtown, Midtown has had a major civic glow-up over the past decade; the museums are up here, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, our next stop. (I later learned the Q stands for Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans; he bought the naming right.)

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Part 5: The Diego Rivera Murals and More Art

Owned by the city, the Detroit Institute of Arts, a neoclassical 1927 museum with a soaring entry hall, is more compact than The Met in New York and thus less exhausting, but its collection is comprehensive and culturally diverse. I spent two happy hours roaming the second floor of American and European art — the impressionist gallery was exceptional, the big names accounted for: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet.

It is shocking to think that in 2013, the year Detroit declared bankruptcy, the city considered auctioning off its most valuable artworks to raise money. But private donors stepped into the breach, and the collections, and the museum itself, were saved. The counties of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne voted to contribute tax money to the museum’s maintenance, and that is why their residents get in free.

The main attraction at the DIA is the Detroit Industry Murals. They are extraordinarily famous, for good reason. In 1931, as the Great Depression smacked the city and violent protests rocked Ford Motor Co., its president, Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s only child, funded the DIA’s commissioned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to paint an homage to Detroit’s industrial might.

Inspired by scenes he saw at Ford’s River Rouge plant, the communist painter created monumental frescoes celebrating the heroism of industrial workers. You enter Rivera Court through a corridor (don’t miss the fountain of local Pewabic tiles to the right). It takes a few turns of the body to take it in: 27 panels in a soaring 3,000-square-foot courtyard, densely packed with extraordinary modernistic scenes of 20th-century industry, both hopeful and sinister, executed with the same fresco technique that Michelangelo used on the Sistine Chapel.

The scale of Rivera’s genius is mind-boggling; the more you look, the more you see. He considered it his best work, but the murals were controversial; the wealthy elite wanted them whitewashed. Edsel Ford stood his ground, responding: “He was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.”

The populist spirit of Rivera’s murals continues to inspire contemporary muralists. Every corner you turn in Detroit yields a building with a painting, an outdoor art gallery with a purpose. The City Walls program began as a form of “blight remediation,” incentivizing property owners to allow artists to paint murals on their buildings, and they have answered the call. Whales cavort on the side of a skyscraper. Stevie Wonder welcomes you to Detroit from the side
of a performing arts center. Three young women stare boldly from the side of a parking garage.

There are 100 (official) murals and more on the way, expressions of intensely creative and resilient communities.

Part 6: Corktown

Meetings brought me to Corktown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, about 2 miles due west of Campus Martius Park on Michigan Avenue, one of the big five boulevards.

This area was settled in the 1830s by Irish immigrants from County Cork, followed by generations of other newcomers to this country looking for factory work. An enclave of tidy Victorian cottages sprung up, and the surviving houses have been brightly painted and preserved and their neighborhood designated a Historic District.

Corktown’s bohemian and ever-busier business district runs along Michigan Avenue, where old favorites like Sugar House rub elbows with new favorites like Supergeil. The new and very hip Godfrey Hotel has great skyline views from a 7th-floor lounge. Next door is a place where people throw axes for fun. Corktown is called “Detroit’s coolest neighborhood” for a reason.

This day started with breakfast at a corner café and store called Folk Detroit (look for the mural of the winking Irishman). I had the Biscuit Brekky — an herb and cheese frittata with greens, a butter biscuit, and rhubarb preserve
— and a perfect latte.

From there, I visited the Michigan Central innovation hub. Ford Motor Co. has invested $1 billion rehabbing an old abandoned train terminal to its Beaux-Arts glory, along with the Newlab companion building, an old book depository transformed into a Silicon Valley-style think tank and invention lab (think Edison and Ford, but in sneakers).

While the station’s majestic ground level isn’t yet open to the public, the station became Instagram-official in January when people flocked for selfies when its blue-lit windows spelled out “Lions” during the team’s playoff run.

Part 7: Motown Museum

Business behind me, I shifted into tourist mode, starting with the Motown Museum. I belong to the generation that grew up to Motown’s music — The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder — and I thought Diana Ross was the most beautiful woman in the world. The museum consists of two of the five houses that Berry Gordy bought on West Grand Boulevard.

I entered through the iconic blue and white house and joined a group of people about my age at the end of a long gallery wall of Motown talent. Our guide was a lovely young college student who taught me many things. No spoilers.

We crossed over into the second half of Hitsville USA, where Gordy lived with his family and recorded his music. It was a 1950s time capsule, with covetable midcentury furnishings and a vintage candy machine Stevie Wonder knew by touch. This led to the control room for Studio A, where the sound engineers sat; the floor by the mixing board was worn out from decades of shoes stomping to the beat.

When we entered the studio, with instruments and the piano on which Marvin Gaye recorded “What’s Going On,” it felt like a holy site: This is where the music world, and our lives, changed. Our guide turned off the lights and played the song, in the dark, a pained anthem about racism and war. A chill ran up my spine. Then she taught us a doo-wop two-step and led us in a rousing chorus of “My Girl.” We all knew the words, and I loved how 20 strangers clicked into throwback mode, united by a common bond of music.

By the end, half of us were teary. I bought a Motown hoodie and proudly wore it the rest of the day. (Tip: You have to buy tickets in advance; this keeps groups small — it’s a tight space.)

Part 8: Third Man Records

This was the second stop of my music appreciation tour. In 2015, Jack White opened his first Third Man Records (there’s also one in Nashville, Tennessee) in an up-and-coming area called the Cass Corridor. I’ve loved Jack White since The White Stripes, but I did not know until recently that he was a son of Detroit — he grew up in Mexicantown — and that he had saved the Masonic Temple by paying the building’s back taxes. The industrial-chic shop reflects White’s eclectic, counterculture vibe.

It has a yellow and black color scheme, and there’s a vinyl-pressing factory in the back. Upon seeing my Motown sweatshirt, the young saleswoman smiled and said, “You want to see something cool?” She came out holding a pair of pink velvet pumps. “Look,” she said, pointing to the name “Diana” written inside. “They belonged to Diana Ross.”

I hadn’t expected to enter a record store and find shoes worn by the most beautiful woman in the world. Turns out that Jack White is a collector, too.

Part 9: The Fisher and Guardian Buildings

Detroit has two restored art deco skyscrapers that must be seen to be believed, soaring testaments to the “Who can build it tallest?” contest of the roaring ’20s, when the auto industry had made Detroit the richest city in the nation.

The Guardian Building sits downtown on the corner of Griswold and Larned, its orange-brick exterior easy to spot among the taller, newer buildings. I popped in for a look and was floored. Architect Wirt C. Rowland’s “Cathedral of Finance” is bold and masculine, with exotic marbles, intricate mosaics, a Tiffany clock, and colorful pottery tiles on the arched ceilings, arranged in Native American and Aztec motifs. A soaring mural at the far end celebrates Michigan’s largest industries.

It’s the perfect place to buy a cup of James Oliver coffee and sit a spell.

Four miles to the north lies the Fisher Building. There were seven Fisher brothers, all involved in the family business of shaping and making car bodies, pioneering the enclosed car (i.e., they put a roof on it). After selling Fisher Body Co. to GM for today’s equivalent of $2.5 billion, the brothers decided to splurge on their own art deco skyscraper, dubbed “Detroit’s largest art object.”

They couldn’t find enough land downtown for their headquarters and a theater, so they bought in New Center, the outskirts at the time. They commissioned architect Albert Kahn to build a three-tower complex; the Great Depression pared the plan back to one tower, but what a marvel it is. The marble-clad Fisher Building seems taller than its 28 stories and possesses the most beautiful art deco interior I’ve ever seen, more delicate and feminine than the Guardian, with various-colored marbles; elaborate and exotic frescoes; a vaulted, three-story shopping arcade; and bronze and gold leaf everywhere — it’s like stepping into an enormous jewelry box.

While there, I browsed The Peacock Room’s vintage-inspired clothing while admiring its original plasterwork and Tiffany blue walls and had lunch at Promenade Artisan Foods. Sadly, I didn’t make it back during my trip to see a Broadway national tour show in the building’s magnificent Fisher Theatre.

Part 10: Local Fare

You have to try the local food specialties when in a new city, and I did. I drank a Faygo Red Pop, the effect of which I’ve already described. I had a Witching Hour martini at the Ghostbar in the historic Whitney mansion, said to be haunted. At Buddy’s near Ford Field, home of “the original Detroit-style pizza since 1946,” I enjoyed The Henry Ford: blended cheeses, onions, seasoned ground beef, blue cheese, and tomato basil sauce. It was a thick slab of savory deliciousness. And I had a Coney Island dog, mostly because I assumed it would taste like a hot dog you’d buy on Coney Island. I’m sorry, but mustard does not belong on a chili dog.

If you want to try this Michigan delicacy, there are two competing Coney Island spots on Lafayette Street (American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island), literally attached to each other.

Part 11: Book Tower

If you want to get an idea of what Detroit looked like 100 years ago, or if you just want to have a drink in a spectacular space, head to the Book Tower on Washington Boulevard.

The Book brothers were wealthy real estate heirs who bought up and built most of Washington Boulevard from Michigan Avenue to Grand Circus Park. They hired architect Louis Kamper to design a string of skyscrapers in an effort to re-create a Midtown Manhattan feel. The tallest, at 36 floors, was the Book Tower, completed in 1926.

Like many old stately buildings, it was remodeled and scavenged and finally left vacant. In 2015, billionaire developer Dan Gilbert, who invested in great chunks of downtown Detroit, bought the Book Tower and spent $400 million on a historic restoration of a quality rarely seen anymore, from the neoclassical motifs to the etched bronze elevator doors to the gold cherub clock in the lobby.

The highlight is a crystal rotunda unseen for decades and painstakingly re-created from old photographs. The new Book Tower has private residences, a Roost Apartment Hotel with apartment-style rooms complete with washer/dryers and full kitchens (I never wanted to leave), two Japanese restaurants, and Le Suprême, a sublime re-creation of a Parisian brasserie, down to the amorous couple at the bar.

There is so much to love, and so much left to see, but it would have to wait until next time. Detroit, you had me at bonjour.


This story is one piece of our 2024 City Guide, which appeared in the April 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. For the rest, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on April 5.