Detroit's cultural highlights: 7 great things to do in the Motor City

From museums exploring American innovation and Motown music, to redefined alleys that are now the coolest foodie hangouts in downtown, check out the top things to do in Detroit...

4 mins

In the early part of the 20th century, northern cities in the eastern United States became caught up in the ever expanding industrial revolution, building new premises and factories dedicated to heavy industry. This was the forerunner of a large migration of African Americans seeking employment and a better standard of life than in the rural South. Detroit became well known for its thriving car manufacturing and was a hub of industry.

But by the late 1970’s, the vast motoring enterprises turned to globalisation to cut costs and expand profits, moving much of the assembly line work overseas. The impact was devastating, with many businesses and factories completely abandoned. The region soon became known as the ‘rust belt’.

But Detroit is now recovering economically and socially and has now become a desirable destination for international travellers. Here, we explore some of the top museums, art galleries and places to visit on your next foray to Michigan’s famous Motor town.


7 great things to do in Detroit

1. Motown Museum

The Motown Museum (Shutterstock)

The Motown Museum (Shutterstock)

The Motown Label, started by impresario Barry Gordy Jr. over 63 years ago, was a musical and cultural phenomena.

Barry recruited some of the best, most talented African American singers and musical artists in the business and fit them into his preconceived mould focused on attracting young listeners of the time. Recruits included little Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations. His vision paid off and Motown’s success is now legendary.

Visit the Motown Museum on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit to tour the original studio and be encompassed by the full experience of this genre. The museum is currently undergoing a $55 million redevelopment set for completion in 2024, the same year the Motown Label will celebrate its 65th anniversary.

2. The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn (Shutterstock)

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn (Shutterstock)

In the suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, is the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation set on a 49,000 m² site. This museum houses a unique collection of artefacts which celebrate America’s inventions and ingenuity.

What started as Henry Ford’s personal collection of historical memorabilia expanded to the point where he opened the Edison Institute in 1929 - originally for education purposes only. That has all changed and these days you will find exhibits highlighting Henry Ford’s Model T motor vehicle as well as many other engines and cars.

There is a whole plethora of other innovations including the Wright Brother’s bicycle shop, Kermit the Frog, and an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile plus much more. Galleries include Made in America, Presidential Vehicles, Heroes of the Sky, the Gallery of General Motors, With Liberty and Justice for All, Racing in America, and Railroads.

3. The Detroit Institute of Arts

Detroit Institute of Arts (Shutterstock)

Detroit Institute of Arts (Shutterstock)

Centrally located on Woodward Ave in the Midtown district of Detroit, you could spend every day of a year at the Detroit Institute of Art and only scratch the surface of what is on offer.

This remarkable space covers 2,700 sq kms and has over 100 galleries - it is considered to house one of the largest art collections in the USA.

Possibly the most famous artwork here is the 27 frescoes dedicated to industry and particularly the Ford Motor Company which surround the interior Rivera Court. They are by renowned muralist, Diego Riviera, husband of Frida Kahlo.

In an art gallery this enormous, there is, quite literally, something for everyone.

4. Mexicantown

Matrix Theatre in Mexicantown (Ra Lozano/Visit Detroit)

Matrix Theatre in Mexicantown (Ra Lozano/Visit Detroit)

When you are ready for a lunch break, vibrant and attractive Mexicantown is excellent for trying out authentic food from across the southern border.

Stop into any one of many taquerias for flour tortilla tacos or enchiladas and other delicious dishes. This is not American style Mexican known as Tex Mex, but the real deal.

An excellent choice and favourite of many is the Taqueria Del Ray on 4730 Vernor Highway. There is table seating but also comprises stools at a counter with basic fare. You won’t find better traditional Mexican food than this.

5. Eastern Market

Eastern Market (Shutterstock)

Eastern Market (Shutterstock)

The largest outdoor farmers market in the nation is in Detroit and encompasses nearly 18 hectares and 225 vendors. 

Founded in 1841 and moved to its present site in 1891, it is the hub of the Michigan food industry. With farmers, retailers, wholesalers, and vendors as far as the eye can see, it is also visually impressive.

Visitors should try out one of the fantastic food trucks serving up everything from Polish Pierogis to Mexican cuisine to Deli delights. Zeff’s Coney Island Diner which specialises in staples such as omelettes, New York-style hot dogs & sandwiches is a winner as is The Twisted Mitten Food Truck which is Detroit’s first farm to street food truck and Halal food truck.

6. Detroit International Riverwalk and Belle Isle State Park

Belle Isle State Park (Shutterstock)

Belle Isle State Park (Shutterstock)

The Detroit International Riverwalk, part of the West Riverfront Park, runs alongside the Detroit River spanning more than three miles.

Beginning at Rosa Parks Boulevard, it weaves its way west to the Belle Isle Bridge and then across into the Belle Isle State Park.

This 397 hectare island park is rich in history and considered a Detroit gem. There is a bygone ferry dock, a beaux arts style casino, and where you can spot the last standing cornerstone of an early 20th Century beach house.

There is also a Nature Centre, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, giant slide, athletic fields, picnic areas, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, three lakes,150 acres of wooded area and spectacular views of the Detroit and Windsor skyline.

At Sunset Point, let the wind tousle your hair as you watch the sun go down. The park is also accessible by a bridge at the foot of East Grand Boulevard.

7. The 'Alleys'

The Belt (Bedrock/Visit Detroit)

The Belt (Bedrock/Visit Detroit)

These unexpected and repurposed spaces comprise Columbia Street, The Belt plus Parker's Alley and are known for shopping, dining, and art galleries.

Parker’s Alley, located behind the Shinola Hotel, has the Good Neighbour Clothing outlet, jewellery shops, cosmetic stores, florists and also features indoor/outdoor dining such as the Cornerstone Barrel House and Mister Dips.

The Belt, once part of the Garment district, is another culturally redefined alley that is home to murals and installations by local, national, and international artists.

Columbia Street, in the newly opened downtown District Detroit sports and retail development, has nearly 3,700 square kms of shopping, al-fresco dining options, and a European-style promenade.

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