Everyone knows Detroit’s terrible reputation. The violence and desolation. The ‘ruin porn.’ The largest municipal bankruptcy in history. Detroit is – and for as long as I can remember has been – one giant civic punch bag.
If you’re not from the area – and especially if you have small children – you probably wouldn’t dream of visiting. Detroit’s too broke and downtrodden to run a tourism campaign, so its treasures remain hidden – unless you’re an “urban explorer” twerp who thinks you’ll be the first person to gawp at the marvels of the Packard Plant that every twerpy “urban explorer” from Toledo to Taiwan has blogged about.
But, hear me out: if you want to visit somewhere truly unusual, educational and dirt-cheap, take a little gander at Detroit. And if you do, here are ten things not to miss…
1. The city’s crown jewel, Belle Isle, is America’s largest island city park, and a haven for walkers, bikers, sunbathers, sailors and swimmers. Follow its winding paths for surprises at every turn, from the jaw-dropping conservatory and botanical garden to the fascinating maritime museum. Or just sit back with a picnic and watch the glistening river as you relax astride the USA and Canada.
2. If you visit on a Saturday, stock up on picnic supplies at the historic Eastern Market, one of the largest open-air markets in the country, with fresh produce, unbeatable bbq and artisan goods – from cheese to microbrews to breads – to delight any foodie. The surrounding shops and cafes bustle with those mythical real-life Detroiters who somehow exist despite rumors that everyone has fled to the other side of Eight Mile Road.
3. Another must-visit summer destination is Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. Even if you have no interest in baseball (I don’t), it’s a great place to soak up the sun, take in the skyline as dusk settles over the Detroit River and share a bag of fresh roasted peanuts with your kids. The sights, sounds and smells will entertain the family, even if they’re not paying attention to what’s happening on the field.
4. The surrounding Foxtown area has a big-city feel without Detroit’s infamous menacing overtones. The Fox Theater and nearby Symphony Hall and Detroit Opera House are marvels of architectural wonder and have some of the best acoustics anywhere. Book a performance or concert and experience Detroit’s thriving cultural scene.
5. The city has plenty of fantastic museums, including the the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Michigan Science Center, the Motown Museum and the world-class Detroit Institute of Art (get there quick before the city sells off all its Van Goghs to pay the bailiffs!)
6. Or head a few miles out of town to The Henry Ford museum. More than just cars – and the bus on which Rosa Parks made her courageous protest – the sprawling museum and surrounding Greenfield Village display American history through the ages, a wealth of insight into the Civil Rights movement and, naturally, a big focus on its manufacturing feats and war efforts.
7. My kids never get tired of the Detroit Zoo – paradoxically, located in the lively suburb of Royal Oak – with its amazing polar bears, butterfly house and creatures to cheer the most tantrum-prone child.
8. Back in the city, there’s plenty of history to be had. Since it was founded by French settlers more than 300 years ago, French, British, American and Native Americans have battled over control of the area. Take in a bit of the area’s long history at the intriguing Historic Fort Wayne, shaped like a five-point star on the shores of the Detroit River.
9. These days, Detroit has several thriving ethnic communities, from Greektown in the heart of downtown to MexicanTown (near the Ambassador Bridge to Canada) and “Little Lebanon,” a strip of Middle Eastern businesses and restaurants featuring the best hummus, falafel and fattoush this side of the Nile. There’s also the Irish-American influenced Cork Town and hometown favorite foods, including soul food and one-of-a-kind Detroit coney dogs.