Perhaps no city in history has fallen from such heady heights as Detroit. Through the earlier half of the twentieth century, the city bubbled with industry. Detroit was wheeled out as an archetype for urban growth – the ultimate proof of the American Dream.
But as the automotive industry shrank and collapsed, so too did the city: a fleeing population left once-mighty factories and skyscrapers to waste and crumble. By 2013, Detroit had become the largest city in the USA’s history to file for bankruptcy. Any vision of a booming post-industrial city remained a mere speck on the horizon.
Yet the Motor City is on the rebound again, with a grit and grassroots energy that is uniquely ‘Detroit’ in its essence. New businesses are filling long-abandoned buildings, public spaces are being spruced up and Detroit’s notorious ‘food desert’ has had a thorough watering. Here’s why the city is deserving of a visit:
The Belt by Library Street Collective © Jacqui Agate
Why should I go now?
Detroit is a city in motion.
Murals are finding their way onto walls, and galleries are ebbing into once-decaying buildings. Boutique hotels are rising from wastelands, and some 150 restaurants have been spawned since 2015 alone. Rewind two years and you’d barely recognise downtown Detroit; fast-forward another three and it’ll be transformed still.
Public transport, though a work in progress, now goes some way to joining up the city’s sights. The QLine – connecting Campus Martius Park to the stately Detroit Institute of Arts and beyond – opened to a fanfare in 2017. The riverfront is the next area poised for change.
To visit now is to see a metropolis be rebuilt – literally and figuratively – from the ground up.
So, what shouldn’t I miss?
Motown and motors are two of the city’s great exports and Detroit’s top sights pay tribute to them both.
For a foot-tapping, soul-soothing hour or two, book onto a tour at the Motown Museum. It was at this very property that Berry Gordy set up Motown Record Corporation, and its collection of musical memorabilia is second to none. You’ll see a black fedora and singular sequined glove belonging to Michael Jackson (gifted by the man himself in 1988), and can sing in the legendary ‘Studio A’, where the likes of Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross have warbled before you.
Detroit’s most visited attraction is the Henry Ford Museum in the suburb of Dearborn. Beyond learning the history of the mighty motor company itself, you’ll set foot on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat. You can also explore a re-creation of the lab where inventor Thomas Edison had many ‘lightbulb moments’.
Eastern Market’s sprawling weekly events are not to be missed either. Pick up produce from more than two-hundred vendors on Saturdays, discover creations from local artists and makers on Sundays, and take in the brilliant wall art all week.
Motown Museum © Jacqui Agate
I’m an art lover. What’s on offer for me?
Art can barely contain itself in Detroit. It seeps into alleyways, spreads across shopfronts, climbs skyscrapers and even pools into car parks. And of course, it also collects in galleries too.
The Library Street Collective is one of the city’s most modern art houses. Free to enter, the space displays contemporary works from both Detroit-born and international artists. The curators, a young Detroit couple, have transformed the backstreet behind the gallery too. Known as The Belt, the alleyway has been strung with fairy lights and covered with murals – most dramatic is a work by Cleon Peterson depicting a weapon-wielding troop of featureless men.
If you’re hankering for something offbeat, then head north on mural-ridden Grand River Avenue to Dabls’ Mbad African Bead Museum. ‘Visual storyteller’ Dabl – a sage, charismatic character – has been collecting African beads since the 80s. They’re here in every form and colour, dangling from the ceiling and filling glass jars. Spend some time outside too: a riot of hues and texture, Dabl’s house is covered in mosaics. His yard is dotted with sculptures wrought from wood, iron and rock, each one a metaphor for some aspect of African identity and experience.
On the city’s East Side, is the equally eccentric Heidelberg Project: a colourful hoard of found materials warped into curious confections, taking up an entire street. They’re the work of artist Tyree Guyton, who grew up on this very block. The many vacant houses here haven’t escaped Guyton’s paintbrush either: the most striking among them is ‘Dotty Wotty House’, a white clapboard property bright with polka dots.
Dabl in Dabls’ Mbad African Bead Museum © Jacqui Agate
Where should I eat?
Detroit hasn’t always been easy on the taste buds. But a healthy crop of urban-farming initiatives, and a slew of spots jumping on the farm-to-fork bandwagon, mean it’s now a city worth a bite.
Fill up for the day at Hudson Café: a kooky brunch spot serving towering pancake stacks, cinnamon-dusted French toast and fried chicken and waffles.
A local lunch favourite is a grab-and-go from the food trucks around Campus Martius Park. Popular vendors include Delectabowl, whose signature is beds of brown rice piled high with freshly grilled meat and veg.
If you’re after a sit-down spot, try Traffic Jam and Snug over in Midtown. Open for dinnertime too, this laidback joint is a restaurant-meets-bakery-meets-brewery with a rooftop vegetable patch. Feast on the soup du jour or entrées such as the belly-busting black-bean burrito.
Come dinnertime, fans of finger-licking, family-style food, and those craving craft cocktails and beautifully presented plates, will be equally satisfied. There’s Wright and Co., who offer a dizzying menu of artisan drinks and fancy, fiddly small plates. There’s also Grey Ghost, who focus on modern American dishes with imaginative twists (think jerk chicken wings with smoked blue cheese).
For those after something laidback, the giant pizzas at Supino – a pared-back pizzeria in Detroit’s Eastern Market – are great for sharing, or you can eat meat to a Motown beat at Slows BBQ in Corktown.
Eastern Market © Jacqui Agate
Where should I spend the evening?
Once the sun sets on the Motor City, live music isn’t hard to find. Prop up the bar at Cliff Bell’s – a music club dating back to 1935 – and listen to smooth jazz while supping kitsch cocktails.
Third Man Records, a record store, studio and pressing plant in Midtown, also hosts regular live performances. You’ll then be in the prime location for a swift pint and a brick-oven pizza at Motor City Brewing Works, a pocket-sized brewpub that’s been in operation since 1994.
If cocktails are your bag, the exalted offering at low-lit, upmarket Sugarhouse won’t disappoint. Sip on carefully crafted classics (there are 101 to choose from) or opt for something seasonal from the rotating menu.
Cliff Bell's © Visit Detroit Photo Library
Wow Air runs routes from London Gatwick to Detroit (with stopovers in Reykjavik). Return prices begin at £280.
Explore more of Detroit with The Rough Guide to the USA . Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image: Detroit skyline at sunset © f11photo/Shutterstock.