Why Detroit is worth visiting

When I tell people I have been to Detroit, they are usually surprised. When I tell them I liked it and would recommend it to other travellers, they are usually even more surprised. For starters it’s in “Flyover Country” and is not somewhere foreigners would generally go. Secondly it’s a city known for industrial grit and urban decay rather than being an awesome tourist hotspot. We must have all read about the sad decline of Detroit.

All of this is true – Detroit has certainly seen better days. That does not make it not worth seeing. The Roman ruins of Ephesus in Turkey or Dougga in Tunisia are obviously a few thousand years past their prime – but you should absolutely check them out. Rhyolite in Nevada is a ghost town but I recommend you go there too. Detroit is not quite a ruin (though it has some) and it’s not a ghost town (though some streets are) but most of the tourist sites are about the recent past rather than the present.

I went to Detroit in 2005 for a wedding. We landed on a direct flight from London, where we were living at the time, and were greeted by the friendliest immigration border guards I’ve come across anywhere in the US. I think they were delighted to see foreign tourists coming to their city! We stayed at the Inn on Ferry Street, in the Historic District. It was quite big and swish with lovely attention to detail – good furnishings, freshly baked cookies in your room on arrival, a free chauffeur to take you places and breakfast is included.

Art in Detroit
I have written before about art in Detroit and this is one of the biggest reasons to go. (It’s worth clicking through to that old post just to read the comments). In the Scarab Club, you can see famous autographs – including Diego Rivera’s – in the roof beams. The Detroit Institute of Arts is a world-class museum – its collection was amassed back in the days when Detroit was a thriving, wealthy metropolis known as Motor City. The biggest drawcard was the stunning Diego Rivera murals on the walls in the centre of the museum. While an artwork like Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of Postman Roulin could feasibly go on tour, the Rivera murals never can – so you’ll have to visit in person if you want to see them.

Music in Detroit
I am no great expert on music – you won’t get any extended metaphors likening travel bloggers to the British ‘shoegazer’ scene of the 1990s on my blog. But even I can think of two big music exports out of Detroit – Motown and techno. The closest I got to sampling some of the techno beats was when the bride and groom took us for a drive around the city and the bride pointed out the sites where she attended raves as a teenager. But we did do the whole Motown tourist thing and visited the Motown Historical Museum at the site of the old ‘Hitsville USA’ recording studio.

The museum is small but cheap and it’s basically just a house on an ordinary suburban street. We did have to dodge some panhandlers on the way in and it’s not a neighbourhood that I recommend for a stroll or to leave valuables in your car. It’s worth the trip though. The museum has preserved a lot of the original stuff – we saw costumes (“uniforms” in Motown parlance) worn by The Supremes and others, photographs from the era such as one of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney together and the original lobby with the old telephones and a 35c cigarette machine. The highlight was singing in Studio A, standing where the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five and Diana Ross recorded their tracks. The girls sang and danced to “Stop in the Name of Love” and the boys did “My Girl”, all on the original microphones. It sounds cheesy but it was a lot of fun and quite memorable!

Urban decay
‘Enjoyable’ is not the exact word for the experience of seeing Detroit’s urban decay, given what it means to the people who still live there and can’t leave … but I did find it quite fascinating. I guess it’s a little like people going on tours of ‘slums’ in places like Rio de Janeiro – a controversial practice. In this case I didn’t feel that there was any exploitation given that a local was driving us around and we weren’t gawking at people so much as buildings. Anyway, it was interesting and memorable.

I remember her pointing out the monorail, which the city called the ‘People Mover’ but locals dubbed the ‘Mugger Mover’. (Sydney also has a ridiculous monorail, which the government is now considering tearing down, but it’s priced so high that I’m sure muggers couldn’t afford to use it).

The most memorable site, and sight, for me was the Michigan Central railway station, which must have been very grand once upon a time. The building is simply enormous and built in a very lavish style but now all the windows are blown out and the property is surrounded by a barbed wire fence. (This was one of the rave sites of the early 1990s). You can’t go inside any more (it’s trespassing if you do) but apparently it’s been largely scavenged for any valuable parts – here are some photos.

If you want to see more of this, check out this photo essay in TIME.

Eastern market, Greektown and Mexicantown
One place we got to see living, breathing modern-day Detroit was at the Eastern Market on Saturday morning. The market is huge with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, flowers, homemade jams, meat and game, and so on – but we were pretty focused on buying decorative gourds and pumpkins for the wedding reception.

We went to breakfast at a great diner across the road. I had an omelette with silverbeet (chard) and fennel. It was delicious and the portions were HUGE (about twice the size of a New York diner breakfast). We had to wait in line, which meant we got to enjoy the jazz from the street buskers before our meal.

We also visited the large Hispanic quarter called ‘Mexicantown’. We went out to dinner here but I can’t particularly recommend this. We went to a restaurant suggested by the hotel – and took advantage of their free chauffeuring services – and the food was not very good. I just remember refried beans with no spice whatsoever – disgusting. Maybe there are better restaurants, or maybe this is how they think white people like their Mexican food.

Greektown, close to downtown, was more to my liking. We went out to a Greek restaurant for a pre-wedding dinner with the bridal party and their families. It involved lots of flaming cheese and garlic dips.

What we didn’t see
We could have happily spent another few days in Detroit because we actually didn’t get to see everything we wanted to see. We would have liked to go to the Museum of African American History, which has a full-size slave ship with models of the slaves in chains, only it was closed Monday and Tuesday.

I also heard good things about Detroit Zoo, especially the polar exhibit where visitors can walk inside a tube while polar bears swim overhead.

If we had a whole week, we might have gone to the Henry Ford Museum out of town or across to nearby leafy Ann Arbor.

Detroit has far more going for it as a tourist destination than most people realise. I recommend you pay a visit – but do be extra careful as its reputation for crime is not undeserved.

Have you been to Detroit? Would you recommend it to travellers? Have you ever been anywhere that people warned you against but turned out to be a great experience? Let me know in the comments.

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Comments

  1. NEW POST: Why Detroit is worth visiting. http://t.co/1TVgbbwD #travel

  2. one of those cities i wish to go to 1 day RT @niltiac: NEW POST: Why Detroit is worth visiting. http://t.co/yORvTd5W #travel

  3. Could Detroit be the most underrated city in America? http://t.co/1TVgbbwD #travel

  4. Thanks for this article, Caitlin!
    I live just a few miles north of Detroit. I went to college there (Wayne State University) and you’ll find stories about many of the places you mention on my blog (the Detroit Zoo-which is actually a few miles north of Detroit, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Wright African American Museum, Eastern Market, Greektown and more. We even stayed at the Inn on Ferry Street for a couple of days! You’re right to want to visit the Wright Museum, The Henry Ford, Ann Arbor-which also has some great museums like the University of Michigan Museum of Art…I’d also suggest the National Arab American Museum, which, like the Henry Ford, is in nearby Dearborn or taking in a movie at the well regarded Detroit Film Theater-which plays indie and “art house” films in a grand 1920s-vintage theater at the Detroit Institute of the Arts..
    Sports fan? You can catch professional ice hockey, baseball and American football within the city limits, while professional basket ball and many other college and minor league teams play in the nearby suburbs. When the Super Bowl came here a few years back, visitors repeatedly reported how friendly and welcoming everyone in town was to them, so your tale of the border guard doesn’t surprise me.
    The past several years have seen a lot more people moving into the city as several major employers like Wayne State offer some great incentives to people making that move. Things like the rise of urban gardening have resulted in a better use of some formerly vacant land.
    Detroit, like many urban areas, has its share of problems, but it also has many great features and places. It really is one of the most underrated destinations, IMHO.
    Dominique´s last [type] ..Minnesota’s Mall of America: More than just shopping!

  5. Have you ever been to Detroit? http://t.co/1TVgbbwD #travel

  6. Hey @VisitDetroit – did y’all see this post about Detroit by Aussie @niltiac on her Roaming Tales blog? http://t.co/ttwvch0H