– Here are the things people say when I tell them I’m going to Detroit:
“Detroit’s a crap-hole. You’ll get killed there.”
“The city is a pit of blackness — too poor to pay its electric bill.”
“Houses sell for a dollar. And still nobody wants them. Why are you going there again?”
While the city does waft a bombed-out, apocalyptic vibe, the flip side is a pervasive raw urban energy that you won’t find anywhere else. It’ll be on hot display during Memorial Day weekend when Movement — the world’s largest electronic music festival — gets the city throbbing. But whenever you go, you’ll see its awesomeness in action. Just ignore the naysayers.
Friday Night — BBQ by the Ruins
Corktown, a bit west of downtown, shows the city’s DIY spirit. Hipster joints slinging burgers, cocktails and pour-over coffee drinks line Michigan Avenue in the shadow of Michigan Central Station, the once-grand Beaux-Arts rail terminal now crumbling into oblivion. It’s the poster child for Detroit’s “ruins.” Follow your nose to Slows Bar BQ for Southern-style brisket and pulled pork. Vegetarians, fear not: the menu has options from okra fritters to a faux-chicken sandwich.
If you prefer dinner with a side of loud music, mosey over to PJ’s Lager House. Scrappy bands or DJs play most nights at the small rock hall. The pub grub surprises with a New Orleans/vegan twist in dishes like the tempeh po’ boy. PJ is the grey-ponytailed gent watching over it all, as friendly and unpretentious as they come.
Saturday Morning — Blaze a Trail
Start downtown at the Renaissance Center, GM’s tubular headquarters that dominates Detroit’s skyline. Head to the glassy Wintergarden atrium and then out the back door to the Riverwalk. The city’s swell waterfront path runs for 3 miles along the churning Detroit River. Step west and you’ll come to Hart Plaza, where Movement and other big festivals rock. Go east and you’ll wander by several parks, outdoor theaters, riverboats and fishing holes. Pit stop early on at Wheelhouse Bikes and saddle up a sturdy two-wheeler. Now you’re really moving.
About halfway along the Riverwalk, near Orleans Street, the 1.5-mile Dequindre Cut Greenway path juts north, offering a convenient passageway to Eastern Market. Produce, cheese, spice and flower vendors fill the large halls on Saturday. But you also can turn up Monday through Friday to browse the specialty shops (props to the peanut roaster), cafes, ethnic eats and occasional food trucks flanking the market on Russell and Market Streets.
Saturday Afternoon — Art and Cars
Tour around Midtown and its museums. The Detroit Institute of Arts is cream of the crop. Diego Rivera’s mural Detroit Industry is the centerpiece, filling an entire room with the city’s blue-collar labor history. Beyond it are Picassos, suits of armor, mod African-American paintings, puppets and troves more.
It’s sacrilege to be in the Motor City and not go to a car museum. For a quick fix, try the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex. It lies about a mile from the art institute, in the landmark factory where Henry Ford cranked out the first car for the masses. Scores of shiny vehicles from 1904 onward are on display (check out those huge, honking’ horns!). Senior citizen docents give tours covering every nook and cranny.
The other option is over in suburban Dearborn. The Henry Ford Museum puts out a spread of vintage autos and Americana (like the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat) about 10 times the size of T-Plex. You’ll need to devote the whole afternoon to it, if you go that route.
Back to Midtown: when hunger or thirst strike amid all the browsing, Good Girls Go to Paris Creperie oozes French café charm. Great Lakes Coffee Bar roasts its own beans and serves them up pour-over style. The hip furnishings are made of wood reclaimed from razed houses nearby.
Saturday Night — Follow the White Stripes
Stick to Midtown and see who’s playing at the Magic Stick. Neo-rockers the White Stripes rose from the ranks of its Stroh’s-splattered floor. So did fellow garage rockers the Von Bondies. In fact, the frontmen from the two bands got into an infamous brawl at the Stick, solidifying its street cred forevermore.
To stay on the White Stripes’ trail, but for something mellower than a live show, head to The Bronx, the dusky dive bar where Jack and Meg used to hang. There’s not much inside besides a pool table and couple of jukeboxes filled with ballsy rock and soul. But that’s the way the neighborhood regulars and local musicians like it. They’re also fond of the beefy burgers fried up late at night.
Sunday Morning — Monorails and Street Art
Take a whirl on the People Mover, Detroit’s retro monorail that loops around downtown’s core. It only costs 75 cents, and offers some cool views in its wake.
Afterward, drive (or taxi) over to the eye-popping Heidelberg Project. The polka-dotted streets, houses covered in Technicolor paint blobs and strange sculptures in yards are the brainchild of street artist Tyree Guyton, who wanted to beautify his run-down community. A fire on May 3 burned much of the project, but Guyton has vowed to keep it open and turn what remains into art once again.
Sunday afternoon — The $3 Menu
Green Dot Stables may be a bit inconveniently located — it’s between downtown, Corktown and Mexicantown – but that doesn’t deter young urbanites from filling the wood tables and munching down on 19 types of gourmet sliders. Quinoa and kale? Wasabi mayo tempeh? Catfish? Peanut butter kimchi? All on the mini-burger menu, along with sides of mac and cheese or poutine. And get this: everything costs $3 or less.
So don’t count Detroit down and out yet. It’s got its mojo workin’ overtime for those willing to make the effort.
Karla Zimmerman is a travel writer and blogger for Lonely Planet, the BBC, Sutro Media and others. She covers Detroit, Chicago, Washington DC, Amsterdam and other cities around the globe, always testing the local pie and beer. Learn more at her blog My Kind of Town & Around or by following her on Twitter (@karlazimmerman).