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Detroit city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in America’s comeback kid

The Independent logo The Independent 13/02/2019 Jacqui Agate
a traffic light on a city street © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

Detroit has been kicked to the curb more than a few times, with bankruptcy, riots and devastating fires shaping its recent past. But the city is on the up once more, and this time its renaissance has gained serious momentum.

Hundreds of restaurants have opened, boutique hotels are transforming the Downtown area and abandoned buildings are being given a facelift. “America’s Comeback City” is living up to its name.

What to do

Explore on two wheels

Detroit may be known for its motor industry, but it’s a top city for cyclists too. A flat, bike-friendly promenade hugs the Detroit River and offers views across to Canada. Spooling north from the waterfront, the mural-splashed Dequindre Cut Greenway is another favoured route. It stretches right up to the buzzing Eastern Market neighbourhood.

Hire your bike from Wheelhouse Detroit: adult rentals start from $15 (£12) for two hours. If you’d like some company, try a summer Slow Roll event; this group bike ride takes in a different swathe of the city each week. You’ll need to sign up to join a ride – it’s quick and the tiered membership scheme has free options.

a large brick building: Check out the Detroit Institute of Arts (Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Check out the Detroit Institute of Arts (Getty Images)

Soak up Detroit’s art scene

Art has revived this city. Bold murals cover buildings, sculpture gardens take up entire blocks and hip galleries brim with work from avant-garde local creatives. One of the best indie galleries downtown is the Library Street Collective, an intimate space filled with contemporary pieces. It backs onto The Belt, a narrow alley bright with street art.

Quirkier still is the Heidelberg Project, which takes up a block in Detroit’s East Side. This work of "outsider art" is made up of polka-dotted houses, thoughtfully arranged stuffed toys and bizarre sculptures fashioned from junk.

But the Detroit Industry Murals are the city’s real artistic highlight. Painted by Diego Rivera, and inspired by Detroit’s once-booming automotive industry, the intricate frescoes dominate the Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Entry $14 (£11).

Visit the Henry Ford Museum

Detroit’s most famous attraction, The Henry Ford Museum complex, holds a fascinating collection of artefacts gathered by its namesake, the great industrialist who shaped the Motor City. Its interactive exhibits are focused on innovators, movers and shakers, from Rosa Parks to the Wright brothers. Take the Ford Rouge Factory Tour for an insight into some of America’s greatest feats of engineering. Prices vary depending on the attractions you plan to visit – admission to the museum’s core exhibits is $23 (£18).

a small house in the background: Motown was born in Detroit (Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Motown was born in Detroit (Getty Images)

Discover Detroit’s musical heritage

Detroit is the proud birthplace of Motown and the Motown Museum pays tribute to this treasured slice of musical heritage. It’s set in a snug property along Detroit’s Grand Boulevard, where executive Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, the label that would sign the likes of The Jackson 5 and The Supremes.

Pore over the memorabilia, which includes black and white photos of Motown legends, and visit the studio in which they recorded their greatest hits.

To sample the city’s more recent talent, spend the night in long-running jazz club Cliff Bell’s and enjoy a live set.

Take a trip to Belle Isle

Floating in the Detroit River is Belle Isle, a near thousand-acre park laced with hiking trails and home to the oldest aquarium in the country. See the best of the island on a free Detroit Zoological Society hike, which leaves from the Belle Island Nature Center twice a month.

Views of the island are even better from the water. Outfitter River Kayak Connection opens May to October offering solo kayaks for $10 (£8) per hour and paddleboards for $15 (£12) per hour.

a large building: Campus Martius Park is the city's gathering place, whatever the season (Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Campus Martius Park is the city's gathering place, whatever the season (Getty Images)

Hang out at Campus Martius Park

Fondly nicknamed “Detroit’s Gathering Place”, Campus Martius Park is a focal point of the Downtown area. In summer, it gains a city beach complete with sand, deck chairs and weekly beach parties. In winter, an ice rink takes over the space. It’s a prime spot for people watching and drinking in the surrounding skyscrapers.

Where to stay

The eagerly awaited Shinola Hotel opened its doors to fanfare in January 2019. A partnership between luxury Detroit manufacturer Shinola and developers Bedrock, the upscale spot takes pride of place on Downtown’s Woodward Avenue. Rooms are effortlessly stylish, with hard-wood and marble finishings, and upmarket Italian restaurant San Morello is worth a try. Doubles from $225 (£178), room only.

Marriott’s Aloft Detroit at The David Whitney is a boutique-style hotel in one of Downtown’s most significant skyscrapers. The hotel’s 136 rooms have a youthful vibe with bright pops of colour, sleek bathrooms and modern amenities. Hang out in the impressive lobby, lit by a grand skylight, and enjoy a grab-and-go breakfast from Aloft staple Re:fuel. Doubles from $180 (£142), room only.

a store in a brick building: The Shinola Hotel opened its doors in January (Shinola Hotel) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited The Shinola Hotel opened its doors in January (Shinola Hotel)

Swish boutique hotel The Siren sits on Broadway Street across from the Detroit Opera House. It’s in the once-decaying Wurlitzer building and has sumptuous twenties-style décor – think velvet chairs, ritzy chandeliers and splashes of leopard print. Rooms have vintage furniture and big, comfy beds, and there’s a rooftop with views across the city. Doubles from $179 (£141), room only.

If you’d prefer a hostel, Detroit has that too. Hostel Detroit offers cheerful dorms, art-filled communal areas, three kitchens and a spacious backyard. It’s set in the hipster Corktown neighbourhood, with its coffee shops, brunch spots and indie boutiques. Dorm beds from $29 (£22); private doubles from $76 (£60), room only.

Where to eat

A long-standing Detroiter favourite, homely café chain Avalon can’t be beaten for moreish baked goods, washed down with a decent cup of coffee. For lunch, try the Grown in Detroit Focaccia at the flagship store in Midtown – home-baked Italian bread is topped with the season’s local veg. The Sea Salt Chocolate Chip cookies are a winner too.

Two hot-dog joints – American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island (+1 313-964-8198) – have been at war with one another since the early Nineties. They each claim to whip up the best version of a Detroit classic: the coney dog. The two down-to-earth diners sit side-by-side on West Lafayette Boulevard, doling out beef sausages in buns with lashings of chilli sauce, raw onion and mustard. Choose your own favourite by sampling both.

a hot dog: Check out the Detroit Institute of Arts (Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Check out the Detroit Institute of Arts (Getty Images)

Slows Bar BQ opened in 2005, and still holds its own in hip Corktown. It serves no-frills barbecue plates in pared-back, wood-heavy surrounds. Sample The Big Three for a taste of the top offerings: you’ll get tender beef brisket, pulled pork and apple-glazed chicken. Order a heap of waffle fries if you have room.

For chef-driven American classics and inventive small plates, book a table at Grey Ghost (greyghostdetroit.com) off Woodward Avenue. Graze on dishes such as seared scallops with popcorn stuffing or plump for the filet mignon with whipped potatoes and onion rings. There’s also a good craft cocktail list and an impressive array of beers and wine.

Where to drink

Bad Luck Bar is a pricey option, but this brooding cocktail spot has no trouble pulling in the crowds. For your money, you’ll get artisanal cocktails finished with an extra flourish. Menu highlights include the Downward Facing Man – Bad Luck’s signature six-rum blend is mixed with cold-brew coffee and Zucca Rabarbaro liqueur, a rhubarb-based aperitif.

Downtown, alfresco spot The Skip is more laid-back. Tucked away in The Belt, the quirky venue is a great bet for well-made, reasonably priced cocktails and a sizeable selection of beers.

a glass of wine: Bad Luck Bar is Detroit's coolest cocktail bar (Bad Luck Bar) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Bad Luck Bar is Detroit's coolest cocktail bar (Bad Luck Bar)

Coffee fiends should make straight for Corktown’s Astro Coffee, a pocket-sized café on Michigan Avenue. It roasts its own coffee offsite and has a small range of locally produced teas. There’s also a little selection of baked treats and lunchtime snacks made from organic local ingredients.

Motor City Brewing Works has been a reliable fixture of the now burgeoning Midtown neighbourhood since the nineties. You’ll find a great variety of craft brews and a pizza-heavy menu served in an unpretentious venue.

Where to shop

A parade of one-off shops collect in the Midtown neighbourhood. The best of these is City Bird, a cutesy store filled with homewares, handmade jewellery and knick-knacks. Just opposite is Third Man Records, an uber-cool record shop with a pressing plant onsite. The flagship Shinola store, a Detroit-born brand with a focus on luxury leather goods, also has its home here.

Downtown, Détroit is the New Black is a chic fashion store. Its rails are filled with minimalist t-shirts donning the “Détroit is the New Black” logo, and the venue also showcases artwork and accessories by local makers.

a group of people sitting at a table with food: Browse the extensive Eastern Market (Getty Images/iStockphoto) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Browse the extensive Eastern Market (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Eastern Market is a great source of pride in Detroit. It’s both an easy-going district and a set of sprawling public markets. The main markets operate on Saturdays (year-round) and Sundays (June–September). On Saturdays, more than 200 hundred vendors spill out of the mural-covered market sheds, selling fresh veg, baked goods and street food. On Sundays, local artisans sell products from cosmetics to artwork. Expect unique finds, live music and lots of people.

Architectural highlight

Nicknamed Detroit’s “Cathedral of Finance”, the Guardian Building is a soaring art-deco skyscraper.

a tall building in a city: The 'Cathedral of Finance' is a soaring art deco building (Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited The 'Cathedral of Finance' is a soaring art deco building (Getty Images)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

US dollars.

What language do they speak?

English.

Should I tip?

Tipping is generous throughout the USA. Budget 15-20 per cent for meals and keep smaller notes aside to thank staff such as porters.

What’s the time difference?

Five hours behind the UK.

What’s the flight time from the UK?

A direct Delta flight from London Heathrow takes just under nine hours. A cheaper option is to take WOW Air’s connecting service, which has a stopover in Iceland’s Reykjavík.

When’s best to go?

Each season brings its own charms. The most pleasant months for a trip are April-May when temperatures are mild, and September-October when the streets are brightened with autumn colour.

Public transport

It’s a work in progress in Detroit and you’ll get the most from your trip if you hire a car. The Qline – a limited tram service that connects Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown areas – launched in 2017, and there are talks of expansion. There’s also a limited bus schedule and the Detroit People Mover, which operates in a loop Downtown.

Best view

Detroit’s skyline as seen from Belle Isle Park.

Insider tip

Book yourself onto a Destination Detroit Tour to quickly get to grips with the city. Local guides create custom itineraries depending on your interests. Prices vary depending on the itinerary, group size and duration.

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