More often than not, Detroit gets a bad rap: the Midwestern weather, the downfall of the auto industry, the philandering ex-mayor, to name a few negatives.
But before being plagued by its public image, Detroit was a bustling city of industry that birthed great culture, took advantage of natural beauty, and created impressive architecture.
In the wake of the city’s hard times, Julie Alvin reports on Detroit’s current scene that still boasts good music, hearty food and tough, rust-belt soul.
DETROIT ROCK-INDIE-JAZZ CITY
It’s not called Rock City for nothing. Music and history buffs will surely appreciate a trip to the historic Fox Theater (built in 1928), the second-largest theater in the country next to New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
What started off as a movie house in the 1920s became a destination for performers during the Motown era, notably hosting Detroit’s own Supremes, Temptations, and Smokey Robinson. Today the regal venue presents acts as diverse as Lady Gaga and the Moscow Ballet.
Those looking for a grittier live music experience can head to The Majestic complex, which features Magic Stick, the rock club where the incredible White Stripes got their start. The best indie-music spot in Detroit, the intimate space has pool tables, an adjoining roof deck, and a tiny stage where you can see the next Jack White up close and personal. Downstairs, bowl at the adjoining Garden Bowl, eat fusion-fare at the next-door Majestic Café, or catch a show at the larger Majestic Theater, where the likes of Wilco and John Scofield have taken the stage.
Jazz lovers can get their fill at the Gem Theater, which was built back in 1927and continues to host jazz performances, musical acts and plays. The Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, built in 1928, is best-known as the home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Michigan Opera Theater, but also houses the Jazz Café, a quaint venue that seats about 130 people and hosts jazz, R&B, and local artists.
For those willing to go further off the beaten path, Bert’s Marketplace is housed on a deserted strip in the Eastern Market section of the city, but inside is a vibrant jazz scene replete with energetic locals and toothsome foods—think ribs and catfish po’ boys. The city also hosts a Jazz Fest each Labor Day (and an Electronic Music Fest each spring, if you’re looking for an entirely different, substance-fueled scene).
Know what else Detroit has? One of Peter’s 10 Best Airport Hotels Worldwide.
The Detroit food scene ranges from the very low to the very high brow. Any native Detroiter will direct you to Lafayette Coney Island, where the service is gruff, the prices are cheap, and the menu consists of five items, among them Coney dogs, doused in perfect, sloppy chili and chopped white onion, and a loose burger. The Motor City is littered with Coney Island franchises but this is the standard bearer.
Niki’s in Greektown holds the title of Detroit’s best pizza, and don’t forget to order the Saganaki, a Greek Kasseri cheese, set aflame tableside. Afterwards head to nearby Old Shillelagh’s Pub to drink pitchers of beer and dance to live Irish music with rowdy, booze-soaked locals.
Find more restaurant ideas in our Culinary Travel section.
Slows BBQ offers up brisket sandwiches, slabs of ribs, and five varieties of sauce (the “spicy” and “apple” are delish) in a warm space full of honey-colored wood and copper, with an outdoor patio and a formidable selection of beer bottles and rotating taps.
Or, go to the somewhat out-of-the-way (but worth the voyage) Cadieux Café, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy with Belgian food and beer, live music, and one of the country’s only feather bowling alleys.
Celebrity chefs like Michael Symon and Michael Mina have also recently entered the city’s food scene. Symon’s Roast in the newly renovated Book Cadillac hotel cooks up bone marrow, suckling pig, and many unctuous cuts of beef, with a beer menu as extensive as the wine list at most fine-dining establishments. Mina’s Bourbon Steak and Saltwater in the MGM Grand Casino (one of many gambling emporiums in the city) rival his spots in Vegas and San Francisco.
Find more city guides in our Off the Brochure Travel series.
EDUCATION, ENTERTAINMENT AND BEYOND
The Detroit Institute of Arts, which underwent a several-year renovation ending in 2007, is famous for its sweeping 1932 Diego Rivera mural, a gift from Edsel Ford, depicting the auto-industry assembly line.
The Museum holds 6,000 works and traveling exhibits like “Annie Leibovitz: American Music” and “Richard Avedon Fashion Photographs 1944 – 2000.”
For a more offbeat museum experience, check out the Museum of African American History, which is currently hosting a poetry and spoken word series, an exhibit on “hometown hero” Joe Louis, and variety of educational programming.
For a bit of the outdoors, check out the farm-fresh produce, fresh flowers, and Christmas trees at the lively Eastern Market, the largest public historic market district in the country. Thousands of Detroiters flock here every Saturday to score ciders, jams, meats and cheeses off farmers from Michigan, Ohio and Canada. Buy local veggies from Grown in Detroit and, if it’s the weekend, check out a cooking demonstration at the Taste of Eastern Market event series, then trek to the nearby Russell Bazaar to pick up jewelry, gifts and crafts from more than 150 vendors.
Check out another of Detroit’s positives: Customer Satisfaction Survey Ranks Best & Worst Airports in the USA.
A city that was once at the forefront of technological and industrial advancement in the country has the architecture to match: ornate, majestic buildings that reflected the auspicious direction of Detroit in the early 20th century. Of note are the Fisher building, an Art Deco behemoth of limestone and granite; the neo-gothic Buhl building; the colorful, ornate Guardian building with a mosaic-tiled, cathedral-like interior; and the Penobscot building, once one of the tallest buildings in the country.
Also worth scoping out are the Joe Louis Fist, an enormous limb suspended over Jefferson Avenue, paying homage to the great heavyweight, and The Spirit of Detroit, a huge bronze statue that has been dressed in a tuxedo during a visit by the Three Tenors, and a Red Wings jersey during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Various neighborhoods around the city reflect the wealth of the city’s residents during the city’s boom time. The Indian Village, Palmer Woods, and Boston Edison districts boast jaw-dropping homes, with stately stone faces, sprawling yards and out-buildings, and intricately carved moldings.
You can practically picture the barons of the auto industry parking their early model Fords in the drive after a long day spent at the office, shaping the face of American transportation, shopping on Woodward Avenue, or returning from vacation homes in prestigious nearby Grosse Pointe. These areas certainly deserve a driving tour.
For driving vacations, visit our Driving & Car Rental section.
The centerpiece of the Detroit skyline is no longer an Art Deco masterpiece, but the sleek, mirrored façade of the Renaissance Center, a set of seven inter-connected skyscrapers sitting on the pretty waterfront. In addition to being the world headquarters of General Motors, the complex is replete with shopping, hotels, restaurants (try Andiamo and Seldom Blues), and the Detroit RiverWalk, which features a carousel, fountains, views of Canada and Olmstead-designed Belle Isle Park, and connections to riverboats that tour the waterway.
A car is a must when visiting Detroit, but if you plan to stay strictly in the immediate downtown area, the mini-subway system, the People Mover, which costs 50 cents and makes 13 stops, including ones at the Renaissance Center, Greektown, and Joe Louis Arena, may serve your purposes. This will be especially helpful if you are staying at one of the Renn Cen hotels.
By Julie Alvin for PeterGreenberg.com. Photos by Bill Bowen. Visit Julie on the Web at juliealvin.blogspot.com.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Peter’s 10 Best Airport Hotels Worldwide
- Customer Satisfaction Survey Ranks Best & Worst Airports in the USA
- Off the Brochure Travel Guides
- Driving & Car Rental section
- Midwestern Travel section