Situated in southeast Michigan, Detroit, nicknamed the Motor City, features activities associated with the automotive industry. Still, art enthusiasts, history buffs, and even nature lovers will find activities to suit their interests.
The easiest way to get to Detroit is to fly into Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) — located in Romulus, Michigan — and rent a car. Detroit is a car city, and while the town offers ride shares and a bus system, a vehicle is the most common mode of transportation.
This article covers activities in Detroit but not the Greater Metro Detroit area, like Dearborn or Bloomfield Hills, or surrounding counties like Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, or Windsor. Check out these 15 fantastic things to do in downtown Detroit.
1. Detroit Institute Of Arts (DIA)
With over 60,000 pieces, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), located in midtown, includes works from various cultures, starting in ancient times and incorporating works through the 21st century. Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals are a must-see at the museum, along with Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to become part of a museum in the United States.
You’ll want a strategy before you go to maximize your visit. First, the museum’s map provides a layout for locating the works you want to see most. Second, you can join a free guided tour of various sections of the museum. Finally, the GooseChase app, for IOS and Android, is a self-guided scavenger hunt featuring three theme-based searches. Some themes offered are African American Art, Art of the Suffragettes, and Religious Themes in Art. The scavenger hunt is yet another way to make viewing more manageable.
Pro Tip: Tickets are reserved online in timed slots to allow for social distancing. The museum has a limited number of motorized scooters and wheelchairs available for loan from the lobby attendant.
2. Belle Isle Park
Situated in the international waters of the Detroit River, between the United States and Canada, Belle Isle Park is an island featuring a combination of big-city attractions and back-to-nature activities. Nature lovers will enjoy paddle sports on one of Belle Isle’s three lakes. The Belle Isle Nature Center is another way to connect with nature. In addition to fish, reptiles, and amphibians, they have honey bees that live in an observation hive. The Nature Center’s programs are free.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
The 13-acre Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory showcases five distinct areas — the Palm House, a sunken Fernery, the Tropical, Cactus, and Show Houses — featuring rotating flowering plants. No matter what variety of plants you enjoy, this is a great place to capture some images.
The Belle Isle Aquarium
What’s old is new again at The Belle Isle Aquarium. While it’s the oldest aquarium in the United States, in 2021 it reopened after a $1.2 million renovation, where they have new tank scaping, renovated the lobby to its original glory, and added new species of fish. The green arched ceiling is a remarkable original feature designed to provide an underwater feeling. Plan for about an hour in the aquarium.
Parking is available adjacent to most Belle Isle attractions, so you don’t need to walk far on a typical day. In addition, the park has a complimentary track chair to aid those with mobility challenges.
Pro Tip: If you are driving into the park, you will need a Michigan Recreation Passport. Bus service is available to Belle Isle Park via the #12 Conant Route.
3. The Detroit Princess Riverboat
I’m not sure what part of the Detroit Princess Riverboat we enjoy the most: the views, the meal, or the entertainment. But it all adds to the riverboat experience. The Detroit Princess features sunshine, fresh air, and panoramic views of greater Detroit and Canada through outdoor viewing promenades and decks on all five levels — four of which are accessible via elevator or stairs.
Depending on the time of day, you’ll have a lunch or dinner buffet featuring various entrees, including sides, salad, dessert, and your choice of coffee or hot tea. So, no matter your dietary preference, you’ll have options. In addition, a full-service bar is available for purchase.
They schedule lunch cruises two to three days a week, where you’ll board the Princess at 11:30 a.m. and enjoy a 2-hour cruise starting at noon. In addition, the Detroit Princess features dinner cruises 3 to 4 days a week, boarding at 6 p.m. for a 2.5-hour cruise beginning at 7:00 p.m.
After dinner, whether you dance in your seat or on the dance floor, the live music by the Prolifics features a Motown Revue, the classic Detroit sound. Their choreographed performance and audience interaction make it an evening to remember.
Pro Tip: You’ll be comfortable in business casual attire or something dressier. Typically, the boat cruises last 2 to 3 hours.
4. The Outdoor Adventure Center
If Detroit is the first stop on your Michigan tour, check out the Outdoor Adventure Center. Situated on Detroit’s riverwalk, you can learn about northern Michigan’s great outdoors inside, which has its advantages. For example, it’s temperature-controlled, and you won’t need bug spray. Once you’ve explored the center, you’ll have a sound basis for planning the rest of your trip in Michigan’s great outdoors.
When we visited, our family had a great time with the interactive activities. First, on some of Michigan’s trails, the grandkids had a chance to try out a snowmobiling simulation. Then, they jumped aboard a fishing boat and reeled in some fish. The big one won’t get away here. They also identified fish in the center’s aquarium, boarded a real plane, and delved into the canopy of their massive bur oak tree. It was an adventure.
Pro Tip: The Outdoor Adventure Center has free parking on the east side of the building. Enter the main parking lot off Atwater Street or a smaller lot off St. Aubin Street.
5. Detroit Historical Museum
Located on the corner of Kirby and Woodward, the Detroit Historical Museum features a group of signature exhibits that tells Detroit’s story. First, what Detroit is famous for are cars. You’ll find a display on how Detroit became the Motor City, the story of how cars contributed to Detroit’s growth, and how Detroit built cars. The museum features classic cars from its collection.
In addition to Detroit’s automotive history, you’ll discover its pivotal role in the underground railroad, how the city stepped up during World War II to provide 30 percent of war material created in the United States, and about Motown, the city’s unique music scene. Finally, at the museum’s Legend Plaza, you’ll learn about the great men and women who have called Detroit home.
On Belle Isle, you can explore another part of the Detroit Historical Museum in the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum explains Detroit’s role in maritime history. One artifact I found interesting was the anchor from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. They offer a variety of artifacts outdoors in addition to their indoor displays.
Pro Tip: To obtain complete accessibility information, check out their website.
Greektown is one of Detroit’s entertainment districts. We enjoy spending an evening there, starting with dinner at Pegasus Taverna — a family-owned Greek restaurant frequently described as the best Greek restaurant in Detroit. One of my favorite dishes to order in Greektown restaurants is the saganaki, an appetizer of flaming cheese. It’s always fun to hear the shouts of “Opa” as the cheese ignites.
After dinner, you have your choice of three Las Vegas-style casinos in Greektown, which offer not only gambling, but shows, hotels, spa services, restaurants, and lounges. MotorCity Casino-Hotel is the only locally owned and operated casino in Detroit. In addition to gambling, they offer a variety of events from concerts, comedians, and mediums.
MGM Grand Detroit and Greektown Casino-Hotel also feature various entertainment options, hotels, and restaurants. With three casinos to choose from, you could do a casino crawl and try your luck at all three.
Pro Tip: Greektown offers a complimentary roundtrip shuttle to significant downtown events. The two shuttles are the Ouzo Cruizo and the Opa Bus.
7. Architecture Tour
I once had an office in the Renaissance Center and remember looking out over the city admiring the vast array of architecture. Preservation Detroit offers a variety of guided walking tours and bike tours that showcase Detroit’s architecture.
In addition to their Architecture Tours, they offer annual tours, such as the Annual Theater Tour and Historic Detroit Cemetery Tours. While Detroit’s architecture features many styles, one place I find interesting is The Fox Theater. You’ll find this building on some tours, however, if you want to see it up close, catch a show there.
Pro Tip: Art enthusiasts should know that Preservation Detroit offers in-depth walking tours of the Cultural Center on the fifth Saturday of the summer months. The tours are between two and two and a half hours long and may include walking through areas under construction.
8. Professional Sporting Events
Whether you’re into baseball, football, basketball, or hockey, the city of Detroit offers something for anyone who loves pro sports. Comerica Park on Woodward Avenue is home to Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers, while Ford Field, an indoor stadium home to the Detroit Lions, is also found in downtown Detroit. In addition, Little Caesars Arena is home to the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons.
Pro Tip: I worked in the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit and loved the convenience of staying at the Detroit Marriott located at the Renaissance Center. The hotel sits on the award-winning International Riverwalk, and the rooms offer floor-to-ceiling windows with beautiful views of Canada. Ask for a higher floor for the best views. Also, the Detroit Mariott is a great place to stay near all the pro-sporting venues.
9. Grand Circus Park
You may find yourself walking through Grand Circus Park to many of downtown Detroit’s attractions. Venues like Comerica Park, Detroit Opera House, Little Caesars Arena, and Ford Field surround the park. If you’ve brought your dog on this trip, you’ll find a dog park perfect for walking Rover.
The park offers two historic fountains. In addition, you’ll find free special events in the park that include literary readings, music, and live theater.
Named for Irish settlers from County Cork, Corktown is Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. For those who love the history of sports, visit the Corner Ballpark, the site of the Old Tiger Stadium. We had a fun time reminiscing about going to games there as teens.
Corktown is known as a great place to have brunch. First, give Brooklyn Street Local a try, where they source their ingredients locally from urban farms. Then, try the Detroit Institute of Bagels for an even more casual bite and some of the finest bagels outside of New York City.
11. Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park is Detroit’s gathering space. This award-winning destination offers activities year-round. In the winter, you’ll find ice skating and a beautifully decorated Christmas tree at the rink. The Beach at Martius Park, open May through October, is great for finding summer fun in the sand. They bring in over 400,000 pounds of sand and beach chairs so that you and the grandkids can build sandcastles in the city.
If you’re hungry, the local food scene has several options. Parc Restaurant can fill the void, or if you prefer something more casual, you can grab a bite at one of the more than 70 rotating food trucks.
Pro Tip: In the area, compare the American Coney Island and the Lafayette Coney Island. They are next to each other, and you can settle the question for yourself as to which has the best dog.
12. Hart Plaza
Located immediately south of the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward Ave. on the riverfront, the 14-acre Hart Plaza is the venue for popular concerts and summer festivals. The plaza, named for U.S. Senator Philip Hart, is a pretty place to visit even if they aren’t having an event. Isamu Noguchi designed the famous Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain in the plaza’s center.
Pro Tip: Although Detroit is a car town, other easy options to navigate Detroit downtown include the Q-Line and the People Mover. The Shinola Hotel is convenient if you use the People Mover to get around.
13. Motown Museum
Berry Gordy created Motown Records in 1959. Today Hitsville, USA, is home to the Motown Museum. What’s particularly fun is you’ll find the museum inside the original headquarters of Motown Records, where you’ll find the recording studio. Studio A is where artists recorded many of the Motown favorites. The museum also has the apartment where Berry Gordy’s young family lived during the company’s early days.
14. Detroit Opera House
Located in downtown Detroit’s Entertainment District, Detroit architect C. Howard Crane designed the Detroit Opera House, which initially opened as the Capitol Theater. When it opened, the 4,250-seat theater said it was the fifth largest in the world.
Today, the theater offers more than opera. You’ll find ballet and a variety of other dance performances. Even if you aren’t a performing arts fan, architectural history enthusiasts will want to check out the beauty of this stunning 1922 theater.
15. Guardian Building
The Guardian Building is a National Historic Landmark. The Art-Deco skyscraper, located at 500 Griswold Street, is in downtown Detroit’s Financial District. You can learn more about this building on the Downtown Detroit Art and Architecture Walking Tour offered by City Institute.
You can look around the lobby of this stunning building without being on tour. Sit and enjoy a cup of coffee in the lobby café. Beautiful murals in bright gold, blues, and reds adorn the walls. The exterior of the building is a tangerine brick with a granite base.
For more information on planning your Detroit vacation, here are some other TravelAwaits articles: