Amazing Michigan: Exploring Detroit Beyond It’s Automobile Roots

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Funky street art around Eastern Market in Detroit

My trip to Detroit was partially sponsored by Holiday Inn. As always, all opinions are my own. 

When I told my New York friends I’d be visiting Detroit for a few days as a stopover on my way to Denver — where I’d be staying for a month — they didn’t quite get it. Bankrupt, dangerous, ghost town. These are just a few of the adjectives I heard over and over, along with constantly being warned “not to walk alone,” which is sort of hard considering I was traveling solo.

While a few days in Motor City hardly makes me an expert, it quickly became apparent there are a lot of misconceptions that exist about Detroit, especially the one regarding lack of experiences for travelers. I’d read about Detroit’s automobile heritage a number of times in various publications; however, there seemed to be a lack of information and travelogues on what else the visitor could explore.

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Scenes from downtown Detroit

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Inspiring street art with words around Detroit’s Eastern Market

And there’s a lot. What I really loved about Detroit was the creative culture and entrepreneurial spirit, which was palpable as I wandered the streets and saw innovative projects (especially within some of the abandoned buildings) and street art. Not only that, but my local friend Tim — whom you may remember from my Intrepid Travel Way to San Jose Tour through Central America — also showed me his picks for food and nightlife.

Overall, it was a jam-packed and thoroughly-enjoyed itinerary that I’d highly recommend replicating, including:

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Scenes from the Holiday Inn Detroit Metro Airport Hotel

1. Stay: Holiday Inn Detroit Metro Airport

The Holiday Inn Detroit Metro Airport was kind enough to host my stay as part of their #JoyOfTravel program, and I’m glad they did. The property is located in Romulus, about 20 minutes from downtown Detroit (which also makes its starting price of $126+ per night a bit cheaper) and including a number of amenities. As I’d driven 10 hours (!!!) from New York that day, I quickly dropped my bags into my room and ran down to their Sporting News Grill to devour a Monster Burger — a homemade 8-ounce patty topped with lettuce, tomato, onion rings, bacon, pepper jack cheese and barbecue sauce on a pretzel bun — and a decadent chocolate lava cake enhanced by two scoops of ice cream and whipped cream. #FatKid.

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YUM!

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Getting fit with the Holiday Inn

Which is why I was also glad there was a fitness center and pool to burn off those calories the next morning, before curling up in front of the fire with a complimentary newspaper, high-speed Wi-Fi, fruit-infused waters and coffee before heading to downtown. While I had a car, if you don’t an Uber to downtown from the hotel is about $18-$24, with up to four people fitting in an UberX.

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The Heidelberg Project

2. Wander Through An Outdoor Art Playground

I’d actually done a bit of research beforehand — see, I don’t always plan a trip without making plans — and learned of a number of quirky and art-centric experiences to be had in Detroit; such as The Heidelberg Project, a non-profit, open air art‬ gallery was started by Tyree Guyton in 1986 that featured “everyday, discarded objects to create a two block area full of color, symbolism, and intrigue.” The area was like a bizarre playground, gritty yet whimsical, childish yet thought-provoking, and truly opened my eyes to the idea that beauty‬ is everywhere and in every thing. They also host guided tours, volunteer opportunities and events, so check out their calendar.

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Colorful scenes from the Heidelberg Project

As it’s within a community, you’ll see local homes within the progressive blocks that say “This is not the Heidelberg Project” “Please stay off the lawn” and “No photographs,” as the exhibition free flows throughout a true community with no static designation. While the locals probably get tired of having their privacy infringed upon, I actually chatted with a few who were sitting on their porch (very sweet!) as well as an artist named Tim Burke and his #DetroitIndustrialGallery whose outdoor space is attached to The Heidelberg Project.

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Beautiful and bizarre Hamtramck Disneyland

3. Experience A Bizarre Version Of Disneyland

About 10 minutes away by car I was also able to visit Detroit’s version of a fairytale playland, Hamtramck Disneyland. This place is folk art at its finest. I actually drove past it a few times as I didn’t realize the attraction was literally located within someone’s backyard. You don’t need to ring the bell or announce yourself; just open the gate and walk in to find a towering structure of old and new objects that come together atop two garages. It’s the project of Ukraine-born Dmytro Szylak after retiring from General Motors.

His version of Disneyland includes a random assembly that’s oddly Americana in its feel, showcasing giant dolls, giant fan propellers, a wooden male Statue of Liberty, a rainbow-colored homemade airplane, carousel horses, and small light bulbs done in a bright red, white, blue, yellow and green palate. He sadly died in May 2015, though his beautifully eccentric work lives on.

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Remnants of a Slows Barbecue dinner. Was so delicious forgot to take a photo before digging in.

4. Get Fat At Slows Barbecue

If you took a random poll of locals and those who have visited Detroit and asked what’s the one thing you should do, chances are they’d say Slows Barbecue. I went around 6:30pm on a Saturday and the place was packed — mainly with men, a win for me. The food is delicious (I got a heaping plate of pulled pork, mac and cheese and southern-style green beans that was out of this world), the patrons social (I got into a lovely conversation with the other barflies), and the beer and whiskey free flowing (you’ll need to pay, but I was given numerous samples from a local brewery rep walking around). I really appreciated their dedication to showcasing craft local products, with beers from locals like Right Brain Brewery, Latitude 42, Bell’s Brewery; Detroit City Distillery spirits; and even a Michigan Riesling. Yum!

BlueBlazer Slows

5. Sip Artfully Crafted Cocktails At The Sugar House

Also known as Bill Murray’s, The Sugar House is next door to Slows, so after getting your beer and brisket on you can enter a sophisticated world of craft cocktails. Watching bartenders make drinks is like watching a Broadway show, especially when they craft Jerry Thomas’ historic “Blue Blazer” cocktail, where a stream of whiskey is lit aflame and poured in ribbons between two shakers. It’s the type of bar where in NYC I’d pay $15 per drink, but here was more like $9.

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Indulging at Detroit City Distillery

6. Get A Local Buzz At Detroit City Distillery

Located in the mural-filled alleys around the Eastern Market, Detroit City Distillery makes small batch spirits from locally-sourced ingredients; everything from gin to whiskey to peppercorn-infused vodka and beyond. Unlike most distilleries that simply offer tastings of their products, Detroit City Distillery has a full craft cocktail menu with talented bartenders to boot. I loved their “Long Arm of the Law” with homegrown rye, fig preserves, cinnamon and lemon. Tours of their Still Room are also available.

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Getting inspired in a parking garage in Detroit

7. Enter The Z Lot

While Detroit is full of parking lots, Z Lot (1234 Library Street) is a parking structure that’s also an urban art gallery. The 10-story garage features inspiring murals by 25+ artists, and is a cashless garage (you’ll need a credit card to park) with shops. I simply wandered around with my camera enjoying the colorful artworks. This lot is so unique it actually has its own documentary made by its owners, Bedrock Real Estate Services, which you can view by clicking here.

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Colorful scenes from The Belt

8. The Belt

Located directly adjacent to The Z Lot, The Belt is a street art-filled alleyway that also features benches and doorways that take on unusual forms. The outdoor gallery is a collaboration between Bedrock Real Estate Services and the fine art gallery Library Street Collective, and is a nice stroll to take with your camera for some fun photos. It also really gives you a sense of Detroit’s creative and cooperative spirit.

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Cool street art around Detroit’s Eastern Market

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A delicious sandwich from Russell Street Deli

9. Stuff Your Face At Eastern Market

For some delicious Detroit history, Eastern Market has been in operation for over 150 years, and features 4.5 acres of stalls, restaurants, drinks, local foods, farm-fresh produce and more. While it’s most active on Tuesdays and Saturdays before 3pm, I went on a weekend afternoon and enjoyed the eateries and shops along the perimeter. Along with the above-mentioned Detroit City Distillery I polished off a delicious “Smoked Turkey Special” — smoked turkey, provolone, basil pesto mayo, lettuce and tomato on an onion roll ($7.25) — at Russell Street Deli.

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A tasty Mootown ice cream in an adorable space

Afterward, I was all about dessert next door at the family-run Mootown (adorable name!) for some ice cream made with local Michigan ingredients. Along with a tasty butter pecan cone, I loved perusing the local Michigan products (Detroit Bold Coffee, anyone?) in a cutesy country-inspired space.

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Where Edison worked his magic

10. See Edison’s last breath in a test tube and go back in time

Okay, so I didn’t completely avoid Detroit’s automobile roots. I visited the Henry Ford Museum, which is actually so much more than cars. The focus is on innovation in America, and the museum features historic artifacts (including a test tube holding Edison’s last breathe and Tesla’s death mask), the chance to sit in classic cars and tractors, exhibits on agriculture and design (including the chair Lincoln was assassinated in), handmade rifles, sleek presidential limousines (including the limo that JFK was assassinated in), and American innovations — to name a few.

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Some fun memorabilia from The Eisenhower Generation

My favorite was the exhibit titled “Your Place in Time,” where you literally walk through different time periods full of nostalgic items and scene recreations. My father was born in 1943, “The Eisenhower Generation” according to the exhibit, with a sign reading “You might be a member of this generation if you…were born between 1936 and 1945; practiced duck and cover drills in school during the early days of the Cold War; remember sock hops, hot rods, soda shops, and the early days of rock ‘n’ roll…Great balls of fire!” It was so much fun sending him photos of jukeboxes, letter jackets, and replica homes and blackboard-adorned classrooms.

There’s also a historic Greenfield Village outside that you can wander the streets of, visiting 80+ heritage buildings where you can literally explore 300 years of American history and innovation by popping into historic buildings — including where Edison actually came up with his inventions, shown above, and the the bicycle shop where the Wright brothers constructed their first airplane. An IMAX movie and the chance to tour the assembly plant round out the experience.

Essential Information: 

Parking in downtown Detroit: You’ll typically need to pay for a spot, whether on the street or in a lot. Lots are pretty cheap though, starting at $4 per day.

All of the above-mentioned attractions are free to enjoy aside for the restaurants — where you pay for your food — and the Henry Ford Museum, which has a ton of single and combo tickets so I suggest you click here to see current prices. For just the museum it’s $20 for adults, but I highly recommend opting for the museum, village and factory tour, all sold separately or as combos. If you buy any one ticket, you get the second for 50% off.

Another cool neighborhood to stay in: Royal Oak. I went out here for dinner and drinks at Cantina Diablo’s (Mexican restaurant). It’s a lot more compact and walkable than downtown, and full of restaurants, bars, bakeries and small businesses. From the downtown area an Uber is $17.

Taxis vs Uber: don’t take taxis in Detroit! Holy cow are they expensive. As in, a cab from the Holiday Inn to downtown is $60, while an Uber cost me $20.

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