Detroit: An Urban Explorer’s Guide to The Comeback City

June 22, 2019

by Anine Knudsen

It seems like the wind has turned for Detroit; the label America’s comeback city is being plastered all over its bad reputation, and last year it was listed as one of the top cities to visit by Lonely Planet. Investors are pouring big money into the ghost town that for half a century has held a steady spot on the list of the United States’ most dangerous cities. With money comes development and people, and abandoned buildings and empty streets are now being filled with new life, fancy hotels and hip restaurants.

A Place for Explorers

Let’s be frank, though. Detroit is in many ways still a troubled city, and might not be for everyone. Although you will definitely find comfort, luxury and relaxation here, if that’s all you’re after, I’d say go somewhere else. It wouldn’t be fair to visit Detroit without acknowledging its stark contrasts and difficulties outside the emerging downtown. But if you have an adventurous spirit and want to explore the weird, unique gems, it is the perfect place for you.

 

Detroit

Why You Should Visit Right Now

Who knows what Detroit will look like in two, five, 10 years from now. Now, while there’s no H&M or Zara in sight, and the cityscape is still dominated by independent shops, quirky art and long-time neighborhood watering holes. While you can still experience the warm small-town friendliness unique to a city this size, where strangers will greet you on the street, ask with actual curiosity how you are doing and invite you to the coolest party of the night.

How To Get Around

The public transport system in Detroit is, to say the least, disappointing, and usually a waste of time. Instead, get a pass for the MoGo Bike Share, or download an app for electrical scooters like Bird and Lime, and cruise around. There is no better way to explore when you want to cover a lot of ground, while at the same time actually seeing, and being a part of, the city. And because Detroit is flat as a pancake, even pedaling a bike won’t make you break a sweat.

 

fisher body plant 21

Abandoned Buildings

Detroit is well known for its countless abandoned and dilapidated buildings. A ghastly and vile, but nevertheless fascinating sight, and a big draw for so-called ruin porn lovers. While the total of downtown is under construction or already renovated, you will still find run-down buildings in most neighborhoods.

The enormous Fisher Body Plant 21 is an impressive and accessible glimpse of dystopia, with big crushed windows and peeling paint. Another fascinating sight is the Grand Trunk Warehouse & Cold Storage at Ferry Street & St Aubin Street. Keep in mind that entering abandoned buildings is illegal and extremely dangerous. If you want to set foot inside of one, book a tour with Pure Detroit to explore the famous Packard Automotive Plant in a safe manner. Or buy a ticket inside the downtown Michigan Building to explore the beautiful old theatre, which is turned into a parking structure.

Public Art

Detroit has a strong creative energy with a wonderfully weird vibe, and by just moseying around town you can experience a lot of the community-driven art scene. Amazing street art is covering the city’s brick walls, and often you will stumble upon neighborhood art festivals and scrap metal sculptures in someone’s garden.

An iconic piece in Detroit’s public art scene is The Heidelberg Project, which has transformed urban decay into art. It all started when artist Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood street in 1986, only to find it bruised by poverty and neglect. Instead of joining the crime that ruled the neighborhood, he armed himself with the power of art, cleaned up the vacant lots and made outdoor installations with left-behind objects. The art project stretches along the whole 3900 block of Heidelberg Street, and stands out like a jewel in the neighborhood.

Across town you will find another community-minded art project, the MBAD African Bead Museum. Created by Olayami Dabls as a celebration of his community’s African heritage, here you can wander through the outdoor installations, sculptures and mosaics, and buy beautiful African beads from the founder himself.

 

eastern market mural

Mural by Greg Mike

Street Art and Food in Eastern Market

The Eastern Market district is a great place to explore the impressive street art of Detroit. Dozens of local and international street artists have through the annual festival Murals in the Market turned the whole area into an outdoor gallery, accessible to everyone. Eastern Market is also full of excellent restaurants and cool bars. And if you’re lucky enough to spend a Saturday in Detroit, make sure to set aside the early morning hours for the vibrant farmer’s market, where over 225 vendors offer their fresh produce.

 

outdoor party

Full moon party at Lincoln Street Art Park

Nightlife, Music and Performances

Detroit has a great party scene, with a lot of weirdly awesome events. If you want a truly different experience, check to see if the local band Krillin is playing. They describe themselves as “a group of multidimensional extraterrestrials from the Underspace,” and always deliver an extraordinary show that brings eclectic to a whole new level.

Hang with the locals in Trumbullplex and Crow Manor, two private house venues with amazing and often politically-oriented events. Both venues are located in the leafy Woodbridge district, and they both require open-mindedness.

Head to the Tangent Gallery & Hasting Street Ballroom for great, out of the ordinary events, whether it’s a burlesque show or an underground rave. And don’t miss out on an all-night party at the Lincoln Street Art Park, an outdoor venue known for unconventional full moon festivities.

 

belle isle beach

Belle Isle Beach

Relaxation on Belle Isle

Even urban explorers eventually need some chill time, and the public island park Belle Isle is a good spot to unwind. Located in the middle of the Detroit River, there are beautiful spots to go for a dip all around the island. Or just stroll around the many nature trails between weeping willows, green fields and inland canals, and finish off watching the sun setting behind the Detroit skyline.

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