Detroit means different things to different people. It’s Motor City and Motown, grit and ingenuity, but it’s also had its fair share of problems. It may be the largest city in the United States to have declared bankruptcy, and its abandoned buildings may have become a tourist attraction, but it’s also in the midst of a major comeback. The New York Times recently asked if Detroit was the most exciting city in America, and it quite possibly is. The city is alive with a creative spirit fueled by a deep sense of pride and entrepreneurship.
What does this all mean for a visitor? It’s an opportunity to see a city unfold and grow in front of you. In more practical terms, Detroit offers a sophisticated experience at a lower price point than you might expect for Michelin-starred chefs and world-class art. Here’s a look at a perfect day in Detroit.
Wake up in the city’s most stylish place to stay, the new Detroit Foundation Hotel (250 Larned St.), which debuted in May 2017. The hotel is housed in a neoclassical building that was formerly the headquarters of the Detroit fire department. The city’s automotive and industrial past is evident throughout: Custom wallpaper from the Detroit Wallpaper Co. features large-scale photographs of the city’s historic architecture; reclaimed wooden headboards are covered with bright pastels reminiscent of automobile paint colors of the 1950s and ’60s; and red automobile fuses can be exchanged for a complimentary coffee or tea in the morning.
You can have breakfast at the hotel or try the nearby Parks and Rec Diner (1942 Grand River Ave.), a casual space with a seasonal menu of classics with a twist. Try the citrus-smoked salmon, served with dill crème fraîche, local radish and a soft-boiled duck egg.
Head to the city’s sprawling Eastern Market, which is approximately one mile northeast of downtown and covers six blocks. The vendors sell a mix of fresh flowers, produce and baked goods. Stop by Susan’s Tart Shop for bite-size lemon and pecan tarts to snack on later. From the market, it’s a short walk to the Red Bull House of Art (1551 Winder St.), which sponsors a residency for emerging U.S.-based artists. Make sure to call ahead to confirm when exhibitions are taking place.
Take a car service to the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave.), housed in a Beaux Arts building. The permanent collection includes works by Picasso and Caravaggio, but the highlight is the enormous “Detroit Industry Murals” by Diego Rivera. Painted in the 1930s, and the subject of much controversy at the time, they are a tribute to the city’s various industries and its workers. Refuel with a coffee at the museum’s elegant Kresge Court, a glass-and-brick courtyard that has been made to feel more like a living room than a restaurant. Design buffs will appreciate the mix of classic furniture, ranging from Chesterfield sofas to Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs.
For lunch, settle into the stylish Selden Standard (3921 Second Ave.), which has a woodburning oven for roasting meats and vegetables. Start with a plate of ribbon-thin vegetable carpaccio before tucking into a hearty bowl of duck Bolognese.
From the restaurant, walk to the flagship Shinola (411 W. Canfield) store, the hip leather goods company that is credited with being a key player in the city’s renaissance. Customers can choose from tote bags, clutches and wallets made from buttery soft leather, or they can create their own timepiece at the store’s Willard Watch Bar by selecting the case style and strap. Make time to relax at the Shinola Café, which sells the quirky local favorite nakee butter latte, a nut-butter-blended coffee drink.
From Shinola, it’s a short stroll to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Ave.), housed in a former auto dealership. Known as MOCAD, the museum is spread over 22,000 square feet of raw space and showcases rotating exhibits, musical performances, lectures and film screenings.
Head back downtown via a 10-minute ride to see what is arguably Detroit’s most famous building, the Guardian (500 Griswald St.). The art deco skyscraper, originally built in the 1920s, is a National Historic Landmark. The building is sheathed in 1.8 million orange-tan bricks along with colorful tiles produced by Detroit's Pewabic Pottery. Pure Detroit offers free tours, but if you can’t make the last tour of the day, simply head into the lobby to catch a glimpse of the show-stopping space. The 150-foot-high vaulted ceiling is covered in Pewabic tiles and marble in a design that blends Native American, Aztec and arts-and-crafts motifs. Don’t miss the double-sided Tiffany clock or the huge mural of Michigan.
Finish the night at The Apparatus Room, the Detroit Foundation Hotel restaurant helmed by two Michelin-starred chef Thomas Lents, formerly of Chicago’s Sixteen. For an intimate dining experience, book the Chef’s Table, where you’ll enjoy about 10 seasonal dishes, which could include razor clams with charred leeks and smoked potato or whole roasted turbot with langoustine and coral sauce.
If you’re craving a nightcap, the tiny Bad Luck Bar (1218 Griswold St.), located down a nondescript side street, is worth the trek. Splurge on the $90 General, two ounces of “coveted whiskey” served neat, or the more reasonably priced Abyss ($18), containing Plymouth gin, eel sauce, strawberry syrup and lemon juice, presented in a fish mug. Trust us, you’ve never had such inventive cocktails.