The lowdown on Motown! With a proud heritage of music, sport and culture, dynamic resurgent Downtown plus friendly gay scene, Adrian Gillan takes on "the Big D"…
The largest city on the US–Canada border, and in the US state of Michigan, the Midwest powerhouse of Detroit (French for "the straights", between two lakes) has risen from the banks of its eponymous river, for a 300-year rollercoaster ride from fur-trading to Ford and – thankfully, post-automotive-slump – beyond! This prize asset of the Great Lakes region has witnessed French and British rule; a multicultural influx of workers to serve its emerging industries; university expansion; regeneration and renewal.
Set in the gloriously refurbished landmark 1915 David Whitney Building, amidst grand Downtown boulevards, the 136-room Aloft Hotel (1 Park Avenue) boasts one of the most dramatic central foyers of any hotel anywhere – both elegant and chic, yet infused with a constant urban bustle – and even has its own People Mover stop to help get you around.
Courtesy: Aloft Detroit
A great fusion of the old with the new, the Aloft’s stunningly lofty gold-leafed atrium is home to a friendly reception; spacious lounge; handy 24/7 Re:fuel grab-and-go light-bites store; funky W XYZ music and cocktails spins-and-sips bar; and (opening soon) even a high-end restaurant, Grand Cirque Brasserie. Roomy guest rooms boast ultra-high ceilings, extra-large windows, comfy spacious signature beds, and amazing bathrooms with Bliss® Spa amenities. Also work up a sweat in the 24/7 Re:charge gym, or enjoy the fab free Wi-Fi throughout the building and in rooms.
By splendid contrast in both scale and atmosphere, if basing yourself in Detroit’s historic arty, student-thronging Midtown, The Inn on Ferry Street (84 East Ferry Street) is just a couple of miles north, but a whole wide world away. Mere steps from a clutch of top museums, this intimate late-19th Century affair - set across four restored Victorian homes, and two carriage houses - combines period charm with modern luxury.
Courtesy: Inn on Ferry Street
Detroit’s spectacular downtown regeneration includes numerous top new trendy eateries – just like buzzing atmospheric Wright & Company (Floor 2, 1500 Woodward Ave) which serves modern American small plate cuisine, craft cocktails, plus a wide range of international beer and wine. Great for hanging with friends at tables under swirling rotor fans; or for grabbing a drink and a bite sat at the bar, chatting to characterful, friendly staff!
SEE ‘N DO
For a cheap, fun way to explore Downtown, use the Detroit People Mover - the 3-mile-long, 13-stop, 1980s monorail – which even runs ‘til 2am on Fri/Sat nights. We love it!
But to see Detroit up close, at least its more central areas, use your feet. Try any of a wide range of free ‘experiential tours’ given daily by Detroit Experience Factory whose energetic guides can teach even locals a thing or two – explaining the broad history and main sights, alongside hidden nooks, plus latest developments, and plans for the future! Dazzling! They cover Downtown, Midtown and Riverfront areas, and have specialist tours on topics from architecture to pubs! Downtown highlights include the Guardian Building, with its stupendous interior; the iconic Spirit of Detroit statue; the Renaissance Centre ("Ren Cen"), home of General Motors; and the tour’s starting point itself, the Campus Martius – sandy beach in summer, ice rink in winter!
But there are many parts of town you’ll want to spend more time in, solo. Check out the historic Detroit institution that is Eastern Market – quite possibly the oldest open air market in the United States. Sprawled over half a dozen roofed areas, blissfully browse and buy local fruit, veg and other foods on Saturdays all-year-round; and arts and crafts on Sundays in summer months. Savour the colour and character of stalls and stallholders alike, not to mention the locals. Break for lunch on one of the many small independent eateries around the market’s edge!
The Detroit Historical Museum (5401 Woodward Ave) is dedicated to chronicling the city’s history. Permanent displays include Frontiers to Factories, 1701-1901 (from furs to the mass-production industries that would eventually give rise to the likes of Ford); Streets of Old Detroit (19th and early 20th Century streets and stores); Kid Rock Music Lab (100 years of Detroit music); Doorway to Freedom - Detroit and the Underground Railroad (helping slaves escape to Canada); and America’s Motor City (including a recreation of a Ford production line). Outside, Legends Plaza contains the handprints and signatures of prominent men and women linked to the city, like Alice Cooper. All free!
The vast, world-class Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Avenue) is among the top six art museums in the US. The 100-gallery multicultural collection covers from prehistory to now. Must see: Mexican artist Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry fresco hall, which Rivera himself considered his most successful work. Fab canteen too! Plus atmospheric neo-Renaissance Kresge Court café-bar!
Motown Records may have started in 1959, but tens of thousands of visitors still pass through Hitsville U.S.A. each year - on a Motown Museum Tour (2648 W. Grand Blvd). Animated guides walk-and-talk you through its extensive array of Motown artefacts and photos; through the restored upper flat where Motown founder Berry Gordy lived with his young family; and – finally – into legendary Studio A. Literally follow in the footsteps of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson (Jackson 5), Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie!
The vast Henry Ford Museum (Dearborn) explores and displays what Americans, past and present, have imagined and invented.
The sweeping, single-floor, 9-acre space is dedicated to showcasing the finest collection of its kind ever assembled… cars, trains, planes and homes… alongside exhibits related to American history and its struggle for human rights.
Courtesy: Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
Highlights include the limo JFK was assassinated in; the Ford's Theatre chair that Lincoln was assassinated in; George Washington’s camp bed; and the bus in which Rosa Parks simply kept her seat!
The outdoor living history museum section of the Henry Ford complex, Greenfield Village (Dearborn) comprises a hundred historical buildings, transplanted from their original locations and arranged in a "village" setting - to show how Americans have lived and worked since the founding of the country. Many are staffed by costumed interpreters who conduct period tasks like farming, sewing and cooking. Pottery and glass-blowing demos too! Highlights include the Wright brothers' bicycle shop; a replica of Thomas Edison's lab complex; a whole main street; and even a working farm!
There are also various historic modes of transport for visitors, in Ford Model Ts, a 1931 Ford bus, horse-drawn omnibuses, even steam trains! Period eateries too, serving historic grub!
Catch a concert or show at top entertainment venues such as the Fox Theatre, Music Hall, Detroit Opera House, Fisher Theatre and Orchestra Hall – home of the renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra!
Courtesy: Visit Detroit
Fancy a break from the big city – without really leaving it? Hire a bike to take in the Riverfront district, all the way out to Belle Isle, with its island park in the Detroit River, between the US mainland and Canada - home to an aquarium, botanical conservatory, zoo and casino!
And do check out the local tourist website Visit Detroit for more information.
BOOZE ‘N BOP
Detroit’s main gay districts are out in, and on the way to, Ferndale and nearby Royal Oak, about 8-10 miles north of Downtown; plus in Warrendale, the same distance west That said, some gay-friendly Midtown and Downtown haunts do also attract their fair queer quota.
Our favourite bars and clubs around Ferndale and Royal Oak include
Escape Lounge a small DJ lounge, after-hours ‘til 6am at weekends;
Innuendo which is small but busy club, mainly hip-hop and R&B; and
Menjo's a large complex with club, shows and leather/bear nights. There's also
Pronto! a gay bar with full menu and high energy dancing;
Soho a cocktail/martini lounge with something for everyone; and for late night hot action there's
Body Zone the local gay sauna which offers regular student nights.
If you're further out West, around Warrendale then try out:
Adam's Apple a gay bar, with jukebox and karaoke;
Gigi's a cabaret bar, which attracts a young crowd; or for something more serious the
Hayloft Saloon known as the local gay men's cruise bar.
Sadly, The Woodward Bar & Grill, known as the oldest LGBTQ bar in Detroit suffered a serious fire in 2022. The bar was considered
a safe community space for queer people, particularly those of color. It's missed by many locals and visitors alike.
THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK
IN AND EN-ROUTE TO FERNDALE & ROYAL OAK (UP NORTH)
Body Zone (1617 E McNichols; T: +1 313-366-9663; Website)
Escape Lounge (19404 Sherwood St; T: +1 313-892-1765)
Innuendo (744 E Savannah; T: +1 313-891-5798; Instagram)
Menjo's (928 W McNichols; T: +1 313-863-3934; Website)
Pronto! (608 S Washington Ave, Royal Oak; T: +1 248-544-7900; Website)
Soho (205 W 9 Mile, Ferndale; T: +1 248-542-7646; Website)
WARRENDALE & BEYOND (OUT WEST)
Adam's Apple (18931 W Warren; T: +1 313-240-8482; facebook)
Gigi's (16920 W Warren; T: +1 313-584-6525; facebook)
Hayloft Saloon (8070 Greenfield; T: +1 313-581-8913; facebook)
Revised August 2023.