Detroit has had its ups and downs, but these days it's vibing on retro glam that won't break the bank. Downtown will pop your eyeballs, from the extraordinary art deco skyscrapers to the whimsical public parks and edgy street art. 

It doesn't seem to matter how you want to tackle the Motor City – be it through museums, poetry slams or classic cars – The D has plenty to do for zilch. From riverside walks to walk-in outdoor cinema, here are the best free things to do in Detroit.

Families on the Detroit International Riverfront passing a carousel with the city behind them
Join the locals strolling the Detroit riverfront with seasonal diversions year-round © Michelle & Chris Gerard / Visit Detroit

Detroit International RiverWalk

Regularly regarded as one of the best waterfronts in the country, the Detroit International RiverWalk is also home to one the city's coolest green spaces, Valade Park. When it's hot and sunny, families cool off by the Detroit River. Along this three-mile scenic stretch which runs from the Belle Isle Bridge to Rosa Parks Boulevard are cafes, a carousel, beach volleyball and much more. In the winter months it is transformed into a winter wonderland with everything from bonfires to ice sculptures, even sledding for the little ones. 

Take a self-guided mural walking tour

Street art decorates walls of buildings throughout the D. In the early 2000’s the city became a magnet to graffiti and mural artists to help revive the art scene. Detroit is full of artistic know-how. Detroit has one of the largest 3-D murals in the country at 19 stories tall on the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, a true display of expressive innovation. So of course doing a self-guided walking tour is a way to get familiar with this charming city. A few other murals to check out are BLKOUT Walls Mural, Stevie Wonder Mural  and City Walls.

Admire more than books at The Detroit Public Library

Designed by the prominent architect Cass Gilbert and completed in 1865, the grand, white Vermont marble Detroit Public Library is stuffed to the rafters with art and history. The painted stained-glass windows are all original. Some of the first editions of Mark Twain's manuscript including the unfinished sequel of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are housed here. 

There is free programming for all ages including story time for the little ones and podcasts for the grown-ups. Walk the grand stairs made out of marble and then look up to beautifully crafted Italian Renaissance-themed ceiling murals. Visitors will also see dynamic paintings exclusive to Detroit such as Man's Mobility by John S. Coppin located in Adam Strohm Hall. You won’t be disappointed.

Get a historical perspective with Pure Detroit Tours

Purveyors of locally inspired gifts, Pure Detroit also offers guided tours of some of the city's best sights, including the Fisher Building, the Guardian Building, and the Packard Plant. Guides – typically local historians – are knowledgeable and friendly. Stop in at one of Pure Detroit's five locations or check the website for details.

Vintage cars at the Woodward Dream Cruise
Car lovers should time their visit to Detroit for the Woodward Dream Cruise © Bill Bowen / Visit Detroit

See classic cars at the Woodward Dream Cruise

On the third Saturday in August, car lovers from around the world assemble in Detroit to show off their four-wheeled treasures and cruise down the city's main drag. The party stretches for miles, but most of the action takes place north of downtown, along Woodward and side streets nearby between 8 and 10 Mile roads.

Between road closures and the event's sprawling footprint, it's hard to know where to start with the Dream Cruise. Try diving in at 9 Mile, a few blocks east or west of Woodward. You'll be able to “ooh and ahh” over the cars and take in the charming center of the Ferndale neighborhood at the same time.

Peruse the shops at Eastern Market

Produce, cheese, spice, and flower vendors fill the large halls on Saturday, but you also can turn up Monday through Friday to browse the specialty shops (props to the peanut roaster) and cafes that flank the halls on Russell and Market Streets. In addition, from June through September there's a scaled-down market on Tuesdays and a Sunday craft market with food trucks. Alternatively, arrive any day for mural gaping. Eastern Market has become an internationally renowned hot spot for street art too.

Walk the Dequindre Cut Greenway

The city's swell riverfront path runs for 3 miles along the churning Detroit River from Hart Plaza east to Mt Elliott St, passing several parks, outdoor theaters, riverboats, and fishing spots en route. About halfway along the Riverwalk, near Orleans Street, the 1.5-mile Dequindre Cut Greenway path juts north, offering a convenient passageway to Eastern Market. 

Explore the iconic Fisher Building

This 1928 masterpiece from the man who built Detroit, Albert Kahn, has an imposing art deco exterior made from Minnesota granite and Maryland marble, and an interior to rival any Italian cathedral. From the soaring vaulted ceilings, featuring an array of intricate, hand-painted patterns, to the sparkling mosaics by Hungarian artist Géza Maróti and gleaming marble on the walls, the visual inspiration of the Fisher Building is endless.

The Detroit outpost of Third Man Records occupies a former factory in Midtown © Aubrie Pick / Lonely Planet

Shop for vinyl at Third Man Records

Local boy Jack White opened Third Man, and it's a super-fun browse. The store sells records (of course), turntables, T-shirts, and other gear, but the coolest bits are the recording booth (where you can make your own record for $20) and the record pressing plant that you can peek into for free (or tour for $15 on select Saturdays). Free concerts and other performances take place on the in-store stage; check Third Man's calendar for the schedule.

Pick up some reading material at John K. King Used Books

This cluttered, multistory bookstore is a Detroit landmark sure to delight any bibliophile. Treasures await in the dusty stacks, and exploring the building is an adventure in itself.

Tour the Guardian Building

Commissioned as a "cathedral of finance," this distinctive, 40-story, redbrick building with green and white accents was the world's tallest masonry structure when it opened in 1929. The  Guardian Building's interior is a colorful explosion of marble, mosaics, and murals that draw from Aztec, art deco and local influences. It's certainly the prettiest Bank of America you'll ever see. Pure Detroit, whose flagship store is in the building, leads tours most Saturdays and Sundays.

A sculpture created from recycled material sits amongst the "Heidelberg project," which is an "open air art environment" centered around one block in Detroit, Michigan.
The Heidelberg project is an evolving open-air arts project started by Tyree Guyton © Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Ponder the Heidelberg Project

Polka-dotted streets, houses covered in technicolor paint blobs, strange doll sculptures in yards – this is no acid trip, but rather a block-spanning art installation. It's the brainchild of artist Tyree Guyton, who wanted to beautify his run-down community and has been at it for more than 30 years. It's an ever-evolving work in progress. In 2016, Guyton announced he'd be dismantling the project and putting a cultural village in its place, but so far the original eye-popping installations remain.

Download the free Heidelberg Project app, which describes each of Guyton's pieces. Work is ongoing to rehabilitate the buildings into galleries and art workshop spaces, much like the current Numbers House. Heidelberg is located about 1.5 miles from Eastern Market. Take Gratiot Ave northeast to Heidelberg Street. The project spans from Ellery to Mt Elliott Streets in a rough neighborhood.

Admire the City Sculpture Park

Local artist Robert Sestok bought a forlorn lot by the freeway where cars whizz by and plunked down his hulking abstract sculptures welded from scrap metal. The do-it-yourself public space makes for a quick but impressive walkabout.

Gather in the sun at Beacon Park

A community gathering space across the street from the fortress-like GAR Building, Beacon Park always has something cool going on: food trucks on summer weekdays (from 11am to 2pm), free concerts, whimsical interactive art installations, a night market with a silent disco on summer Saturdays (7pm to midnight) and free yoga classes on the circular lawn.

See a free movie at a drive-in

Drive-in cinemas have made a huge comeback during the pandemic. Detroit has a few popular ones, including the Ford Drive-In the border of Detroit and Dearborn. But for a free movie, head to the Monroe Street drive-in outside of Campus Martius in the center of downtown. It costs $20 per car, but walk-ins are free. It even has heat-insulated pods to sit in. 

The Scarab Club is an artists' club, gallery, and studio in the Cultural Center Historic District of Detroit, Detroit, Michigan, USA
The Scarab Club is an artists' club, gallery, and studio in the Cultural Center Historic District of Detroit © Alamy Stock Photo

Take a step back in time at the Scarab Club

The Scarab Club transports you back a century to a gilded age of arts appreciation when costumed balls and visits by Diego Rivera and Norman Rockwell were the norm. The 1928 building’s gorgeous interior is stuffed with Tiffany lamps and objets d’art. Browse whatever exhibition is showing in the main art gallery, listen to a poetry reading, attend a sketch session ($10, held four times weekly) or hear a chamber music concert (tickets $20 to $25).

Don’t forget to look at the ceiling beam covered with famous artists’ signatures in the second-floor lounge. The club is located right behind the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Immerse yourself in the Lincoln Street Art Project

Vivid graffiti, murals and sculptures made from found objects adorn this stark industrial site that abuts a recycling facility. The Lincoln Street Art Project is a quintessential slice of urban-cool, DIY Detroit that's always changing, as local artists add to it frequently. DJ-fueled raves take place on occasion (especially during the full moon); keep an eye on the events schedule. It’s best to get here by bike or car, as the park is in a bleak pocket of town.

See a summer concert at Hart Plaza

This is the site of many free summer weekend festivals and concerts. While you're at Hart Plaza, check out the sculpture of Joe Louis' mighty fist.

See the latest in vehicle tech at Michigan Central Station

The once-grand beaux-arts rail terminal, within eyeshot of Corktown's main drag, was left to fall into decline after closing in 1988 and became a symbol of the city's shattered economy. Like Detroit itself though Michigan Central Station is making a mighty comeback. Ford Motor Company bought it and is spending $350 million to transform it into a new innovation campus that will focus on self-driving cars. Google also came on board in 2022 as a tenant for the reinvented centre. It's slated to open in early 2023.

Gaze at the views from the Renaissance Center

Built in 1977, the Renaissance Center still stands as the tallest building in the entire state. General Motors glossy, cloud-poking headquarters is a fine place to mooch off the free wifi, take a free hour-long tour (Monday through Friday at noon and 2pm; meet at the Jefferson Street lobby by the main entrance on Level 1) or embark on the riverfront walkway. 

Enjoy the ride on The People Mover

As mass transit, the monorail's three-mile loop on elevated tracks around downtown won't get you very far. As a tourist attraction, the People Mover is a sweet ride providing great views of the city and riverfront. There are 13 stations, including one in the Renaissance Center.

Attend a Downtown spoken word open mic night

Home to poets like Jessica Care Moore, Robert Haydon, and M.L. Liebler, Detroit is a breeding ground for creative word play, and every Sunday the First National Building in Downtown becomes a verbal playground as some of the city’s best poets take the stage at Chene Parc
Started as a pop-up space for creatives in fashion and innovation, Nandi’s Knowledge Café is a creative community space where new and veteran poets alike come to perform their work. It also hosts an open mic poetry night each Thursday at 8pm.

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This article was first published Feb 22, 2021 and updated Feb 23, 2022.

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