Detroit has a lot going on, from eye-popping street art to vintage cars, jazz clubs and art deco architecture. Here are the top tips to make your visit to the Motor City a smooth ride.
Having a car makes life easier
Detroit is designed for driving. No surprise, considering the top three US automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) have been pumping out cars here for more than a century. The city sprawls over 139 sq miles, and public transportation is pretty much an afterthought. So to get to the cool street art, off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods and suburban sights – and to maximize your time wherever you go in town – you’ll need wheels. Traffic is not bad, and finding parking is relatively easy and inexpensive.
But you might be able to manage without a car
If you plan to stay in Detroit’s main sightseeing neighborhoods – ie downtown and Midtown – and you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind walking, it’s possible to get around on public transportation. The QLine streetcar runs near many hotels, top museums and entertainment venues. Rides are free until April 2022; after that, a day pass costs $5, available via the Dart app or at station kiosks. Detroit also has a decent bike-share program, and Uber and Lyft are easy to arrange.
Allow enough time to cover the spread-out sights
Detroit stretches over so much ground that San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston would fit together inside the city limits. The sights are pretty far-flung, so build time into your itinerary to travel between them – in general, you’ll need at least two days to hit hot spots such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, Henry Ford Museum, Eastern Market, Wright Museum of African American History, Belle Isle and Heidelberg Project.
Pack a warm coat for winter, and a jacket year-round
Detroit stays active in all seasons – just make sure to dress for the weather. Winter is cold (average high of 32°F) and blustery with a fair bit of snow. Summer is warm (average high of 80°F) with bouts of sticky humidity, but it can get cool at night.
Book museum and theater tickets in advance
Many museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, require tickets to be purchased online in advance. A day or so prior should do it, unless there’s a blockbuster exhibit going on. It’s also wise to book theater and sports tickets beforehand. Note that some theaters require proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
Make restaurant reservations
Get ready to loosen the waistband and make room for Detroit’s global dishes, locally sourced platefuls and Beard Award-winning pies. Reservations are a good idea at restaurants, especially for weekend dining. A few days in advance should suffice. Book through Tock, Open Table or Resy. Prime dining times are between 6pm and 8pm.
Choose where to stay: a neighborhood guide
Downtown has most of the business and design-savvy hotels, but modest eating and drinking action after dark. Next door Midtown buzzes with restaurants and nightlife and is near cultural attractions, though fewer hotels, with apartment rentals taking up the slack. Corktown and West Village are still full of bars and cafes, but somewhat further from the core; it’s probably best to have a car if you're lodging in these areas. Book accommodations a month or so in advance, if possible.
Remember that many business are closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
As an ongoing result of the COVID-19 pandemic, quite a few museums, restaurants, bars and music venues take a day or so off during the early part of the week. If there are places you’re dying to visit, make sure they'll be open when you’re in town.
Bring a passport to go to Canada
Windsor, Canada, lies right across the Detroit River, accessible via the Ambassador Bridge or Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Before Covid, it was easy to cross the border as long as you had your passport. Now it’s more complicated, so be sure to check current conditions for entry before embarking.
For the most part, jeans should be enough. Many people do wear fancier garb – say, a collared shirt for men and non-denim for women – to theater and clubs, like Cliff Bell’s, that have a posh ambience, though it’s not required.
Know your mile roads
Detroit’s mile roads span the city going east-west. The system starts downtown at Campus Martius Park, known as Mile Zero. Eight Mile Road – which lies 8 miles north from this point – is the most famous of the bunch, thanks to rapper Eminem. It’s the city limit, the boundary between Detroit and its more affluent suburbs. Seven Mile Road is 1 mile south of Eight Mile, Six Mile Road is 1 mile south of Seven Mile, and so on. Just to confuse you, Six Mile changes its name to McNichols Road for part of the way, and Five Mile to Fenkell Avenue, but locals often still call them by the mile names.
Cheer on the sports teams
Detroit has some hard-core sports fans. Know the city's teams, and you’ll make friends at whatever bar you belly up to. The football-playing Lions spark deep devotion, though they’ve been cruddy in recent years. They’re followed by the hockey’s beloved Red Wings, baseball’s middling Tigers and basketball’s hard-charging Pistons. The arenas all huddle together downtown.
Eat a coney and Detroit pizza
The city is famous for two culinary specialties: the coney, a hot dog smothered with chili and onions that's best scarfed at Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island, and Detroit pizza, a rectangular pie that's cut into squares, with a crisp crust and tomato sauce on top of the cheese. Buddy’s and Jet’s Pizza do it right. The drink of choice to wash it all down is a Faygo Redpop, a locally made strawberry soda.
Health and safety in Detroit
Don’t let the crime statistics scare you away
Detroit has had a tough time shaking loose its “murder capital” reputation. While it's among the most violent big cities in America, the crime numbers are well down from its bad-rep heyday in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and most of the violence is concentrated outside of the tourist areas. Downtown, Midtown, Corktown and other districts frequented by visitors are generally safe. Still, it pays to stay alert to your surroundings, especially at night.
Watch out for flooding
Heavy rains have flooded roads, homes and even the People Mover in recent years. The city’s aging public infrastructure and stormwater system take much of the blame. March through September are the wettest months, with the low-lying neighborhoods near the Detroit River hit hardest.
Stay out of abandoned buildings
Yes, there are heaps of vacant buildings in Detroit. But it’s just not classy to seek them out and get excited by urban decay. What’s more, it’s illegal and dangerous to enter any such structure.
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