Last Updated on December 21, 2023
Detroit is a city of contrasts, blending well together well. The art and automotive sides of the city combine frequently. The architecture is worth a trip in itself; Detroit was named a “City of Design” by UNESCO, the first U.S. city to receive the designation. Places like the Guardian Building, Renaissance Center, and several of its churches are magnificent works of art. Tops on my list of “what to do in Detroit, Michigan” is just look up and look around.
Music may be what holds it all together. At the height of the Great Migration, workers of all races and from many different areas migrated to Detroit for factory work, bringing their music and food culture with them. It all remains today.
Music history fills most lists of what to do in Detroit, Michigan.
If you’re a music lover, start with the label that changed the world of music forever. Motown began in 1959 when Berry Gordy, Jr. borrowed $800 from his family and started the studio.
After the business skyrocketed, Gordy moved to larger buildings. His sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, realized what an earth-changing event had happened and created a museum to showcase the beginnings of “The Motown Sound.”
The tour begins with a 15-minute video about the early history of Motown. The video describes the events after Berry Gordy received a $3.19 royalty payment: Smokey Robinson told him, “If that’s what you are going to earn, you might as well be in business for yourself.”
In the video, Smokey Robinson sums up how Motown changed things:
“When we would go to the South and do shows. On one side of the stage would be white people and on the other side were black people. Total separatism. And by the time we would be finishing up, not only would they be talking and laughing, they’d be dancing together. It was a great time for progress and people of good will were coming together and saying, ‘Hey, there’s a little bit of me in you and a little bit of you in me.’“
The exhibits showcase the songs and singers that those of us of a certain age grew up enjoying. There’s a wall filled with famous album covers, costumes, clothing, and many personal items of Motown stars. Michael Jackson’s hat and silver glove are on exhibit.
Next door, visit the first home Berry Gordy bought. The Gordy’s lived on the second floor and the first floor was used as Hitsville, USA, and Studio A. The living quarters were simple. The dining room table often doubled as a shipping desk.
It’s a thrill to stand in Studio A singing and dancing to My Girl and realize this is where The Temptations recorded it. This is the only place on the tour you can take photos, but just a glass wall in separates the control room from the main studio.
Berry Gordy’s father turned the garage into a studio. When he finished, they nicknamed it the “Snake Pit” because of all the wires and microphones hanging down. The mic and drums were used by Stevie Wonder. The Steinway piano was built in 1877 and was used in the original recordings.
Note: If you want to take the tour, book ahead of time online. Tours fill up fast and if you wait until you arrive you may not get a spot.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge claims it is the world’s oldest continuously operated jazz club. The club opened in May 1934 as a diner but the owner’s son, Clarence Baker, thought jazz would bring in customers, so he added a piano and invited in jazz musicians.
Baker’s is so dominated by music that even the bar is a giant piano keyboard. No, it’s not playable but it’s charming. The same stage you see today is where musicians including Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, and other big names in jazz played.
The venue serves heavenly soul food. Try the fried chicken wings, collard greens, and baked mac and cheese. They are open for lunch, but at night they have live music.
The largest surviving movie theater from the 1920s, Fox Theater is still going strong. Back in the golden age of film, theaters were stylish palaces, and the Fox was one of the most elegant. If you visit during the day, you can access the entire theater.
The architecture alone is eye-popping. The lobby combines Egyptian, Indian, and Oriental motifs. It’s half a block long and six stories high. The theater ceiling has the appearance of a draping round tent with a starburst design chandelier in the center. The chandelier is 13 feet wide, weighs 2,000 pounds, and has 1200 pieces of colored glass inset.
Some of the greatest names have performed there; Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Prince, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, Count Basie Orchestra, Aretha Franklin, and many others.
One name that was a surprise was Bill Monroe of the Blue Grass Boys. Not only Monroe but the Grand Ole Opry show preformed here in 1991 during a rare 10-state break from Nashville with Ricky Skaggs, Minnie Pearl, and Holly Dunn.
One whole wall near the dressing rooms is devoted to autographs by the entertainers who performed there.
The Fox was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988.
Sometimes iconic venues must adapt to survive. That’s what Majestic Theater did. It was built in 1915 when vaudeville and silent movies were the rage. Today, it combines bowling with rock, hip hop, and electronic music. One of its biggest claims to fame? Jack White started here with the White Stripes Duo.
The bowling alley downstairs is one of the oldest in the country. The facility combines pins with music for Rock and Roll Bowling.
Upstairs Magic Stick provides a dance floor and a variety of music acts. The original theater space has been renovated as a concert venue.
Third Man Records and Shinola
The partnership between Third Man Records and Shinola is a musical marriage made in Detroit. Shinola began in Detroit in 2011 and became known for its handmade local products. Jack White, a Detroit native, began his career as half of the group White Stripes. He went on to found Third Man Records with the slogan “Your Turntable’s Not Dead.” The partnership is located in the historic Cass Corridor.
Third Man Records released its first pressed album, The White Stripes’ first release. White also reissued some Tamla Record’s 45s featuring Motown singers.
There are tours of the pressing operation. You can sit in a model living room with a jukebox, photo booth, listening booth, and a recording booth. There’s a stage for small concerts.
Next door at Shinola you’ll find a large collection of records and turntables. Shinola recently began producing high-end turntables to play records.
There’s a listening area where you can check out the record before you buy it. Record industry memorabilia and lots of pictures of famous musicians give the feel of a small music museum. There’s also a coffee bar in the store for light snacks.
Edsel and Eleanor Ford House
Detroit and automobiles go together like ham and cheese. And you can tour the homes of some of the auto industry’s most recognizable names.
The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House ranks high. After all how many people have had a car named for both your surname and first name? The family mansion is stunning, designed to resemble Cotswold village cottages. You tour not only the home but the lakefront gardens and grounds, the historic cars, and their daughter Josephine’s playhouse.
My favorite is the playhouse. Edsel’s mother, Clara, had the playhouse built for Josephine when she was seven. It is a smaller cottage with fireplace, electricity, running water, and working stove and ice box.
The entrance area is very baroque with a broad stairway, carved woodwork, glistening chandelier, wall hangings, and fireplace set into a curved-roofed space. Other sections are more modern with light-oak walls and contemporary styling. The home is filled with artwork.
Step out into the garden and you are encompassed in color and fragrance. A bronze stature of the Fords strolling hand in hand is so lifelike. The pool would be adequate for the Olympics.
Meadow Brook Hall
Ford wasn’t the only famous name in Detroit. Dodge was pretty well-known too. John Dodge and his brother, Horace, founded Dodge Motor Company. When John died in 1920, he left his much younger wife, Matilda, one of the richest women in the world.
Several years later she married lumber baron Alfred Wilson. They built the 88,000-square-foot Meadow Brook Hall as a home for themselves, Matilda’s three children by Dodge, and the two she and Alfred adopted. It’s a National Historic Landmark and considered the finest example of Tutor Revival Architecture in America.
The arched doors and windows, exposed timbered ceilings, stained glass windows, and especially the paintings and sculptures give it the feel of a museum. The art collection includes some of the biggest names in art including Thomas Gainsborough, Gilbert Stuart, Frederic Remington, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Louis Betts.
There is an entire wing of the house where the household staff lived and worked. Not only were there maids and a butler, but there was also a secretary, a telephone operator, a laundress, a seamstress, and of course a governess, plus several more house servants. There were also workers to tend to the farm and garden.
Matilda Dodge-Wilson was far ahead of her time. She and her husband Alfred Wilson cofounded the Oakland campus of Michigan State University, now Oakland University. In 1940, she was appointed Michigan’s lieutenant governor and was the first woman to hold that position in the country.
General Motors World
While you are in auto mode be sure to visit General Motors World. It is right next to the riverwalk. It showcases General Motors’ latest vehicles and is the equivalent of visiting an upscale auto show.
They offer a free one-hour tour of the entire GMRENCEN complex which includes restaurants, an atrium, and a multitude of cars. The tours are offered Monday to Friday at 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. on a first-come basis.
You can also look across into Canada from here.
Detroit Institute of Arts
Detroit’s history in art and more fills the Detroit Institute of Arts. The more than 100 galleries are filled with more than 65,000 pieces of art from the earliest civilizations to the present day. The paintings tell a story as well as being objects of beauty.
Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals are my favorite. These are 27 panels of fresco murals filling a complete glass-roofed wing. The murals, filled with symbolism, were painted during the Great Depression when unions were a new concept.
The murals created a lot of controversy in his time as Rivera was a Marxist. Churches and politically right-wing people objected especially to one painting. That panel depicts the baby Jesus being injected with a vaccine by a nurse who is portrayed as Mary and a doctor as Joseph. In the background, three magi are seen as scientist conducting a research experiment.
The Heidelberg Project
Art in Detroit seems to incite conflict. Another art project, the Heidelberg Project by artist Tyree Guyton, has done that also. Guyton, an award-winning artist and sculptor, returned to his old Detroit neighborhood in 1986. He saw that the Heidelberg area in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood was a hotbed of crime. Drugs and violence made the neighborhood unsafe even in daytime.
He started cleaning up empty lots with the help of his grandfather, Sam Mackey. For his first project he painted his mother’s house with brightly colored polka dots to represent that we are all different but equal. It was named the Dotty Wotty House. It was where he grew up and first began to paint at nine years old when his grandfather gave him his first brush.
Another of his works is the “Souls of the Most High,” a tree decorated with shoes. It pays homage to his grandfather’s recollection of lynching of Black men. Each shoe represents the soul of one of the lynched men.
The project is one of the most visited spots in Detroit but there are those who would like it shut down. Some object to the use of old discarded objects in his art. Over the years, the city has demolished some of the houses where Guyton created art claiming urban renewal. Later, there was a string of unsolved arsons which destroyed eight of the homes, but Heidelberg Project remains standing.
Detroit Foundation Hotel
Originally built in 1929, the building that is now the Foundation Hotel, a 100-room boutique hotel, was once the Detroit Fire Department Headquarters. It’s a blend of museum, art gallery, upscale dining, and lodging. The hotel was named “One of the 100 Best New Hotels in the World” by Condé Nast Travel and Time Magazine’s “100 Greatest Places” in 2018.
Rooms and suites are a mixture of ultra-modern and artifacts from Detroit’s history. The wall behind my bed was created from refurbished wood panels from the fire station and artwork made from scraps of car paint from former Detroit car plants. There’s also artwork by various local artists throughout the hotel.
The rooms include all modern amenities. The fitness center stays open 24 hours and the hotel offers free car service within a three-mile radius during daytime hours. If you want to bike instead of driving, the hotel offers complimentary use of Detroit Bikes.
When you enter your room, you’ll see a couple of auto fuses on the desk. Take them down to the restaurant to redeem for a complimentary cup of coffee or tea. You’ll get a new pair of fuses every day.
Once where the fire trucks were kept, Foundation Hotel’s Apparatus Room is now a very popular 106-seat restaurant featuring an open kitchen, island bar, and live music. Two Michelin-starred chef Thomas Lents makes sure you get an exceptional meal any time.
Dine in Detroit
Townhouse blends Detroit food and culture. It’s located just a next to Campus Martius Park, a vital part of downtown Detroit. Executive Chef Michael Barrera assures excellence.
Want to dine like the Fords and Dodges? Join the club. Today you can dine at what was once the top-brass club for the high rollers at the Detroit Club Grill Room. Executive Chef Kirk McKinney keeps the menu very elegant. There’s a 1929 Model A Ford parked in front that you won’t be able to resist photographing. Ask about the history and take a tour if you can.
Lumen is located in Detroit’s iconic Beacon Park and is considered one the hottest dining spots in Detroit today. It’s a collaboration between Detroit Energy and the LePage family, who own several restaurants in the area. It’s Leeds certified and blends with the surroundings. Most of its “walls” are sliding glass panels that can open or close depending on the weather. There are 150 indoor seats and over 150 seats in the patio or on the rooftop. There is even a firepit outside for cool nights.
Parc has led the way in re-gentrifying the downtown Detroit hospitality scene. The first year it opened, Parc won a number of awards and accolades including being named as one of “America’s Best” wine programs by Wine Spectator. In the second year of operation, it won the Hour of Detroit 2018 Restaurant of the Year award.