Detroit is a great place to base yourself if you want to explore southeastern Michigan. It’s the most easily accessible part of the state as it’s home to the only major airport and most of the interstate highways criss cross through. There are plenty of things to do right in the city, but if you want to venture out a bit, these fun day trips from Detroit will provide you with some great adventures.
I like to keep my day trips under two hours of driving so you don’t spend all day in the car. With that limitation, you won’t be able to cover the whole state or even the whole Lower Peninsula in a day trip from Detroit, but you can see a lot of really great spots including some of the most famous college towns, several state parks, and lots of great food
Very short day trips from Detroit
Royal Oak is a nearby suburb located just a few miles up Woodward. Royal Oak’s biggest draw is the Detroit Zoo, which is highlighted by a state-of-the-art penguin exhibit and the Arctic Ring of Life where you can walk through a clear tunnel under the water in a polar bear area. You’ll find all the other classic zoo animals along its winding pathways. Other favorites are the river otters who delight visitors with their twists and turns as they swim and a group of three brother bears who were rescued from Alaska and are known for being very playful. While you’re in Royal Oak, you can head to its downtown area which is known for its lively nightlife, popular bar scene, and local restaurants. The downtown area is also home to a small performing arts venue called the Royal Oak Music Theatre so you may even find a show to attend while you’re in town.
Dearborn is so close that I usually include its top attractions on lists of things to do in Detroit even though they’re not quite within the city limits. If you like history, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village can’t be missed on a visit to the area. The Henry Ford is a fantastic American history museum full of artifacts from throughout the country’s history as well as vehicles and airplanes and lots of hands-on exhibits. Head outside to Greenfield Village to stroll through a collection of historic buildings that were relocated from their original sites into the living history park. You can even catch a ride around the village in a real Model T. The museum also offers tours of the Ford Rouge Plant. In another part of town, you can tour Ford’s Fair Lane estate or just explore the grounds. If you haven’t had enough car-related experiences yet, you can check out the Automotive Hall of Fame as well. Dearborn is also home to a large Middle Eastern population so if you want to sample some really good food, this is the place to do it. You’ll find numerous locations throughout the city so you can eat to your heart’s content. Once you’re full, head over to the Arab American National Museum to learn about the diversity and cultures of Arabs who have immigrated to the US.
If you brought your passport or an enhanced license, you can cross the border to Detroit’s neighbor to the south, Windsor, Ontario via the Ambassador Bridge or the tunnel. From Windsor, you’ll get great panoramic views of the Detroit skyline from across the river. The riverfront area and the Dieppe Gardens are great spots for taking a relaxing walk. Kids will love the indoor Adventure Bay waterpark which is packed with water slides, pools, splash features, and a lazy river. The city is also home to Caesars Windsor, a casino that also hosts frequent concerts and other performances.
Longer day trips from Detroit
Ann Arbor is located about 45 minutes west of the city and makes a great day trip from Detroit. Being home to the University of Michigan, it’s a popular spot to visit during the fall for game days and tailgating. Outside of that, the campus is home to a couple of great museums that are worth checking out. You’ll find an art museum and a natural history museum right on campus – and best of all, they’re both free to enter. While you’re in the area, you don’t want to miss a chance to walk through the central part of campus known as the Diag. It’s got that classic college feel and is usually a lively hub of activity during the school year. While you’re there, you can grab lunch or dinner downtown where you’ll find all kinds of delicious restaurants and really great worldwide cuisine. For an outdoor escape, visit the Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum to see the beautiful plants and gardens and spend some time on the trails.
Lansing & East Lansing
The state capital, Lansing, is located about an hour and twenty minutes up I-96 from Detroit. There you can tour the state capitol building, either as part of an organized group or on your own. It’s a great free attraction. Lansing is also home to a minor league baseball team called the Lugnuts, so on summer evenings you can catch a ballgame there. U of M’s rival, Michigan State, is located in nearby East Lansing, and just like Ann Arbor, it’s a great spot to visit during the fall for football gamedays if you want to catch one. If not, you can spend time exploring the sprawling campus. You’ll definitely want to stop and get a scoop or two at the Michigan State Dairy Store, which makes ice cream right on campus and even I, as a Michigan fan, think it is phenomenal.
In a little under an hour and a half from Detroit, you can find yourself in Germany. Just kidding – it’s actually just the small town of Frankenmuth, but this little German-inspired village is the next best thing. It has adorable Bavarian-style architecture and is known for its German beer, lots of cheese, sausages, and all the classics in a fun environment with a lively main street. The famous Frankenmuth fried chicken dinners which are served up at rival restaurants Zehnder’s and Bavarian Inn are traditionally family style meals with delicious fried chicken and all sorts of side dishes like mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, vegetables, and a bowl of ice cream. You’ll definitely leave stuffed. Frankenmuth is also famous for Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland which claims to be the largest Christmas store in the entire world. Whether not that’s true, it is massive and it’s especially popular between Thanksgiving and Christmas when people are doing their holiday shopping. Inside, you’ll find every kind of holiday decor imaginable including trees, ornaments for literally every interest, outdoor decorations, stockings, lights, knickknacks, and everything in between.
The Bay Area
Not to be confused with San Francisco and its surrounding suburbs, Michigan has its own Bay Area located where the Thumb forks off. Also known as the Tri-city area, Midland, Bay City, and Saginaw can be easily visited on a day trip from Detroit. Midland’s Dow Gardens are the biggest attraction in the area with large expanses of manicured floral beds and an elevated pathway that winds up into the tree canopy. In Bay City, you can enjoy the lakefront or pay a visit to the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum which includes the retired destroyer USS Edson. In Saginaw, you can learn about local history at the Castle Museum, visit the small Children’s Zoo, look for birds at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, or get some hands-on fun in at the Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum.
If you head south on I-75 you’ll be in Toledo, Ohio in just under an hour. Toledo has a surprising amount of attractions and would make a fantastic day trip from Detroit. Tops among them is the Toledo Zoo which is home to all kinds of animals, including rare Andean bears whose faces will absolutely charm you. If you’re looking for a great free attraction, head to the Toledo Art Museum to explore its collections. Families will love the Imagination Station, a kid-friendly science center with numerous hands-on displays. If you’re fascinated by the local maritime history, head to the National Museum of the Great Lakes, which teaches about the significance of the lakes and the fascinating stories that have unfolded above and below their waters. l For an outdoor experience, check out the Toledo Botanical Garden for a walk through the beautifully maintained gardens. You can also grab a meal at classic Toledo restaurant – yes it’s cheesy – Tony Packo’s which is famous for both serving hot dogs and having celebrity visitors sign hot dog buns. The autographs adorn the walls and you may be surprised to find out just how many recognizable names have been there before you.
Just a little over an hour up the Thumb from Detroit you’ll find Port Huron. This is the other major border crossing in the area and you can continue on to neighboring Sarnia from here if you desire. Port Huron is on the far southern end of Lake Huron, so you’ll find several opportunities to get in the water. Lighthouse Beach and Fort Gratiot County Park are both good spots to soak up the sun. Tour boat rides are offered from the port, and there are other maritime related attractions like a lighthouse and a shipping overlook where you can view the massive freighters transiting through the narrow channel from the lake to the St. Clair River or vice versa.
Sandusky, OH is just a couple minutes beyond the 2-hour limit I set for this post, but even coming from a little further north, it’s totally doable as a day trip. It’s definitely a long day, but Cedar Point is the ultimate place for thrill rides and a chance to take runs on legendary coasters like Millennium Force, Top Thrill Dragster, and Magnum is well worth it. Cedar Point also has a sister water park on site if you need a break, but if you’re a coaster enthusiast you won’t want to miss a minute of thrills if you only have a day there.
Visit a state park
There are several great Michigan state parks within a couple hours of Detroit. Many of them feature beaches on smaller lakes and can be a little more laid back than some of the Great Lakes. One of my favorites growing up was Brighton Recreation Area, less than an hour from the city. It includes several smaller lakes for swimming and boating and offers miles of hiking trails. About 45 minutes north on I-75 will bring you to two great spots. Holly Recreation Area includes three separate lakes, hiking trails, and a frisbee golf course. Nearby Seven Lakes State Park once had 7 lakes, but a dam combined them into one large one. Metamora-Hadley Recreation Area is just a bit further from Detroit, but can be reached in about an hour. Like the other parks mentioned, it offers swimming and boating on a smaller inland lake. Fishing is also popular at all of these locations.