Looking for the top things to do in Detroit, Michigan? Look no further – this guide has all the top spots to hit in the Motor City. Whether you’re on the hunt for world-class museums, entertainment venues, or an urban park like no other, Detroit has something to offer for everyone, and you won’t want to skip any of it.
The top 10 things to do in Detroit
Sure, Detroit hasn’t historically been at the top of many bucket lists, but you may be surprised at what you find. More and more tourists are coming as the city starts to grow again and discovering its incredible museums and cultural spots. I’ve spent most of my life in the area, so I have a lot of love for many of the Detroit attractions. Some of the choices for what to include here were easy – several of them are included in my list of top things to do in all of Michigan – and some of them were harder to narrow down. I tried my best to give a good cross-section of all the fascinating and fun things to do in Detroit for all kinds of different interests.
Take a break on Belle Isle
Belle Isle is an island park located in the Detroit river that flows between the United States and Canada. It can only be accessed from the Michigan side, so there’s no need to bring your passport. It’s Detroit’s answer to Central Park – and it’s even bigger than NYC’s famous green space. It’s the perfect spot to spend a relaxing weekend day during summer.
If we’re talking about the best things to do in Detroit, this has to be on the list. With its many recreational activities, there truly is something for everyone to enjoy on Belle Isle. If biking is your thing, you’ll adore the many miles of bike lanes on the main road that rings the island. If swimming is more to your taste, check out the beach, which is typically surprisingly calm for a flowing river. Numerous picnic shelters dot the island, so it’s the perfect spot for lunch with a view.
Belle Isle also contains several other Detroit attractions, including one of the country’s oldest aquariums, a conservatory with beautiful gardens, a museum about the history of the Great Lakes, and a nature center operated by the Detroit Zoo. Or, you can just enjoy the views of Detroit’s skyline, Windsor’s buildings, or the Ambassador Bridge spanning the river between them. The park is managed by the state park service, and vehicles must purchase a pass if they don’t already have one, but pedestrians and cyclists can enter free of charge.
Marvel at the artwork in the Detroit Institute of Art
Known locally as the DIA, this large gallery on Woodward Avenue has one of the best art collections in the country. No joke – I took my grad school roomies from Italy and Denmark here and they were impressed, even having grown up visiting the top European art galleries. The DIA is most famous for its Diego Rivera murals that depict the local automotive industry. They take up all four walls of a glass-roofed courtyard and still feel insightful all these years later.
I’ve always enjoyed the galleries with African art, though my favorite piece that fascinated me as a kid has long been rotated into the museum’s storage. Another favorite of mine is the American landscapes. Other highlights include the Medieval area with an entire small chapel that was relocated. It’s also home to one of the largest collections of African-American art in the country. The museum frequently hosts traveling exhibits and I’ve seen everything from Star Wars costumes to artwork related to Dia de los Muertos.
Visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
Located just a short walk from the DIA, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History features the largest permanent exhibition dedicated to African-American culture. Its main exhibit is titled And Still We Rise and it takes visitors all the way back to Africa and the human race’s origins there and then to coastal forts where slave trading happened and out onto a recreation of the deck of a slave ship. You then descend into the lower level of the ship to see mannequins crammed together in rows of bunks in one of the most moving sections.
After exiting the slave ship and emerging into a replica of an American town, the gallery turns its focus to life in the United States after arrival. Plantation life, social and cultural history, escapees, and of course the Underground Railroad are all covered. The gallery then continues on to celebrate African-American influence in music, theater, and other aspects of modern life in the United States. The Wright Museum also hosts continuously changing temporary exhibitions so it’s worth a repeat visit to catch a new gallery. Live performances and other events are routinely held in its striking central rotunda.
Spend a day at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
Ok, I’m cheating a little with this one because the pair of attractions is just slightly outside of the Detroit city limits, but together they’re truly a world-class attraction and I’d hate for you to plan a visit to Detroit and miss out on them. The Henry Ford is one of the best museums I’ve been to anywhere, and I’ve hit plenty. Its collection has an array of interesting artifacts and tons of vehicles. The most famous of the cars on display is the limousine President Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated. Keeping up with the presidential assassination theme (it’s not really a theme here, it’s just coincidence) is the chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot. The bus pictured above is the one Rosa Parks sat on at the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and you can step right inside. On the lighter side, an extensive gallery on aviation history and several hands-on exhibits provide lots of learning and fun.
Just outside, Greenfield Village features a collection of historic buildings that were picked up and transported from other locations. Yes, buildings. One of the highlights is the Wright Brothers’ bicycle workshop from Dayton, Ohio where they built their first airplane. Robert Frost’s and Noah Webster’s homes are two of the most prominent buildings in the historic homes area. Old fashioned shops sell things like old school candies and fancy hats, and costumed performers in period dress frequently wander the streets. For an extra charge, you can take a ride in a real Model T. It’s pretty cool to think about riding in a car that old.
The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village can be visited separately or with a combo ticket. I’d plan on spending a whole day here if you want to hit both. There is also an IMAX theater on site showing constantly changing movies. Tours of the Rouge River truck assembly plant are also offered, which are way cooler than the name indicates.
Learn about local history at the Detroit Historical Museum
The Detroit Historical Museum is located in the cultural center in Midtown. Its exhibits tell the story about Detroit’s history through the 300+ years since its founding. One of the highlights is an exhibit about Detroit’s important role in the Underground Railroad, serving as the final “stop” before fleeing slaves crossed into Canada. The America’s Motor City gallery covers the automotive history that really put Detroit on the map. As the granddaughter of a woman who moved to Detroit to take on a Rosie the Riveter-type role during WWII, I’m quite fond of the Arsenal of Democracy exhibit which covers how Detroit and the surrounding areas converted their manufacturing might from making cars to churning out warplanes, ships, bombs, and more.
The lower level of the museum houses one of the most popular exhibits – the Streets of Old Detroit. You’ll step into 1840s Detroit at the beginning of the large gallery. As you progress through the streets lined with replica buildings, you’ll see the city evolve – first into the 1870s and then to the 1900s. It’s fun to explore and a great way to learn about local history.
Try your hand at fowling
Ok, this is another cheat one because it’s located in Hamtramck, but since Hamtramck is completely surrounded by Detroit, it’s sort of counts, right? Fowling (pronounced like bowling but starting with an f) is a unique activity that combines football and bowling into a team sport. At the Fowling Warehouse, teams line up on opposite ends of a lane to take turns tossing a football at their opponents’ pins. The first team to knock down all ten pins wins. It sounds simple, but it’s trickier than you’d expect and I’ve never not had a blast.
Open fowling allows you to jump on lanes for as long as you’d like, with winners of each game continuing to play and the vanquished team swapping out for a new one waiting for a shot. For events, you can also rent a lane to have it all to your group for a period of time. There’s a full service bar on site, and live music is frequently performed for evening fowling. It’s honestly one of the most fun things to do in Detroit. Learn more about the game here.
Learn about the Motown sound
Motown music is iconic and it’s impossible not to sing along to the top hits when you catch them on the radio. Some of the genre’s biggest stars rocketed to fame in Berry Gordy’s small Motown Records recording studio, which came to be known as Hitsville U.S.A. The Motown Museum now occupies those original headquarters and provides tours for visitors from around the country.
The highlight of a visit is a chance to stand in famous Studio A where some of the genre’s most iconic hits were recorded. The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder among others created tracks in this studio. You’ll also be able to see plenty of photos, costumes, artifacts, and other Motown memorabilia on your visit.
Browse Eastern Market
Eastern Market is one of the country’s oldest urban farmers markets. For more than 150 years, Detroiters (and now plenty of suburbanites) have flocked to the market to stock up on fruits, vegetables, meats, flowers, and more. The Saturday markets are one of the most popular weekend things to do in Detroit and are typically bustling with shoppers and vendors enjoying the sights and smells.
The area is also dotted with fantastic bars and restaurants if you work up an appetite during your visit. Supino Pizzeria typically draws long lines on market days, or you can grab a classic Detroit coney dog at one of the Coney Islands in the district. Murals adorn many of the industrial buildings, adding pops of color and the market’s annual Flower Day festival is one of the best things to do in Michigan in springtime.
Catch a show at the Fox Theatre
It’s relatively unheralded, but Detroit’s theater district is topped in number of seats by only Broadway in New York City. The grandest of its theaters is the Fox, taking up half a block on Woodward Avenue. Opened in 1928 to screen movies – which is crazy to this girl who grew up going to sticky-floored, non-descript theaters – it is the epitome of Roaring Twenties glitz. Inside, it looks like a gilded palace – fitting since it was the second largest theater in the world when it was built. The lobby and theater are absolute works of art with their detailed carvings and glittery chandeliers.
In the decades since, it’s routinely hosted performances by many of the country’s top names in music. Stars like Shirley Temple, Elvis, Prince, The Supremes, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Kanye West, and more have headlined shows on its historic stage. Check the upcoming performance schedule to see what acts will be in town during your visit if you want to catch a show – buy early as top names sell out quickly and you don’t want to miss out on one of the top things to do in Detroit at night.
Attend a game in the sports district
In the last few years, all four of Detroit’s major professional teams have converged to play their home games within a few blocks of each other. On gamedays, no matter which team (or teams) is in action, the area floods with fans ready to root on their teams. Even though none of them is a championship contender at the moment, Detroiters adore their sports teams so the atmosphere is particularly fun.
Comerica Park is the home of the Tigers and was the first to open in this area. Next came Ford Field, home of the Lions which retain a die hard fan base despite years of crushing disappointment. The Red Wings and Pistons share the newest building – Little Caesars Arena – which is state-of-the-art in every way possible and has some of the best arena food I’ve found anywhere. So, check the schedules while you’re in town and spend an evening or a weekend afternoon enjoying a game.