If you have one weekend in Detroit, you’ll want to pack in a lot of activities. This 2-day Detroit itinerary will take you to its top attractions, beloved by both locals and visitors, and give you a chance to try some of its most famous foods. My suggestions are best suited for a weekend, but they can be adapted to any point in the week as long as you check museum opening hours and plan accordingly.
Day one in Detroit
If you’re here for the weekend, you’re in luck because you’ll be starting your Detroit itinerary on Saturday morning. I love Saturdays, because they’re the main market day at Eastern Market, the enormous and historic farmers market that’s well-loved by people from all over the Detroit area. The Saturday Market starts at 6 am, so you can have a traditional sit-down breakfast – I recommend the Hudson Café on Woodward if you can get a table – or head straight to the market and pick up food there. The market has just about everything you could want, from baked goods to fresh produce, to deli meats, and more. There’s no way you’ll leave hungry. Admission to the market is free, so you can spend time While you’re there, I recommend picking up some picnic lunch ingredients for your next stop.
Once you’ve browsed the booths to your heart’s content, head back toward the river and continue to Belle Isle. This absolute gem of a park is on an island located in the Detroit River between the US and Canada, though it can only be accessed from the American side. If you’re on foot or bike, there is no charge to visit the park, but if you arrive in a vehicle, there’s a small entry fee. As it’s a state park, it’s included in the statewide parks passport. It’s definitely at its peak in the summer, but you can visit year round for some of the indoor attractions. Plan on spending most of your afternoon here. Belle Isle boasts one of my favorite views of the city skyline from a viewpoint at the end of the island right by the entrance. This area is also home to the famous James Scott Memorial Fountain with its tiers of cascading water. Elsewhere on the island, you’ll find the Dossin Great Lakes Historical Museum, which covers maritime history in the region, the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Scripps Conservatory, and the Belle Isle Nature Center – and best of all, each of these spots can be accessed at no extra charge. There’s also a popular beach area in a surprisingly calm area of the river. You’ll find plenty of great picnic locations scattered around, so choose one that suits you and chow down.
All that’s left is dinner and an evening activity. For a classic Detroit staple that’s also astoundingly cheap, grab coney dogs at one (or both) of the famous side-by-side restaurants American Coney and Lafayette Coney. They’ve been serving up Detroit-style coneys – hot dogs slathered with special chili sauce and topped with onions and mustard though I prefer mine with just lots and lots of chili – for decades. Another favorite of mine is the Atwater Taphouse, which has local brews and some really, really good food. It’s in a great location to stop on your way from Belle Isle back to the city center. For fine dining, the Rattlesnake Club is renowned. Slow’s BBQ in Corktown is a popular spot though I prefer their mac & cheese to their actual BBQ. It’s delicious. Traffic Jam & Snug is closer to Wayne State and has a creative and varied menu. They always seem to have something incredible for dessert. I could write on this for a while, so I’ll leave you with just a few more suggestions: Honest John’s, Bucharest Grill, Mexicantown’s restaurants, and the Golden Fleece.
For the evening, you have a few choices for how to spend your time. My personal favorite isn’t technically in Detroit – it’s in the tiny city of Hamtramck, which is completely surrounded by Detroit – but I think it counts. The Fowling Warehouse invented the addictively fun game that combines football with bowling. You’ll definitely want to make a return trip once you get hooked.
If you’re looking for something more relaxed, try Cliff Bell’s, a historic jazz club that will have you feeling like you time traveled back to the Roaring Twenties. You’ll get to enjoy live music, delicious food, and a full bar – what more could you want?
If sports are more your thing, all four of Detroit’s major pro teams play home games within a few blocks of each other. Depending on the time of year, you can catch the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, or Red Wings in action. And – good for you, bad for me – all of our teams are pretty disappointing these days so tickets should be easy to come by. My fiance is also a massive fan of the Detroit City soccer club, which plays its games in Hamtramck near the previously mentioned Fowling Warehouse so you could potentially even combine those two activities if you want.
If you’re looking for nightlife, Greektown is my favorite. The casino area has lots of bars, restaurants, and clubs. It’ll be bustling on a Saturday night, with the main street overflowing with people. The area is also home to the Astoria bakery which has so many delicious treats on display that it’s almost impossible to pick just one for dessert.
Day two in Detroit
The second day in your Detroit itinerary is all about the museums. I’d pick two and stick to those, doing one in the morning and one in the afternoon with a break for lunch in between. If I was planning my own trip, I’d pick the DIA and Greenfield Village, but I’m also a giant nerd and I know not everyone has the same tastes as me. If you’re visiting with kids, I’d recommend the Science Center and the Henry Ford Museum. If you don’t have a car, you may want to pick two of the museums clustered together in Midtown (DIA, Wright Museum, Michigan Science Center, and Detroit Historical Museum) just for ease of access.
Option 1: Detroit Institute of Arts
The Detroit Institute of Arts, known as the DIA is an absolutely world-class art museum located in Midtown near Wayne State University. It’s right on Woodward, so it’s easily accessible and located near plenty of dining options for lunch or dinner. If you really want to study everything, you could spend a whole day here, but half a day should be more than sufficient for a typical visitor. The museum features collections from around the world, with the most extensive areas covering European and American artists. One of the things I love about the DIA is that the building itself is an exhibit. There’s a mini chapel built into one of the areas, a low-ceilinged historic home from Pennsylvania, and other little details that take it beyond pure artwork. The most famous work of art is called Detroit Industry, and it consists of murals painted by Diego Rivera on all four walls of a courtyard. The incredibly detailed paintings depict workers in one of the Detroit area’s most famous automotive plants.
Option 2: Motown Museum
Note: The Motown Museum is temporarily closed for construction and repairs from flood damage. It’s expected reopening is May 2022.
This is a must do for music fans, especially if you’re into the Motown sound. This museum is small, but well worth the visit. It’s centered around the house that had the original Hitsville U.S.A. recording studios in the 1960s. The museum features costumes, records, artifacts, and other mementos from the labels greatest hits. You can even visit the famous Studio A where some of the biggest hits were recorded.
Option 3: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
The Wright Museum located near the DIA houses one of the largest galleries dedicated to African American history in the country. The Wright hosts a variety of permanent and rotating galleries at various times of the year. The centerpiece is a permanent exhibition called And Still We Rise which takes visitors on a linear path from an African village to a slave trading fort and then eventually out onto the deck of a slave ship. You then descend below through the lower deck of the ship full of mannequins representing how the Africans spent most of the Middle Passage to North America. Once you leave the ship, you learn about life for slaves in the United States in cities and on plantations as well as the Underground Railroad. The final portion of the gallery leads up to the modern day and highlights African American contributions to the broader American culture.
Option 4: Michigan Science Center
Note: The Science Center is temporarily closed to repair flood damage and is expected to reopen in September 2021.
This one will be a popular choice if you’re visiting Detroit with kids. The Michigan Science Center is located right between the DIA and Wright Museum so it’s also easy to combine with either of them. Inside, you’ll find a variety of hands-on exhibits covering various scientific and mathematical topics. Concepts of motion, weather, health and more are presented in a fun, engaging way. There’s also a gallery on space travel. For an extra treat, catch a show in the planetarium/domed IMAX theater or check out one of the science demonstrations in other parts of the museum.
Option 5: Detroit Historical Museum
If you want to spend some time learning about local Detroit history, pop into the Detroit Historical Museum. It pairs very well with the DIA, Michigan Science Center, or Museum of African American History as they’re all within a couple blocks of each other. The Historical Museum has a variety of exhibits about Detroit history and its importance to the country as a whole. Some of the most popular areas cover the Motor City portion of the city’s history, its time known as the Arsenal of Democracy during WWII, and as a vital stop on the Underground Railroad. My favorite part is the Streets of Old Detroit area, which depicts the city as it was in various eras from the 1840s through the 1900s.
Options 6 & 7: Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
It’s a bit of a cheat, but I always include the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village in my lists of things to do in Detroit because even though they’re in a suburb, they’re so very close and very good. The Henry Ford Museum has collections revolving around American history with a special emphasis on – you’ll never guess – transportation. Historic trains, planes, cars, and even a group of former presidential limousines dominate a large portion of the gallery. In other areas, you’ll find exhibits on American home life, pop culture, and the assembly lines.
Greenfield Village is an outdoor museum located on the same campus. It can be visited separately or in combination with the Henry Ford. Instead of artifacts, historic buildings have been “collected” here, having been relocated from their original locations. My favorite is the Wright Brothers’ bicycle workshop where they designed their first airplane. You can also hop a ride in a real Model T or the village’s railway. Other areas of Greenfield Village highlight artisan crafts like glassblowing, which is truly fascinating to watch.
Once you’ve had your fill of museums, grab dinner at any of the spots listed for Day One. If you’ve ended your day out at the Henry Ford or Greenfield Village, you can also check out some of the phenomenal Middle Eastern food that area is known for. If you find yourself with extra time, head downtown to the Detroit Riverwalk and check out the Hart Plaza area where you’ll find the iconic fist statue or head toward Renaissance Center – the tall, round towers that stand out from the Art Deco designs on most of the other skyscrapers. During summer, there’s a fun splash area nearby as well as the Outdoor Education Center. There are frequent special events along the Riverwalk as well.
Where to stay for your weekend in Detroit.
I recommend staying in Greektown or Midtown to make the most of your weekend in Detroit. These areas have the best combination of attractions and food as well as access points to transportation. You’ll find the most hotels right downtown, but that part of the city tends to be very quiet on weekends and at night, so sometimes finding dinner can be tricky.
Getting around Detroit
It’s changing a bit, but Detroit is still very car-centric. Finding parking is easy just about anywhere either in lots, at meters on the street, or in garages. Most of the locations mentioned here are relatively close together, but if you want to visit the Henry Ford or Greenfield Village you’ll want either a rental or rideshare. Both Uber and Lyft as well as some traditional taxis are available. Rentals are available at Detroit-Metro Airport if you’re flying in, local Enterprise branches in different areas of the city, or through Zipcar right downtown.
Detroit is gradually becoming more bike friendly and you’ll find bikes and scooters scattered all around Midtown and Downtown if you want to hop on one of those. The MoGo Bikes have docking stations at various locations or you can pick up a traditional rental from Wheelhouse Detroit on the Riverwalk. Lime, Spin, and Bird scooters are available all over the place. If you’re not familiar with them, all you have to do is download the app for the scooter you want to use and use it to pay and activate it. You can then leave them at your destination. Boaz offers a kind of bike/scooter hybrid that has a seat if you’re not quite confident on the scooter.
Public transportation is something Detroit has historically been lacking and it’s not nearly as robust as you’ll find in other major cities. Many of the attractions mentioned in this itinerary for Detroit can be accessed via the relatively new streetcar line that runs up and down Woodward known as the QLINE. It’ll get you between downtown and Midtown, but only operates on a 6.6-mile stretch of Woodward. Detroit’s elevated train, called the People Mover, makes a one-way loop between Greektown and Downtown. It may be useful if you’re staying downtown and want to hop it to get to the more lively Greektown area, but isn’t likely to be a major factor.
DDOT operates a decently intricate bus schedule that should be able to get you close to restaurants, Eastern Market, and (close to) Belle Isle – I’d hop a MoGo bike near the bus stop and pedal over to the island so you can cover more ground.
Getting to Detroit
If you’re flying in, Detroit-Metropolitan Airport aka DTW is the best bet. With international and domestic routes operating out of two terminals, you can get just about anywhere in the world. Delta and its partner airlines dominate and they have their own terminal all for themselves, but American, United, Spirit, Southwest, and other airlines offer additional routes as well. The airport is several miles outside of the city, so plan at least a 20-minute ride to your hotel. Windsor, Ontario right across the river also has a small airport and that may be cheaper to fly to if you’re coming from Canada or overseas. The border crossing is usually quick via the tunnel or bridge.
If you’re driving, from the East Coast or south, you’ll probably be coming up I-75. Detroit will be just about an hour north of the state line with Ohio and you can’t miss it. From the west, I-94 will bring you right into downtown.
Both Greyhound and Amtrak have stations near downtown as well.
Safety in Detroit
Detroit has a reputation as a dangerous city and I won’t deny that there is plenty of violent crime. The downtown, Midtown, and touristy areas tend to be very safe and I’ve never been uncomfortable in those areas. Use normal city precautions and pay attention to your surroundings and you very likely will not have problems. Be especially careful to not leave valuables in parked cars and always park in well-lit areas at night if you’re driving. My fiance has had his car broken into a couple times over the years, so that’s something you’ll want to be careful about.