As cities go, Detroit isn't one of the really big ones. Sure, it takes up more space than San Francisco or Manhattan. But Houston and Oklahoma City sprawl over four times the area. Phoenix, Nashville, and Los Angeles are more than three times as large. Even Charlotte, N.C., takes up twice the square mileage.
But Detroit is called the Motor City for a reason. Criss-crossed with freeways, the fastest way around town is by vehicle. And many of the city's secondary thoroughfares have traffic lights enough to make bicycling enjoyable. In fact, a network of new cycling paths, greenways, and bike lanes is making it easier than ever to pedal around.
For the person who wants to become acquainted with the city, wheels are the way to go. And there are plenty of folks who want to help you do it, whether by bus, van, or more modest means.
One tour service, Show Me Detroit, offers outings by van or bus that highlight architecture, economic development, arts, and history. Company co-founder Pat Haller says they offer a sort of starter two-hour tour for those who've never seen the city. It's an upbeat tour of the best-functioning parts of the city. It can also be expanded into a three-hour tour that packs more stuff in.
They typically start on the riverfront and hit downtown, Greektown, Capitol Park, Washington Boulevard, the stadiums, and the half-built county jail. Then they'll swing uptown toward the Wayne State's campus, see West Canfield Street, home to Shinola and Third Man Records, then head on to Eastern Market, Brush Park, and the Heidelberg Project and Belle Isle if time allows. They don't always make every stop, but everybody gets to pile in and see the grand lobby of the Guardian Building, with its almost psychedelic interior designed by Wirt C. Rowland.
Haller says her guests are often surprised by some things native Detroiters wouldn't think about, chiefly that Detroit offers views of Canada, and that it's "that close." They're also surprised they find so much to admire.
"They say they wish they had more time here," she says. "They say it's nothing like they expected. They thought it would be this dirty, scary town. Generally, when they leave our tours they're very optimistic."
Haller acknowledges her role as a host, as somebody wanting people to feel comfortable touring Detroit. But she also has special tours that include visits to some of the city's ruins and depopulated areas, showing a more balanced view of "the pretty and the gritty." For the more venturesome, this tour might be the ticket.
Also, more than one popular bus tour is really a bar crawl in disguise. In fairness, Detroit History Tours offers everything from kid-friendly jaunts to private parties and corporate events. But the organizers are friends with staff and owners at some of the oldest bars in town, and their tours can hit Detroit fixtures like Abick's Bar and even the Carbon Athletics Club tucked away behind Delray.
But perhaps the best booze cruise on wheels is a regular tour by the Detroit Bus Co. It's an event called Drunks of Antiquity, and it stops at just about every Detroit bar that's existed since before Prohibition was repealed in 1933. It usually includes not just Abick's Bar, but Tom's Tavern, the Stonehouse Bar, and the Two Way Inn, where beer has been poured since the 1870s.
Of course, some people would rather be toning their bodies than exercising their livers, and cyclists have plenty to explore. And you don't even need a bicycle.
While a bike rental system is in the works, there's one business that's offered Detroiters bikes to rent. That's Wheelhouse Detroit, located on the city's riverfront park, not far from the entrance to the Dequindre Cut, an unusual running and cycling path reclaimed from a former railbed.
You don't even need to be an athlete to join in the fun. The city's Slow Roll rides take place weekly, and attract a range of riders, from those just starting out to those spandex-wearing types out front. The rides are so successful they can stretch for blocks. They've inspired Slow Rolls in cities not just throughout the country, but in Europe as well.