Two days just isn’t enough time to see Detroit. But if you had access to some pretty serious resources, such as a chauffeur, a few assistants, and a little magic pixie dust to keep you flying, you might be able to see much more of it than the average person. It’s with this in mind that we put together this ambitious (and somewhat unrealistic) guide to spending 48 hours in Detroit.
As downtown workers flood out of the buildings, this is the perfect time to see the city center. Twenty years ago, Campus Martius was primarily concerned with routing workers' cars through as they headed home for the suburbs. But with many of the younger workers living downtown, the area becomes a lively pedestrian environment. These days, it's Campus Martius Park, with fountains, a restaurant, and often live music. It's also not a bad spot to get views of Detroit's one-of-a-kind complement of prewar skyscrapers clad in everything from colorful tile to Indiana limestone.
Now you'll want something to eat. Head over to Greektown, which is perhaps the last intact block of Detroit's old downtown. These days, it's a strange hybrid: 19th century storefronts with retro-futuristic tubeways overhead that lead in and out of the casino. There's Greek dining: One old staple is the Golden Fleece, then the more upscale Pegasus Taverna, or even the glitzy Santorini Estiatorio. Don't want to go Greek? There's Red Smoke Barbecue, Pappy's Bar & Grill, Chicago-style pizza at Pizza Papalis, and even a Five Guys for those who must have the burger. Don't miss the Astoria Bakery for some classy confections to go.
Head out to Corktown to see what's cooking at PJ's Lager House. You may not need food, but the fare at the Lager House is excellent, and vegetarian friendly too. Check out the record store in the basement, or just see what quality entertainment has piled onto the stage in the adjoining room, where you can regularly see local bands, up-and-comers, and breakout stars. In between shouting and clapping, take a moment to appreciate that you're in a historic bar where Irish politicians used to make deals.
Head out of Corktown past the magnificent (but vacant) train station, and follow Vernor Highway to any number of excellent Mexican eateries. Sure, you could stop at the touristy places on Bagley for margaritas and chimichangas, but the authentic places are better, such as Taqueria Nuestra Familia or Los Altos, and even humble spots like Taqueria Lupita. Some are full-service restaurants and some are humble, but they all prepare excellent, affordable tacos, especially the fabled taco al pastor. You gotta have at least one. If you have time before they close at 9 p.m., drop in at Sheila's Bakery: It's two rooms crammed with glass refrigerators filled with an astonishing variety of cakes.
Head back downtown for a peek at the west side of downtown. Head over to the refurbished Book Cadillac hotel and have a drink at the magnificent bar at Roast Detroit, where the beer list is as fancy as some wine lists. Or seek out the quirky delights of Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy, whose interior is lacquered on with so many bizarre decorations you feel just one more tchotchke would bring the whole place tumbling down.
Get over to the Leland Hotel and make your way downstairs to City Club. The original 1920s basement bar and ballroom has hosted DJ-driven dance parties since the 1980s, and it's a great place to soak up a bit of Detroit's dance music history. Work off those tacos and drinks by shaking it, or just lounge under the blacklight and take in Detroit's selection of languid goth hotties.
Head back to Greektown for the ultimate evening snack at Plaka. It's called saganaki, and it's a dish of cheese that gets lit on fire with great theatricality and a cry of "Opa!" The cheese melts, and provides that late night snack that will help you soak up the booze and sleep well. Plaka is also historically one of the few late-night diners in downtown Detroit, and it usually has more than its fair share of late night revelers trying to recover a bit before heading home. Want to keep on going? There's a bar upstairs, but we warn you: You have a big day tomorrow.
Ready for breakfast? Head over to Corktown. That's where you'll find the Detroit Institute of Bagels, which has the most authentic bagels you'll find outside of Manhattan, and such unusual creations as the Chicago bagel dog. Or walk just down the street to Brooklyn Street Local: Run by two fairly recent immigrants from Canada, it's a friendly little spot. The kitchen is happy to accommodate vegetarians or people with dietary restrictions, and yet, oddly, the centerpiece of the menu is their poutine, the ultimate fat-kid food, rich with cheese curds and gravy.
It's time to head to Eastern Market, the largest historic urban food market in the country. Join the throngs of people who descend on the market sheds every Saturday morning to buy vegetables, fruit, potted plants, and victuals grown by area farmers. Or hit the classic food businesses that line the market area, selling wine, fish, coffee, nuts, and almost anything else. There are plenty of side trips to make as well, including some old-fashioned shopping at Detroit hardware, a visit to the letterpress studio Signal Return, and, as always, plenty of restaurants and bars, including Vivio's, whose famous Bloody Mary mix keeps marketgoers coming in for refreshment.
Usually, parks are nestled in the center of the city, but in Detroit, the largest park is on a 985-acre island, accessible only by bridge or boat. It's Belle Isle, and it's almost designed for motorists, with pleasing parkway views on the many roads that ring and cross it. Some spots offer secluded walks, such as the trail that leads from a little parking area on Vista Drive Southeast, right off Loiter Way. But if it's too chilly to get out and walk, don't miss the Belle Isle Conservatory, with several warm rooms filled with exotic plant life.
It's time to be back downtown for brunch at Foran's Grand Trunk Pub. Back in the old days, the space was a ticketing office for the Grand Trunk Railroad, and its vaulted ceilings hark back to a more elegant time. But the food on the plate is just as impressive, made with local ingredients. It's so popular, in fact, that you'll be cheek-to-jowl with downtowners who know how to enjoy life. Don't neglect the beer list: The bar at Foran's is proud to stock some of the most impressive beer brewed in Michigan.
Swing down Jefferson Avenue and get over to John K. King Books. There's simply no other used bookseller in the area that can compare to John King. It's four floors of books on an astonishing array of topics, and with a very helpful sales staff that will often find what you're looking for. Really, though, the pleasure of this shop is the browsing, finding those unusual and out-of-print books you didn't know existed, or poring over old Detroit and Michigan ephemera like postcards, posters, and magazines.
Head up to the Cultural Center, where the city's art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, faces the public library's imposing main branch across Woodward Avenue. You could, of course, spend all day within the museum, dining, looking at art, and examining photo exhibits, but the don't-miss wonder here is the room filled with Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals. Painted in the 1930s by the Mexican muralist, they were controversial when they debuted, but no artwork today is so closely associated with the days of Detroit's automotive boom.
Go slightly south and west and you'll find a golden slice of Detroit's "Midtown" neighborhood. Again, you could totally spend all day here, drinking, dining, watching live music, and even catching a movie (Cinema Detroit, the city's only first-run theater, is nearby). For our purposes, a jaunt down West Canfield Street will have to do. Start on Third Street for a look at a cobblestone block that bristles with Second Empire architecture, then cross Second to find longtime stalwart businesses, such as Motor City Brewing Works and Traffic Jam and Snug, relative newcomers like City Bird, and the brand-spanking-new, such as Shinola, Third Man Records, and Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria and Brewery. If you're able to make it all the way to Woodward Avenue in less than 45 minutes, that's where HopCat offers 130 taps flowing with craft beer.
Want a little extra exercise? Walk two blocks south to the Majestic entertainment complex. It's a building stuffed with a restaurant, an electronic dance venue, a main stage for bands, a pizza place, and the oldest continuously operating bowling facility in the country. See if you can throw a strike or two. If it's less than an hour later when you have totaled your scores and turned in your shoes, drop in at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, where you can see art from all over the world designed to connect with a Detroit audience.
Quick: There's still an hour before the Motown Museum closes. It's a great chance to see Motown history in the original building that created the smooth soul sound Detroit became famous for. It's near New Center, up on West Grand Boulevard, in a former private home that still bears the words "Hitsville, U.S.A." Even for locals who grew up with the music, it's still an awe-inspiring experience to see the artifacts Motown left behind, including scads of gold records.
Just down the boulevard, you'll find New Center. In the 1910s, the auto barons of General Motors began to consider downtown too congested for the businesses they were building. In the 1920s, they built up New Center, which commentator Joel Garreau called the first "Edge City." The Fisher brothers built the magnificent Fisher Building, containing a lavish theater, a richly ornamented 44-foot-high arcade, an exterior clad in bronze, granite, and marble, and topped with a steeped roof covered in gold leaf. An underground hallway runs under the boulevard, connecting it to a hulking building that takes up the whole block: the former headquarters of General Motors. Behind it is yet another giant building, formerly the Argonaut, now the Taubman Center, part of the College of Creative Studies. This is the place to see 20th century architectural "giantism" at its most imposing.
Isn't it time to eat? It's been at least three hours since you had a bite. Get yourself down to Gold Cash Gold, famous for its house-prepared pork, but thoughtful enough to offer a few dishes for the meat-averse. Take a run at a flatiron steak served with harissa yogurt, preserved lemon, and Brussels sprouts. Or maybe you should get the duck sausage too. You decide.
Usually, you have wine with dinner, but once you see Motor City Wine, you might decide to enjoy it as an after-dinner drink. The wine bar used to be right above Foran's Grand Trunk, but a few years ago it moved to its current location, and it's a hit. No, this isn't your swanky Manhattan wine bar. This is an unpretentious spot that specializes in good values, New World wines, and they'll let you drink out of any glass you like. In good weather, the outdoor area can get lively. Best of all, the couple who runs this place loves characters and windjammers, and there's usually lively conversation.
Just off Michigan Avenue is the UFO Factory, a small, old bar that has had a new life breathed into it. It specializes in hosting bands and peformers from the outre end of rock 'n' roll, and the entire interior is all painted in silver. There's usually some compelling entertainment onstage, and the bar will be snugged up with local rock royalty ready to drink up a storm. It's the Detroit way.
Sneak a mile or two down Michigan Avenue and hit the Telway. It's one of those ancient hamburger joints that simply won't die. You won't be eating another entire meal, but it's a good idea to get a slider or two to fortify you. And it's a meal and a show: All night long, customers pile in to sit on the few stools and order burgers, coney dogs, and fries, or some of the eatery's "Hillbilly Chili." And a procession of cops, taxi drivers, and night owls takeout orders of coffee, usually "double-doubles," all night long.
Now head out into northwest Detroit, to the edge of the city, to see Baker's Keyboard Lounge. It's the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the country, open since the 1930s. Here you can belly up to the unusual bar, which is decorated like the keyboard of a piano. Take in the entertainment onstage, order a classy drink, and get ready for something really different next.
There are older bars, and there are better bars, but Tom's Tavern may be the city's most unusual bar. It was already old in the 1950s, when the business owners along Seven Mile Road wanted the bar torn down. Now, all those businesses are gone, and Tom's remains. That's because it has earned a throng of supporters over the years, who rebuild it when it's falling down. And it shows: The sloping floor, the tipped-back bar, and the makeshift carpentry are all part of the charm. Tell Ron the bartender we sent you.
This whirlwind, Saturday night bar crawl continues with a trip to Honest John's. The bar used to be over by the bridge to Belle Isle, but about 15 years ago it relocated to Selden Street. It's one of those one-of-a-kind places, with framed newspaper clippings bearing tribute to former John Thompson, and a kitchen that's open until 2 a.m. if you need a bit of fuel to keep you going. With typical over-the-top Detroitness, their BLT has almost a dozen strips of bacon.
No trip to the old "Cass Corridor" would be complete without a stop at the Old Miami. For a long time, it was a place for Vietnam veterans to meet, drink, and talk over the war. These days, it hosts everything from hip-hop nights to punk rock reunions. It's a comfy joint, full of couches, pinball machines, and enough Vietnam memorabilia to fill a small museum. But perhaps best of all is the spacious backyard, with rolling grass, outdoor seating, and a fire pit that gets going on chilly nights.
With great effort, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has been able to gradually refashion the city's link to its river. The riverfront that used to be a site for railroads, wharves, and heavy industry is now becoming public space, with Milliken State Park, splash pads, boat marinas, concert venues, and a carousel. Want to work off that hangover? Take a brisk jog along the river, or head down into the Dequindre Cut, a subsurface running and biking path made from old railroad right of way.
Now it's time for the most important meal of Sunday: brunch. And there are few better brunches on offer than the one at Mudgie's Deli. Nestled in the residential part of Corktown, away from the rush of Michigan Avenue, Mudgie's has a fantastic array of sandwiches and soups, as well as a liquor license to help with that hair-of-the-dog.
Gratiot Avenue has seen a lot of changes over the last five years. The section near Eastern Market always had a lot of creative people, including artists and techno pioneers, but only lately has that energy spilled over into the storefronts. Here you'll find performance space-art center-bake shop Trinosophes, as well as Peoples Records, which is probably the best record store in the city.
If you can pry yourself away from the stacks of wax at Peoples, the next stop is the Bronx Bar. It's one of those glorious old-man bars that's been adopted by a younger crowd. It's much nicer than it used to be, with a double jukebox, an outdoor seating area, and much more light than was once admitted. On Sundays, the Bronx sets up a killer Bloody Mary bar. The bartender will hand you a pint glass with ice and vodka in it, and you build your own out of pickles, hot beans, V-8, Tapatio, and anything else you like. You'll want two, but just have one. Trust us.
Do you like football? How about bowling? Would you like to try the sport that is both and neither at the same time? It's called Fowling (FOAL-ing) and it takes place at the Fowling Warehouse in Hamtramck. It's a massive space with a bar, a stage, and a netted-in area where you can throw forward passes at 10 pins in hopes of knocking them all down. Yes, it's bizarre, but thanks to the city's low real estate prices, even oddballs can make their dreams come true.
Take a detour into Hamtramck for some day-drinking. Chances are you'll catch most of the characters at Bumbo's bar. Until a year or so ago, it was Hank's Bar, a crusty old joint with a drop-ceiling that attracted mostly senior citizen drinkers. Now it's refitted to its former glory, and regularly draws the local hip kids. And it's not just the newly revealed tin ceilings bringing them in; the Sunday and Wednesday brunches usually offer appealing twists on Polish food. Also, it's owned by two native Hamtramckans who returned from Los Angeles to live the Detroit dream.
On Sunday, most of the cooler shops in Hamtramck are closed, but there's one attraction that's accessible 24 hours a day: It's called Hamtramck Disneyland. It's a massive piece of folk art built by the late Dmytro Szylak, and it takes up his whole yard. Finished in 1999, it's a mass of whirligigs featuring whimsical creations, such as a miniature space shuttle. The piece's future is uncertain, so be sure to snap a selfie while it's still up and working its quirky magic.
Is there a better spot for day-drinking than Hamtramck? Probably. But in its heyday, it was a working-class city of Poles, which means it still has plenty of bars. By last count, there were still at least five dozen sales licenses in a city of 22,000. Sure, you could hit the New Dodge Bar or Suzy's, but the Whiskey in the Jar is a timeless little watering hole of the old style, dim and almost windowless, where third-shift factory workers fresh off the line used to order their boilermakers at 6 a.m. in that permanent midnight.
That's 48 hours. Are you still alive? You're probably a few pounds heavier and more than a little drunk. Maybe it's time to hit a Middle Eastern restaurant in Dearborn on the way back to the airport. Those fruit smoothies can be quite restoring.