A Short Guide to Downtown Detroit

by Tracy Kaler  |  Published September 30, 2019

Ask any Detroiter about “The D” and they’ll tell you how much they love their hometown. Sure, Detroit has felt its share of grief and misfortune, but despite what you’ve probably seen or heard, this Michigan city is making a comeback. A destination for the hip, creative, and curious, downtown Detroit is on the rise.

Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Set along the Detroit River and a few miles from the Canadian border, the city of Detroit remains a vibrant art, architecture, and culture hub. Downtown is the central business district, but it’s also a destination for food, nightlife, and shopping, and where Comerica Park (home of Detroit Tigers baseball) and Ford Field (home of Detroit Lions football) are located.

You can easily explore the pedestrian-friendly center on foot, from the Detroit Riverwalk and its sprawling plazas to the Fisher Freeway (Midtown’s border), but to learn what the city is made of, talk to Detroiters. The warm spirit of the Midwest is evident here, and the proud natives – they’re not afraid to vocalize their adoration for their hometown – top the list of reasons to visit.

Detroit’s mantra – “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes” –dates back to more than two centuries ago when a tragic fire burned much of the town. Skip ahead to the 21st century, and this saying is still relevant. Beginning in the 1950s, the city was plagued by decades of decline, racism, riots, political corruption, and eventually, bankruptcy, only to lose more than half its population. That’s a tough pill to swallow considering that Detroit, sometimes referred to as “Motown” (the birthplace of the iconic record label), and “Motor City” (the heart of the automotive industry), was once the richest per capita city in the US.

Sometimes referred to as Motown or Motor City, Detroit was once the richest per capita city in the US. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Fast forward to 2019 and the resilience of the city and its residents is apparent. Surging far ahead of where it was just five years ago, Detroit is now in the midst of a rebirth. Downtown, in particular, has experienced a renaissance.  Today, stylish new hotels, trendy eateries, craft cocktail bars, and locally-owned shops dot the district, which has its share of architectural masterpieces as well.

Deemed the “Paris of the Midwest” due to its stockpile of stunning buildings and stately boulevards, Detroit still exhibits an impressive collection of 1920s Art Deco architecture. Take the Guardian Building. This beauty is a focal point in the city’s skyline, and no one can miss the orange brick facade of this 40-story skyscraper. But discover the allure of the tower inside. Characterized by a mural of Michigan, two-sided Tiffany clock, blue, green, red, and yellow tiles made from Aztec and American Indian patterns, and scores of marble, metal, and terra cotta, the ornate interiors wow from the floors to the ceiling to the elevator banks.

Don’t miss the alluring interior of the Guardian Building. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Similarly, Albert Khan’s Fisher Building – dubbed “Detroit’s largest art object” – showcases a facade shrouded in stone, and inside, a three-story barrel vault lobby constructed from 40 types of marble, as well as sculpture, mosaics, and frescoes by Hungarian artist Geza R. Maroti. Also worth seeing is the patina-crowned Book Tower by architect Louis Kamper, boasting 12 caryatids and limestone carvings by Italian-American sculptor Corrado Parducci, towers 38 stories above Washington Boulevard.

During spring, summer and fall, Camp Martius Park, the city’s gathering place, is ideal for people-watching. Marked by plenty of seating, grass, botanical gardens, the Michigan Sailors and Soldiers Monument, and Woodward Fountain, the green space is an outdoor room where Detroiters meet up and kick back. Ideal in warm weather, The Beach is an urban stretch of sand for all ages, offering lounge chairs, beach parties, and The Fountain – its open-air restaurant serving sandwiches, salads, and appetizers. In winter, The Rink is the city’s go-to ice skating arena.

The Beach in Camp Martius Park offers lounge chairs, parties, and an open-air restaurant. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Just east of Camp Martius is Cadillac Square, another prime outdoor space for meeting up and relaxing. Stop by mid-day and grab a bite from one of Detroit’s famous food trucks such as Los Dos Amigos and Detroit BBQ Company. Also within a quick walk from anywhere in downtown is Capitol Park, a pleasant respite among the city’s hovering towers, and an ideal locale for photography.


You’ll know luxury as soon as you step inside Shinola Hotel (1400 Woodward Ave), a property from the maker of watches, bicycles, and leather goods by the same name. Comprised of five buildings in Detroit’s downtown shopping district, The Shinola reflects the history and character of the city while featuring flawless craftsmanship in its public spaces and 129 unique guest rooms. Luxe touches including bespoke beds with Italian cotton sheets and custom bath amenities named “Rayl’s” after the T.B. Rayl Hardware Store (the building’s former tenant), set this hotel apart from the lot.

Shinola Hotel is from the maker of watches, bicycles, and leather goods by the same name. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Vintage furnishings come to life in The Siren Hotel (1509 Broadway St), situated in the refurbished Wurlitzer Building on Broadway. Glam with an Old Hollywood ambiance, the Siren features only 106 rooms, all with cozy beds, hand-loomed blankets from Maine Heritage Weavers, and toiletries curated just for the hotel. While you won’t find five-star amenities, you will have Candy Bar – a sparkly pink cocktail den alongside the lobby, and Albena, Garrett Lipar’s tiny, reservation-only restaurant serving beautiful plates of Great Lakes cuisine.

Witness another overhaul inside Element Detroit at the Metropolitan (33 John R St), a Marriott property in the historic Metropolitan Building. Great sleep is pretty much a given here (Marriott beds) as well as the convenience of kitchens and kitchenettes, and a complimentary breakfast buffet. The main attraction at Element, though, is the Monarch Club – a gorgeous indoor/outdoor rooftop lounge pouring pretty drinks with small plates and surrounded by panoramic views of Detroit’s colorful (and gorgeous) cityscape.

The Monarch Club is surrounded by Detroit’s colorful cityscape. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Eat & Drink

Essential to the culinary culture of Detroit, Coney dogs come loaded with chili, onions, and tangy yellow mustard on hot, steamed buns and are usually presented with a side of chili-topped fries. Two side-by-side spots – American Coney Island (114 W Lafayette Blvd) and Lafayette Coney Island (118 W Lafayette Blvd) – battle it out for the title of best Coney Island hot dog in Detroit. Taste-wise, the American and Lafayette Coney dogs are delectably similar, so you’ll have to eat one of each to pick your favorite.

Vertical Detroit (1538 Centre St) pours more than 100 wines by the glass, 2,800 by the bottle, and stocks an extensive Pinot Noir selection as well as wines from Bordeaux, Tuscany, the Napa Valley, not to mention plenty of Champagne to go around. This bar and restaurant also sells wine and accessories, so feel free to pop in, grab a bottle and uncork it in your hotel room. Offering options for a nosh or full meal, Vertical’s menu includes smoked trout on toast, tenderloin tartare, and duck confit.

Vertical Detroit pours more than 100 wines by the glass. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

The dimly lit Evening Bar (1400 Woodward) is in the Shinola Hotel, but you can enter from Parker’s Alley. This tiny, elegant speakeasy attracts its share of hotel guests but draws locals too. The moody vibe sets the scene for pretty craft cocktails such as Death in the Afternoon (St. George Absinthe Verte and Champagne) the Singapore Sling, and Rob Roy. Need a snack while you imbibe? Try the New England-style lil’ lobster rolls or the devil’s eggs with bacon and jalapeño. Seating at Evening Bar is available on a first-come-first-served basis.

Sip pretty cocktails at Evening Bar. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Sate your sweet tooth at Matt Knio’s Canelle Detroit (45 W Grand River Ave), an authentic French Patisserie across from Capitol Park. Macarons, fruit tarts, and eclairs will surely satisfy any sugar cravings, but if you’re more in the mood for a savory bite, try a flaky croissant, yummy quiche, or a made-to-order ham and cheese sandwich. In pleasant weather, take your pastry to go and enjoy every bite at a café table in the park.

Executive Chef Kyle Schutte plates charcuterie, crispy Brussels sprouts, steak frites, and roasted salmon at the upscale and refined Besa (600 Woodward Ave). The upstairs bar is great for mingling, while the restaurant area is excellent for a leisurely meal. Food is also served in the more casual downstairs, which exudes a nightclub feel. Beyond lunch and dinner, the restaurant, like many in Detroit, offers Happy Hour from 4 p.m. to 6:30 pm Monday through Friday. Enjoy a selection of $4 draft beers, $6 glasses of wine, and $7 cocktails alongside tasty small plates including oysters and vichyssoise.

The bar at Besa is great for mingling. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Serving arguably the tastiest breakfast in town, The Hudson Cafe (1241 Woodward Ave) is one of Detroit’s best for apple walnut French toast, buttermilk pancakes, and a good old-fashioned plate of bacon and eggs. Meanwhile, specialties like the chicken and waffles and catfish and eggs are go-tos for hearty eaters. Benedicts get creative here, so if your palate is adventurous, try the “Voodoo” consisting of a house-made corn cake, chorizo, cheddar, and ranchero sauce. Wash it down with a spicy Bloody Mary.


Men and women on the hunt for fashionable streetwear basics should check out Good Neighbor (1435 Farmer St, Suite 115). Shop pants, shirts, sweaters, jackets, shoes, and accessories from well-known brands such as Free People, Levi’s, Roamer, and Backbeat Rags. Good Neighbor also sells items from Detroit-based York Project—this clothing company produces small-batch pieces from American-made materials and also donates living essentials to the homeless across the US.

Good Neighbor sells pieces from York Project, which donates living essentials to the homeless. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

Sourced in the US and made in Detroit, Detroit Denim (2987 Franklin St, Suite B) stocks you guessed it, denim garments for both guys and gals. Travel pieces—think chic tote bags—as well as aprons and leather accessories are for sale, but the handcrafted jeans are the brand’s focus. Choose from a variety of cuts such as classic taper, hockey, archer, slim, and women’s curvy, among others. Using special repair sewing machines, Detroit Denim also fixes any brand of jeans at their in-town factory.

A comic book store to end all others, Vault of Midnight (1226 Library Street) isn’t just for geeks. Conveniently located across the street from a People Mover station (a light rail that circles downtown), the shop offers comics, graphic novels, board games, and collectibles. Friendly staff are available to assist and answer questions without intruding on your shopping or reading experience. Organized and well-lit, the well-laid-out interior encourages visitors to linger, skim titles, and search for favorites.

Linger, skim titles, and search for favorites at Vault of Midnight. (Photo: Tracy Kaler)

When gazing at the gorgeous Art Deco detailing inside the Guardian Building or Fisher Building, don’t ignore Pure Detroit (multiple locations), a shop selling Detroit-centric goods mostly made in the city. Browse everything from baseball caps to jewelry to art and culture books, t-shirts, and Detroit Barbers products. Besides these two outposts, Pure Detroit has locations in three other iconic downtown buildings: Cobo Center, the Strathmore, and GM Renaissance Center, as well as a store in Belle Isle Aquarium, a 15-minute drive from downtown. This shop is one of the city’s top choices for locally-made souvenirs and a must for any visitor looking to take home a piece of Detroit.