I’ve been known to research a trip to death. I fall down the rabbit hole of TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews, detour to social media hashtags, and tunnel through obscure blogs, landing on an exhaustive list of expectations. The can’t-miss tour. A must-taste happy hour cocktail. The gotta-share-it photo op by the trendy mural.
Pressure to hit all the right stops feels even stronger in a comeback city like Detroit. The scene is buzzing with all the hot “R” words: rebound, recovery, restored and revitalized. You can follow #newdetroit on Instagram for a glimpse of the sleek hotels, bars and sights. But on a recent escape to the Motor City, I chose not to.
I booked a rooftop cabin in Midtown, then left my itinerary mostly blank. Rather than ask my phone for ideas, I met servers, shop owners, even a Motown legend. All of them had more than small talk to share. Stories about their Detroit sent me on mini treasure hunts across the city. And each jaunt put the element of surprise back in travel. These are my stories from Detroit. But others are waiting wherever you go. Just ask a local.
Four rooftop cabins crown El Moore Lodge in Midtown.
My breakfast at El Moore Lodge starts with bagels and coffee in a communal parlor. And I linger past noon. Located in Midtown, El Moore houses both locals and visitors (and spaces for them to interact). That’s how I stumble into a long chat with Rosemary Sheppard, wearing purple hair curlers and a grin that consumes her whole face. Rosemary used to live here and still books short stays.
“The real Detroit” is her favorite topic. “Old Miami dive bar is old Detroit. Ashley should be the bartender tonight. Tell her you know me,” she says. “La Feria is great for Spanish tapas. Elias, the co-owner, just glows with a spiritual energy.” I take her up on the reco, and find myself glowing, too, after a meal of fried eggplant and almond-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates.
El Moore staffer Maia Henry (left) with Rosemary Sheppard
Built On Music
What I knew: The Motown Museum enshrines Detroit’s legendary sound in the studio where it began 60 years ago.
Locals told me: Some Motown greats still play shows around town—if you know where to look.
Before I make it to the Motown Museum (a humble house-turned-icon slated for a $50 million campus expansion), I spot Hello Records in Corktown. I walk in and ask owner Wade Kergan, “Where’s the best stage for classic Detroit music?” He names a moody lounge in New Center where Dennis Coffey plays a free weekly show. (Tonight happens to be that night.) Wade tells me the former Funk Brothers guitarist recorded with Motown royalty and gained fame for his own hit “Scorpio” in 1971.
Hours later, I’m at Northern Lights Lounge. Dennis’ signature fuzz tone fills the room. He segues from originals to “Johnny B. Goode” and “My Girl” covers, then takes a seat at a table. I approach him to thank him for the set, and we wind up talking. “Music is in the DNA of this city,” he says, recounting studio sessions with The Temptations. After a second set, I leave with a signed CD and a few travel tips from a grandfather of Motown.
Dennis Coffey at Northern Lights Lounge
Hitting the Streets
What I knew: Free walking tours with Detroit Experience Factory showcase art and key downtown architecture.
Locals told me: A graffiti mural just went up nearby. Want to go see it?
At El Moore, I bump into Carlos, an employee and Detroit native. I mention I’m hoping to see some street art, maybe one of the murals spanning skyscrapers near Campus Martius Park. “What are you doing now?” he asks. Next thing I know, I’m riding shotgun to a corridor of murals in his jet-black, custom-built 1988 Pontiac Grand Am. He gives me an express tour of three neighborhoods, “Purple Haze” rattling my seat and bones along the way. “I’m a retro kid,” Carlos says.
In Corktown, he points out a ball field, part of old Tiger Stadium saved by locals when Comerica Park opened in 2000. Then he asks if I’ve been to a coney island. Nothing to do with a New York theme park, he explains, but everything to do with the world’s best chili dogs: “Lafayette is the original.” And just like that, another day’s lunch plans are sealed.
What I knew: Belle Isle is a historic island park on the Detroit River.
Locals told me: You’ll find warm tropics year-round inside the island’s free conservatory.
A friend from Detroit had insisted I try Folk, a new cafe in the Corktown neighborhood. I get why before I reach the bottom of a bowl of creamy dill pickle soup. A dessert of vegan ice cream makes me crave sunshine. So I ask the woman at the cash register, Rohani Foulkes, about her favorite place to get outside. She beams talking up Belle Isle, and as we talk, I learn she is an Australian transplant and co-founder of Folk.
Recently spruced up, Belle Isle State Park is a 982-acre island between Detroit and Canada. Rohani sent me straight to the park’s glass-domed conservatory, which is attached to the Belle Isle aquarium. Otherworldly blooms depict desert, rainforest and tropic landscapes. Paths wind below fruit. And a fountain outside casts a rainbow over lily pads and koi fish.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle
What I knew: This city’s dining scene is on fire, and I’d want to hit up a stylish spot like Selden Standard in Midtown.
Locals told me: You haven’t really tasted Detroit until you cast a vote in a century-old hot dog rivalry.
Selden Standard set a new standard for gourmet-casual when it opened in Midtown in 2014 and won multiple restaurant-of-the-year awards. Sister Pie went from in-home bakery to a storefront shop with a cookbook garnering buzz across the country. All great stops, but you don’t need a Detroit lifer to find them. The passion over chili, mustard, onions and a wiener in a bun, however? That was news to me. When I hopped in a car with Carlos back at El Moore, he tipped me off to Lafayette Coney Island downtown. Now I’m here.
Inside, greasy-spoon banter bounces off low countertops and soda cans. After inhaling a coney, I discover Lafayette is cash-only. I slip next door in search of an ATM and find myself behind enemy lines. One wall divides Lafayette from American Coney Island—well, one wall and 100 years of discord over who came first. A rowdy regular spots me as a newbie. He heckles me, then introduces his tablemate, the Grace Keros, owner of American. She makes the case for American, pointing out a black-and-white photo of the exterior stamped 1917. No Lafayette next door. I prod by mentioning a sign in Lafayette that reads Est. 1914. “Anyone can make a sign,” Grace rebuffs. Things cool when I agree to try an American coney (after paying my tab next door). That leads to a beer, lively convo about the city and accepting that the fight over Detroit’s top dog is no joke.
American Coney Island
The Other Riverfront
What I knew: Detroit’s closest neighbor is Windsor, Canada. On a whim, I packed my passport.
Locals told me: Use it. Because one of the city’s best skyline views is across the border.
I’d caught a glimpse of the Detroit skyline from Belle Isle, but during checkout at El Moore, manager Jason Peet sends me underwater when I ask about the best city view. A tunnel downtown sends you beneath the Detroit River and into Windsor, Ontario, in 15 minutes, he says. Below a massive waving Maple Leaf, I find in-line skaters practicing slap shots and families casting fishing lines. Refreshingly blue water frames a perfect panorama of Detroit and its evolving RiverWalk with sculptures and paths. This summer, Atwater Beach opens with a barge cafe and sand for sunbathing.
Skyline view of Detroit. Photo: Steven Kriemadis/Getty Images
Beyond the Art
What I knew: The Detroit Institute of Arts is a national treasure.
Locals told me: Nearby you can buy contemporary works by area artists.
You can’t mistake the DIA for any other art museum. Near the lobby, sprawling frescoes by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera cover 27 panels in a skylit gallery, depicting the rise of Detroit’s auto industry. Works from Picasso, Van Gogh and ancient civilizations fill 100-some other galleries.
But when I meet a teacher from the College for Creative Studies in a Corktown park, she tells of a more humble institution down the street from the DIA. The Detroit Artists Market has promoted area makers since 1932 and includes a fine-art gallery of illustrations, paintings and sculptures. The attached store, Elements Gallery, sells jewelry, ceramics and other work—some of it quite affordable. And it fulfills my weekend quest for a 30th birthday gift for my wife.
Detroit Institute of Arts
Oasis in the Market
What I knew: Eastern Market is one of the country’s largest indoor-outdoor food markets.
Locals told me: Exactly where to go for a great meal, drinks and patio music. The problem was, I forgot.
There is no visiting Eastern Market. Only experiencing it. From a far parking lot, my nose and ears lead the way. A swarm of ethnic samples, crafts and baked goods reminds me of bazaars I’ve visited overseas. Old warehouses beyond the market sheds hold shops and restaurants. Hungry and overstimulated, I feel anxious about choosing one perfect meal in the ocean of possibilities.
Then a beacon emerges in crude red-and-yellow paint: Bert’s. Who told me about this spot? Someone had said it was their No. 1 pick for music and barbecue. Before I can remember, blackened chicken and pork cuts on a charcoal grill demand my attention. And by the time I settle in on the patio with a bloody mary and ribs, it doesn’t matter where I got the tip. After three days in the city, talking to everyone I encountered, parts of Detroit have distilled into me. Even if it’s just for one meal, I almost feel like a local.
In Detroit, locals became my compass, pointing me to their favorite haunts. Even better, I found that talking to interesting people was its own vacation experience, often as memorable as the museums and great meals they sent me to. Here’s how to travel by word of mouth in any city.
Ask everyone for suggestions—not just the concierge, but servers and cashiers. And seek out the experts, like a record store clerk for live music recommendations.
Specific questions lead to the best tips. Don’t stop when an Uber driver recommends the art museum. Find out what painting or gallery is a must-see. If a bartender suggests the new food hall, ask what vendor is coolest.
Invite conversation by wearing a cap or T-shirt that claims your home turf—especially if it’ll ID you as a sports rival.
Feeling shy? Tune into locals another way. Scan radio stations, pick up the free arts weekly or browse coffee shop bulletin boards. You might discover a weekend festival, a fun book signing or pop-up yoga in the park.
Illustration: Ananda Spadt