Text and photos: Maureen Littlejohn
Named one of the “Best Places to Go in 2024” by Conde Nast Traveler, Detroit is a revived city filled with culture and vitality. A lot of that has to do with preservation, developers with vision, and a population that takes pride in its world-class offerings.
On a recent trip there, I decided to check out some architectural history, museums, galleries, and eclectic cuisine. It was eye openings. Plus, I found the downtown very walkable. I was there in the summer and in the evening there was an adult midway set up with swings and neon. During the day patios overflowed with patrons.
Flipping the Page at Book Tower
Book Tower is now a downtown residence and apartment hotel called The Roost. The lower part of the Italian Renaissance Revival-style building went up in 1917. In 1926 the 36-story-high tower was added. It was very swank and the tallest structure in Detroit upon its completion.
Named for the wealthy Book family that built it, the tower sat empty for a decade before the Bedrock development company acquired it in 2015.
The project to restore and reimagine it took seven years to complete and cost $400 million.
Even if you don’t stay there, go in and check the leaded glass jewel box of a ceiling in the lobby entrance.
Banking on the Guardian Building
Another can’t-miss downtown jewel is the Guardian Building, with Art Deco, Aztec, Native American, and Arts & Crafts influences.
Its Tiffany clock is one of the few left in the world that works.
Known as a Cathedral of Finance, the 40-story skyscraper was completed in 1929 for Union Trust. Hit hard by the stock market crash, the bank was reorganized into the Union Guardian Trust. Today the National Historic Landmark is simply known as the Guardian Building. Owned by Wayne County, it houses administrative offices as well as a Bank of America.
Anyone can go in a sit in the vaulted-ceilinged central space. Or you can check out the gift shop and sign up for a guided walk with City Tour Detroit.
See the D on a Downtown Walking Tour
The People Mover (a monorail) took us to Greektown and for a ride through the city’s center. We also stopped at Mariners Church, where the bell tolled 29 times for each man lost in a Great Lakes shipping disaster. It was immortalized in the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Canada’s Gordon Lightfoot.
Divining the Detroit Institute of Arts
One of the top six art institutes in the U.S., the Detroit Institute of Arts (D.I.A.) boasts more than 65,000 pieces of art. One hallway is home to world-famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco. As I stared at the huge depiction of Ford’s motor plant, a docent came over and explained that it had been commissioned by Edsel Ford.
“We are lucky to have this. Rivera also did a fresco for the Rockefeller Building in New York. But because Rivera, a Communist, had inserted a portrait of Lenin and refused to take it out, it never saw the light of day.”
Other highlights for me were Vincent Van Goh’s Self-Portrait and The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Ah Ha! At the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation
It’s hard to cover all the inventions covered in this museum. Trains, planes, and automobiles are the main features. Many of the presidential limousines are on display, including the one carrying JFK when he was killed. The bus Rosa Parks rode defying Jim Crow law was there. As was the Allegheny Steam Locomotive, one of the biggest, most powerful locomotives ever built.
Marvel at the Motown Museum: Home of Hitsville U.S.A.
Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. The Motown music label was where these superstars were launched.
In Studio One microphones hung from the ceiling, a vibraphone played by Steve Wonder sat in one corner, and a Steinway grand piano in another.
“A performer came to see us and tried to play the piano. It was out of tune. So he paid to have it shipped to New York and fixed. Do you know who it was?” asked our guide.
We all shook our heads.
Michael Jackson’s signature hat and glove were on display, as were many of the original vinyl album covers. The tour even took us through Barry Gordy, the founder of the label’s original apartment.
Honor Black Achievement at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
And Still We Rise is this museum’s permanent exhibit. It’s a look at the African-American experience, right from the early arrivals on slave ships. A life-sized replica of one of the vessels showed how below deck people were shackled and stacked like timber.
Beyond that horror, the exhibit was also about the resilience of Black Americans and the rich cultural contributions they have made to society. It paid homage to the many who have excelled in their fields from sports and music stars to politicians such as Barack Obama.
Relax on the Riverwalk
Next to the GMRenCen, along the Detroit River, is the city’s 3.5-mile-long RiverWalk. There is lots of seating, picnicking, and a kiosk that offers bike rentals.
A little further down the river is the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater where you can see big-name concerts.
Where to Eat
Breakfast and lunch: Dime Store is popular with locals. Try the waffles, eggs benny, and avocado anything.
Supper club: Glam 1930s-style décor with live jazz at Cliff Bell’s. Fare is classic American chops, steaks, chicken, and fish.
Pizza: Detroit has its own style of pizza and Buddy’s is where to try it. The chain started in 1946 and to this day does great deep-dish cheesy pies.
Coney Island Dogs: The hotdog with chili, onions, and mustard was brought to Detroit in 1917 by Gust Keros who opened American Coney Island. The name wasn’t copyrighted, so you’ll see lots of copycats. But this is the original.
Elegant Historic Mansion: Fine dining in a mansion built in 1894. The Whitney’s specialties include Beef Wellington and Seafood Sauté. Grab a drink in Ghost Bar on the 3rd floor.
East African: Employing refugees and asylum-seekers, Baobab Fare features traditional dishes from Burundi. Try Nyumbani, tender beef simmered in tomato sauce.
Poshness with a View: Highlands on the 71st-72nd floors of the GMRencen is a classic steakhouse with fusion touches such as Waygu Bavette with mole rojo.