Detroit: A Weekend Guide for the Curious Traveler - Atlas Obscura

Weekend Guides for the Curious Traveler

Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

Day 1
Home-Grown Lore

Verdant urban farms and art parks in the footprints of abandoned buildings.

Historic Marketplace

1. Eastern Market

Come early, and hungry. On Saturdays, the open-air sheds start buzzing as soon as the sun wakes up, and the first arrivals get prime pick of the heaping greens, tomatoes, jams, and pickles. More than 125 years after the market debuted, a busy afternoon might see 45,000 people browsing the produce, plants, and packaged foods. Many of the goods on offer arrive from farms in neighboring counties, and some are harvested within city limits. Wander the market’s stalls, nibbling as you go, and duck into some of the surrounding letterpress print shops, record stores, and antique shops flanking the main drag.

2934 Russell St, Detroit, MI 48207

The Detroit Market Garden starts seedlings in sizable hoop houses. Jessica Leigh Hester
Urban Farm

2. Detroit Market Garden

Once you’ve had your fill, walk a few blocks over to the Detroit Market Garden, a 2.5-acre farm that donates half its yield to local charities. Urban gardening sprouted in Detroit in the 1890s; today, the city is home to roughly 1,500 plots, where growers tend to everything from kale and collards to pigs, goats, and emu. These grounds and hoop houses close to visitors at 3 p.m., so show up earlier to survey seedlings up close, and the skyscrapers in the distance.

1850 Erskine St, Detroit, MI 48207

In warm months, the Greenway also features concerts and food trucks. Michelle and Chris Gerard
Pretty Path

3. Dequindre Cut Greenway

The farm opens up right onto this path, a two-mile long stretch of lonely and disused land made beautiful. The former rail line is now a paved greenway, most of which is below street-level. The route is a pretty spot for an afternoon amble or bike ride, streaking past colorful murals and graffiti. Rent wheels at one of the city’s local bike shops, or buy an $8 day pass to borrow one from MoGo—the city’s bikeshare program—which has a station in the market, at the corner of Wilkins Street and Russell Street. 

Dequindre Cut Greenway, Detroit, MI 48207

Bert's is a monument to the city's music history. JEFF KOWALSKY/ Contributor
Motown Munchies

4. Bert's Marketplace

Chances are good you’ll smell Bert’s from down the block—there’s often a meat smoker puffing away on the sidewalk—but there’s plenty more inside. Locals stuff in for barbecued ribs, fried catfish, cookie-smothered banana pudding, and fruity pound cake, to be eaten in booths crowded with records, photographs, and other paraphernalia that nod to the glory days of Motown. At night, the backroom's red leather barstools and checkerboard floors fill up for blues and jazz sets, dance lessons, and wrestling matches. If you’ve got space left in your belly, walk over to Mootown Ice Cream & Dessert Shoppe and order a Boston Cooler, a vanilla float made with a can of throat-prickling Vernor’s ginger ale, a local speciality.

2727 Russell St, Detroit, MI 48207

The rare book room is home to pricier treasures. Dustin Blitchok/ Benzinga
Gigantic Bookstore

5. John K. King Used and Rare Books

Deliciously musty books, maps, magazines, and assorted ephemera—roughly a million in all—are stacked across four floors of this drafty former glove factory. (Chandeliers, framed notes, photos, comics, and the odd taxidermied critter jut out from ceilings and walls, so mind your arms and head.) The staff doesn’t keep electronic tabs on what’s on the shelves, so you’ll need to put some stock in serendipity. If you’ve called ahead to make an appointment, you can peruse first-editions and leather-bounds in the rare book room. Otherwise, grab a map by the entrance to get your bearings, then get to wandering. Rifle through magic and Freemasonry titles on the first floor, then head upstairs for biology, mythology, and hundreds of startlingly precise categories, from “holiday cooking” to “clowning and juggling.” Plastic milk crates in the narrow aisles double as step-stools and mildly uncomfortable chairs.

901 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit, MI 48226

Beads dangle from hooks hung all over the MBAD gallery. Nick Hagen
Singular Collection

6. MBAD African Bead Museum

Thousands of strands of beads—spanning centuries, African countries, and materials, from shells to seeds and snake vertebrae—hang in this gallery that occupies the entire first floor of a rowhouse spangled with bright paint and mirrored mosaics. Olayami Dabls, the driving force behind the project, has been collecting beads for decades, and holds court in the gallery. He also built a sprawling sculpture park behind the house, full of poetic fables rendered in rock and metal.

6559 Grand River Ave, Detroit, MI 48204

At Lincoln Street Art Park, artists repurpose castoffs into something magical. Sarah Rose Sharp
Evolving Exhibit

7. Lincoln Street Art Park

All over this city, artists have also transformed vacant lots into vibrant outdoor installations. Make a quick detour to this park with an eco-minded mission. Built on a former industrial site, and on the grounds of a recycling facility, Lincoln Street Art Park is home to an evolving slew of installations—painted tires, plastic lean-tos, and more, all made from repurposed materials.

5926 Lincoln St, Detroit, MI 48208

Local Institution

8. Cinema Detroit

You’re just a few minutes away from this nonprofit indie theater, which sits inside a former furniture warehouse. This is an unabashedly lo-fi operation: The screens are a far cry from IMAX, and the seating consists of mismatched, charmingly sagging couches, plus rows of seats salvaged when a fancier movie palace, a few miles north, was renovating. Grab a little bag of popcorn, a can of local Faygo soda, and settle in for a new documentary or a re-release.

4126 3rd Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Day 2
Wonders and Rivalries

Marvelous views lead to delicious competitions.

Ferns flourish beneath the glass domes at Belle Isle's Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, which opened in 1904. Lee Rentz/ Alamy
Island Adventure

1. Belle Isle

Start your day in the middle of the Detroit River, on this verdant, 982-acre island just barely across the border from Windsor, Canada. A full loop around the perimeter will wind you past most of its tucked-away sights, from the ruined, fenced-off remains of the Detroit Children’s Zoo to the glass-topped conservatory and the recently restored aquarium, known for its collection of paddle-nosed gar. For a lesson in the region’s maritime history, stop at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, where exhibits include a sleek hydroplane and an anchor from the wrecked SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior in 1975. As you round the last turn on the way back to the bridge, pull over and admire the Detroit skyline from a surprise patch of sandy beach.

3 Inselruhe Ave, Detroit, MI 48207

The more chili, the better. Jeff Kowalsky/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images
Hot Dog Taste Test

2. Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island

Back on the mainland, it’s time for lunch. Detroit’s hot dog of choice is the Coney Dog—piled high with chili, diced onions, and a squiggle of mustard—and a number of restaurants wrestle to lay claim to the best in town. Two of the contenders happen to be right next door to each other. Local legend has it that Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island were founded, in the early 20th century, by two brothers, and the two greasy spoons have jostled for dominance ever since. Your best bet is a taste test with a side of fries.  

118 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit, MI 48226

The Guardian Building is a colorful hodgepodge of architectural styles and artistic influences. Ken Lund/ CC BY-SA 2.0
Colorful Designs

3. Guardian Building Art Deco Lobby

From the outside, this Art Deco skyscraper is imposing: It shoots 40 stories high, and two stone figures stand sentry by the doors. The real marvel, though, isn’t visible from the sidewalk. The building’s promenade is one of the city’s best views, just upstairs from an unassuming snack shop and the county commissioners’ offices. Everything from the elevator banks to the soaring vault ceiling is awash in color. The geometric blue, green, and ochre mosaics—made by Pewabic, a local pottery firm—borrow from Aztec and American Indian patterns, while a massive mural of the state of Michigan, ribboned with gilded details, looms on the far wall. The apparel company Pure Detroit, which has a shop in the building, offers free history tours on many Saturdays and Sundays. RSVPs are not required, but email or call (313) 873-6004 to learn more.

500 Griswold St, Detroit, MI 48226

More than a century after it opened, the Garden Bowl is still a charming dive. Matt Orlowski
Urban Legend

4. Garden Bowl

A trip up Woodward Avenue will land you at the Garden Bowl, where bowling balls have been rolling for 105 years. It’s the oldest continually operating bowling alley in the city, and is steeped in local lore. Chatty staffers regale visitors with stories about how National Guardsmen and police officers bowled a few frames in the summer of 1967, as riots roiled the smoldering city beyond its doors. One rumor, since dispelled, told that Houdini performed his final show in the theater upstairs. (In reality, his last bow was at the nearby Garrick Theater, and he died in a local hospital on Halloween, 1926.) It may not have felled an infamous magician, but the Garden Bowl has neon signs, a carpet decorated with patterns of pins, and plenty of pizza and beer.

4120 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Where to Stay
Inn at 97 Winder

Built in the late 1800s, this Brush Park mansion was once a single-family home. Now, it’s a boutique hotel that won’t blow the budget. Tufted sofas, velvet curtains, and opulent jewel tones conjure a Victorian bordello with Chinoiserie accents.

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Keep Exploring
The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

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Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

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There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

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