Downtown Detroit covers an area of just under one and a half square miles and could be considered petite when compared to downtown areas of other major US cities. But be prepared to find interesting and exciting surprises around every corner, because Downtown Detroit is crammed with things to do.
The skyline of Downtown Detroit is dominated by the seven towers of the Renaissance Center. While they’re an impressive sight, what really draws visitors to Downtown is the district’s International Riverfront. The development sits on the banks of the Detroit River where it winds its way through the city separating the US from Canada by the mere stretch of its waters. The three and a half mile riverfront is full of parks, plazas, and pavilions as well as marinas and walking trails.
Away from the riverfront, the streets of Downtown Detroit are full of historic buildings, live music venues, casinos, and classic eateries. It’s all happening in Detroit, and here are fifteen of the best things to do in Downtown Detroit while you’re there.
1. Detroit Princess Riverboat
Hop aboard the Detroit Princess Riverboat at its moorings on Civic Center Drive in Downtown Detroit and go for a tranquil sail along the Detroit River. Initially built in Louisiana as a gambling vessel, the ship has now been converted into a luxuriously decorated floating restaurant and showboat.
Climb up to the top deck of the two hundred and twenty foot long, five deck sailing vessel, and you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the DT skyline.
Take a lunchtime passage and enjoy a first-class buffet accompanied by live Motown music or a sunset dinner cruise with food and professional Soul crooners included. It’s a great way to see Downtown Detroit and hear some magical Motown.
2. Detroit Opera House
While Detroit is well known for its involvement with Motown and the city has produced several iconic stars of the genre, it’s not the only music to be heard in Downtown Detroit. Head to Downtown’s Broadway Street for a touch of the classics at the Detroit Opera House.
The plush venue seats almost three thousand people and hosts extravagant productions of popular operas such as the Barber of Seville as well as Disney-themed specials like Aladdin.
The Detroit Opera House is also the place to go to watch top ballet and contemporary dance companies perform.
3. Detroit Riverwalk
The Detroit Riverwalk is a broad asphalt promenade running from the Joe Louis Arena through to the William G Milliken State Park and is part of the Downtown Riverfront development.
The riverwalk is pedestrianized on one side and has a cycle path on the other for those who want to skate or ride a bicycle. When you’re there, it’s easy to forget you’re even in the middle of a city.
Take a rest break in one of the many “garden rooms” which are landscape sections furnished with benches facing the water and contemporary sculptures created by local artists. On a clear day, you’ll be able to wave to the folks over on the Canadian shore.
4. Grand Trunk Pub
Housed under the arched ceilings of a disused, 1900’s railway station, the Grand Trunk Pub on Downtown Detroit’s Woodward Avenue is full of character inside and out. From the elaborate facade to the serving staff behind the bar, it’s a Downtown pub with real style.
Serving only Michigan brewed draft beer, the pub has great food to accompany it. Check out the Finnigan’s Sandwich, named after the landlord’s dog, a grilled chicken breast in olive bread with a pesto aioli or go all out for a plate of meatloaf smothered in whiskey gravy. Make sure to leave enough room for a slice of Michigan mud pie.
5. Cullen Plaza
Cullen Plaza is an ideal spot for outdoor recreation time close to the riverside. Located on Downtown Detroit’s Atwater Street, the plaza is a hubbub of activity during the summer months.
Go back to your childhood days, mount a white swan or seahorse and have a spin on the Cullen Family Carousel before enjoying coffee and ice cream at the RiverWalk Cafe. It’s the perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon in Downtown Detroit.
The Detroit Riverwalk is accessible from Cullen Plaza, and there’s a bicycle rental, The Wheelhouse, in the plaza if walking is not on your agenda.
6. The Belt
Downtown Detroit may not have an art museum, the Detroit CAM and Institute of Art are in Midtown, but it has The Belt.
The Belt is an alleyway which has been brought to life with large colorful murals and paintings by talented local artists. Tucked away between Downtown’s Broadway and Library Street, the Belt has been transformed from decrepit and dingy to vibrant and visit-worthy.
Arrive there late afternoon and catch happy hour at the equally colorful terrace bar, The Skip. Their frozen cucumber margarita is just what’s needed after a day touring Downtown Detroit.
7. Joe Muer Seafood
Drop in at the Joe Muer Seafood restaurant under the GM Renaissance Center for a delicious fish-themed lunch or dinner by the water.
The restaurant is decorated in a classic combination of red, black and white and has an outside terrace with stunning views of Downtown Detroit and the riverfront.
Try steamed mussels, calamari or a Detroit Roll made from king crab, cream cheese and a spicy sauce for starters then follow it with a Dover Sole Meuniere or an oven-roasted Barramundi. Your taste buds won’t be disappointed.
8. The Fillmore
The Fillmore is a historic, twelve-story high entertainments venue on Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit. Constructed in the mid-1920’s, it originally served as a theater and can hold around three thousand spectators.
Keeping in character with the era of the building, the lobby area is decorated with immense, eighty-year-old chandeliers. There are tiered balconies and mezzanine seating plus private concierge services available.
Many big-name music performers take to the stage at the Fillmore including Elvis Costello, Echo, and the Bunnymen and Tech N9ne to name just a few.
9. Greektown Casino
Test your luck in the one thousand square feet of gaming space at the Greektown Casino on Downtown’s Lafayette Street.
The casino is located in the thirty-floor Greektown Hotel and offers slot machines, blackjack and poker tables, roulette, craps, and baccarat.
If lady luck isn’t favorable, there are several in-house restaurants and plenty of bars to sooth the pain of losing a dollar or two.
10. Hart Plaza
Hart Plaza is one of the best places to go to get some unbeatable views of Downtown Detroit and over the river to the Canadian waterfront. The plaza has hosted many historically influential events, including speeches by Martin Luther King which is commemorated on the arch of the west entrance.
The fourteen-acre square is full of memorials and sculptures depicting important moments in Detroit’s history. There are statues of the founder of the city, a sculpture honoring the city’s involvement in the underground movement for freedom from slavery, and a stunning thirty-foot high fountain with over three hundred water jets.
The Hart Plaza, apart from being a fascinating insight into Detroit’s past, has two amphitheaters where concerts and festivals are celebrated throughout the summer months.
11. Hard Rock Cafe
Spot the iconic neon guitar high up on the wall on Monroe Avenue in Downtown Detroit, and you’ll know you’ve found DT’s Hard Rock Cafe.
Check out all the Motown and rock memorabilia on display then sit down and tuck into the HRC’s legendary food. Work your way through a Jumbo Combo for starters then tackle an Atomic Burger. You’ll be full for a week.
12. Eastern Market
The Eastern Market is a busy market held in Downtown Detroit every Saturday all year round. It’s a popular weekly event which draws crowds of up to fifty thousand people. Get there early, or the bargains will be gone.
The market, which has been operating for more than a century, has over two hundred and twenty different stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to clothing and footwear.
During the summer months, there are extra market days on Tuesdays and Sundays plus a night market on Thursdays which are more focused on handicrafts, pop-up eateries, and live music.
13. Exodus Rooftop Lounge
The Exodus Rooftop Bar is the in place to go out in Downtown Detroit. Located on Monroe Street, the bar has an amazing rooftop terrace where you can start the night with happy hour as the lights of DT Detroit flicker on.
Settle back on the cushioned sofas to enjoy a drink before the DJ’s start spinning, and you hit the dance floor to jive the night away.
It’s busy, crowded and loud and has occasional live music too. Be prepared to party.
14. Joe Louis Monument
If there’s one Instagram worthy photo to be taken in Downtown Detroit, it has to be the Joe Louis Monument in Hart Plaza.
Dedicated to the legendary boxer who was born in the city, the enormous, twenty-four-foot-long arm and clenched fist hangs suspended on chains in a metal tripod.
Representing not just Joe Louis’s involvement and success in the boxing world, it stands as a reminder of his crusade for reform during the years of segregation.
15. Niki’s Pizza
When it comes to food, Downtown Detroit has one traditional dish you just can’t miss out on trying. On Beaubien Street is a Greek-themed restaurant, Niki’s Pizza, which serves Detroit-style square deep-dish pizza and who’s succulent slices have been voted one of the top twenty-five pizzas in the US.
Slide into one of the booths or sit at the tables on the terrace, choose your toppings then wait for the square pizza to arrive oozing cheese. If you’re a certified cheese fanatic, don’t miss the Saganaki. Battered and fried Greek cheese served at the table smothered in flames. Just like visiting Downtown Detroit, it’s an experience you’ll always remember.