April 27, 2014 -- There’s no doubt: Detroit’s image has taken its fair share of punches in recent years, from political scandals to a fiscal meltdown. Right now, however, the city is restructuring under bankruptcy protection and the buzz is building about what’s changing and what’s improving in the Motor City, especially in downtown Detroit, where a renaissance is in effect. Investment and a surging entrepreneurial spirit have paved the path for a bevy of tourist-friendly things to see and places to go and these are a few of our favorites.
Skip Downtown, Travel Abroad “Most people don’t realize that Canada is right across the river,” says my colleague, Travelzoo sales whiz Steve Bertogli, who lives in New York but who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights. You cross by car -- tunnel or bridge -- and a short ride gets you to Windsor in Ontario. Here, Via Italia, especially along Erie Street, is home to Italian-inspired cafés, specialty food shops and boutique stores. “After lunch, we like to sit and just watch the Detroit skyline on the other side of the river,” adds Bertogli. “It’s like Hoboken to New York City.” Just don’t forget your passport.
Skip the Gym, Go Fishing Lake St. Clair is part of the Great Lakes system and also between Detroit and the province of Ontario. Budding fishermen can get a real work out here, as they hunt for fresh water species like walleye, salmon and trout. Fishing charter opportunities abound through companies like Manistee River Charter and Miller’s Sportfishing Charters. For longer fishing trips to lakes and rivers throughout Michigan and northern Ohio, your best bet will be Fish with Jim Outfitters.
Skip the Museum, Visit Ren Cen The GM Renaissance Center –- the locals call it Ren Cen –- is as iconic as buildings get in Detroit. Inside, you’ll find the GM Showroom, a year-round auto show experience of sorts inside a 40,000-square-foot display showcase, as well as Coach Insignia Restaurant, which, from Floors 71 and 72, offers sweeping city views. You can learn about Ren Cen for free, with one-hour guided tours offered twice daily, Monday through Friday. Among the neat features you’ll see: a world map carved in granite at Riverfront Plaza, a tropical atrium overlooking the Detroit River and “Borealis,” the tallest vertical glass structure in the world.
Skip GM, Visit Ford After the classic wheels at the GM showroom have wowed you, drive to the Henry Ford Museum, where you can see one of America's great automobiles being built. At the Henry Ford Museum, you can see one of America’s great automobiles being put together from scratch. The Ford Rouge Factory Tour is a self-guided, five-part experience that includes a 360-degree, multi-sensory theater experience. But it’s during the Assembly Plant Walking Tour that you get to witness a Ford F-150 coming to life; guests stand on an elevated walkway during the final stages of the assembly process. Tickets are $15 for adults and $11 for kids; kids 2 and under get in free.
Skip the City, Visit the Island Belle Isle is an island state park on the Detroit River, just three miles from Downtown Detroit. Plenty of open, natural spaces on this 1,000-acre isle, which also features golf, a museum, an aquarium and a half-mile swimming beach. One of the great places to visit is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory; dating back to the early 1900s, it features various displays of fascinating flora, including one of the largest publicly-owned collections of orchids on the planet. Get to Belle by crossing the MacArthur Bridge.
Skip the Restaurant, Savor a Coney Dog Big cities tend to have their signature food item, and Detroit has the Coney Dog: a wiener in its natural casing topped with chili, diced onions and yellow mustard. The Coney Island restaurants are legendary for these, especially two that are actually right next door to one another: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. Two Greek brothers launched this downtown landmark 100 years ago until, soonafter, a fight between them split the eatery into the two side-by-side establishments today. The décor and ambiance in each is unique, and many locals will encourage visitors to visit them back-to-back to savor and compare.
Skip the Dog, Try the Pizza After your personal Coney Dog challenge, seek out a slice of Detroit-style pizza. More like a square, this Sicilian-inspired pizza features sauce atop the cheese and a caramelized, buttery, flaky crust. Its origin has been traced to Buddy’s, a pizza chain institution in Detroit, where you can catch bocce ball matches at the Conant Street location on Saturdays.
Skip the Walking Tour, Take to the Skies Being a passenger is one thing but sitting in the cockpit is a whole different way to fly. American Aces Aviation operates out of New Hudson Airport (about 40 minutes from Downtown Detroit) and offers private lessons in Cessna 152 and larger Cessna 172 and Piper Arrow aircraft. Sixty-minute lessons include basic instruction, half an hour in the air, a log book and an audio recording of your flight. Do it for fun or use your flight time toward your pilot’s license.
Skip the Street, Hit the Racetrack Race fans will be flocking to the Michigan International Raceway this summer as two major NASCAR events roll into town. But you can head there for some revving of your own, thanks to the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience. The experience is authentic enough –- from donning the Oakley fire suit, the radio helmet and the five-point harness to getting behind the wheel of a professional stock car around the huge two-mile racetrack. Classroom instruction -– pre-rev –- included. The Raceway is located about 75 miles east of Detroit.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive local deals throughout Detroit at http://www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/Detroit/deals.