A Walk Through History: Exploring in and around downtown Detroit

Returning to Detroit after leaving in 2013, I was astonished at the changes before my eyes, particularly in downtown. I called downtown Detroit my home for six years. This visit, I barely recognized it. I saw new restaurants, galleries, and shops on every corner. In the past, the mostly empty downtown (outside sports gatherings), always seemed to have a haunting presence. It appeared as if it fell from glory long ago and was left to crumble. On the empty streets, the sorrow was palpable. For two years, I lived in a condo on one of the top floors at the Westin Book Cadillac downtown. Looking outside, I found myself staring at these majestic, yet abandoned skyscrapers. The Book Tower was one of those buildings. Occasionally, I would see lights on at the top of the 38 floors and wonder if and when something new was coming. Turns out, the Book Tower is a building slated to undergo a major renovation and the final result should be a showstopper. Not only is something new coming for the Book Tower, but if you ask me, Detroit is making a comeback.

One of the most spectacular things I see with the revival of Detroit is the combination of new with the opulence of the old grandeur. I want to highlight some of the “old” classics along with all of the “new” that has been added. Many of the sights are in downtown, but I do want to draw attention to some places that are outside of the area you can access by car. I think the best place to start is by walking through downtown.

Fox Theater. Woodward Avenue is a main thoroughfare in Detroit. So, it is a great place to start your walk down to the Detroit River. The Fox Theater is directly across from Comerica park and first opened in 1928. At the time, it was a premier movie destination. The inside is ornate and well adorned with gold accents. Today, it is a destination for concerts, shows, and even events like graduations. After you walk across the street to Comerica park, home of the Tigers, continue walking down Woodward Avenue further into downtown.

Along the walk, you will see the opera house off to your left and pass by a number of stores and galleries. Le Labo, Shinola, and Detroit is the New Black are just a few of the storefronts you will pass by. Detroit is the New Black is such a fun store with designers and artists only from Detroit. Inside, one designer that caught my eye was Axiom with their striking glassware. For something more traditional, another place I love to get gifts is The Detroit Shoppe. My last trip, I purchased a book on Lost Detroit showcasing some of the gorgeous buildings in the area that still lay in shambles. Other new additions to the area are art galleries. Lisa Spindler was a gallery with some beautiful pieces in the windows.

Beyond this, you will pass by the Shinola Hotel. My full review of the Shinola Hotel can be found in a separate post. Turning left and walking in front of Shinola, you pass by a couple of restaurant options including Olin Kitchen + Bar and Penny Reds. If you aren’t hungry, continue walking to the Belt. The Belt is an alley with street art/murals and more food/drink options. It is a great area for taking photos. There were several photographers taking photos on Sunday morning while we were walking around.

Campus Martius Park is your next stop further down Woodward. They opened a new restaurant parc with great views of the fountain. In the winter, the area is decorated beautifully and they have an ice skating rink. It is stunning at Christmas when the tree is in place. In the warmer months, there is a “sand beach” instead. Next, walk to the Guardian Building. This is a skyscraper also built in 1928 and designed by architect Wirt Rowland. The Art Deco architecture that you will see in the lobby is pretty spectacular. I really enjoyed walking inside to take photos on the weekend, and the lobby was empty other than the security guard.

Finally, make your way to the Detroit River. There are surprisingly lovely views both in front of and behind you as you approach the water on Woodward Avenue. Although the weather can get rather treacherous in winter, visiting in the summer months or early fall is optimal timing for meandering the streets. There is a pathway to walk along the water if you are so inclined. Also, close to the river, you will find the Detroit Foundation Hotel. This boutique hotel is housed in the former fire department headquarters. This is another one of the many new hotels in downtown Detroit. Although I stayed at the Shinola, I considered the Foundation and Siren Hotel. Each is unique in its own right and worthy of consideration.

Outside of the immediate walking area of downtown, I have to mention a few other sights. One of these is John K. King Used & Rare books. This place is something else. Parking is definitely a challenge, but the inside is really quite extraordinary allowing the hassle of parking to fade from my mind. You will be handed a map when you enter and then the magic awaits. I am a bit of a book enthusiast, and there are some treasures here of all prices. There are a total of four floors, so you can really lose track of time hunting down gems. My recent purchases included a three volume set on fashion and costumes that was quite dated, an old book on Peru (a favorite destination of mine), and a book entitled The Inquiring Mind. They are closed on Sunday and Monday so plan accordingly.

Belle Isle Park is a place that I would frequent somewhat consistently during my time in Detroit. This is an island park developed in the late 19th century. Once you cross the MacArthur Bridge, you will find plenty of parking and some really lovely views on a clear day. Something that I did not realize prior to moving to Detroit was the proximity to Windsor, Canada. Belle Isle is a great place for photographs of both particularly at sunset. I recommend driving around and parking several different places to view different areas. Some of the high yield stops are the Belle Isle Conservatory, James Scott Memorial Fountain, and Belle Isle Casino. On the weekends, it is typically packed with people visiting and enjoying picnics or barbecues with family. My favorite is probably the Conservatory, which is what comes to my mind when I recall Belle Isle. It originally opened in 1904 but was rebuilt from 1952-54.

The Heidelburg Project is something that I erroneously thought was new. Turns out, they actually celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2011. I would describe it as an outdoor art installation located on the east side. It has been through a lot over the years suffering demolitions and suspected arson. But, at the same time, it has also received recognition by MTV, photographers, and other accolades. I thought it was an interesting place to wander around. There are many retro and unique items here that some may call trash and others may call treasure.

The last thing I want to mention is a trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. I visited while living in Detroit, but I did not go inside for my weekend trip. It is also noteworthy with an imposing street presence. The location is a short two miles from the downtown area directly up Woodward Avenue. As you can see, there is plenty to see and do in the Detroit area. If it were not for the six years I spent in Detroit due to work, I don’t know that I would ever have considered a visit. So, I have to encourage others to see for themselves. If you are looking for a city rich in history, you will not be disappointed.

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