Street art, urban ping pong, and Mexican ice cream: 30 whirlwind hours in Detroit

banner detroit

What is there to do in Detroit? During a 30-hour visit in August my partner Felip and I tried to answer the question and found everything from urban gardens to impressive statues and street art to some good heartland food. Here’s the blow by blow account.

Day 1

1 pm

After arriving in downtown Detroit, we took our starving bellies straight to American Coney Island, the best option we could find in terms of the “famous local food” in the Motor City. American Coney Island has been around since 1917, so even though I’m not a hot dog person, we went in and enjoyed some dogs with chili fries. The meal was no-frills comfort food. No complaints here.

american-coney-island

1:50 pm

After downing our dogs, we stumbled upon the first of many cool surprises in downtown Detroit. Lafayette Greens is a small garden/park with growing flowers and produce. Visitors can come by to see the organic plants, perform yoga, or check out the farmers market. I love seeing urban public gardens – they give me so much hope for the future!

lafayette-greens

2:10 pm

From there it was on to the Guardian Building, a National Historic Landmark built in 1929. The architecture is amazing, and so is the tiling. Visitors are welcome to walk inside and see the impressive arches and designs.

guardian-building

2:40 pm

Next it was over to the riverfront park and the giant fist statue. I’ve written about the fist before – it’s a replica of the fist of boxer Joe Louis, who was a legendary champion back when people cared about boxing. This is a quirky attraction worth visiting, because where else are you going to see an 8000-pound fist?

detroit-fist-statue

Other sights in Hart Plaza include Gateway to Freedom, a 2001 sculpture that serves as an “International Memorial to the Underground Railroad.” It depicts a group of people looking across the river to Windsor, Ontario.

gateway-to-freedom-sculptur

There’s also this giant arch. I had a shockingly difficult time finding information about this statue via Google. “Big round circle statue downtown Detroit” returned no usable results. But eventually I learned it’s called “Transcending.” It is composed of two steel arcs reaching 63 feet high. The 2003 sculpture honors Michigan’s labor history.

transcending-sculpture

3:45 pm

A lot of people who come to Detroit are interested in seeing “ruins porn” and exploring abandoned buildings, but I purposely wanted to avoid of all that. Generally, locals hate that sort of thing, especially those who are working to make the city a better place and get past the “crumbling city” reputation.

I did not explore any abandoned buildings, but I did stop to take pics of graffiti and street art on a couple of structures. The colors and creativity are always impressive. And sometimes the art itself makes a statement, like the bottom photo in this series, which reads “Graffiti saved Detroit.”

detroit mural

detroit-street-art

detroit-street-art-2

building-art-windows

graffiti-saved-detroit

4:30 pm

After picking up our rental car, we headed straight for the Heidelberg Project, an incredible neighborhood art environment in which a block of houses has been transformed into art and creative expressions. For more on this awesome site, check our my complete Heidelberg recap.

heidelberg-project

5:40 pm

After leaving the Heidelberg Project, we stumbled upon one of the most bizarre places I have ever witnessed: A gas station literally called “Obama Gas.”

obama-gas

Everything about this business, from its logo to its signage, was a tribute to the president. It was bizarre – mainly because I wouldn’t think anybody could get away with using the president’s name like this. Clearly, President Obama is not involved in any way with this gas station, yet for some reason the local business has been able to use his likeness for personal gain.

It’s working – we stopped and got gas there, just for the novelty factor.

5:50 pm

Next it was off to Garden Bowl, the oldest continuously-operating bowling alley in the United States. We weren’t sure if we’d have time to bowl a game or just grab a drink in the bar, but I at least wanted to see the lanes.

garden-bowl-detroit

When we walked in and inquired about getting a lane, the staff member on duty informed us we would have to wait 10 minutes. While we waited, I noticed their price chart. It turns out that in 10 minutes, the price would double from $8/hour to $16/hour. It became obvious the guy was trying to make us wait until the higher fare kicked in. That was unacceptable, so we decided to move along.

Oh well. At least we can say we spent a couple minutes inside the oldest bowling alley in the country.

6:45 pm

I’m always eager to explore neighborhoods, so we planned to spend the evening in Mexicantown. The murals were cool, but we were there for the food.

los-galanes

la-hacienda-mural

After a way-too-filling dinner at Armando’s, we made another great discovery. La Michoacana is a Mexican ice cream place with large portions and super-cheap prices. I got the coconut, while Felip got a mango with chili powder. Everything was sooo good! If we ever return to Detroit, this place will be on our itinerary once again.

la-michoacana

9:30 pm

This is the part where I reveal that we were lame and didn’t go out at night. We stuffed ourselves so much on the food that we weren’t feeling up for diving into the nightlife. Especially since it was a Tuesday (likely small crowds), and we had to drive out to Dearborn in the morning.

Day 2

9:30 am

First stop today was the Henry Ford Museum, which I previously wrote about in great detail. Attractions here included the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and the limos used by presidents dating all the way back to the early 1900s.

eisenhower-presidential-limo

I was a little on the fence about whether it was worth visiting a vehicle museum, since I’m not a car guy, but I was very happy I went. The Fore Museum gets the QTG stamp of approval.

11 am

In addition to Coney dogs, Detroit is also known for is its pizza, especially the square-cut, thick-crust variety. We checked out local favorite Buddy’s Pizza. That thick, buttery crust might be heart attack-inducing, but it’s just so tasty.

buddys-pizza-detroit

12 pm

When I hear the name “Belle Isle,” I immediately think of Chevy Chase’s property in the classic ’80s movie Fletch Lives. There’s a real Belle Isle in Detroit, and it’s a state park. The small island is located in the river between Detroit and Canada, and it offers some killer views of Motown from across the water.

downtown-detroit

The attractions on Belle Isle are numerous. There’s a modest conservatory. It’s nothing to write home about, but looking at pretty flowers is never a bad way to spend a few minutes.

belle-isle-conservatory

There’s an aquarium, a boat club, a Great Lake Museum, and a Nature Zoo, which mainly housed small animals like turtles and snakes.

belle-isle-images

Belle Isle has a beach, which is nifty, since you don’t think of beaches when you picture Detroit. And there’s (allegedly) a frisbee golf course. Disc golf is my favorite sport to play while traveling. We even brought our flying discs with us so we could enjoy this new course but, strangely, we couldn’t find it.

There was construction in the park on this day, blocking one of the streets, so I’m guessing the course was on that road. That was a letdown. Hopefully they’ll get some signage for this course, because it’s not going to succeed if people can’t find it!

2 pm

Downtown Detroit has a unique form of transportation in the people mover. It’s basically an above-ground subway train, but it costs only 75 cents and can save you a ton of walking, easily moving visitors from the Joe Louis Arena to Greektown.

people-mover-view

Greektown was a fun area to walk around for a while. In addition to the casino, there’s a lot of good food. We went straight for dessert, of course, opting for the key lime pie and cheesecake at Astoria Pastry Shop.

astoria-pastry-shop

We walked up past Comerica Park, because I like to visit sports stadiums to take pictures of statues for a future Athlete Statue Photo Teaser. Comerica has a giant tiger out front. This thing is scary!

comerica-park

4:30 pm

In our last hour before leaving town, as we wandered around downtown, we discovered this incredible parklet that had been turned into a game area. One of the attractions was Ernst, King of Cats, a giant puppet that we could control.

ernst-king-of-cats

Another option was ping pong! I’ve always loved ping pong but I never thought I’d have a chance to play it outdoors in the middle of an urban environment surrounded by skyscrapers. This was loads of fun.

detroit-ping-pong

6 pm

And that was it. We boarded the bus and headed home after 30 hours of discoveries. The big Detroit attraction we skipped was the Motown Museum, which I had visited on a previous trip (and came away only moderately impressed.)

During our time there, I saw plenty of run-down buildings and empty lots throughout Detroit. Maybe I’m just stuck in “glass half full” mode, but I kept seeing the empty plots of land and thinking, Wow, there’s so much potential here! You could build new houses with huge yards and lots of space for urban gardens!

I know Detroit has begun the process of revitalizing itself. Hopefully it continues because this city does have a lot going for it.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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