Budget Travel: Detroit

Editor’s note: Today’s Budget Travel post comes from guest contributor David Landsel, editor of the New York Post’s travel section.


Detroit is a place of big doings. Everything it has ever done, it has done spectacularly, from meteoric rise to the total cratering that has left the city half empty, more than sixty years after the unstoppable decline began.

But the Motor City, the land of the Model T, Motown and Madonna (and other famous musicians too numerous to mention) isn’t just an empty shell. Nearly a million people still live here, for starters. As startling as its collapse is the fact that the city continues to move on as if things were almost normal. For sure, this is a place of grand ruins, hopeless politicians, monstrous mansions and grinding poverty, but somehow it all just works. Sometimes just barely. Sometimes surprisingly well. There simply isn’t any place like it. Not in the Rust Belt, not in the Midwest, not anywhere.

Even as times get tougher, there are so many reasons to drop in on Detroit. You can come for the music, for the art, the bars, the history, the cars. Come for the gambling, or the grand architecture. Don’t be surprised, though, if you leave most impressed by the people.

Some of the most genuine folks you’ll find anywhere in the country live in Detroit. Sure, the streets may appear mean, but mostly, the people are anything but. So, talk to strangers. Ask them questions about the city. Find out where they like to go drinking. Don’t worry about coming off like a crazy person – around here, that can often work to your advantage.
Getting in
With the automotive industry so influential in the greater Detroit area, large scale public transportation never took real shape in the city. Metropolitan buses are available, but routes are anemic and schedules sparse, so if you’re going to visit the city you’re almost certainly going to need to rent a car. Luckily, vehicle rentals are fairly inexpensive at Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) and around the city.

Northwest Airlines’, hub at DTW can be a mixed blessing. While one can access almost any city in the country in one stop, prices can be monopolistic and expensive, and therefore it can sometimes be difficult to find a budget fares into the city. Luckily, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines have recently paid closer attention to the city, and routes that compete with their cities are often very inexpensive.

Chicago, Baltimore and Washington DC are all places from which you can reach Detroit for often around $100, and on a good day you can visit from New York for about $150. From the west coast, prices sneak in around $250 – $300.

Amtrak will lead you into the city center as well, where the closest stop to downtown is on Woodward in the New Center area. [thanks to Michael Kellermann for the coordinates]

Where to Stay
While the city is 143 square miles massive, most of the action in the city is centered either in or near the downtown area, a one mile-square, very walkable area that sits on the Detroit River, facing south to Windsor, Ontario. Conveniently for visitors, Downtown is not only the safest place in town, it also happens to contain the city’s best hotels, some of them quite expensive.

For example, the sparkling new MGM Grand with its top-notch, Tony Chi-designed spa, commands rates of $259 and up, while the beautifully renovated Book Cadillac hotel, a local institution that is up and running again under the Westin flag, often goes above $200 a night. (Stop in at the Motor Bar for a pint of locally-brewed Ghettoblaster Ale, even if you don’t stay over.)

To find bargains, though, you don’t have to resort to the mediocre, or the frightening. The Doubletree Suites Fort Shelby (another historic renovation, just completed) offers rates under $150 at non-peak times, as do the reliable Hilton Garden Inn and perfectly fine Holiday Inn Express, both conveniently located right in the city center.

For more unique lodgings, head for Midtown. Just north of the center and walking distance from most of the city’s main cultural attractions, the inspired Inn on Ferry Street is spread out among a handful of grand old mansions along a peaceful block just around the corner from the massive Wayne State University campus. You can find rates around $150 online when they’re not busy.

What to See

The best way to see Detroit is with people who know the surroundings, mostly because the city is more interesting when you’ve got a Detroiter to show it to you, whether we’re talking downtown’s appealing architecture or the city’s diviest dive bars.

Inside Detroit offers weekly tours of downtown highlights for $10 as well as custom tours of anything (anything legal, that is) within city limits that piques your interest. Co-founder Jeanette Pierce grew up on Detroit’s East Side and has a seemingly limitless supply of local know-how. Even if you don’t take a tour, stop by the Welcome Center at 1253 Woodward Avenue, for advice, maps and brochures.

To focus strictly on architecture, look into the summer tours offered on Saturdays and Tuesday evenings by the folks at Preservation Wayne, most cost just $10. For even more adventure, Wheelhouse Detroit re-opens in March, offering bike rentals (just $10-$15 for two hours), regularly scheduled tours, group rides on Wednesdays, as well as custom outings on request.

While getting the local perspective is always recommended, there’s plenty you can do on your own around town. Here are a few must-do activities to get you up and running.

DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS The star of the Cultural District (pictured, right) is home to Diego Rivera’s remarkable Detroit Industry murals – a must see for any fan of the Mexican artist’s work. The DIA, though never quite as flush with cash as it would like to be, has managed to complete major improvements in recent years, presenting a treasure-trove of art in an almost celebratory way. Admission is just $8. The museum hosts an excellent film series and an occasional “Brunch with Bach” in t
he museum’s beautiful Kresge Court.

EASTERN MARKET Many cities have used their historic market districts as a major driver for tourism; in Detroit, the sprawling wholesale food district just northwest of Downtown just happens to be there. That’s not to say Eastern Market is not loved. Every Saturday, in good weather or bad, it seems like a whole chunk of the regional population is waiting in line for breakfast at one of a handful of worthy venues. There’s always something that’ll catch your eye, whether it’s gizzards for sale in the Gratiot Central Market building or the array of spices at one of the local shops. In season, though, make sure to look for the gardeners behind the budding Grown in Detroit movement, selling their parsnips (and the like) here.

BELLE ISLE While Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for his work on New York’s Central Park, Detroiters known him as the architect of their favorite park, Belle Isle, which is roughly twice the size of Central Park and receives a fraction of the visitors. In the middle of the Detroit River, accessible via bridge from Detroit’s East Side, Belle Isle is, like Central Park, so much more than a patch of grass. It comes complete with a zoo, aquarium, conservatory, a stand of thick forest and a long, sandy beach. (Now, ask what percentage of the amenities on the island are still in operation.) True, today’s Belle Isle is running at half mast, if that, but a loyal group of supporters has ensured that the park receives as much love as possible. Key stops include (in season) Cass Gilbert’s whimsical Scott Fountain (pictured) and the year-round Whitcomb Conservatory, with its modest orchid collection. In warmer months, the beach scene heats up, and there’s even a rather impressive water slide. Central Park can’t boast that.

AFFORDABLE JAZZ You’d have to really work to find a night when there isn’t something cool to do around town, and whatever your tastes, there’s a venue for you. Notably, though, Detroit is a great place for jazz lovers. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge — just one door down from 8 Mile Road — is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year; it offers a good schedule, as well as soul food dinners for under $20. Downtown, the much newer Jazz Café sells advance tickets for as little as $15, while over on Park Avenue, Cliff Bell’s, the well-executed revival of a famed 1930’s venue, has affordable cocktails and a lot of covers under $10 – when it charges a cover at all.

David Landsel is Travel Editor at the New York Post. He lives part-time in Detroit, because he has grown accustomed to its face (and affordable drink prices.)