Detroit travel isn’t like travel to other places. Think of the city itself as a large neighborhood. Beyond the attractive and often quite dynamic core and some adjacent historic areas, there’s very little for casual travelers to see. From downtown Detroit, you move out into the region itself, which includes multiple counties and one foreign country (Canada is just across the river). Many longtime area residents consider the region to be one big city-like entity. For example, if someone refers to a restaurant as being on the East Side, they may not mean the East Side of Detroit, but instead some place in Macomb County, up along Lake St. Clair.
Just past Southwest Detroit, which has been home to a large Mexican-American population for more than 100 years, is Dearborn. Home to the Ford Motor Company, Dearborn is known for its large Arab population—nearly 30 percent of the 100,000 residents. Dearborn is home to one of the state’s most important attractions, The Henry Ford, as well as the largest drive-in movie theater in the United States, the Ford-Wyoming, clocking in at a whopping nine screens.
As a necklace of streets north of the Detroit River, central Detroit is probably one of the most walkable downtowns in the country. It is somewhat underutilized these days, but is still in many ways the spiritual center of Metro Detroit. It’s here you’ll see the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings play, and General Motors headquarters are the focal point of the Renaissance Center located directly on the river. Just out of the shadow of the downtown skyline, Detroit’s historic Eastern Market is still a major draw on Saturdays, while close-in residential areas such as Corktown (home to some of the oldest residential buildings in the Midwest) and the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park are popular with young creative types working in the city.
It’s no Beverly Hills, but, like the fabled California town, Hamtramck—named for the French-Canadian soldier that once commanded Fort Shelby on the Detroit River—is a world unto itself, right within the larger city of Detroit. More than 20,000 people crowd into 2.1 square miles, and, to make matters more interesting, nearly 50 percent of Hamtramck residents now identify as foreign-born, many of them from Bangladesh and Yemen. Polish heritage runs thick here, with restaurants and bakeries attracting the hungry from all over Southeastern Michigan. After dark, a handful of excellent bars and clubs make this an interesting and worthy nightlife destination.
Home to the gigantic Wayne State University campus, as well as the city’s most important cultural institutions—the Detroit Institute of Arts, Orchestra Hall, for example—the area known as Midtown is found just north of the city center, along or near Woodward Avenue. The up-and-coming Woodbridge district to the west of here is a great place to see the rebuilding of the city in action. Farther north along Woodward is New Center, a business district that, in its prime, was designed to relieve pressure from the cramped downtown. There are a few key reasons to stop in here; namely, the opulent Fisher Building, built by Albert Kahn in 1928, just before things went downhill.
You can't understand Detroit by hanging out in just the suburbs or just the city limits. Just across the infamous 8 Mile Road with its auto body shops and flesh factories, the whole world changes. This is Oakland County, and it starts with Ferndale, a funky and open-minded village—think West Hollywood, Michigan-style. From there you pass affluent Royal Oak, with an excellent, walkable downtown filled with shops and restaurants, moving into Birmingham, which features one of the nicest town centers in all of the Midwest. Here, on the attractive streets, is where Detroit’s money spends its money; well, here and at the Somerset Collection in nearby Troy—think a more home-grown Rodeo Drive, but in a box. Sniffing around Saks, it’s hard to imagine that you’re barely 10 miles from Detroit.