Exploring Cities: The Detroit Edition

You’re headed to a new city — how do you figure out what to do to get that total <insert city name here> experience? We found ourselves in this situation when we recently visited Detroit, so I turned to my old friend, the internet, for advice. I spent about an hour browsing a few online resources to find good food and good areas to explore. Generally, my go-to references for cities include Wikipedia, Google Maps, the local visitor’s bureau, Chowhound, Metromix, and Yelp.

First, I like to find out a little bit about the city’s history. Wikipedia taught me some interesting things about Detroit, pointing me towards areas I wanted to explore, like the historic downtown districts and the decaying/historic neighborhoods. A brief overview of a city’s history helps put what you’ll see in context.

Next, I look at a map of the city to see if any parks or neighborhoods jump out. Flying over Detroit via Google, I noticed Belle Isle, an island park just east of downtown, and had to explore it. I also found the official visitor’s bureau sites helpful, if a little overly optimistic. These sites are a good guide to upcoming events that might correspond with your visit, like the Motor City Bike & Brew Tour, which sadly did not line up with our time in Detroit. You’ll also learn about area museums, gardens, parks, etc., all on a single website.

Chicken and waffles.
Chicken and waffles. Who is eating whom?

Next, and most importantly, I research the food. I had no idea what the definitive Detroit food was, so I turned to Chowhound and found many threads and opinions dedicated to the debate on the official Detroit foodstuff. I noticed one restaurant, Beans & Cornbread in Southfield, kept popping up in the comments. Since we were heading south next, and since I’ve had a mean fried chicken craving since reading The Year of Eating Dangerously, I thought a southern-style lunch would be a great way to ease into the southern way of life. And it was. Fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potato muffins, collard greens, mac and cheese, chicken and waffles, courteous service. All very bad for you, all very satisfying.

I also learned that southeastern Michigan is known for the Coney Dog (hot dog, chili, onions, and cheese — maybe), but you don’t need a website to tell you that — there is at least one Coney Island shop on every block. The Coney Dog gets the thumbs up from Paul, but then again, there aren’t many regional hot dogs that wouldn’t get the thumbs up from Paul. Other notable Detroit food mentions include square pizza (deep dish, square, which people seem to like/hate as much as Chicago-style pizza) and middle eastern food (which people seem to like a lot). It’s helpful to cross check Chowhound suggestions with Metromix or Yelp to ensure that they’re still open and that the opinionated masses all agree.

That’s usually about my cut off, because too much reading is not a good thing — you’ll start finding out about lots of stuff that you can’t do. If you’re in Detroit on a day other than a Saturday (or a summer Tuesday), you won’t be able to visit the Eastern Market, a historic public market filled with regional foods and personalities. If you don’t have more than one day in Detroit, you won’t be able to visit the Ford Museum (I consider museums a day two activity). And so on.

After some initial research, you need to just get out there and see what you see. Some things will disappoint (Belle Isle managed to be the creepiest, saddest place I’ve ever visited), some things will exceed your expectations (the gorgeous old buildings and houses). Other things you’ll miss completely (The Heidelberg Project). Other things you’ll find on the fly or by talking to locals and friends. You’re heading in the right direction, just keep going.

Downtown Detroit from Belle Isle.
Downtown Detroit from Belle Isle.
The abandoned Michigan Central Station.
The abandoned Michigan Central Station.

Are there any other resources you use when exploring a new city? Share your tips in the comments!