From museums to improv, here are the best experiences in Detroit for $20 or less.
MICHIGAN—Michigan may be an outdoor paradise of natural beauty, but its urban centers like Detroit shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
Nicknamed the Motor City because of its historic designation as the birthplace of the automobile, Detroit’s cultural value has long outlasted the Model T. From its sprawling urban architecture and gorgeous waterfront views to immensely popular experiences like catching a Tigers game at Comerica Park or chowing down on a coney dog, there’s a lot to love about Detroit. Not only that, but there’s a whole lot of the city you can explore for not a lot of money.
Though we still call it the Motor City, the city of Detroit has experienced an image problem, so much so that Detroit-born designer Tommey Walker created the slogan Detroit vs. Everybody to unite the city and celebrate Detroit’s cultural contributions in spite of persistent outsider stereotypes.
The bad reputation started with the decline of the American automobile industry. While the industry was at its peak, Detroit was a hub of growth, peaking at 1.8 million residents in 1950. Between then and 1963, however, Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs, leading to the automobile industry’s collapse and a gradual population decline—about 600,000 people live in Detroit today. These troubles culminated in a financial emergency and declaration of bankruptcy in 2013.
Fortunately, Detroit is currently revitalizing itself after decades of decline, and there’s never been a better time to get to know the Motor City. Since its declaration of bankruptcy, investors and developers have poured money into the city, allowing for new developments and restorations of historic, once-abandoned properties. While the city is on this upward flux, a lot of Detroit’s culture is opening back up for Michiganders and tourists alike to experience—without paying your average big-city prices.
From museums to parks, there are plenty of activities to experience without spending a lot of money. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, you’ll find something to enjoy in this vibrant city. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite budget-friendly activities to experience in “The D.”
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Price: Free for residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties and children 5 and under; $8-$18 for all others
Located in Midtown, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) hosts one of the largest art collections in the United States. With more than 60,000 works of art in more than 100 different galleries, the DIA’s collection spans everything from ancient civilizations and famous older artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Henri Matisse to more contemporary art. The museum showcases art representing cultures from all around the world, including Ancient Greek, Islamic, Japanese, Indian, South Asian, and African American pieces.
The must-see part of any DIA trip is Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry Murals” in the aptly named Rivera Court, considered a National Historic Landmark. The project comprises 27 panels of frescoes covering the walls of a large internal room in the DIA, all painted by famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1932. The murals depict a variety of perspectives from laborers within the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant juxtaposed with images of scientific advancements in medicine, technology, and more.
The most valuable artwork in the DIA’s collection is “The Wedding Dance” by Pieter Bruegel, a large 5-foot-wide oil-on-panel painting from 1566 estimated to be worth up to $200 million.
2934 Russell St., Detroit
This huge open-air market is not only known for its diverse offerings of food products, it’s also the largest historic public market district in the United States. Eastern Market averages a flow of around 45,000 visitors during Saturday markets. More than 150 food and specialty businesses show up to sell fresh produce, meat, flowers, gifts, and much more.
Regardless of whether or not you buy anything, it’s a fun experience to explore the different stalls and vendors, soak up the atmosphere, and people-watch. There’s also live entertainment, tailgate parties on Lions game days, and any number of other events.
800 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Price: $8-$12; ice-skate rental is $6
Campus Martius is a 2.5-acre urban park in the heart of Detroit’s downtown that’s been operating since 2003. This year-round attraction was rated one of America’s Top Public Squares by USA Today. It has a variety of gardens as well as performance stages and food trucks. Depending on the season, Campus Martius features either an urban beach or a premier ice-skating rink.
From May through October, The Beach at Campus Martius Park offers seasonal fun with 400,000 pounds of sand spread throughout. This includes many free, annual events from the Downtown Detroit Partnership including beach parties, concerts, movie nights, and the Party in the Park.
From November through March, Visit Detroit operates The Rink at Campus Martius Park. This family-friendly skating rink operates seven days a week including holidays and offers one of the top ice-skating experiences in the country. The rink has even been visited by Olympic and US champion athletes like Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The ice-skating season always kicks off with a tree-lighting ceremony that sees a large Christmas tree provide a festive backdrop for ice-skating adventures.
2648 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
In the 1960s, Motown music took the airwaves by storm. A portmanteau of “motor” and “town,” Motown was a record label originally headquartered in Detroit. The Motown Record Corporation was responsible for the immensely popular soul music style that launched the careers of artists like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and many more. You can still tour the original house in Detroit where Motown Record Corporation founder Berry Gordy Jr. lived and recorded the earliest Motown hits. The house currently serves as the Motown Museum.
Gordy’s sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, worked as an executive for the Motown Record Corporation and is responsible for having turned the old studio into a museum where curated exhibits tell the story of Motown through an expansive collection of Motown memorabilia including photographs, apparel, and original recordings.
Special discount days may be available, including through Bank of America’s Museums on Us program for eligible cardholders.
Belle Isle Park
Price: Free with Recreation Passport; $11 for a non-resident day pass
Belle Isle Park is a 982-acre island park that is Detroit’s most popular beach destination. The park sits in the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, offering gorgeous views of skylines in two countries. To get in, Michiganders need only purchase a Recreation Passport, good for admission to any of Michigan’s state parks. Non-residents can purchase a day pass for a small fee.
The island features many attractions like the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the Belle Isle Aquarium, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, a golf course, trails, and swim beaches. There’s also the Oudolf Garden, a free 3-acre garden designed by internationally renowned Dutch horticulturist Piet Oudolf.
2320 Caniff St., Hamtramck
Price: $20 or less depending on the event
Planet Ant is a nonprofit artist community described as Metro Detroit’s creative epicenter. The Hamtramck staple is a haven for live performance and artistic expression including improv performances, live music, burlesque, theatre shows, storytelling events, comedy shows, film, and more.
Planet Ant’s main building is Ant Hall, which includes its main stage, the Independent Comedy Club, and the Ghost Light Bar. It also owns its original Black Box building and the Planet Ant Studio. Their improv colony Ant Works is particularly popular, boasting famous alums such as Keegan Michael Key, Tim Robinson, Marc Evan Jackson, and Jaime Moyer.
Planet Ant holds a wide variety of performances that are usually $20 or less—and often completely free.
3901 Christopher St., Hamtramck
Price: $14 per person
Fowling is a new sport that’s a Detroit original. The sport involves throwing a football at bowling pins with the goal of knocking over as many pins as possible. Detroiter Chris Hutt first created fowling at an Indianapolis 500 tailgate party in 2001. Today, you can experience Hutt’s authentic version of the sport in the Fowling Warehouse.
The Fowling Warehouse is a large warehouse with a full bar and plenty of fowling lanes. Unlimited free play is available for $14 per person, making for a fun night out without breaking the bank.
Outdoor Adventure Center
1801 Atwater St., Detroit
Located in the historic Globe Building on Detroit’s riverfront, the Outdoor Adventure Center is operated by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and offers a family-friendly taste of Michigan’s great outdoors year-round without ever having to leave the city. You can even find special unique offerings like free introductory archery classes.
There are more than 20 interactive and educational exhibits that provide safe activities perfect for a child’s attention span, including simulations of fishing, kayaking, hunting, mountain biking, snowmobiling, and other fun experiences like exploring a big tree, camping in a yurt, or touching a waterfall. There are also plenty of educational exhibits that educate visitors of all ages about Michigan’s diverse plant, animal, fish, and insect ecosystems, teaching how anyone can make small changes to help the environment. Visitors will learn about everything the DNR does to protect Michigan’s forests and enhance outdoor recreation.
Detroit blues bars and jazz clubs
Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods no longer exist today, but in their heyday, they played an important role in Detroit’s blues and jazz music scenes. It was in these neighborhoods that Black performers who had difficulties playing in other venues due to segregation could find a place to show their stuff in nightclubs, restaurants, and cabarets. Though these two neighborhoods have since vanished, there are still several venues that regularly host jazz and blues performers—and for cheap covers or even free.
The Raven Lounge is Detroit’s oldest blues bar, dating back to its opening in 1966. Located very close to the original Paradise Valley neighborhood, the Raven Lounge harkens back to those now-closed music venues. There’s also Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the oldest continuously operating jazz club in Detroit. Aside from its historic legacy of hosting jazz greats, Baker’s is also known for its distinct bar decorated to look like a piano.
Other jazz and blues venues include Detroit Blues Cafe, a multi-level venue with a Southern-themed menu. Cafe d’Mongo’s Speakeasy is also an incredibly popular speakeasy-style venue. Finally, Bert’s Entertainment Complex in Eastern Market is a neighborhood bar with plenty of entertainment options.
3600 Heidelberg St., Detroit
The Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side is an outdoor art environment open to the public for free. Artist Tyree Guyton originally devised it as a political protest against declining neighborhoods in 1986. Today, the Heidelberg Project is an artistic enrichment experience that is both political and spiritual as it invites visitors to consider the decline of urban America and what brings people together.
The two most prominent symbols in the Heidelberg project are clocks and polka dots—representing unstable reality and the connection of all things.
Fisher Building and Detroit architecture
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Do you love the Great Gatsby aesthetic? Then you’ll love Detroit’s architecture—dating back to its early-20th century economic boom. One of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings in the world is the Fisher Building, also called “Detroit’s Largest Art Object.” This 30-story office building in Detroit’s New Center area was originally designed by Albert Kahn and completed in 1928. The interior arcade is a three-story room with breathtaking frescoes and mosaics. It also includes Fisher Theatre, one of the venues for Broadway in Detroit. Free tours of the Fisher Building are available from Pure Detroit.
Some other fine examples of Art Deco architecture—including the Guardian Building, originally completed in 1929, and the Penobscot Building, once the eighth-tallest building in the world—were designed by Wirt C. Rowland. Smaller examples of the style include the Fox Theatre, the Albert Kahn Building, the Maccabees Building, and Cliff Bell’s.
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