Culture + Style

The Detroit Tourists Rarely See: An Insider’s Look at Motor City

Detroit is a city in the midst of an artistic revolution, one you need an insider’s eye to fully recognize. Artists are heading to Detroit from across the U.S., attracted not only by its low cost of living, but by its vibrant, libertarian culture.

Whether it’s a neighborhood-block-turned-sculpture or a hippy commune, Detroit serves up inspiration for makers. But the city likes to keep its gems hidden from the masses, and most things worth seeing will be off the tourist trail.

This guide will take you through the Detroit most visitors hope to find but rarely get to see.

The Goldengate Restoration Project

In a city full of abandoned houses, there’re bound to be one or two communes. But none compare to Goldengate, a community-revitalizing experiment located in State Fair.

Largely centered around a man called “Dr. Bob” who runs the Psychedelic Healing Shack and Vegan/Vegetarian Café (which includes a chiropractic center and apothecary), Goldengate is a self-described anti-capitalist community, where locals give out bikes, grow vegetables, restore empty houses and run a restaurant where you can pay, barter or beg for food.

Check out the excellent café’s vegan cuisine; it’s not only cheap, but out of this world. It’s worth it for the people-watching alone: Here you’ll meet everyone from artists, hitchhikers and old-school hippies to polyamorous college kids.

The community is friendly and always has the scoop on the next cool abandoned building to check out.

Heidelberg Project

things to do in detroit
the Heidelberg Project is a residential block turned art installation. (Photo: Alamy)

Smack in the middle of Detroit’s notorious East Side, the Heidelberg Project is a residential block turned art installation. Created out of refuse as a protest against the disintegration of the neighborhood, Heidelberg is a place where you’ll encounter a house covered with records, trees affixed with crucified baby dolls and more.

Founded by artist Tyree Guyton, who created the works with the help of neighborhood kids, the Heidelberg Project is sometimes startlingly colorful and other times eerily dark. The site is occasionally a target for arsonists, so large sections have been destroyed and then rebuilt again over the years.

The Project is one of the craziest artistic experiments on the planet; take time to wander through these houses-turned-sculptures for an hour, at least.

The Russell Industrial Center

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The Russell Industrial Center comprises a huge market as well as an artists’ lofts and studios. (Photo: Getty Images)

Don’t let the exterior fool you: While it might look like an abandoned factory, the Russell Industrial Center is thriving. Found in the crumbling industrial neighborhood known as Milwaukee Junction, the Center consists of two buildings: One is a huge market; the other is filled with artists’ lofts and studios.

Both are free for to the public, and you’re welcome to wander through. Residents and shop owners are extremely friendly and will be happy to tour you around their workshop or tell you about the city they love.

The studios house all manner of creatives, from glassblowers to DJs, as well as spaces like vintage furniture vaults to recording studios. The market consists of a variety of stores, selling everything from vintage clothing, records, vegan cuisine and apothecary products.

No matter where you wander, any door in the Russell Industrial Center will lead to an adventure. So knock on a door and have a look around.

Belle Isle Park

things to do in detroit
Catch your breath in Belle Isle. (Photo: Alamy)

Belle Isle is an island park, located between Canada and the U.S., and only a bridge away from Detroit. When the weather is warm and the skies are blue, Belle Isle is where the locals head to have some soft-serve and a swim. This is a great place to watch the sunset, and if you rent a bike ($15) you can explore the little island.

If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, however, make sure to check out the abandoned Belle Isle Zoo. The hole in the fence is easy enough to find, and there you’ll be able to wander through empty lion cages and look through glass cases where snakes and lizards used to dwell. At night this can be an excellent spooky adventure.

Make sure to watch your step, however: There are plenty of holes in the floorboards, and a lion’s cage would be a nasty place to have a fall.

Eastern Market

If you’ve had enough of crumbling industry, go check out Eastern Market. Open every weekend, vendors sell fresh produce from all around the state. Michigan has some of the best produce in the country, and every weekend the farms come to Detroit, giving locals a taste of organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and honeys.

It’s nothing less than a 4.5-acre festival of produce, and along with the veggies you’ll find antiques, old-fashioned candies, hydroponic systems, incense and much more. Plus there are some killer murals in the area, if you want a glimpse of some of Detroit’s best street art.