Only have one day in Detroit? No problem! Here’s a one day itinerary to make the most of America’s comeback city. From Ford to Motown to reinvention itself, welcome to one of the most interesting cities in America.
How to Spend One Day in Detroit
Detroit is a big city with much to see and do. This inside guide to one day in Detroit drills right down to the good bits. The best places to visit in Detroit. Let’s go.
One Day in Detroit At a Glance
- Morning – Head to the Henry Ford Museum. See the car where Kennedy was shot and the bus where Rosa Parks refused to stand.
- Late morning – Visit the Ford Rouge Factory to see the assembly line.
- Afternoon: car lovers head to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant. Music lovers head to Motown. Love architecture? Tour the Art Deco.
- Evening – Explore Foxtown or take a river cruise.
Virgin flies direct to Detroit
I had been fascinated by the idea of Detroit for years.
Partly, yes, the influence of Eminem in my youth.
But also, the strange notion that a city could just swallow itself up and decay. That there could be such a thing as a huge, abandoned city.
I couldn’t think of a European parallel, save perhaps for a small village in the Peak District that was deliberately flooded out of existence or the Italian city of Pompeii, which of course succumbed to a rather different kind of disaster.
Perhaps we just don’t have the space in Europe for people to up and leave? Or perhaps all those with tendencies to pack up and move, packed up and moved over the last few centuries, not least of all to the modern United States.
Yet before Detroit fell on hard times, she influenced the world through her technology and her music.
Top Attractions to See and Things to Do in Detroit in One Day
1. Not Just Cars: Rosa Parks, The Kennedys and More
The first big surprise came in the shape of the vast, and I mean vast, Henry Ford Museum that took in volumes of American history. From the bus where Rosa Parks refused to stand to the presidential limousine where Kennedy took his last breath.
The first piece that opened my eyes came in the buttercup yellow of the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to stand up.
Around the corner, hung the withered cotton costume of the old Ku Klux Klan.
Original posters depicted the suffragette movement in the States, along with manuscripts from the Declaration of Independence and historical memorabilia from the American Civil War.
Ford stages a procession of Presidential Vehicles, all springing red, white and blue. Their stately rumps gleam in polished black but the signs beside them reveal hidden tragedies.
One was the car involved during the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, another where Kennedy took his final breath.
There’s Henry Ford’s first car (one he built himself – a kind of horse wagon on wheels,) an entire section on the history of aviation and even a collection of steam trains (yes, actual steam trains) lined up across the signposted floor.
Perhaps best of all is the unsung tribute to American neon cartoonery: luminous hot dogs, drive-thrus and luminous stars and stripes.
This isn’t so much the Henry Ford Museum: it’s one of modern American History.
2. The World’s Oldest Auto Plant
Then there were the Ford-related things themselves: the world’s oldest auto plant open to the public at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant where the Ford Model T was born and a revolution launched.
3. The Current Ford Assembly Line
The Ford Rouge Factory where the modern day military grade aluminium-alloy body Ford F-150s ping off the assembly line like shiny metallic skittles.
Ford itself is more than a household name, it’s what transported me back and forth across the Severn Bridge to my Welsh family and back; it’s the inspirational story of a man who created something new and whose quotes gave me a kick of the backside inspired me throughout my A levels and beyond.
Henry Ford Quotes
Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re usually right.
You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses.”
And then there were the words and the inspiration I never knew I never knew until I stepped onto the blue and white porch of Hitsville USA.
4. Motown: Detroit’s Dazzling Music Heritage
Music history always seems to have passed me by but even I could recognise this historic line-up:
- The Jackson Five
- Diana Ross and The Supremes
- Lionel Richie
- Marvin Gaye
All talent spotted by Berry Gordy here in Detroit and nurtured into the global megastars we know today. It’s African American history. It’s world music history.
And you can walk into that tiny studio, converted from a garage in the unassuming blue and white house on West Grand Boulevard and retrace their steps.
You can even (she shudders at the memory) sing in the studio too if you like.
“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car. What a great idea! Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star.”
Berry Gordy on his experience working in the Ford plant. He chose the name Motown to reflect the motoring history of Detroit. Visit the Motown Museum, Hitsville USA.
5. Art Deco and The Guardian Building
Thanks to the boom years coinciding with the Art Deco trend, Detroit has a gorgeous collection of landmarks and period buildings that look as though they’ve come straight from a film set.
The Guardian Building is a landmark skyscraper not only in Detroit but in the world for its Art Deco architecture, art moderne designs and innovation (it was the first building in the world to have elevator doors that slid open by themselves.)
Nicknamed the “Cathedral of Finance,” its interior wears geometric patterns in terracotta, metal and stone. With only one day in Detroit, you may not have time to complete a tour but at least have a quick look around at this astonishing mix of art and finance. It’s one of the iconic things to see in Detroit.
Your Detroit Travel Guide
How to Travel to Detroit
Virgin Atlantic fly direct from London to Detroit daily as part of Virgin Atlantic’s partnership with Delta Air Lines. From Detroit, you can easily connect to over 200 US destinations including New Orleans, St Louis, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and Nashville with Delta.
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Detroit and is offering return Economy fares from £737 per person, return Premium Economy fares from £1,167 per person and return Upper Class fares from £2,657 per person.
For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770
Getting Around Detroit
It’s a big city that has a love affair with cars. You’re not going to be able to walk your way around this one.
If you have one full day in Detroit, the best option for visitors is probably to rent a car (or rent a driver or one day tour) and hit up the spots that matter to you most. If your one day trip is split overnight, then stay in the Downtown Area and use organised tours, Uber or Lyft to get about.
Where to Stay in Detroit
When you only have one day in Detroit, stay somewhere that oozes the character of the city. The Aloft Detroit in the David Whitney Building, does just that.
It’s a Downtown hotel in an historic building, right by Grand Circus Park with a People Mover Station right there (a version of the Detroit Metro.)
The four storey cream ceramic atrium whooshes you back to Detroit’s golden era, but the modern amenities throughout the boutique hotel keep you right in the comfort of the present.
First Impressions of Detroit
Detroit seems like one of those cities that has a better reputation abroad than on home soil.
I landed in Detroit, travelling alone, buoyed by an inner pulsing soundtrack and fighting the urge to put my hands up every few minutes in the baggage hall.
I also arrived with more cautionary baggage and memories of wide-eyed stares than I’d had when I arrived in Egypt minutes before the revolution, Columbia post drug-war years and the Middle East, well, pretty much anytime.
The word Detroit, it would seem, has cast a knife of terror into the soul of many an American.
“Do NOT speak to anyone at the airport,” they cautioned me at Salt Lake City.
“I’m serious. Do not go anywhere alone,” I heard in Nevada.
And New York? I got the sassiest eyebrow raise that I think I’ve ever seen.
Well? I did spend more than one day in Detroit. And so far, so good.
Is it Safe to Travel to Detroit Alone?
I got as much attention as I would on the chatty streets of Spain – and all of it was helpful.
From the women who yelled to tell me I’d dropped my coat to the diners who told me where I could find better spots for photos, people weren’t shy. They were friendly.
Perhaps it’s time to add a word or two of gentle encouragement to my dear American friends.
Go on. Indulge me. And put your hands up for Detroit.
You may even find you love this city.
More Than One Day in Detroit?
With more than one day in Detroit, you can explore a little more. Here are more top things to do in Michigan, including day trips and ideas that extend beyond 24 hours in Detroit.
Visit the Detroit Institute
With over 100 galleries, the Detroit Institute contains one of the biggest and most important art collections in America. Located in Midtown Detroit, it’s a great place to visit for kids as well as art loving adults.
Belle Isle Park
Known locally as just “Belle Isle,” this park sits in the middle of the Detroit River, ever so, ever so just short of the US-Canada border. It’s connected to mainland Detroit by the MacArthur bridge and holds an aquarium, nature centre, golf course, swimming beach and the James Scott Memorial Fountain.
The highlight is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a rare collection of plants with a hint of the grandeur of Versailles.
Campus Martius Park
This re-established park in Downtown Detroit is also where the city’s coordinates start. The Detroit jazz festival takes place here every year and is one of the most fun things to do in Downtown Detroit.
“Healthier, Wealthier, Happier Detroit.” So says the motto of Eastern Market, one of the oldest and largest year-round public markets in America. Take a food tour or even a cooking class if you have more than one day in Detroit.
More on Travel in the United States
We love a good road trip through America. It’s such a fascinating country to drive through with so many different landscapes, stories, peoples and cultures.
Check out our other American road trip itineraries:
- Your two week road trip from New Orleans
- A fly-drive itinerary for the west coast in Florida
- Driving Massachusetts: road trips from Boston
- The perfect Alabama road trip itinerary
And our useful prep guides here:
- The Travel Toolbox ©
- The international travel checklist you can print and download
- Your printable road trip checklist
- Our Road Trip Planner & Toolkit ©
Disclosure – As mentioned above, I travelled to Detroit with Virgin Atlantic as they now fly from London Heathrow to Detroit to connect with the Delta Hub. You can read my Virgin Business Class Review over here. And as ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Note – if you book through the recommendations in this article, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Cheers!