Memorable Things to do in Detroit

By Abi King | USA

May 15


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.

Not, of course, that I want to mislead you.

This was no intrepid, solo exploration of, well, unexplored frontiers.

Detroit was heading my way, or perhaps the other way around, because Virgin Atlantic had launched a new flight route, connecting in to the US Delta Network through its sprawling Detroit hub. And they invited me to come along.

Things to do in Detroit- Head out for night Virgin flies direct to Detroit​

Related: Beautiful and Unusual Things To Do in Sarasota Florida

Sadly, I missed the Richard Branson-led flash mob on the inaugural flight (true story) as I was in the States already. Hence the travelling up on my own.

But 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.

Detroit: on the border with Canada

Detroit: on the border with Canada

Detroit: A Modern Lost 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.

Still, all musings and mumblings aside, it was Detroit today that I wanted to see.

It was a whistlestop tour, led by Virgin-branded vinyl discs rather than any whistle that I could see. Immaculate, scarlet-clad cabin crew directed jet-lagged journalists hither and thither through a range of interesting options.

Things to do in Detroit-The Henry Ford Museum

The history of America: from Rosa Parks to the Kennedy assassination

Detroit's Volumes of American History

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 Henry Ford Museum

t’s the kind of name that sounds like it does what it says on the tin. And in as much as Henry Ford founded it and in as much as it is a museum that’s fair enough.

But – and it’s a big but – it leaves people with the impression that it’s all about Henry Ford.

Or indeed, any Ford.

Which means cars, right? I’m sure it does to most people. It certainly did to me.

Since Detroit is the home of Ford cars and Ford cars practically represent American motoring history, I went along anyway to have a rummage around beneath the hood.

And it’s a good job I did.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me be sure to inform you that the Henry Ford Museum is an amazing collection of work, one that deserves almost a day to itself.

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.

Detroit's Living Legacy of Ford

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.  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.

Things to do in Detroit-the oldest auto line in the world The history of Ford - and how the world changed​

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.

Things to do in Detroit - Hitsville USA Motown Museum

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.

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.

Things to do in Detroit-4

Detroit's Wave of Enthusiasm

But the biggest surprise of all?

The reactions I got from Detroiters when I did venture out alone.

Again, I'm not pretending to be some kind of Motown Crocodile Dundee here.

I took a few short walks through Foxtown, got a bite or two to eat and headed into the city from the airport all alone.

But still.

Things to do in Detroit - explore the past

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 after me that I'd somehow dropped my coat, to the diners seeing me snapping pics who told me where I could find better shots.

To, yes, the people I'd been warned away from within Detroit's own baggage hall.

So, while I still have more stories to tell and hope one day to return.

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.

Fly to Detroit

Virgin Atlantic launched direct daily flights to Detroit from 1st June 2015. It is the only British airline to fly direct into Detroit and forms part of Virgin Atlantic’s partnership with Delta Air Lines. The addition of Detroit opens up the US for our customers who can now easily connect to over 200 US destinations including New Orleans, St Louis, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and Nashville with our partner 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 or call 0844 2092 770

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.

Otherwise, what's the point of living in this wonderful, magnificent world?!


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Gina Gomez says:

    I’ve never been in Detroit, but I heard about how lovely they play. Thank you for giving me an idea what Detroit looks like. Keep up the good work.

    • Abi King says:

      Glad to spread the good word about the city! It’s had a tough time and deserves to shed its gloomy reputation. Thanks for the kind words!

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