Just when the world had about given up on the city of Detroit, Detroit dug deep and fought it’s way back. A city first built on the entrepreneurial spirit of Henry Ford and the American automobile, Detroit returned to its entrepreneurial roots to bring the city back from the brink of collapse. The revitalization of Detroit includes thriving foodie and street art scenes along with numerous open-air markets and unique locations where locals have reclaimed abandoned and desolate areas, turning them into tourist hotspots. So while you may never have considered Detroit a tourist destination, it’s time to think again!
Visiting Detroit doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, it’s an incredibly affordable travel location because exploring much of Detroit is entirely free! Check out our favorite 15 fun free things to do in Detroit before planning your trip to the Motor City!
Fun Free Things To Do In Detroit, Michigan
1.Stroll the Detroit River Walk
The Detroit Riverwalk is a 5.5-mile waterfront park complete with a carousel, fountains, picnic areas, and beach volleyball courts. The paved pathway weaves in and out of natural elements, making the River Walk a great place to take a relaxing stroll or bike ride. With fantastic views of Canada and the Ambassador Bridge across the river, you’ll be walking along the edge of the Detroit skyline.
The highlight of the Detroit skyline is the towering General Motors Headquarters building, which lights up according to the seasons or holiday celebrations. With giant steps out front, the GM building is a great place to sit and rest while watching the giant freighters make their way up and down the river.
The carousel and fountains are great spots for the kids to play. There are often games of beach volleyball being played in the sandpits and chess matches in the picnic areas. Whether you want to stop and play or just take a relaxing stroll, the Detroit RiverWalk has something for everyone!
2.Hang out at Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park is one of Detroit’s hottest spots and while there are things to purchase nearby, relaxing at the park is entirely free. No matter the time of year, Campus Martius has something exciting going on. In the summertime, the park is converted to a giant beach in the middle of the city. Complete with lawn chairs, sand toys, and beach umbrellas, Campus Martius also boasts an open-air bar with plentiful seating where adults can relax while kids enjoy the sand.
In the winter, the sand turns to ice and visitors can ice skate under Detroit’s giant Christmas tree. A cozy little holiday market sells unique homemade gifts and you can also grab a hot cocoa to warm up after skating.
3.Catch an outdoor concert at the Chene Park Amphitheater
The Chene Park Amphitheater is a 5,000 seat outdoor music venue on the Detroit River. The venue is in the process of being renamed the Aretha Louise Franklin Amphitheater in honor of the world-renowned singer and Detroit native who recently lost her battle with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. While many shows required paid tickets, the amphitheater offers a number of free concerts during the summer months.
4.Take in the sights and smells of Eastern Market
Every Saturday of the year- rain or shine- Eastern Market is the place to be in Detroit! Walking through Eastern Market you’ll experience a lively, diverse Detroit that is bursting with bright colors, delicious aromas and the melodies of wildly talented street performers. You can stock up on fresh fruits and veggies or just enjoy a walk through the market.
Most vendors give out free samples of everything from locally grown veggies to juices, sauces, spices, and freshly baked bread and pies. The vibe of Eastern Market is uniquely Detroit, making this one place you don’t want to miss!
5.Visit the Belle Isle Aquarium
There are lots to do on Belle Isle. The 982-acre island park located between Detroit and Ontario fell into disrepair during Detroit’s economic struggles. But Belle Isle has undergone an incredible revitalization in recent years and is once again a beautiful natural area where people come from all over to enjoy the museums, beaches, and picnic spots.
The Belle Isle Aquarium has free admission and most of its exhibits focus on species found in the Great Lakes. It’s a great way to learn about the local waterways with lots of tanks full of local fish species as well as fun hands-on activities for little ones. Admission is always free.
6.Watch the ships go by at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is another free-admission museum located on Belle Isle that also highlights the history of the Great Lakes, this time from the perspective of the giant freighters that travel the waterways to deliver precious natural resources to the rest of the world.
The front of the museum is actually the William Clay Ford Pilot House, repurposed from the S.S. William Clay Ford, a 767-foot freighter that was in service from 1953 to 1987. The S.S. William Clay Ford is most famously known for being the last ship in contact with the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald on the night of November 10, 1975, when the Edmond Fitzgerald disappeared in a violent storm.
The S.S. William Clay Ford and it’s brave crew went in search of the missing ship when they lost communication but to no avail. Kids can steer the ship and peek through the periscope while learning about the most infamous shipwreck in the Great Lakes. This little museum packs in a great deal of history, so you won’t want to miss it!
7.Pose with the Spirit of Detroit Statue
What better way to celebrate the revival of Detroit than to post with the Spirit of Detroit statue, a city monument located outside of the Colman A. Young Municipal Center on Woodward Avenue that represents hope, progress, and the spirit of the working-man.
The statue is one of the most easily identifiable landmarks in the city of Detroit, often being broadcast nationally when it gets dressed up in a sports jersey anytime a Detroit sports team makes the playoffs. Catching the Spirit of Detroit Statue in a Red Wings jersey is a real treat!
8.Walk the Dequindre Cut
The Dequindre Cut is a 2-mile urban recreation path linking the Eastern Market District to the Detroit Riverfront Conservatory. Formerly a railroad line located below street level, the Dequindre Cut is now a popular walking and biking path featuring various graffiti murals by local street artists.
The Dequindre Cut is a truly unique Detroit location as it reclaimed a piece of downtrodden city infrastructure, turning it into a destination amidst Detroit’s revival and representing the return of the entrepreneurial spirit that first put Detroit on the map in the early 1900’s.
9.Step back in time at the Detroit Historical Museum
Located on Woodward Avenue in the city’s Cultural Center Historic District in Midtown, the Detroit Historical Museum offers free admission and an in-depth history of the city. Detroit has a long and rich history, from being a critical stop on the 18th-century fur trading route to the invention of the mass-produced automobile.
You can learn about it all at the Detroit Historical Museum. Be sure to head down into the basement where the museum replicates the streets of old Detroit with a cobblestone depicting Detroit from the 1840’s through early 1900’s.
The Kid Rock Music Lab highlighting Detroit’s history as the heart of Motown music as well as the Gallery of Innovation and Doorway to Freedom exhibit exploring Detroit’s pivotal role in the Underground Railroad are also must-see exhibits at the Detroit Historical Museum.
10.Join the Slow Roll
Now in its 7th season, the Detroit Slow Roll is one of the world’s largest regularly scheduled weekly bike rides. The ride meets at a new location in the city every Monday night and explores different parts of the city by bike. All levels of riders are welcome- as evidenced by the thousands of participants each week! Many decks out their bikes with lights and speakers to add to the fun.
The Slow Roll was designed with two purposes- to connect people together in a city that has long been disjointed and to connect the people back to the city itself. It’s a wonderful way to meet new people and explore Detroit by bike!
11.Check out the Heidelberg Project
The Heidelberg Project is an outdoor art installation in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on Detroit’s east side. Originally created in 1986 by artist Tyree Huyton, the Heidelberg project was a political protest created when Huyton’s childhood neighborhood was all but destroyed by riots in 1967.
The project grew rapidly, with Huyton working with local children to create the art piece that takes up an entire city block. The installation is now being partially dismantled to make way for a future project “Heidelberg 3.0” so be sure to see it while you can!
12.Explore the Belt
The Belt is known as a “culturally redefined alley in the heart of Downtown Detroit”. It is another amazing example of Detroit reclaiming empty, downtrodden spaces and revitalizing them into thriving hotspots for locals and tourists alike.
The Belt features local artists in large-scale art installations along with shops and restaurants. It’s a great place for Instagramable pictures and you’ll often see photographers conducting professional photoshoots here!
13.Tour the Street Art
A large part of Detroit’s revival is it’s exploding street art scene! Detroit’s thriving street art scene has brought together local artists and renowned muralists from across the country to cover the city in (mostly) authorized works of graffiti art.
There are dozens of full-sized murals located throughout downtown, the Eastern Market District, southwest Detroit, the Grand River Corridor, the Dequindre Cut, and various other hotspots. While there are many guided tours available, the locations of most of Detroit’s street art can be found online for a free, self-guided tour.
14.Browse the rare books at the John J. King Bookstore
The John J. King Bookstore is home to an unprecedented collection of rare books and collector’s edition copies. With four floors and over one million titles to explore, this bookstore was named “one of the largest and strangest collections in North America” by Solon Magazine in 2011.
People come from all over to browse the books here, with collectors from around the world also able to visit a private collection located across the street.
15.Get wet at the Mt. Elliot Splash Park
Travelling with little ones? You won’t want to miss the Mr. Elliot Splash Park, a giant pirate-themed water park located in the Detroit River at Mt. Elliot Street. While there’s a café for snacks and lunch, the splash park is entirely free and guaranteed fun for all ages!
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