I was in town for Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2015, my visit hosted by the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, and I had a lot to see. The city has gone through a litany of changes since my last visit two years ago.
Take the downtown hotel inventory, for example. A total of 500 new rooms have opened in the last two years, including Michigan’s only Aloft property and the 367-room Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverfront Hotel. I checked into the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, one of the city’s largest convention hotels, with 100,000 square feet of meeting space and 1,298 rooms, all of which underwent a $30-million renovation in late 2014. And although my room was on the smaller side, its 31st-floor views of the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, were more than a satisfactory distraction.
After I dropped off my bags, my trip kicked off at possibly the most quintessential stop one can make in Motor City — the Henry Ford Museum. Even if cars aren’t your attendees’ thing (but don’t say that too loudly here), the 200-acre museum is still well worth a visit. The exhibits tend to focus more on great American innovations than just automobiles, making it interesting for all groups, and many of its spaces are available for private events. And if cars are your attendees’ thing? Take them to the nearby Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn, the only automobile factory in Detroit open to the public — which also offers many unique event spaces.
From Dearborn we headed back downtown to Traffic Jam and Snug, a Detroit culinary institution that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Its eclectic menu — buoyed by its own in-house bakery, dairy, and brewery — is a favorite stop of Steve Johnson, owner of Motor City Brew Tours. The Detroit native, who started the tour company in 2009, chatted with me over lunch about how much the city has evolved in recent years. One small example: In the past year alone, 77 restaurants have opened downtown. Johnson and I stopped by one of them, HopCat, just a few blocks away. More a bar than a restaurant, with 130-plus craft beers on tap (there’s also a sizeable event space upstairs), HopCat sits at the heart of Midtown — a hip enclave of funky galleries, restaurants, and other local businesses.
With so much positive growth, it’s easy to get excited about the new, changing Detroit, but I’ve found that much of the city’s charm lies in exploring its rich past. One of the best ways is through the Detroit Institute of Arts, a comprehensive collection that includes Diego Riviera’s thought-provoking “Detroit Industry,” a fresco series he painted directly on the walls of the museum’s Riviera Court. I spent nearly an hour engulfed in it.
It wasn’t until later that evening, as we ventured into Greektown for saganaki (flambéed cheese — stand back) at Santorini Estiatorio, when I saw the old and new Detroit merge together into full view. Beneath the shiny mosaic tower of the Greektown Casino, in the nearly 150-year-old neighborhood, the streets teamed with energy from all sides of the spectrum — young and old, locals and visitors, the traditions of yesterday and the promise of the future.