For centuries Detroit has been a happening place. After the Beaver Wars of the late 17th century, Wyandot, Ottawa, and Ojibwe settled in the area. In 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and other French settlers came to the region. With its prominence on the Detroit River, Detroit was an important port. During the War of 1812, Detroit and its surrounding region were important military sites. After its incorporation in 1815, the city quickly grew serving for a period as Michigan’s capital. With its close proximity to an international border (making it a happening place during Prohibition, too), Detroit was an important stop on the Underground Railroad as slaves made their way to freedom in Canada. The city shone during the Industrial Revolution becoming a leading metropolis thanks in large part to the automobile industry. After a period of economic decline, Detroit is enjoying a renaissance. Home to many cultural venues and historical sites, it’s a wonderful place to visit. As Detroit covers a vast geographical area many people don’t think of it as a walking city, but you should absolutely head out on foot. My Roaming Historian Walking Tour of Rivertown Detroit will take you around important sites from the river down Woodward Ave. to Campus Martius and back towards the river on Griswold. This rectangular strip of downtown Detroit provides many interesting things to see and do.
(Parking Tip): There are many posh hotels in this area and its border with historical Greektown means that Rivertown is close to many of Detroit’s casino hotels, but if you’re driving in for the day I recommend parking at Ford Auditorium Parking on Jefferson Ave.
Start your walking tour after emerging from the parking garage at the big black fist.
Monument to Joe Louis (5 Woodward Avenue, corner of Jefferson and Woodward Ave.)—this iconic fist sculpted by Robert Graham represents the power of the famed boxer, as well as his efforts to fight segregation.
Proceed towards the water to the large plaza in front of you off of Jefferson Ave. at the base of Woodward Ave.
Hart Plaza (1 Hart Plaza)—this riverfront area boasts several different monuments and historical markers and provides lovely views of the Detroit riverfront.
- Michigan Labor Legacy Monument—Detroit pays homage to the workers that fueled production and built this city through the Labor Legacy Landmark. Under two magnificent steel arcs (by David Barr), fourteen Vermont granite boulders (by Sergio de Guisti) depict the sacrifices and achievements of American workers. Inspiring quotes on marble plaques form a base at the monument.
- Landing of Cadillac Historical Marker—discusses the heritage of the area and Cadillac’s settling of the site in 1701.
- Ford Motor Company Historical Marker—recognizes the incorporation of the Ford Motor Company in 1903.
- International Memorial to the Underground Railroad—the Gateway to Freedom monument near the river depicts passage through the Underground Railroad and stands as a testament to Detroit’s heritage. The statue, emphasizing the artistic expression of the city, also underscores why people migrated to Detroit—hope for a better future.
Walk back to Jefferson and take a right on the street to go to:
Mariners’ Church (170 E. Jefferson Ave.)—this 1849 church was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Enjoy the Masonic symbols present on the statue of George Washington out front.
Cross Jefferson St. at Randolph and start walking back towards Woodward (stay on Jefferson). At the corner of Jefferson and Woodward, you will come upon the:
Spirit of Detroit (2 Woodward Ave.)—a celebrated statue by Marshall Fredericks located outside the Coleman Young Municipal Center.
Take a right on Woodward Avenue and enjoy a stroll down the street for a few blocks until you come upon an urban park:
Campus Martius Park (800 Woodward Ave.)—a park where the city’s point of origin is marked by a medallion in the walkway. One of the first sites you will see is the Michigan Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Capping the statue honoring Michigan sailors and soldiers killed in the Civil War is the fierce-looking Michigania, a heroic woman brandishing her sword and shield. There is an ice-skating rink in the winter, a fountain, gardens, and even a café. The park provides a lovely oasis from the urban jungle surrounding it. At the northern end of Campus Martius, you can veer off the walking tour to see Kern’s Clock and the National Automotive History Collection.
Circle around Campus Martius (Woodward encircles it) until you reach Michigan Avenue. Take a right on Michigan and you will come upon two of Detroit’s first and finest coney island hot dog restaurants.
American Coney Island/Lafayette Coney Island (114/118 Lafayette Blvd)—these restaurants started by two Greek brothers serve up fine eats. Detroiters are fiercely loyal to one or the other. I suggest getting a coney from each and choosing for yourself which one you prefer.
Leaving the restaurants, exit on Lafayette and take a right on Griswold (the restaurants are at the corner of Lafayette and Griswold). Take a walk down Griswold until you come to the:
Penobscot Building (645 Griswold St.)—this 1928 Art Deco building was once the eight tallest in the world. Enjoy the Native American motifs on the façade. You can go inside but it isn’t as spectacular as the next building on the walk.
Go down Griswold a little further to encounter the:
Guardian Building (500 Griswold St.)—Pewabic Pottery maven, Mary Chase Perry Stratton, worked closely with the architect, Wirt Rowland, to design the elaborate interior of this 1929 Art Deco building. Go inside and take a look around. The multi-colored tiles and terra cotta, along with various types of marble and stone, create a breath-taking lobby. The grand metal archway with a Tiffany clock creates an impressive entry to the main hall where a five-story mural by Ezra Winter depicts Native American themes and the heritage of the city.
The Guarding Building provides a lovely last site to finish the walking tour. Having whetted your whistle for Detroit, you will definitely want to visit some of the great shops (Pewabic Pottery, Shinola watches, and the Detroit Eastern Market to name a few), good restaurants (Slows BBQ, Pegasus Taverna, The Whitney, Supino Pizzeria), sporting events, entertainment venues (Fox Theatre, Detroit Opera), and renowned Institute of Art that the city has to offer. If gambling is your speed, you will find casinos nearby, too.
Have a great trip and enjoy Detroit!
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