The Motor City. The D. The Comeback City. Whatever you call it, Detroit is a great place for families to visit to find culture, history and adventure. Situated along the Great Lakes of Michigan, Detroit is full of family-friendly restaurants and shops, stunning art-deco architecture, beautiful natural spaces, and a fun riverfront area. Detroit is in the middle of a Renaissance, and now is the perfect time to explore this city long known for its rich automobile and musical history.
Curious about visiting Detroit with your family? Here are just some of the things to experience in the Motor City.
Where to Stay in Detroit
If you want to be close to some of the best that Detroit has to offer, you’ll want to stay in downtown Detroit. There are many hotels in downtown Detroit, but we enjoyed staying at the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit, because it’s central to so much of the city.
The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit
This historic landmark hotel in the heart of downtown Detroit was built in 1924 to help turn Washington Avenue into the “Fifth Avenue of the Midwest.” A classy but comfortable hotel, the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit has everything that families are looking for during a stay in downtown Detroit: comfy beds and guest rooms, an amazing indoor pool and spa, a Starbucks on the ground level, and a restaurant serving up a full kids menu.
The 29-floor Westin has some of the best views from the guest rooms onto downtown Detroit. At ground level, the hotel is within walking distance to many restaurants, shops, and a dog park.
What to Do in Detroit
There are so many fun and family-friendly activities in Detroit that we couldn’t experience them all in one trip! Here are just some of the places you should check out the next time you’re in the Motor City.
Long known as Hitsville USA, the Motown Museum is the home of the world-famous Studio A, where artists like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five and others recorded.
During the hour-long guided museum tour, you’ll get to walk through the actual recording studio where Motown artists recorded. As you’re led through the museum, you’ll see photos of the artists and see some of their memorabilia, all while Motown music plays around you.
DNR Outdoor Adventure Center
Located on Detroit’s riverfront, the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center gives you a taste of the Michigan outdoors right in the city.
The center features lots of hands-on activities, exhibits and simulators for kids of all ages (and adults, too!). Hit a virtual trail on a mountain bike or snowmobile, walk behind and touch a real waterfall, set sail on a fishing boat and reel in a fish, climb the roots of a huge oak tree and walk across a wooden bridge to explore the canopy, hop aboard an airplane, and lots more. This is the place to learn about how the DNR manages the natural areas of the state and the wildlife that call this area home, all while experiencing these things firsthand.
Did you know that there’s an island in Detroit? Belle Isle is an 982-acre park that’s located in the city, and has been a beloved natural and cultural hotspot for generations of Detroiters.
You can get to Belle Isle by car (there’s a small fee for vehicles). Or if the weather is right and you feel like getting some exercise, you can rent a bike from Wheelhouse Detroit and bike over the bridge and throughout the park. Either way, once you’re on the island, you’ll be treated to a great view of the Detroit skyline and nearby Canada border.
What to Do on Belle Isle
The park is home to the Belle Isle Aquarium, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Belle Isle Nature Center, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, and lots more.
Belle Isle Aquarium
The oldest aquarium in the United States, Belle Isle Aquarium is free to the public and houses a variety of aquatic life. As you stroll through the beautiful aquarium, you’ll see lots of different saltwater and freshwater fish, turtles, frogs, octopus and water snakes, and even axolotls, with docents standing by to answer your questions. The aquarium opened in 1904, but has been recently renovated to modernize and update the exhibits.
Belle Isle Nature Center
Admission is free to the Belle Isle Nature Center, and it is the perfect place to learn about the environment and experience the natural world of Detroit. Visitors to the center will get an insider’s view of an actual beehive and get an up-close view of Michigan wildlife. Gaze out at the bird observation window to watch native and migratory birds as they feed, or pop your head into the turtle pond to see what the resident reptiles are doing. (Kids can literally pop their head into a turtle habitat that’s designed to give them an up-close view!)
When the weather is nice, step outside and explore the Nature Play Area, the outdoor extension of the nature center. Kids can use gardening equipment, create shelters with branches, make music, and enjoy imaginative play.
Detroit International RiverWalk
The beautiful Detroit RiverWalk spans more than three miles, going from Belle Isle bridge to Rosa Parks Boulevard. A popular way to enjoy the riverfront is to walk, ride a bike or stroll down the wide walkway. You’ll view the Detroit coast and catch a glimpse of the Canada border on the other side of the water.
During the warmer-weather months, you’ll find splash parks for kids, and several fountains all around. Kids can also ride the carousel (open seasonally), enjoy nature areas and play on the playgrounds, and families will find lots of restaurants and places to shop.
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation
More than a museum celebrating Detroit’s auto history, visitors to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation enter a world that fuels the imagination.
Visitors can view classic and new vehicles, ranging from personal automobiles to race cars to presidential rides and everything in between. Step inside the bus where Rosa Parks took a stand, play pilot as you explore flight innovations, sit inside of an old steam locomotive, and much more.
The expansive museum also includes permanent and visiting exhibits about mathematics, historical furniture, dollhouses, glassworks and other topics. There are also lots of opportunities for hands-on activities, like creating paper airplanes and testing them out!
Where to Eat in Detroit
Detroit is the place for foodie families! Here’s a taste of the restaurants you will find all around Detroit.
Mom’s Spaghetti is where the Venn diagram of Eminem fans and spaghetti lovers meet. Created by Eminem and named after his famous song “Lose Yourself” (written for the movie 8 Mile that Eminem also starred in), Mom’s Spaghetti is a small walk-up to-go restaurant that serves large portions of spaghetti, spaghetti with meatballs, spaghetti Bolognese and spaghetti sandwiches (spaghetti between two slices of garlic bread). The menu is concise — you’re here for spaghetti, OK? But that’s good, because it keeps the line moving briskly … and there is almost always a line, because Mom’s Spaghetti is a popular spot in Detroit. Get your spaghetti or spaghetti sandwich to go, or if you’re lucky, you might snag a seat in the small dining room that’s located around the corner.
Located in Detroit’s Greektown, Pegasus Taverna is a family-owned restaurant that has been named the best Greek restaurant in metro Detroit multiple times over. Step inside, and you’ll be greeted warmly — not just by the staff, but also by the cozy, intimate decor. The vibe at Pegasus Taverna is intimate, with low lighting and twinkle lights strewn among the foliage that hangs from the ceiling. You can’t go wrong with Pegasus’s traditional gyro, or opt for one of their most popular dishes: the chicken lemonato, which is chicken breast sautéed in a lemon, butter, wine, and oregano sauce. The complimentary bread and butter is outstanding, too — and definitely kid-approved.
This is the birthplace of Detroit-style pizza. If you’re looking for a taste of the Motor City, you’ll find it at Buddy’s Pizza, a 75-year-old Detroit institution located near Detroit’s 6 Mile. Buddy’s history states that the idea for Detroit-style pizza was sparked after the owner used a steel auto pan to cook pizza. This created the thick, buttery, chewy yet crispy-edged pizza style that we know and love today. Detroiters are known for their ingenuity — and that also extends into the pizza realm!
Jammy yolk fans: Iggy’s Eggies will be your jam! This little walk-up spot in Detroit’s Capitol Park serves up breakfast sandwiches made with their signature jammy-yolk eggs and Iggy’s sauce, as well as breakfast burritos and grass-fed burgers. Don’t sleep on their french toast sticks, dusted with powdered sugar, which you can dip in a container of warm maple syrup.
Located on the outskirts of Detroit in Dearborn is Al Ameer, a James Beard award-winning restaurant. This area of Michigan is the heart of Arab America — according to a U.S. census, almost 30% of the population of Dearborn identifies as Arab American. Among a city full of superb dining, Al Ameer is the go-to choice for Detroiters and visitors looking for authentic Mediterranean cuisine. From shish kebabs to shawarma, and lentil soup to baba ganoush, you can’t go wrong with anything on this chef-driven menu. Make sure to order some of their hot and fresh-from-the-oven pita — it’s sublime.
Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island
Coney Island dogs are a staple of Detroit — these hot dogs topped with meat chili, diced onions and yellow mustard are a must-try. It is said that the birthplace of these famous frankfurters originated on the corner of Lafayette and Michigan, which is near where two Coney Island hot dog restaurants now stand: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. These two hot dog joints sit side by side and serve almost identical menus, and are also owned by Greek brothers. Most Detroiters have pledged their allegiance to one or the other restaurant, which means visitors should try items from both and compare. Which do you think will be your favorite?
Looking for a great croissant? Cannelle serves 22 varieties of croissant, including the traditional plain, almond and chocolate croissant. But they also have croissants filled with bacon and gruyere cheese, goat cheese and olives, potatoes and herbs, and zatar. This is in addition to the vast variety of French pastries and bakery items on display in the enticing cases, like their award-winning macarons, tarts and cakes.
Located in the Rivertown neighborhood of Detroit, Atwater Brewery is a family-friendly restaurant serving burgers, soft pretzels, brats and quesadillas, along with their Detroit-made IPAs, pilsners and ales. Adults can enjoy a range of beer flights, and kids can enjoy playing a selection of games at the table. During the warmer months, the rooftop Biergarten is open, affording views all the way to the nearby water. The atmosphere is welcoming and warm at Atwater Brewery, and everyone is welcome.
These are just some of the great adventures awaiting you and your family in Detroit, Michigan. For more ideas and to plan your trip, head to visitdetroit.com.