Our eastward bound road trip through Canada took a slight detour south through the United States due to weather. This meant that, after passing through Chicago, we’d need to head north again to rejoin our original route through Canada. This meant driving right through Detroit city that lies on the border of the two countries
We’d heard a lot of negative things about the place – its the most violent city in the US and one of the country’s poorest areas with an unemployment rate above 25%. Detroit has battled economic crises ever since the US car manufacturing industry fell to bits in the 1960’s.
Just thinking about sleeping in the van on Detroit’s streets with so much crime and free gun laws made us feel very uneasy to say the least. However, after researching more about the city, finding out about its super interesting history and realising its in the middle of a cultural revival, we thought we’d be adventurous and give what once was the USA’s richest city a chance.
Once we got to Detroit we noticed the large amount of abandoned buildings everywhere – from entire train stations to factories, schools, houses and churches! It’s almost as if overnight hundreds of thousands of people just left looking for better work and opportunities. And thats pretty much what happened! Back in 1960 Detroit’s population was over 2 million, today its a measly 600,000.
Our plan was to spend the day exploring downtown Detroit and then head to a Walmart (where there is security and people coming and going 24/7) to sleep the night in relative safety. We’d then cross the border to Canada later the next day.
We were pleasantly surprised with Detroit and, most importantly, survived our night sleeping in the Walmart carpark. We felt completely secure and enjoyed our night eating nachos and watching a movie in bed inside the van.
Here’s what we loved about Detroit and what we recommend doing on a quick visit to city in Michigan:
John K. King Used and Rare Books
This has been rated as one of the world’s best bookshops, and its no wonder why – a four storey warehouse jam packed full of historic, interesting and rare books that you couldn’t possible read in 70 lifetimes. For the budget traveller you can even pick up a bunch of free books from near the front door to take with you on your travels.
GM Renaissance Centre
This is the global headquarters of General Motors and sits right at the centre of downtown on the Detroit River. Every day at 12 noon and 2pm you can take a free tour of the buildings, including a ride up to the 72nd floor where you’ll see the entire city (and a lot of Canada too).
This entirely unique building in central Detroit was built in 1928 and inspired by both American Indian designs and the art deco movement. Inside its utterly breath taking and well worth the visit.
Sainte Anne Cathedral
America’s second oldest continuosly functioning church is found in Detroit – it was the very first building constructed by the French when they arrived in 1701. It has survived civil war, fire and the city’s abandonment and stands hauntingly beautiful in a quiet corner of Detroit.
Detroit Historical Museum
This is another fantastic free entry museum we’ve found on our trip through the states. In the basement you’ll find an entire historic street with houses, businesses and shops still in operations (grab a free hand printed bookmark from the printer press shop).
On the main floor you’ll find a truly interactive and interesting history of Detroit from fur trade to the world’s largest car producer and beyond.
This is the city’s centre of nightlife with bright lights, a casino, dozens of bars and restaurants and buskers blasting funky sax on the sidewalk. We didn’t get much time to check our this corner of town but the buzzing atmosphere and yummy smells coming from restaurants all around made us like the place straight away.
Overall we really enjoyed our stay in Detroit. We were surprised by the city’s rich art and music culture and felt safe at every moment. Yes, there is an overriding dreary feeling to the city at large, but the unique history, vibrant locals, well kept downtown area and push for a cultural revival give the city a one-of-a-kind vibe and charm that overrides its negative history.