travel

Attitude city guide: Detroit, 'America's greatest comeback city'

2015-07-25
Detroit is billing itself as “America’s Greatest Comeback City” – and justifiably so. An Eminem Super Bowl advert once declared that Detroit had “been to hell and back” – the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 – but now something special is happening. Investors – and hipsters – are moving in, Condé Nast Traveller has named it as a place to watch in 2015 and Madonna, who grew up in a suburb, has said she’s “incredibly inspired” about Detroit’s future. Ben Affleck filmed the upcoming Batman vs Superman here and said it made a "big impression". DetroitMainpic1 While T-shirts in tourist shops bear slogans such as “Detroit is the new black,” the city also has a glorious past. Without Detroit, there would be no Motown music or stars including Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Kid Rock, Iggy Pop and The White Stripes. Detroit roared in the 1920s, resulting in stunning art deco architecture, and boomed in the 1940s as the heart of the country’s motor industry. Take advantage of Virgin Atlantic’s new direct London-Detroit flights to visit a city that’s revving its engines again. SIGHTSEEING Hitsville USA is the nickname given to the Motown Museum, housed in Berry Gordy’s former home and studio. Record label owner Berry had an eye for talent – Diana Ross was a secretary here before finding fame, Marvin Gaye slept on the upstairs sofa after late-night recording sessions and Stevie Wonder was signed up as an 11-year-old. Today’s visitors can stand – and sing – in the studio that produced hits such as My Girl and Please Mr Postman and Stop! In the Name of Love. MotownMuseum “We’re rollin’” are the words heard at the beginning of a Slow Roll cycling tour, the most fun way to explore the city. Co-founded by Jason Hall, whose love for Detroit inspired an Apple advert, Slow Roll takes around 3,000 cyclists on a different route each week. Company rules include “make friends” and Slow Rollers have been known to wear tuxedos during prom week and fancy dress at Halloween. This is also a great way to see some of the 78,000 buildings that were left derelict during Detroit’s darker years (“ruin porn” has become a thing). Look out for the eerie Michigan Central Station – the last train departed in 1988 and it has since featured in films including The Island and Transformers. Other sites worth exploring include the art deco Guardian skyscraper, which has retained its jaw-dropping, cathedral-like interior. The Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Insitute of Art are another must-see. Painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, they’ve been granted National Historic Landmark status. Of course, you can’t visit Motor City without paying homage to the car industry. The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn’s memorabilia ranges from the gruesome – the limousine in which President Kennedy was assassinated – to the inspiring – the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, sparking the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. LGBT LIFE Menjo’s nightclub in the Palmer Park district (once known as “Michigan’s gayest square mile”) features an exhibit on local gay history. Artefacts include a 1972 map that highlighted cruising spots and a 1976 Menjo’s disco ball that Madonna danced under as a 16-year-old. Necto’s nightclub in nearby Ann Arbor (where the Queen of Pop’s daughter Lourdes goes to university) hosts Michigan’s longest-running gay night. Gigi’s, which is known for its drag shows, is another staple. Pronto! bar and restaurant comes highly recommended – locals say it has a “non-intimidating” community feel. The menu offers everything from a $5 Bloody Mary bar to kids’ meals, and puts on events such as Throwback Thursdays with ’90s music. SlowRoll1 RESTAURANTS A pawnbroker isn’t the obvious choice to be converted into a restaurant, but Gold Cash Gold is a real gem. The original exterior remains, with signs offering to buy “diamonds, crystals and coins”, and locally sourced food is served by hipster staff. Down the road is Slow’s Bar BQ, owned by a former Louis Vuitton model and his family. Man Vs Food’s Alan Richman described a visit here as “truly life-changing” and the macaroni and cheese as “transcendental”. Detroiters are also keen for visitors to try their local dish, the Coney Dog, which contains a sausage, beef sauce, mustard and onions. SlowRoll3 HOTELS The Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center is one of the leading hotels in Detroit that recently completed a $30M renovation and is located in the heart of the city providing access to restaurants, sports and an exciting nightlife. When the Westin Book Cadillac was built in Downtown Detroit in 1924, it was the tallest hotel in the world and soon began to host famous faces. The hotel featured in the 1948 film State of the Union, starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Angela Lansbury. These days the hotel boasts an indoor heated pool, a spa and fitness centre (they can even lend you a gym kit). Dining options include Roast, helmed by a celebrity chef. The Aloft Detroit makes quite a first impression – guests are greeted by a four-storey atrium with marble floors, gold-leaf a-go-go and old-style elevators. Situated in the 115-year-old David Whitney Building, the hotel opened last year after a $92million renovation. Once the home of doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, the rooms retain the original letterboxes at the doors. Words by DAWN EMERY, with thanks to Visit Detroit and Virgin Atlantic.