Saturday, May 25, 2024

Coming To Detroit for the NFL Draft? Here’s What You Need To Know.

The NFL Draft will see hundreds of thousands of football fans descend upon the Motor City this week. At least in downtown Detroit and environs, it’ll probably be tough to find hotel rooms or restaurant reservations. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of ways to enjoy the city– especially as the weather gets nice. Here’s a brief guide looking at how you can explore and think a bit beyond the confines of downtown.

capitol park downtown detroit
The NFL Draft is going to bring a few hundred thousand fans to Detroit. Many have never been to the Motor City before. Pictured here is Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. (File photo from 2020).

Getting Around: Mobility and Transit

While Detroit has notoriously underfunded public transit, the major routes make it possible, if not easy, to get around if you’re close enough to a major route. Perhaps most significantly for draft attendees, the RTA recently started a direct bus between the airport and downtown Detroit, the DAX bus. It’s a coach bus that can carry all of your luggage and even has wifi. The bus picks up at half hour intervals at the northwest corner of Washington Blvd. and Michigan Avenue in Downtown Detroit, right across the street from the Westin Book Cadillac. Tickets are $8 or $6 in advance, which, while more expensive than the 261 FAST Michigan bus, gets you to the airport in a half hour with no stops as opposed to the hour plus of the local route. Check it out. I always allow an hour at DTW, and some people think this is cutting it close; lines at either terminal can be extremely long in high-volume travel days, which the next few weeks promise to be. I’m hoping that the NFL Draft will be a boon to this new service, which hasn’t seen the greatest ridership numbers, mostly because the airport refuses to advertise transit.

Other transit notes: the DAX bus is great to get you from Detroit to the airport and back, but it is not an interchangeable farecard with the other transit systems, which use the DART card (SMART, which serves the burbs, and DDOT, which serves the city). You can get a pass for DART on the Token Transit app, and it’s usually pretty seamless. Take the Vernor Bus from downtown to Southwest Detroit, where I live, and where you can find amazing Mexican food at spots like El Nacimiento, La Jalisciense, or Mexicantown Bakery. (Self-respecting people do not eat on Bagley Avenue, for the most part). The Michigan bus will get you to other spots like La Noria or El Barzón

Downtown Detroit is entirely walkable, but if you want to spice it up a bit, consider either a Lime scooter or a MoGo bike! The former you’re probably familiar with, but the latter is a homegrown enterprise that offers eBikes as well as ahem, acoustic bikes. A MoGo pass is a great way to explore the city and you can dock at any number of stations around town. But don’t be a rube– ride on streets, not sidewalks, and wear a helmet, please. Also, avoid the QLINE tracks!

More at Detroit Transit Guide.


Things to See Downtown

While the NFL Draft is closing off large portions of downtown for Sport Event™, Detroit’s downtown has plenty to do– and in spite of it becoming a partially-privatized playground for rich suburbanites, it definitely maintains a unique Motown charm alongside a balance of historic and new. You can find haute cuisine at spots like San Morello or Wright & Company, fancy chicken sandwiches at Penny Red’s (also ironically the product of the San Morello chef), or you can get down-and-dirty, no-frills pub fare at Checker Bar, one of my all-time favorites.

On the riverfront, Hart Plaza evinces a sort of post-Soviet nostalgia (monumental modernism, but crumbling), and you can contrast this with the work-in-progress, “we’re figuring it out” vibes of Spirit Plaza, where you can see the giant copper statue that serves as the de facto mascot of the city of Detroit. The riverfront is also lovely, and you can walk pretty far from downtown in either direction (it will eventually connect the whole way from Belle Isle to Southwest, but we’re working on it). I always tell everyone they have to see the Guardian Building (below), currently mixed office spaces that are home to the Detroit Land Bank, SmithGroup, and many more.

A wide angle shot of the lobby of the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit, with its vibrant, tiled ceiling and elegantly mullioned window featured prominently.
The lobby of the Guardian Building. If you’re in town for the NFL Draft, you should at least check out some of our town’s famous historic architecture.

Parks, Green Space, and Beyond Downtown

While many visitors will likely never leave downtown, outside downtown, it requires a great deal of effort to ever be bored in Detroit. While the city is perhaps somewhat notorious for its low density, the product of seventy years of population decline, we still offer numerous enclaves of vibrancy, architectural majesty, and natural beauty. If you have a car, it’s possible to hit all of these spots in a single trip. If not, it’s still possible to get around with some combination of planning, bus transit, QLINE, and/or Lyft or Uber. It would be impossible to name all of these spots in a single article, but we’ll tackle a few:

Belle Isle is gorgeous in the spring and summer, and can be easily accessed by bike or transit. There is an aquarium (with resident axolotls plus a bunch of weird Great Lakes fish), a conservatory, and a few walking trails, including one that goes to the eastern tip of the island, where you can gaze into the waters of Lake Ste. Clair, or perhaps scope a passing freighter. The Dossin Great Lakes museum is also fun. Outside of Belle Isle, check out sections of the partially-completed Joe Louis Greenway, which includes one leg that goes up from the riverfront (off Jefferson) to Bagley by Michigan Central Station.

Palmer Park is another lovely park, centrally located on the Woodward corridor. The park offers endless trails and a newly spiffed up central pond. (Mike Duggan will once in awhile get stuff right). If you’ll indulge my urbanist nerdery for another moment, Palmer Park is also surrounded by some of the city’s largest historic multifamily buildings– I’ve never been clear why they’re clustered around here but a number of them have been laboriously maintained and restored.

Inside Ford’s Transformation of Michigan Central Station


Hamtramck, The World In Two Square Miles

Hamtramck is a great destination as an enclave surrounded on all sides by the municipal borders of Detroit (and Highland Park, if we want to get technical). It’s one of the most densely populated cities between the West Coast and the East Coast, the product of a relatively intact built environment of densely packed houses and a plurality of immigrant populations that have come to the city– once Polish, now substantially Yemeni. Check out Yemen Café for a no-frills, magical dining experience, and order my favorite foul in town. Also plenty of thrift and vintage stores and artsy stuff, like Rat Queen Vintage, Planet Ant Theater, and, of course, one of our favorite dispensaries. (Please consume responsibly!).

Looking toward the Ambassador Bridge from the riverfront downtown at sunset in this file photo from November 2020.

West Side

One section of Livernois, a major north-south street on the west side, is termed the Avenue of Fashion, and has seen a great deal of reinvestment in recent years. Food and drink abound as well as shopping, often from independent businesses with an artsy flair. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, opened in 1934, calls itself the oldest still-operating jazz club in the world (amazing drinks and amazing music, food menu can perhaps be skipped in favor of something else!). Elsewhere on the west side, you can explore the gorgeous residential streets of Sherwood Forest and the University District (by the University of Detroit Mercy), revel in the 1920s charm of sprawling residential neighborhoods stretching on for miles.

Brightmoor, farther to the west and north, offers a glimpse of expansive urban farming in one of the city’s architecturally hardest-hit neighborhoods, while Rosedale Park offers historic homes inspired by English country houses and cottages, plus a vibrant commercial strip along Grand River Avenue.

West Village & Indian Village

For a great example of Detroit urbanism in transition, check out the adjacent neighborhoods of Indian Village, West Village, and Islandview. The neighborhoods include everything ranging from higher density new construction (on Kercheval) to palatial historic homes (in Indian Village) to a mixture of new construction and older single-family homes in the West Village and Islandview. West Village in particular boasts the highest population density of any neighborhood in the city of Detroit and most of it is mostly the product of the clustering of a number of large, older apartment buildings.

There are plenty of great spots to check out including Red Hook for coffee, Sister Pie for, well, I’m sure you can guess, Two Birds for drinks. You can even stop by the pilot project of Citizen Robotics‘ 3D printed concrete house.

If you’re in town for the NFL Draft, make sure to tag us @handbuiltcity on Twitter (the platform sometimes called “X”) or Threads!

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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