Allison Reiber DiLiegro and Ling Luke, co-founders of the travel newsletter Opla, met up in Detroit to see the city’s renaissance for themselves. As it turns out, there’s much more to the city than what’s new.
DETROIT, Michigan – We had our Detroit story sketched out before we arrived. You’ve heard it, too: Detroit was once a great city, bringing motors and Motown to the masses until the factories closed. Downtown was abandoned and grand buildings were reduced to ruins. Until recently, that is, when hipsters, artists, and Quicken Loans launched a rebirth of the city. Now, Detroit is a destination again, with chic hotels, James Beard-nominated restaurants, and a world-class art scene.
It is a good story! (Who doesn’t love a comeback?) But a few days in the city taught us something else: Detroit is so cool because some people never left.
So we went to find one, Matthew Angelo Harrison, who might be one of the coolest people in Detroit. Matthew is an artist, with work at the Whitney Biennale 2019 and past pieces in the New Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. (You can see his work here.) As for his success, he’s still getting used to it. “I feel grateful for the amount of interest in the work and just how busy I’ve been the past few years,” he told us. “I’m still learning how to manage it all – how to be more organized and how to be more forgiving with myself when I do make a mistake, which is difficult at times.”
Born on the last day of a decade, December 31, 1989, Matthew has spent his whole life in Detroit, bar a few years spent in Chicago for university. Before launching his art career, he worked at Ford designing clay models that would be turned into cars.
He first noticed Detroit was really “happening” about five years ago. “I’ve seen it try to have these pushes, economically or politically, or have a presence internationally, or even nationally before. It feels different now. I’m seeing that people have a dedicated interest in being here. They’re building their lives here.”
And then there are people like us, who parachute in for a weekend to see the sights. Here’s where we landed, featuring a few of the local spots we only found because of Matthew.
What to See and Do
Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (DIA) is the city’s most essential art destination, famous for the industrial-era Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera. Take time to soak up Rivera’s controversial depiction of the Ford Motor Company, but don’t forget the rest. The museum houses works by Degas, Rembrandt, and Renoir.
Matthew recommends Bahamas Biennale, an often experimental gallery inside a century-old broom factory, and Hamtramck Ceramck, a ceramics collective that makes quirky, ugly-cute ceramics in Hamtramck. A short drive from downtown, Hamtramck is fast becoming a hub for artist studios. (Hot tip: they also have excellent Yemeni food at Yemen Cafe.)
We would have loved to make a stop at Cranbrook Art Museum, the contemporary art museum at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, one of the top graduate schools for art, design and architecture. A 30-minute drive from downtown, the permanent collection includes works by Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein.
If gallery-hopping isn’t enough exercise, head for a run on the Dequindre Cut Greenway. The park runs from Eastern Market – the iconic food and clothing market – to the Detroit River. The city is great for running in general, but this car-free pass feels particularly freeing.
For even more greenery, rent a bike and cycle to Belle Isle, a 982-acre island just a short swim from Canada. We rented bikes at Wheelhouse and had to bear a stint on the highway, but it was all worth it once we arrived. Don’t miss the Anna Whitcomb Conservatory and its hedge garden, a lovely place for a picnic.
Where to Stay
With two buzzy newcomers, the Shinola Hotel and The Siren Hotel, choosing where to stay is part of the fun. Shinola Hotel is a new venture by the Detroit-based purveyor of luxury watches and leather goods. The brand’s first foray into hospitality, the Shinola is the more upscale of the two hotels, with impeccably-designed rooms (you can read about here) and an excellent art collection. The hotel has four destination-worthy dining outlets: the Brakeman for fun beer garden vibes, Penny Red’s for fried chicken and dangerously delicious biscuits, San Morello for lively Italian, and Evening Bar for a sleek nightcap. Shinola has also revived neighboring Parker’s Alley, bringing in a number of local, female-owned businesses.
Where Shinola is sophisticated and totally modern, The Siren Hotel is a playful design-lover’s dream with a romantic retro feel. We loved the lobby, – lived in, thanks to the Populace Coffee outpost and communal table – the curated shop, the beautiful Candy Bar cocktail spot and the sheer mention of a soon-to-be-opened piano karaoke bar. Rooms are charming and comfortable but smaller than Shinola’s. Those looking for space can opt for one of the roomy duplex penthouse suites.
Where to Eat and Drink
2520 Michigan Ave.; +1-313-855-2864
With a feel that’s more Berlin nightclub than Thai restaurant, Takoi is so trendy it almost hurts. That is, until you try the food, which is some of the spiciest, most authentic Thai food we’ve had outside of the motherland. It’s all lots of fun.
1701 Trumbull Ave.' +1-313-290-5849
This little light-filled cafe was founded by two women, a Detroit native and an Australian. A beautiful choice for brunch, Folk serves seasonal comfort foods, great coffee, and healthy drinks. There’s outdoor seating should weather allow it.
Flowers of Vietnam
4430 West Vernor Hwy.; +1-313-554-2085
Two locals recommended Flowers of Vietnam, a hotspot for Vietnamese food that began as a pop-up. Serving bright and authentic Vietnamese and fan-favorite wings, it’s on our list for the next trip.
2015 Michigan Ave. & 32203 John R. Rd.; +1-313-502-5959
With two locations in town, this low-key noodle shop is a fun choice for a casual dinner with friends. The menu features udon, ramen and sharing plates with plenty of vegetarian options.
3001 Holbrook, Hamtramck; +1-313-285-8239
Set in Hamtramck, this is Matthew’s favorite dive bar on earth.
2030 Park Ave.; +1-313-961-2543
A Michigan native tipped us off to Cliff Bell’s, a jazz club we were thrilled to walk into. Dating back to the 1930s, it’s a throwback to more glamorous days. It’s known to draw some serious talent, but the atmosphere alone is worth it.