How to plan a cycling tour of Detroit's epic architecture

From a restored railway terminus to revamped warehouses, Detroit is re-embracing its forgotten architectural gems. Push off on a two-wheeled tour and see the transformation of an urban landscape.

The Detroit skyline at sunset.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Zoey Goto
Published 1 Mar 2023, 11:39 GMT

Detroit has long had architectural clout, being home to some of the most dazzling art deco buildings in the US, which were built in the 1920s and 1930s when the city’s car industry boomed. But as factories shut down, the city’s golden era dimmed, and haunting images of Detroit’s ruins were flashed across the world as recently as a decade ago. 

A lot has changed since then. In 2015, Detroit was awarded UNESCO City of Design status. Subsequently, many of the city’s decaying architectural beauties have been restored to their former glory. Add into the mix a network of new cycle lanes and Motor City has become, somewhat ironically, a city ripe for exploring by foot or pedal.

Michigan Central Station

Start by picking up a MoGo bikeshare, docked on Michigan Avenue in Corktown. Tucked around the corner is Michigan Central Station, a lavish Beaux Arts train terminal, which later became the poster child for Detroit’s blight. Built in 1913, the grand station fell derelict after a decline in train travel, its terrazzo floors flooded with water and walls layered with graffiti. But the building has since made a U-turn, with Ford Motor Company transforming it into a vast innovation hub, with workspaces, restaurants and plenty of public spaces, set to be unveiled this spring.

Guardian Building

Prepare to be dazzled by the Guardian Building, one of the US’s most striking, and certainly most colourful, art deco skyscrapers, and a 15-minute cycle from Michigan Central Station. Built in the Roaring Twenties, this 40-floor structure started life as the headquarters for a banking corporation and still serves as a cathedral to finance today. Grab a coffee in the main lobby to admire the vibrant geometrical ceilings and an epic mural by Ezra Winter — a five-storey painted homage to the role of commerce in Michigan. It’s just a short stroll from here to the Shinola Hotel.

Shinola Hotel

Stitching together five buildings, including a disused Singer sewing machine showroom, this design-savvy boutique hotel jumpstarted the revival of Detroit’s downtown when it opened in 2019. Owned by the Shinola luxury goods brand, the 129-room property is a masterclass in pared-back minimalism. If you’re not staying the night, linger long enough to admire the original restored terracotta tiles on the facade, grab lunch at the happening San Morello brasserie or browse the on-site shop.

The clock outside Shinola Hotel.

The clock outside Shinola Hotel.

Photograph by Alamy

A 15-minute bike ride through midtown takes you to the Fisher Building, a jaw-dropping edifice created by architect Albert Kahn in 1928. Bringing the Midas touch to this 30-storey office, retail and entertainment tower, Kahn daringly splashed gold leaf across the walls, ceilings and even the lifts, which are also etched with ornate art deco motifs. The skyscraper’s ground-floor arcade houses coffee shops and boutiques, so allow time to browse and soak up the atmosphere.

The Fisher Building, a historic landmark at the heart of Detroit.

The Fisher Building, a historic landmark at the heart of Detroit.

Photograph by Alamy

It’s a 20-minute cycle through midtown from the Fisher Building to Eastern Market, once home to the warehouses that hosted Detroit’s legendary underground techno parties of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s since transformed into a hip neighbourhood packed with independent stores and eateries, as well as a weekend farmers’ market. Through its annual Murals in the Market festival, Eastern Market now has the densest collection of street art in Detroit. Save room for a bite at Bert’s, a soul food institution part-run by a former executive at Motown Records.

The 'Murals in the Market' are still expanding. In 2022, a handful of new pieces were created, including one dedicated to soil fertility that faces Orleans Street on a wall just south of Wilkins Street.

Photograph by Alamy

Take a 20-minute cycle over the Detroit River and into Belle Isle, a slice of urban paradise. Here, you’ll discover the city’s most tranquil design destination, the Oudolf Garden, which opened in 2021. This all-seasons wildflower sanctuary was created by renowned Dutch designer Piet Oudolf. Learn about Oudolf’s planting philosophy from the information panels, before taking a rest among the butterflies and borders.

Getting there and around

Delta Air Lines fly direct from Heathrow to Detroit.

Published in the US Cities guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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