Motoring Down to Motown: Why Detroit is an Underrated Road Trip Hotspot for Torontonians

You have a weekend, three-and-a-half hours worth of gas in the tank, and a killer playlist all queued up. Do you head north to Algonquin Park? East to Brockville? Or do you drive the 375 or so kilometres southwest to the Detroit River, traverse the always impressive Ambassador Bridge, and give yourself a weekend of food, music, and fun in Michigan’s own Motor City?

Detroit may not be top of the list of most Canadians’ travel destinations, but to overlook this hidden gem north(!) of Canada’s southernmost point is to miss out on an historic city with a thriving arts scene and some of the best pizza on the continent.

Detroit skyline (Image credit – / Bedrock Kellin Wirtz 2019.)

Fun fact: 25% of cross-border traffic occurs at the Ambassador Bridge which connects Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario. To the south? The Canadian Aviation Museum, several dozen Tim Hortonses, a wonderful selection of parks and nature reserves. To the north? Detroit-style pizza, Diego Rivera murals, and some of the finest jazz bars in North America. Also: Motown, one of the earliest Ford factories, Art Deco masterpieces… and so much more.

The first thing travellers to Detroit need to decide on is the season. Summer is, of course, home to some of the biggest festivals, from Detroit River Days to the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival to the African World Festival, which will be celebrating its fortieth anniversary next year. Detroit, it helps to know, is on average three to four degrees warmer than Toronto, so travellers can look forward to some balmy days even into the fall season.

Cliff Bell’s (Image credit – Cliff Bell’s 2022.)

Come September, it’s all about the internationally acclaimed Detroit Jazz Fest, which draws in massive crowds as the largest free music festival in North America. Detroit might be better known for the Marvin Gaye/Gladys Knight/Martha Reeves hit-making machine that is Motown Records, but its thriving jazz scene ranks it among the most significant jazz destinations in the world.

Legendary venues include Cliff Bell’s, an Art Deco masterpiece established in 1935 and still hosting live shows Wednesday-Sunday every week. Cliff’s upscale speakeasy vibe, replete with a lovely fine dining menu of juicy scallops, crispy shrimp po’boys, and some truly wonderful cocktails, makes it a must-visit. And while we’re on the topic, other highlights of the Detroit culinary scene include the James Beard Award-nominated Savannah Blue, which specializes in Contemporary Northern Soul Food, like the moist cornbread served with every meal, and the crumble-in-your-mouth crab cakes that pair nicely with, well, anything on Savannah’s robust wine list.

Speaking of music, the Motown Museum is another essential part of any Detroit itinerary. This monument to “Hitsville U.S.A.” is mostly an excuse to tread the same floorboards that Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and countless others once walked upon. If you sniff carefully, you can even detect the lingering scent of 100,000 cigarettes.

Detroit Jazz Fest (Image credit – Detroit Jazz Fest 2022.)

Back to the seasons… Winter at Valade sees Detroit’s beloved Valade Park turned over to tobogganing, outdoor fire pits, and all the marshmallows and mulled wine you can consume. Winter is also a great time for indoor activities like wandering through the extensive collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Home to the deservedly famous Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry” Murals, the DIA is full of noteworthy pieces from throughout art history, from a Van Gogh self-portrait to P. Bruegel the Elder’s comical Wedding Dance to Mark Rothko’s formidable Orange, Brown. For the sports-inclined, Winter is also a good time to check out a Pistons or Red Wings game. Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman is one of the greatest hockey players of all time; while his days on the ice are long since past, it’s still his team even if it’s been a while since they’ve been real Stanley Cup contenders.

Moving into spring, visitors can check out the start of the Detroit Tigers season, or simply spend a day relaxing on Belle Isle, a beautiful island park situated right in the middle of the Detroit River. (Rumour has it, if you swim a little too far from the beach, the Canadian Coast Guard will scoop you up and deposit you right back on U.S. soil ;).) Visitors can also spend a nice afternoon at Eastern Market, a neighbourhood/farmer’s market which first opened in 1891 and which, come springtime, is a great spot to marvel at the brilliant colours of the thousands of blossoming flowers on display.

The Siren Hotel
The Siren Hotel (Image Credit – Ash.World/The Siren Hotel 2022.)

Detroit is also the place to relax in style. Detroit has many memorable luxury hotels, and we had a lovely stay at the very chic, very boutique Siren Hotel nestled in the heart of downtown. The Siren is certainly one of the sleekest places we’ve ever rested our weary heads, though young families or those looking for a quieter spot should be warned that the equally chic bar/café next door gets very loud in the evenings.

Visitors to Detroit should also set some time aside to visit the many interesting (and unusual!) sites to be found in the suburbs and beyond. Just outside Detroit, Dearborn is home to the Henry Ford Museum which, despite its name, carries more than just famous cars throughout history – though there are several of those, including (in somewhat dubious taste) the car in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A little further on, Ann Arbor’s annual Street Art Fair draws in major crowds over one July weekend each summer. Travellers with a bit more time on their hands might even consider the three hour drive down to Cleveland, if only for a day at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. (But that’s for another Toronto Guardian feature, isn’t it?)

Ambassador Bridge (Image credit – / Vito Palmisano 2022.)

Finally, all you Canuck travellers should remember that our own side of the river has more than its fair share of selling points. Windsor has the same slightly warmer climate as Detroit, and some lovely riverside walks that are worth checking out at the front or tail end of a Detroit trip. Those looking for a relaxing afternoon can take advantage of plenty of Windsor parks, from the Dieppe Gardens to Jackson Park, all there for the picnicking. And after visiting the Wright Brothers’ workshop at the Henry Ford Museum across the river, travellers may well be interested in checking out the collection of vintage aircraft at the Canadian Aviation Museum.

We’re the first to admit – before our big trip down to Detroit, we knew little more about it than Ford assembly lines and Marshall Mathers Oscar-winning movies. But after some quality time with great food, drinks, and music, the Toronto Guardian is officially a fan of the 313. Go Wings Go!


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