This story was originally published in our sister publication Metromode.
It’s not surprising that our first thoughts of Detroit’s history may run to the city’s proud reputation in the automobile industry. But Motor City has a lot more to offer, especially if you’re willing to get out of the car.
Walking tour leaders are quick to point out the music, art, culinary and founding history that enriches Detroit neighborhoods and they believe there’s a lot for both residents and visitors to learn.
“People don’t really give us credit for those parts of our past,” says Motor City Brew Tours founder Stephen Johnson. He runs beer history tours around metro Detroit, and he's not the only one telling a different story about his city.
Metromode investigates five ways to get a better perspective of Detroit than just the view from I-75.
Tour guide Gwen leads a Detroit History Tour group through the city's complicated colonial past.
For the History Hound
Detroit: Founding to Statehood Walking Tour
Detroit History Tours, $31.30
Names like Cadillac, Pontiac, and Woodward have come to represent big names in the car trade but this tour reveals the dynamic characters behind the labels.
Starting at the Renaissance Center, guests hear about how 200 men rowed ashore in 1701 to claim Detroit for France, and how the city owes its name to this French founding (dé troit
means the "strait," or "river"). With a nod to the original Native American inhabitants and the fur trade industry, the tour continues to share the story of the ribbon farms (narrow farms along the riverbank) that were the city’s humble beginnings. A provided set of overlapping maps helps walkers better understand the following British takeover and American Revolution and visitors learn about where so many local names, like Wayne and Hamtramck, originated.
The maps also help to grasp just how devastating the citywide fire of 1805 was and why it spurned Detroit’s motto to “hope for better things” that would “rise from the ashes.” It’s certainly a powerful takeaway for residents today.
A brunch tour with Linda Yellin goes beyond sampling what Eastern Market has to offer and connects visitors with vendors.
For the Foodie
Eastern Market “Come Hungry, Leave Happy” Strolling Brunch Tours
Feet on the Street, $31
Linda Yellin, a familiar figure at Eastern Market, is the founder of this lively tasting tour and her enthusiasm for the scene is infectious.
Starting at the Germack coffee house, visitors stroll around the market to learn about unique products, sample food, and discover the area’s history. Locally produced popcorn, pastries, sausages, and cheeses feature in the tour, along with authentic spinach pies and spreads. But Yellin wants her tours to be more than just a treat for the taste buds. She aims to help bridge the gap between the city and suburbs, and wants to alert residents and visitors to the “gems of Detroit.”
Getting to know local vendors is a highlight of the tour, as is the stop at the legendary (and rather delicious) Supino Pizzeria. Learning about the community kitchen at the market is also a rare insight into part of Detroit’s food scene.
The Guardian Building is a landmark skyscraper at 500 Griswold Street.
For the Architecture Appreciator
Art & Architecture - Downtown Walking Tour
Detroit Experience Factory, $15
This tour is a bit of a bargain for the wealth of knowledge shared, and explores the incredible styles of some of the city’s most iconic structures.
The majestic Guardian Building is the centerpiece of the tour, as a bold example of art deco architecture, and experienced guides point out the unique features of the towering skyscraper, such as the ceiling design of horse-hair and cloth for a hushed atmosphere. The Belt, Campus Martius, and the Spirit of Detroit statue are all on the walk, and emerging street art projects also get good coverage.
If you're also interested in what's happening in Detroit's construction and public spaces, and who's shaping the city skyline, this is the tour for you.
Stephen Johnson runs Motor City Brew Tours and has penned a book on the history of Detroit's beer scene.
For the Beer Lover
Eastern Market (Detroit) Walking Brewery History Tour
Motor City Brew Tours, $30
If it’s about beer and Detroit, Stephen Johnson knows about it. On this tour, Johnson takes visitors around six former brewery sites in the area around Eastern Market and shares the early history of brewing in the city.
Like many of his contemporaries, Johnson’s tours prove that Detroit’s stories are nothing if not a tale of immigration. Detroit beer history is a story of English ales, German Pilsners, prohibition loopholes, and marketing genius, all of which honor the (often immigrant) families driving the scene. Walkers learn about pioneers in the industry, like the Zynda brothers, the Martz family, Schmidt Brewing Co. and the more recent history of stalwarts such as Stroh’s.
The tour finishes with a well-earned pint at Eastern Market Brewing and a deepened understanding of why Michigan is vying for the title of "The Great Beer State."
For the Freedom Fighter
Unique Detroit Underground Railroad Lantern Walking Tour
City Tour Detroit, $36
Detroit’s code name in the historic Underground Railroad (a network of safe houses for runaway slaves during the Civil War period) was “Midnight,” and the city played an important role in the freedom movement.
On this tour, visitors retrace the steps of Freedom Seekers as they sought shelter in the city — an ideal spot for sneaking over to Canada. The tour begins with a reenactment inside the Croghan Street Station, a safe house located in a church cellar, and provides a glimpse into the frightening conditions escapees endured.
Participants learn about the prominent abolitionists and local business owners who sheltered people, the “conductors” who ferried people across the river, and the politicians who changed the course of history. The secretive style of the tour fits well with the impression that this is one side of the city that not many people know about.
Other options include:
Enjoy the Riverwalk Tour
Seven Two Tours, Free
Calvin Moore leads you on an exploration of the new, the old, and the bold along Detroit’s riverfront.
Arab American National Museum, $45
Meet the families behind the tasty delights along Michigan and Warren avenues in East Dearborn on this guided immersion into Arab American culture.
Wheelhouse Detroit, $35/$45 with bike rental
Get on your bike to explore Detroit’s impact in the world of techno, rock, rap, soul, punk, and, of course, Motown.