*Pre-script: I just saw that Peregrine Kate posted a diary on the same subject. She's part of the Welcome Team and I'm not; this diary shouldn't be considered an official or near-official guide on Netroots activities...in fact, it's not even about Netroots activities, period. Consider this a companion piece to the much-better-written Dining & Activities Guide that's been provided, only with a little more of a personal perspective. Hope I'm not stepping on anyone's toes by doing so.
Downtown Detroit can be a fun/interesting place, but you kind of have to know where to look; there's not much of a central district in the city where everyone goes to hang out or party and - being the Motor City - it's all kind of spread out. Public transportation is available, but aside from the People Mover0, I've never needed to use it1.
Then again, I'm local and not coming in on a flight. Air travelers will be coming in along the I-94 corridor, a mostly boring trip notable for the big tire you see as you head downtown. You'll exit I-94 onto the Lodge Freeway for a few miles, passing the MGM Grand casino before going under Cobo Hall and depositing you on to Jefferson Avenue. Depending on time of day, the whole trip from the airport should be around 20-30 minutes. If you're traveling here by auto, you'll probably come in from the south along I-75. There's a large amount of heavy industry along this route, factories and a refinery that you usually can smell before you can see. Travel time after the I-75 and I-275 split is approximately 45 minutes. I would strongly advise not coming in westbound toward the city during the 7:30a-9:30a rush hour.
Congratulations. You've arrived.
If you're staying at the RenCen, it's a short and pleasant walk along the river past Hart Plaza to Cobo Hall, but you get to see the Joe Louis monument if you stroll along Jefferson. If you're at the Westin, it's not much further. If the weather is not so great - we've had a number of storms in the past week or so - there's always a cab or the People Mover, the latter of which will deposit you inside Cobo Hall. Personally, I find the layout of Cobo Hall to be a little confusing, but for the major events like the Detroit International Auto Show, directions are clearly marked.
Y'all are going to be plenty busy with the conference activities and events, but should you choose to step away for a few minutes or hours, I'd like to try and provide a semi-local's perspective of what there is to do and see in the area. Detroit is not like New York City or even Cleveland or Baltimore, so it can be a little bit of an adjustment for visitors used to other major cities. Things kind of clear out on the weekends and after business hours unless there's some major event going on, so to visitors the downtown area may seem a little quiet.
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What I would consider to be a good couple-or-three-hour excursion for visitors is going to the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Museum of African American History. There's also the Michigan Science Center, but it's mostly a kids' science museum, so your interest in that may be limited. All three are in the same area2. The Henry Ford Museum is great, but it's located out in the suburbs - 12 miles or so away - so the distance might rule out going over there. There's the smaller Heidelberg Project and the Motown Museum if you're interested in a quicker tour.
When I go downtown, it's usually either for a sporting event or a concert or festival. Detroit is a big sports town - the Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings3 all play their games downtown - Tigers play the Indians Friday through Sunday, by-the-way - and considered a good enough town for concerts that bands will have shows on weekdays. Yes, there are some concerts happening this week and weekend, 'tho you'll have to drive a fair ways out to the 'burbs to attend most of them.
Speaking of suburbs, if you are willing to make the trip, you'll find active bar/nightlife straight up the Woodward corridor in Ferndale, Royal Oak, and upscale Birmingham. I could go on about what's out in the 'burbs, like the restored 1920's Redford Theater in Redford4, but hey, you're only here for so long, right?
A decade or so ago, I would have told you to stop by the Greektown area for some saganaki and spinach pie. You can still get those things there, but presence of the Greektown Casino - and time, itself, really - has lost much of the 'Greekness' that defined it. Still, I'll park at the Greektown lot and take the People Mover to other places...and it gives me an excuse to grab something calorically unnecessary from the Astoria Pastry Shop.
The casinos draw a lot of traffic; Motor City, MGM Grand, and the aforementioned Greektown, which would be the easiest of the three to get to, followed by the MGM Grand. There's also Caesar's Windsor on the Canadian side, if you have your passport or enhanced license handy. I've heard that there are some decent restaurants and bars in them, but casinos in general just aren't my thing.
Coney Wars. For you tourists, American and Lafayette are the two coney places non-Detroit residents talk about...take a cab up Woodward to Michigan Avenue to Griswold south to Lafayette. Or head over to Mexicantown - via cab ride due to distance - and go to Duly's for your coney. Or breakfast, for that matter. Bring cash to any of these places; I think American is the one that takes plastic, but Duly's for sure is a cash business. Mexicantown also has some good - you guessed it - mexican restaurants if that's what you're in the mood for. Xochimilco is probably the best known in the area, but I hear there are other restaurants that are as good if not better.
Back to the downtown area...
The good news is that outside of the basement of the RenCen, you're not going to see too many fast food restaurants or national chains. The bad news is that means someone who is unfamiliar with the area may not easily know what the options are. There's a lot, too many for me to have visited. I have a major soft spot for Cliff Bell's, a restored 1930's jazz joint...kinda pricy if you eat and drink there, but cover is usually around 10 bucks and the music...
Bars. There's Dive Bars; you can featherbowl at the Cadieux Cafe or hear a band a PJ's Lager House or the Northern Lights Lounge or the Bronx. I'm a fan of The Majestic, what with the old Garden Bowl next door.. Get your groove on at Skybar or Delux or the harder-edged City Club. You can even find salsa dancing on the weekends at Vincente's if that's your thing. The Old Shillelagh is now the pre- and post-game place to go, but pretty much any bar with a television and a game on is considered a 'sports bar' here.
Normally, there's something going on at one of the classic theatres here, but given that it's summer, the schedule is a little light at the moment. Still, theatres like the Fischer, the Fox, or the Gem - among others - are great reminders of what Detroit looked like in its heyday. The city is not once it once was, but it's still alive in a lot of the small ways that are important.
Feel free to ask questions down in comments, and I'll try my best to answer them.
.........footnotes, comments, etc..........
0Link is to a map of the People Mover route.
1Personally, a commuter train linking downtown to the suburbs would be great for reasons ranging from economic stimulation, infrastructure improvements, easing congestion for commuters, and more.
2 Across from the DIA is the Detroit Historical Museum. Haven't been there, but I heard they have the original Cybotron synth.
4No movies showing there this weekend, sorry. The Princess Bride is showing on the next weekend...also, the Redford Theater website should win an award for the worst website design ever. Gives me a migraine to look at it.
3:31 PM PT: *Update*
MI Sooner in comments: "Do not be tempted to take the M-14 to I-96 route, stay on I-94. there is an 8 miles section of I-96 between I-275 and Telegraph that does not exist right now."
Exactly right, and I found that out the hard way a few weekends ago...