Weekend Getaways: Discover Detroit's Unique Architectural Legacy

For architecture lovers, Detroit's downtown is a treasure trove for American skyscrapers. Fill your time with music, sports, history and more.

Ellen Creager
Guardian Building

A weekend getaway to Detroit can be filled with music, sports, fine dining and history. But for architecture lovers, the city’s downtown is a treasure trove of American skyscrapers. Take a tour or go on your own. This walkable downtown will have you gazing up, up and up.

Day 1

After flying to Detroit, rent a car (hey, this is the Motor City) and head downtown. Start your day by indulging in Coney dogs and chili fries at Lafayette Coney Island, a local icon. Then walk a few blocks to the Guardian Building. This art deco masterpiece is Detroit’s top architectural stop. Designed by local architect Wirt Rowland, it opened as the Union Trust “Cathedral of Finance” in 1929. The 40-story exterior is an unusual mélange of orange-tan brick, polychrome terra cotta and beige Mankato stone, an exotic promise to those who venture inside. There, the showstopping lobby curves overhead in a blaze of colored tiles in an Aztec pattern. A rare two-sided Tiffany clock with a sunburst design, nickel-sheathed Monel elevators and stairstep arched doorways make the Guardian Building as stunning today as it was when it was built.

Related:The Cult of the Detroit Coney Dog, Explained

Day 2

A wandering day. Have breakfast at Avalon Bakery on Woodward Avenue. Walk down the street and marvel at the fine condition of so many historic skyscrapers. One benefit of Detroit’s hard times in past decades is that while many buildings sat empty, nothing was torn down. Now, it’s a gold mine for restoration. Head toward the Detroit River, noting the elegant lines of the One Woodward building designed by Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1963. Cross Jefferson Avenue to the popular Detroit Riverwalk and stroll toward the city’s signature building, the black glass towers of the 1970s-era Renaissance Center, designed by John Portman.

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Detroiters have a love-hate relationship with the “Ren Cen.” While impressive outside, the inside always feels like a dark concrete maze, no matter how many renovations are done. See for yourself, then lunch at Joe Muer Seafood in Tower 400 with its fantastic river view—and yes, that is Windsor, Canada, across the water. In the afternoon, wander the splendid Riverwalk all the way to William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor.

Find more Weekend Getaways:12 Great Direct-Flight Vacation Destinations From Columbus

Day 3

It’s Albert Kahn day. Kahn was Detroit’s most beloved architect. Many call the 29-story Fisher Building his greatest achievement, but it is an acquired taste. No expense was spared for the 1928 art deco skyscraper, featuring an interior festooned with bronze, steel, silver, marble and murals. Interesting tidbit: It was the first American office building to have a parking garage. Pay a visit to the Pure Detroit souvenir store on the first floor, then if you’ve got extra time, tour the fantastic Motown Museum, birthplace of Motown Records, which is just down the street.

Details from the Fisher Building

In the afternoon, you have choices. Either visit Belle Isle, the island just east of downtown, to see the charming Kahn-designed Belle Isle Conservatory and its tiny aquarium, with its Beaux Arts shimmering green Opalite glass walls. Or drive east to Grosse Pointe Shores to tour the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, a Kahn-designed, Cotswold cottage-themed mansion on the shores of Lake St. Clair. Edsel was the only son of inventor Henry Ford and the father of Henry Ford II. Have lunch at the new Continental restaurant on the grounds that overlook peaceful Ford Cove.

Flights from Columbus to Detroit

Delta, four to five daily to Detroit Metropolitan Airport

Where to stay in Detroit

Architecture buffs can’t go wrong with the Shinola Hotel on Woodward Avenue or the Doubletree Suites Fort Shelby hotel on West Lafayette Boulevard. The Shinola’s restored main building, a former hardware and sporting goods store built in 1915, was designed by Wirt Rowland, while Fort Shelby was designed by Albert Kahn in 1927.

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.