I love Detroit, Michigan. I’ve visited the city three times through my 9-5 work responsibilities and I’ve learned about the history and current experiences of the city. How? Free attractions. If the Motor City isn’t on your radar, these 6 free attractions in Detroit are sure to open your eyes to it’s unique story!
FREE ART ATTRACTIONS
MBAD AFRICAN BEAD MUSEUM
On the corner of Grand River and West Grand Blvds stands the MBAD African Bead Museum. Olayami Dabls devised a space for the community to understand the immense power of their African heritage. The installations utilize iron, rock, wood, and mirrors, as these items speak to cultures around the globe.
The description of the museum talks about the Civil Rights Movement. This era in American history is very emotionally charged because there is no fixed perspective. Instead there are the experiences of millions in relation to the fight for equal access to employment, housing, and education; the right to vote; and the fight to end racial discrimination. While walking through the installations, I notice how this sentiment was wove throughout the pieces. The mirror fragments speak to the multitude of perspectives. They reflect back images of myself and the community on one single site.
Don’t miss the opportunity to check out loose beads and jewelry that Dabls has collected from across the globe. The jewelry makes for a great souvenir from the D. The shop is open from 12-7pm. This is one of my favorite of free attractions in Detroit because it is so unique!
The Heidelberg Project began in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton. A mission to clean vacant lots transformed the street. The Heidelberg Project is a massive art environment which integrates streets, sidewalk, and tress into the installation. Soon after, found objects and abandoned houses were incorporated. The goal is to use artistic expression to enhance lives and improve the social and economic health of the community. The organization offers programs, festivals, and forums for residents to build a sense of self worth and pride.
This art installation is one of the most popular of the free attractions in Detroit. The Heidelberg Project is open to the public daily, rain or shine. Park on the south side of Heidelberg Street or on Ellery and Elba Streets. Heidelberg Project requests that visitors be respectful of the installation and the people who live in the community, by only walking on the sidewalks and open lots, refraining from walking up to porches and from touching the art.
Going downtown? Established in 2013 between Broadway and Library Street is an alleyway overflowing with multiple art installations. The Belt ensures that artists have a space to create and engaged with the public in Detroit. While I was there, a couple shot their engagement photos and a young girl was celebrating her quinceañera. There’s also options for dinning along the alleyway.
FREE RECREATION ATTRACTIONS
Looking for a place to see breathtaking views of the city skyline and shout across to Canada? Along the Detroit River is a 3.5 miles walking and bike path that links to other parks throughout the city. The RiverWalk is an ideal spot for a picnic or fishing. Allow your inner child to emerge when you cool off in the fountains or ride on the restored carrousel. You can also rent bikes, so if you didn’t bring yours on your visit to Detroit, fear not!
Best yet, you can find free parking to this attraction. Score a spot at Rivard Plaza (1340 Atwater Street).
BELLE ISLE PARK
Belle Isle became a Michigan State Park in 2014 and is a island in the Detroit River. There are so many different activities that you can take part in, including swimming along the beach. When we visited the park, we took in the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, in addition to the beach. The park, aquarium, and conservatory are all free attractions in Detroit!
The aquarium opened in 1904 and is the oldest in the country. It’s free (you can leave a donation) and open Friday – Sunday, 10:00am-4:00pm. It hosts fresh and salt water fish. A few of the tank spaces comprise of trash from a recent beach clean up. These tanks educate visitors on plastic pollution entering vital waterways every single day.
Something I found really interesting about both the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is that at one point the community came together to form fundraising groups to support and allowed the sites to remain open.
The conservatory also opened in 1904 and is the oldest continually-running in the country. Guests can visit the exotic and rare collection of plants from around the world Wednesday – Sunday, 10:00am-5:00pm. Fun fact: the palm trees must be cut down when they reach 85 feet tall as there is no way to expand the roof of the conservatory. One has already been cut down.
When I visited, we paid $9 for the day to bring our van onto the island. It’s free if you access the park by foot, bike, or public transit.
FREE HISTORY ATTRACTIONS
There are a number of attractions that speak to the history and culture of Detroit. The Eight Mile Wall, Detroit’s Wailing Wall, Berlin Wall, or Birwood Wall, is one of the free attractions in Detroit that will make you think deeply. The 6 foot high wall spans for a half mile (0.8km) in a northwest Detroit. The wall was constructed in 1941 as a physical racial barrier to separate white and black homeowners. Redlining, or the act of denying loans and financial services to black neighborhoods while granting them for white neighborhoods, took place in cities all over the United State when the Federal Housing Administration began in 1934. The wall stands as a harsh reminder of racial division, both past and present. Today, the severe concrete depicts scenes from the civil rights struggle and messages of unity in colorful murals.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to leave you with a few final thoughts. It is easy to peg Detroit, and other places, into a hole. It’s easy to stereotype. It’s easy to decide you never want to visit “there.” But what if you pushed beyond a closed mind? Travel and experiences should stretch you beyond your comfort zone; allow you to see things from a new perspective; and (hopefully) bring you to a place where you can empathize with those who may be different than yourself. If you are curious about a place, but find your mind in a cyclical battle, I encourage you to read. Learn more about the issues that plague communities across the world. Then connect the issues to your community. You’ll find that most places have a shared history and most people are more alike than different.