America’s Comeback City, Detroit, Michigan, boasts an impressive array of free and affordable attractions. When planning your trip, sign up for the free Detroit D Pass, which gives you discounts on many of the Motor City’s most popular museums such as the Automotive Hall of Fame, the Motown Museum, and the Henry Ford Museum.
Find Affordable fun
While the city is well known for its automotive history, a lesser-known piece of history sits smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River. Belle Isle State Park was designed as an urban oasis for Detroit’s early city-dwellers by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, known for designing New York City’s Central Park.
Belle Isle is one of Michigan’s newer state parks, designated in 2014. This nearly 1,000-acre oasis features three lakes, a zoo, aquarium, conservatory, museum, six-hole golf course, driving range, fishing piers, lighted fountain, a half-mile of beachfront rentals including paddleboards, bikes, and kayaks. And it all comes with spectacular views of the Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, skylines.
There’s a nominal vehicle entrance fee. Otherwise, it’s free if you bike, walk, or bus across the McArthur Bridge. Once on the island, access to the museum, nature center, conservatory, and historic aquarium is free.
Dive under the sea
The Belle Isle Aquarium is a historic gem that dates back to 1904. The oldest aquarium in North America, it is small compared to more modern aquariums. But there is a definite charm in this Beaux-Arts style building, where an ornate carving of Neptune greets visitors from above the entryway. Inside, the original rare green Opalite glass-tiled arched ceiling evokes an under-the-sea feel.
The aquarium’s original, restored tanks hold fish from the Great Lakes and across America, as well as exotic specimens from Africa, the Amazon basin, and the great rivers of the world.
Stop and smell the orchids
At the giant glass-domed building next door to the aquarium, you’ll find the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a combination greenhouse and botanical garden. It’s home to five rooms of exotic tropical plants, including orchids, donated by the conservatory’s namesake. Towering palm trees reach skyward in the Palm House, under the conservatory’s 85-foot dome, and exotic lilies, ferns, and cacti are all labeled. For example, the Voodoo Lily/Corpse flower included the note, “Pardon my stink.”
After taking in the sights and smells inside, step outside to check out the perennial gardens, rose garden, flowerbeds full of tulips, and lily pond.
Commune with animals
At the Belle Isle Nature Center, visitors can see a variety of native fish, turtles, and reptiles; hand-feed the fallow deer; and observe honeybees in their hive. The center offers free field trips and educational programs for tots to adults, and themed events including Nature at Night, Bee Fest, and Boo at the Nature Center.
Traverse the Great Lakes
The vast and often dangerous Great Lakes have long been crossed by freighters and cargo ships facing fierce blizzards and monstrous waves. Looking more like inland oceans, these lakes have seen thousands of shipwrecks.
For a lesson in Detroit’s maritime history, visit the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Here, guests can “take the wheel” in the pilothouse of the SS William Clay Ford, see the first hydroplane racing boat to surpass 100 mph, and step into a fully-restored steamship smoking lounge. Standing sentinel outside the museum is the six-ton bow anchor of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. This is the mighty ship whose captain and crew perished in a 1975 disaster and were immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot’s classic song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The museum also showcases one of the largest collections of scale model ships that have traversed and met their demise in the Great Lakes.
Leave the light on
To take in some views, hike to the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, in a secluded spot on the island’s northeast end. No longer in use, the 58-foot tall art deco style lighthouse is the only marble lighthouse in the country. Named for the former president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, it is a fitting tribute for him and a signal that Detroit will always leave a light on for you. While you can’t go inside, this is a great spot to fish, kayak, or swim at the hidden beach, or just sit and watch the ships go by.
If you don’t get your fill of gorgeous lakeshore in Detroit, Chicago is only a short trip away!