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Detroit with Kids: Youthful Fun in the Motor City

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Detroit’s reputation has taken a plunge. Michigan’s most famous city is bordering on bankruptcy, ranks second nationally in both crime and obesity, and has witnessed its population drop to a relatively measly 700,000. Indeed, much of the city appears to be in complete ruins, a maze of bombed out buildings and abandoned businesses, covered in spray paint. Throw in the nearly 400 homicides that happened in Detroit last year, and you might be forced to ask yourself: Should I bring my children here? Here’s why I say YES, you should explore Detroit with kids!

Detroit with Kids: Youthful Fun in the Motor City

General Motors’ headquarters in downtown Detroit (Photo by AcrylicArtist – Creative Commons)

Why to say yes to Detroit with Kids

The national focus on Detroit’s failings has suppressed recognition of its gems, which are unquestionably world-class and extraordinary. Many of them are also wonderful for families and children. Because of Detroit’s girth, people tend to paint the whole city with a stained brush, not realizing that numerous pockets of glory remain in the city that brought us the modern automobile, the revolutionary music of Motown, and an intellectual and artistic culture that has rippled throughout the country.

Having lived just outside the city for over three decades, I’m lucky to have a close familiarity with the Detroit attractions worthy of every family’s attention. Let’s explore six fun places to visit in Detroit with kids.

Detroit with Kids - Detroit Industry Mural

Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural at Detroit Institute of Arts (Photo by Cactus Man – Wikipedia Fair Use)

Detroit Institute of Arts

The Mexican artist Diego Rivera, one of the most influential and prominent artists of the early 20th century, painted the stunning Detroit Industry mural between 1932 and 1933. As his canvas, he chose the four walls of a gorgeous, spacious court in the Detroit Institute of Arts. If we trust Rivera’s opinion, Detroit Industry is the greatest work he ever produced. An epic artistic rendering of mid-1900s industrial life, set within the thematically weighty context of birth, death, loss, and joy. One could examine the mural for days, but more treasures beckon from within the 685,000-square-foot museum, including works from Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Degas, Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollack, Lichtenstein, Warhol, and hundreds more. The museum is beyond friendly to children, encouraging them to visit by featuring “touchable” sculptures and an area for sensory exploration.

Detroit with Kids: Detroit Zoo

Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture at the Detroit Zoo (Photo by AcrylicArtist – Creative Commons)

Detroit Zoo

Detroit Zoo is not only a spectacular place to observe and learn about animals, but also every aspect has been designed with families and children in mind. Sprawled across 125 acres of land, amazingly wide sidewalks allow for multiple strollers to travel side-by-side, all while children inside or beside them can observe nature’s beasts. Over 3,000 animals reside at the zoo, and priority is on making animals feel as if they’re “in the wild.” One of the zoo’s most awesome and noteworthy exhibits is its Great Apes of Harambee. Designed and established under the guidance of renowned ape-lover Jane Goodall, the four-acre habitat is a primate’s paradise. While many other zoos still favor concrete enclosures with tire swings and rotten vegetables, the Great Apes of Harambee is all thick grass, tall trees, and a landscape that chimpanzees instinctively love. The Detroit Zoo joy doesn’t stop with the apes; the Artic Ring of Life—complete with an underwater tunnel where one can view polar bears and seals swimming above—is right nearby. The zoo is a family wonderland, primed for the child’s pump.

Detroit with Kids: Greenfield Village

Model-T cars at Greenfield Village (Photo by Gabe Miller)

Greenfield Village

In the city of Dearborn, a mere twenty minutes outside of Detroit, is the famous Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. Both of them are part of one massive indoor/outdoor complex, but utterly different from one another. Greenfield Village is a complete replica of a 19th century/early 20th century town, and from entrance to exit it’s all brick roads, horses, Model-T cars, and stores from America’s past. Its girth measuring 80 acres, the village includes detailed replicas of Thomas Edison’s laboratory and Noah Webster’s home. There are also train and carriage rides, games, and interactive activities especially for children.

Detroit with Kids: Henry Ford Museum

Exploring the world of automobiles at the Henry Ford Museum (Photo by Gabe Miller)

Henry Ford Museum

The Henry Ford Museum is but a stroll’s distance away from Greenfield Village, and it’s a champion of automotive preservation. Have a seat in the bus where Rosa Parks took her stand just by sitting, or ogle the reconstructed vehicle that provided John F. Kennedy’s final ride. Stocked with trains of impossible length, Bucky Fuller’s one and only Dymaxion house, and original relics from America’s 20th century cultural development—exploring the museum is a wondrous experience.

Detroit with Kids: Fox Theater

Detroit’s Theater (Photo by Mike Russell – Wikipedia Fair Use)

Fox Theater

Situated beside downtown is the resplendent Fox Theater. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Fox Theater offers over 5,000 seats within which to see a show. The design and acoustics of the massive theater are amazing to behold—it was the first site to install a speaker system for early movies with sound.

Detroit with Kids: Comerica Park

Taking in a game with my lovely wife at Comerica Park (Photo by Gabe Miller)

Comerica Park

Across the street from the Fox Theater lies Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers battle for supremacy each summer. Baseball enthusiast or not, Comerica Park is particularly fun for kids. The park offers consistent deals for children and contains several carnival rides inside its walls. There are fireworks following weekend games, right after which kids are given the opportunity to run the bases.

Although the city is no longer the titan of industry and culture it once was, nuggets of pure family bliss shine brightly from within the rubble, waiting to embrace and enrich the imaginations of children and their parents. For the sake of our children and ourselves, we must not let the glory of Detroit be outshone by its problems.

Would you explore Detroit with kids? Let us know why or why not in the comments!

About Gabe Miller, The Philosophical Travel Daddy

Long before Gabe Miller was a Travel Daddy, he was a Travel Son. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the early 1980s, he was exposed to the town’s intellectual, hippie aesthetic before becoming functionally bipedal. He had barely shed his lanugo by the time he began to travel, going on modest trips that were nonetheless profound. His wife is equally passionate about traveling, and together they’re sharing new adventures with their baby boy. From the day of their son’s birth, they’ve rejected the idea that having a child means staying indoors with the blinds drawn. They take him everywhere they go, and his smiles are proof that he’s perpetually prepared for adventure! Gabe and his family currently reside happily in the small rural town of Dundee, Michigan. Gabe has a B.A. in English and works as a middle school English teacher. Connect with Gabe on Twitter as @thetraveldaddy.

  1. Farrah Ritter, The Nomadic Travel Mama says

    I grew up outside of Detroit and have wonderful memories going downtown. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and lived and went to school there that I truly discovered what a wonderful place it can be. The Zoo is a must see whenever we go back with our kids (my husband lived down the street from it!) and the Copa is a wonderful place to see the Tigers. Love your post, gorgeous photos- makes me proud to be a Michigander at heart.

  2. You just scratched the surface of all the great places in Detroit!

  3. Great article! You touched on a few of my favorite places…so many memories.

  4. Gabe Miller, The Philosophical Travel Daddy says

    Farrah – Glad you enjoyed the post. I had no idea you were a native Metro Detroiter! That being the case, I’m sure you’re familiar with the cultural treasures Detroit holds. Cheers to ya.

    Katie – I agree completely. There are attractions in D-town that people from elsewhere might have heard of, and there are attractions in Detroit that have great personal meaning to me. The two often don’t overlap, so I focused on the former category. A post about every great place in Detroit could reach phone book length!

    Helen – Glad I could bring forth some good memories. Detroit is a great place to make ’em.

  5. I didn’t realize that there were so many great attractions for families in Detroit. I was a Tiger fan growing up though so I think my first stop would be the ball park!

  6. Detroit Fatty says

    Detroit isn’t the capital city of Michigan. Lansing is.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Detroit Fatty – Doh! You are so right. I think that’s my bad. As editor, I think I added that bit about Detroit being the capital city of Michigan. I have corrected my error. Thank you!

  7. Your story sure shows a different side of Detroit than what the media presents us with most of the time. Even the Detroit media. We get a Detroit TV station in our extended cable package out here on the west coast, and they certainly don’t paint a very rosy picture of your city. Nice to know that it’s still a great place to visit.

  8. Gabe Miller, The Philosophical Travel Daddy says

    Lisa – Comerica Park is great! I’m sure you’d love it.

    Steve – Coverage needs to be more balanced. Sure, media should discuss Detroit’s troubles, but they should acknowledge that parts of the city are stronger than ever.

  9. I lived in the Detroit area for 5 years and went to all the attractions you mentioned. While attending Wayne State University I frequently visited the Art Institute which was across the street, if I remember correctly. It was awesome.

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