Throughout the decades Detroit has been called a lot of things, from “Paris of the Midwest” in the 1900s, to the Arsenal of Democracy (while pumping out military vehicles during World War II), the Motor City and Motown. Today, in the abbreviated language of the young professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and other “urban pioneers” who are pumping new energy into the city, Detroit is often referred to simply as “The D.”

It’s an unexpected destination for those with a sense of adventure and curiosity, a perfect combination that appeals to kids of all ages who’ll discover that there’s plenty of family-friendly fun from A to Z in “The D.”


Stroll under the spectacular dome of the Charles H. Wright Museum to the core exhibit that, in over 20 galleries, takes you on a moving journey from Africa to North America, from slavery to modern times.


The nearly 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River has been an urban retreat since the 1800s. Pack a picnic and watch the freighters and pleasure boats pass by. Learn about marine history at The Dossin Great Lakes Museum.


The tube steak covered in chili sauce, raw onions and mustard, nestled in a steamed bun, is only part of the reason Lafayette Coney Island and its cousin next door, American Coney Island, have been a Detroit tradition for nearly a century. The servers with attitude and eclectic crowds add to the experience.


Signage and activities throughout the museum’s 100 galleries invite kids to engage with the art. Don’t miss the Detroit Industry frescos created by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1932-33. Go on Friday evenings for live music and art activities; demonstrations and storytelling fill Family Sundays.


Saturdays mean great people watching and produce picking from more than 200 farmers and food producers at the historic marketplace surrounded by one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants. Pop into Rocky Peanut and let the kids fill a sack with candy. Grab a slice of Supino’s super thin crust pizza, relax to live music as you eat ribs and chicken right off the grill at Bert’s, or savor classic flavors at Roma Cafe, serving old school Italian dishes since 1890.


See how a vehicle comes together at the historic Ford Rouge plant, where the Ford F-150 trucks are built. The multi-sensory theater is a blast, and the view of the assembly plant from an elevated walkway is fascinating (see website for non-production dates and disclaimer).


Walk through Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory and the cycle shop where the Wright Brothers built their airplane. Take a ride in a Model T and play old-fashioned games on the Village Green. Henry Ford collected and moved authentic structures to this 80-acre site, located alongside the indoor Henry Ford Museum in his hometown of Dearborn, just west of Detroit.


The auto pioneer started this staggering collection to preserve and recognize American ingenuity. Under one roof you’ll find examples of products from clocks to farming equipment, airplanes and furniture — not to mention Buckminster Fuller’s aluminum Dymaxion House, an authentic Texaco service station, the “Rosa Parks Bus,” the Ford Theater chair in which President Lincoln was shot and “Driving America,” an interactive automotive exhibition and more.


The 70-footwide, five-story-high screen is just one of the attractions at the Michigan Science Center, which also has a planetarium, hands-on activities and live demonstrations.


Snap a selfie with the Spirit of Detroit, the 26-foottall, seated green man of patinaed bronze who sits outside of the Coleman A. Young municipal building in downtown Detroit.


Find a cafe table or a spot on the lawn for a concert, special event or just relaxing at Campus Martius, a 2-1/2 acre public park and gathering space in the heart of the city’s business district. Gardens, water features and sculptures fill what, in the 1780s, was a military drill training ground.


Take a free, hour-long  weekday tour of Renaissance Center, the office/retail/hotel complex on the Detroit Riverfront, and ride the glass elevator to the 72nd floor of the Detroit Marriott Hotel for incredible views.


Visit the home of the sound that burst on the scene in the ’60s and affected not only American music but its culture. You’ll see costumes, memorabilia and founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s residence. The original Studio A is as it was when Smokey, Stevie, the Supremes and so many others recorded at Hitsville U.S.A.


Cruise the Detroit River on a two-hour, narrated Diamond Jack’s River Tour. You’ll likely see huge freighters on the international waterway between the U.S. and Canada. The boat departs twice daily, Thursday through Sunday, from June to September.


If time is tight or you just want an introduction to the city, hop on one of the two-hour tours offered daily by Show Me Detroit. “We understand that Detroit our youngest guests need a more active look at the city and we can blend in a variety of fun (but quick) stops and activities to keep them engaged, allowing the adults to relax and take in the sites,” says co-founder Pat Haller. They even have kiddie car seats.


Mass transportation has never been a priority in the Motor City, where cars rule the roads. The exception is the Detroit People Mover, which circles the downtown district on an elevated, 2.9-mile track. Original art dresses up each of the 13 stations. it’s a fun ride for 75 cents.


Mini burgers of all kinds dominate the menu at Green Dot Stables, a spruced up tavern straight out of 1970 with a horse racing theme. Sure, there’s a Velveeta-topped cheeseburger, but in addition to the quinoa patty don’t miss the Korean slider with peanut butter and kimchi — sliders are $2 and $3 each. Wash them down with a mint julep or other adult beverage.


Detroit’s hardworking waterfront is being transformed from a tangle of factories, docks, railroad tracks and warehouses into a landscaped waterfront open to the public for non-motorized enjoyment of the Detroit River, the half-mile-wide international border shared with Windsor, Canada to the south. The completed portion has benches for watching the shipping and boating traffic, a carousel and fountains irresistible to kids who want to splash.


Take home a “Detroit Hustles Harder” t-shirt from Division Street Boutique, a Detroit-centric memento from City Bird or Detroit Mercantile Co., handcrafted watch or bicycle built by Shinola, a seatbelt purse from Pure Detroit or Arts & Crafts-style ceramics handcrafted at Pewabic Pottery since 1903.


Even if you’re not a fan of the Detroit baseball team, a game at Comerica Park is a fun outing with plenty of diversions like the tiger carousel, baseball Ferris wheel and batting cage. Kids like to have their pictures taken with the towering tiger on the plaza outside of the gates.


Examine the elaborate graffiti that lines the Dequindre Cut, a 1.35-mile recreational path that follows a former railroad line from the RiverWalk to Eastern Market. The 20-foot-wide paved route is open to pedestrians and bicycles.


Taste the local car culture in this vintage auto repair shop refitted as a restaurant. The brick walls, concrete floor and rafters are original to the 1919 structure, located on Woodward Avenue in the north Detroit suburb of Berkley (convenient to the Detroit Zoo). Rave-worthy mac and cheese tops the menu of burgers, noodle bowls and pizza from the coal-fired oven.


Rent bicycles and explore the city on two wheels. Venture out on your own, join a scheduled tour or have one designed to match your interests. Tandems, kids’ bikes, child seats, tag-a-longs and trailers available. Helmets and locks included.


This lively restaurant serves Tex-Mex favorites at family-friendly prices in Southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown. Find more authentic fare at Taqueria Nuestra Familia.


Sourdoughs, whole wheat, ryes, baguettes and ciabatta are among the favorite loaves at Avalon International Breads, and the cafe serves a seasonal menu of sandwiches and salads. Sweet treats include cookies, scones and vegan muffins and fruit bars.


Detroit’s 125-acre park is home to 265 species. Don’t miss the Arctic Ring of Life and its walk through a 70-foot-long clear tube under the polar bears and seals swimming in their 190,000-gallon saltwater tank (a transparent barrier keeps them apart). Located in Royal Oak, a couple of miles north of the Detroit city limits.

This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article. 

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Kath Usitalo is the author of three books, “Secret Upper Peninsula: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” “100 Things to Do in the Upper Peninsula Before You Die” and “100 Things to Do on Mackinac Island Before You Die.”