Motor City Holiday

Detroit may not top the list of traditional wintertime escapes, but don’t discount the “D” for cold weather fun. The city’s vibrant districts deliver a host of ways to make the most of winter days, heat up chilly nights and celebrate the season.
Campus Martius Park
Ice-skating in Downtown Detroit at Campus Martius Park. Photography by Bill Bowen


Start your exploration of Detroit in the city’s epicenter: A practically audible energy emanates from the city’s towering office buildings and bustling entertainment districts.

Out-of-towners can revel in luxury digs at the Westin Book Cadillac. This ornate skyscaper located in Downtown’s Washington Boulevard Historic District, originally opened in 1924, was renovated after a period of inactivity and re-opened in 2008. The sumptuous accommodations provide travelers with comfort and elegance, while two renowned restaurants provide ideal spots for post-excursion drinks and dinner.

The Fox Theatre
The Fox Theatre. Photography courtesy Olympia Entertainment

Visit 24 Grille for fresh and casual American cuisine, or for a more upscale experience, try Michael Symon’s Roast. As the name suggests, emphasis is on meat, but even vegetarians won’t want to miss the restaurant’s famed happy hour and unique cocktails concocted by the restaurant’s expert bartenders.

Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village
Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village. Photography courtesy Greenfield Village (left), Mike Boening/ (right)

Beyond the hotel, trek to Monroe Street to experience Detroit’s Greektown, a destination spot with festive outdoor lights, street artists and a plethora of enticing eateries. While pizza, BBQ and burgers can all be found, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t sample one of the Greek restaurants that give the area its name.

For authentic Greek fare in an inviting tavern-style atmosphere, try Santorini Estiatoro. The recently opened venue features classic Greek ingredients and dishes along with a few Americanized favorites. Start your meal with an order of saganaki, the flaming cheese that’s a signature Greektown favorite, and give a rousing shout of “opa” as the dish is set ablaze.

Santorini Estiatoro
Greektown’s Santorini Estiatoro. Photography by Bill Bowen

After dinner, visit the nearby entertainment district for world-class live theater and music. Cliff Bell’s is a jazz club with one foot in the past: While the original operated from 1935 through the ’50s, the current proprietors resurrected the historic bar so that modern-day revelers can experience world-class music in a gorgeous art deco atmosphere. Sip a classic cocktail or a signature craft creation while catching live local and national acts, seven nights a week.

Just a few blocks away sits Detroit’s grand dame, the Fox Theatre. Built as a 1920s’ movie palace, the Fox is renowned for its ornate interior and beautiful façade that lights up Woodward Avenue, the D’s main thoroughfare. Today the Fox plays host to big ticket performers from across the globe. This holiday season, check out the astonishing acrobatics of “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” or the Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker,” both playing in December.

Detroit’s oldest neighborhood boasts the newest ways to heat up cold weather days. New restaurants, taverns and more make this ’hood a spot no serious traveler can miss.

What not to miss: Located in the center of Downtown, Campus Martius Park is the hub for the city’s cold weather fun. The outdoor skating rink and the 60-foot-tall Norwegian Spruce add holiday cheer to the city’s skyline. Strap on a pair of skates for the full experience or stick to the sidelines with steaming cocoa.

Motor City Holiday collage
“Cirque Dreams Holidaze” at the Fox. Photography courtesy Olympia Entertainment (left). Michael Symon’s Roast. Photography courtesy Michael Symon’s Roast (right)

Either way, make time to peruse the holiday market, offered every weekend leading up to Christmas. Bustling with local and regional vendors, food trucks, two stages of music and a tented beer garden, it’s a picturesque big city spot to grab one-of-a kind holiday gifts and to get into the true yuletide spirit.


Downtown Rochester
Downtown Rochester. Photography courtesy

Detroit’s oldest neighborhood boasts the newest ways to heat up cold weather days. New restaurants, taverns and more make this ’hood a hot spot no serious traveler can miss — and you’ll barely need to step off the main cobblestoned drag, Michigan Avenue.

For unique accommodations, check out Honor & Folly, a small-scale, design-focused inn reminiscent of the way folks used to travel: a few beds above the village pub or restaurant with a hearty breakfast. Set right in one of Corktown’s most thriving blocks, Honor & Folly features (and sells) goods handmade by Detroit and regional artists and a fully-stocked kitchen that hosts cooking classes taught by local guest chefs and food artisans.

The inn is located above the world-famous Slow’s, but this BBQ joint is now only one of many places in Corktown the hip and worthy mingle. Try Mercury Bar for gourmet burgers and hot dogs served with “adults-only” milk shakes or Astro Coffee for artisanal brews, organic baked goods and authentic neighborhood insights.

Westin Brook Cadillac
Westin Brook Cadillac. Photography courtesy

If you’re not in the mood for burgers, the brand new Ottava Via offers mouth-watering Italian, both classic fare and more inventive dishes. While andcrafted pizzas will make you drool, meat lovers will be smitten with the venue’s signature dish — porchetta, a porkbelly wrapped around a porkloin. High ceilings, decorative antiques and distressed walls complement the bold flavors, providing a rustic Italian experience.

Following a hearty meal, those discerning about their cocktails have a choice of spots to sip more than just your average after-dinner drinks. Visit Motor City Wine for live music and tastings curated by in-the-know owners. Or visit Sugar House, the Corktown’s classic cocktail bar, where bartenders in crisp vests mix a traditional Old Fashioned with precision and craft cocktails with such eye for detail even ice cube type is a consideration. The upscale environment recalls pre-Prohibition-era bars, when drinking was serious business and bartending a higher calling.

Moscow Ballet
Moscow Ballet, Fox Theatre. Photography courtesy Olympia Entertainment

Part of the craft distillery movement sweeping the nation, Two James — a great last stop — is the first distillery to operate in Detroit since Prohibition. A handsome tasting room with large windows and polished dark wood provides irresistible allure, while spirits are made using high-quality, locally-sourced agriculture products; try the Old Cockney Gin or Grass Widow Bourbon for classic flair with distinctive flavors.

What not to miss: Detroit’s music legacy lives on in bars and clubs across Corktown, the heart and soul of Motown’s modern music scene, with bands rocking dive bars to acts recalling  the roots of this once predominantly Irish neighborhood.

For just such traditional sounds, visit the Gaelic League where Irish music and dancing in a charming atmosphere provide an untraditional night out. Nearby, PJ’s Lager House is ground zero for local indie and rock bands, as well as the tastiest and most inventive bar food. In North Corktown (as the locals call it), Nancy Whiskey is a hideaway haunt that offers everything Irish folk, blues and hardcore rock ’n’ roll.


Honor & Folly
Honor & Folly. Photography by Cybelle Codish

Perhaps Detroit’s most happening ’hood, Midtown offers a seemingly endless supply of things to do, see, eat and drink.  Spend your nights at the Inn on Ferry Street, a treasure trove in the East Ferry Avenue Historic District comprised of four Victorian homes and two carriage houses, former residences of wealthy 19th-century Detroiters where today’s travelers can savor modern amenities, too.

Start at the DIA, a city gem and national treasure thanks to a collection including world-renowned pieces.

Continue your tour of Detroit’s well-to-do past with a visit to the nearby Park Shelton. Built in 1926, the high-rise spent most of its life as a luxury hotel before being converted to apartments. Today, the ground floor houses some of the neighborhood’s most exciting eateries and shops. Fashionistas will revel in The Peacock Room, stocked with vintage-inspired cocktail dresses, hard-to-find pieces and array of jewelry, hats, gloves, purses and other accessories.

Wild Lights
Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo. Photography by Mark Gaskill

The real appeal in Midtown, however, is the neighborhood’s vibrant art scene. Start at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a city gem and national treasure thanks to a collection that includes world-renowned pieces such as Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals and Van Gogh’s self-portrait.

After taking in the big ticket items at the DIA, continue your art stroll by visiting the plethora of small galleries that dot Midtown. The storied Detroit Artists Market, the Butcher’s Daughter Art Gallery and Re:View Contemporary highlight cutting-edge local and national contemporary artists. The N’Namdi Center for the Contemporary Arts includes exhibition spaces, as well as indoor and outdoor performance areas that host a variety of lectures, events and performances.

The galleries of Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies also provide art lovers with a visual feast, featuring exhibitions of student works, artists’ lectures and more.

Detroit Institute of Arts
Detroit Institute of Arts. Photography courtesy Midtown Detroit Inc.

What not to miss: Midtown is at its finest at the annual Noel Night in December, a celebration of the best that the neighborhood has to offer. More than 70 venues including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the DIA and the Detroit Historical Museum host special events, from visits with Santa and other children’s activities to live music, outdoor art exhibits, live theater and dance.

Live ice carving, horse-drawn carriage rides and holiday shopping make Noel Night particularly festive, but the real heart-warming moment comes at the end of the night when the 50,000-some revelers that descend gather on Woodward Avenue for a city-wide sing-along led by the Salvation Army Band.

Detroit Institute of Arts collage
Detroit Institute of Arts. Photography by Jeff Garland (left), courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts (right)


Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village. Candlelit paths, horse-drawn wagon and Model T rides, fanciful shops, homes bedecked with Christmases of past, costumed carolers, Santa and his reindeer and other attractions make this a premier Metro Detroit celebration. Take a spin on the outdoor ice rink and warm your hands at one of many outdoor fires, too, during select dates in December (

Plymouth Ice Festival. Beyond intricate sculptures crafted by marquee ice carvers from across the U.S., this captivating January fest also features interactive sculptures, ice skating and live carving competitions (

Kwanzaa celebration
Kwanzaa celebration. Photography courtesy Charles H. Wright Museum

Wayne County Lightfest. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this spectacular attraction setting a four mile-plus stretch of metro-Detroit’s scenic Hines Drive aglow. Wind your way through more than 45 giant animated displays in December (

Kwanzaa at Charles H. Wright Museum. This 125,000-square-foot museum in the heart of Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center is the globe’s largest institution dedicated to the African American experience. Discover this rich culture between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 during Kwanzaa, a non-religious celebration reaffirming African heritage and more (

Fire & Ice Festival. Downtown Rochester rallies visitors for dog-sled races, figure skating exhibitions, ice sculpture displays and snow-shoeing; a beer tent, fireworks and other family fun also help shake winter doldrums (

Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo. For 24 nights, more than a million LED lights illuminate trees, buildings and animal sculptures as ice carving, choirs, bands, carolers, arts, crafts, storytelling and a holiday train display infuse festive fun; catch the “The Polar Express” in 4-D, too (

Fire & Ice Festival
Fire & Ice Festival, Downtown Rochester. Photography courtesy

Cars, Trees & Traditions. Throughout December, the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills is aglow with 23 decorated evergreens, each paired with a Chrysler vehicle and authentic ornamentation from the early 1900s through the 1980s (

Discover other seasonal events and more at


Intrepid urban explorers won’t run out of new discoveries while traipsing through Detroit on their own, but for a well-rounded view of the city, its history and its current resurgence, follow a leader.

Guardian Building
Guardian Building

D:HIVE DETROIT: This downtown storefront geared to Motor City newbies offers free tours and advice about where to live, stay and play. As D:Hive’s Detroit Experience Coordinator, Jon Chezick educates the public, too, through guided excursions.“I feel like it’s easy for people to assume that because it’s cold outside, there is nothing to do in Detroit,” he notes. “A great way to rectify this is to come on one of our tours.”

Top picks: February’s annual Winter Blast festival in Detroit’s Campus Martius and a visit to the Belle Isle Conservatory where, he says, “The warm, humid air and incredible exotic plants are always a good cure for the winter blues,” especially in December when it’s adorned with lights and poinsettias. (;;

PRESERVATION DETROIT: A nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Detroit’s historic places, Preservation Detroit also create awareness of Detroit’s vibrant past and its importance for Detroit’s dynamic future through guided tours. Tour Program Chairperson Marion Christiansen, creator of the nonprofit’s celebrated Bootlegging Tour on the Detroit River, recommends spending cold days soaking up the warmth of the D’s magnificent architecture.

Top picks: “The Fisher Building,” she says, “is an Art Deco treasure with its more than 40 types of marble, artisan-crafted interiors and beautiful mosaics.” While there, go to the lower level and see the tunnels connecting the building to the Albert Kahn building on Lothrup and the former GM building, now known as Cadillac Place.

Another must-see: Downtown’s “jaw-dropping” Guardian Building. “When the building was commissioned, the architect was given a blank check,” she notes. “There are two Tiffany clocks in the Lobby and Retail Promenade area that are simply stunning.” (;;

Noel Night
Noel Night, DIA. Photography courtesy Midtown Detroit Inc.

HOMETOWN HISTORY TOURS: Karin Risko is the woman juaggernaut behind this company, which showcases through varying tours how Detroit and the region have impacted the nation’s history. “Notorious 313,” “Incredible Journey to Midnight: Detroit Underground Railroad Tour” and “Glory, Valor and Sacrifice: Detroit Civil War Remembrance Tour” are just a few treks that reveal lesser-known, fascinating aspects of the city’s past.

Top picks: Risko says in winter, there’s no better event than Noel Night in Midtown (Dec. 7, 2013). Last year, the 40th anniversary celebration attracted more than 50,000 visitors to Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center-wide “open house,” where 75 venues including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Historical Museum and Michigan Science Center open their doors free of charge and over 100 area groups perform.

“All the cultural venues are open and sponsor exhibits and perfor-mances,” Risko notes. “Historic churches, boutiques and galleries are open. There are horse and carriage rides, too.” (;

To learn more about where to stay and what to experience in the Motor City this winter season and year-round, go to Megan O’Neil is a Metro Detroit-area freelance writer.

Facebook Comments