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Detroit's Greatest Hits: Architecture & Outdoor Sightseeing Opportunities

By David Stewart and Stephanie Swanberg


In addition to the many museums, libraries, and live music venues we highlighted in our previous blog posts, this issue of Detroit’s Greatest Hits features the architectural and outdoor sightseeing opportunities to explore while you're visiting the city!

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Image Credits: Left: Walk at Lunch Day, Flickr, under CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Right: Interior of the Belle Isle Aquarium by Maia C, Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


The Detroit Riverwalk & Belle Isle Park

Are you ready to experience the acclaimed #1 Riverwalk in the entire nation? USA Today has proclaimed the Detroit Riverwalk to be the best in the country for three years running! 

Both the Marriott at The Renaissance Center and Huntington Place sit along the Riverwalk so take a quick break between sessions or try one of the walking routes along the 3.5 miles of parks and greenways on the Detroit River. Whether you’re in the mood for a good evening stroll or want to watch the sun rise over the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada, the Riverwalk has you covered. If water isn’t your thing, there are a plethora of destinations along the Riverwalk that might catch your fancy instead. If you turn your head away from the water, you’ll see such landmarks as the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, featuring outdoor concerts year-round, the Cullen Plaza, featuring the famous Cullen Family Carousel, and the Riverwalk Garden Rooms.

If you follow the Riverwalk north, it ends at the bridge to Belle Isle, an island in the middle of the Detroit River and now a Michigan state park. Belle Isle has several iconic landmarks including the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, both designed by renowned architects George D. Mason and Albert Kahn. The Belle Isle Aquarium is famous for its green tile interior to evoke a sense of being underwater and is open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Though you can view the amazing architecture of the conservatory, it’s currently closed for renovations through 2024. Other sites on the island include the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Belle Isle Nature Center, and the James Scott Memorial Fountain.

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Image Credits: Top Left: The Spirit of Detroit, Flickr, under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Bottom Left: Joe Louis’ Fist - Detroit, MI, Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Right: Interior lobby of The Guardian Building, “Detroit December 2015 26 (Guardian Building)” by Michael Barera, Wikimedia Commons, under CC BY-SA 4.0 license.


The Spirit of Detroit

Head in the other direction from the Renaissance Center and you’ll come upon Detroit’s #1 social media post destination – The Spirit of Detroit. If you don’t get your photo taken in front of this landmark, how will people know you’ve been to Detroit! Commissioned in 1955, The Spirit of Detroit was originally cast in Oslo, Norway by Marshall Fredericks and shipped with great effort to Detroit, where it now stands tall and proud on Woodward Avenue at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. The statue’s left hand holds a gilt bronze sphere with the rays of God emanating from its curves, and the right hand is said to symbolize the relationships between all of humanity. The sculpture was originally unnamed, but leave it to the people of Detroit to dub something appropriately.


The Detroit Fist

Did we say that the Spirit of Detroit was the city’s #1 social media post magnet?  Right across the street is an arguably more prominent fixture in the city – The Fist. A monument to Joe Louis, Detroit’s native son and boxing heavyweight champion of the world from 1937-1949, The Fist will let people know that Detroit punched you and you survived. What better monument is there to the resilience of this city than The Fist? Commissioned in 1986 by Sports Illustrated from sculptor Robert Graham, The Fist is 8000 pounds, 24 feet high, and will leave you reeling. The Fist is said to represent the efforts of Joe Louis not just in the ring, but outside of it as he spent much of his life fighting for racial justice. Check out this list of things you might not have known about the Detroit Fist, courtesy of the GM Renaissance Center!


The Guardian Building

If you marvel at architectural wonders, just a block away from Huntington Place is The Guardian Building, an absolute must for viewing Art Deco style! The Guardian was designed by architect Wirt C. Rowland and incorporates many Native American cultural design elements. Though it is now primarily office spaces, you can venture through the main doors to view the lobby with its large glass mosaic ceiling and the original banking hall which features a spectacular wall mural by Michigan-born artist Ezra Winter. The building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

If you have time to venture farther out of the immediate conference area, check out these other architectural wonders around the city: Albert Kahn Building, Fisher Building, Michigan Central Station, and Grand Army of the Republic Building. There are also several walking tour companies that offer regular public tours; below are our recommendations:

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