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Spending a Christmassy weekend in Detroit

Spending a Christmassy weekend in Detroit

Christmas at downtown Detroit’s landmark Campus Martius Park. | Dennis Lennox

Detroit is one of those great American cities.

It’s also a city that has in recent years captivated national attention, particularly after its 2013 city hall bankruptcy. All that seemed behind when I visited last weekend for the annual Christmas tree lighting in downtown’s Campus Martius Park.

Detroit was abuzz.

Admittedly, that is an unusual thing to say about a major city, but anyone who knows anything about Detroit knows downtown used to be a ghost town after 5 o’clock or when a professional sports game wasn’t played. Those days are gone.

People were everywhere around Campus Martius, thanks to a nearly full-size skating rink and outdoor Christmas market. Then there was the tree lighting, which included musical acts — if I’m being honest the Roman Catholic archdiocesan choir was overshadowed — and performances by Olympic figure skaters. It was truly the perfect start to the holidays.

With so many seasonal festivities downtown Detroit is an ideal weekend getaway this Christmastime.

What to see and do

Make Campus Martius Park with its ornate postbellum monument to Michigan soldiers and sailors killed in the Civil War home base.

You know lots of people are visiting when the naming rights to the skating rink were acquired not by a big business but by a rival tourist destination. In this case, it was small-town Frankenmuth, a hokey, pseudo-Bavarian town about 2 hours north of Detroit that also happens to be one of Michigan’s most visited places.

The Frankenmuth Rink is open weather permitting through March . Tickets cost  $10 for adults and $8 for senior citizens and children under 12. A pair of rental skates will cost an extra $5.

Across the street at Cadillac Square, which runs a couple of blocks toward the palatial beaux-arts building that was once the county courthouse, are nearly two dozen vendors selling numerous wares. Each vendor’s walk-in, glass-paneled chalet was seemingly made for Instagram as they make a perfect photo opportunity. There is also a seasonal lodge with alcoholic drinks for adults, though it lacked the mulled wine or hot cider typically found in these places.

No visit to Detroit is complete without a stop at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has to be the country’s most overlooked big-city art museum. An art enthusiast could easily spend the better part of a day exploring the countless galleries. Tickets are free for residents of the three surrounding counties. Everyone else pays between $6 and $14. Just be aware that visiting hours are somewhat limited outside of Fridays, when the museum is open until 10 p.m.

Other things to do include John K. King Books, known for having a million books on the shelves of its two locations, and next weekend’s annual Noel Night.

Where to stay and eat

One of Detroit’s newest hotels, the Shinola Hotel, is also one of the best places to stay downtown. The boutique hotel from Shinola, best known for its high-end leather goods, watches and bicycles, opened earlier this year a couple blocks up Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius.

Another option is the Westin Book Cadillac, which is also within walking distance. However, I experienced significant issues that included a dirty room and the property trying to cheat its way out of delivering benefits guaranteed to frequent customers by Marriott’s loyalty program. The best alternatives are Element Detroit at the Metropolitan, another Marriott brand, and The Trumbull & Porter, part of Choice’s Ascend Hotel Collection.

Detroit’s food scene is incredibly vibrant with something for everyone.

The restaurant Parc at Campus Martius is the obvious choice if you’re spending the day downtown. Prices are upscale, but that is to be expected with its location.

For something different try Lady of the House, about 10 minutes away in  Corktown, a stereotypical Rust Belt old working-class neighborhood. Chef Kate Williams calls the menu modern American. Alternatively, Townhouse Detroit is a tried-and-true option, especially for post-church Sunday brunch.

How to get there

You will need a rental car, which I suppose is fitting given that Detroit is the Motor City. Renting one is easy enough after flying into Detroit Metro Airport, one of Delta’s major hubs. It’s also serviced by the other big domestic airlines as well as low-cost carriers Spirit and Southwest.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.


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