Traveling to the gem of the Detroit River, Belle Isle, situated in northeast Detroit, is a short hour drive from Ann Arbor and can be easily made into a full day trip when coupled with outings around the island.
Where to go
Lovers of architecture and aquatic life will both be entranced by a trip to the Belle Isle Aquarium (belleisleconservancy.org/belle-isle-aquarium). Designed by Alfred Kahn, the architect behind Hill Auditorium, the Burton Memorial Tower and Detroit’s Fisher Building, the aquarium is the oldest in the United States. You’ll ooh and aah over the vaulted ceiling of gleaming green tile as well as the interesting displays of fresh and saltwater creatures from around the world. Don’t miss the tiny but tempting gift shop full of items made in Detroit.
Go for a stroll in the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (belleisleconservancy.org/anna-scripps-whitcomb-conservatory), the oldest continuously running conservatory in the country; soak in the warmth and light as you make your way through the Palm House, Tropical House, Cactus House, Show House, and a sunken Fernery.
If you still have time, check out the Dossin Great Lakes Museum (belleisleconservancy.org/belle-isle-park-attractions) or the Belle Isle Nature Center (belleislenaturecenter.org/) where a fallow deer enclosure houses animals descended from an original herd established on the island in the late 1800s. If you are on Belle Isle between June 8 and Labor Day, you must make a stop at the fantastically fun giant slide. Each ride will set you back a single dollar.
Where to eat in Detroit
Detroit is a foodie’s paradise, so hit up your favorite Motown restaurant while you’re in town. We always trek across the city to Corktown and stop by Slows Bar BQ (slowsbarbq.com) for a cold glass of their sweet peach tea, a heap of smoked brisket, and their creamy mac and cheese; if you’re in a hurry, the kids and I have used Slows To Go in the Cass Corridor, which has limited seating. While a bit trendier, Gold Cash Gold (goldcashgolddetroit.com/) located next door to Slows has a clever farm-to-table menu that’s simple enough to enjoy with littles, and the pickle-fried chicken was a huge hit with bigs. Another fun spot that will please all palates is Green Dot Stables (greendotstables.com/) where the tasty and inventive sliders are the perfect size for little hands.
Check to see what days and times attractions on Belle Isle are open before planning your trip. For instance, the conservatory is open Wednesday through Sunday, while the aquarium is open Friday through Sunday. Follow the Belle Isle Conservancy on Facebook to get the scoop on frequent events ranging from holiday lights in December to the annual spring koi release into the outdoor pond.
Entrance and parking is free at all attractions on Belle Isle, but a State of Michigan Recreation Passport is needed to physically drive onto the island. If you didn’t purchase your pass with your vehicle registration, you may buy the $11 pass at the entry booth or at the White House Administration Building. The passport is good for the duration of your vehicle’s registration and includes entrance to all Michigan State Parks.