Ann Arbor and Detroit may be close enough together to share an atmosphere, but they rarely seem to mix. Each city offers enough queer community to overflow into the other, yet somehow, a 45-minute drive or train ride between them can seem like a journey to a foreign (yet familiar) land. Whether your journey starts in Detroit or Ann Arbor, you’ll soon find the 45-minute trip was well worth the trouble.
Though it is a large, diverse American city, Detroit is often overlooked as a travel destination, even by nearby Michiganders. In fact, the city is alive with inviting entertainment and cultural resources in every direction, from legacy arts institutions to prominent (if ailing) sports teams, stadium-sized concerts and a plethora of Michigan-owned small businesses.
Ann Arbor, too, offers an exhaustive list of activities and amenities poised to lure Detroiters to the land of blue and maize. The city is a well-heeled, walkable college town featuring a robust food scene, immediate access to natural spaces, cultural resources and a progressive, queer-friendly bent.
Despite all the noteworthy features of both places, the two queer-friendly cities can feel isolated from one another: an issue that may come down to taste. Each city — and each city’s LGBTQ+ people — have plenty to offer. It’s just a matter of mingling the two populations more often in the welcoming, uniquely Michigan spaces to be found in both locales.
After all, there’s too much good in both these places for a 45-minute drive to seem too far.
For Ann Arborites visiting Detroit:
– Days and nights out –
Detroit’s lost many of its gay bars over the last few years, with spaces like the Woodward and Briggs lost to culprits like fires and redevelopment. But aside from its far-flung standbys (such as Menjo’s, Gigi’s and the Hayloft Saloon), Detroit has a healthy ecosystem of queer-friendly drinking spots within a few miles of its downtown core.
For wine drinkers, there’s the Royce right in Detroit’s downtown: an intimate queer-owned space with ample atmosphere and a monthly LGBTQ+ wine party on top. Not too far away in Corktown, there’s also Motor City Wine, which offers live music, a sprawling patio and shareable bites at a modest price alongside a hefty selection of wines.
But Detroit’s also host to plenty of breweries and well-curated beer spots. There’s the ever-popular Batch Brewing in Corktown, which features a rotating stable of food pop-ups alongside its beers, as well as Eastern Market Brewing Co, which offers a convivial indoor-outdoor space surrounded by shops and restaurants. Just across Gratiot is Collect, a personal favorite nestled between shops that opens up first to an impeccably kept interior with a rotating array of drafts, bottles and cans as well as deeply knowledgeable, helpful staff. They offer a wine selection, too, and permit outside food. But go on higher and the space opens to a never–too-crowded rooftop patio with fantastic views of the market, city, and Lafayette Park nearby. Not far from Collect is Faisan Brewing (another favorite): a relaxed and spacious spot on a calm street that specializes in Belgian brews — a welcome thing in the Midwest — but that does all sorts of beers well.
For cocktails lovers, it’s easy to recommend Standby, an intimate, dimly-lit bar in the always popular Shinola Annex. Offering a menu of original drinks with brief, smart descriptions and even their glass shapes, it’s a specialized space at what always seems a fair price. Further north in Milwaukee Junction is Kiesling, which offers an inviting interior and a small back patio. For drinks of any stripe and dinner, too, Corktown’s Supergeil offers great indoor-outdoor spaces alongside house-made drinks and shareable plates.
– A local market day –
One of Detroit’s great treasures is Eastern Market, as valuable for its produce (depending on the vendor it might be store-bought), crafts or flowers as it is for bringing together Metro Detroiters from every possible walk of life. But if you’re making a morning of this, you’ll probably want coffee options — and it’s hard to do better than the offerings at stylish and open-concept Anthology nearby. Trinosophes, which boasts a gallery, an impressive book selection, and an eclectic, sating menu is a short walk from the market, too. That said, Madcap — on the northern edge of downtown — provides a refined sort of coffee experience that’s comfortably on the same tier.
For pastries and caffeinated drinks, there’s Midtown’s Warda Patisserie; once quartered in the Trinosophes space, the James Beard-winning shop that incorporates Algerian, French and Asian influences into dazzling cakes and desserts. But venture further on the East side for coffee and bites, and Sister Pie and Rose’s Fine Food and Wines each provide great food in intimate settings — and neither’s too far from Detroit’s best parks. Be warned, though: Sister Pie often sells out its most popular items, especially on the weekends.
– Getting outside –
Though less known for its parks than Ann Arbor, Detroit boasts a terrific one in Belle Isle, which now operates as a state park. Featuring beaches that have played host to any number of queer events, it’s perfect for kayaking, too, whether in the open river or snaking through its labyrinth of narrow waterways. And for indoor activities (great in winter) it offers a conservatory, a historic aquarium and even the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, focused heavily on boating history in the region.
Cyclists will find the park rich enough, but it’s not far, either, from the Dequindre Cut, an uncommonly car-free bike and walking trail that cuts north from the river downtown. With its flat layout, wide streets and diminished population numbers making for less cars than there might be, Detroit is a great cycling city, even in spite of its patchy roads.
But winter often hits Michigan hard, so it’s good to have some active indoor options. While I can’t claim expertise on most gyms, the city has its own climbing spot in Eastern Market’s DYNO, well-located for plenty you can do after you power up those rock walls. There’s skating, too, in Detroit’s downtown — as well as the Velodrome, a singular indoor bike rink that lets cyclists practice at wild, uninterrupted speeds in a constant loop. Funnily enough, there’s a bar in the middle of the action. For anyone looking to break a sweat without moving too much, Detroit’s North End also has the Schvitz, a historic bathhouse with a revolving dining menu, steam rooms and cold pools. Unofficially, there is an LGBTQ+ meetup that takes place at the Schvitz monthly.
– Arts and culture –
Detroit’s not the size it used to be, but it still plays host to a healthy array of museums, live music venues, and arts institutions. While most visitors will know the DIA, less have probably visited MOCAD, the city’s contemporary art museum just a bit south on Woodward. Quartered at the DIA, too, is the Detroit Film Theatre, which shows an evolving, thoughtful spread of revival and new releases in what feels like a movie palace. Like in opulence but increasingly contemporary, Detroit Opera offers a range of visiting and home-made productions, too, all shepherded by its openly queer artistic director, Yuval Sharon.
For institutions more “neighborhood” than they are legacy, there’s Islandview’s very queer-friendly Spotlite, which features a range of music, spaces, records, and drinks — and always has a different energy in every room. Likewise inviting is Marble Bar, which offers indoor and outdoor space to dance and catch a range of shows, and UFO Factory, which provides funky drinks, hot dogs, as well as the “Cloud Deck,” a rooftop space that’s gorgeous on a sunny day. Splitting the difference between as a local institution is the landmark John King Books, an old five-story glove factory that’s long acted as the area’s best bookstore to lose an afternoon in.
Though it’s a different flavor, some may like checking out Detroit City Football Club (technically in Hamtramck), which attracts packed crowds at Keyworth Stadium for both men’s and women’s games. Whether there to sample the food trucks, drink heartily, chant or ogle the players (as I’ve seen more than a few friends do), the games always provide the kind of anchoring event you could easily build a day around.
For Detroiters visiting Ann Arbor:
– Days and nights out –
Though certainly influenced by the university, Ann Arbor has its own distinct nightlife: one defined in large part by its concentration around a walkable commercial district downtown. Since COVID-19, many of these spaces have taken over the streets and sidewalks, contributing to a walking culture that’s hard to find in Detroit outside of festivals, Shinola Annex or Eastern Market.
One key example of this is downtown’s Grizzly Peak, which offers a traditional bar menu alongside their spread of American beers. If you’re comfortable mingling with the local student population, the Grotto is a sprawling, typically bustling spot downtown that’s a fun space for people-watching. Bill’s Beer Garden offers a less traditional atmosphere; only open seasonally, they prioritize locally made craft beers. But perhaps the most distinct is HOMES, whose original brewpub is west of downtown. The brewery offers a range of (sometimes experimental) options that incorporate bright fruit profiles without sacrificing heft; new releases draw long lines, making each new can or draft feel like real events. For mead fans, there’s Bløm Meadworks, too, featuring local meads and ciders.
Wine drinkers will find no shortage of options, especially downtown. At SPENCER, a varied food menu meets a curated collection of small-batch wines and bottles. Indoor-outdoor Vinology features a comparable local emphasis, highlighting work done by wine producers nearby. A bit further west, YORK offers a plaza-style space with a modern interior, meshing great coffee and food trucks with its own broad spread of wine options.
For cocktails, Nightcap offers light spins on traditional offerings, deftly throwing wrenches (fruit, chocolate) into mainstay drinks you might be used to. The Last Word nearby offers beer, wine and cocktails with a vast menu of original offerings. For not just drinks but liquors that are locally made, Ann Arbor Distilling Company provides a more straightforward menu of unadorned, classic drinks that shows off their own handiwork.
– Getting outside —
There’s no shortage of hiking near Ann Arbor, but you can do well enough right in town — with an abundance of trails and rivers facilitating all sorts of pursuits. Perhaps most prominent is the University’s Nichols Arboretum, which features popular trails in a nicely wooded space devoted to conserving woods and prairies. A bit quieter and easy to get lost in is Bird Hills Nature Area, whose tangled webs of hills and trails could make for a good day of nature on its own. That’s true, too, of the boating options in Gallup Park, which offer both placid and quicker-paced canoe and kayak options.
Offering comparably varied topography is the Ann Arbor Bluffs Nature Area, which has an abundance of trails itself. For something more leisurely, Ann Arbor has the Matthei Botanical Gardens, too. And for anyone keen on indoor climbing year-round, the city has its own Planet Rock.
– A local market day –
The Ann Arbor Farmers Market is quartered in Kerrytown, a dense, downtown-adjacent neighborhood with a rich array of local businesses and terrific food and drink options. For one, it’s across the street from Zingerman’s: a famous, good (but pricey) deli that’s long been an area favorite. Credible sources have told me that better sandwiches can be found at Maize and Blue Delicatessen, though — a spot a bit deeper into downtown.
For coffee, Ann Arbor has Hyperion, an Ypsi-based roaster’s cafe, and (not in Kerrytown) York, an excellent spot mentioned for its wine and patio above. Additionally, there’s TeaHAUS, a charming tea shop with an impressive selection of leaves and gifts. A short walk away is the veg-friendly Lunch Room Bakery & Cafe, an outpost of the bygone Lunch Room (RIP). The same owners have the Detroit Street Filling Station, too, a relaxed lunch and dinner option close by.
– Arts and culture –
Ann Arbor has no storage of cultural treasures supported by both the university and the broader community. There are the big institutions — like the Michigan and State Theaters, which play all sorts of movies, hosting talks (like the Penny Stamps speaker series) and queer-inclusive festivals (Ann Arbor Film Fest, etc.), too, that would be hard to come by in Detroit. The Hill Auditorium, too, hosts events and has long been celebrated for its acoustics.
But there’s also more locally-grown musical fare. There’s the Ark, an intimate nonprofit venue that attracts great acts (many of whom are LGBTQ+) for a fair price, and the Blue Llama Jazz Club, a longtime local standby. And for anyone seeking more of a dance club vibe, Pride Fridays at Necto is still, after many years, a big draw.
For something quieter – maybe to go with one of the tea and coffee options floated here – Ann Arbor’s fortunate to have plenty of well-loved bookshops, many within walking distance of one another downtown. West Side Book Shop, Literati, Dawn Treader, and Mott & Bailey each provide their own flavor and curatorial style; for comics lovers, Vault of Midnight is there (as in Detroit), often offering discounted merchandise in its location downtown.
With this guide, the hope is that Ann Arbor and Detroit can cross-pollinate more and come to see the other as a viable travel destination (even a regular one). There’s too much good in both these places for 45 minutes to seem so far.