When I worked in downtown Detroit, I went to Toronto or Chicago to get an urban buzz. But no more. The Motor City, especially downtown and its nearby neighborhoods, is reborn. In 2023, 30 million people visited this bustling cityscape, where PCMA EduCon will take place June 23-26, right across from Canada on the Detroit River.

If you’re going to EduCon, what you should know is that even in its worst days, Detroit saw itself as somewhere special. There is its automotive history, of course, that made it known worldwide—what Silicon Valley is to tech, Detroit is to the car—but there’s also the Motown Sound, its fabled pro sports teams, and, most of all, the proud spirit of Detroiters. The ones who stayed the course, turned acres of abandoned city lots into urban farms and never gave up, and now are watching the city they love soar, Phoenix-like, from the ashes.

So, how can you make the best of your between-session hours while in town? Here are some suggestions from someone who can’t wait to go back.

What to See

GM Renaissance Center buildings in downtown Detroit
GM Renaissance Center

PCMA EduCon is based at Huntington Place on the riverfront, which used to be known as Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena (later Joe Louis Arena). Jimi Hendrix performed there. So did Kiss and The Doors. On June 23, 1963, two months before the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly told 25,000 people in Cobo Hall “I have a dream this afternoon,” and talked about making “the American Dream a reality.” In 1994, in a Cobo corridor, Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted with a club, an action masterminded by the husband of her closest rival for the U.S. figure skating championship, Tonya Harding.

You may be staying at Detroit Marriott in GM Renaissance Center, the most identifiable edifice of the Detroit skyline, with its seven connected skyscrapers overlooking the river. RenCen, as it’s called by locals. The main tower is 73 stories and has been the tallest building in Michigan since 1977. General Motors is headquartered in another tower—though the auto giant recently announced it will be moving in 2025 to a brand-new downtown development on the site of the former J.L. Hudson Department Store.

RenCen is fun to prowl around in, with its dozens of stores and services, some of the city’s hottest restaurants and a 1,100-seat cafe.

But venture just outside. There you’ll find Detroit International RiverWalk, which spans more than 3 miles to Belle Isle Bridge, leading to a beautifully renovated city park on an island. Along the way you’ll find fountains, nature areas and play areas for kids, as well as RiverWalk Cafe for refueling—not to mention nice views of Canada and Detroit.

Greektown is another downtown must. The compact entertainment district is home to bars, restaurants and casinos, and still retains its Greek personality from being settled by arrivals from Greece in the early 1900s. It’s opa! time as the saganaki is flamed tableside and the ouzu flows.

view from the seat in Comerica Park
Comerica Park

Also downtown, near the grand Fox Theater, is Comerica Park, home of MLB’s Detroit Tigers. They’ll be playing the red-hot Philadelphia Phillies while you’re in town. This neighborhood also boasts Ford Field, where NFL’s Detroit Lions play, and Little Caesars Arena, home to NHL’s Detroit Redwings.

Another iconic experience can be found near New Center, which is a few minutes north on Woodward Avenue, which, incidentally, had the first traffic light in the country. It’s Motown Museum, where you can take an hour-long guided tour through Hitsville U.S.A., the original headquarters and music recording studio for Motown Records. It’s now home to a treasure trove of company artifacts, photos, costumes and other memorabilia of that magic time when Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and so many more rose from the street corners of the city to international stardom.

Speaking of Diana Ross, she will join Jack White, Big Sean and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on June 6 to celebrate the reopening of Michigan Central Station in the Corktown neighborhood just outside of downtown. Ford Motor Company spent $950 million to meticulously restore the historic structure, which laid in ruins for decades. Ford plans to use the depot as the hub of a “mobility tech campus” that envisions 5,000 workers, from Ford technology teams to startups. Meantime, if you’re a fan of classic train station architecture, public tours run Fridays and Saturdays this summer.

Two hallmarks in the Midtown Cultural Center near Wayne State University are Detroit Institute of Arts, with its amazing Diego Rivera murals, plus one of the largest and most significant collections of art in the country; and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Finally, two more tips for when you’re in town. On Monday, June 24, from 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., join the regulars at City Glow Yoga in Campus Martius Park. Using three-channel LED headphones, you’ll be guided through this city-inspired yoga experience. It’s $5. On Tuesday, June 25, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Summer Markets at Cadillac Square brings artisans, entrepreneurs, and food and beverage vendors to tempt you.

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Where to Eat

American Coney Island entrance
American Coney Island

This part of Michigan is undeniably a pizza zone. Little Caesars was born in a Detroit suburb, and Domino’s Pizza began in Ypsilanti some 35 miles to the west. But there’s another pepperoni-studded game in town, and that’s what has become known the nation over as Detroit-style ‘za. In 1946, a restaurant called Buddy’s  began baking these unique pizzas with a robust sauce in a square steel pan. Instead of triangular slices, you get squares.

If you want to really get into it, there’s been raging debate for decades over where to find the best Detroit-style pizza. Many still say Buddy’s. Others mention Shields or Loui’s. The good news for downtown visitors is, Buddy’s has a branch there, in the Madison Building on Broadway. And they also deliver.

Speaking of rivalries, the other Detroit food staple sounds like it’s from Brooklyn. The Coney Island hotdog. What distinguishes it from ordinary dogs is its topping of all-meat chili, diced onion and yellow mustard. The two standard-bearers—Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island—are right next to each other on Lafayette Boulevard, and each has its diehard addicts.

Among the other 700-plus eateries in downtown, a sampling:

Caucus Club—timeless, clubby spot for cocktails and live music

Highlands Steakhouse—on the 72nd and 73rd floors of GM RenCen, to be seen and see for miles

Jacoby’s—German-style beer garden since 1904

Joe Muer’s—known for great seafood since 1939, this one’s in GM RenCen

Kamper’s Rooftop Lounge—Basque-style pintxos and cocktails atop the 14th floor of iconic Book Tower

London Chop House—classically elegant steakhouse with an English feel that dates to1938; Henry Ford II was a regular

Pegasus Taverna—it doesn’t get more Greektown than this family-owned landmark

Then there’s Downtown Street Eats, Michigan’s biggest daily food truck rally for lunchtimes in Cadillac Square.

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How to Get Around

Downtown Detroit is eminently walkable. Other options:

Detroit People Mover is an elevated train on a 13-stop route through the downtown business district, including GM RenCen and Greektown. Tickets cost 75 cents per ride.

The Q-Line streetcar covers a dozen stops along Woodward Avenue, connecting an array of Detroit destinations, activities and landmarks. It’s free.