On a getaway to the Motor City, we turned down our inner travel agent and tuned into the people right in front of us. The takeaway: Plan less, ask more questions and always talk to strangers.

Researching a trip to death is my M.O. I fall down the rabbit hole of Yelp reviews, then tunnel through obscure blogs and Instagram, landing on an exhaustive list of expectations. The can't-miss tour. A must-taste happy hour cocktail. 

Pressure to hit the right stops feels even stronger in Detroit, a town buzzing with all the hot "R" words: rebound, recovery, restored and revitalized. But for this trip, instead of combing every travel resource imaginable, I booked a rooftop cabin in Midtown, then left my itinerary mostly blank. Rather than ask my phone for ideas, I talked to servers, shop owners and history buffs. Stories about their Detroit sent me on exciting mini treasure hunts across the city. 

el moore detroit
Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

On my first day, breakfast at El Moore Lodge stretches over an hour. Located in Midtown, El Moore houses both locals and visitors (and spaces for them to interact). That's how I stumble into a long chat with Rosemary Sheppard. Rosemary used to live here and still books short stays.

"The real Detroit" is her favorite topic. "La Feria is great for Spanish tapas," she says. "Elias, the co-owner, just glows with a spiritual energy." I take her up on the reco, and find myself glowing, too, after a meal of fried eggplant and bacon-wrapped dates.

detroit institute of arts
Credit: Andrew Maguire

The next morning, I'm off to the Detroit Institute of Arts. You can't mistake the DIA for any other art museum. Near the lobby, sprawling frescoes by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera cover 27 panels in a skylighted gallery, depicting the rise of Detroit's auto industry. Works from Picasso, van Gogh and ancient civilizations fill 100-some other galleries.

When I meet a teacher from the College for Creative Studies in a Corktown park, she tells of a more humble institution down the street from the DIA. The Detroit Artists Market has promoted area makes since 1932 and includes a fine-art gallery of illustrations, paintings and sculptures. The attached store, Elements Gallery, sells jewelry, ceramics and other work­—and it fulfills my quest for a friend's birthday gift.

My human-fueled journey ends at Eastern Market. A swarm of ethnic samples and baked goods makes me anxious about choosing one last perfect meal. Then a beacon emerges in crude red-and-yellow paint: Bert's. Who told me about this spot? Someone had said it was their No. 1 pick for music and barbecue. Before I can remember, pork cuts on a charcoal grill demand my attention. And by the time I settle in on the patio, it doesn't matter where I got the tip. Even if it's just for a couple days, I almost feel like a local.

stevie wonder mural
Stevie Wonder mural by Richard Wilson, Music Hall Center for Performing Arts
| Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

What to Do

Small businesses like City Bird and Nest sell locally made gifts in Midtown. Look up when walking through the magnificent Art Deco Fisher Building, showcasing shops like The Peacock Room (for upscale apparel). Catch jazz, theater and dance shows at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts.

selden standard
Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

Where to Eat

Open for lunch and dinner, Jolly Pumpkin serves food as creative as their sour and oak-aged beers. Grey Ghost Detroit—named for a rum-running pirate on the Detroit River—crushes the cocktail scene with a tamarind Old-Fashioned and other concoctions. At Selden Standard, four-time James Beard Award semifinalist Andy Hollyday marries diverse ingredients, like striped bass with Sichuan vinaigrette.

Where to Stay

Once abandoned, downtown buildings now house boutique lodgings such as The Siren hotel. Element Detroit at the Metropolitan wows with its penthouse-level bar, The Monarch Club. Shop for stylish leather watches, handbags and journals at Shinola before checking into their chic hotel next door.