Detroit skyline

A road trip to Detroit

Detroit might not seem like a place to visit, and clearly the US’s Homeland Security thought so too (but more on that later).

We departed our B&B at Point Pelee and drove one hour north-west to the city of Windsor. This Windsor is clearly very different to the original Windsor in England. For starters, there isn’t a castle and a queen. Instead there are casinos and gamblers.

However there is one similarity. Whereas Windsor, England sits on the River Thames and next door to a big city – London, Windsor in Canada also sits on a river and next door to a big city – Detroit.

We parked up for free on the Windsor waterfront and went for a short stroll along the Detroit River’s edge, taking in views of the Detroit skyline on the opposite side of the river.

Detroit skyline
The Detroit skyline viewed from Windsor.  General Motors’ Renaissance Center is the complex of skyscrapers to the right.

Up to that point we’d been to 8 US states (New Jersey, New York, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, California, Washington and Massachusetts), and the temptation of visiting number 9, was too great. So we found our way onto the Ambassador Bridge and crossed into Michigan.

We made a video of our road trip, which you either view below, or on YouTube!


Crossing the border was where the fun started though. Arriving at border control we got into a lane. Each lane is watched over by at least 6 cameras. I guess if you were up to anything dodgy, this would certainly put you on edge!

We pulled up to the booth where questioning started on why we wanted to enter the US. Our answer – we just wanted to visit Detroit. They found this – two Brits coming into Detroit by car from Canada – very strange. But perhaps that’s understandable. Detroit was once one of the US’s largest cities, and a hub of industry. This was the world’s car manufacturing capital (hence its nicknames, Motor City and Motown), and major car manufacturers Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and Dodge are still based in the Detroit urban area.

Detroit skyscrapers
Closer inspection of Detroit’s skyscrapers reveals some interesting architecture

However, the city has experienced major economic decline since its heyday. Whereas most places around the world seem to be experiencing population growth, the opposite has happened in Detroit. Between 2000 and 2010 the city’s population declined by 25%. In its wake are reminders of a more glorious past such as the imposing Michigan Central Station, as well as thousands of the ‘landmark’ abandoned homes which have been left behind as relics of a once booming city. In fact, the city is in such dire straits, that in 2013 it filed as bankrupt.

So yes, two Brits visiting Detroit for the day is a bit weird, but this decaying city has something of an attraction. We joined some others in pulling over for our cars to be inspected. We had to leave everything (including mobile phones and car keys) apart from our ID, in the car, and head inside. We joined others there, where we were questioned as to why we were visiting the US.

We had a new agent now, but again they also seemed to think that visiting Detroit for less than a day was a bit weird and very suspicious. We completed an I-94 form which would grant us passage to the US by land. We learnt an important lesson at this point for anyone going to the US on a day trip: make sure you have an address (any address in the US even!) of where you are going! As we weren’t staying anywhere – this was a day trip – we had left this blank. But the agent questioned us where we were going – “Detroit” we said. “But where?”. “Downtown Detroit. We’re just going to have a look around, get some lunch” we replied. “But you must be going somewhere?”. Our standoff was eventually resolved by the agent ‘Googling’ the address of General Motor’s Renaissance Center and us listing that as our destination.

Finally free we returned to our searched car, and found that our two innocent oranges that had been on the back seat were confiscated. This was ironic, as their sticker said that they came from, you’ve got it, the USA. Fortunately the apple and our Easter Mini Eggs remained unscathed (those who know Emma can imagine how palpable her relief was over the Mini Eggs).

Downtown Detroit sights
Downtown Detroit sights, including Comerica Park (top right) and Fox Theatre (bottom right).

Having been held up at breakfast by our talkative B&B hosts and at the border for far longer than we expected, our visit to Detroit was now going to have to be quick. We drove into downtown, and despite the fact that a Detroit Red Wings ice hockey game looked like it was going to take place, the city centre was eerily quiet. Result of economic downtown and depopulation, or just that it was Easter Sunday, we’ll never know. It did make driving easy though! Appropriately, given that we were in Motown, we drove around downtown, and perhaps symbolically given the economic downturn here, in our Japanese, and not Detroit, manufactured car. We even drove right past the front door of GM’s Renaissance Center, which was a relief in case we were being tracked 😉 (perhaps Edward Snowden can let us know if this was the case)!

We weren’t able to stop anywhere for long given exorbitant parking rates (got to pay your way out of bankruptcy some way after all), and unfortunately just missed out on driving down this road and seeing some of the abandoned houses and streets for which Detroit is infamous for (although for safety’s sake, maybe we were fortunate?).

With time in mind, we made our way to the tunnel back to Canada (you can take either the tunnel or bridge between the two countries). Upon arrival at Canadian border control, we experienced none of the issues that we had in the opposite direction, and sailed on through. After a quick visit to the shores of Lake St Clair, we returned home to Toronto.

So was Detroit worth it? We can’t see when else we’ll go there or to Michigan, so in that sense it was worth it. It was also interesting seeing a city that was so quiet and had clearly seen better days. We would have liked a bit more time there though, and the experience of getting in to the US wasn’t much fun and makes you feel far from a welcome visitor. We don’t realise sometimes just how easy we’ve got it in the EU.

Brown Bear’s top tips and advice on crossing the border from Windsor to Detroit for fellow Brits

  1. If driving across the border, decide whether you want to take the more scenic Ambassador Bridge option (costs $5 USD), or the Detroit Windsor Tunnel (costs $4.75 USD/CAD). Other than a 25c saving, the tunnel’s other advantage is that both ends are located in the respective cities’ downtowns.
  2. You cannot walk across Ambassador Bridge!
  3. You can travel by bus.
  4. If driving a hire car, remember to check with you hire car company that you can cross the border, and make sure that you have all your car hire documents and driving license with you.
  5. Have your passport, obviously.
  6. Be prepared to complete an I-94 card at the border, and in particular, an address of where you are going!
  7. Be patient and cooperative at the border.  The process can unfortunately take a while.
  8. Don’t carry any citrus fruits with you, even if they were grown in the US…



2 thoughts on “A road trip to Detroit

  1. Stewart, you had me giggling reading this post and I love your sense of curiosity. Your day trip sounds like something my Gordon would want to do–why not detour to Detroit and Michigan when you are so close, just for a visit? – Ginette


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