6 Stops for a One Tank Road Trip in Southeast Michigan

Travel along I-94 for a one-tank tour of Michigan cities: metropolitan Detroit, the university town of Ann Arbor and the charming small towns of Chelsea and Jackson, all highlights of Southeast Michigan.

The Spirit of Detroit sculpture in downtown Detroit
The Spirit of Detroit | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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 1. Detroit

There’s never been a more exciting time to visit Detroit, America’s Great Comeback City. Once you’ve parked your car, you won’t need to drive again thanks to the city’s new electric streetcar, the QLine. But you may want to spend some time walking, to sense the palpable energy in neighborhoods like Corktown, where innovative chefs prepare menus that source ingredients from the city’s urban gardens.


Millennials like to browse the retail shops of Midtown picking up trendy watches and leather goods at Shinola and vinyl at Third Man Records. There’s always a sporting event worth checking out in downtown Detroit. The newly-opened Little Caesar’s Arena hosts the Red Wings and the Pistons, while the Lions play at Ford Field and the Tigers at Comerica Park.


Within blocks of the arenas sits Detroit’s Cultural Center. Cultural touchstones like Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals fill the galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts, while the city’s shipping, manufacturing and musical heritage are on display at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Also nearby: the Michigan Science Center and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.


2. Ypsilanti 

Follow I-94 west to Ypsilanti. History comes to life in “Ypsi” thanks to several fascinating museums. Downtown, the Michigan Firehouse Museum displays vintage firetrucks and recounts the bravery of Michigan’s firefighters, all in an 1898 firehouse.


Automotive history takes center stage less than a mile away at the Automotive Heritage Museum & National Hudson Motor Car Company Museum, set in America’s only remaining pre-World War II Hudson dealership. And you can almost see Rosie Riveter—this was her home—working on World War II bombers at Willow Run, about 15 minutes’ drive east, part of the Yankee Air Museum.   


3. Ann Arbor 

Exterior of the Michigan Theater
Downtown Ann Arbor | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Follow I-94 west to Ann Arbor. Trendy shops and award-winning restaurants lie scattered across downtown Ann Arbor, from the bookshelves of Literati Bookstore to the original artworks at 117 Gallery and WSG Gallery. It’s hard to choose a bad restaurant in Ann Arbor, with a wide selection of wine bars and bistros, fine dining restaurants and craft breweries.


But it’s often the University of Michigan that draws travelers to this southeast Michigan city. Set within an easy walk of downtown, visitors can stroll the campus and check out the Museums of Art and Natural History or take in a game at the Big House, the largest football stadium in the U.S., and about 1 mile south of downtown. Each summer Ann Arbor celebrates the Ann Arbor Art Fair, with four separate fairs combined into one downtown.


4. Chelsea 

Poke around in downtown Chelsea, with a historical Main Street that just begs to be explored. Poke around the galleries, boutiques and restaurants (Common Grill is a favorite) before a performance at the Purple Rose Theater Company. Founded by actor and Chelsea native Jeff Daniels, the professional theatre specializes in original plays with strong Midwestern roots.


5. Jackson 

Take I-94 west to Jackson, which is quickly earning a reputation for its art scene. The Ella Sharp Museum displays vintage wildlife prints, sculptures and watercolors in permanent and changing exhibitions. The Armory Arts Village converts Michigan’s first state prison—formerly the world’s largest walled prison—into a complex of artists’ residences and studios.


6. Side Trip: Lansing 

Interior of the Michigan State Capitol dome
Michigan State Capitol | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Take US-127 north to Lansing. It’s worth a detour to see Michigan’s impressive capital city and its State Capitol Building. Completed in 1879, the domed white Capitol is adorned inside with nine acres of hand-painted surfaces. After a free tour it’s a short walk to the Michigan History Museum for an overview of the Great Lakes State, from its prehistoric Native Americans to Michigan’s automotive heyday.


Families spend warm-weather afternoons watching baseball with the Lansing Lugnuts, a Minor League team affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays; and among the hundreds of animals at Potter Park Zoo


A few miles east lies the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Favorite attractions include the Wharton Center, known for its spectacular performing arts; the steel and glass contemporary Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and sporting events at Spartan Stadium and the Breslin Center.