By Greg Tasker
Forget what you think you know about Rust Belt cities.
In fact, Rust Belt—a pejorative term popularized in the ’80s—may soon no longer apply to places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, all on the upswing, with reinvigorated downtowns, new stadiums and other attractions, and burgeoning restaurant and craft brewery scenes.
What’s more, their urban cores are hot spots, drawing young, tech-savvy workers and helping transform these once-great industrial meccas into hip 21st century cities. Once dreary and forgotten, these cities are now fun places to visit and enticing places to take a tour group.
Downtown Detroit is emerging as an entertainment and sports mecca, home to venerable theatres and a brand-new sports venue: Little Caesars Arena. The Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons draw crowds, but so do Broadway productions, national touring acts and a smattering of new restaurants, bars and clubs. Explore the city’s past and present by joining a walking tour offered by Detroit Preservation (preservationdetroit.org/preservationdetroittours); the tours highlight architecture gems, culture and the city’s changing urban landscape.
Stroll along the miles-long refurbished riverfront and enjoy panoramic views of Canada, upward glimpses of the towering Renaissance Center, the global headquarters of automaker General Motors Co. and a reinvigorated east side, home to the city’s historic Eastern Market. Complimentary tours of the Ren Cen (GMRENCEN Tours, 313.568.5624), as the locals call it, are offered twice daily during the work week.
With the whole group, hop the city’s new transit, the QLine, and visit the esteemed Detroit Institute of Arts, best known for Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry frescoes and some 100 galleries of art. The Cultural Center boasts other notable museums, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.
Don’t leave without sampling Detroit-style pizza. The square pizza is similar to Sicilian-style pie with a thick, deep dish crust; the marinara sauce is served on top. Long popular in Detroit, the unusual pie is starting to pop up across the country. Locally, find it at Buddy’s Pizza.
Once the poster child of New York’s fading industrial past, Buffalo is on the upswing, with a redeveloped riverfront, new hotels, a growing craft beer and distillery scene, farm-to-table restaurants, and a recently refurbished Frank Lloyd Wright complex, the Martin House, which just opened after a $50 million renovation.
Not to be missed is one of the coolest new adventures in a once gritty area: a zip line, carved out of old silos along the Buffalo River. Believed to be the world’s first grain silo zip line, the course begins 110 feet above the ground, and four lines bounce between three silos. It’s all part of the outdoor and other fun to be found at the Buffalo Riverworks entertainment district. Buffalo Tours (716.852.3300) offers a variety of tours that encompass the city’s downtown architecture and riverfront.
Buffalo is also about food. Paying homage to that world-famous bar food, the Buffalo Wing Trail features more than a dozen bars and restaurants selling variations of wings. The trail includes the birthplace of this Buffalo-born dish—the Anchor Bar—to joints slathering the deep-fried delicacies in unique sauces. The Buffalo visitor’s bureau has even mapped out a chicken wing crawl on its Buffalo Wing Trail to make the lives of tour operators even easier: www.visitbuffaloniagara.com/crawls.
Oh, and there’s pizza. Buffalo is gaining some fame as the pizza capital of the country, serving up everything from New York style thin crust pies to deep dish Chicago pizza. But it’s also created its own unique pie, a hybrid of both with a focaccia-like crust and lots of cheese.
Speaking of zip lines, one of the newest Pittsburgh attractions is the zip line at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Opened this year, the zip line begins at the zoo’s highest point overlooking the Allegheny River and then coasts over endangered animals, including pygmy hippo, ocelots, fossa and giant anteaters.
For more river—and downtown—views, be sure to hop on one of the city’s famous inclines. A sure way to explore some of the city’s best-known landmarks is to join the Pittsburgh Art and Architecture Tour (412.471.5808, ext. 527), which also offers stops at the world-famous Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, Fallingwater (separate group tours are also offered, 724.329.8501) and the Andy Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory and the House on Kentuck Knob.
The Carnegie Science Center hosts a fun exhibit, “The Art of the Brick,” a collection of inspiring works made exclusively from LEGO. Artist Nathan Sawaya’s collection includes original pieces and re-imagined versions of masterpieces, including Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The exhibit runs through January 2019.
Pittsburgh also boasts some unique gastronomy. Have you have ever had a pierogi pizza? Yep, the pierogis serve as the crust and are topped with the usual pierogi fixings. This unusual concoction can be found all over the city.
This Lake Erie city is no longer the urban joke of the Midwest.
For good reason. Like Detroit, downtown Cleveland is home to sports arenas and an expanding streetscape of new restaurants, breweries, coffee shops and more. Two of the city’s foremost hotels, the Ritz-Carlton and the Cleveland Marriott Downtown, have undergone massive renovations and offer guests new amenities. Cleveland Walking Tours (216.318.3865) explores it all, beginning at the city’s Public Square.
Debate where rock history should be honored, but Cleveland is the city home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The glass-enclosed museum remains relevant with three new exhibits, including “Stay Tuned: Rock on TV.” The exhibit focuses on the moments when rock stepped off the stage and into America’s living rooms on shows such as “American Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Don’t miss spending time at the Flats, once the destination of late-night partying but now a day-and-night destination, with ample restaurants, bars and breweries. This summer the city launched the Cleveland Brewery Passport, allowing visitors to explore as many as 30 participating breweries in a 25-mile radius of downtown.
What about the pizza? Smack dab in the middle of New York and Chicago, Cleveland embraces all styles of pizza — and pizzerias abound.