Belle Isle – One of Michigan’s Best Kept Secrets is an Island off Detroit Shores

Belle-Isle-Conservatory-Palm-room

My Trip to Belle Isle Helped Save My “Michigan-Life”

One gloomy Sunday my family made a life-changing decision –  we visited Belle Isle in Detroit.

Monotony had taken a toll and we had a strong hankering for adventure to the point of serious talks about moving to another state. As an effort to try and stop fighting the urge to leave we decided we would start “galivanting,” looking for fun, and we were determined to find it.

We heard about the Conservatory on Belle Isle and said to each other, “what the hey, if we go and hate it we could at least go to a hip coffee shop or fun place in Detroit after to make the trip worthwhile, right?!”

Belle-Isle-Kids-walking-up-to-Aquarium

We ended up staying till closing because – wow – there’s SO MUCH to do year-round on that small island floating in the waters parting the USA and Canada!

Our hearts would never feel the same about Detroit and Michigan in general, from that day forward.

That night, I sat down and wrote a love letter about Belle Isle describing its “rebirth, growth, and how it gives back to the community …”This Island is like you and me,” I said, “beautifully aging, growing fruit, giving hope and inspiration, and it’s doing it by way of change and community.”

Years later, Belle Isle has beautifully conserved even more of the grounds making this thriving island a must-visit destination you’ll want to check out if you haven’t already.

And one of the best parts? It’s FREE.

Visiting the Island is FREE including the Conservatory, Aquarium, Nature Center and Museum, if you have the state parks pass on your license plate (and only $11 per car if you don’t).

Where is Belle Isle?

Belle Isle is a 982-acre island park in Detroit, located in the Detroit River in between the USA and Canada.

The McArthur Bridge to access the island is located at the intersection of Jefferson Ave and East Grand Boulevard.

Belle Isle Detroit Map

Belle Isle’s History

Belle Isle has a fascinating history. Knowing some of its past makes a visit to this little oasis even more interesting.

5 Fun Facts About the Belle Isle’s Past

1 – It has 7 Miles of Shoreline, 3 lakes, and a lagoon.

2 – The Island/Park was owned by one family until 1879 when the City of Detroit purchased it for $200,000.

3 – The Conservatory and Aquarium were completed in 1904 making these structures over 100 years old.

4 – Due to structure needs and economic struggle, the aquarium was closed in 2005 – making its re-opening in 2012 a momentous occasion. Visiting it now comes with a whole new appreciation of the FREE admission.

5 – Belle Isle became a state park as of 2014, so visiting with your park pass is a breeze.

Belle-Isle-Aquarium-Dad-with-boys

9 Places to Visit on Belle Isle

You’ve got your state park pass, you’ve mapped out your road trip to visit, and you’re ready to drive across the big bridge to spend a day on Belle Isle –  now, where to start, right?

We’ve rounded up a list of family-friendly activities on the island. Many of these suggestions are year-round; the portions that are for the summer are epic, so you’ll want to visit in all the seasons to get the full effect.

Need a map? The Belle Isle Conservancy has a great one on their site. You can download the PDF version here.

#1
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

4 Inselruhe Ave, Detroit, MI 48207 (I on map)

The warmth will hit you in the face the minute you walk through the door, ushering you into what feels like another world of beauty as you are surrounded by rare plants from around the world. 

There are paths leading you to several themed rooms including the Cactus House, the Tropical House, a sunken Fernery, and center room housing palms with a giant palm tree reaching to the sky.

Belle Isle Conservatory Banana leaves

#2
Belle Isle Aquarium

3 Inselruhe Ave, Detroit, MI 48207 (L on map)

Seeing the fish here is pretty cool but even more so is the unique and breathtaking architecture of this building.

There are volunteers available to answer questions. One of our favorite things here is the Island replica located in the middle of the building.

Don’t forget to check out the seahorses!

Belle-Isle-Aquarium-Ceiling
The architecture is as beautiful as the fish here

#3
Belle Isle Nature Center

176 Lakeside Dr, Detroit, MI 48207 (P on map)

The entire nature center is purposefully interactive. You’ll find games made out of natural materials, forts, animals, reptiles, fish, and bird watching excursions among the many activities they offer.

Another perk is the playground located across the street.

#4
Dossin Great Lakes Museum

100 Strand Dr, Detroit, MI 48207 (J on map)

This maritime museum is 16,000-square-feet and includes one of the largest collections of model ships in the world.

#5
William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse 

Located on Northeast corner of island (R on map)

This special stop is the only lighthouse in the nation made of marble and stands 47 feet tall.

Its construction took place in memory of William Livingstone, following his many contributions to Great Lakes shipping. It has been in operation since 1930.

#6
Belle Isle Beach

Riverbank Rd, Detroit, MI 48207 (N on map)

Swimming on Belle Isle almost makes you forget it’s a river.

There are bathrooms and a changing area at the main beach although we enjoy swimming in the north beach section by the boat launch and docks. There, water is bright blue with less waves making it a nicer place to swim for little kids.

Belle-Isle-Blue-waters-Swimming-area
Bring towels if headed to the beach

#7
James Scott Memorial Fountain

Fountain Dr, Detroit, MI 48207 (B on map)

A fixture in Belle Isle history, the James Scott Memorial fountain was built in 1923, with a massive circumference of over 500 feet.

Belle-Isle-Fountain

#8
The Giant Slide

Inselruhe Dr and Loiter Way, Detroit, MI 48207 (H on map)

This is so cool – or terrifying depending on who you ask. If you’re not afraid of heights this massive slide is for you!

The slide rides are $1 per ride and is open seasonally. Riders must be at least 48 inches tall.

#9
Sunset Point

Sunset Dr, Detroit MI, 48207 (A on map)

Watching the sunset over the Detroit River and bridge to Canada was a highlight of our year this summer.

We took a few blankets, looked up the sunset timing on the weather app and posted up in the grass close to the water on Sunset Point. We witnessed a proposal, kids playing with their families, and a warm sense of community in the air as the sunbeams shone in all directions.

Belle-Isle-Sunset-Point-dad-holding-sons-hand-watching-the-sun-set
Don’t miss the photo op of a Belle Isle sunset

7 Tips to Consider Before you Visit Belle Isle

As visiting all new places go, it’s nice to have an idea of what to expect or what to bring.

Here are 7 tips to consider before visiting Belle Isle:

Belle Isle Visitor Tips

1 – Verify facility hours. Operating hours vary between buildings and they may not be open 7 days per week.

2 – Visiting the island is FREE. The Conservatory, Aquarium, Nature Center and Museum do not charge for admission.

3 – Entering Belle Isle from the bridge requires the State Park Pass (costs $11 per year).

4 – Bring food. There are some great places close by, but nothing to eat on the Island itself. If you enjoy Belle Isle as much as our family does and spend a long period there, you’ll want to have a “mission avoid getting #hangry” in place.

5 – There is good coffee nearby. We recommend these shops to grab a cup on your way to the island or before your drive home:

Anthology Coffee | 948 Division St Suite 102. Detroit, MI 48207

The Commons | 7900 Mack Avenue, Detroit, MI 48214

6 – Bring towels and sandals for swimming. The sand is rocky making it a little harder to walk barefoot.

7 – Plan your day trip with bikes and equipment. When visiting in warmer months, you’re welcome to set up mosquito tents and tables to create a little “camp” of sorts. Bring your bikes to explore the island.

Exploring Michigan Gems Like Belle Isle and Beyond

We were close to packing up and “getting out of here,” to find a place that fit our exploring nature. I’m so thankful we realized that home already fit and chose to stay living in Michigan.

Experience what our great state has to offer has been one of the great joys of our lives.

The isle awaits –  Have fun out there, Michigan!

Belle-Isle-Dock-dads-walking-with-kids

If you haven’t planned to make Belle Isle part of your adventure itinerary this year, try it out and let us know how your trip goes! Comment below, we’d love to hear from you.

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