While it’s officially known as Belle Isle State Park, most locals in Michigan refer to this 982-acre island park in the Detroit River off the coast of the city as simply Belle Isle. It was first developed as a park in the late 19th century.
For nearly 200 years, people have been escaping the sights and sounds of Detroit to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, breathtaking views, and fun-filled attractions of the island. And, it’s famous for being the largest city island park of its kind — even larger than Central Park in New York City!
Belle Isle. What is this magical place Detroiters speak of? For the past few years, my limited knowledge of the well-known recreation area led me to imagine the park in ways I’d only seen illustrated on postcards and travel booklets: picnic areas swarming with family reunion cookouts (sorry, I know they’re called “barbecues” up here), cyclists peddling a safe distance away from city traffic, and hey — there’s supposed to be a fountain, right?Jennifer Bowman
History of Belle Isle in Detroit Michigan
Like much of the City of Detroit, this small island in the middle of the Detroit River was first settled by the French in the 18th century. When it was first settled, Belle Isle was primarily used for agricultural purposes, and it wasn’t uncommon to see livestock roaming along the shores.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was first developed into something more stately and elegant. It was first considered part of General Alexander Macomb Jr.’s estate in the early 19th century. Then, it became the property of the city by the middle of the century.
Plans for a Park
In 1845, the island earned its current name, Belle Isle, and city organizers began plans to create a park on this idyllic strip of land. In fact, the city hired famed park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.
Olmsted is known for designing Central Park, the grounds of the Biltmore Estate, and the landscaping around the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Although he created designs, only a few of his ideas came to fruition.
Disrepair & Restoration
Over the next 150 years, Belle Isle served as a place where people could relax and enjoy the great outdoors without traveling too far from the city. However, it endured a turbulent period in the latter half of the 20th century, which ultimately saw many of its attractions close and begin falling into disrepair.
When the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, the State of Michigan opted to lease the iconic park from the city in hopes of reinvesting in Belle Isle and restoring it to its former glory. After millions spent on renovations, it’s considered one of the best city parks in the state — and one of the most popular.
At just under 1,000 acres, this island park was declared the most visited in Michigan as of 2016. It attracts more than 4 million visitors every year, many of whom come during the summer months when they can lounge on the beach and enjoy seasonal attractions.
Where Is Belle Isle?
Belle Isle is an island in the Detroit River that rests on the border of the United States and Canada. It can be seen from both the City of Detroit and Windsor, and it’s one of the largest islands in the river. The bridge to access Belle Isle is located at Jefferson Avenue and East Grand Boulevard in Detroit MI.
How to Get to Belle Isle
The only way to get onto Belle Isle is to cross the MacArthur Bridge. You can use a few different modes of transportation:
- Driving across the bridge — The easiest and most convenient way to get to the island park is to drive across the bridge. However, it’s worth noting that motor vehicle entry requires a Recreation Passport, which can be purchased in advance or when you arrive.
- Biking or walking across the bridge — Residents often prefer to bike or walk across the bridge. It’s not only the most scenic route but also the most affordable. Pedestrians and cyclists don’t need a Recreation Passport and don’t have to pay an entrance fee.
- Taking public transportation — Visitors can take a city bus to the island park if they wish. The island’s bus stop is located in front of the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory.
The Best Attractions & Things to Do on Belle Isle
Belle Isle Aquarium
The Belle Isle Aquarium is a part of the Belle Isle Conservancy and might be the most iconic attraction on the island. This aquarium is located in a historic building that was designed by Albert Kahn, a famous local architect who designed many buildings throughout Detroit Michigan.
When the aquarium opened in 1904, it was the first of its kind. Now, it’s considered the oldest aquarium in the country. While it closed for a brief period between 2005 and 2012, it continues to welcome visitors who are interested in enjoying a fun day in an authentic Detroit atmosphere.
The aquarium is open Friday through Sunday and has become more popular than ever thanks to renovations. Admission is free, and you can spend hours exploring the habitats, which include many native Great Lakes species, as well as fish and other aquatic creatures from around the world.
My husband and I found an MDOT shuttle to take us to the Belle Isle Aquarium, which ended up being one of the coolest parts of our visit. Housed in a stunning, brick building circa 1904, the aquarium is currently the oldest in North America and, until its brief closure from 2005 to 2012, was the oldest continually operating.
Inside, mermaid-esque green tiles adorn the arched ceilings, and several original skylights were recently restored and revealed to the public for the first time in over 60 years. While attendance was lower than normal on the day we visited, a member of the all-volunteer staff told us it wasn’t unusual for a line of people to extend far outside the front doors. After 100 years, it’s amazing that the interest for this attraction is still alive and well.Jennifer Bowman
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Closed for major renovations through 2024.
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is also part of the Belle Isle Conservancy. It’s a beautiful botanical garden and greenhouse that’s beloved by visitors of all ages.
With a glittering glass dome, the conservatory is one of the most easily recognizable buildings on the island and a favorite spot for visitors. Consisting of more than 13 acres, this impressive conservatory is home to rare and exotic plants, beautiful blooms, seasonal floral beds, and a peaceful lily pond garden.
Like its aquarium neighbor, the conservatory is free to enter from Wednesday through Sunday. In the summer, the Wednesday hours are extended to accommodate the increased summer crowds at the park.
Packed to the brim with tropical plants, cacti, you name it — this larger-than-life greenhouse is surrounded by surreal outdoor gardens and is the perfect spot for a wedding venue. Taking a load off, my husband and I sat on the edge of a fountain adorned with a gazelle statue. It wasn’t the James Scott, but it would do.Jennifer Bowman
Belle Isle Nature Center
The Belle Isle Nature Center is operated by the Detroit Zoo, which has a main location in Royal Oak. While the indoor facilities are currently closed for renovation, you can explore the outdoor areas of the nature center on Fridays and Saturdays.
This Belle Isle nature zoo is one of the best places on the island to take in the natural wildlife that has long called the island home. For instance, visitors of all ages can register for outdoor nature hikes in advance, as well as nature art programs that combine outdoor beauty with creativity.
An offshoot of the Detroit Zoo, this little nature preserve offers a family-friendly environment for spectators to learn more about small, native-to-Detroit creatures. Amphibians, reptiles, and an active beehive dominate the indoor exhibits, while a large, windowed area looks out to a garden filled with active birds and funny, little chipmunks.Jennifer Bowman
Dossin Great Lakes Museum
Many people are surprised to find out that this small island is home to an incredible maritime museum. The Dossin Great Lakes Museum provides an opportunity to learn more about the history of the Great Lakes while soaking up some of the most spectacular views in the city.
With more than 16,000 square feet of space to explore, you can enjoy signature, permanent exhibits, as well as rotating exhibits that change regularly.
Every exhibit at this museum is dedicated to the maritime history of Michigan, making it a favorite place among those who love being on or near the water.
The Dossin Museum features exhibits on Great Lakes Maritime history, covering everything from freighters to the famous Miss Pepsi hydroplane. Facing the riverfront is the wheelhouse from the William Clay Ford freighter, offering visitors the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be the captain of a ship. The museum property outside also boasts an anchor recovered from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald and cannons from Commodore Hazard Perry’s victory of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.Jennifer Bowman
Douglas MacArthur Bridge
The Douglas MacArthur Bridge connects the City of Detroit to Belle Isle, and it’s the only way to get onto the island. The bridge is actually the third one that has been built. The others that came before it were faulty and not sustainable.
However, the Douglas MacArthur Bridge has proved that it can stand the test of time. It was built in 1923 and heralded for its beautiful arch design.
The bridge spans more than 2,000 feet across the river and was most recently renovated in the 1980s to provide structural improvements and enhancements after decades of use. Today, it’s one of the most picturesque bridges in the city.
Belle Isle Giant Slide
For decades, the young — and the young at heart — have been taking a whirl on the Belle Isle Giant Slide. This gigantic slide features six lanes for sliding, making for a fun and exhilarating adventure. The slide was first opened in 1967 and has been closed on and off throughout the years.
James Scott Memorial Fountain
One of the most iconic and elegant attractions on Belle Isle is the James Scott Memorial Fountain, an ornate fountain with a spray of more than 125 feet.
Located in the heart of the island, this historic fountain was built in 1925 as a tribute to James Scott, a controversial figure who left more than $200,000 to the city for a fountain to be erected in his honor.
Today, the gorgeous fountain looks like something that belongs in Europe, and it makes for one of the best photo opportunities on Belle Isle. It’s a favorite spot among those who like to relax with a good book and a rejuvenating cup of coffee.
Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower
Another one of the most recognizable features on Belle Isle is the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower. Built in 1939 and named after the famous Detroit journalist who raised money for the peace tower, this beautiful architectural feat has been adding to the atmosphere of the island for decades.
The original intention was to install bells in the tower, but that venture ended up being too costly. For years, an organ played and was amplified to the tower, but that was eventually damaged.
After fundraising campaigns and efforts to renovate the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower were successful, bells and automated chimes were installed, allowing it to play music every day.
The Oudolf Garden is a public garden that’s located in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower. This 3-acre garden is designed as a naturalistic space, and it’s open to the public daily from dawn until dusk.
The garden is maintained by an all-volunteer crew, and visitors appreciate the fact that there are different colors and textures in bloom in the garden throughout the year, making it an inviting place to visit every season.
Garden lovers who are passionate about particular plants can check the Oudolf Garden website to see what’s currently in bloom, allowing them to plan their visit accordingly.
William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse
The only lighthouse on Belle Isle is the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, which is located on the northeast side of the island.
This marble lighthouse was erected in 1930 in honor of famous Detroit businessman William Livingstone, who was responsible for designing and creating the deep water channel that runs through the Detroit River, making it accessible to freighters.
This lighthouse is famous for being the only lighthouse in the United States that’s constructed entirely of marble, and it’s one of only two memorial lighthouses built in Michigan. The tower itself is closed, but visitors can explore the grounds around it.
Belle Isle Beach
After finishing a picnic, my husband and I walked over to the sandy shoreline to say hi to the seagulls and get a better view of the Detroit skyline. Other than a few people taking photos or enjoying an afternoon reading break, the beach was quiet on that post-Labor Day weekend and offered a great way to see the Motor City from a whole new angle.Jennifer Bowman
Most people don’t think of a day at the beach when they think about the bustling urban community of Detroit. However, Belle Isle Beach is a beloved beach with a pristine shoreline, making it one of the most popular places to spend a summer day in the city.
This public beach doesn’t have an entrance fee, but vehicle traffic does need to have a Recreation Passport to get onto the island. It features a half-mile of sand and is the perfect place to rest in the sun, have a picnic, or splash in the blue waters of the Detroit River while admiring the city’s skyline.
On almost any windy summer day, visitors can see professional kite fliers around the island. People can also fish from the beaches and bike around the island on the bike paths.Jennifer Bowman
Sunset Point is a bit of a secret — not everyone knows that it’s the best place to go on Belle Isle to watch the sunset over the city. You can find it by driving to the westernmost tip of the island, where you’ll see that there’s a small corner that looks due west over the city.
As the sun begins to descend, the spectacular colors turn the city’s skyline into a silhouette. Don’t forget your camera. You’re sure to capture some incredibly breathtaking images as you watch the sun go down on yet another wonderful day in Detroit.
Surrounded by the waters of the Detroit River on all sides, there are plenty of ways to enjoy water fun on Belle Isle. Previously, a giant waterslide was exciting and refreshing for people of all ages to use. However, it was torn down in 2018 with hopes of building a splash pad on the island.
The plans for the splash pad are still in progress, and hopefully, there will soon be a new water-filled playground for young children to enjoy during stifling summer days in the city.
The Detroit Grand Prix
The first Detroit Grand Prix race took place on Belle Isle in 1992, and it quickly became one of the most beloved events in the city. However, it was only hosted on the island for about 10 years — the race was suspended due to the island’s narrow track.
Fortunately, the race was brought back to the island in 2012, and it’s still a favorite annual event among racing enthusiasts. The Detroit Grand Prix typically takes place over a three-day weekend in June, often marking the unofficial start of summer.
Winter Things to Do on Belle Isle
It’s true that summer is the peak season on Belle Isle, but there are many things to do in winter as well. Some of the top winter activities and events include:
- Play in the snow and build a snowman on the island. With so much open space on the island, it becomes a winter wonderland when the snow falls. If you’re up for it, you might even want to start a snowball fight with your friends or family members.
- Stay warm inside at popular attractions, such as the Belle Isle Aquarium or the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. These facilities are open year-round and provide a welcome reprieve from the harsh winter weather in Detroit.
Frequently Asked Questions About Belle Isle
When is Belle Isle open to the public?
Belle Isle Park is open year-round, so you can experience it throughout every season. You can enter the park at 5 a.m. daily, and the park closes at 10 p.m. nightly.
How can I get to Belle Isle?
Belle Isle is connected to the City of Detroit via the MacArthur Bridge, which is open to motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
What does it cost to enter Belle Isle?
Pedestrians and cyclists who cross the MacArthur Bridge don’t have to pay an entrance fee to get into Belle Isle Park. However, motorists need to have a Recreation Passport to drive onto the island.
The Recreation Passport can be purchased annually by Michigan residents who are renewing their driver’s licenses.
Are there restaurants on Belle Isle?
There are no restaurants on Belle Isle, but some concession stands and food trucks operate on the island during the busy summer season. Most people who want to enjoy a meal on Belle Isle pack picnics.
Is Belle Isle an accessible park?
Yes, Belle Isle is an accessible park that’s inviting to people of all ages and abilities. It’s worth noting that accessible restrooms and trails are limited.
However, innovative Belle Isle track chairs provide all-terrain access on the island. The track chairs can be borrowed at no cost and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
When is the best time of year to visit Belle Isle?
The most popular time of year to visit Belle Isle is during the summer when people flock to the shores of the beach and set out to enjoy a day on this picturesque island.
However, this island is inviting and appealing regardless of the season. Many visitors like to go throughout the year to experience the island in every possible way.
Experience Everything That Belle Isle in Detroit Michigan Has to Offer
At one time, it seemed like Belle Isle was destined to fade away along with an era gone by. However, the people of Michigan were determined to preserve this cherished green island in the heart of the Detroit River.
Today, Belle Isle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Michigan. Whether you want to spend an afternoon reading a book with the Detroit skyline in the background or a fun-filled morning exploring the aquarium with your family, you’ll find that Belle Isle is the perfect place to soak up the best of Michigan.