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Belle Isle has been a favorite Detroit spot for centuries and the most visited state park in Michigan. More than 5 million visitors last year barbecued, bird-watched, went to the beach, got married, held reunions or just took in the breathtaking views of the Detroit River.

Beyond the beach and picnic spots, the island is chock-full of landmarks, cultural institutions, traditions, hidden wildlife, quirky history and yes, memories. 

We’ve got facts, gems and history for regular visitors and newcomers alike. We appreciate the help of Karis Floyd, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) park manager at Belle Isle Park; Nina Ignazak, founder and editor of Planet Detroit; Mary Bohling, author of “Beautiful Belle Isle: Detroit’s Unique Urban Park; and Laura Gottlieb, archivist and director of cultural resources at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills; and our readers.

This guide adds new updates to a previous version published in 2020. 

Large garden on a large island near a dense urban landscape. The garden sits near a small tower, a pond, a parking lot and a street intersection.
The Oudolf Garden and the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon near the western tip of Belle Isle. Photo credit: Ryan Southen Photography, courtesy of Oudolf Garden Detroit


The Belle Isle Aquarium opened in 1904 and is the oldest public aquarium in the U.S. Featuring a dome-shaped ceiling with sea-green glass tiles designed by Albert Kahn, it might not be the biggest — but where else can you see all seven species of gar fish? (The answer is nowhere on this continent). The Belle Isle Conservancy spent $1.2 million renovating the aquarium during the pandemic and brought in a Giant Pacific octopus, later named Sir Ringo Woodward in a public vote and now beloved by visitors. Much better days than when — during the Great Depression, officials said they couldn’t afford to buy saltwater and got rid of all the marine life, selling giant sea turtle “Big Pete” for soup.


Are back! The industrious, semi-aquatic mammals returned to the island a little more than a decade ago after a century-long absence. See if you can spot one. The population growth was enough to alarm the DNR last year which then intervened, trapping and killing some of the animals. 

Bird watching

Belle Isle has some of the best bird-watching in metro Detroit. If you’re new to the activity, here are some great sights to look out for: the songbird migration in the fall; raptors; and warblers, thrushes and sparrows on the marshy, eastern part of the island. For more, check out Planet Detroit’s Belle Isle birding guide.

Bike trails

There’s a new 6-mile bike trail in the works on the island and a biking group for those who want to meet up and ride with others (you’ll just have to ask to join the Facebook group for deets). The bike trail is actually the first part of the planned 600-mile Iron Belle Trail that stretches all the way to the Upper Peninsula, so you might want company. 

Map of large island, its streets, paths and amenities, which include boat docks, parking spaces, athletic fields and more. The island is surrounded by the Detroit River and U.S.-Canada border.
DNR’s Belle Isle map, with the route for the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Trail in orange. Image credit: Department of Natural Resources

Boat House

The Detroit Boat Club is one of the oldest rowing clubs in the country, dating back to 1839, and one of the oldest social clubs of any kind in Michigan. DBC’s Belle Isle connection didn’t come until the 1890s when they planned a clubhouse on the island — or actually three, since the first two structures burned down. The Detroit Boat Club building that went up in 1902 is still standing, though you know it as the Belle Isle Boat House. It’s still in need of renovation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great place for a wedding. 


Lake Tahoma, the Sylvan Canal and other waterways on Belle Isle may be manmade, but the rare forested wetlands call back to the historic natural ecosystem of the area. The habitat was damaged in 2020 when high water levels and restoration work contributed to extensive flooding on the eastern part of the island. The DNR began wetland restoration work in 2021.

The canals continue to be useful passageways for fish — as well as kayakers and paddleboarders, with several kayak launch spots around the island (local companies also offer paddling tours). 


There are many more people who want to enjoy Belle Isle than space to accommodate their cars, and the DNR is midway through a traffic study to propose solutions to the congestion. If you are driving, check the parking map and sign up for text alerts to get notified when the island closes to car traffic. You could also take the bus or bike — there’s no shuttle, though. After offering rides between island hotspots last summer, Floyd said the state won’t be bringing the service back in 2023.

As for buses, the Belle Isle bus is known today as #12-Conant. The Conant bus runs hourly during the day seven days a week and stops at the aquarium.

Grand two-story stone building under construction. It has 14 arches and is near a body of water. This vintage photograph has a long vertical scratch.


New casino c. 1907. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-97443]

The Belle Isle Casino was originally built in the 1880s. It was never a gambling spot and was instead intended for social gatherings. The first building was made entirely of wood and in 1908 a replacement was built just to the south of its predecessor, where it still stands.


The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory will be closed through the end of 2024 for major renovations. Originally built in 1904, it was renamed in 1955 for the daughter of Detroit News founder James E. Scripps after she donated 600 orchids to the conservatory. The current renovation work will take lead paint out of the Palm House, reglaze the upper dome and give the ventilation system an update. Of course, it will still feel like the tropics in parts of the building, because the plants like it that way. 

Dossin Great Lakes Museum

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum might be small, but it is one of the more underrated cultural institutions in the city. The museum is focused on maritime history on the Great Lakes and lets visitors step inside the pilot house of a Great Lakes freighter and see an anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald. It even hosts a summer camp.

E. coli

Is one bacteria you’ll want to watch out for in the water at Belle Isle Beach after heavy rain. It can make you sick and is often an indicator of other bacteria, too. Keep an eye on the results of weekly water tests between Memorial and Labor Day.


If you get geeked about Great Lakes ships, head to Boatnerd.com, where you can identify the freighters going by Belle Isle in real time. “You can see what’s the freighter hauling, where’s it headed, where it’s coming from, and a little history of the freighter,” said Bohling. 

In rare circumstances, you might be able to get an even closer look — this spring, a Great Lakes cargo freighter ran aground near the Dossin Great Lakes Museum and was stuck for more than four hours, captivating island visitors.

Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect most famous for designing New York City’s Central Park, played a role in Belle Isle’s original, elaborate design. Olmsted was big on preserving its natural beauty — his design showed a ferry dock and public facilities to one section of the island and focused on leaving the majority in its natural state. Much of his design plans got a thumbs down from the City Council and Park Board, but the elements you will see from Olmsted are Central Avenue, canals, a pavilion/ferry landing and the maintained wooded areas. Of course, credit for the design of the island, which has evolved over the years, is owed to more than one man — and some historians say local officials from the period had more of a hand in its final form. 

Giant slide

After a few years of being closed for reconstruction and the pandemic, this signature Detroit attraction opened in the summer of 2022 just to be shut down the next day after people sailed down the slide fast enough to go airborne — and a meme, song, more than one merch line and a lawsuit were born. Floyd said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit and could not confirm if the slide would be open this summer. 

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Hipster Beach

The unsanctioned dollop of sand past the lighthouse has been a popular not-so-secret local hang spot for years — even when officials have routinely cleared out sunbathers and swimmers.


Upkeep and renovation of such a big park costs big money. The state says it would need $200 million to keep up with repairs and renovations, many of which are well underway even if the money is coming in more slowly. Keep up with the needs and the plans with Detroit Documenters’ coverage of Belle Isle Advisory Committee meetings.

Island’s expansion

Prior to 1913, Belle Isle was only about 700 acres. “It was expanded with excess dirt from construction of a lot of the skyscrapers on the mainland — they needed to dispose of the dirt somewhere, so they actually took it out to the island,” Bohling said. Now, it’s 982 acres, large enough to (uncomfortably) hold every Michigander

Crowds of swimmers in an outdoor body of water, in front of a wide brick and stone building with flagpoles flying United States flags, a large archway, copper rooftops and clock.

‘Jewel of Detroit’

Color postcard depicting the Bath House on Belle Isle, with swimmers and the Detroit River in the foreground, c. 1910. Image credit: Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society

One of our favorite nicknames for Belle Isle, because where else can you live in a city and still have quick access to flatwoods, the Detroit River, historical monuments and more?

James Scott Memorial Fountain

The Belle Isle fountain has a controversial namesake. “James Scott was a wealthy but loathed guy — people of the time and historians described him as vulgar,” Williams said. “When he died, he gave his money to the city but said a life-sized statue of him had to be built and had to be named after him. There was this huge debate on whether they should use the money to build a statue of not-a-great guy.” 

The city opted to use the money and went all out, with “109 water outlets in the shape of lions, turtles, Neptune figures and artistic horns,” according to the Belle Isle Conservancy, and of course, a bronze statue of Scott that overlooks the fountain. “They put the statue in the spot where the water blows heaviest… with the hope that it would eventually weather away,” said Bohling.


Albert Kahn, Detroit’s most famous and incredibly prolific architect, also made his mark on Belle Isle, designing the aquarium, conservatory and lighthouse. 

Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse

This is the only marble lighthouse you’ll find in the U.S. It was built in honor of William Livingstone on the north end of Belle Isle. The lighthouse was vandalized in 1980, which is why the fence is strategically situated around the perimeter. 

Loiter Way

Just a top-notch street name, even if no one actually uses it to give directions on Belle Isle. Picnic Way and Pleasure Drive are pretty great, too.

Movie moments

If you’re paying close attention, you can catch the Jewel in a few movies over the years,  including “Real Steel,” “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Blue Collar,” “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Whip It,” “Scarecrow” and maybe more. Looking for a starring role? “Belle Isle Revealed” is a short doc about the island’s ecological significance. And if watching Big Sean drive across the bridge in a ’66 Pontiac GTO in the music video for “Guap” doesn’t make you want to drop everything and head to the Isle, what will? 

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Nature calls

Bathrooms on Belle Isle have been a hot topic since well before the state took over the park. The facilities were often broken or out of order while the city was responsible, but even now Detroiters may need to plan ahead when looking for relief.

Garden with wide variety of flowers and other plants, including red flowers, many kinds of grass and small bushes. Grassy and dirt paths split the garden into sections. A morning sun and a glass building with a large dome sit in the background.

Oudolf Garden

Native plants in the Oudolf Garden. Photo credit: Ryan Southen Photography, courtesy of Ouldolf Garden Detroit

Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, known for the High Line in New York and Chicago’s Lurie Garden, has brought a 3-acre garden to the area around the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon without using public dollars. Opened in 2021, it’s run by a nonprofit and staffed by volunteers. Keep up with what is now in bloom at the garden on its website.

‘The Park Question’

Belle Isle Park almost didn’t happen. Back in 1873, the mayor vetoed the bonds that were proposed at the time to build a park. The Park Question snuck back onto the table in 1879, when state Sen. Eber W. Cottrell introduced a bill to construct a boulevard in Detroit with a low-key clause to purchase a park on Belle Isle

Public Comment

Want to weigh in on plans, successes or problems in the park? Attend a public meeting of the Belle Isle Advisory Committee and make your voice heard. 


Perhaps the most legendary Belle Isle mischief happened in 1972 when pranksters stole an alligator from the aquarium in hopes of releasing it in a pool in front of Cobo (now Huntington Place), where the Rolling Stones were set to perform. Thwarted, they let their captive go in the James Scott Fountain, according to Jeff Morrison in his book “Guardians of Detroit.” Speaking of the Rolling Stones… Mick Jagger and Brian Jones reportedly learned to drive on the right side of the road on Belle Isle, when they visited during their first American tour in 1964. 

Quiet solitude

Located at the western edge of the island, Bohling highly recommends checking out Sunset Point — you can plop yourself down on a bench and simply take in the beautiful water as you watch the sun go down. The island can also be a balm when you’re suffering, writes Marsha Music in “A Poem for Belle Isle” — have a good cry among the rocks and dip your toes in the water for some relief. 

People in a dozen boats rowing down a narrow canal, which flows under a bridge. Next to the canal, a crowd sits on a grassy lawn shaded by trees.


Belle Isle Grand Canal, c. 1898-1905. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsca-18291]

Biking, hiking, running, golfing, playing basketball, fishing, swimming, boating and kayaking are just a few of the ways you can get active on the island. The DNR has maps and more info.


Belle Isle’s green spaces — and pavilions you have to reserve far in advance — make for a great spot for family reunions. On any given summer weekend, you’ll see buses pulling up with dozens of family members in matching shirts, laden with food and toys. There’s only a nominal fee to reserve a shelter and you can grab yours up to one year in advance. They’re so popular you might need to. 

Riots in 1943

On June 20, 1943, a fight between Black and white youth at Belle Isle started three days of riots, fueled by widespread inequality and racism in the city. President Franklin Roosevelt sent in federal troops, which ended the fighting, but by then 34 people had been killed, nine of them white and 25 of them Black, 17 of whom were shot by police.

State takeover

The land of the island is owned by Detroit, but the city leased the island to the state of Michigan in 2014 for 30 years with two 15-year renewals available. The measure was initiated by state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr and approved in November 2013 in Lansing despite City Council’s objection. 


The Belle Isle Aquarium is known for housing sea creatures, but during Prohibition, the basement was used as a speakeasy. It was also located in quite a convenient spot for importing booze from our Canadian neighbors. 

The Strip

“The Strip” might be an unofficial name for a stretch along The Strand perimeter road, but it’s cemented in history as a prime hangout spot. Detour reader Don Melson II recalled how people from the city to the suburbs would gather to show off their cars and socialize. In other words, it was an outdoor club minus the cover charge. “The Strip was the main hangout spot for everybody — not only my age but also the generation before,” said Melson, 40.

Transit memories

The entrance to Belle Isle used to have its very own bus station, dubbed “the greatest little bus stop in the world,” according to detroittransithistory.info. Bus service to Belle Isle began in 1909 and was operated by the Detroit Department of Parks and Boulevards until 1924. Other transit in the past included ferry service, and although streetcar tracks were built into the MacArthur Bridge, they were never used and eventually paved over in the 1950s.

Utopia for billionaires

As Detroit was careening toward bankruptcy, a metro Detroit real estate developer proposed buying Belle Isle for $1 billion and turning it into a city/state for richies a la the Isle of Monaco. No dice. A few years ago the same guy also tried to buy half of equally not-for-sale Palmer Park.

Views and vistas

There is no shortage of beautiful scenery on Belle Isle. Floyd said, “There’s a view when you come into the park, just as you’re going past the Scott Fountain — it’s part of the Sunset Point area, right on the edge of the Detroit River. You can see all the boaters, jet-skiers and a view of downtown.”


The name Belle Isle went by among the Anishinabeg peoples native to the area before the French colonized Detroit, and still in use today

Winter tradition

Belle Isle’s ice tree is one of the city’s best unofficial sights around the holidays and into January and beyond. Ice sculptures have been a Detroit staple since the 1900s, and Belle Isle’s longstanding tradition of creating an ice tree (pine trees stacked together and coated over time with running water to create a cool, icy formation) is the epitome of semi-natural winter beauty.

Yacht Club

“The original building was built in the 1870s, but it was on McDougall Street just south of Jefferson Avenue, so it wasn’t even on the island,” Bohling said. “Then there was a falling out and the club split. In the 1880s, some of the members formed the Detroit Yacht Club at the current location on Belle Isle. It’s a Mediterranean-style villa, and George Mason was the architect who designed it (he was also known for the Masonic Temple, the Gem Theater and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island).” 

Three white pigs in zoo enclosure, which has three miniature houses. The enclosure is surrounded by a wooden fence, people observing the pigs and trees. The photo is printed on textured linen paper.


The Three Little Pigs at the Children’s Zoo, Belle Isle, c. 1930-1045, The Tichnor Brothers Collection. Image credit: Boston Public Library

Today, the Belle Isle Nature Center is the spot for animal-watching and insect-catching, but the Belle Isle Zoo was the happening spot when it opened in 1895. By the early 1900s, there were 152 animals. Over the years, the zoo underwent numerous variations — the Detroit Children’s Zoo in 1947, and let’s not forget Safariland in the 1980s. Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick closed the Belle Isle Zoo citing budget concerns in the early 2000s. (We would never have recommended sneaking in, though it was a popular activity in the years after that.)

The zoo may soon be demolished as part of the DNR’s plans for island improvements — it’s unclear what will replace it, but the area will likely stay natural and include hiking trails.

Sarah (she/her) believes the best local reporting is a service, responds directly to community needs and reduces harm. Her favorite place in Detroit is her backyard on a summer evening.

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