Detroit XL

With the Super Bowl on its way and a revival of shopping and dining downtown, Detroit is looking large and in charge.

I love football — and have since I was a kid. The sport was as natural a part of my Michigan autumns as raking leaves and carving pumpkins. Every Sunday my family would go to church, eat a big dinner and watch football. I wore my team’s colors and cheered and yelled at the TV. I still do.

My love affair with the gridiron only goes so far, however. When I learned that Super Bowl XL was coming to Ford Field in Detroit this year, a scant three-hour drive from my house, I knew I’d still be watching it at home, on TV, same as every year. I couldn’t see battling the bumper-to-bumper traffic and spending all that money. Especially since the Lions probably wouldn't be playing.

But on a recent trip to Detroit, I saw a city buzzing with anticipation, transforming itself at breakneck speed. Everybody in Detroit is talking about the Super Bowl.

This is the mother of all sports events, set to take place in one of America’s most fanatical sports cities. Perhaps you’ve seen Detroit’s hockey fans winging octopi onto the ice at Red Wings games? Or heard that, despite winning percentages below .500, it’s nearly impossible to get good seats to a Lions home game? The Motor City is ready and excited. And somewhere during that trip, I realized something: I really want to be there, amid the people, the excitement, the food, maybe even in the stands, for the party set to explode in February.

Downtown Detroit has been doing plenty to draw visitors, whether they come during Super Bowl week or not. Campus Martius Park has been reincarnated; the downtown park is a new and improved gathering space that features music stages and outdoor cafés year-round. To kick off the Super Bowl countdown, Detroit launched the Motown Winter Blast last January. The winter festival returns Feb. 2 through 5 as a centerpiece to the pregame activities.

Approximately 30 new restaurants have opened in the downtown area alone, along with a bevy of new clubs. A three-mile network of parks on the Detroit River stretches from Belle Isle to the Joe Louis Arena. And GM’s Renaissance Center has added the Wintergarden, a five-story glass atrium housing dozens of restaurants and retail shops. If you haven’t seen Detroit in the past year, you haven’t seen Detroit. And you ought to.

Detroit’s riverfront has been transformed to include green spaces and pedestrian and bike trails. Gleaming office towers, retail shops and residential lofts occupy streets once lined with neglected buildings. New eateries, new nightclubs, new parks — and now the Super Bowl too.

It’ll all be on display come February, when Detroit will boldly embrace its famously frigid winters for the humongous Super Bowl celebration. The Motown Winter Blast will highlight snow play and serve as backdrop to the game. A 200-foot, four-lane snow slide will catapult visitors down its slopes. Snowshoeing and dog sledding will be held near dozens of ice and snow sculptures that will be lit by nightly laser light shows. A free, Rockefeller Center-style outdoor skating rink will also be part of the fun.

Giant warming tents will feature live music stages, food and drinks. The most popular of the food tents is likely to be Taste of Detroit, featuring food from 22 of Detroit’s most distinctive restaurants. But if all you want is a little snack, you can warm up and fill up at outdoor, wood-fired marshmallow-roasting centers.

The Motown Winter Blast offers fun for everyone — and organizers promise there will be snow, even if they have to make it themselves. But it’s only a sideshow. Visitors to Detroit in early February really want football. The NFL Experience, at the downtown-area Cobo Center Feb. 1 through 5, will feature autograph booths, sports cards shows, and punt, pass and kick competitions. And then, there’s the big game. Although it’s too late to purchase Super Bowl tickets directly from the NFL, there are a few (pricey) tickets left online.

But as much fun as it would be to claim your spot in the stands at Ford Field, the thing that’s not to be missed this time around in Detroit is the new burst of energy. Like Cleveland, this industrial behemoth has spent more time than it cares to remember in the Rust Belt, and perhaps it’s why both cities have such a strong allegiance to their sports teams: Rallying around a small group of guys trying to claw out a win on the playing field can give a dispirited population something to cheer about.

This winter, Detroit is cheering for a lot of reasons, not least of all the Super Bowl. So while I could be comfy and cozy in my easy chair on the big day, there’s a better chance I’ll be downtown, rooting on the teams and reveling in the extra-large excitement. Where will you be?

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