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Detroit's long association with the automotive industry led to poor public transportation development during the 1900s. As a result, the airport, which is thirty minutes from either downtown Detroit to the east or Ann Arbor to the west, is poorly connected to the cities. While there are a couple of public buses that visit the airport, neither lines go to any worthwhile destinations at any reasonable speed, so unless you want to rent a vehicle or get a pricey cab, it's usually best to stay in the airport. Fortunately, both the McNamara and North terminals are modern, airy structures with plenty of restaurants and activities to keep you busy, so even longer layovers won't be spent poorly.
Shorter (2 hour) layovers
With only a couple of hours to kill at the airport, it's best to not go outside of security unless you have a specific reason. There isn't much out there anyway except for the Westin restaurant in the Mac and a bar in the baggage claim of the North terminal.
If you're flying on any airline except for Northwest, Delta and Continental, you'll find yourself in the newly opened North terminal, that despite it's simple design is perfectly functional and clean. To keep yourself busy for a couple of hours, you can start by ducking into one of the many shops throughout the terminal, including a Brookstone, two Borders and an ASAP for electronics. Your best bet, however, is to sit down for a good relaxing meal, which you can do at Hockeytown Cafe, Ruby Tuesdays or Fridays.
In the McNamara terminal you have many more options. First, if you haven't seen the tunnel between the A and BC terminals, it's worth taking a visit to the seizure-inducing display. A combination of loud music, pounding lights and changing colors liken the 5 minute voyage to watching Requiem for a Dream inside of a kaleidoscope, and if you aren't awed when you ride through the first time you will be when you get back. On the A terminal side of the tunnel you can also hang out and watch the fountain deposit laminar streams of water precisely across the giant, stone expanse, well worth a few minutes of gawking.
If you'd like a bite to eat, McNamara has three expansive food courts in the center and termini of hall A where you can grab both American and Japanese fast food (several flights from Tokyo connect here.) If you've got a little bit of extra time, try the Japanese restaurant or the National Coney Island for a plate of remarkably delicious airport food.
Northwest and Delta's Sky Clubs are a great escape from the rigor of the everyday airport melee. If you haven't got an annual pass, you can stop in any of the four lounges in the airport, buy a pass for about $50 and enjoy free wireless, snacks, comfy chairs and drinks. So if you think that you can consume more than $50 at the airport bar, use the Sky Club instead – the drinks are self serve. This is also a great place to deposit your luggage if you want to leave the premises for a while.
If you're willing to risk sneaking out of security for a bit, the Westin at McNamara terminal has a wonderful ground floor that is a million miles away from the bustling airport terminal. Grab a drink at Dema, the hotel restaurant while you gawk at the monstrostic, relaxing surroundings.
Longer layovers (4+ hours)
Should you decide to leave the airport during your layover, there are a few local options that you can enjoy within a (long) stones throw. You'll need to either rent a car or have someone pick you up though, or you can arrange some sort of deal with a local taxi. Just make sure that if you're going somewhere with little cab access that you have a ride back.
Greenfield Village (pictured): The largest outdoor museum in the world is an 18 minute cab ride away from the airport, in Dearborn, MI. The village hosts a sprawling 240 acres of reconstructed and original buildings across US history, focusing on the way that Americans lived in colonial times. Character actors play the role of ancient colonists and there are enough activities to keep you busy all day -- just make sure that the weather is good. Tickets are $22 for adults and $16 for children over 5.
Casinos: Three casinos in downtown Detroit are a fun way to kill a few hours. It's 25 minutes by car to either Greektown, Motor City or the MGM Grand.
Downtown Detroit: Outside of the several casinos, downtown Detroit has experienced a bit of a revitalization in the last few years. The area around Comerica Park and Ford Field including Greektown is interesting and safe to mosey around, though you'll see more interesting architecture than boutique shops. Our recommendation? The MGM Grand.
Ann Arbor: Recently covered in our "Budget Destinations" series, Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan and is a quiet, quaint town about a half hour west of DTW. You can read more details about tree city in that post, but our specific suggestions for a long layover are a stop at Dominick's for a sangria and a homemade pizza and a stroll through the law quad and campus. You can easily make it to Ann Arbor and back in about 3.5 hours.
-- If you've got some range on your wireless card, the skyclubs upstairs at either end of terminal A have free wifi. On a good day you can sit below the clubs on the chairs and pick up a signal.
-- Keep an eye out for the planters with giant trees in them. Several of them are host to autograph rocks where people stop by, sign their name and leave a mark.
Plan your next layover with Gadling's Layover Guides.