Belle Isle in Detroit is one of the city’s hidden gems, tucked away in the middle of the Detroit River. At any point of the year, Belle Isle has amazing photo spots, but sometimes it’s hard to know what will work in the winter when most photos show the lush green landscapes of the summer. Whether you’re a photographer, looking for places for your family / senior / engagement photo session, or are in from out of town and are looking for Instagrammable locations, I’ve put together this guide to help you find the 9 best photo spots on Belle Isle in winter.
Things you should know about Belle Isle before you go:
- Belle Isle is only accessible from one bridge located at the intersection of E. Grand Boulevard and E. Jefferson (unless you’re fancy and have a boat!)
- You are able to walk or bike onto Belle Isle at no cost – and the bridge itself is about 0.3 miles long
- If you want to drive on onto the island, you’ll need a Michigan Recreation Passport. For Michigan residents, the cost is $11 (or $5 for motorcycles), and is good for the year (you have the option of adding this automatically when renewing your license tabs, which I think is a smart option to just go ahead and do!). For non-residents, you have the option of buying a pass for $9 for the day, or you can get a yearly pass for $31; the yearly pass is a great option if you’re going to explore Michigan, as it will get you into any of the amazing state parks!
- Something to note about this is that if no one is working the booth when you drive onto Belle Isle, you can enter freely without the Recreation Passport. I’ve yet to go during the winter – or even during non-peak hours – when someone was working. Be prepared to need to buy the Recreation Passport if you don’t have one, but there’s a chance you won’t need it.
- You can also take a public bus onto Belle Isle, but honestly, public transportation is not something Detroit does super well. It’s not something I can recommend, although lots of folks use the bus system. To find out more, I’d check with the DDOT.
Important note about photography
Many places on Belle Isle require a permit for professional photography. If all you want to do is take photos on your phone, you should be good. For senior / engagement / wedding / family photos, the state requires you pull a permit. You can find that information on this website by scrolling all the way to the bottom. If you’re a person who is shooting for social media or travel writing, like I do, this is ambiguous according to Belle Isle’s website (commercial shoots are $1500/day, and I can’t imagine this would fall under this category because no one I know who does this could afford that, but no other price category makes sense). Everything I shot below, I did without a permit without a problem, so chances are you’ll be fine. But I’m throwing it out as a disclaimer that photography is done be permit!
1. Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
This might be one of the most beautiful buildings not just on Belle Isle or even in Detroit, but in the whole United States. That’s a really big statement. But I love love love this building, though, and will tell anyone who wants to listen about how gorgeous it is. If you’re looking for a great photo spot on Belle Isle, this would absolutely be my first choice.
When I posted a photo here on Instagram, people went ga ga over it. It reflects light so beautifully, the glass panels are so picturesque, and the giant dome is nothing short of stunning.
If you want to get a photo at the conservatory, you’re able to do so outside of the gate pretty much any time. If you want to take them on the actual conservatory grounds or in the conservatory, you’ll have to go during business hours, and I’d advising checking online for these before you go as they may change seasonally.
2. James Scott Memorial Fountain
One of the most widely used photo spots on Belle Isle for senior photos, engagement photos and more is the fountain! Its pinkish white marble exterior with intricate statues carved into the facade make it ideal for an aesthetically pleasing photo.
In the winter, the fountain will likely be empty. Instead of having the lovely, flowing geysers in your photo, the focus will be on the architecture which has all the beauty you need.
Note that the fountain is one of the most easily accessible and best known spots on Belle Isle. If you don’t want to share the location to get your photo, I’d recommend trying to get there as early in the day as possible!
3. Belle Isle Casino
This building is unbelievable. Formerly a casino on the island, it has been repurposed into a formal event center and is now popular for weddings. Photos you take here may feel fairytale-like, which I attribute to the beauty of the architecture. There are opportunities to take photos which look slightly different on every side of the building, too.
The casino is equally as beautiful on the inside, but you sadly will not likely be able to get any photos. The inside of the casino is almost exclusively reserved for rentals – large formal parties or weddings.
It is also important to note that in addition to this being a popular wedding venue, it is also popular for wedding photos. (And understandably so!) At any time of the year, expect to see wedding parties shooting on weekends. If you want to get photos here, coming early in the morning or on a weekday would probably be best.
4. Maintenance Building
I know, you’re thinking, “what’s so special about a maintenance building?” This particular one has got to be the most beautiful maintenance building I’ve ever seen!
With gorgeous old tudor-style peaks, old pained-glass windows, and an all reddish orange exterior, this building looks more like an old manor you’d find somewhere along the English countryside, not smack dab in the middle of Detroit!
Also a bonus: I don’t think this building is on most people’s radar, so it’s not likely to be crowded.
Disclaimer about my photo below: there were some obnoxiously yellow posts that I photoshopped out. If you come here for a photo, you can easily do the same with the fill tool. There are so many photo spots around this building, though, you can find one that doesn’t need that level of editing!
5. Police Radio Broadcast Building
Another puzzling choice for a photo location is the old police radio broadcast building. Like the maintenance building, it looks more like a European manor. This is an ideal photo spot on Belle Isle in winter because there is little greenery around it, so it looks the same most of the year.
There is cool history in this building, too. The city of Detroit used this building to broadcast a radio signal amongst its police force so that they could communicate privately about active crimes. They were the first in the country to establish a radio dispatch network! It helped cut back crime rates significantly due to much increased response time.
If you come here for your photo, you’ll want to note that this building isn’t in the greatest shape. There are a lot of busted out windows and unseemly air conditioning units. You’ll get a gorgeous photo, but you may have to take care of what part of the building you’re getting in your shot.
6. Belle Isle Lagoon
What is better for a nice photo spot than a large body of tranquil water? The Belle Isle Lagoon offers just that, and is a lovely, peaceful place in winter and year-round.
The only downside of the lagoon for a winter photo spot is that there is a really beautiful marble downspout that empties into the lagoon, but it is shut off in colder months. If you were to come back when it is on, this spot would provide a double opportunity for photos!
It is also worth noting that the lagoon is one of the few places on Belle Isle which is not handicap accessible. To get here, you will need to either carefully maneuver down a steep hill or use the stairs closest to the fountain.
7. Lake Takoma
Another tranquil water setting on Belle Isle, but I find this one offers a nice reflection of the background. Depending on where you’re standing at the lake, you’ll also have a nice view of Canada (as pictured below)!
If you have mobility issues, Lake Tacoma doesn’t provide quite the same accessibility challenge as the lagoon, but you may still have some. If you’re in a wheelchair, it may not be possible to get right down to the water.
8. William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse
This lighthouse is fascinating. It’s much smaller than you would imagine it to be, and not particularly as impressive as other lighthouses you might find. But it’s truly unique. This lighthouse is the only all-marble lighthouse in the entire United States, which is cool in and of itself,. It also gives it a beautiful white and blueish grey facade that could look a bit different each time you visit depending on how the sun is hitting it.
The lighthouse is one of the only places on Belle Isle you will need to walk somewhat of a distance to get to! From the closest spot you can park your car, there is a simple hike that is roughly a half mile long. The hike is semi-paved, but there are stretches where you’ll need to maneuver on uneven ground. If it’s rained recently, or the ground is de-thawing, expect to get muddy, too.
Once you get there, this will easily be one of the best photo spots on Belle Isle, though!
9. Sunset Point
So I did something really really goofy when I came here to get a photo that I have to share. I didn’t bring a memory card for my camera! I will go back and update this photo soon, but for now, all I have to show is a photo taken with my camera phone.
This spot is fantastic, though, not only for a nice photo, but to simply enjoy a gorgeous sunset. The sky lights up with pinks and oranges as you look out over the water to the skyline. Bring your camera and perhaps even a picnic dinner (there are picnic tables everywhere around Sunset Point) and enjoy the sun setting! Note that you will probably share this experience with quite a few others, as it is a very popular gathering spot for sunset for locals 🙂
Want more information on Belle Isle? Visit BelleIsleConservancy.org.