Tell people you’re visiting Grand Rapids and you’re likely to get a confused look. This city of 200,000, located in Western Michigan, is still an under the radar travel destination, but it won’t be for long. It’s easy to navigate, features a premier art destination, and has a lively craft beer scene. It’s easy to sample during a quick weekend getaway, but, once you get a taste, you’ll want to return for a second helping.
About Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids is located on the western side of Michigan, opposite Detroit which is on the thumb side of this large state that looks like a mitten. I was familiar with it for only 2 reasons: it’s the home of the 38th President of the U.S., Gerald R. Ford, and it was fictionalized in the “American Pie” films.
Historically, it’s a city known for furniture manufacturing and is still home to Steelcase, the largest producer of office furniture in the world. Amway, the international distributor of household products famous for its pyramid sales model, is also based here. My visit was paid for, in part, by the nice folks at Pure Michigan; as always, though, the opinions expressed are my own.
I struck up conversations with many residents and they were happy to tell my why they love Grand Rapids. Repeatedly, I heard that’s it’s safe, there are plenty of jobs, and it’s a great place to raise a family.
I’m not looking to relocate, but a destination with happy residents makes a great place to visit. And Grand Rapids didn’t disappoint.
Uber: My Personal Chariot
I arrived by plane at the 2nd busiest airport in Michigan, Gerald R. Ford International Airport. It’s located about 20 minutes from downtown. I passed on a rental car and split a $36 cab ride with a stranger to the Amway Grand Plaza, an historic Grand Rapids hotel. For getting around the rest of the weekend, I relied on Uber.
I’ve had recent wonderful experiences with Uber. On brief getaways, a rental car is convenient, but navigating an unfamiliar locale often leads me down one-way streets the wrong way. Hailing Uber means I can enjoy a cocktail or two and get where I need to go for a few dollars.
Grand Rapids was no exception. Within approximately 6 minutes each time, my summoned vehicles arrived and transported me to my next destination for an average fare of $5.50. Alternating Uber with walking helped me check out a few different attractions during my whirlwind 36-hour visit.
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Ranked in the top 100 most-visited art museums worldwide by Art Newspaper, the leading publication in global art news, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park was at the top of my must-see list while visiting Grand Rapids. The weather cooperated; a 70-degree day in November in Michigan felt like June.
The main entrance is adjacent to the soaring conservatories and leads to the admission desk and interior exhibition space including a gallery that houses temporary exhibits, like the one I viewed, an installation of works by participants in ArtPrize, Grand Rapids annual 2 1/2 weeklong celebration of the arts. There are also indoor tropical, arid, and seasonal gardens to explore, a cafe, and a large gift shop featuring decorative objects and practical gifts for gardeners.
After touring the indoor gardens, I hopped on one of the narrated tram tours of the sculpture park and introduced myself to Thora and David, two of the great volunteers that make the Frederik Meijer hum. The dedicated corps donates over 87,000 hours a year to keep the 350-acre park in ship-shape.
The tram ride takes about an hour and the docents point out sculptural highlights as you wend your way along the trails. They also talk about the history of the park. Collecting sculpture was the passion of Frederik, the deceased Chairman of Meijer, a midwest retailer that I’ve been told is like Walmart but better.
His wife, Lena, was an avid gardener. The site where the park stands was planned as a location for a Meijer market, but ran into planning and zoning issues. Lena suggested developing a botanical garden instead and convinced Frederik it would make a great spot to showcase his sculpture. It opened in 1995 and hosts over 650,000 guests annually.
Special events held in the park include a popular series of summer concerts and many children’s programs. For example, local schools visit on field trips to walk the trails and perform calisthenics that mimic the postures of the sculptures. I thought this was a creative and engaging way to combine art and physical fitness education.
Beer City USA
I did a fair amount of walking while touring the gardens and sculpture park so it seemed only right to reward myself by sampling a flight of some of the 40+ breweries located in and around Grand Rapids. The town proudly promotes itself as Beer City USA and they’ve developed a clever campaign called the Brewsaders Passport. Visitors can pick up a blank passport at participating breweries and get stamped each time they pop into a different location. Collect 8 stamps, mail back the passport, and you’ll receive a souvenir tee-shirt. I need 3 more, so I’ll be visiting Grand Rapids again in the near future.
If you’re thinking that once you’ve seen one brewery, you’ve seen them all, think again. Each of the five I visited had a different design and buzz. Some were large, noisy, and young, like Founders and The Knickerbocker. Others were family-friendly, like The Mitten. I liked HopCat most of all. I think it had something to do with snagging a sunlit window seat and indulging in day drinking, two things I enjoy but hardly ever get to do.
There’s Food, Too!
I got a real taste of Grand Rapids at the Downtown Market. It’s an indoor food hall with vendors offering spices, sushi, flowers, and fowl. I felt myself gaining weight as I walked up and down the aisles, sniffing the air like a Labrador. It was unseasonably warm during my visit, so ice cream felt like the right choice. Love’s makes vegan gelato and the ice cream is made from grass-fed dairy. My mint chocolate chip sparkled with real mint flavor.
The breweries in town take pride in their beer but they lavish attention on the food as well. I particularly enjoyed the Fish Dip at The Mitten, a blend of locally caught and smoked whitefish, salmon, and trout, blended with spice and served with a lightly toasted and buttered baguette.
I also tried one of Grand Rapids most popular restaurants, San Chez Bistro. I sampled several different tapas; the gambas al ajillo were a standout and I’m glad I ordered a loaf of the homebaked bread to soak up the spicy oil left over after I polished off the grilled shrimp. I certainly didn’t intend to eat the entire loaf by myself, but I did.
Where to Stay
A hotel in the heart of downtown was the best option for me while visiting Grand Rapids since I didn’t want the responsibility of a rental car. There are several options, including the JW Marriott and an Embassy Suites. I stayed at the Amway Grand Plaza, a complex of restaurants, shops, exhibition space, and 2 distinct lodging choices. Some of the modern tower rooms feature dramatic views of Grand Rapids. But I stayed in the original Pantlind Hotel section which dates back to 1913.
The hotel oozes history and has 2 wow-worthy features. First, I recommend entering the hotel from Monroe Street, so you’ll walk into the original lobby where three huge Czech chandeliers with Austrian crystals hang; they’ll stun you into silence. Also, on a wall in the main elevator bank, there’s a list of the famous past guests of the hotel and their room numbers. You will, like Goldilocks, need to check out who slept in your bed.
My trip was too short to really get to know Grand Rapids. When I return – remember, I still have to get 3 more brewery stamps to earn my free t-shirt – I’ll go for ArtPrize or maybe combine it with a visit to neighboring Holland, Michigan, to see their famous tulips in bloom.
If You Go:
Grand Rapids is a friendly and safe city with a small town feel. Walking back to the hotel one night, there were kids riding bikes and skateboards down the middle of a car-free street. I didn’t find the downtown to be very interesting in an architectural sense but I did enjoy catching different views of the Grand River from the many bridges, roads, and walkways that cross it.
My last night happened to be the evening of November 7, 2016; the final Trump rally before the election was held in DeVos Place, the convention hall adjacent to my hotel. The crowd was large, loud, and angry – the polar opposite of the city I’d experienced. I went to bed choosing to believe the crowds were bussed in from elsewhere and that my candidate would prevail. Unfortunately, wishing doesn’t always make it so.