In the 1850’s the prototype of Grand Rapids began to take shape as the logging industry picked up speed around the combination of Civil War veterans finding jobs in the Midwest cutting down trees and the availability of the Grand River, which was an easy way to transport the logs. Eventually, the plethora of available timber lead to the nickname “The Furniture City,” as the town became a large exporter of furniture. This perhaps dry-sounding nickname is certainly misleading: there is in fact an enormously diverse number of things to do in Grand Rapids, from museums to outdoor activities to nightlife and shopping. Like any major city, Grand Rapids is a cultural force in the Midwest, and here are ten reasons why.
10. Millennium Park
With over 1,400 acres to explore, Millennium Park is one of the United States’ largest urban parks. Recently established in 2000, the park serves as a recreational center not only for Grand Rapids, but the surrounding towns of Wyoming, Walker, and Grandville as well. There is certainly no shortage of activities, as visitors can utilize the hiking or bike trails, the beach and watersports areas, as well as paddle boat rentals and plenty of playgrounds for kids. Add to this some seriously placid and peaceful lakes, and you’ve got your whole day planned for you. Admission is free, but the beach does charge a $4 per person fee.
9. Oval Beach
When you picture Michigan, beaches aren’t always the first thing to come to mind, but the Michigan shoreline has some of the most beautiful freshwater beaches in the country. Lined by grassy sand dunes, Oval Beach has been rated a top beach by various outlets. The lake is shallow for some distance, making it possible to swim out far, although it does get pretty cool in the winter. The direction of Lake Michigan is perfectly lined up to catch the setting sun, so be sure to witness dusk if possible. There are limited facilities and concessions available and parking costs only $8.
8. Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Celebrating its 20th year in 2015, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is a major cultural destination. Boasting Michigan’s largest indoor tropical collection, as well as five other indoor gardens and plenty more outdoors, the park will wow with its truly impressive assortment of horticulture, including everything from a Japanese Garden to a Carnivorous Plant House. Additionally, on display is an extensive sculpture collection, house both in indoor exhibits and around the surrounding grounds. Open seven days a week, admission costs $12 per adult and $6 per child.
7. Grand Rapids Public Museum
Having been in existence in one form or another for over 150 years, this museum displays a mixture of science, history, and art on the banks of the Grand River. Now in its third iteration, the museum also houses rotating and permanent exhibits on West Michigan habitats, a 1928 carousel, the Anishinabek – the original inhabitants of the area – and a newly renovated planetarium. The museum is open seven days a week, with admission beginning at $18 for adults and $13 for children.
6. John Ball Zoo
With its recent expansions, the John Ball Zoo is the first accredited zoo in Michigan. Built upon land originally donated to the city by John Ball in 1884, the zoo went through some difficult times during the Great Depression, as many of it’s animals were sold to other zoos. Having gone through several revitalizations since, and receiving support from the both the city and Kent County, the Zoo is today a thriving educational force, housing hundred of species of animals from around the world, an aquarium, and an aviary. Admission fluctuates seasonally, but never exceeds $10 for adults. Additional attractions may need to be purchased separately.
5. Meyer May House
Designed by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Meyer May House is situated in the Heritage Hill District. Commissioned in 1908, Wright designed the house to be in direct contract to the Victorian and Neoclassical houses that served as neighbors. Letting in as much light from the south as possible, the Meyer May House is full of artfully constructed glass windows, murals and plenty of attention to detail. Tours are completely free of charge, and are given on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, lasting roughly 90 minutes.
4. Great Escape Room
Part of the recent surge of real-time group problem solving, The Great Escape Room is a perplexing and perhaps frustrating – although undoubtedly fun – way to send an afternoon. Set in a Sherlock Holmes-esque library full of leather bound book and relaxing chairs, your goal is to follow the clues and solve the puzzles so that you can find your way out. Reportedly, only 20% of participants can solve the puzzle within one hour. Escape Rooms are a great way to build rapport with a team, or just spend a rainy day with friends. Tickets are $23 during the week and $28 on the weekend.
3. Beer City
Among many other things, Grand Rapids is known for its beer. Home to over 40 microbreweries, there is never a lack of new brews to try. The city has even made their own hand-drawn beer map for those wanting to explore the beer landscape on their own. For folks less willing to construct their own schedule, or who might just appreciate some recommendations, there are a handful of beer tours throughout the city that will safely help you hop from brewery to brewery. GR Brew Bus costs $30 per person and will visit 3-4 local breweries over the course of roughly two hours, while Grand Rapids Beer Tours offer slightly longer and more involved tours for $50 per person.
2. Uptown Shopping
Uptown is actually comprised of four smaller neighborhoods: Eastown, East Hills, East Fulton, and Wealthy Street. Considered the city’s premiere location for shopping, dining, and living, Uptown has been under development since it was farmland in the 1800s. The 1990s saw Uptown being largely vacant and decrepit, until South East Economic Development, a local organization, began to focus on revamping Uptown as an attractive space for artists and small businesses. The project has been an obvious success, with sprawling options of specialized shopping and romantic restaurants (and some oddity stores) that can keep the whole family entertained.
1. Fish Ladder
Dams are structures that have many obvious benefits to society – generation of power among the most important – but there can also be unintended side effects. One deleterious effect is that migratory fish, particularly salmon, cannot overcome a barrier such as a dam to reach their breeding grounds that may be upstream. The solution? Fish ladders. Used around the world, fish ladders come in all sort of different designs, but the Sixth Street Dam has a very prominent design – a series of concrete pools that allow large migratory fish to climb up or down. There is no charge for viewing, and spring and fall are the best times for observing.
While it may not immediately come to mind as a vacation destination, there are still numerous places to visit in Grand Rapids that show it to be just as interesting, diverse and relevant as any other major city. With beautiful architecture and a cornucopia of tourist attractions in Grand Rapids, the city is also home to museums, stellar restaurants and more microbreweries per capita than is really necessary, and provides a unique flavor that cannot be replicated anywhere else.