I didn’t know what to expect with Michigan, or I should say, the Midwest in general. I wanted to explore a new area of my home country, a new city for my birthday (Chicago!), and discover a few unique all-American locales along the way. Grand Rapids ended up being one of my favorite stops in my two weeks of travel in the region for a variety of reasons.
This past year has been all about discovering the States from the perspective of a traveler. I’ve loved seeing Montana and Florida for the first time, living in and exploring the Pacific Northwest, going back for family & friend visits to California, and now overflowing memories of my journey through the Midwest.
Two aspects that stood out to me the most during my travels through Michigan – the state has incredibly clean roads and the city planning is much more impressive than some parts of the West Coast (*ahem* Portland). I also noted that the locals take time getting to know.
I met many friendly people in Michigan, but I only saw that side once I broke down the initial barrier of introductions. Whereas in Chicago I found people open to talk to strangers at any given time, locals in Grand Rapids and Detroit were a little more reserved but still just as friendly in their own way.
What I loved about Grand Rapids was the size. After living right in downtown Portland for the past year, I’ve felt the need for a break from city life. Although Grand Rapids is the second largest city in Michigan, it didn’t feel like it. I walked everywhere.
Even if it was an hour long walk to where I was going, I enjoyed it so much I forgot about time – the architecture, street art, and culture were so different and fascinating to me.
If you’re wanting to discover a new city that is off the beaten path and offers up some of the best parts of American culture, Grand Rapids is a great place to start. I’m happy I was able to experience it for myself before moving abroad again at the end of this year.
If I haven’t already convinced you enough about the natural draws of this small Michigan city, here are a few more aspects that endeared me to the place and made me want to return again soon.
I have to start with the craft beer, I mean, when do I not? But for Grand Rapids it’s especially pertinent because the city has been labeled the “Best Beer Town” by USA Today, and came first in national polls for the title of Beer City USA.
I have to admit, I was surprised when I found this out since I had never heard much about craft beer from the Midwest. I’ll be the first to say, we’re a little too into our own product on the left coast, and there are many people who like to think we’re the only ones who have mastered the craft beer scene in the USA. This could not be more wrong.
I was enthralled with the breweries I found in Grand Rapids. I didn’t get to all 40+ breweries that are on the Beer City Ale Trail, I don’t know if I would’ve survived that in two days, but I did get to a handful that I was impressed with.
It wasn’t just the beer that was tasty, but the food culture found at many of the breweries around town. The breweries were also where I saw the best of the well-known Midwest friendliness come out. There’s nothing better than having a chat over a crafty brew, amiright?
I’ll be writing up a post solely on the breweries in Grand Rapids (and I can’t wait!), since let’s be real they deserve their own spotlight, but I did have to mention it here. The craft beer scene alone made me come away with a positive experience in the city, and I know you’ll fall in love with Grand Rapids too, especially if you’re into the brews.
Another enticing factor about Grand Rapids is the amount of museums within and around the city. There are six museums that you can easily get to upon arrival. That’s SIX! For a city that has a population of around 200,000, this fact blew me away.
I’ve been to far larger cities that had about two or three museums on offer. I’m a nerd when it comes to learning new things, especially when it has to do with local history or art, and I was inspired (although a tad overwhelmed) with how many choices I had.
I ended up going to the Grand Rapids Public Museum since I was told that was the place to go if you only had time to see one. Founded in 1845, it’s one of the oldest history museums in America. Besides the interesting exhibits I found there, I was also sold with the great view over the Grand River from the panoramic windows and the huge skeleton whale on the main floor.
The Robot Zoo exhibit was the cherry on top. Apparently it’s kind of meant for kids, but I’m not even ashamed that I spent the most time in this part of the museum enjoying the interactive exhibit.
The museum covers a lot in a condensed and manageable three levels. You’ll find Grand Rapids and Michigan history as a whole, Native American history, as well as personal stories from other minorities. There are quite a few areas of the museum that go into science, wildlife, and the automotive boom that was centered around Michigan in the 1900s and beyond.
I easily filled up an afternoon at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, but there are plenty of other options for museums as I mentioned before. Other museums in the area include the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Urban Institute of Contemporary Art, and, considered to be one of the top 30 must-see museums, the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
I find this part of the United States to be so interesting, because compared to the West Coast there is a whole lot of history. Fun fact – did you know that president Ford was from Grand Rapids? He’s buried there now with his wife Betty at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
How about that Grand Rapids is nicknamed “Furniture City” (as well as “River City”) because it used to be one of the leading furniture-manufacturing centers. In fact, the city is still home to 5 of the world’s most popular office furniture companies.
The museums are a testament to how much history and culture there are to learn about in the city. Walking around the streets of Grand Rapids, you can create you own historical timeline with the well-kept houses from the 19th century that you can find along the Cherry Hill Historic District.
From over 2,000 years ago with the life of the indigenous Hopewell culture, to more recent 21st century memories, there is plenty of rich history to discover within Grand Rapids. If you’re a history buff, it’s one of the many reasons why you should make a stop here.
Speaking of history, the architecture in Grand Rapids is very much tied into the layered history of the city. Part of the reason why my walks were so enjoyable around town was because of the vibrant, colorful, and old architecture I discovered along the way. The downtown shows off brick buildings pointing to the industrial focus of the city’s past and present. The historic Victorian homes on the outskirts give a glimpse into the elegant life of Grand Rapid notables from centuries past.
The way that the city was laid out, I could still imagine horse and buggies going down the street, or maybe a new Ford Model T during the early 1900s. The history easily came alive no matter where I turned in the city.
One of my favorite pieces of architecture was actually where I ended up staying for accommodation at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
A modernized historic hotel fashioned after the Beaux-Arts architectural style, the Amway Grand used to be called the Pantlind Hotel and opened in 1913. By 1925, it was considered one of the finest hotels in America, and it’s not hard to see why when you see it in person. Even if you’re not staying there, make sure to take a walk through the grand lobby, your jaw will drop.
The Street Art
And lastly, even when all of the elegant architecture around the city, there is the industrial component which I found to be just as beautiful. I love street art as many of you who have followed my blog for awhile should know by now, and there’s something that works so perfectly with colorful street art on industrial brick buildings. Like two peas in a pod.
I appreciate talented street art in cities because I see it as a free art museum, and also a creative way to spruce up old buildings. Street art adds a colorful and artistic flair to cities and I loved the pieces of work I found hidden away in Grand Rapids.
To end this post I just have to say – it’s easy to just go to the biggest well-known cities when you’re planning a trip to the Midwest or the United States as a whole, and although I adore many of those big cities as well, I would always recommend making visits to at least few key small cities.
The small cities of America are sometimes the best places to understand the culture found here. It’s where you can find unique treasures you would’ve never seen otherwise. If you have any travels planned around the States this summer, I encourage you to get off the beaten path and discover a new city you’ve never heard of. Grand Rapids was such a city for me and it became the highlight of my two weeks around the Midwest. I hope you get to discover it one day too!
Note: Experience Grand Rapids graciously hosted me as a guest while I was in Grand Rapids, but all opinions, as always, are my own.
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