The 5 Best Things to do in Grand Rapids, Michigan

things-to-do-in-grand-rapids

The 5 best things to do in Grand Rapids, Michigan to get the most out of a lovable Midwest City that has so much history, good beer, and art.

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 US 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 sometimes take some time to get 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 talking 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.

Grand Rapids, Michigan - USA Travel

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. These are my favorite things to do in Grand Rapids!

5 Best Things to do in Grand Rapids

Go Beer Tasting

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 that we’re a little too into our own craft beer scene on the West Coast, and there are many people who like to think we’re the only ones who have mastered the good beer in the USA.

But, this could not be more wrong. The craft beer scene across the US varies but there are pockets of really good beer all over the country.

Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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 at many of the breweries around town as well. The breweries were 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, amirite?

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 craft brews.

Related: A Guide to Grand Rapids Breweries

Spend an Afternoon at the Museums

Another enticing factor about Grand Rapids is the number 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.

Whale Skeleton at the museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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.

Explore the Local History

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.

History in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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 your 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.

Admire the Architecture

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.

Architecture in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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.

Go on a Street Art Hunt

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 a while 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.

Street Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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 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 a 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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Why You Should Visit Grand Rapids, Michigan - Midwest Travel

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
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52 comments

  1. So glad you’ve discovered our wonderful city. The next time you’re here, Meijer gardens is a must. Simply fantastic. And just a few minutes walk from downtown is our stunning heritage hill district which is an architecture buffs dream. And be sure to tour the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the hill district. See you soon!

    1. There is so much I missed out on with my short time in the city, I can’t wait to make a return visit! I love gardens and architecture so all of these recommendations sound right up my alley – thanks Jonathan!

  2. The opening shot, of Groskopf’s?? All those windows got cute little mustaches……. :})

  3. I have friends that live in Grand Rapids and have visited there a few times. Lovely place. 🙂 Especially in the summer.:)

  4. I’ve only been in grand rapids once, and briefly, so I didn’t get to see much, but from what I did see, I for sure want to take another trip! May as well, since I live so close!

    1. When you get ready to move back to GR, check out Hello West Michigan. They help people who are interested in relocating to the area by connecting them with employers and other resources you might need during relocation. A very cool organization!

  5. Michigan has never really been a state I’m dying to see (other than wanting to cross all 50 states off my list) but this city does look really neat!

    1. You know, I had never thought too much about visiting Michigan either Rachel, until I started planning a Midwest trip for my birthday. I’m so glad I went because Grand Rapids and the state as a whole blew my socks off. I love when you go to places with no expectations and come away with a great experience.

  6. Looks fun! I lived in Chicago for most of my life and never made it past Wisconsin haha. I wish I would have taken a road trip up to Michigan! Now I live in FL and it’s too cold for me up there! 😀

    1. That’s great Ashley, I LOVED Chicago while I was in the Midwest too. I can relate! Moving up the Pacific Northwest after going to school in San Diego, so hard to get used to weather-wise, haha!

  7. We were there in the fall! We only flew into GR, but I guess we should have stayed there long. Looks like so many fun things to do!

  8. That street art is amazing! I haven’t been to Grand Rapids in many years, but I’d love to go back. I live in WI, about a 2 hour drive from Chicago. We have lots of great beer here too, but I’d love to go to some of the craft breweries there.

    1. I was very impressed by the street art in Grand Rapids – so colorful and funky! I’ve heard Wisconsin is great for beer too – on my list of places to visit for sure, Shann 🙂

  9. My company works with them for marketing their website, etc. and we always hear how trendy they are & what their new beer is. Seems like an amazing place to visit, I would 100% love to go! xx Adaleta Avdic

  10. Some of the street art is the remnant from previous years of ArtPrize. It is the world’s largest art competition. Held every year in Mid-September and the weather here is gorgeous. The dining scene here is impressive too.

    1. I’ve been hearing so much about ArtPrize, Jason! It makes me want to jump on a plane to come right back to Michigan this September. If the event produces the type of art I saw on the streets of Grand Rapids, I think I would definitely like it!

  11. I am glad you enjoyed our beautiful city, Mimi. A must visit here is in mid September during Art Prize- it will just blow you away!

  12. I’m glad you had a good experience here. I’ve spent a good part of my life telling people what a great city I lived in and finally you and many other writers and publications (i.e. Forbes: Best city to raise a family) have discovered it too. Now I’m coming to the realization that one of the things that made us such a great place to live was the anonymity that kept GR a big-little city. We have the amenities of a large city without most of the down sides. I only hope as the region progresses we don’t lose that. Next time travel west 30 miles and visit the region’s beeches. IMHO West Michigan beaches are some of the best in the world.

    1. I’ve heard the beaches in Michigan are lovely, Jerry! I can relate with feeling like your hometown or favorite place is getting too discovered or “too big” once other people start finding out how awesome it is too, but hopefully Grand Rapids can stay the beautiful, historic, and happening place I found it to be when I visited – and that it’s awesomeness can still be shared with the many people who want to see how cool of a place it is. 🙂

  13. Come back in the summer and take a short hop over to some of the most beautiful sandy beaches in the country! Even better -they are salt and shark free!

    1. Shark free? That’s a plus! I want to see more of the beaches around the Midwest, and I’ve been hearing that Michigan has some beautiful ones. Thanks for the tip, Eric!

  14. You need to come back for ArtPrize, about 3 weeks in Sept./Oct. Its unbelievable! And when you need a break from the largest art competition in the world you MUST see the restored Frank Lloyd Wright home. The Meyer May House is the finest restored home in the country thanks to Steelcase. Its open 3 days a week and FREE!

    1. That’s what I keep hearing about ArtPrize, Lee! It sounds like such a cool event/competition. I didn’t even know about the Frank Lloyd Wright home, but I will definitely be adding that to my to-see next time I’m in town – I love checking out the local architecture in new cities & Frank Lloyd Wright has some really interesting works of art (especially in the Midwest!). 🙂

  15. Amazing! And did you know that Grand Rapids is the intellectual center of the Evangelical Christian world? (Don’t laugh! It really is a thing!)

  16. Awesome post, I actually really want to go there! One of my best friends got married there years ago and I wasn’t able to go. I need to visit there
    Danielle | AccordingtoD.com

  17. Next time you visit – head West to Grand Haven!! You can’t beat the beach, walk the pier to the lighthouse, shop the cute stores on the main street. Anywhere you go in Michigan you are no more than 20 minutes from a lake, river….. Fall is my favorite time of year in Michigan. I lived in Connecticut for 1.5 years and as beautiful as it was, it made me realize how incredible Michigan is. I grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids, and it can’t be beat. If you like antiques, come visit The Blue Door and the other antique stores on Fulton Street and the hidden gems off of Wealthy Street by the Grand Rapids Ballet. There is so much more to see.

  18. I live near Detroit and still haven’t fully explored GR, but I’m going to this summer! Thanks for the tips–I knew there would be lots of beer, but had no idea about the museums! Technically I’ve been, but for weddings, soooo…no exploring.

    Chloe | Wanderlust in the Midwest

    1. You should definitely make a visit, Chloe! Grand Rapids is much different than Detroit, but both cities have a lot going on in their own right. I was blown away (and a little overwhelmed) with how many museums there are in GR!

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