The Midwest is calling: You're guaranteed to have a grand old time in Grand Rapids.
Downtown Grand Rapids with a sculpture of giant table and chairs entitled "The Furniture City Sets the Table for the World of Art" from ArtPrize 2009, photo courtesy of John Eisenschenk via Flickr
A few years ago I convinced a friend that it would be beneficial (it was not) to travel from Ann Arbor to the west side of Michigan for an expo related to our work. But one of the highlights of the trip came when we were just beginning to approach Grand Rapids: She exclaimed, “WOW! It’s like a real city!” I gave her a lot of grief at the time (okay, I still do) for that comment—after all, she's lived in Michigan since she was 7 years old.
In fairness to her, Grand Rapids is one of those cities—even though it’s the second-largest city in Michigan, it’s still a sleeper hit. It’s always been a great (grand?) city, but it has been consistently getting cooler and cooler over the past couple of decades, and now it’s an all-around awesome place to visit. Luckily, now you’re all in the know: It’s time to visit Grand Rapids. Here are 17 of my favorite spots to visit (and I can’t wait to hear what yours are!):
Left, a meal at Marie Catrib's, photo courtesy of @mullikenmichelle via Instagram; Right, my take on Terra's Beet Margarita
Did you know that in the U.S., Michigan is second only to California in terms of agricultural diversity? AND, that West Michigan produces over three-quarters of all crops harvested in the state? Needless to say, farm-to-table restaurants abound in Grand Rapids.
- Grove: They are serious about responsibly sourcing their ingredients from local, sustainable farms and businesses (like Food52 favorite, BLiS). They've been named a top restaurant not only in Michigan but also in the Midwest. Grove is on the fancier side, so if you're looking for a more casual experience, head across the street to The Green Well, a gastropub in the same restaurant group.
- Terra: Another restaurant with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients, this is a great spot for lunch, dinner, or a weekend brunch—plus they have a good happy hour. I'm a big fan of the Gazelle Salad (green lentils, toasted farro, vegetables, walnuts, and a cumin vinaigrette) and their Beet Margarita, the latter of which I love so much, I had to try and replicate it.
- Osteria Rossa: A not-too-fancy Italian-inspired restaurant with the “Warmth of the Mitten, Soul of the Boot.” If I still lived in town, it would be my ideal neighborhood restaurant: they have local beers, hand-crafted cocktails, a just big-enough wine list, and the food is consistently superb. You won't go wrong with the wood-fired pizzas or house-made pastas—just don't miss out on a side of wood-roasted mushrooms.
- Marie Catrib’s: I like Marie Catrib's best for breakfast or lunch, though you can get dinner here, too. They have an extensive menu with something for every type of eater, plus they have a packed deli case and shelves full of baked treats if you'd rather take your food to-go.
Left, Founders Brewing Company, courtesy of @foundersbrewing; Right, Madcap Coffee, courtesy of @joshuaweaver
Back in 1945, Grand Rapids was known for being the first U.S. city to add fluoride to its drinking water; these days it's better known for beer. There are more breweries in the area than you'll be able to visit in one trip—which just means you'll need to plan another trip!
- Founders: Everyone will tell you to go here, for good reason—it's Grand Rapids' best-known brewing company, and they've won all sorts of awards. Go drink their beer.
- Perrin: This brewery is on the north side of town; it's the furthest away from downtown, but it's worth the small extra hike for their Grapefruit IPA.
- Harmony: In addition to a healthy offering of beers, Harmony Brewing Company has wood-fired pizzas, and while I've never understood the whole pizza-and-breadsticks phenomenon, I make an exception for Harmony. Their cheesy breadsticks with balsamic, oregano, and sea salt could convert any breadstick derider.
- Brewery Vivant: You'll feel like you just stepped into a Belgian monastery, though it's actually a former funeral home. Get the duck confit nachos and a Big Red Coq to wash them down with (you'll be forgiven if you smirk while you order).
- Madcap Coffee: One cannot survive on beer alone (or at least one probably shouldn't), so when you need a caffeinated pick-me-up, head to this downtown gem. And good news: Even if you can't get to Grand Rapids anytime soon, you can have their coffee come to you.
Left, an overview of the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden within Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park; Right, "Long Island Buddha" sculpture within the garden
- Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park: With indoor and outdoor gardens and galleries, you could easily spend the better part of a day here and just begin to scratch the surface of what the facility has to offer, so check the website to map out a few highlights before you go. I’m particularly excited about this summer’s addition of a Japanese garden with a Zen-style rock garden and an authentic Japanese teahouse.
- The Fish Ladder Sculpture: On any given day, you'll get a lovely view of the Grand River and downtown from here. If it's the right time of year, you'll realize this is a functional sculpture—you'll get to watch migratory fish like salmon or steelhead use the fish ladder to move upstream.
- Meyer May House: I'm a sucker for anything Frank Lloyd Wright-related, and if you are too, take advantage of the opportunity to tour a meticulously-restored Prairie house for free. I'm especially partial to a wall of windows in the living room because it's a spot where Wright tailored the house to this client: Most people will find themselves looking at the wood moulding, rather than out the windows, but Meyer May was short in stature, so they were perfectly sized for him.
Left, colorful finds in Eastown Antiques; Right, young love in Yesterdog, photo courtesy of Kate Bek
- Eastown: Eastown is a hip, very walkable neighborhood on the (you guessed it) east side of the city with galleries, coffee shops, specialty stores (my favorites are Eastown Antiques and ReBlue), and more. There's a wide range of eateries, the most famous of which is Yesterdog, a hot dog shop that was represented in the film American Pie as Dog Years.
- The Downtown Market: This is a mixed-use facility that's home to an outdoor farmers market on Saturdays from May through September. It's worth a visit on non-market days though, too: You'll find vendors indoors year-round with produce, prepared foods, and baked goods. The building (one of many LEED-certified in the city) is also home to an incubator kitchen, demonstration kitchen, and rooftop greenhouses.
"Intersections" by Anila Quayyum Agha in the Grand Rapids Art Museum from ArtPrize 2014
- Museums: Grand Rapids has an impressive range of museums, and right downtown there are 5 within walking distance of each other: the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts; the Grand Rapids Children's Museum (a favorite of my daughter); the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum (the 38th President of the United States wasn't born in Grand Rapids, but he was raised there); and my favorites, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
- ArtPrize: If you visit this fall (specifically between September 23rd and October 11th), you’ll want to plan some time to take in ArtPrize, a downtown-wide (and beyond) art competition. Last year there were over 1,500 accepted entries from artists (myself included) appearing at nearly 200 venues across the city.
- The beach: Grand Rapids is only about 30 miles from Lake Michigan, so plan to take a day trip. There are some great cities within easy driving distance, like Saugatuck (and neighboring Douglas), Holland, and South Haven—though I’m partial to Grand Haven. There’s a beautiful beach, picturesque lighthouse, and musical fountain, but the real draw for me is the original location of Fricano’s. Fricano's Pizza Tavern is said to be the first pizzeria in Michigan, and they continue to hold their own to this day. Get ready for the long line out the door to get thin crust pizzas topped off with a mix of spices dubbed “bird seed.”
Where do you love to go in Grand Rapids? Leave your suggestions for us in the comments!