Grand Rapids offers new surprises for every visit.
As an out-of-towner who’s covered happenings in Michigan’s second-largest city for a long time as the editor of a statewide business magazine in addition to Midwest travel publications, and meetings and events journals in five states — not to mention being the dad of a 2018 Grand Valley State University grad who loved his college’s downtown campus and living nearby — I’ve explored this river city from many different perspectives, and I’ve relished everything I experienced along the way.
It seems lots of others agree about the big-city appeal and small-town friendliness of this thriving destination. The following statistics provide more impact than any superlatives I could use in writing about what you might expect when you visit Grand Rapids:
- Ranked No. 1 “Best Travel Destination in Michigan,” 2020, Travel Pulse
- Ranked No. 3 in America for fun and recreation, 2020, Places Rated Almanac
- One of seven “Midwest Cities Absolutely Worth Exploring,” 2019, Trip-Advisor Rentals Blog
- One of 15 “Best Beer Cities Around the World,” 2019, CNN Travel
- Top 10 “U.S. Tours That Even Americans Should Take,” 2019 (Grand Rapids Beer Tour), Discoverer
- One of 16 “Incredibly Romantic Getaways in the Midwest,” 2019, TripAdvisor
- One of the “Top 10 Places to Visit in Michigan,” 2019, Travel Channel
- No. 1 “Top-Ranking Minor League Market in the U.S.,” 2019, Sports Business Journal
- No. 9 “Best Place to Retire in the U.S.,” 2019, Condé Nast Traveler
- No. 10 “Best Places for Older Travelers to Visit,” 2020, AARP/Expedia
My favorite: Recognition by U.S. News & World Report as one of the “Best Places to Live.”
Surprised? Most people are. These distinctions reveal a diverse side of this cosmopolitan community on the banks of the Grand River. Another plus: It’s about a leisurely 30-minute drive from Lake Michigan’s beautiful sandy beaches.
Grand Rapids’ downtown is inviting, walkable, and home to great restaurants, shops, and hotels. Together they create a central business district that rates among my favorites for the variety of things to experience so close to main street. But, like elsewhere, the pandemic tortured local businesses with shutdowns and restrictions, so it’s difficult to write with certainty about the future of any downtown amenities.
At one time last summer, for example, the Amway Hotel Corp. laid off 580 employees at its big hotels, based on COVID-19 unpredictability. Blockbuster January and February 2021 events at DeVos Place, such as the Remodeling & New Homes Show; the Camper, Travel & RV Show; and the Michigan International Auto Show were canceled.
Locals are eager to see the excitement return to their town in 2021. That’s why news from some of my go-to favorites can help us start looking ahead, again.
Experience Grand Rapids
This quartet of hotels sets tone for downtown action
With more than 1,500 hotel rooms in its arsenal, AHC Hospitality influences a lot of what happens in downtown Grand Rapids. As the management arm behind all the details at five impressive city properties, among others in its portfolio, AHC creates a variety of wonderful, relaxing environments where a guest can feel like a star.
The classic two wings of the Amway Grand Plaza and the neighboring majestic JW Marriott on the riverfront are flanked on one side by the Courtyard by Marriott and the AC Hotel. Nestled a few blocks away among the shops and restaurants that line the bustling areas of Pearl and Ottawa streets sits the Hyatt Place.
They’re within walking distance to the popular attractions, which makes it easy to spend some time at each. Take lunch breaks along Pearl or Ionia streets.
An almost mile-long elevated skywalk connects the Amway, Marriott, and Courtyard, providing convenient indoor access to the DeVos Place convention/concert hall on the north and the Van Andel Arena events complex on the south, with the hotels in the middle.
My favorite escape (it’s hard to pick just one) among the five hotels? It’s the outdoor jdek at the JW Marriott overlooking the Grand River, the bridge lights, and the merry-go-round at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which is lit up at night. Located on the entrance level of the hotel, beyond the Margaux bistro, visitors can sit outside on a sizeable curved patio that features four large gazebos with fire pits. A fifth gazebo provides room for live entertainment during the summer.
What makes this 337-room hotel so special? “We’ve been operating for nearly 14 years and the hotel continues to be in the top running for the best service in the U.S. for the JW brand,” the affable Marriott GM Nicholas Remes says.
Other amenities are its renovated spa, which is scheduled to open in the fall “as a brand-new experience,” he adds. “The Margaux’s classic French cuisine is presented in a very approachable environment. Our meeting rooms and International Ballroom all just went through a top-to-bottom full renovation, from fixtures to carpeting and beyond.”
All of AHC’s properties have been hard hit by the effects of the pandemic. “People are eager for a change of scenery, and we excitedly and safely get to welcome those guests into our hotel,” Remes says.
“We’re very optimistic. Based on our future bookings for rooms and events, it’s going to be a very fast ramp-up once COVID- 19 is in the rear view,” he says. “Our feedback has been how safe guests feel in our hotel. We’re very proud of that.”
Remes also is excited about the changes at the Margaux, which launched new French-inspired lunch, brunch, and dinner menus along with a refreshed, airy design last October. The dining room features a comfortable Parisian feel with velvet upholstery, brushed metal finishes, and a sleek marble bar area with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the Grand River.
AMWAY GRAND PLAZA
It’s easy to see why this 664-room grand dame rates as a favorite. Over the years, I’ve probably reserved more than 30 overnights there and hope to add more.
An enthusiastic Assistant GM Ross Bartlett likes to describe it like this: “The Amway Grand Plaza is one of Grand Rapids’ most well-known and iconic locations that visitors to the area must see. The historic Pantlind Lobby is a sight to behold, as guests take in the beautiful chandeliers nestled in one of the world’s largest gold leaf ceilings. The hotel is home to nine dining outlets, catering to every traveler’s palate, and it’s situated directly on the banks of the Grand River. Our Tower guest rooms offer stunning views of the Grand River and the bustling city below. In the summer, guests can dine outside, along the Grand River, at The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck.”
The hotel is in the midst of a $40-million glass tower enhancement project which includes new floor-to-ceiling windows in guest rooms, showcasing a modernized look and creating enhanced energy-efficiency.
“The historic nature of the hotel and its elegant reputation, including all the beautiful architectural designs and thoughtful décor around the hotel, combined with the classic Pantlind guest rooms that were renovated in 2019, are what make this hotel so special,” Bartlett explains.
That extensive Pantlind update, which maintained the historic touches of the 1913-era classic, includes three different color palettes rotating through the nine floors and new windows in every room, to allow for enhanced natural lighting. It’s interesting to note that no two rooms have the same architecture or design because of the many different angles and beams that were part of the original construction as well as renovations over the years.
After being closed for more than a year due to the tower glass enhancement, a new 27th-floor restaurant finally opened in November as MDRD (pronounced Madrid), spotlighting “savory modern Spanish dishes and tantalizing desserts with impeccable views of the Grand Rapids skyline and Grand River,” Bartlett says.
The completely redesigned restaurant layout highlights an unobstructed “best in the house” river panorama that’s so much better than the stuffy design of the former Cygnus 27 dining room and bar area.
From its early use as a refrigerator production factory to a warehouse to a onetime TGI Fridays restaurant, a deteriorating 19th-century building near the Van Andel Arena and The B.O.B. entertainment complex has been transformed into a delightful new 130-room AC Hotel.
The spirited general manager, Ryan Schmied, enjoys making sure guests are comfortable in his stunning two-year-old boutique-style property, especially in the lobby and the lounge.
“Our lobby space, which blends with the lounge, is the heart of our hotel. Filled with Herman Miller furniture and masterful design, this space can be interpreted however our guests want to,” he says. “I love how our lobby doesn’t feel like a typical hotel lobby. It has an elegant and hip residential vibe.”
ACH wanted to capitalize on the seven-floor building’s original huge wooden beams, now another architectural highlight in many guest rooms, and the Grand Rapid area’s history as Furniture City — the city has been the home of five international furniture companies. The AC Hotel partnered with Herman Miller on lobby furniture to honor the maker’s most influential designers.
The AC team spent the pandemic period last year planning fun and innovative events for the summer, Schmied says. “We recently overhauled our AC lounge menus to enhance our guests’ experience. The food menu derives its inspiration from popular Spanish and Latin American bar bites. Items like a Cuban-style burger, aka ‘Frita,’ and homemade Spanish-style croquettes are guest favorites. Our revamped beverage menu is placing a bigger emphasis on small family and organic/natural producers in the beer and wine realm, with a continued focus on great cocktails.”
Schmied says “guests love the modern design, well-thought-out rooms, and our staff. Once things are back to a semblance of normal, we’ll restart our Vinyl & Vino Wednesdays, where all wine is half off all night and we have our resident DJ spinning classic vinyl.”
Meijer Gardens campus mixes beauty and calmness
Wonderful things happen all the time at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, just 10 minutes east of downtown Grand Rapids.
It became one of my go-to local favorites after I attended its grand opening back in 1995, but the unveiling of the 24-foot-tall American Horse sculpture — an event I shared with my young sons in 1999 — is what really convinced me that these beautiful grounds could become a true international destination.
From its amazing art collections and four-season gardens to a delightful five-story tropical conservatory featuring botanical varieties from around the world and an outdoor amphitheater with a capacity for 1,900, perfect for showcasing big-name summer performances, it beckons you to return often and explore every aspect of the 158-acre campus.
The Latest: A new 69,000-square-foot Welcome Center packed with contemporary sculpture and horticultural elements opened in January. “This is the most visible part of our four-year, $115-million expansion project titled Welcoming the World: Honoring a Legacy of Love,” says John VanderHaagen, communications director.
Why Visit: The destination “is a place of beauty and offers a place to wander through an art history book come to life,” he says. “In addition to our permanent sculpture collection of over 200 works, our indoor and outdoor gardens feature seasonal plantings and experiences. (There’s) an 8-acre Japanese garden, one of the largest children’s gardens in the nation, and a working farm garden that’s reminiscent of life on a 1920s farm.”
Tour Tips: “I would recommend starting in the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory, one of the nation’s largest conservatories. This 5,000-square-foot room contains waterfalls (as well as) tropical plants and birds, and is a tropical oasis. From there, head outside and view our world-class sculpture collection, either on foot by walking our four miles of trails, or on a tram tour that explains highlights,” VanderHaagen says.
Visitors rave about the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, which opened in 2015. “My favorite part about this area of our grounds is that it’s so different each season,” VanderHaagen says. “In the winter, I enjoy taking a walk around the garden after a fresh snowfall and seeing how different the plants, water features, and sculptures look compared to when the garden is first waking up in the spring. Summer and fall are equally as beautiful in their own way, especially when seen from the top of the Viewing Hill.”
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
Vibrant Downtown Market focuses on local products
For a delightful escape that’s about a 20-minute walk south from the Amway Grand Plaza, check out the sprawling Downtown Market, an entertaining foodie paradise filled with tempting treats for shopping, eating, and so much more. It’s also a favorite stop for locals.
I discovered this bustling center while looking for another restaurant during ArtPrize several years ago (good to hear it’s back on again for 2021). Lucky for all, the market remained open through various pandemic restrictions, although with scaled-back programming and events.
Why Visit: “The market is a culinary collective of butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and more,” explains CEO Mimi Fritz. “The Market Hall is filled with artisan cuisine, local grocery items, and specialty products from more than 20 local, independent food merchants. Visitors can enjoy a delicious locally made meal or treat on-site, and there’s plenty that can be brought home for later, too.
“Every business is about food, quality ingredients, amazing presentation, and top-notch customer service. You can grab a glass of wine at one merchant, order the best fresh fish & chips in Grand Rapids at another, then wrap your meal up with hand-crafted ice cream or chocolates from another,” Fritz says. “Often, the person who made the item you order is the one serving you, or is involved in at least part of the process.”
Aperitivo, an original tenant when the indoor market opened in 2013, was expanding late last year to almost double its size, so it can add more retail offerings and an enhanced selection of wines. Plan to savor something from its cheese and charcuterie counter, where witty cheesemongers help you select a personal platter.
Map It Out: Fritz suggests starting with a glass of wine and that cheese platter at Aperitivo, paired with a baguette from Field & Fire. Order fresh oysters or the famous salmon jerky from Fish Lads. Head to Alt City Beverage Co. for the Elderflower Lemon Espresso Soda, featuring house-made elderflower lemon sherbet. Pack your take-home goodie bags (make them big ones!) with kettle corn from Dorothy and Tony’s (they use their grandparents’ recipe), a six-pack of soda selected from more than 400 varieties at High Tide Soda, and some tea (more than 100 flavors) from Spice Merchants.
On Tap: Brunch Bites is slated to take place every Sunday in February, and merchants will put their spins on food and beverages during Flight Fridays in March.
Ford Museum documents the life and times of America’s 38th president
Since there are only 14 official U.S. presidential libraries and museums, the Gerald R. Ford Museum, located on the banks of the Grand River, is pretty special. Although the Ford Library is located in Ann Arbor, both are considered one institution. The sites opened in 1981, about four years after the 38th president left office.
I sometimes have to twist arms to get friends to join me on my repeat visits to this informative “period-in-time” collection of President Ford’s artifacts. Once they’re done touring the exhibits, I love to hear them talk about how much they enjoyed the different galleries and the historical highlights. They give it a thumbs up, regardless of their political persuasion.
The permanent exhibit provides insights into the lives of Ford and his wife, Betty, through a series of multi-room narratives going from Ford’s early days as an adopted son and his most valuable player status on the University of Michigan football team to his years as a U.S. Congressman from Grand Rapids and his important decisions as president.
Changing temporary exhibits throughout the year often include artifacts from museums around the country.
Must-Sees: The full-size reproductions of the White House’s Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. “The Oval Office is decorated as it was during the Ford administration, with interactive ‘Dig Deeper’ video displays that allow visitors to view additional information on many of the artifacts on display,” says Kristin Mooney, the museum’s public affairs specialist.
The Oval Office has replicas of the furniture and personal artifacts that belonged to President Ford, and visitors can take photos of themselves sitting around the Cabinet Room table.
The core exhibit concludes with a touching Funeral and Tribute Gallery. A stop at the President’s and First Lady’s outdoor burial site along the Grand River brings the life of President Ford full circle.
Save the Date: Next winter, the museum will offer a traveling exhibit, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, featuring 34 life-size images of Michelangelo’s artwork from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
Red Panda Triplets Prepare to Entertain
John Ball Zoo wins glowing reviews from young and old
Since my family loves watching animals up close, especially those that we don’t often see, the John Ball Zoo definitely earns high marks on my go-to outdoor adventure list of places close to downtown Grand Rapids.
The zoo was started in 1891, making it the 10th oldest in the United States and the fourth most-attended cultural facility in Michigan.
My Favorites: The awesome Amur (or Siberian) tiger exhibit, where you’ll see these big, beautiful creatures roaming their terrain; the aquarium; the black bear, snow leopard, and reptile exhibits; the African notables; and — well, I adore the entire place and the wonderful photo opportunities at every turn. It’s easy to walk around, navigate the different zones, and observe the animals, especially when they come close to the edge of their realms.
What can visitors look forward to when the zoo opens for the season in early April? “The red panda cub triplets! Rose, Ruby, and Willow will be much more agile and viewable by guests on a more consistent basis. They’re adorable,” says Darci David, the zoo’s marketing manager. For now, animal lovers can watch the new panda family, an endangered species, munch on bamboo in their outdoor habitat via the zoo’s webcam.
“Guests love the zoo’s Amur tigers,” David adds. “They can be seen in their lower or upper habitat in the Forest Realm. Amur tigers are solitary by nature, so you’ll only see one in each habitat at a time.
“We have three tigers — two females and one male,” she continues. “In early 2020, we welcomed a female, Mabelle, from the Columbus Zoo. She’s recommended by the Amur tiger Species Survival Plan to be paired with their male tiger, Finn. We’re excited to see what the future holds for Finn and Mabelle, and hope they can successfully contribute to the survival of their species.”
More than half a million visitors tour the zoo during its April-November season to see the more than 213 species and 2,220-plus individual animals.
With the addition of new animals and the birth of many more on-site in 2020, this amazing four-star zoo rates as a big hit with young and old alike.
John Ball Zoo
Ale Trail Adventure
Craft brews dominate the downtown spotlight
By Dianna Stampfler
Some visitors may think the designation “Beer City USA” is something new for Grand Rapids, but beer actually has been brewed in the state’s secondlargest city since the late 1830s. Today, the surrounding Kent County region boasts about 40 amazing breweries, with a dozen in the greater downtown area.
Grand Rapids emerged as a world-class beverage destination when it was honored with Beer City USA accolades in national polls back in 2012. To complement that, USA Today readers later recognized the town as having the “Best Beer Scene.”
To promote these beer city titles and keep this vibrant brand booming, Experience Grand Rapids, the local visitors bureau, created two programs to guide tourists and locals on their beer explorations. The Beer City Ale Trail guide lets visitors map out a tour of local brewers around Kent County.
Once beer fans are smitten by the variety and flavors, it’s on to becoming a Beer City Brewsader after getting stamped (in the Beer City Brewsader app) at eight of 40-plus different beer destinations. That will earn them special gear and additional perks. More details are available on the bureau’s website.
Here’s a look at several local favorites:
- Established in 1997, Founders Brewing Co. has become the city’s largest operation and was named the “World’s 3rd Best Brewery” by ratebeer.com (2013). Its energetic venue on Grandville Avenue SW has indoor and outdoor fun spaces, live music, savory sandwiches, and a well-stocked retail shop. Popular brews are Centennial IPA, All Day IPA, Breakfast Stout, Red’s Rye, and Solid Gold.
- City Built Brewing, which opened in 2017 on Monroe Avenue, brought a Puerto Rican flare to the city and expanded the neighborhood’s culinary offerings. Guests rave about the pork belly or beef cheek tacos, the distinctive and addictive “Spokes” (fried and flavored wheat duros), and Cacophony Society, a triple-barrel-aged imperial stout.
While breweries have a longstanding history in Grand Rapids, distilleries have emerged as welcome additions to the local craft beverage culture.
- Long Road Distillers on West Leonard Street was the first distillery to operate in the city when it opened in 2015. Using herbs, grains, fruits, and other ingredients sourced from around Michigan, its award-winning spirits include Aquavit (named Best in Show in 2017 by the American Craft Spirits Association). Three of its signature cocktails — The Polish Falcon, Teta’s Lemonade, and Long Road GnT — are available for takeout in a four-pack of 12-ounce cans.
- In early 2021, Wise Men Distillery of Kentwood (named one of the Top 10 Best Up and Coming Distilleries in the U.S. by USA Today) opened its second tasting room in McKay Tower on Monroe Center Street. At a mere 638 square feet, this downtown location focuses on signature handcrafted cocktails in an intimate setting.
- Detroit-based Two James Spirits recently opened a Grand Rapids location attached to the 7 Monks Tap Room on Michigan Street, in the Medical Mile section of town. Belly up to the 18-foot bar and sample Grass Widow Whiskey, crafted from a resurrected pre-Prohibition recipe.
They all sound amazing! Cheers.