I’ve tried to embrace the West Coast lifestyle for years, but my roots are undeniably Midwest. And for those of us that managed to tough out those long, harsh winters, there’s a common bond and understanding that makes you appreciate that fleeting summer season just a little more.
No one does those three magical months better than Michigan. Growing up in Chicago, popping over the border was a regular occurance. It was our sweet summer escape, an easy getaway from the hustle and bustle of big city life. And while all the best memories came from Michigan, we never made it as far north or west as Grand Rapids, so I’m glad I finally got to experience another part of the state as an adult. Kid Rock sang about the joys of Northern Michigan, and man was he right, this place is sorely underrated.
Here are just a few of the ways to have a grand ‘ole time in Grand Rapids.
It’s Beer City USA
Plenty of cities have craft breweries, but few rival the breadth and quality of Grand Rapids. The Beer City Ale Trail features 80+ stops, the most in Western Michigan and the most per square mile just about anywhere on Earth. Founders is the OG and really put Grand Rapids on the map (try the raspberry Rubaeus). Their barrel-aged bourbon Kentucky Breakfast Stout is brewed underground in gypsum mines, making their one week-release party a highly anticipated annual spring event and a major town to-do.
But when looking at the “big pitcher” there are plenty of other must-see breweries to give you a taste of the scene. Brewery Vivant is an old chapel that once served as a funeral home. The Mitten Brewing Co. is baseball themed and housed in an old firehouse. Known for their stadium bites and brews, the pizza flights are always a fan favorite.
But if you want an endless bout of tasters, CityBuilt has a plethora of beers, meads, kombuchas, and ciders (including one that was made with unicorn glitter RIP). As a self-proclaimed non-beer drinker (whiskey/vodka are more my jam), I found plenty of options that were light, fruity, and perfect for patio sippin’ like the Beyonce Blackberry mead and the Cucumber Cider.
Voted Michigan’s best food city and one of the most affordable foodie cities in the country, Grand Rapids culinary scene epitomizes the “farm to fork” movement. Locally sourced produce like beets was a consistent theme throughout the weekend. Their Food Trail highlights 30+ stops from pick your own farms to vineyards, cheese, coffee, and candy. A few not to miss eats in the area include Terra (how gorg is that heirloom tomato salad?), Little Bird (Asian inspired brunch bites), and even the breweries’ upscale bar food (don’t miss the killer duck confit nachos at Brewery Vivant and the truffle pizza at Jolly Pumpkin).
When you’re ready to treat yo’ self, the Downtown Market is an incubator for artisanal vendors to test a smorgasbord of concepts all under one roof. Really, they were just testing my willpower with everything from ice cream flights to berry pies (made from those famous Michigan cherries) served in a retro bake shop with red checkered aprons. They even had ice cream bars shaped like the iconic mitten, clearly a source of local pride.
The Great Lakes are undoubtedly pretty great, and if you want to spend a day on the water, Lake Michigan is just half an hour away. With 300 miles of shore, Rosy Mounds is a great place to stretch your legs, hike the dunes, and pack a picnic. PJ Hoffmaster State Park is another popular trail system, while Holland State Park and Grand Haven State Park both boast those beloved lighthouse views.
Right in town, “a river runs through it,” as they say. A city of bridges, Grand Rapids is currently undergoing a massive river revitalization project that will remove the dams and turn one side into a class II Whitewater Park while leaving the other bank for lazy stream fishing. To enjoy the river today, you can actually kayak the length of the city. Just recruit GR Paddling for epic sunset and skyline views.
The city is best experienced on a bike or by foot, where you can make your own pedal pub-crawl. Base yourself at the Amway Grand, which is a curious mix of old and new, and actually looks like two buildings fused into one. Snap some photos of the unique architectural elements you come across like gargoyles, street art, and of course, that iconic Blue Bridge. Bikes can be rented from Grand Rapids Bike Rentals for just $20/day.
But if you truly want the best landscapes, head to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. A sprawling 158-acre park, there are outdoor gardens, indoor gardens, wetlands, forests, and deserts with almost 300 sculptures strewn about. If you’d prefer not to walk, they offer a guided tram tour pointing out the highlights. You can make it a scavenger hunt to find your favorite art piece, but you know where I’ll be — chasing waterfalls.
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