The Top 12 Things to Do in Grand Rapids, Michigan

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Located in the middle of Michigan's “mitten”—the nickname given to the state's amusingly shaped Lower Peninsula—the city of Grand Rapids rolls out the red carpet for visitors who are seeking a destination brimming with art, green spaces, history, scenery and recreation. With a population of more than 200,000 residents and a booming metro region, this thriving mid-sized community holds ranks as Michigan’s second-largest city, trailing only Detroit. It’s also the Kent County seat, sitting pretty along the banks of the Grand River that flows out to the closest Great Lake at Grand Haven.

Grand Rapids was a manufacturing powerhouse through the late 1800s and early 1900s, capably earning it the nickname of “Furniture City.” At one time home to as many as 44 fine furniture companies, the city is still recognized as a leading producer of office furniture. The historic homes that once belonged to the local lumber barons still stand proudly as echoes of the past, but these days, Grand Rapids is best known for its arts community, trendy restaurants and craft beer scene.

If you're heading to Grand Rapids, here are a dozen good suggestions on what to do, see and drink during your stay.

01 of 12

Commune with Mother Nature

Frederik Meijer Gardens

Experience Grand Rapids

1000 E Beltline Ave NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525-5804, USA
Phone +1 616-957-1580

One of Grand Rapids’ crown jewels, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park are a must-see while in town. With 158 acres to explore, this sprawling nature sanctuary marries horticulture with indoor galleries and large-scale art installations for a unique museum experience. Visitors can wind their way through a series of themed gardens that includes dedicated children’s, arid, English perennial, Japanese, Victorian and woodland shade plantings, as well as a tropical conservatory, a carnivorous plant house and a seasonal display greenhouse. As part of the most comprehensive collection of outdoor sculptures in the Midwest, works by masters like Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore and Ai Wei Wei pop up across the verdant park grounds. Plan to stay for lunch; the James and Shirley Balk Café features a sparkling glass ceiling installation by Dale Chihuly.

02 of 12

Step Back in Time

Meyer May House

Experience Grand Rapids

Heritage Hill, Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Heritage Hill Historic District showcases some of the city’s oldest and best preserved residential architecture to admire, perfect territory for a leisurely walking tour. Adjacent to downtown, Heritage Hill takes in more than 1,300 homes all told, some dating back to the mid-1800s when the booming lumber industry was in the full swing of its heyday. Styles cover everything from Victorian and Greek Revival to Italianate and Queen Anne. The neighborhood even boasts a Prairie-style home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908; curious guests can tour the furnished and immaculately restored Meyer May House at no charge during designed days and times each week. If you can time your visit just right, the Heritage Hill Association also offers a garden tour each June.

03 of 12

Sample Local Brews

Founders Brewing

Experience Grand Rapids

Feeling thirsty? You’re in the right place. They don’t call Grand Rapids “Beer City, U.S.A.” for nothing. The Beer City Ale Trail leads craft brew fans on a refreshing journey through some 80 different regional breweries—more craft beer per square mile than you’ll find just about anywhere else ever. A few of the more notable stops include the brash Founders Brewing Co., early leaders of the Grand Rapids craft beer renaissance (and the bourbon barrel-aging trend); LEED-certified Brewery Vivant, distinctively located in a refurbished former funeral home; and the vintage baseball-themed Mitten Brewing Company. Don't forget to download the Beer City Brewsader app before you start your drinking explorations to earn a t-shirt after eight check-ins at participating breweries.

04 of 12

Go Where the Wild Things Are

John Ball Zoo

Experience Grand Rapids

1300 Fulton St W, Grand Rapids, MI 49504, USA
Phone +1 616-336-4300

A beloved destination for kids—and adults—of all ages, the John Ball Zoo has been a Grand Rapids fixture for more than a century. With roots in the local community that stretch all the way back to the 1880s, this animal attraction has kept pace with the times through updates and additions over the years. These days, guests can marvel at more than 1,800 animals at home within African, South American and North American habitats; an aquarium; a hobby farm; and a forest realm. Round out your visit with a funicular ride, up-close animal encounters, a zipline adventure and a ropes course.

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05 of 12

Salute a U.S. President

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

Experience Grand Rapids

303 Pearl St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504, USA
Phone +1 616-254-0400

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Gerald Ford grew up in Grand Rapids, later going on to study economics at the University of Michigan. The library that now carries his name is located in Ann Arbor, but Grand Rapids is home to the Gerald R. Ford Museum that details the life and times of the 38th United States President. Permanent exhibits educate and enlighten visitors as to Ford’s leadership and American democracy with a full-size replica of the Oval Office, a recreated Cabinet Room, a 1976 Bicentennial display and a Watergate-dedicated gallery. Ford and his wife, Betty, are both interred on the grounds for those who want to pay their final respects.

06 of 12

Check Out the Arts Scene

Grand Rapids Art Museum

Experience Grand Rapids

101 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA
Phone +1 616-831-1000

The first LEED Gold-certified facility of its kind in the world, the Grand Rapids Art Museum delivers a well-rounded cultural experience that combines history, beauty, education and groundbreaking initiatives. The Art Association of Grand Rapids was originally established in 1910, later transitioning into the art museum in the format it exists in today. Among the 6,000+ piece collection, the 19th/20th-century American and European holdings stand out, as well as the design and modern craft items. Courtesy of the Meijer Foundation, public admission is free from noon to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and on Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

07 of 12

Get a Science Lesson

Grand Rapids Public Museum

Experience Grand Rapids

272 Pearl St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504-5351, USA
Phone +1 616-929-1700

A repository of traveling exhibitions, intriguing artifacts and specimens on permanent display, the Grand Rapids Public Museum takes visitors on a deep dive into the fields of science, history and culture. Founded as the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History in 1854, the museum moved into new digs during the Great Depression with WPA fund assistance before finally settling into its current downtown digs in 1994. It's worth the few extra bucks to catch one of the shows in the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium offered throughout the day. Beyond the main Van Andel Museum Center facility, GRPM also manages additional sites around town including a community archive/research center, the James C. Veen Observatory and a grouping of Hopewell burial mounds.

08 of 12

Celebrate Black History and Culture

Grand Rapids African American Museum

Experience Grand Rapids

87 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA
Phone +1 616-649-3778

In African culture, griots — or storytellers — held the honor of preserving and passing down the histories of their families and tribes through spoken word tradition. The Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives keeps that spirit alive, paying tribute to the many contributions of African-American culture, not just locally, but on a national and global level. Through recorded stories, art exhibits and meaningful memorabilia, visitors can immerse themselves in Black history from ancient times through the Civil Rights era and into today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

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09 of 12

Taste the Local Flavor

Robinette's Apple Haus and Winery

Experience Grand Rapids

3142 4 Mile Rd NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525, USA
Phone +1 616-361-5567

Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery is famous throughout Western Michigan for its seasonal produce, fresh apple cider and delectable baked goods. Much of the family-friendly fun and activity (apple picking, corn mazes and the like) takes place in the fall during the apple harvest, but Robinette’s stays open year-round for shopping and dining. Stop by the tasting room to sample from more than 20 sweet fruit wines from an inventory that includes cranberry, apple, blueberry, peach and cherry-chocolate varieties.

10 of 12

Experience a Community Event

130 Fulton St W, Grand Rapids, MI 49503-2601, USA
Phone +1 616-742-6600

Home rink of the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey franchise, the multi-purpose Van Andel Arena opened downtown in 1996 and continues to host a varied lineup of concerts, performances and community events. The 12,000-capacity showplace also serves as one of 200 local venues to showcase entries from Grand Rapids’ annual ArtPrize competition, which takes over the city for more than two weeks every fall, attracting more than 26,000 visitors a day by using the city as an experiential canvas to spark connection and conversation. During the event, Grand Rapids comes alive with innovative works on display at galleries and bars, on vacant storefronts and bridges, and in other traditional and unexpected venues all over town.

11 of 12

Sample the Wares

Downtown Market

Experience Grand Rapids

435 Ionia Ave SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA
Phone +1 616-805-5308

You’re sure to work up an appetite with all this exploring. Downtown Market, an eclectic hybrid public marketplace/emporium/food incubator, is a one-stop shop for dining in or carrying out a mouthwatering array of cuisines all housed under one roof. Choose from bakery items, ice cream and coffee to seafood, ethnic fare, barbecue and sushi, or hit up the grocery and gourmet specialty shops to assemble all the ingredients you need to create the perfect picnic.

12 of 12

Get Some Fresh Air

Blandford Nature Center

Experience Grand Rapids

1715 Hillburn Ave NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504-2452, USA
Phone +1 616-735-6240

Formerly the Highlands Golf Club, Blandford Nature Center now maintains more than 260 acres of wooded natural scenery for visitors to enjoy. Open to the public daily from dawn to dusk, this wide-open space accommodates walking trails, a visitor center, an educational learning lab, historic building structures, a greenhouse, summer concerts, yoga classes, seasonal day camps and a farm with live animals.

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The Top 12 Things to Do in Grand Rapids, Michigan