By Megan Roessler | Photos courtesy Experience Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids—a mid-sized city in western Michigan on the banks of the Grand River—is known playfully as “Beer City USA.” But this riverside town has a culture and charisma that offers much more than this motto reflects. With something for the art lover, garden guru, history buff and everyone in between, Grand Rapids is a long weekend get- away you’ll never want to leave.
Thoughts of the traffic and hustle through Chicago and Indiana can put the brakes on potential vacation plans. The Lake Express High Speed Ferry out of Milwaukee instead takes travelers across Lake Michigan—a two-and-a-half-hour trip—before dropping them off in Muskegon, Michigan. From there, it’s just an hour’s drive to Grand Rapids where you’ll be rested and ready to explore the city.
The bold red curves of “La Grande Vitesse,” the public sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder, are so iconic that they’ve become part of the Grand Rapids logo and decorate many of its street signs. The massive sculpture— whose name is a coy play on “The Grand Rapids” en français, is known to locals simply as The Calder. Located in a plaza near City Hall, it’s the perfect first stop as you get to know the city.
Nearby, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts serves up modern and conceptual art with an edge to ponder on your stroll through the galleries. In contrast, the Grand Rapids Art Museum specializes in 19th and 20th century European and American art, for a classic art museum experience.
Frank Lloyd Wright aficionados will want to make their way to the Meyer May House, in the Heritage Hill Historic District, restored to its original Prairie-style beauty. While impressive from the sidewalk, get the full experience and stop in for a free tour on Sundays, Tuesdays or Thursdays and be sure to check out its impressive collection of leaded glass windows.
Across the Grand River, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum houses permanent exhibits on Ford’s presidency, along with several smaller rotating galleries in the library. The Grand Rapids Public Museum has a major claim to fame: founded in 1854, it is one of the oldest public museums in the United States. To- day, its campus features a planetarium, exhibits on Michigan’s indigenous peoples and even one on the history of toys—complete with a 1980s-style arcade.
For those who prefer to get their kicks outdoors, The Frederik Meijer Gardens’ extensive horticultural collection allows visitors to walk greenhouses and gardens blooming with carnivorous plants, succulents and more. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for items from a sculpture collection that features works by Auguste Rodin, Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois and more. Back in the city center, Rosa Parks Circle has been recognized as one of America’s great public spaces. At the heart of Grand Rapids, the plaza is just blocks from the Calder, Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, making it the perfect place to sit down for an afternoon snack and a rest in the sun.
With distinct neighborhoods that range from hip to historic, Grand Rapids has an eclectic Airbnb scene sure to get you where you want to be. Stephanie Kotschevar of Experience Grand Rapids recommends the CITY FLATS HOTEL for enjoying the convenience and character of downtown, but for the ultimate luxury retreat, few places can compare to the AMWAY GRAND PLAZA. Built in 1913 and offering sweeping views of the river, its architecture and atmosphere encapsulate everything that makes Grand Rapids unique.
Kotschevar also recommends treating yourself to a meal at ZOKO 822, a chic restaurant specializing in Basque-inspired cuisine that boasts an extensive collection of gins or dining with the locals at TERRA GR. After dinner, satisfy your sweet tooth at LOVE’S ICE CREAM, which offers traditional, vegan and gluten-free ice creams.
To view more Midwest destinations, read our City Sojourns.