Where the Grand River creates a great arch on its way to Lake Michigan, a town formed to handle the lumber coming down the river to be shipped across the Great Lakes. Now home to almost 200,000 people, the ‘grand’ rapids of Grand Rapids have been engineered to create a beautiful flowing river that cuts through downtown.
Grand Rapids might not seem like the destination you’d first put on your list, but if you’ve made it this far – you know otherwise. Craft beer, Midwestern cuisine, and history and culture make Grand Rapids one of those great, underrated cities. It’s quiet enough that you can relax and unwind – but there’s enough to do to fill a weekend.
If you’re considering a trip to Grand Rapids, or already know you’re visiting and are unsure what to do, read on to learn what I recommend.
Why I Visited Grand Rapids, Michigan
Jetlag does funny things to people.
I arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan in mid-November 2016. I had been contracted to give a talk for a local association. Emotionally hungover from the 2016 presidential election, I was just a little bit worried about arriving back it the U.S. at all. I had, after all, been outside the country for most of the election cycle – and was blindsided by the results.
To fly to a “red state” like Michigan when I was still feeling so raw – and fighting jetlag from Europe –means that my memories of Grand Rapids are a bit hazy. My photos aren’t crystal clear; they’re tinged by the darkness I was feeling. I dunno, I’m just sensitive like that, okay? I’m a delicate traveler, easily influenced by my own perceptions and expectations of a place before I arrive.
But, like so many Midwest cities I’ve visited, Grand Rapids won me over. It reminded me of delicious food, inspired craft beer, welcoming people, and the comfort of home. Like other cities of its size and vibe, I was charmed by Grand Rapids, and can easily recommend it as a great 3-day destination.
Friday: Arrival & Settling In
Grand Rapids is a town of 200,000 people, but it doesn’t feel that way. While the city sprawls out, the downtown core is built along the Grand River, which cuts through the center of the city. Using the river as its main vein, you can explore out from there – but everything I enjoyed was within walking distance of the river, so that’s what I recommend.
Like most weekend warriors, plan to arrive in Grand Rapids for a long-weekend by late afternoon on Friday. You’ll want time to get settled in, get oriented, and drop off your bags.
I recommend basing yourself in downtown Grand Rapids, where you’ll have easy access to the sights and experiences of the city – and you won’t have to worry about driving if you sample a few extra tasters of craft beer (see: Saturday Evening!).
- Logistics: If you’re flying to Grand Rapids, you’ll arrive at Gerald R. Ford International airport. It’s a 20-minute drive from the airport to downtown Grand Rapids. Uber estimates this to be a $35-$40 ride.
- Recommended Hotel: The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, mentioned above, is where I stayed. It’s right in the heart of downtown, close walking distance to everything on this itinerary. It’s also right on the banks of the Grand River! Rooms from $201 per night. Book on Hotels.com
For this first night, I recommend taking it pretty easy – at least that’s what I did (with all my jet lag!). If you choose to stay at the Amway Grand Plaza, they have a lot of dining options on-site: the Kitchen (and Kitchen Counter) which are both Wolfgang Puck restaurants, the GP Sports bar/restaurant, and the Cygnus27 on the 27th floor overlooking the city. You can choose according to your travel style and budget. You can also stop for a nightcap in the Lumber Baron Bar – the first inclination of the history of Grand Rapids.
If you feel like exploring, there’s a lot in the area:
- six.one.six – The restaurant in the JW Marriott right across the street.
- Reserve Wine & Food – A local farm-to-table restaurant with a great wine list.
- Z’s Bar & Restaurant – An American sports bar with pool and karaoke.
- Leo’s – A seafood spot a short walk from the hotel.
- Rockwell Republic – An American-Asian fusion restaurant with something for everyone.
Generally speaking, I’d advise a nice, lighter dinner tonight: tomorrow you’ll be sampling the best of the Midwest! Think fried things, heavy sauces, loads of delicious cheese, and all washed down with some local beer.
With that, sweet dreams!
Saturday: Walking Tours, Craft Beer & Midwest Food
Your only full day in Grand Rapids is jam-packed. Assuming you’re not on a vacation, get an early start, fuel up, and wear good walking shoes. Oh, and pants with an elastic waistband might also be a good idea for later in the day.
Okay, not to get ahead of ourselves, but if you are a brunch kind of person, there are a few spots you have to consider:
- Butcher’s Union, as the name suggests, is all about meat (and whiskey in the later hours). They have an insanely delicious and heavy (read: fortifying) brunch menu. If you love protein, this is the place (come at me, thick-cut midwest bacon and sausage gravies!). They also have avocado toast if you’re that kind of foodie (and it’s only $6!).
- It’s a bit further (, but The Omelette Shoppe is a Michigan institution, dating back to 1975 when they opened in Traverse City. As you’d imagine, their menu is heavy on egg options, but they also bake their own bread and cinnamon rolls in-house.
If you just need caffeine to get started on your day, Littlebird is a great local breakfast cafe with good coffee and fancy breakfast options.
Grand Rapids, like a lot of cities that were built up at times of greater industry, is in the process of reinventing itself. All over town, you’ll see signs of this: the city is cleaning up walkways and waterfronts, buildings are being rebuilt or replaced, there’s a lot of family-friendly activities.
I recommend exploring downtown Grand Rapids on foot, with the help of a self-guided walking tour itinerary. You can easily wander through parks, along city streets, and past monuments while learning about the history of Grand Rapids.
Even better, opt for taking a “GR Walk.” These walking tours were put together locally, and have great themes that can teach you about different aspects of Grand Rapids. I chose to do a “Historic Grand Rapids” walking tour that took me along the Grand River, pointed out important geographic and historic features, and introduced me to some of the history of the city – including indigenous groups that used to live in the area, European settlements, and all about Grand Rapids’ history as a lumber town.
I also did a craft beer walking tour. Michigan is well known as being one of the birthplaces of the American craft beer renaissance in the 2000s. Thus there’s a surprising amount of history to learn and taste for yourself. You’ll even learn about why Grand Rapids is particularly important to American craft beer history.
- You can download the GR Walks app at grwalks.com.
Evening: Dinner & Drinks
After doing a few walking tours on your own, you might feel hungry or even a bit thirsty, which brings me to the evening’s itinerary.
As mentioned, Michigan is a pretty great craft beer destination plus you can enjoy the hearty style and generous portions of Midwestern food. Grand Rapids is actually known as “Beer City, USA,” and thankfully the beer is good. A lot is locally made, crafted by brewers who care about making interesting, flavorful beers in a variety of styles.
It’s the perfect way to end a day of exploration – and there are many restaurants and breweries to choose from.
You could enjoy a pre-dinner tasting flight from the namesake Grand Rapids Brewing Company, or one at Founders – a familiar name to those who know good Midwestern craft beer, which started in Grand Rapids too! I had dinner at HopCat, a restaurant and craft beer bar that started in Grand Rapids and now has 17 locations in 10 states across the Midwest.
(For dinner, I had the “Vladimir Poutine” that night. I was (and still am) salty about the election results, and it seemed fitting.)
No matter which craft beer bar or restaurant you choose, be sure to go for a tasting flight. Pair it with something for dinner that includes cheese, gravy, fries, or all of the above.
- Learn more about why Grand Rapids is Beer City, USA and see a full list of breweries.
- Visiting in February or March? It’s Beer Month! Learn more.
Sunday: Museum & Departure
To end your time in Grand Rapids, start with a leisurely morning, taking in some culture, and hopefully not fighting a hangover from the beer. (No judgment if so, I can easily see how it could happen!)
Morning: Coffee & Culture
First priority: caffeine. Skip the Starbucks and make the short walk to a local coffee shop:
- Madcap Coffee is a local coffee company with locations around Grand Rapids. Their location at the Downtown Market means you can also grab a quick bite from one of the other food vendors if you’re hungry.
- Local Mocha Coffee is a cozy spot, with plenty of coffee and pastry choices. It’s less posh foodie spot and more local’s watering hole… if by water we mean coffee.
- Jamnbean Coffee has locations around the wider Grand Rapids area. They have craft coffee shops with plenty of drink options in a variety of strengths. Whatever you need, they have it (including ice cream!).
Then, head across the Grand River. It’s Museum time!
I love museums and the Grand Rapids Public Museum is exactly up my alley. Located in an old flour mill, the museum is home to a variety of permanent exhibits and a planetarium. As you can see from the above photos, they even have an Apollo test capsule outside the museum. When you put space tourism attractions right outside the door, you know I’m going to be excited!
In the museum, you can explore exhibits about becoming an astronaut, whales and fish, and Anishinabek, the indigenous people of the Grand Rapids area. On the grounds surrounding, you can also wander among burial mounds and experience the living history of the Anishinabek people first-hand.
- If visiting on a weekend, be aware the Grand Rapids Public Museum opens later than during the week. Check the hours online.
After all that history, walking, food and craft beer, and culture, it’s time to pack up, check out, and head on your way home.
Have questions about visiting Grand Rapids? Let me know in the comments!
I was hosted in Grand Rapids by the Michigan Bed & Breakfast Association and Experience Grand Rapids. This post was produced in partnership with them.