Big City Fun with a Small Town Feeling – Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

Big City Fun with a Small Town Feeling – Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Grand Rapids, Michigan

I realize that Grand Rapids, Michigan isn’t on most people’s list of top ten cities to visit.

But that is precisely what makes it a great spot for tourists. It isn’t overcrowded or expensive or spread out and you don’t go there with unreachably high expectations. Then, when you find fabulous restaurants and great attractions like I did, you are that much happier.

Here is my list of things that you “must do” when you visit Grand Rapids.

1. Go to the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Yes, Grand Rapids is ex-President Ford’s hometown. I know he wasn’t considered much of a president but he did come into office during fascinating times. This place has the tools from the Watergate break-in, letters attacking Ford for pardoning Nixon, details on the popular first lady Betty Ford and lots of neat 70’s artefacts for baby-boomers to pore over.

2. Walk through Heritage Hills and tour the Meyer May House.

Meyer May House
Meyer May House

This enclave of lovely mansions is a remnant of the era when Grand Rapids was the center of furniture manufacturing for the USA and is now a national historic district. Located five blocks east of downtown, the area has 1300 properties that represent over 60 different architectural styles. A self-guided walking tour brochure is available at the downtown Visitors Bureau or on Heritage Hill Historic District website.

While there, you must visit Meyer May house. Commissioned by local merchant, Meyer May, this 1908 masterpiece of the Prairie-style design is one of the most complete restorations of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in existence. It is a treat to walk through and get inside the world of one of America’s most innovative architects.

3. Don’t leave Grand Rapids without eating tapas at San Chez.

I absolutely loved this restaurant! The cuisine is Spanish with a Latin and Cuban flair. The servers were extremely knowledgeable to the point where they can explain the minute details of every dish on the menu. You order a bunch of things and everyone gets to try them. Little dishes and bowls are brought out with each dish. Everything was unique and delicious. My favourite dish was Hummus de Hierbas, a pesto hummus served with grilled balsamic vegetables and crisp bread points. Try to go with a group of people if possible; this is the kind of place where the motto is “the more the merrier.” There is also a new addition to the restaurant called Mezze, which is an upscale cafe by day and a cabaret theatre by night.

4. Party at the BOB, which stands for Big Old Building – isn’t that cute?

A multi-faceted entertainment center and restaurant complex featuring five restaurants, a Microbrewery, a nightclub, a comedy club, a 2,500 bottle wine cellar, billiards and private rooms. What a great place to spend an evening. Everything you need is under one roof, you can go from bar, to restaurant, to comedy club to nightclub. No need to drive from place to place – just walk up or down the stairs.

5. Spend at least a day at the beautiful, fun, and educational Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

This place boasts one of the largest children’s gardens in the USA and the whole family will enjoy it. I know that I must return with my kids who would love the fact that everything that is normally off limits is meant to be touched, smelled, climbed/and or played with.

Horse sculpture
Horse sculpture
My favourites were the children’s gardens with their eye-catching touchable plants, the birds’ nest big enough to sit in, the great lakes fountains where kids can sail boats and the sand pit where they can dig for treasures.

For grown-ups there is an amazing outdoor sculpture collection (nothing like sculptures seen in the great outdoors.) The most popular is the American Horse, a huge equine sculpture originally planned by Da Vinci, now completed by Nina Akamu. There are only two in the world, the other is in Italy.

6. Stay at or at least check out the historic Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

Originally opened in 1913, this one-of-a-kind hotel overlooks the Grand River and has one half that has preserved its ornate historic character while the other half, located in the Glass Tower, is ultra-modern. Take your pick which side you want to stay in. The Amway is also a great home base for your getaway as you can walk to many of the museums and restaurants from the hotel.

7. Have a martini or some delicious appetizers at the Bar Divani.

Divani is Hindi for being crazy in love and you’re sure to fall in love with this place. The atmosphere is warm and inviting with its plush furniture and wide selection of specialty drinks, wines and wonderful dishes. A great place to go before dinner or with a group of friends
for the evening.

8. Learn about Grand Rapids history at the Van Andel Museum Center.

Here you can ride the working 1928 Carousel; walk through a 19th century Grand Rapids Cityscape, and check out The Furniture City exhibit, which traces the history of Grand Rapid’s Furniture Makers from the mid-1800’s to the 1960’s. It is quite interesting to see how the city evolved along with its famed furniture-making identity.

9. Take a drive to Grand Haven, a charming coastal town with a long boardwalk and a great view of Lake Michigan.

Here you can go sailing with the hospitable crew of the Wind Dancer, a schooner that offers three daily sails in the summer. There are also many nice shops and restaurants in this town; my suggestion for delicious food in a casual atmosphere is Snug Harbor, which is right on the water.

10.If you’re ready to move on to another interesting American city—don’t drive—take the new Express Ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee.

Lake Express began service on June 1, 2004, linking the states of Michigan and Wisconsin with terminals in Muskegon and Milwaukee. The high-speed Lake Michigan crossing takes just 2½ hours, saving passengers a lengthy drive through heavily congested Chicago. Lake Express is a fun, fast, and easy transportation solution. You save time, avoid traffic hassles, and can enjoy your time during the voyage, however you like. On board there are movies, televisions, and food can be purchased. From the other side it is a short drive to other destinations such as Chicago, Green Bay or Madison.

Downtown Grand Rapids
Downtown Grand Rapids
My visit to Grand Rapids has definitely left me wanting more (especially more food). There are so many great restaurants to sample, places to go shopping that I did not get to and everything on my list takes time to explore adequately. I was on a tight schedule on my last trip, so, I hope to go back and visit at a more leisurely pace. I won’t be surprised if there is even more going on in Grand Rapids by the time I return.

Additional Information

Grand Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau
Grand Rapids, MI
Toll-free: 800-678-9859

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
303 Pearl St. NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49504-5353
(616) 254-0400
Fax: (616) 254-0386

Heritage Hill State Historical Park
26 College Ave. SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
(616) 459-8950
Fax: (616) 459-2409

Meyer May House
Admission is free
Call 616-246-4821 for hours

San Chez, A Tapas Bistro
38 W. Fulton St.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
(616) 774-8272
Fax: (616) 774-9954

20 Monroe Ave. NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
(616) 356-2000
Fax: (616) 493-2011

Wind Dancer Charters, Inc.
Departs from One South Harbor
Grand Haven, MI
(616) 822-4210

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
1000 East Beltline NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49525
(616) 957-1580
Toll-Free: 888-957-1580

Van Andel Museum Center
272 Pearl Street NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49504-5371
616-456-3977 – TDD/Text Telephone 616-456-3724 – FAX 616-456-3873

Grand Haven Chamber of Commerce
Wind Dancer Charters, Inc.
Departs from One South Harbour
Grand Haven, MI
(616) 822-4210

Lake Express (Ferry from Muskegon, Michigan to Milwaukee Wisconsin)

Traveler Article

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Older comments on Big City Fun with a Small Town Feeling – Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

Lou Arr
07 August 2009

Overall, I liked this article. It was odd for me to read, from the perspective of a tourist, because Grand Rapids (GR) isn’t really a tourist town, and since I’ve lived here all my life, it was neat to view my home city from an out-of-towner’s viewpoint. I was a tad disappointed that some of the details in the article about the Heritage Hill Historic District of Grand Rapids (also a tax-free renaissance zone, which its residents love), seem to come directly from the heritage hill preservation and neighborhood association website ( first line of their homepage starts off “…1300 homes with more than 60 architectural styles represented…” It seemed the author could have been a tad more original here. Anyway, thats OK, it just made me wonder if the author really visited this city or not. If not, the article definitely still gives a great view of what to do in and around G.R. Already knowing what there is to do here, I must say, much of whats mentioned are among our most popular attractions. Also just one error – the website that is linked to in the article for Heritage Hill goes to the website of a DIFFERENT area called Heritage Hill that is in Wisconsin. This is not Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill historic district and neighborhood, but an entirely different one elsewhere. For those seeking to checkout Heritage Hill in GR on a trip here, I’ve noticed some Heritage Hill homes that are now open to the public serve various functions, from apartments, to bed and breakfasts and motels, to even museums and tour homes. Some homes have their own individual websites with photos, etc. One that I know of and have seen listed on craigslist is the leonard at logan house – I believe its near the intersection of Leonard Street (a main drag in downtown GR) and Logan Ave, another street. Not positive on the website address, but it may be or

Nice article overall. 🙂