Disclosure: Some of my travel, lodging, meals, and activities were hosted by Experience Grand Rapids. I extended my trip on my own, so some of my Grand Rapids adventures were on my own. As ALWAYS all opinions in this story are my own.
This blog post explores things to do in Grand Rapids, Michigan after spending 4 jam-packed days there. But before I dive in, I wanted to share a little back story as well. In the past decade, Michigan is a state that has been woven into my life in numerous ways. I was completely blown away by my first visit, a trip to Detroit for my ExperienceBuick project in 2015. Falling head over heels with this Midwestern mecca in January should tell you something about this place!
At the same time, I had 2 fantastic colleagues while working at Dolby, both from Michigan. And both two of the kindest, funniest, most generous people I have ever met. It stirred the embers for wanting to see Michigan as I had heard about it many times through their eyes.
Michelle was a talented writer, who rock-climbed and spent every extra minute doing 2 things: knitting and volunteering at the animal shelter. She sat across from me and was smart and witty and she added real joy to my workday. At one point, she went off on vacation to Italy, where she ended up getting engaged, she brought me back a beautiful red scarf that I cherish.
And Derek. Well, Derek was my partner in crime, confidant, and friend. We worked many events together while at Dolby. We blogged on each other’s sites (Yosemite and San Francisco’s Sunset District). We ate out at many restaurants. And we supported each other’s career moves. When I decided to go on sabbatical to travel the US by RV, he was a huge supporter. In the end, I even inspired him to take off on his own year-long+ trip to travel the world. I could not believe my luck when it turned out that during my few days in Grand Rapids, Derek was in town visiting family and preparing for round 2 of his trip. This allowed me to catch up with him in person (more on that later).
So why the long backstory? Because I had expectations for Michigan. I had expectations for Grand Rapids. It was more than just visiting a city on a sponsored trip. To me, it was personal. I was finally getting a chance to see a place where 2 significant people in my life had grown up. And where the Midwestern values and state pride emanated from. And you know what?
Grand Rapids delivered!
Grand Rapids has great outdoor recreation
I’ve always been one for outdoor adventure. But most of the time those experiences occurred in a box. Mr. Misadventures and I would spend a weekend hiking, or 4x4ing, etc. On another trip, we would stick to urban environments and do museums, restaurants, etc. Grand Rapids taught me that I can very easily combine both. In fact, with the personal lifestyle changes that I undertook last year like a focus on a low carb eating and adding more fitness into my daily routine, this is how I want all my future travel to be. In Grand Rapids, it’s easy!
Hiking in the Grand Rapids area
There are many places to hike in and around Grand Rapids. Spots like Provin Trails Park, Seidman Park, and the popular PJ Hoffmaster State Park. For our (I was on the trip with my online friend Lauren of The Down Lo who has been a Traveler Tuesday interviewee and a guest-poster on her hometown of Denver and new friends and talented photographers Emily of Emily Sierra and Isaac of From Texas and Beyond) hiking adventures we set off to Rosy Mound on Lake Michigan. We were treated to a trail that had all the elements a hiker could want: a gorgeous forest path leading to sand dunes and boardwalks, and finally Lake Michigan.
My experiences with the Great Lakes have been limited. A patch of Lake Michigan on trips to Chicago for conferences and a tiny view of Lake Erie in Detroit. I know this isn’t enough and my morning at Lake Michigan proved it. It is fascinating to be at a lake where the waves are crashing onto a beach like the ocean! I’ve got to explore more! Since I returned from my trip I’ve been bending Mr. Misadventures’ ear off about returning to Grand Rapids next summer and exploring more of the Great Lakes!
Kayaking on the Grand River
Grand Rapids origins are in furniture making. Furniture factories used to line both sides of the Grand River where they could easily access the raw materials, wood transported from the surrounding forests, at their “doorstep.” The Grand River once had a set of rapids and ships could navigate in and out of the city bringing goods in and out. There aren’t a lot of rapids anymore, a few sections here and there, but the city of Grand Rapids is working on a fantastic project to bring them back!
The Grand River is the heart of the city, there are nice parks and good fishing, I spent some time watching a fly fisher bring in a gorgeous catfish. One of the best ways to enjoy the river and see the city is to kayak on it. We met up with the wonderful husband and wife team (Jeff and Rita) of GR Paddling for a sunset kayaking trip. They picked us up at our hotel, a service they provide to all their guests, and we headed to Riverside Park. After thorough instruction on do’s and don’ts, and what to expect, we hit the water and began our journey down the river.
I have to admit I was a bit nervous. My prior kayaking experiences have not been wonderful. I had been traumatized by an 8-hour REI class on the San Francisco Bay. We graduated by purposely rolling our kayak and getting back in, which was very scary in the ocean – at least to me! I totally get that this is a skill a person needs to have, but I kind of think the fun in kayaking is the not getting wet! Anyway, I shouldn’t have worried because it was a wonderfully calm experience. Our little group paddled along slowly. Sometimes we would hang out together and at other times we went off on our own and enjoyed nature, it was pretty zen-like.
But it wouldn’t be a true adventure without a misadventure, right?! You know that fishing I mentioned? One thing that is really good for those fishermen is hatching mayflies. Jeff had explained that we may “run” into some, but he couldn’t guarantee one way or the other given their hatchings are very random. Well wouldn’t you know it, about 3-quarters into our trip we paddled into a big cloud of them.
It was kind of hilarious, like end-of-the-world with locusts. Okay, yes I am being dramatic. And in typical girl fashion, I was squirming and swatting, but when I swatted just a little too aggressively, the kayak tipped and I immediately made the decision that I would rather deal with the bugs than ending up in the river.
In reality, it only lasted a few minutes and it couldn’t dampen our spirits. The sunset was lovely, the gorgeous full moon we had experienced was beautiful and the tranquility of being one with nature and having the city at our bow was irreplaceable.
Biking in Grand Rapids
I like biking. Truth be told, I haven’t done a lot of bicycling in the city. I am always nervous about cars. But then again, I’ve spent my last couple of decades in San Francisco where you have to be a little crazy to bike in the city. Grand Rapids is a completely different scene. It’s a very bikeable city with nice bike routes and bike paths. There is a wonderful little business called Grand Rapids Bike Rentals located in the downtown area, where you can rent a bike for just $20 a day, helmet and lock included!
And that’s exactly what we did. What better way to check out some of the city’s sites (and breweries) then on 2 wheels! We biked down to Riverside Park area, then into downtown, then onto the Blue Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that used to be the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad truss bridge. Biking is a great way to see the city and to work off some calories!
Grand Rapids has the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
I love parks. While traveling, there’s nothing I like better than to visit a national, state or county parks. I haven’t been to a lot of parks within cities and I can see where that may have been a mistake. I have fallen deeply, head over heels in love with the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. This park is a destination in and of itself.
It’s a 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park. That’s right. 158 acres!
I couldn’t get over it. I was gawking the whole time. As we moved from one incredible sculpture to another, I was mentally calculating how Mr. Misadventures would love to photograph the different angles. How one park couldn’t possibly have so many fantastic pieces in one spot. About all the different parts and pieces. About what it must look like during the year’s different seasons. Incredible. My mind was buzzing.
There is an entire Japanese garden that you could pick up and transport to Kyoto or anywhere else in Japan and it would be in perfect harmony with any other garden there. I really enjoyed walking through there and every step evoked memories of my own trips to Japan.
Oh, and the francophile in me loved the Rodan! A sculpture of Eve in perfect composition with the surrounding garden.
And after spending 2 hours walking around, I never got to the indoor parts! This park is a must-see. A must-do. A must return to!
Grand Rapids has great food
I know. It’s unusual for me to not write about the food first. I always travel via my stomach. But I had so much fun doing all the outdoor stuff I had to get to share it first. However don’t let my enthusiasm for Grand Rapids outdoor recreational scene fool you, they have great food as well! The good thing is I could enjoy it more because I was also exercising in between stuffing my face.
Here are the highlights:
Tuna Tartare from Wolfgang Puck’s The Kitchen
I’m a sucker for a good tuna tartare, poke salad or maguro. If there is raw tuna on a menu there is a good chance I’m going to order it. And I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to get one from a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. I’m a big fan (and that was before I got to meet him at an Oscars event!) and I like to try his restaurants when I discover them during my travels. I was in luck because when I checked into the Amway Grand Plaza I learned there was one in the hotel! It’s called The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck and the tuna tartare with wasabi soy, cucumber and avocado is divine.
Breakfast at Little Bird
Breakfast is my favorite meal and Little Bird made it super tough to make a decision! I was in actual crisis mode. The Asian influenced menu just hit all my triggers and I couldn’t decide between the kimchee hash shown above, the chicken & rice bowl or their popular Little Bird breakfast sandwich. I considered heavily and in the end went with the breakfast sandwich with a fried egg, American cheese, smoked ham, and garlic mayonnaise on a Field & Fire (local bakery) bun. It was darn delicious. Having a low carb lifestyle, I don’t eat a lot of bread so when I do “cheat” and it’s out-of-this-world like this bun was, it makes it so much more worth it!
Drinks & Dinner at Terra
The last part of July is the beginning of beet season in Michigan (it runs through September). There was no better place to enjoy beet-forward specialties than Terra, a truly farm-to-table restaurant. Yeah, I know. Everyone says farm to table. But these guys really mean it! The chef is notorious for pulling stuff off the menu if it is not local or out of season. The names of the local farms they source from are on all the menus and on their wall.
Our first taste of beets was in a margarita. Terra is well known for their craft cocktails and this concoction of Sauza Blanco tequila, new holland clockwork orange, pickled beet juice, lemon and lime juice was dangerous! I wanted a second, the lightweight in me knew better! And…it was so pretty!
Next up was beet hummus served simply with extra virgin olive oil and vegetable crudites and smoked salmon with pickled vegetables. Coho and King salmon run on the Grand River and you can even watch them climbing the river in ladders during spawning season. For my main entree, I had the banh mi. Grand Rapids is serious about their sandwiches, they have an annual competition called Grandwich, and Terra’s banh mi placed in that competition. I have to say that the crispy pork belly inside the sandwich was the best I’ve ever had!
Ice Cream Flight at Love’s in the Downtown Market
I love food markets, so nobody had to twist my arm when on a break from our hiking, biking, and kayaking it was suggested we check out Downtown Market. Thank goodness we did, otherwise, I might have missed Love’s Ice Cream, where you can get ice cream flights (or the mitten). I would have also missed the pie at Sweetie-licious Bake Shoppe, or the bubble tea from Rák Thai. There are food shops and food stands on the bottom level of this market and food classes and event space on the top.
It’s a beautiful building, but above and beyond being a great space, Downtown Market is doing good things in the food space. They serve as an incubator for small businesses trying to make their way in the food business. Many of the restaurants and food shops you find around town started inside Downtown Market. I love that aspect of giving people who love food a chance to get their businesses off the ground!
After all that food talk, you’re probably wondering, “didn’t you eat lunch?” And shame on you. You know I would never skip a meal! But lunch and post-breakfast-not-quite-lunch meals were at the breweries…because…
Grand Rapids is Beer City USA
Best surprise ever. I had absolutely no idea that Grand Rapids had been voted Beer City USA and to what extent beer is part of the Grand Rapids culture, but it is and it’s fabulous! I like beer. But I’m 5’0″ and a lightweight so it’s not like I can have 10 of them and still be standing. But that’s not really the point. Breweries in Grand Rapids have some of the best food, are very family-friendly, and best of all, they serve flights! Or samplers (usually around 3-5 ounces) which allowed me to try out more than one without falling on my face!
Not only that Michigan is the 3rd largest producer of apples, so hello great ciders! The largest producing region in the world for the Montmorency tart cherries (a cherry grown in Canada, France, and the US), hello cherry ciders and cherry-flavored beer! And they make great kombucha. What is not to like?
There are over 80+ breweries in Grand Rapids, so obviously we couldn’t get to them all, but here are the highlights:
Yes. We ordered all of those beers and ciders and kombuchas! But hey! There were 5 of us! And we had just ridden our bikes from downtown. That’s thirsty work. And darn it! It’s hard to choose!
They sure are pretty, aren’t they? I tried a delicious cucumber cider, a strawberry ginger kombucha, peach mead, and several beers. Of course, as I mentioned some of the best food in town is in the breweries and I’m not talking bar food! At CityBuilt Brewery, there is a great Puerto Rican menu. We had some spiced ground beef pastelillos (like empanadas) and Bori balls, traditional rice croquettas with bacon and spiced beef.
We had lunch at Founders Brewery, a business that has been through a lot, but who has come out the other side stronger and with a handle on how to do things in their own style, hence their #BrewedForUs motto. People come for several beers including the all-day IPA and the dirty bastard. They also come for the sandwiches which are delicious and inventive. However, before you hit those, you can’t miss the beer cheese.
Lots of breweries in town offer beer cheese, but Founders is supposed to have one of the best. Their version is made with smoked gouda, cream cheese, chopped fresh garlic, red peppers, spinach and a blend of Centennial IPA and Red’s Rye IPA. I tried it (without the bread) and I agree it is pretty tasty, but I think I need to do more “research” around town before declaring a winner!
I’m pretty sure there aren’t a lot of people out there in the world who have uttered the word’s that a brewery makes a great salad, but in this case, it’s the truth. In an effort to balance the carbs I was eating, and heck, let’s face it, drinking, I chose the Caprese salad. I wasn’t expecting much. Boy, was I wrong! Fresh greens, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil – what’s not to like? Emily did have the Caprese sandwich and claimed it was equally as good.
Jolly Pumpkin Brewery
Jolly Pumpkin is known for 2 things sours and pizza. Of course, they have a lot more to offer in terms of artisanal ales, but the sours are what people come for. I had actually never heard the term sour before. I learned that they are intentionally acidic, tart or sour tasting ales. And that the most common sour beers are from Belgium: lambics, gueuze, and Flanders red ale. I guess when I am visiting France and order a Belgian beer with my mussels, I’ve likely had one, but they weren’t called a “sour” in French so on my next trip to Paris I am going to figure that out!
In any case, I had a delicious a cherry beer, not a sour (they were out) and a slice of Margherita pizza. I’m not a big pizza eater, but when I do partake I like thin crust and fresh ingredients which was exactly the way Jolly Pumpkin made it. The gang also had some truffle fries. Given we arrived via bike, I didn’t too feel guilty!
Grand Rapids has great murals
During my time in Grand Rapids, no matter where I went I ran into cool murals and street art. There is an international art competition and festival that takes place in September every year in Grand Rapids called Art Prize. A lot of the murals in Grand Rapids are an extension of that event. The city is very supportive of local artists expressing themselves on the buildings and structures. So after hiking, biking and kayaking, I said goodbye to Lauren, Isaac, and Lauren got cleaned up and headed back to the Blue Bridge to meet local photographer Abby Fox.
I teamed up with Abby to get some photos that showed off some of the murals. And to demonstrate the fact that I can put on make-up and wear a dress when the occasion calls for it!
Before heading out to the murals we took some photos on the Blue Bridge. This is such a great spot in the downtown area. During my time in Grand Rapids, I walked across it a few times, biked across it, watched a wedding from it. I like this Blue Bridge!
After a few shots, we jumped into the car and headed to an area that had several yards of murals in different colors and textures.
Much like my experience at Catch Me at Luxe, Abby was really good at getting me to smile and laugh without a lot of effort. She was warm and encouraging.
She didn’t laugh when I tried to channel my inner Kristin for the photo above! This spot is great for big groups or for getting a lot of different colors and shapes in a short period of time. It was a lot of fun working with Abby and if you are looking for a wedding or portrait photographer in the Grand Rapids area, check her out!
Grand Rapids has great people
It’s what it all comes back to, right? Locations are very memorable. Food is (very) memorable. But people? People make the place. My experience with people from Michigan, and from Grand Rapids proper, had left a mark on me before I ever stepped foot into the city. I can tell you that the people of Grand Rapids lived up to the hype. Every person I encountered was good-hearted, good-natured, just plain nice.
Like my Runabouts drivers, to and from the airport. Runabouts is a small regional service with just a few cars and great drivers. By the time I got to the hotel, I was fast friends with Laura. At 4:00 a.m. on the way back to the airport, Carrie was a breath of fresh air. And in a strange coincidence, that very weekend the owner, Jon moved to Phoenix to start the service in my adopted hometown. Looking forward to trying that out!
Or like Stephanie:
…our Experience Grand Rapids guide, who not only planned an exceptional experience but also did little things like, lend me her bike when the rental bike was just a tiny bit too tall. I would have been okay, but I was far more comfortable on hers.
Like Abby, who drove me from the Blue Bridge to our murals and when all was said and done, she drove me back to my hotel so I wouldn’t have to call a cab or other transportation!
And like Derek. We hadn’t seen each other in 3 years but it didn’t matter.
We spent a wonderful day in his hometown, brunching at Linear, getting educated and being silly at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum (visit here, it is fantastic!) and walking around just catching up. No strings attached, no drama, all friendship.
It is warm, kind-hearted, generous people like Stephanie, Abby, and Derek that make Grand Rapids great. And if that isn’t enough to tempt you to visit, there are amazing outdoor recreation, good food, and great beer!
How about you? Have you been to Grand Rapids? Would you consider a trip? If you’ve been, what was your favorite part? I’m heading back, so do you have any recommendations? Do share! Do tell!
Thanks again to Experience Grand Rapids for hosting (most of) my trip. As always all opinions are my own.
If there is no photo credit, it means I took the photo with either my Fuji or my iPhone.
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