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Grander than grand in Grand Rapids
By Tom Adkinson
June 7, 2024

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grand rapids michigan
The Grand River flows through Grand Rapids before entering Lake Michigan. It makes the city a fishable, as well as a walkable, destination. Image by Tom Adkinson

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – For people from outside the Midwest, it’s possible that all they know about Grand Rapids is that President Gerald Ford’s roots and the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum are here.

There is so much more to Grand Rapids than the connection to Ford, and the city has so many attractions, activities and beer that a long weekend can evaporate quickly. Beer ranks highly for many visitors because Grand Rapids has earned the nickname of “America’s Best Beer City.” (Let the arguments begin.)

My introduction to Michigan’s second largest city (1 million metro population compared to Detroit’s 3.7 million) came from Candice Smith, owner of Tours Around Michigan. Smith, a former NPR reporter, is a skilled storyteller, and Grand Rapids provides enough material that she offers tours about the city in general, ghosts, churches, the riverfront, wine, art and, yes, breweries.

“Grand Rapids was a dead city when I arrived in 1993,” Smith said, noting quickly that much changed during the next three decades.

She now can brag on a compact and fun-to-explore downtown, a world-class botanical garden and sculpture park, attractive neighborhoods filled with shops and restaurants, a multi-business downtown marketplace, a restored Frank Lloyd Wright house built for a quite short businessman, and beer – lots of beer. In addition, a bucolic countryside full of farms and apple orchards is barely 15 minutes’ drive from the heart of downtown.

raining wisdom mural
The elephants of the “Raining Wisdom” mural are just outside the front door of the AC Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids. Image by Tom Adkinson

Art is one of Smith’s passions, and she quickly explained why a mural depicting 10 African elephants was just outside my hotel and why colorful polar bears were parading across a bridge over the Grand River a few blocks away.

grand rapids polar bears
Colorful polar bears take a stroll on the Blue Bridge across the Grand River. The bridge was built in 1892 for railroad traffic and was converted to a pedestrian span. Image by Tom Adkinson

The elephants are central to “Raining Wisdom,” an African landscape mural covering a two-story building. Artist Abdoulaye Conde painted the mural over 25 consecutive days in 2023. A public vote earned him $125,000 through ArtPrize, an international competition every September that is the most-attended art event in the world, according to The Art Newspaper.

ArtPrize pieces spring up in nearly 200 venues – galleries, museums, bars, hotels, office buildings, parks, even laundromats and auto body shops. Hundreds of thousands of people stroll a three-square-mile area to check them out. Some are in place only for the three-week ArtPrize period, but others – such as the polar bears – live on.

midwestern lunch grand rapids
Midwestern lunches, such as this one of deep-fried spring rolls, macaroni and cheese and a local Grand Rapids beer, pull residents and visitors to downtown sidewalk restaurants. Image by Tom Adkinson

GRAM, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, provides more permanence. It has more than 6,000 items in its collections, presents major shows for Michigan artists and mounts about three major exhibits a year.

“Most museum visits are multi-generational, so we want to appeal to many perspectives,” said GRAM director and CEO Cindy Foley.

Much more art is just outside of downtown at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, where a docent’s tram tour narration rivals a college art appreciation course.

american horse
Children frolic under “The American Horse” at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. The sculpture is the modern incarnation of a da Vinci project. Image by Tom Adkinson

One piece, “The American Horse,” draws special attention. “Massive” barely describes the 24-foot-tall bronze steed inspired by a never-realized project from the 1400s that Leonardo da Vinci designed for the Duke of Milan. Fred Meijer advocated creation of the sculpture, and two bronze casts were made in the late 1990s – one for Meijer Gardens and one for Milan.

The sculpture collection is only part of a 158-acre complex that includes gigantic glass-enclosed botanical gardens (an escape to the tropics even in winter), a Michigan farm garden, a children’s garden and a soothing Japanese garden. Live entertainment resonates from an amphitheater where artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Trombone Shorty, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Temptations and the Four Tops perform.

Meijer Garden is second only to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn as Michigan’s most-visited attraction


meyer may house
The Meyer May House, dubbed “the Queen Mother of Fixer-Uppers,” was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commission in Michigan. Image by Tom Adkinson

A gem of architectural art, the Meyer May House, is in the Heritage Hill neighborhood. It was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Michigan commission. Wright tailored the house for May, a man of short stature, and many subtle design elements catered to May’s height. One is a street-facing covered porch that made May appear taller than he was.

The house’s most compelling aspect is the 1986 restoration of the 1908 home. The structure had been significantly altered over the decades, but restoration returned it to its original form. Today’s protectors call it “the Queen Mother of Fixer-Uppers.”

grand rapids downtown market
Kevin McReynolds of Aperitivo in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market shows off a colorful charcuterie board. The market is an incubator for various businesses. Image by Tom Adkinson

The Ed Dunneback and Girls Farm in the nearby rural area called the Ridge provides a break from city activities. The farm turns 100 in 2025, and a fourth generation of Dunnebacks runs the place.

“Agritainment” makes the farm popular, with u-pick opportunities, seasonal fruit festivals, a bakery, an autumn corn maze, an adult Easter egg hunt and a brewery. Brewer John Stewart surprises even beer snobs with flights of honey crisp ale, cherry beer, strawberry beer, raspberry/rhubarb sour and a brew called the Rum Runner. That’s a honey crisp apple beer that spends some time in rum barrels.

grand rapids apples
Apples, such as these at the Ed Dunneback and Girls Farm, and other produce grow in abundance in farm country just outside of Grand Rapids. Image by Tom Adkinson

Back in the city, you can continue your beer exploration by downloading the Experience Grand Rapids Beer City Brewsader Passport. The app guides you to more than 40 participating breweries, and over time, you can check off enough of them to earn a Brewsader t-shirt and become a walking ambassador for Grand Rapids’ reputation as “America’s Best Beer City.

Trip-planning resources:

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is included in the third edition of the book, which is available at

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