Why Grand Rapids, Michigan is Your Gateway to a Perfect Midwest Summer
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A huge thank you to Experience Grand Rapids for hosting my stay. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
When I told my dad I was going to Grand Rapids, his immediate response was: “Why?”
He couldn’t believe I’d go out of my way to go to Grand Rapids. And when I get there, he argued, what would I possibly do?
To be fair, my dad grew up in Michigan, about 2 hours east of Grand Rapids. When you think about the places to be in the midwest, your mind might immediately lean to Chicago, or the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), or Detroit. The bigger, more populated spots, no doubt. But one thing I love about wandering around the US, just outside of the behemoth cities, is discovering what else is buzzing along, waiting to be uncovered by fresh eyes. In the entertainment industry, this is known as a ‘sleeper hit’ – something that is readily accessible to the public (a movie, or in this case a city) but that doesn’t gain popularity right away, for no other reason than lack of knowledge that it even exists. Like, how most everyone knows Los Angeles but significantly less have heard of or actively seek out Solvang. To know that someone like my dad, who spent half of his life living just 2 hours away, didn’t know what Grand Rapids had to offer, makes this city the ultimate sleeper hit.
It was the 70s when my dad finally moved from Michigan to Hawaii. In the years since, I’ve been told that Grand Rapids has had a huge moment – both in growth and in culture, expanding to become Michigan’s second largest city (and arguably the hippest) after Detroit. After visiting for myself, I can’t help but see why! For a relatively small city, Grand Rapids’ scene is impressively rich. And, Michiganders know how to do all seasons, but particularly summer, right.
Here are 7 reasons why Grand Rapids, MI is Your Gateway to a Perfect Midwest Summer
1. Grand Rapids is a True Foodie Paradise
I’ll start with the thing that astounded me the most – the food culture in Grand Rapids is extraordinary. We often think of cities like Manhattan and Los Angeles dominating the culinary scene, but if you think they’re good, imagine how good the source is! That’s right, a significant portion of the country’s agriculture comes from Michigan’s 10 million acres of farm land, bringing a whole new meaning to farm-to-table when it comes to the kind of food you can get when you’re in Grand Rapids. Everything from funky Mexican taco joints to polished Scandinavian fare can be found here. While it’s probably impossible to cover every single restaurant, if you start with any of these spots, you probably won’t be disappointed:
West Side – 443 Bridge St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504
Go for: Dinner + Drinks
Who would have thought you’d come to Michigan to get a taste of Scandinavian? I definitely didn’t, but Søvengard in Grand Rapids’ West Side is here to change minds. The restaurant itself is clean, bright, and sleek just like you’d expect a Scandinavian experience to provide. But what makes this place so noteworthy are the food and cocktails, each of which are farm-to-table in the purest sense of the phrase. Their menu changes often to highlight and play off the availability of the farms each ingredient is sourced from, and you can honestly taste the crisp freshness and Nordic flair in every bite.
Downtown – 95 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Go for: Breakfast
This charming downtown restaurant is inspired by the unmistakable aesthetics of an old streamliner train. You see it in the shape of the bar, which is front and center when you step into the restaurant. It’s almost like walking into a dining car. The rest of the decor reminded me of being in a simple European cafe, where you could order a croissant and a coffee and people watch your morning away. BUT, the menu is so much more than that. Imagine latkes and smoked salmon, curried tofu, kimchi breakfast hash, eggs with a maple glaze, Japanese milk bread. Intriguing? You bet.
East Hills – 1001 Lake Dr SE, Grand Rapids MI 49506
Go for: Breakfast
This delightful restaurant is one of the newbies to the Grand Rapids food scene, but it’s SO, so good. It’s reminiscent of a Jewish deli meets European cafe, with menu items like panzanella salad, mushroom & zucchini socca, and matzo ball soup. I personally had the hummus toast with scrambled eggs, and it was so insanely good for being such a simple concept. Paired with a green juice and iced coffee, it was the perfect way to start a day of exploring the city.
Downtown – 435 Ionia Ave SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Go for: Lunch or an Afternoon Picnic
If you have a hard time deciding what you want to eat, a food market is the best place to be. And this one offers an impressive spread. Grab some Madcap Coffee, a plate of boneless buffalo or garlic wings from Juju Bird, taste some cheese, crackers, and pickled peppers from Aperitivo, and don’t leave until you sample the salmon jerky from Fish Lads. In addition to being a foodie paradise, Grand Rapids Downtown Market also hosts events, culinary classes, and is the first LEED-certified (environmentally friendly) market in the country.
East Hills – 1429 Lake Dr SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506
Go for: Dinner
This farm-to-table restaurant sources its ingredients from around 30 local farms in order to concoct its menu. The goat cheese appetizer, fennel sausage pizza, and four cheese mac & cheese were standouts for me. And, you can pair your meal with a rosé flight – a selection of 4 different rosé pours served up on a hand-carved paddle – which I’ve never seen on a menu before.
West Side – 608 Bridge Street NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504
Go for: Drinks and Light Bites
We came here for a quick drink while waiting for our dinner reservation, but I was so blown away by the appetizers we ordered that I almost didn’t leave. This two-story whiskey bar with an open-air patio is a hip hangout both inside and out. I am not the biggest whiskey person, so I ordered the Farmers Market – a cocktail my new friend and resident Grand Rapids native Liz from The Lemon Bowl actually helped put on the menu! – which is comprised of vodka, yellow bell pepper syrup, lemon juice, and fresh basil oil (say what!). In addition to a vast selection of whiskey, bourbon, and cocktails, you can – and should – get some snacks. The spicy chicken dip, pickles + cheese, and promise of poutine had me nearly forgetting we had a dinner to get to.
West Side – 438 Bridge St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504
Go for: Dinner
There are no reservations at this insanely popular meat-centric restaurant. And, for good reason, because if there’s one thing I remember about this place, it’s that the steaks and cocktails on the menu are obnoxiously good and very reasonably priced. The Charred Flank Steak with wine reduction and potato gratin (which I recommend) will set you back $19.75, while the smoked Beef Brisket Stroganoff (which I recommend even more!) will set you back just $18.50. I’d never met a stroganoff I liked until I sat down at Butcher’s Union, and now I have visions of it whenever someone mentions ‘brisket.’
East Hills – 665 Wealthy St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Go for: Lunch
Another no-reservations spot, and an upscale take on Mexican street food, Donkey Taqueria is the type of place where you can expect to find 10 different tacos, from charred carrot, to potatoes and poblano rajas, to braised lamb – all of which can be ordered a la carte. If you need a dose of health, you can order cauliflower on the side. But at Donkey? You’ll get your veggies served up in a nice melty bowl of queso fundido. Maybe healthy isn’t exactly what you come here for, but the indulgence is well worth it.
Eastown – 1505 Wealth St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506
Go for: Late-night snack
For a just-plain-good late night snack, you really can’t beat Yesterdog. This mainstay specializes in famous hot dogs (so famous that Obama even stopped here for a bite himself) that will cost you less than $3 a pop. Their chili dogs are notorious, but I personally loved their ultradog (with pickles!). Cash only, so be sure to save your quarters.
2. There’s More Beer Here Per Square Mile Than Almost Anywhere Else in the World
There are around 40 breweries in the city center alone, with more than 80 in the surrounding area. Grand Rapids has held the title of Best Beer Town, Best Beer Scene, and Beer City USA over the years, and I was so intrigued to see this for myself because I actually love beer! I didn’t get to explore a ton of breweries in the few short days I was in town, but here are just a couple I checked out that can get you started.
Arguably the most famous brewery out of Grand Rapids, your beer journey should definitely start or end here. Founder’s has a large indoor and outdoor taproom and a wide variety of funky beers – Blushing Monk and KBS were my personal favorites.
I wanted to check out Brewery Vivant because I am obsessed with sour beers and this particular medieval-esque brewery specializes in farmhouse ales. Crafted with strong influences from Belgium and France, these experimental beverages are bright and flavorful and might make you change your mind about what you think of when you think of beer.
3. Your Evening Hangouts Can Range From Delightfully Weird to Remarkably Posh
Beyond the breweries, cocktail lounges, dive bars, and rooftops can also be found in Grand Rapids. Despite the city’s relatively small size, there is a surprising variety of places to go out at night that range from delightfully weird to remarkably posh. It’s easy to bar hop or Uber/Lyft around the city fairly quickly so you can hit up a couple different spots and still make it to Yesterdog (see above) before 2:30 am. Priorities!
Graffitied walls, 80s decor, and a dizzying red glow cast over the arcade games that line the walls of this bar make for a truly unforgettable night out.
It was a Thursday night when we were wandering around Grand Rapids asking people for recommendations on where to go to dance and listen to (loud) music. Unanimously, Billy’s was every single person’s response. Billy’s is a funky bar with different themes every night of the week, from disco to hip hop to karaoke. In Grand Rapids, Billy’s is known as the place where you can have a good night out, no matter whether it’s Friday or the middle of the work week. And – Yesterdog is just a few quick steps away! Have I made my case on this yet?
The view and the ambiance itself make this rooftop bar worth a visit. Haute is a tiny spot with limited seating, so reservations are definitely recommended especially on the weekends. Because of the posh setting and limited space, cocktail prices are on the more expensive side (for Michigan, at least). I recommend coming here about an hour before sunset to kick of your evening and soak up the beautiful views of downtown Grand Rapids!
‘BOB’ stands for Big Old Building, and ‘big’ and ‘old’ it is! The BOB is a 70,000 square-foot building that’s over 100 years old. Today, it is an entertainment icon in the city playing host to not 1, not 2, but 3 onsite clubs.
4. Sunbathing on a Great Lake is Unlike Anything You May Have Ever Experienced Before
When you’ve had your fill of food, beer, and cocktails, you can head to the beach! The beaches of Lake Michigan are just 30-45 minutes from the city and are truly stunning. I knew that Lake Michigan was enormous, but it’s a different realization entirely when you’re standing knee-deep in the fresh lake water and physically incapable of seeing across to the other side. For the perfect Lake Michigan day, pick up a selection of food from the Grand Rapids Downtown Market and have a picnic at Saugatuck, which feels like a local Michigander’s best-kept secret due to the short 15-minute trek it takes to get to the beach from the parking lot. But, once you make it through the tall trees to the end of the trail, you’re met with a long stretch of sand and endless fresh water as far as the eye can see.
5. The City Has a Young, Working Professional Vibe
There are over 15 colleges and universities in the West Michigan area, with Grand Rapids serving as the urban gathering place for all of them. Charming brick buildings throughout the city nest modern coffee shops and colorful boutiques. Historic houses play contrast to new restaurants, bars, and breweries. Outside of the college community, the median age of Grand Rapids’ residents is around 30-31 years old, and the young community has helped play host to a smattering of intriguing, walkable neighborhoods throughout the city. I loved walking around Grand Rapids and seeing people working in coffee shops, posting up on outdoor patios with whiskey cocktails and craft beer, and popping from bar to bar. To be honest, I didn’t expect that kind of an atmosphere in Grand Rapids and it felt so much more inviting and intriguing than I could’ve predicted.
6. There are Several Cute Neighborhoods To Explore
One of my favorite things to figure out whenever I go to a new city is what each of the different neighborhoods are and what makes them all unique. When I was in Atlanta, I got schooled by locals on how to pronounce each of the neighborhoods I visited, and now I’ll never forget how to properly pronounce Decatur! I don’t know if this stems from my visits to New York where it’s all about the neighborhoods and being able to differentiate exactly where you are at any given time, but now, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with observing the nuances of a city rather than just the sum of its parts. And there are some really fun neighborhoods in Grand Rapids!
Of course, the Downtown area is a beautiful place to start, with brick buildings interspersed amongst offices and museums. Here, you’ll find 6 museums, live music venues (like BOB!), and a bunch of bars and breweries on Ionia Avenue which are a must to check out. East Hills is a great spot just outside of the downtown area that offers up an urban feel with bars, restaurants, and coffee shops brimming with young professionals. Here, head down Wealthy Street for some incredible shopping (check out Mokaya for artisan chocolate, Fox Naturals for beauty products crafted with love, and Outside Coffee Co for a fun outdoor hangout spot with coffee served out of a food truck) and eating (this is where Donkey Taqueria is!). Immediately next to East Hills is Eastown, another cool pocket of the city that’s home to Billy’s Lounge, Yesterdog, and Terra GR). Finally, across the Grand River, you’ll find the West Side. Stroll down Bridge Street to explore all sorts of bars, breweries, and incredible restaurants like Søvengard, Butcher’s Union, and One Bourbon.
7. Once You’ve Had Your Fill of the City, it’s Extremely Easy (and Worthwhile) to Escape From It
While the city is an adventure in itself that will take you a couple days (at least) to take in, I am always a fan of getting out of the city to explore its surroundings. After my 3-night stay in Grand Rapids, I went RV camping with my relatives. What is unique about Grand Rapids is that you can get out into the wilderness and disconnect from it all, but still be less than an hour outside of the city center. There’s fishing and boating in several of the many lakes in the area, or you can stick to land and go biking like I did. I planned to only go camping for 1 night, but my flight home got cancelled due to a storm, so I ended up spending 2 nights out in lush, green fields of West Michigan. I couldn’t believe how many deer, cranes, and emerald green dragonflies I saw just by biking around on the trails. It was an ideal way to end my time in Michigan (and to burn off some of the food and beer I spent the whole week eating, for research purposes, obviously).
Have I convinced you to add Grand Rapids to your list? This small but bustling city surprised me with its upscale culinary scene, lively watering holes, and warm, welcoming community. If you’re looking for a smaller, less crowded city infused with midwest charm, Grand Rapids felt like the perfect gateway to all that and more.