Visiting West Michigan? We can’t wait to see you!
Just want to find some more stuff to do in your own city? I hope you learn something and have dinner reservations by tonight.
Grand Rapids is my home, my favorite city, and a hub for artists and creators of all kinds. It wasn’t always this way, and like many cities, GR has experienced its fair share of ups and downs. In the past ten years, the city has been revived. Generous donations from people like the creators of Amway have helped to grow the art and culture scene, and breweries and coffee shops have helped Grand Rapids blossom into a real “brew city.”
All the growth has helped new restaurants, shops and more thrive here, so there are a LOT of things to do in Grand Rapids.
I’m going to break it down into three neighborhoods– I’d say each of them takes half a day to a full day to completely explore, but then, my travel style consists of stopping in every shop with a cute sign and sitting in every comfy chair holding a cup of coffee when I get the chance.
That’s why I’ll help you decide what’s worth your time as you explore this wonderful, beautiful city by going through the places to grab a coffee, where to get brunch, what to do all day and of course where all the best restaurants are.
You know what they say: Westside is the best side! And recently, local businesses have been trying to make sure that’s true. It’s probably the neighborhood growing the most at the moment, and new restaurants, bars and shops are popping up constantly.
Ferris Coffee & Nut Co. has a location downtown, but the one on the Westside is the most convenient– lots of parking and lots of space inside. And good coffee, of course. I personally love Roots Brew Shop. I love their tea especially, and they have Waffle Saturdays every weekend, with flavors changing every Saturday. Delicious. If you have health concerns, Rise Authentic Baking just partnered up with Squibb Coffee to open a cute standalone shop, where they sell pastries free of gluten, soy and dairy (and they are so good). My sister recommends The Bitter End, which has a cozy vibe, for their lattes specifically.
THINGS TO SEE & DO
Shopping is the thing to do on the Westside. And the place to be is the brand-new Bridge Street Market (with free covered parking). This is where you’ll want to go if you need some groceries with an emphasis on local goods. It’s clean, spacious and it has it all– including a coffee shop called Mayan Buzz. There’s also a Mitten State Store just down the road where you can get all your Michigan-related gifts. If you’re with kids (or just love zoos), head to the nearby John Ball Park Zoo, where you can see a plethora of exhibits and even pet some stingrays.
PLACES TO EAT
For something fast, head to Adobe In-and-Out for Mexican food to go. Their burritos are top notch. Like pizza? Jolly Pumpkin is the fun place for well-crafted pizza and a craft beer, or “artisan ales,” as they advertise. For fine farm-to-table food with a Scandinavian flair, look no further than The Sovengard. They’ve also got a killer drink lineup– try the Westside Punch for something sweet and delicious. One of the best places for a high quality burger in the area has got to be Butcher’s Union, but they serve a wide variety of foods from all over the world. Plus they’ve got plenty of great whiskies and other drinks to pair with your steak, porkbelly, bacon-wrapped meatloaf or whatever else strikes your fancy.
All the places above offer great drinks in addition to their food, but there are even more places to get a beer or cocktail on the Westside– one of the reasons you’ll find groups of young people walking down the sidewalks every weekend (even in sub-zero temperatures). New Holland Brewery isn’t technically local to Grand Rapids, but they started in Holland, Michigan, and opened a branch called The Knickerbocker on the Westside. My friends and I love stopping by because it’s got tons of space and the beer list is extensive and not expensive. One Bourbon is 100% the place to go if you’re a bourbon lover, obviously. Another great brewery is Harmony Hall, especially if you’re looking for a spacious location with pizza and beer. They also have tons of special events, like Tuesday night bingo, Thursday night bingo, or my favorite, happy hour from 4-6 on weekdays.
This was probably the first area of Grand Rapids to make a “comeback,” and the area I still think of when I think of Grand Rapids. This is probably the most family-friendly area, with a fairly walkable setup and plenty of museums. There’s also a fairly new bus system called the DASH that will take you all over the city with lots of routes and frequent stops… for free. It’s definitely worth finding a cheap lot and taking the bus around if you anticipate being downtown for a while.
There is absolutely no shortage of coffee shops in the downtown area. The most famous is Madcap Coffee, a green and white corner shop you can’t miss. They’ve been around for over ten years now, and are known for their high-quality, locally roasted pour over coffees and modern, minimalist decor. Ferris Coffee has a shop downtown that’s small but always delicious. My personal all-time favorite is Lantern Coffee. The baristas are always so kind, and I’ve never gotten a bad drink from them. And the space is just so cute and cozy! There’s also a Biggby Coffee and a Starbucks Reserve location right downtown if you want something classic and familiar.
BREAKFAST & BRUNCH
I’m a big fan of the most important meal of the day. If you’re looking to share in my love, check out San Chez Tapas Bistro for some Latin American breakfast tapas. Definitely a hot and delicious way to start your day! My personal favorite right now is Littlebird. Everything I’ve tried from their menu is amazing– get their Japanese Milk Toast French Toast if you’re looking for something sweet, or try their classic Littlebird sandwich if you want a savory breakfast. So good. Six.One.Six is another great restaurant, located in the J.W. Marriot hotel, with delicious, locally-sourced food. A little further down Monroe is the Field & Fire Bakery, where you can get some absolutely incredible pastries, coffee and sandwiches.
I’d also be doing you a disservice not to mention my new go-to French restaurant, which offers a great breakfast and special brunch menu on the weekends. New Hotel Mertens is a newly remodeled restaurant, but they kept the spirit of the hundred-year-old hotel alive in the rustic walls and classic French decor. Their Guegere sandwich wows, and the croissants… oof. They’re also renovating their bakery to add more quick-service options and they have a rooftop bar called Haute open in the warmer months.
THINGS TO DO
One of my favorite things about going downtown is that there are things to do no matter the weather. In the spring and summer, there’s a nice walkway right by the Grand River, and you can spend time walking through Ah-Nab-Awen Park and through the shops downtown. Rosa Parks Circle, which is right in front of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, is the home of a swing dancing troupe every Tuesday night, where dancers of all skill levels can come and have a good time. The Calder Plaza, where a giant red sculpture by Alexander Calder resides, often has games of giant chess, connect four and more set up. And who doesn’t love a stroll across the Blue Bridge? Every other fall, ArtPrize sets up, and there’s art all over the city among the already-beautiful fall colors. In the winter, Rosa Parks Circle turns into an ice rink. A couple hours of skating and a hot chocolate from Biggby or Madcap make for a perfect night.
There are a few museums downtown, and they’re all worth checking out if you have a lot of free time. The Grand Rapids Public Museum (Van Andel Museum) was one of the most entertaining field trips throughout elementary school, and to be honest it’s still one of my favorites. The regular exhibits are fun to walk through, but the museum also has featured, temporary exhibits that are often interactive. I love the planetarium and the cute area of the museum remade to look like historical Grand Rapids (complete with shops and a printing press)! For art lovers, the Grand Rapids Art Museum is a must-see. They have some pretty incredible works on rotation, and the museum itself is beautiful. The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts houses more modern art and film, and is worth a short walk from the GRAM to see as well! If you’re a history buff, you may already know that President Gerald R. Ford, the only president who never got elected into office, was from Grand Rapids. You can visit the Gerald R. Ford Museum to learn about his life and what the country was like at the time he was in office. After walking around the museum, you can visit the place where he and his wife were buried and stroll around the surrounding park by the river. And if you have kids, you’ve got to stop into the Grand Rapids Children Museum for some kid-friendly fun.
I’m a sucker for some good shopping, especially at cute specialty stores and artsy looking markets. The Grand Central Market is one of those cute places where, yeah, you can get some groceries, but also where you can peruse the fancy candies and wines, then go next door to their deli for a bite to eat or a nice drink. Then head across the road to Apothecary Off Main, where you’ll find lots of natural soaps, candles and personal care items. I bought some Meyer Lemon soap there the other day and it smells absolutely amazing. Just a bit down the road from there is one of my biggest weaknesses: a paper store called The Paper Studio. Writing notes and letters becomes a million times more fun when you have cute stationary. PSA: They also host classes! If you’re more into reading than you are writing, Vault of Midnight is for you– it’s a comic book store that’s filled to the brim with pop culture merchandise. Down the road onto Division, you’ll find a fun little shop called Bold Socks, filled with– you guessed it– socks, and further still is a big record store with an edge called Vertigo Music.
One of the most famous landmarks of Grand Rapids, in my mind at least, is the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. It has all the feeling of a 20th century grand hotel, but features technology from the here and now. It is beautiful and absolutely worth walking through. If you don’t do anything else downtown, at least check this place out. Grand Rapids also features many skywalks connecting the various buildings, and the Amway is a good place to hop onto one and walk above the city for a bit.
I have to at least mention the great antique scene in GR, or else I’m not being true to myself. If you love watching Antique Roadshow and have a few hours to burn, stop by Warehouse One antiques (or the other couple giant stores next door to it), which is located in a giant old building on the outskirts of downtown. They have everything you can imagine, and I have literally gotten lost wandering around in the many sections of the building.
One of my family’s favorite places to visit and a good transition toward the restaurant category is the Downtown Market. It a great place for shopping– there’s a little paper goods shop, Michigan merchandise, spice, vinegars, flowers, wine and many other little treasures. On the restaurant side of things, you can find another Madcap Coffee with a cool bar area, some of the best ice cream you’ve had at Love’s Ice Cream (pay the extra dollar for the waffle cone), deliciously smoked meats at Slows BBQ, my favorite chicken tacos at Tacos El Cunado and so much more. There’s a greenhouse on the second level, which makes a great spot to hang out if they don’t have one of their many events going on at the time.
WHERE TO EAT DOWNTOWN
Like every part of our Beer City, there are enough restaurants, bars and breweries downtown to satisfy anyone. Rockwell Republic is a unique spot for sushi and drinks. Flanagan’s is the place to go for classic Irish pub fare with beer to match, and once you’re done there, you can head to Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar to hear some hilarious live entertainment and go upstairs to dance the night away. HopCat is another popular spot for beer and good food, and their cosmic fries are actually out of this world.
And for a classic Grand Rapids experience, you can’t miss Founders Brewing. I’m not a huge beer gal, but even I enjoy some of the beers on rotation at Founders, and their deck is the perfect place to hang out with friends on a summer evening. But if you’re in the mood for something a little stronger, try Stella’s Lounge, which not only serves up some of the best burgers in town (in the country, according to GQ Magazine), but also has an assortment of whiskeys and a bunch of vintage arcade games. For an even more vintage vibe, try The Commons, a new 70’s-themed restaurant and bar located just east of downtown.
I’ll end with Uptown, the east-side artsy area with the greatest potential for Instagram pictures and my personal favorite neighborhood for brunch, shopping and just walking around. It’s a very open and welcoming community, and many of the restaurants are allergy-sensitive, so if you’re gluten or lactose free, you don’t have to give anything up here.
Note that many Uptown/Eastown locations are closed on Mondays (It’s like you’re in a little English-speaking Europe).
First off: where can you get a good cup of coffee around here? The good news: the options are endless. The bad news: the options are endless.
My personal favorite is called Squibb Coffee and Wine. They just have a really fun vibe, and lots of great rotating seasonal choices. Not to mention their wine and pastry offerings are divine.
There are a lot of other options within walking distance, too. Rowster Coffee has got a great minimalistic vibe, and Sparrows Coffee and Tea and Newsstand is artsy and has the cutest little patio area in the alley next to their shop. (P.S. try the famous Chai Tea Latte at Sparrows!)
Another new addition to the coffee scene is located next to the fun, outdoorsy shop Woosah. It features drinks out of a vintage camper, hammocks and geodomes with cozy benches, chairs and tiny space heaters inside them. Outside Coffee Co. is definitely a place to stop if you want a cool experience and a great latte.
BREAKFAST & BRUNCH
If you want a little more than coffee for your breakfast– or you’re looking for THE perfect brunch– there are a lot of options in Uptown for that as well. If you’re into a European vibe, Brown Butter Creperie probably has the best crepes I’ve had this side of the ocean (plus a fine foods store next door called The Local Epicurean that also offers cooking classes!), and Cherie Inn has been open for almost 100 years for good reason (try their French toast or their delicious Eggs Benedict).
Want something a little more traditional? You can’t go wrong with Wolfgang’s. It’s always busy and the food is always delicious. Plus their early bird specials are great, if you’re a get-up-and-go type of person. Speaking of early birds, the Early Bird is another breakfast spot with a classic diner feel. Eastown Cafe and Peaches Cafe are both little treasure troves in small buildings, too, with consistently good service and food. I’m not actually sure there’s anywhere you can go wrong for brunch around here.
THINGS TO SEE & DO
If you’re into art and shopping, this is the place for you. Every kind of store is covered in the different Uptown alcoves. You can visit everything from gorgeous home stores like The Counting House and Stoffer Home to fashionable boutiques such as DENYM, Marie La Mode, Lee and Birch, Dime & Regal, Le Fleur, Adored Boutique and more. Come prepared to buy; there will probably be something you suddenly realize you can’t live without.
There are plenty of cute specialty shops in the area as well, like The Plant Parlor, which sells plants of all kinds (in a nice, warm shop), and Rebel Reclaimed, which is probably my favorite place for cards and little gifts.
A few book stores, both modern and antique, are located in East Hills and Eastown as well. For a hip and fun environment, visit Books and Mortar. If you’re on the hunt for first edition books or comics, stop by Redux Books and Argo’s, which are conveniently right next door to each other.
If you like to stay busy but don’t feel like shopping until you drop, there are other options. I always like to relax with a cup of coffee, especially since they’re all such cute places. This side of town also boasts a theatre that hosts films, live performances and other events. Check out what’s going on at Wealthy Street Theatre; there just might be a Sundance-level film playing or a phenomenal dance troupe performing. Another tried-and-true activity is candle-making at Wax Poetic Candle Bar. I can’t speak highly enough of how kind everyone there is or of how fun it is to smell alllllll the scents and mix them together to make your own candle. For the same price as a Yankee Candle, you can make your own scent and find a perfect jar to match your style.
SNACKS & DESSERTS
Other than the pastries available at basically every coffee shop in the area (seriously, there are some good ones), there are a couple must-stop places for a light snack. If you’re into healthy, clean eating, Fruition is for you. They have a wide selection of juices, smoothies and acai bowls you are sure to love. If you need some ice cream to get you through the day, I highly recommend Furniture City Creamery. They have wonderful fresh ice cream (and interesting flavors), and even some vegan options. If you love macarons as much as I do, then definitely check out Le Bon Macaron. It’s a super cute shop, and their macarons are to die for. Another suggestion if you’re looking for cakes and pastries is The Cakabakery. Just… yum.
LUNCH & DINNER
This brings us to our final category in the guide– the REAL food. Personally, brunch is my favorite meal, but I can’t go around eating crepes and french toast all day (because breakfast places close before dinner… sigh). No matter what you’re craving, there’s probably a place for you. Yesterdog is a famous hot dog-gery that’s tasty, open late and cash only. They also have a specific way to order, so check their website before visiting. Matchbox Diner and Drinks offers a wide variety of food in a cute building and classic diner decor. There’s also Schnitz Deli for great fresh sandwiches and The Electric Cheetah if you want a place with craft root beer and the most delicious adult mac and cheese you’ve ever had. Another one of my favorite places is The Winchester. They’ve not only got a fun upscale-pub menu, but a selection of drinks (including a Bloody Mary bar for your weekend brunch) to boot!
If you’re a taco and margarita fan, Donkey Taqueria is the place to be right now– I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s tried and disliked a Donkey margarita. Be warned, their food is authentic Mexican, and can be on the spicier side! For sushi in Uptown, try out Maru Sushi, a super hip, super spacious place for super sushi. There are a couple fresh farm-to-table style restaurants in the area too– try Grove or Terra. And of course, I’ve gotta throw in a brewery recommendation. There are a few around, like Harmony Brewing, but Brewery Vivant is my favorite. The building was a funeral home before being remodeled into a brewery serving beer and food from France and Belgium. The place has got character!
SUBURBS AND BEYOND
The suburbs of Grand Rapids are full of things to see and do, but most of these things have free parking lots, which is always nice after a day downtown. Back in high school, before I could parallel park and drink coffee, I spent all kinds of weekends roaming the suburbs.
In North Grand Rapids, check out Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery. Going in the fall is ideal, but they’re open year round with iconic donuts and apple cider. And for only $5 a person, you can try a few of their wines (the peach one is on my list of favorites) and get a souvenir wine glass to keep. There’s also a nice woodsy area nearby at the Provin Trails Park.
In East Grand Rapids you can find a nice area with shops to walk through and restaurants with a view, like Rose’s. Walking around Gaslight Village or Reeds Lake is always a treat on warm afternoons. Speaking of treats, Jersey Junction is the place to go for that– the line out the door and to the sidewalk on summer nights speaks for itself. One can’t-miss stop in the springtime is Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which not only boasts works of art by Rodin, Degas and Chihuly, but also a vast park, tradtitional Japanese garden and, my personal spring favorite, a butterfly conservatory! I went every single year as a kid, and it’s just as fun to go now. For some upscale shopping, the Breton Village Shopping Center is your place to go. Stores like Lululemon, Anthropologie and West Elm await, alongside one of my favorite chain restaurants, CoreLife, which serves the best salads you’ll ever have.
If you travel south from Grand Rapids, there are places to visit whether you go east or west. Over to the east is Woodland Mall, the Shops at Centerpoint right across the road, a Chic Fil A and one of Grand Rapids’ favorite breakfast places, Anna’s House. Try their Monte Cristo or Breakfast Lasagna for a real treat. Heading west on 28th Street, you have to stop at Marge’s Donut Den— absolutely delicious donuts and the best cake basically ever (make sure you get there early enough to get it all fresh!). If you don’t know a lot about Dutch culture (or if you do and you love it), VanderVeen’s Dutch Store is a must-stop. Free cookies, coffee and a lesson on the Dutch heritage that makes up much of West Michigan. Music lovers should visit The Corner Record Shop. They’ve got it all in their warehouse-sized space full of records. In Grandville, the suburb in which I spent a lot of time growing up, there’s a large mall called Rivertown Crossings and several other shops and restaurants nearby. Grandville also boasts a cute downtown area on Chicago Dr. with stores selling jewelry, furniture and suits, plus a few restaurants and a great coffee shop.
I hope there’s enough here to inspire your next trip to the Grand Rapids area… I know I’ll never stop exploring and finding new places– there’s so much to see and do!