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Grand Rapids’ Stand-Alone Stature

Ten African elephants greeted me as I stepped outside my hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then a troop of colorful polar bears intercepted me as I walked across a pedestrian bridge over the Grand River. And finally, a six-foot-tall papier-mâché man balancing a pencil on his nose in the window of a law office caught my eye.

It quickly became clear that Grand Rapids is an art-centric city with a fine sense of humor and a willingness to entertain itself and its visitors.

In short order, I learned that this compact destination (its easy-to-navigate and walkable downtown is barely 15 minutes from a countryside accented with apple orchards) also features a world-class botanical garden and sculpture park, inviting 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.

Until you explore Grand Rapids (with a metro population of 1 million, it is Michigan’s second-largest city), you might not know much more than it was President Gerald Ford’s home and the location of the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum.

It is worth exploring because it surprises visitors, especially first-timers, who might not have seen it as a stand-alone destination. Its stature as a leisure destination has blossomed in recent decades.

An Artistic Evolution

“Grand Rapids was a dead city when I arrived in 1993,” said Candice Smith, before describing the city’s evolution. She owns Tours Around Michigan and knows Grand Rapids intimately.

Smith, a former NPR reporter, is a skilled storyteller, and Grand Rapids provides enough material that she offers themed tours about the city in general, as well as its ghosts, churches, the riverfront, wine, art, and yes, breweries.

Art is one of her passions, and she quickly explained the elephants near my hotel. They are the central characters in “Raining Wisdom,” an African landscape mural covering a two-story building. Artist Abdoulaye Conde painted the mural over 25 consecutive days for the 2023 ArtPrize event. A public vote earned him $125,000.

ArtPrize, an annual international competition, is the most-attended art event in the world, according to The Art Newspaper. Works of art appear every September 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 live on. The pencil-balancing figure I saw in an office window is one such leftover.

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.

A Garden of Inspiration

Just outside downtown is more art guaranteed to be there when you arrive — the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, where a docent’s tram tour narration rivals a college art appreciation course.

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. As if that weren’t enough, live entertainment resonates from an amphitheater where artists such as Ben Folds, Lyle Lovett, Maren Morris, Melissa Etheridge, Jason Isbell and Trombone Shorty perform.

Neighborhood Appreciation

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 it is interesting to learn its many subtle design elements. 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 the restoration returned it to its original form. Today’s protectors call it “the queen mother of fixer-uppers.”

Wealthy Street in the nearby East Hills neighborhood offers a wealth of casual dining and shopping. (A local judge in 1850 named the street for his wife, whose first name was Wealthy.)

Along just a few blocks of Wealthy Street are Winchester (a pub any neighborhood would treasure), Eastern Kille (a cocktail location of Eastern Kille Distillery), Fox Naturals (gifts), Dime and Regal (custom jewelry) and Stoffer Home (a brick-and-mortar location for the home and kitchen items of designer Jean Stoffer, a Grand Rapids transplant).

Sip and Sample

It’s barely a 15-minute drive from there to the rural setting of the Ridge (an agricultural area ideal for apple orchards) and the Ed Dunneback and Girls Farm. The farm turns 100 in 2025, and a fourth generation of Dunnebacks runs the place with a big focus on nonfarm visitors.

“Agritainment” makes the farm popular, with you-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.

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 “America’s Best Beer City.”