One of the most popular and enjoyable Michigan blog posts I’ve read is Detroit Moxie’s “40 Things to Do in Detroit Before You’re Dead.” This post has been invaluable as I’ve learned my way around Detroit and southeast Michigan. And now that Grand Rapids is a leading city in our great state of Michigan, I thought the west side should return the favor. Here’s my attempt at just 20 things to do in Grand Rapids before you’re dead:
1. Tire Swing at Gerald R. Ford Federal Building: Get enough people together and you can really get this swing sailing. Careful, it will take you out if you’re in its path.
2. Art Prize: This phenomenon took the art world by storm, and Grand Rapids’ Art Prize is in only its second year. The pedestrian traffic is a huge boon for the city, and high art on display in pizza parlors is nothing to scoff at. Check out my Art Prize blog post, "Hail to the Artists Valiant."
3. Yesterdog: For Detroiters who argue about Lafayette or American, I have your answer - they’re both terrible. The best hotdog in Michigan, hands down, is Yesterdog. Slopped with toppings and an adventure to order, these dogs are famous among locals, and were even featured in the film American Pie. I submit that I once ate five UltraDogs without the use of my hands. Open late.
4. Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park: Thank you to the West Michigan Horticultural Society and to west Michigan treasures, Fred and Lena Meijer for embracing the area and making Michigan a great place to live. World-class outdoor sculptures and walking trails, and tropical conservatory with carnivorous plants and butterfly exhibit. Here I am being stomped by a horse:
5. Meyer May House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May house was designed in prairie style architecture for a Grand Rapids businessman. There’s a sense of Zen in the place. There’s also a sense that people used to be very, very small. No way I could fit in this house, not for a day. But an hour-long tour is fascinating. Located at 450 Madison Avenue SE.
6. Rowster’s Coffee: This new coffee joint on Wealthy Street is poised to become an institution. Rowster's roasts their own beans in small batches three or four times each week. And they brew each cup individually, to order. Their mentality is much like a small brewery - small batches of high quality product. No decaf. Limited menu.
7. Sixth Street Bridge: The Sixth Street Bridge was constructed in 1886. This narrow bridge supports vehicular traffic, but only one lane. Great view of the Grand River and perfect for senior pictures and wedding photos.
8. Pulaski Days: Polish festival in honor of Revolutionary War hero General Casimir Pulaski. Great food, good music, general Polish joy. Shout-out for German festival too, another great ethnic festival in GR. West Michigan is not as homogeneous as the rest of Michigan seems to believe. Also, if you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much.
9. Festival of the Arts: Before there was Art Prize there was Festival of the Arts. This week-long, family-friendly event features multiple genres – visual, literary, theatrical, musical – plus great food.
10. The Cottage: The burgers and chili are amazing, and the inside is reminiscent of an old ship. The Cottage says it best: “A Grand Rapids tradition since 1927, we are proud to be the oldest operating bar and restaurant downtown. Known for our casual charm and down to earth atmosphere, we're famous for having the city's best burgers, and three different styles of award winning chili, The Cottage Burger was recently voted best burger in Michigan by USA Today.”
11. Marie Catrib's: Farm-to-table goodness. Marie Catrib’s features homemade food made from scratch, with sandwiches that rival Zingerman’s of Ann Arbor.
12. Grand Rapids Art Museum: Didn’t make it to Art Prize this year? Visit the GRAM, home to the top artists. And of course, world-class permanent collection and visiting exhibits.
13. Gerald R. Ford Museum: Ford wasn’t a Michigan native, but he is one of our most celebrated adoptees. My great grandmother used to babysit his children, and a photo of her appears in the museum.
14. Whitecaps Game at Fifth Third Ballpark: If you’re interested in seeing future Detroit Tigers, go for the game. If you’re interested in gluttony, go for the 5,000 calorie Fifth Third burger.
15. Millennium Park: 1,500-acre park featuring over 20 miles of hiking, running, and biking trails. The trails run over old service roads and railroad tracks that criss-cross the wetlands along the river. As a friend pointed out, the rusty oil derricks “add a certain rustic, hobo, tin can, old-time railroad kind of charm.” Hop on the Kent Trails in Millennium Park and just keep going. From Byron Center all the way through Rockford and I believe up to Cadillac. The trail runs near historic burial sites and Grand Rapids gypsum mines.
16. Founders Brewing: I miss the old location with its peanut shelled floor and more laid-back environment, and I could stand some quieter music and less hippies, but still a must-visit for Michigan beer enthusiasts. This year, Ratebeer.com ranked Founders as the 4th best brewery in the world, and Founders won four medals at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Their beers are consistently ranked among the best in the world by Beeradvocate.com, and they host a great summer music and beer festival.
17. Rob Bliss Events: Attend world record zombie walks, pillow fights, and water slides. This young Grand Rapids event promoter is all the buzz, and pushes the limits of what GR is capable of. Keep track of his productions.
18. Houseman Field: This high school football field has a fascinating past, but what really makes Houseman Field great is that it continues to host games featuring west Michigan powerhouses. Outside of a Big Reds game at Muskegon’s Hackley Stadium, this is probably the best spot for high school football in Michigan.
19. Heritage Hill: If you’re at a game at Houseman Field, you’re already right in the neighborhood. Walk around Grand Rapids’ historic Heritage Hill and enjoy the quiet streets, huge trees, and views of great old houses.
20. Grand Valley State University: In my short lifetime GVSU has transformed itself from a glorified community college to a renowned research institution. Worth a visit for a cultural event or a stroll around the beautiful campus. Here's a virtual tour LipDub set to Styx:
Note: I’m from Muskegon, and though I’m a frequent visitor to Grand Rapids I’m certainly not a local expert. Would any locals like to chip in with additional must-sees? I need 20 more to match Becks Davis' Detroit list.