This post is sponsored by Experience Grand Rapids
If you love spending time at the lake, but you also appreciate the energy of a city, Grand Rapids, Michigan should be at the top of your family’s destinations list. We recently spent four fun-filled days in Grand Rapids, and came away with an appreciation for the abundance of outdoor activities, the fantastic food and of course, the warmth and friendliness of the people. Many thanks to Experience Grand Rapids for hosting us on this trip! Here’s a breakdown of what we did in Grand Rapids:
Lunch at San Chez
Our flights from New York got in quite early, so understandably our hotel room wasn’t ready yet. We dropped our bags and headed to San Chez Bistro, a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant just a few blocks away from our hotel.
The dining room has high ceilings and is a cheerful, sun-filled place to enjoy a meal. We ordered a few different tapas that we enjoyed, including empanadas, sauteed shrimp, and beef tenderlion. The hearts of palm salad was quite good too.
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Check In at JW Marriott Grand Rapids
After a brief stop at the iconic “Love” sculpture by artist Robert Indiana, we headed back to the JW Marriott Grand Rapids and checked into our rooms. We booked an adjoining king and double room, both of which were extremely spacious, with lots of storage space. If you’re going to stay at this property, I highly recommend springing for a water view room, as you’ll enjoy floor-to-ceiling views of the Grand River and its famous Blue Bridge.
The hotel is very family-friendly. There’s a Starbucks right in the lobby, which is great if you prefer to grab a quick bite for breakfast. But if you prefer a sit-down breakfast, six.one.six, the restaurant in the lobby, serves both breakfast buffet and a la carte options daily. The girls also really enjoyed the indoor pool, which had lovely views of downtown Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids Public Museum
After lunch we walked across the Blue Bridge to the Grand Rapids Public Museum. This is a must-visit if you’re coming to the city with kids. One of our favorite exhibits was the Streets of Old Grand Rapids, which recreates the downtown area as it looked in the 1890s and even stocks real merchandise from the era in its grocery stores! The girls also loved the TOYS! exhibit, which included an overview of vintage and modern toys, everything from the erector sets and paper dolls that baby boomers grew up with, to the Hot Wheels and Holly Hobbies that Gen Xers played with, to the Super Mario and My Little Pony toys favored by millennials.
But by far the highlight for us was getting to ride this flawlessly restored antique Spillman Carousel, originally manufactured in 1928. There are 44 horses to choose from, plus two chariots and some other fun animals like a giraffe, whale, deer, goat, tiger and camel!
Dinner at The Green Well
That evening we headed to The Green Well for dinner. This gastropub has a spacious patio, so is perfect for outdoor dining in summer months. We ordered a variety of dishes to share, including avocado toast, fried calamari, Cobb salad, chicken vegetable soup, and chips and guac. Everything was fresh and flavorful, and we loved the lively atmosphere!
Dessert at Furniture City Creamery
After dinner we walked a few blocks over to have some ice cream from Furniture City Creamery. This ice cream shop is housed in a tiny 500-square foot building, but every batch is hand-made on premises using natural, locally-sourced ingredients.
Wondering about the shop’s name? Grand Rapids used to be known as “Furniture City” because it developed a reputation for manufacturing high quality wooden furniture, as its location near Lake Michigan made it a major center for the state’s lumber industry. Over time the prevalence of lumber diminished, but furniture still continues to play an important role in the city’s economy, as it’s home to many high-end office furniture brands including Steelcase and Herman Miller.
Retro Boat Rentals
The next morning we headed out to Saugatuck, a charming beach town just 40 minutes from Grand Rapids. We visited Retro Boat Rentals, which specializes in renting out rare classic runabout boats. These boats have that classic jet-age design from the late fifties/early sixties, but they’ve been retro-fitted with completely modern electric engines, so they’re quiet as a whisper! The team at Retro Boat Rentals even hooks you up with a cooler for your drinks and a bluetooth speaker you can connect your phone to. The girls loved blasting “Old Town Road” while we were out on the lake! It was such a great taste of what a Michigan summer is all about.
Lunch at The Southerner
After docking, we headed to The Southerner for lunch. This relaxed lakeside restaurant serves Southern-style dishes and cocktails. They’re particularly known for their fried “hot” chicken, which you can customize depending on what level of heat you’re comfortable with. We ordered half of our chicken mild (no spice) and the other half with the mildest hot sauce, and really enjoyed both flavors. The chicken was great, but the biscuits were fantastic! They’re served with honey butter and jam, and are really worth a try.
After lunch we drove over to Oval Beach, and here’s where I have to make an embarrassing confession:
I’ve always thought all lakes are still bodies of water. So when we saw the big, rolling, surfable waves of Lake Michigan I was both confused and shocked! The water was refreshingly cool, and while I still love the ocean, I now have an appreciation for how fresh water doesn’t sting your eyes and dry out your skin! It’s much more fun to splash each other with! We spent a lovely afternoon here soaking up sunshine and enjoying the soft sand.
Dinner at Ando Sushi
After showering and changing back at our hotel, we headed to Ando Sushi + Bar for dinner. This stylish, modern restaurant offers Asian-fusion dishes, as well as an extensive selection of craft cocktails. We ordered some California rolls to share, and each enjoyed a bowl of ramen. As New Yorkers, we’re a bit snobby when it comes to ramen but I’m happy to say that the ramen at Ando was really solid! The slices of roast pork were nicely cooked and seasoned, and the broth had a good flavor and consistency.
Dessert at Mayan Chocolate & Ice Cream
Our Uber driver recommended that we try the ice cream at Mayan Chocolate & Ice Cream, just a few blocks away, so that’s where we headed after dinner. The colorful decor gives the shop a tropical feel, and there are a tremendous number of flavors to choose from, including some unusual combinations like Mexican Chocolate Chipotle.
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
I’d heard amazing things about the Frederik Meijer Gardens, so we made sure we visited it before we left Grand Rapids. This 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park is a beautiful place to admire both nature and modern art. I highly recommend taking a narrated tram tour, which departs every half hour and runs for about 45 minutes. The park is massive, so if you’ve got young kids with you or anyone with mobility issues, it’ll be hard to see it all. The tour gives you a nice overview of the main works in the gardens, and the volunteers who narrate offer interesting background information on each sculpture and artist.
The girls absolutely loved the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden, which has a tiny kid-sized gate on the side that’s super-fun for children to duck through. The garden has several water-based exhibits that allow kids to splash and have fun, and there’s a gorgeous network of treehouses that the girls absolutely loved exploring!
We had lunch at the James & Shirley Balk Café in the main building. The dining room has lots of natural light, and features a stunning glass ceiling sculpture by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. The girls ordered from the kids menu, which had many inexpensive kid-friendly selections. Serge and I ordered sandwiches, which were very well-prepared. It’s a great place to get a fresh, simple meal while you power up to explore the gardens further.
Sky Zone Grand Rapids
After the gardens, we knew it was time to let the girls burn off some energy, so off to Sky Zone we went! This enormous facility has everything from trampolines to aerial silk trapezes and even an entire ninja warrior course! We spent several hours here and the girls were absolutely in heaven!
Dinner at Hancock
After the girls were sufficiently tired out, we headed to the Wealthy Street Historic District for dinner at Hancock. I highly recommend checking out this part of Uptown Grand Rapids, as it has an energy and fun design sense that reminds me a bit of Austin. Hancock’s tagline is “Nashville Heat meets Michigan Neat.” Housed in a former historic service station, the restaurant specializes in Nashville-style fried chicken. They also have a nice variety of frozen drinks, so if you enjoy drinks like Frosé and slushies, be sure to try out their selection. The restaurant is a great place to dine at with kids. Not only is the atmosphere very casual and lively, but there are a few cornhole boards that the girls had a lot of fun with.
Dessert at Brown Butter Creperie and Cafe
After dinner, we took a leisurely stroll down Wealthy Street and checked out Brown Butter Creperie and Cafe. Located in a historic windmill-shaped building that used to be home to a flower shop called Windmill Floral, this restaurant serves delicious sweet and savory crepes, as well as Belgian waffles.
Half the fun of eating a crepe is watching them make it of course, and the girls were delighted to be able to watch the crepes being prepared at the front counter. Serge and I ordered the France, made with Nutella, fresh strawberries and bananas, and whipped cream; while the girls shared the Camp Fire, made with peanut butter, graham cracker, torched marshmallow, chocolate sauce, whipped cream.
Breakfast at The Littlebird
We were flying out the next day, but we got up early to try out one more Grand Rapids eatery. We’d heard rave reviews of The Littlebird, just a few blocks from our hotel, so we walked over to try it out.
The French toast was definitely a highlight for us. Made with Japanese milk bread, sour cherry and citrus cream cheese, it was a great blend of tangy and sweet flavors. If you like breakfast sandwiches, definitely try The Littlebird, which is a ham, egg and cheese sandwich served on a delicious bun, with garlic mayonnaise that adds a flavorful kick.
Overall, Grand Rapids is a really fantastic place to visit with kids. The city itself is fairly compact so easy to get around, but its proximity to Lake Michigan also means there are so many great places nearby to check out, like Saugatuck. There is definitely an interesting, burgeoning food scene in Grand Rapids, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in another five to ten years, it becomes a foodie destination like Portland or Austin.
About Carmen Sognonvi
Carmen Sognonvi is a luxury family travel content creator at Top Flight Family, named a top 10 family travel Instagram account by Time Out New York and Brit + Co. Her insights on travel have been featured in The Washington Post, INSIDER, Huffington Post, Wanderlust Travel Magazine, TravelPulse, HOTELS Magazine, and more. Carmen firmly believes that you can (and should) travel with your kids from a young age. She offers families practical solutions for travel, as well as tips on how to travel in luxury for less. She lives in New York City with her multiracial and multicultural family of four. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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