The Ramblin' Man: Grand Rapids, a City on the Rise

Fast Facts

  • Where: Grand Rapids, Mich.

  • Distance from Ann Arbor: 135 miles (two hours by car)

  • Trip Duration: Two days, one night

  • Expenditures: < $100 (lodging not included)


         Every January, an obscure city newspaper called The New York Times publishes a list of its 52 destinations to visit over the next year. In 2016, our own Grand Rapids, Michigan, was included on that list, coming in at number 20, sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park (number 19) and Garzón, Uruguay. There are a multitude of things about Grand Rapids that could have secured its inclusion on such an almighty list, but Times writer Elaine Glusac was especially enraptured by the majesty of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park — and rightfully so.

         I visited the horticultural and sculptural wonder of the Midwest on a somewhat chilly February afternoon with a friend who lives in the Grand Rapids area. Admission for students (have that ID handy) is a relatively tame $11. One price gives you unlimited access to all 158 acres of the gardens. And just like that, the adventure is on.

         The indoor conservatories of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park include such selections as the Earl and Donnalee Holton Arid Garden, where you can find cacti of all shapes and sizes; the aforementioned couple's Victorian Garden Parlor, which is exactly what it sounds like; and the Lena Meijer Tropical Observatory, which stays balmy throughout the harshest Michigan winter. Shed a layer before going in –  the humidity sets in quick.

The Arid Garden: touch at your own risk.

The Arid Garden: touch at your own risk.

         Of special note: each March and April, the Tropical Observatory is home to the largest temporary tropical butterfly exhibition in the U.S., made up of around 7,000 tropical butterflies from around the world, including 50 different species. These butterflies flutter about the conservatory as they wish, meaning anyone with fears like Spongebob ought to steer clear. 

         Outside the conservatories, a vast wonderland awaits. There is the Sculpture Park itself, which features the work of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Auguste Rodin, Jim Dine, and Hanneke Beaumont. If those names don’t mean anything to you now, they’ll be impossible to forget after a short walk. The Park also includes performance spaces like the Amphitheater, home of a summer concert series and the Tuesday Evening Music Club. If you have young ones (or are a kid at heart), the Lena Meijer Children's Garden, which includes interactive exhibitions pertaining to the five senses and a sick (see: awesome) model of the Great Lakes, is a must-see.

Rabbit-men in the Sculpture Park call to mind Lewis Carroll's fiction writing.

Rabbit-men in the Sculpture Park call to mind Lewis Carroll's fiction writing.

         The newest section of the Gardens is the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, a thoughtful space where inspiration abounds. Because we visited in February, the verdant zen-style garden that I had been looking forward to seeing was roped off, apparently closed for the season. This was no matter. Allegedly, they forgot to lock the doors. I cannot confirm nor deny that the zen-style garden was almost an exact replica of the miniature one I made for world history class in seventh grade, though one of the larger rocks may have been out of place; it's hard to say.

         Though the Japanese Garden was a delight on the whole, I would advise treading its paths in warmer weather. Like the zen-style garden, other parts were roped off or otherwise in hibernation mode for the winter season, and that's just no fun.

         Once you’re done at the Gardens, there’s still a whole town left to enjoy. Downtown Grand Rapids is a sublime place to find oneself. On the Thursday morning I was there, I was on the hunt for coffee. My friend directed me to the corner of Ottawa Avenue NW and Monroe Center Street NW, where the MadCap Coffee Company stands. I fell in love with the place as soon as I walked in. Madcap is minimalist, with stark-white walls bearing (reasonably-priced) artwork from talented local artists. The bearded-and-tatted baristas are happy to serve up MadCap's specialty coffees, each cup a piece of artwork itself. The crowd there that morning was made up mostly of young people, but there were a few old timers sprinkled in. What I probably loved most was the generous amount of natural lighting the windows let in; it felt like a place you want to be, a place you'd want to work on a project in — a place you'd want to write a SHEI travel column in, perhaps.

MadCap Coffee Company: for all your hipster-ish coffee drinking needs.

MadCap Coffee Company: for all your hipster-ish coffee drinking needs.

         There are, of course, many fine options for eats in the downtown area. For a handful of fine options in one place, though, head over to the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, a large, 24-vendor market hall. The Downtown Market notably features a branch of Slows Bar-B-Q, first made famous on Detroit’s Michigan Avenue. Arby's might claim otherwise, but Slows most certainly "has the meats", including the tasteful smoked chicken and andouille gumbo that I ordered. I highly recommend it for lunch.

         Beyond lunchtime offerings, the Downtown Market is one of the latest examples of the city's efforts to revitalize formerly-neglected areas. The new Market hall was the vision of community members who wanted to see a crumbling building on the south side of town transformed into a useful space. With the help of several community organizations, the Market became home not only to food vendors, but also to classes and programs related to food production. The Market became LEED Gold certified in 2014 and personifies the new face of the city of Grand Rapids: urban revitalization, especially as it applies to culture and the arts. 

This view from Overlook Park will look a lot prettier in a few weeks #BringOnSpring

This view from Overlook Park will look a lot prettier in a few weeks #BringOnSpring

         And with venues like the Van Andel Arena on Fulton Street and The Intersection on Grandville Avenue, Grand Rapids regularly draws big-name musicians and events. Elton John performed earlier this month, and rapper Tech N9ne will visit in April. Sports, in the semi-professional sense, abound in and around the city, as well. The Detroit Tigers, Detroit Pistons, and Detroit Red Wings all have semi-professional affiliates — the West Michigan Whitecaps, Grand Rapids Drive, and Grand Rapids Griffins, respectively — located either in the city or very close by. 

         I could go on and on about the countless reasons you need to visit Grand Rapids, but for the sake of our collective sanity, let me end with a word: Yesterdog

         Find out what it is and get yourself a hold of one while you cruise down Wealthy Street, or take in the magnificence of the Medical Mile, or go for a stroll in Riverside Park, or...

         Regardless of what you do when you’re there, get yourself to Grand Rapids.


NEXT TIME: Love, Loss, & Six Hours on the Bursley/Baits Bus