Family Road Trip Guide: Grand Rapids

The second largest Michigan city offers family fun in winter and beyond

Grand Rapids is the second largest city in Michigan, after Detroit, yet it has a smaller town feel with many activities easily accessible from downtown. Known for breweries and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, this city on the Grand River is fun for families in winter, spring, summer and fall.

Getting to Grand Rapids, Michigan

Photo credit: Scroggin Studio

About a 2.5-hour drive on I-96W will get you to Grand Rapids making it perfect for a quick getaway.

What families love about Grand Rapids, Michigan

World of Winter, the largest winter festival in the Midwest, runs Jan. 6-March 5. More than 100 free events encourage folks to get outside even in the chilly weather. A Human Hungry Hungry Hippo Tournament, scavenger hunts, a street party, drag show and silent disco liven up the first few months of the year. Large, colorful, interactive art installations, ice sculptures and themed window displays will warm your hearts and can light up your socials.

Photo credit: Jason McClellan

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is open year-round. March through April, Butterflies Are Blooming, the largest temporary tropical butterfly exhibition in the nation, features butterflies from around the world flying freely. See if you can spot blue, orange and other brilliantly colored varieties. Spring is a beautiful time to see flowers blooming. The Lena Meijer Children’s Garden is one of the largest interactive children’s gardens in the country and is a pure delight for kids big and small. My tweens had a blast splashing boats through the Great Lakes Garden water area. Sculptures dot the grounds. Look for the bronze horse, spider, elephant and even large nose. The Japanese Garden is serene with waterfalls and a functioning teahouse.

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum is currently featuring “America at the Crossroads: The GUITAR and a Changing Nation” with 40 different instruments connecting to poignant moments in American history and culture. Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is a great place for kids to explore hands-on exhibits and get their energy out. Through May 14, drive a snowmobile, go ice fishing or care for sled dogs at the “Molly of Denali: An Alaskan Adventure” exhibit.

Michigan’s oldest museum, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, is a hit for its carousel, fossils and nostalgic artifacts. It’s newest exhibit is the Power of Poison. In March, it launches its Saturday Investigation Classes where kids 8 and up can immerse themselves into labs and activities led by museum educators to investigate history, science and culture. Other indoor fun includes duckpin bowling (with smaller and lighter pins) at Woodrows, inside the Amway Grand Plaza.

Just minutes from downtown, you can ski or snow tube at Cannonsburg Ski Area, fat tire bike or snowshoe along Indian Trails or snowshoe through Blandford Nature Center.

If you visit in the fall, you simply much check out the international ArtPrize competition. Artists’ work is displayed all over the city and the public can vote for prizes. Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery is a sixth-generation family-owned orchard where you can pick apples, explore corn maze and take a hayride.

Summer is a wonderful time to kayak, jet ski or fish on the Grand River. If the beaches are calling you, Millennium Park is a short drive from the city for a sandy beach, splash pads and huge playground. Coastal beach towns like Grand Haven, Holland and Saugatuck are only about 40 minutes away.

John Ball Zoo opens March 24. Built into a forest foothill, you can take a funicular to the top, then meander down seeing all sorts of animals along the way. There’s also play areas for the kids, including a zipline and sky ropes course.

Where to stay in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Photo credit: Experience Grand Rapids

Our family stayed at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Grand Rapids Downtown. Located on the Grand River, balcony views are soothing with a cup of coffee in hand. Barn doors close off the bedroom area of each suite, which is wonderful for parents who want to hold different bedtime hours than their kiddos. Free breakfast and happy hour are included with your stay. Your whole family will love the Michigan-shaped indoor pool and indoor/outdoor hot tub. There’s also a sundeck and bar for extra vacation vibes.

Another option is the Holiday Inn Grand Rapids South, which has an indoor pool with splash pad and waterslides. Kids under age 11 eat free at the on-site restaurant.

Where to eat in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Photo credit: Tom Fries

Since Grand Rapids is a beer city, you’re going to want to visit the breweries. But don’t worry, there’s usually food and fun drinks for the underage folks or those who choose not to imbibe.  Founders Brewing Co. is Michigan’s largest brewery. The Grand Rapids location has a patio, beer garden and many varieties on tap that you won’t find anywhere else. I loved the Mas Agave Clasica Lime, an imperial gose brewed with agave, lime and sea salt, then aged in tequila barrels resulting in a margarita-like beer. Just be careful because it’s 10% alcohol. Balance the drinks with sandwiches and appetizers. The Devil Dancer sandwich with roasted chicken, Muenster, pepper jack, jalapenos, banana peppers, red onions and chipotle mayo was full of flavor and not as spicy as it sounds.

City Built Brewing Company is within walking distance of the Embassy Suites on the river. It serves a range of diverse beers inspired by plants, herbs and fruit. The Yuzu seltzer was light, citrusy and refreshing. Dive into food inspired by its Puerto Rican heritage. The smoked pork tacos braised in Sofrito are pretty dang tasty.

Brewery Vivant is a lively microbrewery housed inside a former funeral home. Gaze at stained glass in the chapel taproom or soak up the sunshine on the patio. The Straw Barb fruit beer is zingy and slightly sour. We loved it so much my husband bought me a four-pack to bring home.

Other notable restaurants include the Electric Cheetah, known for its craft root beer; Mitten Brewing Co., a vintage baseball-themed craft brewery that serves handpicked pizza flights; and Yesterdog, an award-winning hot dog restaurant that was in the movie “American Pie.”

Top it all off with scoops of old-fashioned ice cream from Jersey Junction in Gaslight Village. Sweet vacation memories are often made with ice cream cones in-hand.

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