Holding a prominent spot on the radar for craft beer aficionados, art buffs and outdoor enthusiasts alike, Grand Rapids stacks the deck when it comes to attractions.
Home to cultural lures like the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, which was fully renovated and reopened this summer, as well as the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the city is also a hot spot for outdoor recreation, such as kayaking at Riverside Park or hiking and biking on trails within the city limits.
As testament to the city’s versatile appeal, Experience Grand Rapids (EXGR), the area’s official destination marketing organization, released statistics earlier this year that 2015 was a record-breaking year for area hotel room revenue. The occupancy rate of hotels throughout Kent County reached its highest year-end rate ever at 67.5 percent, edging above the national average, while occupancy grew by 4 percent. Grand Rapids was also recently recognized on The New York Times’ list of “52 Places to Go.”
“Grand Rapids has become a popular spot to live and work, with nearly a billion dollars in development going on throughout downtown as we speak, as the economy continues to rise with not only our famous medical and furniture industries, but with the popularity of our craft brewing industry and arts and music scene as well,” said Dave Nitkiewicz, specialty markets sales manager for Experience Grand Rapids. “Through organizations like ArtPrize, our city has completely transformed.”
ArtPrize is an annual international art competition that overtakes the city each fall with innovative art installations both indoors and outdoors. There are artist-guided walking tours available during ArtPrize. Groups can organize private tours through the Grand Rapids Art Museum and then to a few outdoor ArtPrize highlights.
As much as Grand Rapids promotes its arts and beer scenes, the city is the gateway to a wide variety of outdoor group options.
“Grand Rapids offers a lot in outdoor recreation,” Nitkiewicz said. “With hundreds of public events downtown such as “Movies in the Park” or the Guinness Book of World Record’s largest swing dancing club’s weekly takeover of Rosa Parks Circle in the heart of the city, there is much to do while in Grand Rapids.”
One of the standouts for activity is Riverside Park, the largest in the Grand Rapids park system. Groups can arrange riverside hiking or biking excursions at the park, use its disc golf courses, fish in its lagoons or arrange other water-based activities.
“If that isn’t enough, then Lake Michigan is a short 30-minute drive away—perfect for any outdoor-loving group. We are also home to the John Ball Zoo and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park—a highlight for groups in particular—which offers tram tours of the Gardens.”
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park blends some of the city’s top art and outdoor assets.
“With a 158-acre main campus showcasing internationally acclaimed sculptures and themed gardens, Meijer Gardens has multiple event spaces that provide you with diverse options for any event,” said John VanderHaagen, public relations manager at the Meijer Gardens, which recently received awards in the categories of Best Meeting/Event Venue (Outside of Detroit Metro, No Hotel) and Best Summertime Venue from Michigan Meetings + Events Magazine.
Meijer Gardens offers a variety of experiences, including guided year-round tram tours of the outdoor grounds, which features the sculpture park. Groups can also experience the indoor gardens on their own or with a docent on a 45-minute guided tour. Behind-the-Scene tours are also available for groups.
For another outdoor venue within the city limits, the John Ball Zoo offers group space, including the Bissell Tree House—one of Grand Rapids highest points—which features a ballroom with floor-to ceiling-windows overlooking downtown. Groups can also picnic at Ah-Nab-Awen, the former site of a Native American village that now also is home to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
In winter, groups can ice-skate at Rosa Parks Circle or head outside Grand Rapids to Cannonsburg to ski or snowboard, according to Nitkiewicz. Meanwhile, in spring or summer, outings are popular with PedalGR, a tour company that leads regular bike tours around the city. The wealth of biking trails led Grand Rapids to being named Best Town for Mountain Biking in 2010 by Outside magazine.
There are also an assortment of hiking trails in and near Grand Rapids, including the Grand River Edges Trail, which runs along the Grand River near downtown and the 15 miles of paved Kent Trails.
Grand Rapids features several hotels that also get into the outdoor venue action.
Groups can use the Jdek at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids for outdoor events, soaking in the Michigan sun by day or basking in candlelight in the evening. Dinners and receptions are popular, taking advantage of a full menu of hand-crafted cocktails. In anticipation of its 10th anniversary in 2017, the property is unveiling new interiors for its guest rooms.
Attendees can sip cocktails at Waters View, the only rooftop bar in Grand Rapids, located at the Homewood Suites by Hilton Grand Rapids Downtown.
Another option is for groups to enjoy views overlooking the city from restaurant Cygnus 27 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, one of the city’s most prominent meeting venues, with 47,000 square feet of meeting space.
Outside the city, Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area is a 173-acre tract of dune-land along the Lake Michigan shore north of Oval Beach. Saugatuck Dunes State Park and the Saugatuck Dunes Natural Area feature over two-and-a-half miles of almost completely undeveloped sandy beach. The park also offers hiking and cross-country ski trails, its shoreline fringed by some 200-foot-tall dunes and 1,000 acres of hiking terrain. Oval Beach itself is an attraction and has been ranked one of the Top 25 beaches in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.
For a taste of adventure, Saugatuck Dune Rides takes attendees for a trip around the dunes on dune schooners that seat 18 people. The ride lasts approximately 40 minutes with photo stops.
Other park areas include Duck Lake State Park, which stretches from the northern shore of Duck Lake to Lake Michigan and features a towering sand dune. Groups can arrange excursions for fishing, hiking, swimming and picnicking. Fallasburg Park features a covered bridge across the Flat River, as well as picnic areas and a disc golf course. Hiking trails in the park include a segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail.
There are also options at Lake Michigan for beach volleyball and swimming. The beaches can also be used a backdrop for off-site events.
Grand Rapids has dozens of golf courses within a 30-minute drive of the city, including popular Pilgrim’s Run Golf Club. Groups can organize golf outings as well as tournaments and competitions.