As urban accolades go, Grand Rapids could take the prize as one of the most awarded metros in recent years.

Just a few of the many praises: No. 1 fastest-growing economy in the U.S. (Forbes), fifth most underrated city in America (Travel + Leisure), best river town (Outside); one of the 10 best college towns in America (Matador Network), one of 52 places to go worldwide (New York Times) and America’s No. 1 travel destination (Lonely Planet). Why all the buzz?

“Simply put, we are a cool place,” said Tim Nelson, director of convention services for Experience Grand Rapids.

Apparently so. Expedia also recently chimed in, naming Grand Rapids one of America’s super cool cities.

Could it have all started in 2011 with that lip-dub video gone viral that Experience Grand Rapids pulled off? With seemingly the whole town joining in on a one-take whirlwind tour through the city, lip-syncing, dancing and cheering to Don McLean’s American Pie?

Channing & Quinn, one trick pony
Channing & Quinn, One Trick Pony

Whatever kicked it off, it’s official. This contagiously popular “Lip-Dub Capital of the World” (as named by YouTube) knows how to have fun and entertain visitors, meeting attendees among them.

Whether indulging in the thriving food and drink scene—craft breweries and distilleries included, exploring diverse, emerging neighborhoods, taking in the vibrant arts and cultural scene or kayaking on the river, planners have plenty of intriguing experiences to weave into Grand Rapids agendas, while attendees have plenty of downtime diversions to enjoy.  

“Grand Rapids has changed a lot,” Nelson said, citing the city’s booming infrastructure, growing diversity of restaurants, breweries, nightlife and shopping, all within a compact downtown area that makes everything easily accessible, as well as within popular neighborhoods connected by public transportation. “People are coming to meetings and conventions for more than what is offered in the sessions, and planners are aware of the need to offer experiences within a community. Grand Rapids delivers that in a very easy way.”

Nelson said two neighborhoods popular with visiting attendees are Uptown and the West Side.

Sovengard, West Side
Sovengard, West Side

“Uptown, east of downtown, is an eclectic area with four distinct districts that draw visitors with restaurants, galleries, shops and nightlife,” he said. “The West Side, or Bridge Street, is a culturally diverse neighborhood that’s just across the river from downtown. It’s a revitalized area that has become one continuous span of six or eight blocks, and there’s a new urban market, restaurants and breweries, and our free shuttle goes there.”

Meanwhile, the arts and cultural scene continues to be a mainstay of the destination—and turn heads.

Ever aiming to elevate the cool factor, Grand Rapids is home to ArtPrize, the world’s largest radically open international art competition. The 19-day festival just finished its 10th annual installment in October and will now be held bi-annually. This year, more than 1,400 artists entered. Awards exceed $500,000, including a $200,000 prize awarded entirely by public vote and a $200,000 prize awarded by a jury of experts.

Long Road Distillers

Museums are another cultural strong suit for Grand Rapids.

The city’s top institution that also doubles as an expansive off-site venue for groups is Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the second most visited attraction in Michigan.

The venue recently launched a $115 million expansion project. Its current 158-acre main campus is home to acclaimed sculptures and themed gardens, and the venue can handle all types of corporate meetings and occasions. Outdoor events make it a premier choice, according to Nelson.

“Frederik Meijer is a favorite for groups,” Nelson said. “It offers something different with the outdoor setting amid all the sculptures and gardens. We’re doing so much more in the way of outdoor events—from events at Meijer gardens to dinners on bridges overlooking the river to dinners in parks. It allows people to really immerse themselves in our unique environment and community.”

Grand Rapids Art Museum also sets the stage for memorably artistic off-sites for groups. The LEED Gold-certified venue features more than 5,000 works of art and hosts a popular Creativity Uncorked hands-on weekly event for anyone to drop in. Yoga evenings amid the renowned art collection are even part of the event program.

For active attendees, outdoor recreation is readily available in and around Grand Rapids, including hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing or simply taking a trip to the beaches along Lake Michigan, located 30 minutes west of the city. The region boasts 50 lakes and four rivers, including the Grand River, the state’s longest, which runs right through downtown. Companies such as GR Paddling and Grand River Canoe and Kayak can arrange waterborne excursions.  

Meanwhile, a project is currently under way to put the rapids back into the Grand River by 2025, which will make it even more attractive for outdoor enthusiasts seeking a thrill—right outside the convention center and hotels.

“One of reasons we’ve become a huge group destination is because we have something for every type of interest, whether you’re into arts and music, breweries, food or the outdoors,” said Stephanie Kotschevar, public relations manager for Experience Grand Rapids.  

Grand Rapids CVB Information

Experience Grand Rapids