Itineraries: 4-day Vacation Guide to Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids ochristine

What to do in Grand Rapids for four days

There are many vacation themes you can plan for a visit to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Whether it is a Grand Rapids trip for outdoor enthusiasts to experience nature and adventure; a serene wellness getaway; a culture trip filled with museums; or a taste of it all -- it is difficult to decide on a set itinerary with so many options!

The last five years have been big for tourism in Grand Rapids. Named by the NYT as one of 52 places to visit in 2016 and Lonely Planet's #1 U.S. state to visit in 2014, Michigan's second largest city offers year-round experiences for everyone.

I visited Grand Rapids, aka "Beer City", for five days and explored the area for a four full days (we had to continue our road trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the last day, so needed to set out early on day five).

To help you plan your Grand Rapids vacation I've mapped out a fun four-day itinerary that highlights some of the area's best experiences. This guide is perfect for couples, solo travelers, and group vacations.

 
DAY 1: A Downtown Welcome

3:00pm: Welcome to Grand Rapids!

Check into your hotel in Downtown Grand Rapids for ideal proximity to all things GR. I stayed at the Amway Grand Plaza: a downtown Hilton hotel just walking distance from museums, breweries, and restaurants. The century-old historic hotel is a downtown highlight, and its 1983 glass tower extension overlooks the Grand River. You'll have a relaxing stay ahead of you, as the hotel houses a fitness center, pool, and jacuzzi; an onsite salon & spa; gift and coffee shop; and seven bars and restaurants. 

 
Amway Grand Plaza
 

4:00pm: Explore the city from the sky

Grand Rapids' solution to convention foot traffic, parking ramps, and cold or inclement weather turns out to be an extra perk for travelers seeking a unique way to traverse the city. Join hundreds of others and stroll the (nearly) one-mile Skywalk through hotels and buildings to take in a view of downtown from above. If you are lucky enough to be visiting during ArtPrize, you might spot works of art as well!

 
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You can connect to the Skywalk from the Amway Grand Plaza. Don't forget to trot the streets as well though, or you'll miss out on interacting with the city itself. 

5:30pm: Groove on the Blue Bridge or just relax

Depending on when you visit Grand Rapids, you might be able to catch Summer Thursdays' Groove on the Blue Bridge program. Running from 5:30-6:15pm, this free event welcomes drop in visits to get grooving and moving with easy-to-follow dance steps on the iconic Blue Bridge. If your body says, "Heck no, I'm not moving today," book a massage at the hotel spa instead. No judgement, here!

6:30pm: Try one of the top 10 french fries in the United States

I'm talking about CRACK FRIES! Grand Rapids is home to the nationally acclaimed crack fries at HopCat. How good are they? Apparently so addictively delicious they made Food Network's list of the Top 10 French Fries in America. Beer-battered and sprinkled with crackled black pepper, people come in droves to try the french fry goodness. While you're there, have dinner and taste their locally brewed beers too. For uh... "research purposes", we ordered both plain and loaded crack fries (loaded fries come topped with warm cheese sauce, bacon, red onion, and jalapeños -- which I actually found tastier than the original because cheese is the key to joy in my heart).

HopCat
HopCat Crack Fries-ochristine

8:30pm: Relax your muscles after an arduous journey

I don't know about you, but no matter how hard I try to jump right into exploring upon arrival, my body simply aches too much from the journey. Add stuffing my face with restaurant food after munching on roadside or airplane snacks all day, and I am both bloated and tired. On my first night, I take advantage of the fitness center and/or pool and jacuzzi perks within my hotel to get my body in efficient working order so I can make the most of my vacation. Amway Grand Plaza had an indoor pool and jacuzzi calling my name.  

 
Amway Grand Plaza jacuzzi - ochristine
 
DAY 2: Brimming with Culture

9:30am: Rise & dine!

Start your day with a healthy portion of deliciousness and have breakfast at San Chez Bistro. This downtown restaurant offers tapas dishes and heavier breakfast entrées. We met up with our friend from Experience Grand Rapids (she's obsessed with this place) and ordered breakfast empanadas, Tortilla Española, and a classic breakfast wrap. We also had a delicious iced vanilla chai and patatas bravas (basically home fries/potatoes).

Experience Grand Rapids invited me to the city to showcase the best outdoor activities in Grand Rapids (read that post here), but I was lucky enough to have complete control over my itinerary (woo hoo!) choosing places I know I'd visit on my own (and ones that won't break the bank).

Dreams come true, y'all.

 
San Chez Grand Rapids-ochristine
 

10:30am: Get cultured

Spend the day dedicated to visiting museums in Grand Rapids and you won't regret it. While I am open to different types of museums, I do enjoy ones that pay homage to local artists, POC, immigrant and African-American heritage, and impactful milestones and inventions from the destination I'm visiting. 

For a day of museums, I recommend visiting the following:

  • Grand Rapids Public Museum: this museum is great for visitors of all ages, has a wonderful exhibit that transports you to Old Grand Rapids, and gives insight into its furniture manufacturing history. Visitors love the planetarium and carousel here too! [Cost: $8 // Open: Monday - Sunday]
     
  • Ford Museum: this isn't a museum dedicated to Ford automobiles. This museum is the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, dedicated to the only person in history who became Vice President and President of the United States without ever being elected. If you are reading this in the Trump era, you'll find the Watergate news clips to seem a little familiar. [Cost: $8 // Open: Monday - Sunday]
     
  • GRAAMA: the Grand Rapids' African-American Museum & Archives celebrates Black history in the Greater Grand Rapids Area. This studio-style museum also exhibits African prints and artifacts for purchase. [Cost: Free // Open: Tuesday - Saturday]
     
  • GRAM: the Grand Rapids Art Museum is a neighborhood favorite thanks to its frequent community events. It is also the world’s first LEED Gold-certified museum. I even came across what might be my favorite art exhibit ever while here. [Cost: $10, Free on Tuesdays // Open: Tuesday - Sunday]

6:00pm: Dine on the West Side

After a long day downtown, head over to Grand Rapids' West Side neighborhood and treat your palate to The Søvengård: a modern biergarten and kitchen prioritizing sustainability from its walls to your plate.

You'll love their outdoor seating; if the wait is too long, head to the open seating and order your food from there while a friend grabs a seat -- the menu is the same. I enjoyed sharing an order from their smørrebrød menu, where you can choose a flight of one, two, or three open-faced sandwiches of Scandinavian origin. We had two sandwiches: crispy fried trout and house smoked ham. 

 
The Sovengard Grand Rapids ochristine
 

8:00pm: Continue the European theme at Harmony Hall

For an after-dinner brew, walk over to Harmony Hall's whimsical "Beer Castle". According to the brewery, the property was a "century-old Bavarian brick stronghold, originally a sausage factory". Oh and even though you just had dinner, you may need to try their fresh soft pretzel with a side of beer cheese. Just sayin'.

 
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DAY 3: Soak in the Outdoors

10:00am: Sleep in & still beat the crowds

You don't have to dine out for breakfast every morning during your Grand Rapids stay! Why not head to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park to experience tranquility, art, and a bite at the cafe to start your morning. The 158-acre property is a bucket list item for anyone who visits Grand Rapids. The Japanese Gardens are my absolute favorite.

 
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We got there at the opening time to beat the crowds, as we knew it was a hotspot. Sure enough, we had the gardens and park practically to ourselves. By the time we were done (noon) we saw so many people arriving. If crowds aren't your thing, you'll be glad you went early. 

12:00pm: Lunch from the Kitchen

I loved grabbing sandwiches from The Kitchen Counter by Wolfgang Puck at the Amway Grand Plaza. It was fast, convenient and absolutely delicious. The chicken club was my go-to. Fill yourself up and get ready for an active afternoon.

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1:30pm: Go Paddling down the Grand River

Book a canoe or kayak trip with GR Paddling and get in touch with your active side. You'll be able to spot lots of wildlife and may even see two bald eagles and an eagle's nest, like we did! The tour company we used provided all the equipment, door-to-door transportation, sunscreen, snacks, and other amenities, all included in the price. My recommendation: canoe down the Thornapple to the Grand River for a total of 6.5 miles. It took us a little over 2 hours to complete it. The entire experience costed $120 total, but prices vary depending on what you choose to do. 

6:00pm: Dine at Stellas lounge

If you love street art and mouthwatering burgers, head to Stella's Lounge for some amazing flavors. I'll be honest, HopCat's "crack fries" might be famous, but I loved the "chronic fries" at Stella's Lounge. I ordered Stella's best seller, "Stuffed Blue".

It included a burger stuffed with blue cheese and bacon, topped with blue cheese sauce, and a side of fries. The chronic fries were seasoned with what seemed like powdered buffalo sauce, which tasted great with the blue cheese from the burger. I can't confirm what that secret seasoning actually is but that's my best guess. 

Stellas Lounge outdoor space-ochristine
Stellas Lounge Review Grand Rapids ochristine

8:00pm: Visit a classic

At this point you'll be glad you did all that canoeing; you have a lot to burn off! You can't leave Grand Rapids without a visit to Founder's Brewing so get on over there. Even though you can easily Uber over, I recommend walking: you'll get to pass the Michigan postcard mural along the way.

I ordered one of their tap room exclusives: Hawaiian Jukebox, a German-style gose. We even chatted with someone sitting next to us who we later learned bought our drinks for us! He left as we realized, so a public thanks to you, kind sir!

That sealed the deal: it was a good day.  

 
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DAY 4: Explore your wild side

9:30am: Fish & run

Kick off your last day in Grand Rapids with a nature stroll in Riverside Park. Walk, bike, or run along the White Pine Trail or try some morning fishing if that's your thing. Along the Grand River, this large park has a pond and fishing dock for an easy morning.

12:00pm: A healthy lunch

If you are bloated from all the amazing food you've been eating, take a fresh approach with Electric Cheetah. I'll forewarn you... I couldn't figure out the cheetah part and the menu was initially overwhelming (or too hip for me?) but once I got my food it felt refreshingly worth it, and really, isn't that all that matters? 

I ordered "The Schuyler Sisters" (vegetarian-friendly) which was basically three long bruschetta pieces in different variations. More than enough for one person, they included:

  1. Grilled tomato/olive oil/garlic and basil
  2. Duxelles/fresh mozzarella/basil chimichurri
  3. Goat spread/grilled peach/arugula/shaved parmesan cheese and crushed pistachio
 
Electric Cheetah Grand Rapids ochristine
 

1:30pm: See Wildlife Up-close

You can't leave Grand Rapids without experiencing the Blandford Nature Center. From owls and turtles to hawks and osprey, there is so much to wildlife to see. Even a bobcat!

You can hike six miles of trails throughout this 264-acre property, or stay in the air-conditioned visitor center and learn about their initiatives. Note: this site isn't open on Sundays, so switch it with one of the earlier activities if your schedule doesn't match up.

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4:30pm: Drink at a funeral home

If you have a late departure today, head over to Brewery Vivant in East Hills and experience a unique twist for a microbrewery. Located in a refurbished funeral home, the church-like structure offers European-style food and beer, including a selection of what I felt to be pretty sophisticated sours. I heard the food here is amazing, but alas -- I was too stuffed to try it. Guess I'll have to go back!

 
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extra time? take a day trip 30-40 minutes beyond Grand Rapids

Visit the Saugatuck Dunes State Park for a coastal dune hike and swim in Lake Michigan. Alternatively, you can stop by Holland, right outside of Grand Rapids, for a visit to the country's only authentic, working Dutch windmill and access to the Windmill Island and Gardens
 

When will you Visit Grand Rapids?

Head to the comment section (scroll down) and let me know what you think of this itinerary. What types of activities do you look forward to in Grand Rapids?

I also wrote a mini outdoor guide to Grand Rapids for people who love nature. Enjoy!

xx, O.

 

 

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What to do for four days in Grand Rapids - ochristine