Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, is one of my favorite weekend getaways with the grandkids. We recently visited to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Grand Rapids being named Beer City, USA, where Michigan ranks fifth in the nation for craft beer.
The seven things mentioned in this article include activities for grandkids of various ages. For example, I have two granddaughters, one 19 and one 3, so when we all get together for an outing, we must consider the wide range of ages.
Experience Grand Rapids hosted one of my visits to Grand Rapids.
1. The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum greets you with a pretty mosaic installed during ArtPrize 2009. The theme here is play; you won’t see any Don’t Touch signs. Instead, they feature hands-on interaction throughout the museum.
They offered an entire room of make-and-take art projects on the second floor. In addition to drawing, they offer a variety of elements that you can paste on paper to create a picture. The older kids enjoyed this as much as the younger ones. Keep in mind that the art area closes about an hour earlier than the rest of the museum.
We should have allowed more time here. As the museum was closing, the youngest complained that she didn’t get to finish making her pizza in the pretend pizzeria. I was also a bit disappointed, as she declared me her customer, and I didn’t get to eat that delicious-looking pizza she was creating.
You’ll find plenty of seating throughout the museum so that you can easily watch the kids while they play. But from experience, don’t start scrolling through your phone, as they’ll move on to the next activity, and you’ll be frantic.
Pro Tip: A child must accompany anyone over 18 who enters the museum. An adult must accompany anyone under 18.
2. Mitten Brewing Company
The family-friendly Mitten Brewing Company is a place every generation will enjoy. The adults appreciate the beer, while the younger crowd will find the house-made, draft, non-alcoholic root beer a special treat.
Everyone will enjoy the pizza. While breweries offer beer flights, you can order a flight of pizzas at Mitten Brewing, so the whole family will get what they like including the teen vegan in your group. Any six specialty pizzas, including the weekly special, can create a pizza flight. The flight, served on a wooden paddle, produces a meal that feeds four.
The 120-year-old building is a former Victorian-era firehouse, Engine Number 9. So, details like the fire pole and exposed brick are evident. However, the theme of today’s brewery is baseball. And you won’t miss Michigan’s favorite baseball team, as all televisions are focused on the game when the Tigers are playing.
Register for the digital Brewsader passport, where collecting eight electronic stamps will earn you a free T-shirt.
Pro Tip: While they don’t take reservations, sign up for the waitlist on Yelp to reduce your wait.
3. The John Ball Zoo
The John Ball Zoo showcases over 1,800 animals from five continents, so we did some pre-planning to take full advantage of our day at the zoo. First, I downloaded their map from the website to get an idea of where the animals live in the zoo. Then, I made a plan for when the daily animal programs happen so I could maximize our participation. You will need to double-check once you arrive to ensure the day’s agenda hasn’t changed.
In addition to viewing the animals, there are other activities you won’t want to miss. You can ride the funicular to the top near the Bissell Tree House Event Center. The kids may also want to participate in face painting, the ropes course, ziplining, or camel rides.
Plan to take a picnic lunch or buy lunch at the zoo. You’ll undoubtedly need energy for the activities they offer at the zoo.
Pro Tip: The zoo, a seasonal destination, closes from late fall through early spring.
4. Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
Lena Meijer Children’s Garden
Since Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is about 5 miles from downtown and the other museums, we started our day there and worked our way back downtown. The sculpture park is one of the world’s top 100 most visited museums, where a narrated 45-minute tram tour will give you a quick overview of the 158-acre sculpture garden. The sculpture park holds over 50 sculptures by artists like Rodin and Degas. That tour works well for the older ones, but the kids’ tram tour is perfect for the littles. The kids’ tram tour includes everyone getting off the tram and exploring the sculptures. Then docents conduct a sing-along appropriate to each sculpture. For example, when viewing Sean Henry’s Lying Man sculpture, they sing “Are You Sleeping”? What a fun way for the littles to explore art at their level.
The 5-acre children’s garden is the largest in the United States. The kids will love digging for fossils in the rock quarry or stretching their legs with a climb in the tree house. Another favorite in the children’s garden is the five senses area. The kiddos can experience all five senses — touch a soft lamb’s ear plant, see the flowers’ vivid colors, hear the water run in the water feature, and smell and perhaps taste the mint leaves.
Another favorite is the Great Lakes water feature, where they can have a great view of how Michigan sits among the Great Lakes. I mean, what kids can resist getting wet?
Our favorite time to visit is spring, for the Butterflies are Blooming exhibit. The Conservatory explodes with over 7,000 tropical butterflies. The little ones learning about the life cycle of a butterfly can see them at every stage — chrysalis, cocoon, caterpillar, and butterfly.
Pro Tip: Bring the kids an extra outfit in case they get wet at the Great Lakes water feature.
Before visiting Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, take a few minutes to review this article before you go: Everything To Know Before Visiting Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
5. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president, grew up in Grand Rapids, where the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is today.
As a University of Michigan alumni, I loved telling my grandchildren about Ford’s time at the University of Michigan. He was a center on the Wolverine football team.
The museum includes an exhibit of the 1976 Bicentennial. They also have a replica of the Oval Office on display. In addition, they showcased some of Ford’s interests through a rotating display — for example, the space program.
Pro Tip: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library is in Ann Arbor, not Grand Rapids. If you want to include the library in your visit to Michigan, you’ll need another day to enjoy it, as the drive between the cities is about 2 hours.
6. Grand Rapids Public Museum
Grand Rapids Public Museum is Michigan’s second-largest museum and one of its oldest. The museum’s permanent exhibits focus on history, science, and culture. In addition, they frequently offer rotating exhibits, so you’ll always find something new. For example, we’ve seen displays from the Titanic to the Wonders of Ancient Egypt. This museum is suitable for older kids who enjoy history and culture.
The littlest ones will have a great time on the carousel, where they can ride a traditional carousel horse or even a giraffe.
Our 3-year-old loved the Doll Collection, where the doll house sported a Please Touch sign. A table with place settings made for perfect pretend afternoon tea.
Pro Tip: The Amway Grand Plaza, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, is in downtown Grand Rapids and within walking distance of many of the downtown attractions mentioned in this article.
7. Make Pasta At The Local Epicurean
What kid doesn’t love spaghetti? I know this is our family’s go-to for those picky-eating kiddos. And I’ve also found that kids are likelier to try foods they’ve been involved in making, no matter their age, because they know what’s in the dish.
Our family enjoys taking cooking classes while we’re on vacation, then we have a memory and a future meal to remember our trip. The Local Epicurean is a Grand Rapids Italian market offering private cooking classes. Call ahead to get one scheduled. You can choose your menu and plan the time that fits best with the rest of your activities. I suggest taking the cooking class around lunch or dinner time. Then you have an activity and a meal all in one.
Pro Tip: If you’re staying in a vacation rental, you can also purchase some handmade lasagna to bake and serve for a family-style meal at your rental.
For more information on places to eat, drink, and things to do, check out these articles on Grand Rapids: