Editor’s Note: Due to the pandemic, some of these activities may be postponed this year or have certain restrictions. Please check individual websites for up-to-date information.
Have you fed a giraffe? Watched the fish jump? Hung out with baby lambs? In compiling this list, Grand Rapids Magazine sets out to define the essential experiences that every Grand Rapidian should try. From snowshoeing at Blandford Nature Center to attending the annual Festival of the Arts, there is no shortage of fun. Whether you’re a native or visiting, it’s time to start traversing Grand Rapids. Here’s your guide:
1. Visit Fish Ladder Park
Built along the west bank of the Grand River in 1974, this popular site allows visitors to watch fish jump up the “ladder” during seasonal migration in the spring and late summer. The Fish Ladder is free to visit and is located at 606 Front Ave. NW. Bring your fishing pole, as Fish Ladder Park also is a family-friendly fishing spot to catch salmon, trout and steelhead.
2. Visit baby animals at the Critter Barn
Each May, at the Critter Barn in Zeeland, baby lambs are released to run freely outside for the first time since birth. This is a great opportunity for adults and children to interact with baby lambs up close. Each year, the lambs at the Critter Barn are born in March, and during the months of March and April, you can visit and experience holding a variety of baby animals.
3. Celebrate Tulip Time in Holland
The largest tulip festival in the United States is in full bloom May 1-9. Tulip Time offers activities for all ages to enjoy and create everlasting memories. Experience the Tulip Time Run, Artisan Market, Tulip Garden and Tulip Parade. It’s an entertaining way to learn about Dutch heritage and culture. This festival takes place on the shores of beautiful Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan at 42 W. Eighth Street in Holland.
4. Bike, walk or run the White Pine Trail from Riverside Park to Rockford
This paved former railway cuts a 17.5-mile path through small towns and communities, going through scenic forests and backyards. The White Pine Trail is intended for hiking, walking, rollerblading and biking. The trail extends from northern Grand Rapids to Cadillac. The path lies on the original track graded for the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad. Plan your trip ahead of time and consider arranging a pickup spot if you don’t want to pedal back to where you started.
5. Experience “Beer City” with Grand Rapids Beer Trolley or Great Lakes Pub Cruiser
These pubs on wheels allow you to hang out and work off the calories instantaneously! Both Grand Rapids Beer Trolley and Great Lakes Pub Cruiser offer a unique experience to sightsee and tour downtown Grand Rapids. Try the Great Lakes Pub Cruiser, which seats up to 16 guests. Need accommodations for a larger party, the Grand Rapids Beer Trolley is a great option.
6. Snap a pic of yourself at three of Grand Rapids’ oldest public artworks
La Grande Vitesse at Calder Plaza, Motu Viget (aka the tire swing) and “Lorrie’s Button” in Ah-Nab-Awen Park are three landmarks that by themselves are destination-worthy. The pieces all are within walking distance of one another making them easy to visit during a single outing downtown. La Grande Vitesse is a 43-foot-tall red sculpture located in the heart of downtown, at 525 Ottawa Ave. NW, and was created by French artist Alexander Calder to represent the great swiftness that translates from French to English as Grand Rapids. Just a few feet from La Grande Vitesse, the Motu Viget sculpture is a sight to behold. This sculpture was created in 1977 by artist Mark Di Suvero using steel and rubber — properly earning it its nickname: the tire swing. Located in Ah-Nab-Awen Park is a sculpture designed with children in mind. In 1976, artist Hy Zelkowitz created “Lorrie’s Button,” a sculpture intended for children to climb and play on. This big red button is made from painted fiberglass and urethane foam and sits on a tilted axis, making it easy for small children to climb.
7. Feed the giraffes at Boulder Ridge Wild Animal Park
Tucked away in a remote area in Alto is an animal park that is inhabited by 1,500 animals and over 180 different species. This park allows the animals to wander in large, open spaces with a natural environment that makes them feel at home. If you or your child have never fed a giraffe or seen a kangaroo, this is a fun way to spend the afternoon. The Safari Bus Tour is a must, taking you on an adventure that includes seeing zebras, antelope, buffalo and more.
8. Paddleboard on Reeds Lake
Beginning in late spring/early summer, Funky Buddha Yoga takes its yoga practice to the water. Yogis have the opportunity to paddleboard while doing yoga in the sunshine on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids. Zen out by listening to the movement of the water. Catch a tan at the park where the class meets. Paddleboards are provided and signup is available at yogahothouse.com.
9. Enjoy an outdoor symphony
Traditionally, Grand Rapids Symphony hosts its annual Picnic Pops concert series at Cannonsburg Ski Area. Due to COVID-19, the symphony has not yet announced its final summer plans. The organization said it anticipates announcing a variety of outdoor musical opportunities for the summer. Check the symphony’s website for more details.
10. Kayak, canoe or tube down one of Grand Rapids’ many rivers
If you are looking to be adventurous, explore the sounds of nature by spending the day floating down the Rogue River in Rockford. At 18 S. Squires St. and 525 Northland Drive, A.A.A. Canoe Rental is a great resource that offers canoes, kayaks, tubes and life jackets. The float trips last around 2 hours, and A.A.A. Canoe Rental provides transportation to your starting point. Take advantage of downtown Rockford’s restaurants, specialty shops and landmarks after you depart your watercraft.
11. Spend the day at Festival of the Arts
Support the Grand Rapids arts community by taking part in the Festival of the Arts, June 4-6. Festival of the Arts surrounds Calder Plaza for one weekend each summer, offering displays of art, food, music and performances over three days. Festival of the Arts’ mission is to promote inclusiveness and diversity. Support local artists and businesses by attending and experiencing West Michigan culture. This summer’s Festival of the Arts celebration will be a little different. It will be a “plein air” event held throughout downtown social zones with musicians playing and artists working to capture the urban landscape. Festival’s iconic Calder performance stage and artisan village will be rescheduled for Sept. 17-19, which
is the first weekend of ArtPrize.
12. Trick or Treat at John Ball Zoo
One way to have a unique Halloween experience is to attend the annual John Ball Zoo Goes Boo event. Once a year, the zoo transforms into the ultimate Halloween destination incorporating candy, decorations and costumes, and allowing the public to see the zoo reimagined for the spooky holiday. This is a great family-friendly way to celebrate Halloween while seeing incredible animals. Check out jbzoo.org/event/zoogoesboo for dates, times and additional information.
13. Learn to make fresh pasta at The Local Epicurean
Looking for a fun date night idea? The Local Epicurean has a variety of options to make an impression. Sign up for one of its many local pasta-making classes and learn the art and craft of pasta making. Don’t feel like cooking? Try picking up a handmade box of chocolates and ask the staff for help pairing a hand-selected bottle of wine. Contact The Local Epicurean for class details and find additional information at thelocalepicurean.com.
14. Attend a drag queen show or drag brunch
Be dazzled by a MI Drag Brunch performance filled with fashion, theater, quick costume changes, dancing and good music. MI Drag Brunch offers a unique twist on the traditional drag show (which usually occurs at night in club environments) offering cocktails and yummy brunch eats with the performance. Watch these fantastic actors perform in all their glory by attending one of the shows or brunches. Locations change with different restaurants hosting the party each weekend. Visit midragbrunch.com to reserve your ticket.
15. Attend the Three Fires Pow Wow
In early September, the annual Three Fires Pow Wow takes place at Riverside Park remembering the history of Native American heritage in the region. Around 1700, more than 1,300 Native Americans inhabited the lands along the Grand River from Grand Haven to Lansing. Where downtown Grand Rapids high-rises currently stand, is the former location of the Potawatomi Indians’ largest village and gathering place before being forced to relocate in 1821. The original settlers consisted of Three Fires — the Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwa) and Potawatomi Indians. The event at Riverside Park features traditional Native American music, dancing, arts and a chance to learn about the heritage and culture. Dates for the 2021 event have not been announced.
16. Explore nature with the West Michigan Trails Challenge
If you have a love for trails and the outdoors, the West Michigan Trails Challenge may be for you. Walk, hike, bike, run, ski, paddle, skate or snowshoe your way through this challenge. The goal is just to get you outdoors, moving and enjoying the West Michigan scenery. This challenge occurs from Sept. 1-Dec. 31 and provides a list of “must-visit” trails to check off your adventure list. Once you explore at least 20 trails, you will receive a finishers medal to display your hard work. Sign up at runsignup.com.
17. Visit SiTE:LAB’s exhibit at The Highlands
SiTE:LAB is a nomadic all-volunteer, artist-led initiative that has organized over 20 projects primarily in underutilized sites in Grand Rapids. The collective is taking over The Highlands, a 121-acre former golf course, this fall for its latest project. The Highlands is the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe that is now being restored to a more natural state. The project will include installations and performances sited in and inspired by the changing environment at The Highlands. While it will not be an official ArtPrize venue, SiTE:LAB said on its Facebook page it will “provide an additional art-viewing opportunity for ArtPrize visitors.” SiTE:LAB will provide more details as the exhibit is developed.
18. Volunteer for the Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup
The weeklong annual Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup is a campaign for the community to come together and clean up streets, storm drains, streams and the Grand River. The mission is to protect the Grand Rapids water supply by eliminating trash and debris. The cleanup takes place during early fall and WMEAC provides supplies to volunteers throughout the communities of nearby Grand Rapids. You can take part in this fun community event by registering at wmeac.org/mayors-grand-river-cleanup.
19. Cut your own Christmas tree at Vormittag Tree Farm
This family-operated business offers acres of choose-and-cut Christmas Trees, along with handmade wreaths, tree drilling and wrapping on site. Vormittag Tree Farm has a variety of trees available, including Scotch, white pine, balsam, Fraser fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce and white spruce. Saws are available upon request. At 9921 Linden Drive NW, Vormittag Farms opens for the season the day after Thanksgiving and operates through Christmas Eve.
20. Shop the UICA Holiday Artist Market
Check off your holiday gift list by supporting your community and shopping for beautifully crafted gifts and goods from dozens of regional artists, including jewelry, home goods, fine art, holiday cards, accessories and toys. Enjoy live music and local food and beverage vendors while you shop for handmade gifts for your friends and family. Additional details can be found at uica.org/holiday-artists-market.
21. Take a horse and carriage ride around downtown
Classic Carriage LLC offers a unique way to tour downtown Grand Rapids and see the holiday lights. Your horse and carriage journey can last either a half-hour or an hour. The carriage features comfortable accommodations for four adult passengers, authentic Amish lap blankets, electric carriage lamps and a convertible top to cover the passenger area of the carriage, which may be set in the up or down positions depending on weather conditions. You can reserve a spot for your special occasion at online.
22. Celebrate Christmas Around the World at Meijer Gardens
From late November through the New Year, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park celebrates the Christmas season with over 300,000 lights, strolling carolers, rooftop reindeer and 46 international holiday-decorated tree displays. Meijer Gardens focuses on the authenticity of holiday traditions, meaning you’ll find a German-themed tree adorned with handmade glass ornaments and homemade springerle cookies, an English tree with antique Christmas cards and mistletoe, and the beautiful Eid al-Fitr display, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. Follow the Christmas Train on its path through the Railway Garden spanning multiple rooms. Visit Meijer Gardens, at 1000 East Beltline Ave. NE.
23. Snowshoe at Blandford Nature Center
Listen to the crunch of snow, whispers of the wind and the sounds of animals while you snowshoe in a safe, supervised environment. Blandford Nature Center offers 264 acres of natural land as a resource for West Michigan families to enjoy outdoor recreational activities. Bring your whole family out to test-drive a pair of snowshoes and to practice your snowshoe skills while discovering the secret world hidden within the winter wonderland that is Blandford Nature Center. Book a guided tour and experience the winter forests and fields. This go-at-your-own-pace hike includes beginner and intermediate hikers alike. Blandford Nature Center is at 1715 Hillburn Ave. NW.
24. Light a candle at one of GR’s oldest churches, St. Andrews
With its Grand River limestone exterior, intricately carved pillars, stone carvings, stained glass adornments and towering spires, St. Andrews is striking. It also is one of the oldest churches in Grand Rapids, completed in 1850. In the early 2000s, the Lètourneau organ builders of Quebec installed the gallery organ composed of walnut, ash and bone. The gallery organ is the largest instrument in the choir loft, which boasts 56 stops and 72 ranks. Light a candle during the winter season at this historical property that stands tall in the heart of Grand Rapids, at 215 Sheldon Blvd. SE.
25. Tubing at Cannonsburg Ski Area
Bring your family and friends because tubing is a fun activity that caters to all ages. Cannonsburg features a magic carpet ride that pulls you up the mountain, ensuring your tubing experience is fast and fun. Around the lifts, there are plenty of seating options that are located next to wood-burning fires to ensure warmth. As you are having fun in the snow and working up an appetite, there are plenty of outside food and beverage options that include a full-service bar and food truck. Reserve your tickets at cannonsburg.com/tubing.
This story can be found in the April 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here.