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Grand Rapids, Michigan: My Hometown

Author: sightseeingsue (More Trip Reviews by sightseeingsue)
Date of Trip: April 2006

Grand Rapids is a medium-size city with a huge heart, and Midwest Michigan's fastest-growing travel destination.

Grand Rapids, or GR as us locals call it, is a perfect combination of cosmopolitan flair and Midwestern hospitality, making this a top tourist destination as well as a great place to live. Spending some time here, you will quickly discover why it has been called an "All-American City" three times. Located on the west side (the best side) of Michigan and roughly a 2.5 hour drive from Detroit, 3 hours from Chicago, and about 30 miles east of Lake Michigan, makes this a prime location for short or extensive stays.

Living here most of my life, I have watched this oncethird largest city rapidly explode into Michigan's second largest city in a matter of years. GR encompasses an area of approximately 45 square miles with its city's population around 197,800 (per the 200 census) and its metropolitan area nearing 1,000,000. The Grand River is our primary waterway that runs through town, and we are unfortunately ranked the 9th cloudiest city in the US. Our downtown has seen revitalization in the past few years, and now offers over 50 different restaurants, a bustling entertainment district, museums, sports/concert arena, hotels and a state of the art convention center amongst its list of attributes. Originally known as the "Furniture Capital" but now better known for its office furniture industries, it is home to many multi-national headquarters including Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, Alticor (formerly Amway), Wolverine World Wide and Meijer stores.

GR was the first city in the US to add fluoride to its drinking water in 1945 which has reduced cavities by over 60%. Other industries that were major producers include apples (largest in MI), peaches, celery, carrots, onions, corn, wheat and Christmas trees. We have also been noted by Fortune magazine as one of the Top 10 Best Cities for Business in the U.S.

A regular tradition in town is our Arts Festival held every first weekend in June, but we also offer other cultural festivalsthroughout the year. A visit to GR wouldn't be the same without stopping at the Frederik Meijer Gardens/ Sculpture Park, or without playing a game of golf at one of our 28 public courses. Don't miss out on our newest beach, Millennium Park, and do take a short drive to Lake Michigan for a day of shopping, sunning, boat watching, or to enjoy a meal. Grand Rapid truly is a medium-sized city with a huge heart.

Gerald Ford Presidential Museum/Library is a newly-expanded museum where you can step inside a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, see original Watergate burglar tools, as well as other exhibits of our 38th President's life.GR was originally known as the "Furniture Capital" but now is more recognized for it's office furniture industries. Located downtown and offering dozens of exhibits, some of which will give you a glimpse into the history of our city, is the VanAndel Museum.

Amway Grand Plaza is our most famous and swankiest hotel, andis located in the heart of downtown on the banks of the Grand River. This hotel has the only 5-star rated restaurant in Michigan -- the "1913 room" -- as well as several other great eateries. The BOB -- short for "Big Old Building" is a must stop for a grand evening of dinner and entertainment. This converted warehouse, located across from the VanAndel Arena, offers several different restaurants and clubs on 4 floors. So, whether you are looking for a place to dine, a place to do a little dancing, or want to catch a comedy show, you will find it here.

The VanAndel Arena is a 12,000 plus seat (not a bad seat-in-the house) arena that has drawn concert performances from top-named artists, housed big named family shows, held numerous seminars, rodeos or monster truck shows, and is home to Rampage Football and our Griffin's Hockey teams, making this a first-rate facility. If you are in town for one of these events, you will probably end up at this venue.

We just refer to the "Art Festival"as the "Festival" and the locals know exactly which one we are referring to, as we hold several throughout the year. The Arts is our biggy and draws huge crowds each year. A better name for it should be called the Foods-n-Arts festival it offers numerous ethnic food booths, sure to satisfy anyone's taste buds. This festival is also a place for local musicians, performers (dancers, singers, artist, storytellers) to showcase their talents each year.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is astate-of-the-art, 125-acre park that holds one of the most comprehensive sculpture collection around and with one of its most famous being the "Leonardo da Vinci horse". It also offers numerous gardens, the largest tropical conservatory in Michigan, and in the summer holds concerts held in its outdoor amphitheater. A must see while in town. Please, don't let the cloudy days scare you away!

The Gerald Ford International airport is served by eight passenger airlines with nonstop flights to 16 major cities. It is conveniently located near I-96 and M-6, and only a short distance from US-131. Short-term, long-term, express shuttle, and valet parking are all available. They offer four on-airport car rentals with other car rental and limo services available via the transportation board. A taxi ride will set you back around $30 for a trip to downtown GR, but several downtown hotels offer shuttle service for your convenience as well.

Several major freeways encircle Grand Rapids, one being the interstate I-96 which if you are going west on ends near Spring Lake, and if going east takes you towards Detroit. I-196 runs off from I-96 and goes through town (you can hook up to N/S-131 at the river from this freeway) and continues on until ending up near Holland. M-6 our newest by-pass freeway can be picked up from I-96 near Lowell, and taken to N/S-131 near 68th St. (south of town) or continue on until hooking up with I-196 towards Holland. A frequently traveled road is the East-Beltine but actually runs north and south rather than east and west. Take this road south and you will end up on one of the busiest road in GR called 28th Street. Here you will find everything, and anything and all the major chain hotels/restaurants, except a hospital. We rarely experience traffic jams unless an accident has taken place, but the freeways do get congested during the early morning rush and evening compute. We do get a fair amount of snow and ice (being on the fringe of the snow-belt) during the winter months, but with our experienced, hard working road crews we find that the roads are quickly salted and plowed when needed. We also now offer many walking trail and parks around the area if you want to get a little exercising while in town. Overall this town is easy to get around and you never have to plan your day or activities around rush hour traffic, like in some other major cities.

Now, more about the Grand Rapids Arts Festival! Are you into the arts? Do you love good food? Enjoying listening to great music? Can you appreciate good dance performances? Then make sure to visit Grand Rapids during the first weekend in June each year. Festivities start promptly at noon and last until 5PM Sunday evening.

The "Festival" is one of West Michigan's largest draws each year, capturing the hearts and stomachs of around 500,000 visitors. This 3-day festival is always held the first weekend in June, rain or shine. Noted for being the largest all-volunteer arts festival in the nation and an event where all exhibits and performances are totally free of charge.

The festival started 37 years ago, being an excellent way to celebrate the works of local artists. It opened with only two stages, a few food booths, and encompassed a small area held on the plaza in front of City Hall. Today, major streets downtown are closed, numerous ethnic food booths are found everywhere, and it has now grown into six stages for area performers to showcase there talents.

My favorite part has to be eating at the food booths. All booths are run by area churches or non-profit organizations, and provide us with delicious favorites with many celebrating their cultures. To the groups, this is usually their biggest money- makers so offering the best tastes aren't taken lightly here, especially with all its competition that weekend. Where else can you get meat-on-a-stick, Souvlaki, egg rolls, elephant ears, ice cream treats, grilled shrimp kabobs, or polish golumpki or peogios (my all-time favorite) all in one venue.

The festival is a favorite for all ages. For the kids, the finger-painting, chalk the walk, or face painting areas are always packed. For the teens, hanging out with friends at one of the rock or country bands performing on stage is always extremely popular, and it doesn't cost a dime.

The possibilities are endless for the more mature-aged folks (I'm in this category). For music sit back and enjoy the spectacular sounds of the symphony, a jazz band, polka band, family gospel singers, or church/school bands or choirs. Catch a performance from area dance studios, (my nieces and nephew are always on stage for this weekend), listen to a storyteller or poet, or browse the art exhibits found around the grounds. A large tent is set up each year which houses the work of the local artists -- sketch drawings, photographic prints, jewelry, water/oil paintings, or sculptures all for sale.

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