Grand Rapids, Mich., is the sort of city that surprises you. Or at least it surprised me – and that’s saying something given how much thought I put into planning a family-friendly 48-hour visit this summer. Check out my Grand Rapids bucket list to see just how much I thought about things. I thought I knew what to expect (ie., it’s Beer City USA and family-friendly), but Grand Rapids exceeded my expectations.
Disclosure: Our visit was hosted by Experience Grand Rapids. All opinions, thoughts and typos are my own.
Things to do in Grand Rapids with kids
The biggest surprise of the trip was the Grand Rapids Public Museum. This museum far exceeded my expectations on things to do and see inside. We squeezed a visit at the end of the day, which meant we had allowed very little time here. However, we did manage to explore most of the three floors of exhibitions.
The highlights were Finny, the 75-foot-long fin whale fossil; “Streets of Old Grand Rapids,” a scaled-down version of a 1980s Grand Rapids street; and the carousel. Both adults and kids loved this museum. The carousel is an additional fee.
Note: If you have a family membership to Omaha Children’s Museum, two adults and dependent children are admitted for FREE to the Grand Rapids Public Museum thanks to the ASTC reciprocal program.
The John Ball Zoo was another surprise, and I’d almost left it off our visit list because we’re at our own zoo so much. Don’t skip it. It’s a beautiful zoo, with a lot of trees to provide shade and fun things for kids to do (in addition to seeing animals).
The highlights were the extras, admittedly. I go into more detail about more extras here. The Realm of Flight Bird Show was definitely worth paying $2 per person extra. It was very entertaining, educational, an interactive. And when they say the birds will fly inches from your head, they mean it.
The other two extras we purchased was the ropes course for all four of us, and a zip line for me. The ropes course is 20 minutes long, and great for older kids (my youngest was tall enough and insisted on going, but she quickly decided she didn’t like it). The zip line is two zips (is that what it’s called?). You zip through the zoo, and though it’s not too steep and not too fast, I still managed to stumble at each podium coming in for a landing.
If you have young children, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is going to be a hit. The highlight would be the bubble area and the mini version of Grand Rapids complete with a grocery store. I thought the mini medical area was pretty special too.
Note: If you have an Omaha Children’s Museum patron membership, you receive admission for four to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum thanks to the ACM reciprocal program. The Patron Membership is more than the regular membership, which does not include the ACM reciprocal program. More details here.
The last place we managed to visit in our quick visit was Millennium Park. Had it been a warmer day, we would’ve paid a little extra to go to the beach area. As it was, we did the free version of the park, and played on the playground and took a little walk.
If we had more time, we would’ve rented kayaks to explore the lake.
Where to stay in Grand Rapids with kids
Many of the city’s museums and popular restaurants & breweries are near downtown Grand Rapids. One of the best situated downtown hotels also happens to be a gorgeous historic landmark, the Amway Grand Plaza.
This hotel put us in walking distance to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and Grand Rapids Public Museum. If we had stayed an additional day or two, other museums within walking distance include the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. It was also within walking distance to one of our dinner spots, the Grand Rapids Brewing Co.
The Amway Grand Plaza is a luxury hotel, but not too nice that we couldn’t traipse through the lobby in pool attire. That was one of the down sides of our stay: Our room was on the historic side of the hotel, the pool and hot tubs was on the fourth floor of the newer tower. Didn’t stop us from making several trips to swim. And for the active families: The fitness area also includes a fitness center, and outdoor tennis courts.
Related post: Staying at Amway Grand Hotel With Kids.
Where to eat in Grand Rapids with kids
I typically have a list of 20 restaurants for a two-day vacation, so obviously, I had to be choosy. Our lunches were out of convenience based on where we were during the day. But here are a few restaurants that were hits:
Breakfast – We dined at one of the locations of the local chain Anna’s House. It was so, so good. And efficient. There was quite a wait, but we were seated in under 20 minutes, and the food was to our table in a snap. The menu is large and it’s difficult to decide whether to eat the red velvet pancakes or the healthy hippie hash. Guess what I chose.
Dinner – Grand Rapids is known as Beer City U.S.A. and several people had tips on which breweries were family-friendly (ie., menus for kids and/or toys & activities for them). We opted for Grand Rapids Brewing Co. since it was so darn close to the hotel. The beer was very good, the saison especially. And, they adapted adult sized entrees to the kids’ tastes, like removing the extra accoutrement on the mac and cheese.
I ordered the 2016 Grandwich Champion and Food Network darling, 1-800-Hotline Beef. It was a roast beef sandwich to end all other roast beef sandwiches, and the fries weren’t too shabby, either.
We also went to Chez Olga for dinner in the utterly charming Eastown neighborhood (I read it’s described as the Greenwich Village of Grand Rapids). Admittedly, the wildly unique building is what first attracted me to the Caribbean restaurant. But the food was superb, too, and Olga was a friendly hostess.
More about Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids was the first stop of an epic road trip adventure through Michigan (more on that to come). To plan your own epic road trip through Michigan, I’ll be sharing a road trip recap soon featuring restaurant highlights, sights to see, and where to stay. You can start planning now with this ultimate Michigan Bucket List.
For Grand Rapids highlights, read these posts: