In the vernacular of Grand Rapids, the designated Beer City USA, you’d call Nicole Kanev a brewsader. The 29-year-old craft cocktail waitress and her husband Jordan made a quick jaunt from Brooklyn to Grand Rapids recently for little more than a pint and tour in the heart of the country’s craft beer mecca.

The New Yorker’s goal was to sip her favorite Founders Brewing Co. breakfast stout where it was actually made. But she left inspired by more than the beer and her now-favorite souvenir tee shirt.

“Their tagline is ‘brewed for us,’ and I loved their story about how they were about to go bankrupt, how they were making beer but not getting anywhere,” she says of Founders. “In a last-ditch effort, they made something really crazy. They said, ‘We were brewing beer we thought people wanted, and we decided that for our last batch we were going to make whatever we wanted.’  And it turned around. I thought it was a lovely and inspiring story.”

That same think-outside-the-box approach is infused across an ever-changing Grand Rapids,  which each fall (September 20 through October 8 in 2017) hosts the nation’s largest public art competition. ArtPrize turns three square miles of the city into a combination public art gallery, contest and social experiment. It’s part museum and part street fair with food booths, buskers and interactive art on most every block, along with 1,600 artists and their continually unfolding works. After the party ends, much of the art lingers.

“Murals get affixed to the side of a building and they stay,” says Janet Korn, senior vice president of Experience Grand Rapids. “But there is more. Our first year’s winner (Ran Ortner’s painting of waves, “Open Water no. 24”) hangs above the bar at Reserve Wine and Food. There is a large table and chairs that debuted on top of the Blue Bridge one year; it’s in a community center playground. And there was Nessie, a sea monster built in the river. It’s now in a pond at the zoo.”

Worth the train fare from Chicago alone is the winner of the audience vote for best time-based work at ArtPrize 2016. “Sweeper’s Clock,” by Dutch artist Maarten Baas, is now part of the permanent collection at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM). Two performers, over the course of a 12-hour movie, replicate a clock by sweeping two piles of garbage into clock hands that move with actual time. You’ll find yourself checking the sweepers’ progress as you visit GRAM’s special fall and winter exhibitions, “Andy Warhol’s American Icons” and mixed-media artist Alexis Rockman’s depiction of the Great Lakes and their promise and threats.

Experiential Moments

The experiences that made a president—scouts, high school football, church and playground fun—are on display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids. Through memorabilia, interactive exhibits, artifacts and film, the recently remodeled space shares the stories of Ford’s youth, college and football years, political career and unusual route to the White House. From a spot behind the presidential desk, visitors peek into the popular Oval Office replica.

For the stuff of which holiday memories are made, head to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Giant pumpkins and family activities accompany Chrysanthemums and More!, the annual autumn display of common and exotic blooms. In winter, 400,000 twinkling lights and 40 indoor trees showcase Christmas and holiday traditions and folklore around the world.

Food and Drink Delights

Worked up a thirst? Beer has become the visitor magnet to the city that claims “more great craft beer per square mile than anywhere on earth.” The beverage has been quickly joined by Instagram-worthy fresh food fare, creative martinis, local distilleries, wine tasting rooms and innovative coffee bars. Declared “America’s Best Beer Town,” Grand Rapids boasts some 60 breweries including clever Brewery Vivant, where Belgian and French-style beers are served with steak-frites and poutine. Visit Long Road Distillers for a particularly fun collaboration: they’re making small batches of Beer City Whisky with the mash from some favorite local breweries.

The visitor bureau’s Korn says one of the most exciting city developments is the nearly instant growth of food and drink hot spots in unexpected neighborhoods like Bridge Street, on the near west side. Where once there was little more than tattoo parlors you’ll now find a Scandinavian biergarten at The Sovengard, brunch with Bloody Mary samplers at New Holland-The Knickerbocker and craft cocktails and ceviche at Butchers Union. Enjoy a good cup of joe at Ferris Coffee-West Side, where you can learn home roasting and brewing techniques from the company that’s been roasting beans and nuts since 1924.

Immersion in the culture was the concept behind the popular Downtown Market Grand Rapids, where about 20 vendors do live cooking demonstrations, tastings and offerings, plus live music that adds to the atmosphere. Take home fresh, wild-caught seafood from Fish Lads market, or pull up a café stool and choose a lobster roll, fish and chips or fish tacos, made from scratch daily. Savor the Neapolitan-inspired pizza at Rocket Pies, knowing the cheese is from grass-pastured cows and that the vegetable toppings and charcuterie are locally sourced.

Bring closed-toe shoes if you want to go behind the scenes at Founders, which offers regular tours via catwalks through its downtown brewing facilities. New Yorker Kanev forgot hers, but wasn’t about to miss out, so she took the tour in her husband’s Converse sneakers, five sizes too big. She loved how the staff keeps its barrel aging “super secret” by marking them in a way only they can decode. This year, it’s with Batman characters. “It was so cool, they sound like such a fun group. Plus, if I find a brand of anything I like, I love hearing the back story. It’s all fuel that I put in my bank.”

Whether you like food, drink, art or exploring, Grand Rapids is increasingly the place to see imagination at work—and to fuel yours.


Visitor Info:

Get There: Amtrak connects Chicago and Grand Rapids via the Pere Marquette line, on which you’ll take in some Lake Michigan beach beauty on the four-hour daily route.

Stay: During ArtPrize, Sept. 20-Oct. 8, more than two dozen hotels will operate regular free shuttles to the downtown core, where you’ll find the JW Marriott’s riverfront views and popular Six.One.Six Restaurant. Neighboring Amway Grand Plaza Hotel is notable for elegance and above-and-beyond friendly service.

Eat: At Terra, menu items like Harrietta Hills Trout and the Grass Fed Tavern Burger make it obvious that food is fresh and local. Grove is a favorite for its continually changing farm-totable fare. Reserve Wine & Food specializes in pairing everything, even the smoked fish chowder, with a great wine.

This article originally appeared in the 2017 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Kim Schneider is a Michigan-based travel writer whose favorite assignments involve active adventures or wildlife, or better yet, a combination of the two. She is the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”