Locals Know Best: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Grand Rapids Michigan 58397456Grand Rapids, Michigan. Downtown, ArtPrize 2014
Andres Abreu/Dreamstime

Downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Dana Friis-Hansen, Director of Grand Rapids Art Museum, for his suggestions on where to eat, drink, and hang out.

When Dana Friis-Hansen moved to Grand Rapids, one of the things he was immediately smitten with was how each neighborhood was accessible to the rest, yet each of them had a character uniquely its own. It’s a walkable, livable city, yet he hardly runs out of things to explore. As the director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Dana is particularly attuned to the art, architecture, and all-around visual allure of the city. We chatted with him about those things as well as where he likes to eat, drink, and hang out when he’s exploring his hometown.


Heritage Hill’s name says it all. The neighborhood, which is situated about a half-mile from downtown Grand Rapids, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The well-preserved time capsule lined with historically protected Victorian homes, including the Meyer May House built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which Dana says is particularly worthy of seeing. And the appeal is all the more enhanced by the fact that everyone who lives there keeps their property in tip-top shape. 

You can easily switch from past to present with a quick stroll to Downtown, a scenic area cut through by the Grand River and dotted with public parks. There’s been increased attention to development alongside the river, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of the various running trails, biking trails, spots for fishing (yes, urban fishing) and, perhaps most interesting as far as Dana is concerned, lots of public art. He’s quick to call out Calder Plaza, the site of an old and stunning Romanesque-style City Hall that was torn down in the 1960s, much to preservationists’ chagrin. In its place stands a hulking building of glass and steel. To give the area a little pop, though, La Grande Vitesse, a giant red metal sculpture, was constructed outside, but not without opposition from locals. Dana explains that it was the one of the first NEA-funded sculpture in the country and today it’s one of great respect. It’s the city’s symbol and it appears on the city seal, garbage trucks and lots more. “I love telling that story because it shows the triumph of art,” he says. That story and plenty more about other important sculptures are what you’ll likely find if you take advantage of Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affair's free public art app, available on iTunes and the Google Play Store.


There’s plenty of art to be found on plates around Grand Rapids these days. The restaurant scene is more vibrant than ever, thanks to creative entrepreneurial chefs as well as longstanding institutions that just can’t seem to stop being fun. Bridge Street, an area on the west side of the river, is in the throes of a full-blown renaissance after being a bit down on its heels for a while. One of the most exciting go-tos these days is Sovengard, a Scandinavian-minded eatery in an old brick building. Dana likes its backyard beer garden and bocce ball courts, not to mention the herb gardens that grow along the walls. And the super-creative cocktails. “It’s how hygge came to Grand Rapids,” he says, referring to the Danish tradition of simplicity and coziness that’s become the trend du jour in America’s hippest neighborhoods. Equally cozy but in a different, more old-school way are the various dive bars on the strip, like the well-worn Anchor Bar

And that’s just one street. Head over to nearby Leonard Street, where you might find Dana at Long Road Distillery, which features a laid-back, rustic-chic gastropub that serves elevated twists on classic American fare as well as the spirits they distill in the next room. Another option is the newer, locally owned Mitten Brewing Co., which dishes out excellent pizzas along with top-rate brews in its taproom, a rejuvenated Victorian era building. And speaking of beer, the area’s beer culture has been booming to such an extent that a lot of the businesses banded together to create the Brewsader Passport, a booklet that you can gets stamped on each visit to the various brewery. Pick one up at the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Welcome Center, fill it up over the course of several days’ of visits (moderation is key in this challenge, of course,) then bring it back to the museum’s Welcome Center and trade it in for a t-shirt.

Another way to get a true sense of the local scene is a stop at the Fulton Street Food Market, especially in the summer when you can indulge in what could be the area’s most famous delicacy: fresh cherries. While you’re there, stop by the legendary Cheese Lady Store, where the selection is almost as fantastic as the store’s name.

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Grand Rapids’ South Division, a longtime commercial corridor, is in the throes of a massive revitalization and it’s all about the arts, what with the arrival of artist studios and funky little shops. In fact, the district has even taken on the name Avenue for the Arts, and during the monthly first Friday, there’s an open studio with local artists’ work, from paintings to leather and wood items on display. The Frederik Meijer Gardens, another stop Dana encourages, blends art and nature in its amazing sculpture park and botanical garden. Plus there’s a five-story tropical conservatory with more exotic plants than you can shake a branch at.

And, of course, Dana has plenty of reasons to endorse his museum. Not least among them is the fact that it’s free all day on Tuesdays and on Thursday nights from 5PM to 9PM. Get it on the right day and you can catch a lecture or a yoga class. And every Thursday night in the summertime they offer free outdoor concerts. Plan to hang out a while and indulge in everything the food trucks and bar have to offer. (Food and drink are for purchase, we regret to inform.) On Sundays in the fall and winter there are classical music concerts. Other fun things to note: museum tours are free with admission and on Saturdays there’s a hands-on open studio for anyone with an urge to unleash their inner artist.  

Speaking of free, there are movies in the park throughout the summer and in the spirit of democracy, the movies are decided on by public vote.

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The public transportation in Grand Rapids is terrifically easy to navigate and, what’s more, it’s free. DASH is a free shuttle service throughout the downtown area. There’s also the Silver Line, which is more like a trolley. It’s free within designated city limits, but there are routes that will take you far beyond for a small fee. Like so many other cities these days, bike-sharing services are on the rise in Grand Rapids, and if you’re in heading there, take note that the trails beyond the city are an embarrassment of riches. “They say you can get all the way to North Dakota if you’re persistent,” says Dana. For help navigating, the Michigan Trails website has all the nitty gritty details of anywhere you could want to go. One of Dana’s favorite routes is about a 20-mile mostly flat ride from downtown to Rockford, a hub of riverside restaurants that offer food as delightful as the views.

Wanna explore the area beyond the city on four wheels? Head out to the towns around Lake Michigan. like the adjoining Saugatuck and Douglas. They’re Dana’s top picks, not just for the bucolic beaches. Douglas features terrific galleries to wander through and excellent restaurants while neighboring Saugatuck is known for the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which features regional theater groups and notable musicians.

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