City Spotlight: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Tom Bennett, vice president of sales and services at Experience Grand Rapids, shares secrets about what to do in the River City.

If you’re not sure what to do in Michigan’s second-largest city, you’re not alone.

Tom Bennett, vice president of sales and services at Experience Grand Rapids, jokes he is constantly telling—and surprising—people that Grand Rapids is only 180 miles from Chicago and there is an airport there.

The city is located on the Grand River about 30 miles northeast of Holland, Michigan, on the Lake Michigan side of the “mitten.” It is home to furniture companies, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and multilevel marketing company Amway, which is why the Van Andel name is on several public institutions including the 10,834-seat multipurpose Van Andel Arena. There’s also Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the internationally acclaimed ArtPrize competition, the 264-acre Blandford Nature Center and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed prairie-style Meyer May House.

Bennett, who grew up in Lansing, Michigan, before moving to California at the age of 18 and then returned to his native state four years ago, gives his advice for visiting the River City—home to Connect Faith 2019.

What do you like to do when you’ve got some downtime?

The food scene here is fantastic. I love the downtown market. It’s year-round. They have a greenhouse with fresh produce, and you can go to places like Sweetie-licious, which is known for desserts, pastries, pies and cakes. You can go to an authentic Mexican place like Tacos El Cunado, a fresh butcher or grab some seafood. There’s a great barbecue place called Slows Bar BQ, and one of my favorite places for brunch is Social Kitchen, which has a build-your-own skillet and fantastic bloody mary bar.

I also love Sundance Grill—they have a huge chorizo breakfast burrito. Another favorite breakfast place is SpeakEZ Lounge. They are known as the spot to watch World Cup soccer. It’s a neighborhood joint and they do an Everton Benedict on pretzel bread with a sausage patty.

My favorite restaurant is Grove. It is farm-to-table and they change their menu every week. It is always fresh, creative and consistently the best restaurant for dinner.

For our convention groups, Cygnus27 is great and on the 27th floor of the Amway Grand Plaza hotel. The views are spectacular. I usually get steak and seafood there. Up Monroe Center Street is my favorite Italian place, Osteria Rossa.

What else should visitors do in Grand Rapids?

Rosa Parks Circle. That’s the center of our downtown where Monroe Avenue, Pearl Street and Monroe Center Street all come together. Maya Lin designed it and it is right next to the Grand Rapids Arts Museum. It is usually hopping there. You can find swing dancing, yoga, a concert or a festival almost every weekend from April through October. In winter it’s converted into an ice rink.

Going to apple orchards and their apple cider is really popular in fall. We are also known for our craft beer. My favorite is The Mitten Brewing Co. It’s an old firehouse and they arguably have the best pizza in town. We’re home to the Detroit Red Wings minor league affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. For people who like live music, there’s a Live Nation, House of Blues-type venue that opened about a year and a half ago called 20 Monroe Live. They get every genre of music you can imagine.

We noticed there’s a fish ladder in Grand Rapids. Can you tell us more about that?

It’s really cool to see. It’s near the Sixth Street Bridge. It’s a ladder that helps the salmon move back and forth when they are spawning. We are in the midst of a major change with the Grand Rapids Whitewater Restoration Project.

Way back in the day, we were home of the logjam. They would cut down the trees in Northern Michigan, float them down here to the sawmills and make all the furniture in Grand Rapids. The logs would get stuck on the bridges. Ten years ago they put in a series of dams in the river and they are going to start removing those next year. It's going to have a huge impact on the water as well as the riverfront development. They're going to put in a kayak course and make the river more accessible on the east and west sides.