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Afternoon On the Town, For Free, For Kids.

city view from fish ladder

I went to Chicago and had a blast sharing my adventures with you.  I loved being a tourist in a town I consider our “big Sister City.”  And then it dawned on me that I have never given Grand Rapids, our hometown, the same star treatment.

I love Grand Rapids.  ArtPrize, LaughFest and about a million other reasons make me proud to live in this part of the mitten. But I’ll be honest: I don’t usually think, “Hey, let’s go downtown” when I have an open day on the calendar,   If downtown does come to mind, it’s usually because of a festival going on or a trip to the GR Children’s Museum is in the works.

But what if I told you there was a way to get downtown, see some cool sites, do it for free, and NOT worry about parking?

If you’re willing to walk a bit, I’ve got an adventure for you.

Start your adventure at Grand Rapids Fish Ladder Park. [560 Front Ave NW Grand Rapids, MI 49504]

Park your car here and walk the rest of the tour – and you’ll avoid paying for parking.

Grand Rapids Fish Ladder Park

The Fish Ladder park is old and not a place where you’re going to want to eat a picnic, but it is still fascinating.

The fish ladder necessary because of the barrier in the river.

Grand rapids Fish ladder grand River

We stood for minutes upon minutes watching the fish on the ladder.  We could have stayed forever, I think.  The hard part about the fish ladder with three kids is the railing.  It’s solid wood and pretty tall.  My five year old kept wanting to climb up on the ledge for a better view.  I kept visualizing her toppling over.  So I tried to hold her up while also holding up my two-year old.  Next time I might bring a stepstool from home for the five year old, that would make things easier.

Do you see the fish going down the ladder in this photo?

fish ladder grand rapids

From Fish Ladder Park, we walked south on the sidewalk (bring a stroller) along Scribner Ave NW.  We passed Michigan St and ended up at the rear of the Gerald R. Ford Museum where we were greeted by a Big Red Button.

Big Red Button Grand Rapids MI

My kids were all over this thing.

Popping in and out of button holes, playing tag, having all sorts of fun.  I’m not sure who’s in charge of the maintenance of the button; it does need repair.  I hope that the Big Red Button is taken care of and can stay in our community for generations to come.

We continued our walk on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Walkway at Gerald R Ford Museum

It was a hot day, so sitting in the spray of the fountain was a welcome treat.

Fountain Outside of the Gerald R Ford Museum Grand Rapids

We stopped and admired the view from over the Grand River as we crossed the pedestrian bridge toward DeVos Place.


Grand Rapids River Walk

The kids even spotted the carousel at the Grand Rapids Public Museum from afar.

Do you know where it is?

Grand Rapids Public Museum

Our next stop was Calder Plaza.  To get there, we cut through parking garage to get to Calder Plaza, but you could also walk along Michigan and turn south on Monroe.

Since we came from the parking garage, the first thing we saw in Calder Plaza was the giant Tire Swing.

tire swing Di Suvero Grand rapids

This tire swing was installed when I was one.  I’m so glad that the people of Grand Rapids have maintained it… my kids and I had a delightful time swinging the afternoon away.

As you can imagine, it was difficult to get my little ones off of the swing.  But we managed to peel ourselves away and meandered over to look at (and climb on) La Grand Vitesse.

la grand vitesse at Calder Plaza Grand rapids, MI

la grand vitesse downtown Grand Rapids calder Plaza

From here, we turned around and retraced our steps back to Fish Ladder Park.  It is a walk, yes, but that was the trade-off for the free and easy parking.

All in all, a fine afternoon.

What will it take to get you to play tourist in your own town?  I hope I’ve inspired a visit by you and your family.  I’ve put together a map of our three destinations to help you get started.

[mappress mapid=”60″]

Melody V

Melody V

Melody started grkids.com in 2009 on a whim. The site has grown leaps and bounds since then and she is just as amazed as everyone else. She enjoys listening to audiobooks, creating with chalk paint, tickling her kids and enjoying our wonderful city.



  • Abby

    The big red button is actually “Lorrie’s Button” and was installed for kids to play on, as a functional art piece in 1976. I do believe it has been re-painted, but there is no group or persons designated to care for it that I am aware of.

  • Kim

    I have lived in Grand Rapids my whole life and didn’t know about the giant Tire Swing! Where have I been? What fun. The kids and I will be on a hunt for that attraction (but maybe we will wait until the temperature isn’t 100 degrees)! Thanks for sharing your adventure!

    • Melody V
      Melody V

      Let us know how you like the tour, Kim. We had such fun, and I hope you do, too. I have lived here since 1995 and didn’t know about the tire swing until this year, either. It makes me wonder what other fun things I have yet to discover about GR?

  • Barb

    Thank you for grkids! You do an excellent job and it is sooooo appreciated!

  • colleen

    Discovered the red button during art prize my kids loved it and spent many hours playing on it

  • Nicki

    My daughter’s preschool actually does a “ride the bus and tour downtown” in the spring–I think I enjoyed it just as much as they did! There really are a lot of fascinating things for little people in our downtown…she keeps asking to do it again! Cheap, educational, and exercise!

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  • Tanya Ramm via Facebook

    Now that the weather is cooling a little, we plan to try!

  • Bridget Liedeke via Facebook

    Is there a childrens festival or expo going on downtown today?

  • Amy Marin Nagel via Facebook

    So sweet of you to put this together, Mel! Your photos are awesome too! What kind of camera do you have??? We’ll need to do this one morning as a family. :)

  • Karyn

    This was a fantastic read, with some really great photos! :) Whenever my boyfriend and I get the chance, we head downtown (we live in Rockford) and find a place to park (usually the GR Ford Museum, but only if it’s not busy). From there we walk along the river and cross the bridge at Lyon, though we have trekked as far as the Sixth Street bridge (and AMAZING sight at night…the last time we crossed at night there was a wonderful young man there painting a skyscape of the downtown area while the moon was full…so tranquil that night). We like to see all the quaint little shops so we usually walk much further than described here, typically all the way up to the Fulton area then back down past the BOB and the Amway (I love the Amway’s architecture, and I used to work there so I know the building inside and out) then back across either the Fulton or Pearl St bridges or the bridge crossing back to the museum.

    Thank you for sharing this, I’ll definitely be sharing on Facebook and other sites I am a member of, so that “out-of-towners” can see how wonderful downtown GR really is :)

  • grkids.com via Facebook

    Amy Marin Nagel, Would you believe I take all of my photos with my iphone 4s? I can’t believe it myself. I go by the motto, the best camera is the one you have with you=) Let me know how your family likes it, we had a blast!

  • Amy Marin Nagel via Facebook

    No way! That’s amazing, Mel!!! They’re GREAT!

  • Jaime DeVries via Facebook

    We did this today! La Grand Vitesse was closed off for some funky festival, but we still really enjoyed our visit downtown!

  • grkids.com via Facebook

    Jaime DeVries – Glad you had a good time!

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  • Andrew Holtz

    I just did this tour today with my 5yo and 2yo twins. We had a BLAST! Each stop was great in its own way. We brought some food and had a picnic at the Ford’s Fountain, and really had a great time at the tire swing.

    It is definitely a walk, but I brought a wagon that could fit all three and we made it work! I also took your suggestion to bring a step stool for the fish ladder, and that was a big help for my oldest.

    Thanks for a great time!

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