Downtown Grand Rapids Holds Hours of Family Adventure
“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”
Now that I have you all humming Petula Clark, I would like to share with you some of the fantastic things you can do with your family when you go downtown Grand Rapids. Whether you’re a life-time Grand Rapids resident or just in town for a weekend visit, there are lots of ways to enjoy an afternoon in River City with kids.
I like to consider myself a GR enthusiast and I love few things more than exploring this great city with my family. Let me tell you, there is much to explore!
There are probably countless ways to fill up an afternoon (or even an entire day) exploring the downtown area and the neighborhoods of Heartside, Heritage Hills, West Grand, and SWAN (South West Area Neighbors), but here are ten to get you started.
10 Ways to Spend an Afternoon in Grand Rapids with Kids
Pick what looks most fun to your family, considering your kids’ ages, and have fun!
1 – Treat Yourself to a Cup of Coffee and Browse the Shops Along Monroe Center
There is a whole host of fantastic places to grab a cup of coffee but two of my favorite places are Madcap and BIGGBY. Madcap is great for grownups, and BIGGBY is a fave among grownups and kids.
Madcap Coffee | 98 Monroe Center St. NW and in the Downtown Market Hall.
If you are a coffee lover, then stopping to grab a pour over or latte at Madcap Coffee is a must when you are downtown. Madcap buys, roasts and brews high end, specialty coffee, so this isn’t the place to grab a cheap cup o’ joe. But it is a fun place to stop downtown if you’re a “coffee snob” (or want to pretend you are one for the day).
BIGGBY Coffee | 146 Monroe Center St NW, Suite 155 and 45 Ottawa SW, Suite A.
BIGGBY offers a whole range of hot, iced, and even frozen-blended options to keep everyone happy. (Pro-tip: if you check out our monthly fun lists, you can even treat your little to their own special cup of happy.)
While you are strolling up and down Monroe Center, be sure to visit some of the shops along the way. A few of my favorites to pop into are Vault of Midnight (actually my son is who begs to go into this one), 6.25 Paper Studio (they even have a coloring station to keep the littles occupied while you browse), and Grand Central Market & Deli.
2 – Stroll Along the Grand River & Through Ah-Nab-Awen Park
Gerald R. Ford Museum | 303 Pearl St NW.
Fish Ladder Park | 606 Front Ave NW.
One of my favorite places to walk around downtown Grand Rapids is in Ah-Nab-Awen Park that runs along the Grand River. There is a nice paved sidewalk all along the bank that’s perfect for strollers. The park includes the grounds of Gerald R. Ford Museum, so you can also enjoy the architecturally-interesting water fountain in front of the Ford Museum.
And don’t forget about letting your kids climb the Big Red Button or the Painted Stairs by Bridgewater Place!
As you stroll north along you will eventually find yourself at Fish Ladder Park another must visit spot when spending the day downtown.
There is free parking and bathrooms, so this is an easy place to visit. Kids and adults alike are fascinated by watching the fish try to climb their way up the fish ladder.
3 – Play at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum
11 Sheldon Ave. NE
If you’re spending time downtown with your kids, then you have to get some play time in at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. My preschooler and infant are both in play heaven when we take them to GRCM.
Grand Rapids Children’s Museum rotates their exhibits on a regular basis. Some favorites include: Kid-struction Zone, To the Rescue, Aunt Daisy’s Farm, Little GR, Bubbles!, Wee Discover, and driving the yellow VW Beetle.
4 – Take Photos on the Iconic Blue Bridge
Located on the Grand River, between Pearl and Fulton Streets
The Blue Bridge is one of the most well-known structures in downtown Grand Rapids. This is a fun pedestrian bridge to walk when you are downtown. Plus, it’s a perfect place to take out your camera (or phone) to snap some great photos of your kids!
You can find parking pretty close to the Blue Bridge at the Ford Museum lot or in a metered parking space along one of the surrounding streets, like near the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
Fun fact, the Blue Bridge “is the oldest railroad bridge in the City built in 1868 and rebuilt in 1892. It was used as the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Bridge for deliveries traveling between Muskegon and Mackinaw City” through the 1980s, according to grcity.us.
5 – Lunch at Downtown Market
435 Ionia Ave. SW
The Downtown Market is one of my absolute favorite places to eat out with my kids downtown. If we are going to eat in a restaurant at the Market, then we usually opt for Slow’s BBQ.
One evening my family of four shared a tray of their to-die-for pulled pork and a huge basket of their waffle fries. Our entire dinner cost around $16; you can’t even feed four people at a fast-food place for that little!
The nice thing about Downtown Market is that you can grab food from various spots and order it “to go” and eat in their upstairs seating area.
This is perfect for those times your family may be craving different foods. From tacos, Thai, and Pho, to sandwiches, seafood, and baked goodies, Downtown Market has it all! This also works well for families with allergies or picky eaters.
Downtown Market also has a DASH West stop right out front if any little legs need a break from walking.
6 – Get Lost in a Book at the Main Branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library
111 Library Ave NE
Grand Rapids Public Library’s main building is worth checking out for the gorgeous architecture alone. The library was built in 1871 and remains a well-maintained landmark in our city.
While parents will enjoy the architecture and browsing books, there is a massive children’s area your kids will enjoy in the library.
In addition to thousands of books, you can also find a play kitchen, dress-up clothing, LEGOs, blocks, trains, a puppet theatre and more.
Plus, there is an area for babies to explore with board books, puzzles, blocks and other age-appropriate items. An afternoon in downtown Grand Rapids is always made better with a trip to the main library!
7 – Imaginations Soar at the GRAM and UICA
Grand Rapids Art Museum | 101 Monroe Center St NW
UICA | 2 Fulton St W
Both locations house art collections as well offer hands-on creating in their studios. The Studio at UICA is drop-in so any time the gallery is open you are welcome to create. The studio at the GRAM has an open studio events on Saturday afternoons.
8 – Take a Ride on the Carousel at the Grand Rapids Public Museum
272 Pearl Ave. NW
Every Grand Rapids kid must ride the beautiful, antique Spillman Carousel at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. It’s basically a rite of passage for GR kids. It’s also a really fun thing to do for tourists when they’re visiting our town!
To ride the carousel, it only costs an extra $1.00 per kid (free for members).
9 – Look for Hidden Gems Along the East Bank
299 Lyon St NW
Exploring the Riverwalk Trail along the eastern side of the Grand River can be especially delightful with kids as some of the best hidden gems for photo ops are along here. Pay special attention to the ground: there are murals on several of the parking lot surfaces that run adjacent to the Sixth Street Bridge Park as you travel back south towards the Medical Mile.
There are also some stops for the DASH North route along here so you can hop along here if little legs are getting tired.
10 – Roam Around Vandenberg (Calder) Plaza
Vandenberg Plaza | 300 Monroe Ave NW
Housing two of Grand Rapids largest art installations is Vandenberg Plaza. In fact, most people know this location by the art that is there and refer to it as Calder Plaza. Home to La Grande Vitesse by renowned sculpture Alexander Calder, this plaza offers space to run around or to sit and enjoy a rest.
Tucked into the northern corner is another sculpture, Motu Viget, that is also interactive because it is basically a giant tire swing, but that just enables it to live up to its title, which translates as “strength in activity.”
More Tips on Making the Most of Your Downtown Day
Before you plan your downtown adventure, you may want to read these helpful driving and parking tips for downtown driving. If you feel a bit wary about navigating the city streets, or finding parking, these tips are especially for YOU!
- The streets of Grand Rapids end with a directional term (i.e. Beltline NE). While this makes addressing envelopes a bit more cumbersome, it’s actually helpful for navigating the road system. Two major roads separate the four quadrants, NE, NW, SE, SW. Fulton divides the road system by North/South and Division runs East/West through the city.
- Downloading Park Mobile App is a life-saver for parking downtown. You can quickly and easily pay for meters without having change on-hand.
- Speaking of meters, they are FREE Monday through Friday after 6:00 PM, and weekends are free all day (except for Monroe Center on Saturdays). Check out the city’s interactive parking meter rate map to learn more.
- Once outside the center of downtown, you’ll notice there is odd/even parking. Read the signs thoroughly, as you are looking ahead at the next day’s rules. (e.g. No odd parking between 2:00 AM- 6:00 AM means you can’t park there the night of an even day)
- Use the DASH to save little legs and multiple car rides. The Downtown Area SHuttle has three routes to help you navigate around and rejoice, it’s FREE to ride. There is a West route, a North route, and part of the Silver Line route, that you can utilize to navigate around the downtown area, so this means you can pick one place to park and then not have to worry about finding new parking or loading and unloading car seats. Plus, kids get a kick out of taking a ride on the bus.
What are your favorite ways to spend time with your kids downtown? We’d love to hear your favorite spots to play, explore and eat. Let us know if anything on this list prompts you to try something new. Cheers to Grand Rapids family adventuring!