GR's Top 10 Can't Miss Destinations E-mail
Traditionally Grand Rapids is best known for its rich history of furniture manufacturing, but today the city boasts a surprising number of cultural destinations, fine dining and hidden jewels. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or exploring again as a long time resident, GRNow ranks the ten most important, fun and rewarding attractions in the area.

#1: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

Since its dedication in 1995, Meijer Gardens has grown to become not only a cultural destination for residents of Michigan, but for the entire Midwest. The 125-acre attraction on Grand Rapids' northeast side is a year round experience comprised of wetlands, woodlands, indoor and outdoor botanical gardens, world-class sculptures and performances by nationally acclaimed musicians.

The crown jewel of the indoor gardens is the five story Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory, the largest facility of its type in the state and is home to tropical plants and flowers from five continents including 30 feet tall palm trees, coconut trees, bamboo, papyrus and vibrant orchids. The giant greenhouse also features a waterfall, gentle streams and constant 75 degree temperatures. Each year during March and April, the conservatory hosts 'Butterflies are Blooming', the largest temporary butterfly exhibit in the United States. More than 6,000 butterflies representing dozens of species from Asia and South America flutter freely inside the building for nine weeks. Next to the conservatory, the Gardens' indoor horticulture collection also includes a carnivorous plant house and desert and Victorian gardens. In 2000, Meijer Gardens opened three state-of-the-art galleries that have held the works of Picasso, George Segal, Mark di Suvero and Claes Oldenburg.

The outdoor sculpture park is filled with works by famous and world-renowned artists like Rodin, Henry Moore, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Jacques Lipchitz. Some of the works are colossal, the most famous of which is Nina Amaku's 24' high bronze Leonardo Da Vinci's Horse installed in 1999. Others include the 35 foot long Grand Rapids Arch by Andy Goldsworthy, the 23' foot tall Male/Female by Johnathan Borofsky and the recently unveiled B-Tree II by Kenneth Snelson which extends a 42' canopy over The Groves section of the Gardens.

In addition to sculpture, kids can have endless hours of fun in the Lena Meijer Children's Garden. Covering five acres, it's one of the biggest children's gardens in the nation with ten-themed areas like the Tree House Village, Butterfly Maze and log cabin. Kids can also play with boats, build sand castles and jump through fountains. Other outdoor areas include Michigan's Farm Garden, Woodland Shade Garden and wetlands boardwalk.

Throughout the year, the Gardens hosts a number of plant shows such as the Bonsai Show, Orchid Show and Iris Show, as well as classes and lectures. Visitors can also catch performances of national musical acts throughout the summer on comfortable lawn seating at the recently completed outdoor amphitheater.

Frederik Meijer Gardens is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. On Tuesdays, the Gardens has extended its hours until 9 p.m. Adult admission is $12 for adults, $9 for seniors and students, $6 for children 5-13, $4 for children 3-4 and kids 2 and younger are free. Special group prices are available and parking is free. A full service restaurant and gift shop is located near the main entrance, and allowing four to eight hours to explore the entire attraction is recommended.

#2: Van Andel Museum Center

The Public Museum of Grand Rapids traces back its roots over 150 years to 1854, placing it among the oldest museums in the United States. In 1994, the museum moved from Jefferson Ave to its current location, the Van Andel Museum Center on Pearl Street.

The center hosts a number of traveling national exhibits, as well as permanent exhibits. On the first floor, visit the Streets of Old Grand Rapids and see what the city workshops, businesses and stores looked like over one hundred years ago. Across from the exhibit, take a ride for just $1 on an authentic 1928 carousel that overlooks the Grand River. Upstairs, 'Furniture City' tells the story of Grand Rapids' heritage and history of furniture making and how the industry catapulted the city into the manufacturing spotlight. The exhibit features over 120 masterworks on display, spanning from 1840 to present day, as well as on-site furniture making demonstrations and hands-on games and activities. The second floor also houses a planetarium that hosts both traditional sky shows and rock music laser light shows, and a full service cafe. On the third floor, learn the story about the Anishinabek, the native peoples of West Michigan through clothing, photographs, decorative artwork and artifacts of daily life. 'West Michigan Habitats' showcases the diverse plant and animal life of the area and the Ancient Egyptian room is highlighted by a mummy and coffin nearly 3,000 years old. In 2003, the Van Andel Museum hosted the only North American stop of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.

The Van Andel Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m on Sundays. Admission on non-special exhibit dates is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $3 for children 3-17 and free for kids 2 and under. Tickets to the planetarium are $3 extra. Parking in the nearby ramp is half price with museum admission receipt.

#3: Heritage Hill

Heritage Hill is a testament to what concerned and thoughtful citizens can accomplish when they band together to make their voices heard. One of the largest historic districts in the nation, comprised of 1,300 homes dating back to 1848, the neighborhood faced severe danger of being destroyed by urban renewal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Determined residents living in Heritage Hill at the time were able to preserve the neighborhood by forming a non-profit Association, securing national historic status and becoming the first organization in the country to invoke the National Historic Preservation Act, stopping the wreckingballs at the district's boundary and setting a precedent for historic preservation in the U.S. Since that time, Heritage Hill has been extensively restored to its original glory.

Although a significant number of homes in Heritage Hill were constructed by the lumber barons who made their fortunes in the Grand Rapids furniture industry during its peak between 1870 and 1910, many were also built by judges, lawyers, merchants and other influencial and wealthy early city residents. Three self-guided walking tours (North, Central and South) highlight 76 of the most important properties, two which are open to the public, the Voigt House Victorian Museum and the Meyer May House. The French Chateau-themed home located at 115 College SE was built in 1895 for the Voigt Family, owners of two flour mills. Now a museum operated by the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the house contains displays of the family's original Victorian belongings. A few blocks east, the Meyer May House at 450 Madison SE was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the prarie style for the founder of the May's of Michigan clothing store and completed in 1905. In total, 60 architectural styles can be found in Heritage Hill including Queen Anne, Italiante, Shingle, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival and Chateauesque.

Each year, on the first weekend of October, Heritage Hill hosts a home tour during which approximately ten homes are opened to the public, including private residences. Visitors can begin the tour at any house and view the properties in any order. Tickets are priced around $15 for adults and kids under 12 are free. In addition, the Association website features a searchable catalogue that contains photos, documents and bits of history on nearly every property.

Continued: Destinations 4, 5, 6 & 7...

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