Grand Rapids may not be the first place you would think to take your kids.  It might not even be the second place. This isn’t glitzy Disneyland or nearby bustling and kind-of-crazy Chicago…and that’s a good thing.  GR is a chill little city you won’t get lost in; it’s filled with genuinely friendly people who are happy to have you visiting here, and it offers enough to keep even your most finicky (a.k.a. bratty) kid happy.  Here’s my kid-perspective honest lowdown of what’s best to do around these parts.

Keep ‘em fed.  Because let’s be honest – a hungry kid is a cranky kid.

Little Africa,  956 E Fulton St,  (616) 222-1169 (He doesn’t have a website. He’s too cool for that. Or too busy cooking.)

Stella stars: 11/10

Yeah, you read that right. 11 out of 10, baby. Little Africa is an Ethiopian restaurant, and even if you think you don’t like Ethiopian food, you’re so wrong.

This place is very far from being fancy and that’s part of the charm. It’s a one man show that’s going to rock your culinary world. The owner’s name is Tesh Lou and he’s the cook, the waiter, and the reason you’re going to love Ethiopian food. The food comes on one big platter made of a thick, spongy injera pancake that you then tear off to scoop up the other food.  Indulge your inner hippie, because everyone at the table shares communally off of one plate. No utensils – you eat with your hands here.  Kid heaven.  For those of you that aren’t very fond of spiciness, I recommend azifa, which happens to be my favorite.  It consists of lentils, some kind of mild spice, and magic.  My little brother digs shiro, I think because it is a beautiful bright orange. It’s a great place to bring kids to because it’s something new to try. Seriously ,there has actually never been a day in my life that I didn’t feel like eating there. 

Marie Catrib’s

Stella stars: 8/10

Part deli, part chic diner, Marie was a legend in town.  She was a very huggy Lebanese grandma who knew the importance of cooking with love, and her son, who is just as awesome of a human being, has now taken over this ‘adored-by-everyone-who-goes-there’ restaurant. The only bad part is some days there’s a long wait, but that’s only because it’s so darned good.  Every time I go, we end up taking bags and cartons and boxes of goodies from the deli for take-out. And if you leave here without trying one of their many yummy desserts, I won’t say you are an idiot…but I will say you make questionable decisions in life.

Bartertown

Stella Stars: 8/10  (They really like kombucha there. And that’s just a little weird for me).

This is the kind of place you need to take your kids to if you want them to grow up being conscientious about food and where it comes from (yes, that IS something you should be striving for, parents).  It’s a bit hipster, but with all the right intentions.  And they have two buck tacos. ANd vegan cupcakes that will make you not think vegan cupcakes are a gross idea.

Stella’s Lounge

Stella stars: 7/10

Stella’s Lounge, besides my bias of thinking it has a great name, has sweet graffiti all over the place.  It’s an explosion of color, AND it has an arcade.  It’s non-pretentious bar food, basically, for those of you who don’t want to try something super outside your comfort zone. You can get American food that won’t freak out your kid for being too ‘weird’ – think french fries and hamburgers.  And, parent’s, if traveling with your kids is not your idea of fun, they have over 200 types of whiskey if that helps you in any way. The only reason I gave it 7 stars is because kids can’t enter the premises after 10pm, and I always thought it would be the perfect place to go after a Griffin’s hockey game ends.

Keep ‘em well rested.  Because a tired kid is a whiny kid.

Amway Grand Plaza

Stella stars: 6/10

This hotel is swanky, historic, and lavishly fancy-pants for those of you who are into that sort of thing. Yes, there are crystal chandeliers everywhere, but my favorite part about this hotel is the massive pool. You can easily do laps or play Marco Polo, AND it has changing lights.  The rooms are cozy, and if you ride the elevator to the upper floor of the hotel, you’ll get the best view of the city in town.  

JW Marriot

Stella stars: 9/10

The JW is one of my favorite hotels to stay at and is ultra kid friendly. It is very modern and feels open and bright, not so enclosed. I really like the fact that it’s practically all windows, because then you can see the Grand River and its many bridges really well. It has a sauna, steam room, a hot tub, and a pool. The sauna has a eucalyptus smell – totally a nice touch.  The restaurant, 616, has yummy pasta dishes and such for kids while parents can go and get all fancy with sushi.

Holiday Inn Express South

Stella stars: 8/10

I’m not usually into ‘bleh’ chain hotels. But I am into mini-waterparks, and it’s a safe bet your kids are too.  Waterslides and a whirl-pool (not a hot tub, but a pool of whirling, swirling water). Enough said.

Keep ‘em busy. Because a bored kid is an annoying kid.


Sky Zone Trampoline Park

Stella stars: 10/10

Sky Zone is definitely a good stop, especially on a long road trip, because kids can jump all the energy out of themselves before getting in a car for another 10 hours. It’s basically a room full of trampolines, foam pits, trampoline dodge ball and basketball. Whether you’re 5 or 17 years old, you’ll have fun attempting to do back flips off the trampoline walls.  Or watching your siblings fail miserably at this.

Griffin’s hockey

Stella stars:  10/10

There’s no forgetting the time you went to a Griffins game and got on the jumbo screen for dancing so crazy, and there’s nothing better than elbowing the person next to you at half time for a T-shirt or hot dog that the mascot catapults into the crowd. Or seeing two hockey players get in a fight and end up with broken hockey sticks and a few missing teeth. And it’s the perfect time to beg your parents for a cotton candy. But, if you go, you better be rooting for the Griffins – if not, you don’t deserve to be on the jumbo screen or get a free shirt. And definitely no cotton candy for you.

Frederick Meijer Garden

Stella stars: 9/10

Fredrick Meijer Garden is something everyone from GR is proud to have in this city. It’s a ginormous indoor botanical garden that has thousands of butterflies fluttering about in the spring, and outside there’s what seems like a zillion acres of walkways around a giant pond, playgrounds, fountains, a small maze, and a sculpture park. I also really enjoy going there close to Christmas, because they put up a ton of trees and each tree is decorated traditionally for a certain country – so while it’s all ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ pretty, you’re still learning something about culture.

Grand Rapids Children’s Museum

Stella stars:  8/10  (At 13 I’m getting too old for it, but there was a time when I would have said 10/10)

It’s all in the name. It’s for children, and it’s a museum.  The exhibits change regularly, but it’s all hands-on and very open (bonus: it’s practically impossible to lose your kids there).  You can never get me away from the bubble-making area. This place would be best for younger kids, let’s say 10 and under.

Higher Ground Rock Climbing

Stella stars:  10/10

Higher ground is an indoor rock climbing gym run by some of the best people you’ll ever meet. Whether you’re a professional rock climber, or have never even held a harness or those toe-crushing shoes before, you’ll have fun. If you’re one of those crazy safety helicopter parents, don’t worry, your kid will be harnessed in and cannot fall. There’s also bouldering walls where you climb lower to the ground but you’re not roped in. Out of all the cool indoor activities listed here, I hope you go to this one.  Every kid should know how to rock climb, or at least try it.

AJ’S

Stella stars: 8/10

AJ’s is an arcade with go carts, bumper boats, video games, mini golf, and prizes just waiting with your name on it. It’s not exactly a museum or a nature walk, but it’s the perfect place for a rowdy family day. Whether everyone’s racing on the go cart track or playing a competitive game of mini golf, you’ll be smiling and having fun.

Ice skating (indoor or outdoor – we’ve got you covered)

Stella stars:  8/10

Even 10 years from now you’ll remember falling on your butt with your jeans cold and wet, watching the Zamboni go around making the ice all nice and smooth again, telling it to hurry up because you want to get back out there. However long you go for, your kids will be begging you to stay for just five more minutes (an hour later: “I promise, just five more!”) . In the summer you can go to Patterson Ice Arena, but in the winter definitely get out to Rosa Parks in the center of downtown.  Falling snow, cute wool hat, your kids trying to twirl – there’s Instagram-worthy moments just waiting to happen.

Ski Cannonsburg

Stella stars:  9/10  (It’s no Colorado, but it’s all we have and so should appreciate it).

If you are in Michigan when there is snow (it happens a lot here), round up the kids, GPS Canonsburg, and drive. Even if you already know how to ski, try something new, like learn how to snowboard or do tricks on the half pipe.  And, if you’ve never been skiing before, take a lesson.  No excuses.

Kayak the Grand River

Stella stars:  8/10

It’s one thing to see the river, but it’s another to paddle down it. You’d be surprised how simple things can make a day so fun, like splashing each other with your paddles, or seeing fish jump out of the water, or racing each other with the kayaks. Those are the memories that stay with you.  Get out, unplug your head phones and leave your phone in the car, and do something a little adventurous.  Your kids will thank you for not being lame.

Sancutuary Folk Art

Stella stars: 10/10

This place wins my award for ‘random awesomeness’.   It’s this little art gallery run by a quirky guy named Reb Roberts.  He doesn’t do boring straightforward portraits or try to make his art look realistic. He uses color and glitter and whatever materials he can find kickin’ around. He creates with wild abandon and joy, and his art is guaranteed to make you smile. For him, art is a part of life because he makes it that way. Close to his shop, you might see a trash can that is now painted with lions or a sparkly billboard asking you to be more kind. There’s a wacky painted couch in his place that I’ve had my eye on for a while, hoping he gets sick of it and sells it at a garage sale.  After you see his art, you will recognize his kid-like style immediately. You can play ‘I Spy’, and every time you see one of his paintings around town, you’ll know right away that it’s one of his. This is the kind of place that can make a kid feel empowered that their artwork can make a difference in someone’s life, no matter how much traditional talent they do or don’t have as an artist. He makes art about enjoying the process.  Reb rocks. 

Fish Ladder

Stella Stars:  7/10  (I have to be in the mood. But when I’m in the mood, it’s a really cool place to go).

The 6th Street dam near downtown prevents salmon and steelhead from doing their thing, swimming up and down the Grand River. However, because we are nice here in GR, someone was smart enough to build a series of stair-step concrete pools to allow these fish to bypass the dam on their journey upstream toward Lansing.  Fish hopping up a ladder – does your town offer that?

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