Detroit vs. Grand Rapids: An Honest Local’s Comparison

detroit vs grand rapids

If you’re moving to Michigan, there’s a good chance you’re heading to one of our two biggest cities – Detroit or Grand Rapids. And with today’s post-pandemic, work-from-home workforce, maybe you can choose which city you’ll be calling home.

Awesome. Love that for you.

Look, I’m fond of both cities. Grand Rapids is my home, while Detroit is where all my favorite teams play (go Lions). It’s also where you’ll find me if my favorite band happened to skip GR in favor of a larger venue (I’m looking at you, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Postal Service).

And while neither city is perfect, perhaps one of them is perfect for you. Detroit might be your jam if you enjoy the hustle and bustle of a big city with incredible cultural traditions. Grand Rapids might be your next home if you’re looking for up-and-coming mid-sized city charm.

Let’s dive in and look at what makes these two cities different.

Grand Rapids vs. Detroit: Things to Do

Both cities have quite a bit going on, so let’s compare that food, nature, and culture!

The food

If you’re a foodie, both cities have some great bites to offer you. If you’re not a foodie – what’s up with that? Join the foodie revolution.

While the food scene in GR is lightyears ahead of where it was in, say, 2000, it’s still got a ways to go to reach Detroit. Restaurants in Detroit are pushing food to delightful new heights. While Grand Rapids has many fine eateries, very few of them are creating waves – they’re usually riding in each other’s wake.

Every restaurant in GR seems to have a Nashville hot chicken sandwich or smashburger on their menu. The hive mind of GR restauranteurs seems to think that if other restaurants are doing it, then they should too. I’ve got nothing against Nashville chicken sandwiches or smashburgers – love them both – but the restaurant groupthink has got to go.

Take Detroit’s Takoi as an example of a restaurant that’s pushing the envelope. They serve imaginative, elevated food in an ultrahip space. The crispy bbq spare ribs, for example, are smoked, then battered and fried, then glazed with a fish sauce. The ribs are served “with a salad of watermelon, pickled watermelon rind, ginger, and herbs,” and the ribs are unique, unexpected, and delicious. And sadly, unlike anything you’ll find in GR.

Winner: Detroit

Sports

This might be the most lopsided category on the list. Detroit is home to professional sports teams in the four major American sports, the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, and Red Wings. And while none of them, besides the Lions, are, ahem, any good, they’re still professional sports teams.

Grand Rapids is home to several minor league teams. The Whitecaps, (baseball) Gold, (basketball) and Griffins (Hockey) all play in the city or a nearby suburb. But c’mon. You’re not moving to Grand Rapids to catch a Whitecaps game from the lawn. The only advantage minor league events offer over professional sports is the price of beer.

Winner: Detroit

Music scene

As far as music, Detroit has several fantastic venues. Little Ceasar’s Arena (LCA) is massive and hosts some of the biggest acts around. I’ve seen Dua Lipa and Radiohead at the LCA and can personally attest that LCA is a world-class venue.

Side note/rant: My wife went to a Lizzo show with some girlfriends at LCA and left me at home. Truth Hurts, and so did missing that Lizzo show. Grrrls, am I right?

If you’re into live jazz, Detroit has just the thing for you, you cool cat. Cliff Bell’s is located in a swanky art deco building, and the ambiance is ultracool. Sip on your favorite cocktail and enjoy the tunes. Jazz hands encouraged.

Detroit’s The Fox Theatre is, of course, legendary. Jerry Seinfeld, Frank Sinatra, and Prince all performed at The Fox. St. Andrew’s Hall and The Fillmore are excellent venues, as well. Lager House (formerly PJ’s Lager House) is a fun spot in Corktown where you can catch local bands and smaller regional acts.

Grand Rapids has its share of music venues, too. The VanAndel Arena seats the most people in town and draws some bigger acts.

The Pyramid Scheme is one of my favorite venues, and with a capacity just north of 400, they feature some excellent up-and-coming bands. The name is a cheeky reference to Amway, the multi-level marketing behemoth that is headquartered in West Michigan. If you’re unfamiliar with MLMs, join my downline! We’ll both get rich.

The Intersection is a GR stalwart and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Meijer Gardens is a spectacular outdoor option.

20 GLC Live is a fantastic newer venue. I saw Dashboard Confessional absolutely bring the house down after a blistering set at 20 GLC. Emo is back, gang!

Winner: Detroit

Music culture

As far as homegrown music talent, Detroit’s list is massive and undeniably impressive. Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Eminem, Jack and Meg White, MC5, and The Supremes. I could fill this entire post just listing the musical greats that have come out of Detroit.

How about musicians from Grand Rapids? Well, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers was born in GR before moving to LA at the age of 12. He also summered in Lowell during his teenage years. So did his RHCP bandmate, Flea. For more, check out Flea’s trippy memoir Acid For The Children.

Del Shannon – you’d know his 60s hit Runaway – grew up in Coopersville.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Børns is from Grand Haven. When is he dropping a new album, anyway? Dopamine was a masterpiece. Børns, if you’re reading the blog – we demand some new music!

Last but not least, The Verve Pipe is also from Grand Rapids, and they perform in West Michigan regularly.

Winner: Detroit

Outdoor adventure

Though a work in progress, Detroit has Belle Isle, which is a great outdoor park near the city. There are also some great beaches an hour or so north of Detroit, in the “thumb” of Michigan.

Grand Rapids, on the other hand, is a quick drive away from the greatest freshwater beaches in the world. If you’re in GR, Traverse City is a popular weekend option, and the area around Leelanau bay is truly stunning.

Grand Rapids’ proximity to nearby outdoor attractions is unparalleled and one of my favorite parts about living in Grand Rapids.

Winner: Grand Rapids

Art/Culture/Museums

The DIA is a world-class art museum. The Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera are incredible, and Freda Kahlo used to paint in the balcony while Diego worked on the murals. Stick around long enough, and one of the museum employees will wander over to you and bend your ear for an hour about different facets of the mural. This hour is destined to become one of your favorite Detroit memories.

You’ll find several other invaluable artworks at the DIA that make it one of the finest art museums in the United States. Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (trust me, you’ll recognize it) is on display outside. Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Matisse’s The Window, Bruegel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance, and countless other masterpieces form a formidable collection.

If you’re into art, walk through the Z lot near “the Belt” and check out some public art by several talented artists (I’m partial to Shepherd Fairey). Each parking garage level features murals and artwork done by 27 artists. Gotta love free public art.

The Motown Museum in Detroit is perennially overlooked. Miss it at your peril. It’s located in the middle of a residential neighborhood – where Berry Gordy lived and recorded his music – and the tour is quick and informative.

Some other cultural hotspots in Detroit worth checking out include the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation,  the Outdoor Adventure Center, and the Detroit Children’s Museum.

Grand Rapids is better than most mid-sized cities when it comes to art. ArtPrize, an art competition held in the fall and scattered throughout the city, divvies up a six-figure purse to winning artists. ArtPrize took the city by storm when it launched in 2009. It was so wildly and unexpectedly popular that restaurants ran out of food.

The ArtPrize fever has broken somewhat since its inception. The public vote was often sneered at, as massive sculptures with dubious artistic merits repeatedly cracked the top ten. ArtPrize has been rejiggered several times, including by adding a panel of artists who award prizes, and the competition has significantly contracted in scope.

The GRAM (that’s Grand Rapids Art Museum if you’re new to GR) is a terrific museum smack dab in the middle of everything, right next to Rosa Parks circle. There’s a Salvadore Dali exhibit happening now, and the exhibits that rotate through the GRAM are top-notch.

If you’re in Grand Rapids, no stop to the city would be complete without a trek to see La Grande Vitesse (the symbol of our city – it’s on our library cards and everything). Known as “The Calder” to locals, La Grande Vitesse is a stunning red sculpture.

La Grande Vitesse translates to “the grand rapids,” and the piece was commissioned by the city to artist Alexander Calder, one of the great American sculptors of the 20th century. Check out “The Calder,” then take a turn in the giant tire swing in the plaza afterward for a date night that won’t cost you a nickel, and you’ll remember forever.

The Children’s Museum, Van Andel Museum, and Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park are all GR gems that deserve a shout-out.

Winner: Detroit

Detriot vs. Grand Rapid: Other Factors

Crime

Detroit has a reputation as a high-crime city, and while its overall crime rate is declining, the reputation is fair. Detroit has the fourth-highest murder rate of all major U.S. cities. And while the homicide rate is declining, Detroit still has more overall criminal activity than Grand Rapids.

I should note I’ve never personally felt unsafe wandering the streets of Detroit. And I’ve wandered Corktown, Downtown, Greektown, and several other neighborhoods.

Grand Rapids, meanwhile, enjoys a lower crime rate than the national average. Phew. This is one of those times the Bland Rapids nickname might be a compliment.

Overall, I have to give the nod to Grand Rapids over Detroit when it comes to crime. Unless you’re a criminal. Then Detroit might be perfect for you! Kidding, guys – this blog has the most law-abiding readers on the internet.

Winner: Grand Rapids

Family-friendliness

Like many cities, the school districts in Grand Rapids and Detroit are a mixed bag. Schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to underperform state averages, while more affluent and suburban districts overperform.

This one is neck and neck. Detroit is a big city, but it’s not hard to navigate with kids. GR is more compact, and there are always kid-themed activities going on throughout town. GR wins this category by the narrowest of margins.

Winner: Grand Rapids

Detroit is a shrinking city

There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Although Detroit is resurgent in recent years, it’s a city that’s been through some stuff. What used to be the 4th most populous city in the United States is now the 27th.

Detroit’s population peaked in 1950 at 1,849,568. As of 2020, that population has shrunk to 639,111. That means the city (and infrastructure) were designed to service 3x the number of people it currently does.

Some neighborhoods can feel so desolate you’d think an atomic bomb had been detonated. Abandoned factories and homes abound. A combination of white flight and the decline of the domestic auto industry have led to some abandoned neighborhoods surrounding the heart of downtown.

If you look at the skyline of Detroit, you’ll notice that the architectural styles are largely pre-1980s. There are tons of beautiful Art Deco towers – the Guardian Building is particularly stunning – and some modern skyscrapers. But most of it was built during the boom times, and new skyscraper construction has largely ceased.

Detroit’s taken some lumps, no doubt about it. But if you’re team “Detroit vs. Everybody,” you can be part of the rebuild. Several companies are investing in the city. Detroit’s comeback has been well documented, but it can still feel eerie walking around sections of downtown in solitude, wondering where all the people disappeared to.

Grand Rapids, on the other hand, is a city on the move. There’s always a construction crane punctuating the city’s skyline, erecting some new buildings. Our downtown is smaller than Detroit’s, but it always seems full of people and pulsing with life.

Winner: Grand Rapids

Which city is right for you?

Okay, I’ve armed you with all the relevant info. Time to pick.

If you a big-city kind of kid, Detroit is probably for you. The cultural and sporting events are first-cabin, and some restaurants are truly exceptional.

If you’re looking for a mid-sized city with some great museums, close proximity to beautiful beaches and beach towns, and a vibrant downtown, Grand Rapids might be your new home.

Whichever city you choose – welcome to Michigan!

Conclusion: Detroit vs. GR
Detroit Grand Rapids
Food Winner
Sports Winner
Music Scene Winner
Music Culture Winner
Outdoors Winner
Art/Culture/Museums Winner
Crime Winner
Family Friendly Winner
Trajectory Winner