Honest Pros and Cons of Living in Grand Rapids, MI

living in grand rapids

If you’re thinking about moving to Grand Rapids, you’ve come to the right spot. (You are very good at the internet, and your parents are going to be so proud.)

I grew up on the northwest side, bounced around the city for a while (Kentwood, Grandville, Eastown), and I now live on the southeast side. You’re in good hands.

While Grand Rapids isn’t for everyone, the days of being known as “Bland Rapids” are behind us. A multitude of fun things to do await you when you’re done punching the clock.

There are also a handful of things that might keep you away from moving here, which we will also openly and honestly discuss.

Let’s explore what makes GR special!

The pros of living in Grand Rapids

There’s a lot to like about Grand Rapids. C’mon, let’s dive in.

1. Craft beer scene and distilleries

grand rapids breweries

World-class juice is getting made in Grand Rapids. One of our fine city’s nicknames is “Beer City” for a reason (we won an online poll a decade ago, garnering the nickname). You can’t throw a rock without hitting a brewery in Grand Rapids.

What makes our beer, from behemoths like Founders to regional darling Brewery Vivant, so delicious? Is it the fact that Grand Rapids was the first city in the country to add fluoride to our water? In your face, Akron!

As a former homebrewer, I can attest that mixing hops, malt, yeast, and water to create something delish is harder than it seems. Terms like “wert” and “bung” are thrown around, liquid is heated and cooled, things are sanitized, and ingredients are measured – there’s a ton going on. For our local breweries to crank out consistent, world-class beer is a remarkable thing.

And let’s give a little love to our local distillers. Long Road Distillers has an intoxicating (get it?) lineup of booze. From their raspberry liquor to their Scandanavian-inspired aquavit (mix the two in equal parts with simple syrup for a ridiculously good digestif), Long Road is pushing the boundaries of distilling (they’ve also got a black walnut Nocino that’s perfect for the holidays).

Meanwhile, Eastern Kille distillery is making some of the best whiskey I’ve tasted right here in Grand Rapids. Oh, and they just announced they’re building a new, 4-million-dollar facility in Rockford.

If you’re the imbibing sort, Grand Rapids is making some thrilling, fantastic things to drink. Grab a glass and treat yourself to a pour. Make mine a double.

2. Family friendly

Every time I take my small children to a big city like Chicago, I wonder how parents there do it. Navigating congested streets with strollers and kid gear is as fun as a colonoscopy.

If I had a dollar for every family I knew who moved to Grand Rapids once their kids were born, I could put my MacBook out to pasture and retire from the blog life. The schools in Grand Rapids are excellent, and Grand Rapids is one of the safer cities in the country.

The communities in Grand Rapids feel like real communities. It’s impossible to walk through your neighborhood without seeing a friendly face, engaging in some chit-chat (maybe about the capricious weather, maybe about the same old Lions), and brightening your day.

3. Proximity to the best freshwater beaches in the world

freshwater beaches
Grand Rapids is near many of Michigan’s famous freshwater beaches!

Hop in your car, drive west for 45 minutes, and you will find miles of pristine Lake Michigan beach. Holland and Grand Haven are the two closest beaches, but the entire west side of the state is littered with fantastic beach towns. Ludington, Pentwater, Traverse City, St. Joe – the list is endless.

Each beach town is a diamond waiting for you to unearth and explore.

Seriously, I think our freshwater beaches rival anything in Florida or California. Ditch the palm trees for pine trees because our beaches are *Tim Allen voice* Pure Michigan.

4. The great outdoors

Our license plates say “water, winter wonderland” for a reason. There are so many outdoor activities to pursue during each of the four seasons.

Hunting and fishing (or huntin’ and fishin’ if you’re a local)

Listen up, anglers and hunters. Michigan is a sportsperson’s paradise.

The four Great Lakes that border Michigan are renowned for their salmon, walleye, muskellunge (muskie), and other game fish. And our interior lakes and rivers are replete with trout, steelhead, smallmouth and largemouth bass, and more.

If you’re a hunter, whitetail deer are abundant. Licenses to harvest them are available through the state. Bear, wolf, and various small game permits can also be purchased.

While you won’t find me in the woods with a bow or rifle strapped around my back, I’m happy to try some of your venison jerky.

Outdoor trails

Grand Rapids is home to an expansive network of hiking and bike trails. Grab your bike and hitch a ride on the White Pine Trail, which runs from Grand Rapids to Cadillac. PALM (Peddle Across Lower Michigan) is a one-day ride that runs latitudinally from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron.

More of a hiker? Michigan is great for that, too. The North Country Trail, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes hikes are bucket list hikes for any Michigander.

Camping

There is a massive network of private and state-run campgrounds in Michigan. I’m partial to the state campgrounds (they’re all located on a body of water, be it an inland lake, river, or Great Lake). Drinking your morning coffee and evening nightcap around a fire, out of the same YETI rambler, is a magical thing.

Grab your tent and sleeping bag, pack your cooler, and have an adventure. S’mores ingredients are optional, but highly recommended.

5. Close to Chicago and Detroit

For many people, Grand Rapids is a “goldilocks zone” city. Not too big, not too small – just right.

However, if you’re in the mood for a taste of a big city, Chicago is a train ride away, and Detroit’s only a two-hour drive. You can get your big city fix with a day or overnight trip and enjoy your day-to-day life in a mid-sized city.

6. Experience all four seasons

grand rapids winter season
Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids during Winter

Snow at Christmas, flowers in the spring, scorching hot beaches in the summer, and resplendent leaves of orange, yellow, and red in the fall. The weather is always changing in Michigan, and you can enjoy the beauty of each season in Grand Rapids.

7. Excellent restaurants and nightlife

The food scene in Grand Rapids has come a long way. Bridge Street is resurgent with some of the best food in the state. Cherry Street, Eastown, and Wealthy Street are perennial hotspots.

And dining in downtown Grand Rapids has never been better. There are an array of options for even the most snooty foodie (I say that with love! Also because it rhymes.), from exotic foods from across the globe to sandwich shops to white tablecloth steakhouses. If you’re coming to GR, bring your appetite.

8. Terrific hospitals

It’s true – Grand Rapids’ hospital system is the envy of many mid-major-sized cities. Trinity, Corewell, and Metro are all highly regarded hospitals and are major employers in the city.

The cons of living in Grand Rapids

I’m not one to badmouth the city that I love and call home. But, as some guy named Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Let’s apply that to our wonderful city of Grand Rapids and examine what we could do better.

1. Gloomy winters

Okay, there’s not much we can do to change this one. Look, you won’t hear me complaining about the snow – we live in Michigan, and snow is baked into the cake. Learn how to snowboard, go skiing, have a snowball fight – turn those lemons into lemonade.

But the sky in Michigan can stay an oppressive gray from November until March. We are the sixth cloudiest major city in the US. And SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is a real thing. Not, as my dad claims, “a bunch of nonsense made up by the hippies.”

Also worth noting – Lake Effect snow. If you’re not from West Michigan, you might not know what Lake Effect snow is. Here’s a quick science lesson for you.

Lake Effect snow occurs when cold air (usually from Canada. Blame Canada) moves over Lake Michigan. The Great Lake is so massive its comparatively warm waters transfer warmth and moisture to that cold air. The result? A whole lot more snow in West Michigan than on the east side of the state.

How much snow are we talking? A typical winter will see about 31″ more snow in West Michigan than in Detroit, and the snowfall can be particularly heavy right along the lakeshore. You can plan on a couple of absolutely brutal travel days every winter.

2. No pro sports or big program college sports

East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, is a one-hour drive away. Ann Arbor (home of the Michigan Wolverines) is a two-hour drive. You’ll need to drive a couple of hours to Chicago or Detroit to see a professional team.

Look, Grand Rapids has some excellent Universities. Aquinas, GVSU, Calvin, etc. – they’re all great. But no one will mistake a Saturday at Lubbers Stadium (go Lakers!) for the Big House.

Likewise, minor league teams like the West Michigan Whitecaps, Grand Rapids Griffins, and Grand Rapids Gold are fun products. But again, an afternoon spent at LMCU ballpark is not as epic as one spent at Comerica.

There have been campaigns to bring a pro sports team to Grand Rapids. While the city is extensive, with over a million residents in the metro area, Grand Rapids metro still ranks as just the 52nd biggest city in the country. The odds of us landing an expansion team in one of the major sports seem slight.

3. The Grand River is underutilized

A new visitor to Grand Rapids might be stunned to learn that there aren’t actually any rapids in our namesake river, the Grand River. Or, at least, no rapids in downtown GR. What gives?

Well, kids, gather round while I tell a tall of the long, long ago. There used to be rapids churning in the Grand River. Then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, dams were erected to facilitate logging or harness the river’s power.

Bye, bye, rapids.

Because of these dams, it’s rare to see a kayak or boat on the river in the city (the exception to this is fishing boats, which cluster around the fish ladder when salmon are running). A trip to Lake Michigan or Reed’s Lake will make it clear that we’re boat people in Michigan. We love boats.

Making the Grand River boat friendly through downtown would help take GR to another level.

Fun fact – the Ottawa people who lived in Grand Rapids for centuries before Europeans settled it called the Grand River “Owashtanong,” which means “far away water.” You could literally hear the river from miles away.

A plan is in place to restore the rapids to the Grand River, and more info can be found at grandrapidswhitewater.org. Due to fundraising, ecological concerns, and permitting, the process has been frustratingly slow for some.

It’s not just the rapids that are missing. The Grand Rapids riverwalk is terrific but short. Ah-Nab-Awen Park and Riverside Park are lovely verdant spaces that butt right up to the river. Grand Rapids would be wise to add more public spaces that mingle with the Grand River, much like Chicago does with the Chicago river.

4. No venue bigger than VanAndel Arena

van andel arena

There are so many great venues sprinkled throughout town, from the small (check out the Pyramid Scheme) to the biggest of them all – the VanAndel Arena. And while “the Van” can fit some heads – its capacity is just under 11,000 – it’s not big enough for the juggernaut acts.

Want to see Taylor Swift, U2, or Coldplay? You’ll have to drive to Detroit, Chicago, or another big city to catch them.

5. The Gerald R. Ford Airport is nice but pricey

Where are my infrastructure nerds at? This one is for you.

The Gerald R. Ford airport (GRR in airline lingo) is great. It’s a quick drive from town and even has some international flights. The airport functions smoothly, has some nice dining spots, and you rarely have to wait to get through security.

But it’s not a major hub. Most of the time that flights leave the city, it’s to a connecting airport. It can often be cheaper and faster to just drive to Detroit or Chicago and fly out of their airports.

P.S. It’s called the Gerald R. Ford airport because the former president was born in and lived in GR. He represented the area in congress before serving as Vice President and President.

Ford’s family lived in several homes throughout the city, and you can still stroll by them to this day. The homes have plaques and everything. He and his wife, Betty, are interred at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

So – is GR a good place to live?

For me, that’s a rock-ribbed, no-look slam-dunk, yes.

The pros of living in Grand Rapids far outweigh the cons. The vibrant food scene, changing seasons, and the multitude of outdoor adventures that await make Grand Rapids a great city. And it’s kid-tested, parent-approved.

You’ll just need to leave your sunglasses at home in the winter. Throw on your heavy coat – as the Norwegians say, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Embrace life in the mitten, one season at a time.