All tours can be scheduled as a run, walk, or step-on bus tour. Tours meet in the lobby of the JW Marriott hotel, unless otherwise noted. Those available as a virtual tour in presentation form (ZOOM or in-person) are also noted. Tours are 60 – 90 minutes of activity.
Each of these adventures are researched, scripted and mapped by Caroline L. Cook, who is also your guide.
The most popular tour: Lapping the Landmarks
An absolute “must-do” for visitors, new residents and longtime citizens who want a new perspective on our fair city! We’ll cruise by Campau Square, named after the founding father of Grand Rapids, on our way to explore some of the city’s “first and finest” including historic sites, museums, colleges, Indian mounds, hotels, bridges, churches, the Medical Mile, the Grand River and more…all neatly contained in a downtown loop. Simply, fascinating!
A Grand History of River City
Grand, indeed. Grand in rich, glorious details, but really, more like a short story than a long tale. Our history is but a blink in time. Retelling the story of who and when in Grand Rapids history is unbelievably fleeting compared to world history, yet immensely interesting…so much so, that it is an enormous task to confine the discussion to one hour. This visual presentation is 60ish minutes of fabulous historical photographs supporting a timeline beginning with geology through present time and into the future. This tour is only available as a presentation.
African American History on the Grand
If we review the demographic changes over the less-than-200 years that Grand Rapids has been a city on the banks of the Grand River, the ethnic makeup of our population has shifted dramatically. This tour specifically examines the African American population from 1826 until present. The remarkable people, places, events, issues…the legends and facts about what it meant to be black in Grand Rapids. This topic is also available as a presentation.
America’s Furniture City
Over the course of 50 short years, small family-owned furniture shops grew into large-scale furniture manufacturers, earning Grand Rapids the title of Furniture City, America’s Furniture Capital, and The Paris of Furniture Design. We’ll learn as we move through downtown and pass the intriguing remnants of the residential furniture Glory years: 1870 – 1930. Discover why “timing was everything” for our new frontier small city. Our fine furniture captured the world’s attention and dominated the economic landscape of Grand Rapids. The tour will go by places that connect the dots to today’s thriving office furniture industry.
Architecture of Downtown Grand Rapids…Parts One, Two, Three & Four
We invent cities. We create streets and we construct buildings. Whether the structures are historic, brand new, a combination of both, or a glimpse into our future, they provide a creative portrayal of our collective story of our “place”, our built environment. Not one architectural style is more important than another…they are all invaluable pages in our city’s scrapbook. Each building tells a story as we physically move through time. Part One showcases our earliest buildings prior to Urban Renewal, Part Two focuses on post-Urban Renewal and Reinvention, Part Three examines recent construction and future projects, and Part Four celebrates all of the other buildings…an attempt to fill in the cracks…to connect the dots in our mind’s streetscape. In total, we study 60 downtown buildings. This topic is also available as a series of four presentations.
See why Grand Rapids is hailed as one of America’s most creative cities! We’ll move through the city center in hunt of significant artworks, including the 42-ton Alexander Calder sculpture that symbolizes the city’s innovative spirit. Also on the tour: more sculptures, LOVE, statues, landscape art, an art museum, a tire swing, a split ring, a clock tower, an art & design school, an astronaut, an entire park, an Avenue of the Arts, plus more. You’ll find the activity physically and artistically stimulating.
Art Dart: ART PRIZE EDITION (Late September – Early October)
What a glorious feast for the senses! See the intriguing artwork, smell the crisp fall air, and hear the pop-up musical presentations, as we weave through a bustling downtown. You’ll get a glimpse of the nearly 1,000 works of art that line the streets, parks and buildings as part of the world’s richest art competition. Learn all about the back stories…who and why and how…the artists, the muses, and the creations that never fail to push the boundaries of public art in Grand Rapids.
Every other year, for 19 days and nights in late September and early October, the city of Grand Rapids is a mecca for art enthusiasts from around the world. Artists, art aficionados, critics, and creative novices stroll the streets of this incredible outdoor gallery, hoping for inspiration and glimpses of man-made beauty. The benefit of being local is the “afterglow”. This tour reveals the proof of ArtPrize competitions past…the public masterpieces that reside permanently in GR. We visit these gifts to the city and discover the back stories…how these pieces became so enduringly valuable. This topic is also available as a presentation.
Athletes, Astronauts & All-Stars
The history & evidence of “sports” extends as far back as cave drawings. Locally, who are our most famous athletes…those persons who are most proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise? Who amongst us are Olympic athletes? Astronauts? Today, team, we are going to visit places & hear stories that remind us of these inspiring athlete heroes, past and present. Just do it!
B is for Blandford.
This magical place, where you are encouraged to get your hands and boots dirty – perhaps elbow or knee deep in mud – is a place where memories are both revealed and made. Blandford Nature Center believes that adults and children learn best through personal experience in nature and with wildlife. This tour takes you through the B’s – the friendly beasts, the historic buildings, the acres of bark along the trails, the barns of the farm, and the new beginnings at both the associated schools and The Highlands. Learn about Mary Jane Dockeray, the founder, and how she began a chapter in her life that she never imagined would grow into this incredible corner of the world. This tour meets at the outside of the Visitor Center at Blandford Nature Center.
City Sights… Parts One, Two, Three, Four & Five
This roving tour of downtown Grand Rapids is designed for passengers in a vehicle…a much broader sweep than Caroline’s “themed” running and walking tours. Relax in the comfort of your organization’s van or bus with nary a concern for iffy weather and sore feet. Caroline will step on your bus and verbally walk you through a historical, cultural, and current events primer of “everything Grand Rapids”. Moving through distinct destination neighborhoods, each with their own quirky personalities, your knowledgable tour ambassador will narrate fascinating stories about the places that make Grand Rapids unique. Opportunity to “step-off” to learn more about key sights can be provided. These tours are approximately 75 minutes in length.
Civil War and Valley City
Grand Rapids, the Valley City, was eager to support the war between the states. Kent County sent more than 4,000 men to war – 5% of the state’s “boys in blue”. Off to the battle fields, these soldiers bravely and enthusiastically answered the call to arms. Likewise, on the home front, there were resilient loved ones who endured the hardships of a nation at war. We will wander through the streets of Grand Rapids, in search of reminders of this monumental historical milestone…the war between the states. Ready to muster in? This topic is also available as a presentation.
Not including pre-prohibition history, Grand Rapids has been a mecca for craft beer lovers for around 20 years now, beckoning beer drinkers from ‘round the world to BEER CITY, USA. Locally, we’re spoiled…connoisseurs of the amber fluid. The breweries have fine-tuned our palettes AND bolstered our local entertainment industry immeasurably. Now, the spotlight turns from brew culture to spirits culture. This tour celebrates the “other” beverage industry. This is a hooch hike! We are rum runners! It is, proudly, a showcase of local Grand Rapids distilled liquor makers. This tour is best as a running or bus tour…we cover a lot of ground.
Early East Grand Rapids
This area was first settled in the early 1830’s when the Reed family arrived from New York state. By the 1870’s, the Reeds Lake area was a popular summertime day trip destination for the people of Grand Rapids and surrounding areas who made the long journey to spend the day picnicking, boating, swimming, spending a leisurely day at the lake and to escape the heat of the city. Perhaps you remember Ramona Park, Rose’s Bathing Beach, and the Grand Rapids Yacht Club? Enjoy tales of the past and learn what’s happening today in this charming city of just 10,000 people that was named recently as the third best place to live in Michigan. This tour meets in the parking lot at D & W Fresh Market on Wealthy Street.
We’re hot to trot on this sizzlin’ route. Envision early Grand Rapids…streets lined with wooden buildings, illuminated by candles or oil lamps and heated with wood stoves. Fires were dangerously commonplace. Fire protection consisted mainly of a few fire buckets and as many hands as possible. The makeshift fire brigade gave way to 10 majestic Firehouses in Grand Rapids by the year 1910. Some of these are still standing, a couple are still operating, and others are long gone. Find out which ones are which on this jaunt through downtown.
Fulton Street Graveyard
175+ years ago, in 1838, the new village of Grand Rapids opened their first public graveyard – just 12 years after the arrival of Louis Campau. As the first and the oldest graveyard in Grand Rapids history, these humble monuments and graves commemorate fascinating lives of first generation G-Rap colonists. Aren’t you just dying to know WHO? Enjoy a dramatic narrative while we wander through this quiet place of remembrance. Hop aboard the time machine… and see where original pioneer settlers of Grand Rapids lay in rest. Walkers meet at the Fulton Street Cemetery, runners meet in the lobby of the JW Marriott. This topic is also available as a presentation.
Grand Bridges…in two parts…South and North.
The city of Grand Rapids was born alongside a one mile stretch of spectacular rapids on our Grand River, the Owashtanong. The pure, rushing waterway was absolutely integral to GR’s explosive growth in the 19th century. Today, eight bridges, not counting highway bridges, carry vehicle traffic between the Wealthy Street Bridge and the North Park Bridge. Enjoy criss-crossing some of these historic spans as we weave our way from the south to north and back again on a section of the longest river in the state of Michigan. Breathtaking for its beauty and exercise, this route is a must-experience for urban bridge and river aficionados. Along the way, catch nostalgic glimpses of times gone by – the river of history – and appreciate its irrepressible flow into the future.
Grand Rapids Most Haunted
Do you believe in ghosts, ghouls, poltergeists, apparitions, phantoms, spooks, psychic phenomena or things that go “bump” in the night? If one person sees a ghost, even if several times, you may blame it on an active imagination; but if two or more people see the same spirit in the same place several years apart, you may just reconsider. This tour takes you by iconic locations where there have been waaaaay MORE than just two sightings or unusual activity. There are two questions that we attempt to answer on this spooky journey…Who suffered a tragic death here and is still hanging around? And is this LEGEND or REAL? This topic is also available as a presentation.
Great Romance Stories of Grand Rapids
A great romance story has some conflict, some difficulties…a sympathetic heroine and a strong, irresistible hero. And in the end, a great romance story reminds us that love is something so powerful that it is worth sacrificing for. But in the real world, and specifically, here in west Michigan, are there examples of these compelling tales that demonstrate the qualities of a Hollywood or New York Times bestseller romance story? Of course! They are all around us. Once upon a time… This topic is also available as a presentation.
Greener Grand Rapids
Sustainability is a priority for Grand Rapids. We’ve earned worldwide attention, recognition and respect for our Green efforts. Named “America’s Greenest City” by Fast Company magazine, Grand Rapids continues to be noticed for its “LEEDership” in sustainable efforts. Grand Rapids is blessed with abundant natural resources, and we are committed to protecting and preserving this very special environment. Join us on a journey through our clean, forward-thinking metropolis. Be greenspired!
Heartside Neighborhood Six Part Series
It started as merely a marshy area alongside the Grand River. As our fledgling village started to grow into a city, the area we call Heartside today, was the first home for newcomers…nicknamed Shanty Town. With the construction of an impressive train depot, the neighborhood evolved into a commercial and industrial center. And that was not the only change over time. There are multiple chapters in the evolution of this historic district. We are now learning to appreciate Heartside in an entirely new way. But, it takes some walking, talking and listening to take notice, and to fall in love with this iconic near- south- side of Grand Rapids. The tours are delivered as Grand River Ramble (A Focus on Origins), Immigrant Gateway (A Focus on Who), Entertainment Expedition (A Focus on Hospitality), Historic Habitation (A Focus on Living), Civic Awakening (A Focus on Culture), and Faith & the Future (A Focus on Churches).
Heritage Hill History of Homes – Parts One, Two, Three & Four
If you want to time travel – and step back into an era of graceful, elegant living and imagine life as heir to a furniture company fortune – then, explore Heritage Hill. This is the city’s oldest residential district and Michigan’s largest and finest concentration of nineteenth and early twentieth-century houses. These were the homes of lumber barons, politicians, bankers, attorneys, judges, and clothiers who shaped the city’s future. This is was where the upper crust lived…on “the hill”. Learn about the history of these magnificent historic homes…their architecture and the people who built them. This tour is divided into multiple parts as it traverses varying sections of the stunning, tree-lined residential streets. This topic is also available as a presentation.
Heritage Hill and Frank Lloyd Wright
Small in stature, big in legend. This man’s contribution to architecture is so big, in fact, that he created a style that became the basis of 20th century residential design in the United States. Not a trend, but a lasting genre. Mr. Wright was introduced to the hill district in Grand Rapids in the early 1900’s. Learn about the storied architect and his contribution to the local architectural landscape in a turn-of-the-century, predominantly Victorian-inspired neighborhood…one home officially FLW, one home semi-official, and two homes officially “influenced”. This topic is only available as a presentation or bus tour.
Heritage Hill Hauntings
Are you surprised that there are ghosts on Heritage Hill? Don’t be. The stately homes of Heritage Hills may reflect the grace, dignity and formality of another era, but because most of these Victorian dwellings were built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, ghost stories abound. Tenacious and playful spirits are still hanging around. Some of the accounts are scary, some silly, some believable, some not. Some are legends from long ago, some are recent. We will explore this beautiful neighborhood, day or night (if you dare), while your guide tells spooky tales that have been passed on to us by either present or once-occupants of the houses. Walkers meet at the first level of the parking ramp at the Masonic Temple on Fulton Street, runners meet in the lobby of the JW Marriott.
Historically, a myriad of cultural influences shaped our city then – and are what make Grand Rapids unique today. We are home to people of every race, color, religion, lifestyle, gender, age, marital status, handicap, socio-economic status and national origin. Each group has indelibly contributed to the evolution of individual neighborhoods, the whole city, and this West Michigan region. Today, our living kaleidoscope is a vibrant, intensely colorful and rich community that thrives upon collaboration while honoring diversity. Travel through this local anthropological timeline with us; we respect the past and look forward to future cultural shifts.
Lady Legends…Parts One and Two.
The number of organizations or causes that were founded or inspired by a woman or a group of women in Grand Rapids history, recent and long, is staggering. Most of these institutions continue to operate today and have touched the lives of countless citizens through the years. We visit abundant, noteworthy sights that originated with women. You’ll be impressed! This topic is also available as a presentation in two parts.
Legacies & Legends in Bronze
The Grand Rapids Community Legends Project was established by local philanthropist and businessman, Peter Secchia and his family, in 2008 with the intent of keeping local history alive. They made a pledge to provide downtown Grand Rapids with a selection of no less than 25 bronze tributes of Grand Rapids’ most notable contributors. 13 years later, there are twelve 7-foot tall bronze sculptures placed throughout the urban core that have been gifted by the Project. In the words of Peter Secchia, “How will you know who you can be, if you do not know who you have been?” Discover who, what, and where on this blended tour of statue art and local history. This topic is also available as a presentation.
Market to Market (June – October)
A delightful journey through Grand Rapids with a spotlight on fresh food…”farm to foot”. The tour begins downtown and meanders east and slightly uphill through the Heartside, Heritage Hill and Midtown neighborhoods before arriving at the city’s oldest farm market – the Fulton Street Market – bustling with shoppers and delectables. Onward through East Town and down the Wealthy Street corridor to the newest food marvel in town – the Downtown Market – alive with epicureans and local mouth-watering treats. Take a walk inside at the 20+ vendors before heading back to the JW Marriott. A great workout to rev your engine and appetite. This tour is best as a running and bus tour…we cover a lot of ground.
Miles and Miles of Murals…in three parts.
Who says art museums must be inside, enclosed with 4 walls, a ceiling and floor? Swirling all about us in Grand Rapids, in each of our city neighborhoods, vibrant, and intriguing artwork is appearing outside on sides of buildings, underneath highway overpasses, on retaining walls, street surfaces and utility boxes. These are murals, street art, wall art, painted by artists that celebrate beauty, or calls to action, and tributes to heroes. The murals transform otherwise unnoticeable, or worse, blighted spaces into must-see, energizing attractions. Viewing these murals is a study in local history, community activism and sheer expressions of creativity… art all the time! The third tour is this series meets in the Creston neighborhood. This topic is also available as two presentations.
Monroe North Neighborhood
Come explore and gain a new perspective of the historic North Monroe Neighborhood, one of the 32 neighborhood associations in Grand Rapids. What was once an industrial part of Furniture City is now one of the most exciting and energetic places to live. Caroline will lead you on a journey through yesterday and give a glimpse into tomorrow. Hug the Mayor’s tree, climb 100+ stairs, witness the greatest view of the city, do a cartwheel in the park, run downhill, watch jumping fish and dip your toes into the mighty Grand River. All of that in an adventurous and wacky loop, chock full of interesting trivia and sights.
Oakhill Cemetery – North (Part One) and South (Part Two)
Cemeteries are, in essence, local history books that you can walk through, see first hand, even touch. Oakhill Cemetery is one such place of remarkably rich history, plus exquisite beauty…especially in the autumn. It is also a peaceful, treasure trove of Grand Rapids lore. Enjoy the winding pathways in the parklike setting surrounded by mature foliage and manicured lawns. Oak Hill is a perfect example of a rural garden cemetery, a place of rest and reflection. Here lie many great persons of local notoriety. Learn the tales of their interesting lives, and how their gravestones reflect their personal stories. This tour meets in the small parking lot entrance/gatehouse of Oakhill North on Hall Street.
Rad American Women A – Z
It began as great accomplishments of females across the country. Then, their stories were captured in a book for children by author, Kate Schatz. Finally, the pages of the book came alive in Grand Rapids, painted on outdoor utility boxes in 2019. The narrative includes stories about 26 bold, visionary women whose names will be recognized by many, but also introduces you to women you might not know… but should. Join the hunt for the pieces of urban artwork on almost every intersection of downtown Grand Rapids. This tour is 2.5 hours long for A – Z which will cost more, or you can choose an abbreviated route.
The story of this delightfully charming place we call Ada, actually began well before Rix arrived in 1821. Learn about the indigenous peoples, the importance of the rivers, and then, the arrival of the fur traders. Then, as we move along, you’ll hear how Ada Township grew from a rural, agrarian community into today’s thriving business center, supporting 13,000 residents. We will explore both the historical village of Ada and the new public amphitheater and riverfront park, and “just opened” retail, restaurants and residential options. This tour meets in the parking lot in front of the Ada Fresh Market, 444 Ada Drive S.E., Ada.
Saints & Spirits
The bucolic grounds of Aquinas College abound with not only beauty, but historically intriguing stories of earlier lives who traversed the woods, gardens and streams. Learn about the property that was once a dairy farm, a proper estate, a business college and now a renowned Catholic academic institution. The tour will visit today’s campus buildings that date from the original Lowe family era: the mansion, carriage house, stables, winery, and gatehouse. We will also investigate various landmarks on campus which foster superstitious traditions. And maybe, just maybe, we witness a spirit of haunted Holmdene before we peek at Brookby, a “related” mansion just around the corner. This tour meets at the front entrance of the college off Fulton, at the Saint Thomas Aquinas sculpture.
Steeple Chase – East Side (Part One) and West Side (Part Two)
Learn why Grand Rapids has been called “The City of Churches” on this fascinating tour of religious landmarks. We’ll pass by churches that date back to 1848 and see multiple architectural styles, soaring spires, expertly crafted stone & brickwork, Tiffany windows and more. Along the way, you’ll discover the historical importance and contemporary relevance of faith in Grand Rapids. This topic is also available as a presentation in two parts.
String of Pearls
There are so many unusual and interesting sights and noteworthy Grand Rapids landmarks that do not fit neatly into an existing “themed” tour. So, we string them together in this invaluable tour of gems and jewels – and call it a String of Pearls. From historically significant buildings to an amazing astronomical post, earliest millstone, colonial horse trough, and a century-old American Elm tree, we will astonish you with brilliant “pearls”. What a treasure!
The Bloody Fifth Ward
Imagine in the 1850’s, Plainfield Avenue as a bumpy, dusty and muddy dirt road, connecting rural farmland to the city of Grand Rapids. That avenue grew into a central business district of its own, with a spunky personality. Serving as the gateway into Grand Rapids from the north, the Creston neighborhood today is a vibrant, growing, thriving, artsy, energetic place to call home, work and play. From its early days as the Bloody Fifth Ward to now – there are a lot of stories of the people and places in the largest of the 32 neighborhood associations in Grand Rapids. This tour meets in the city parking lot behind Stone’s Throw, 1428 Plainfield Ave NE, Grand Rapids.
The Lighter Side of Life
Just for fun and giggles, we examine entertainment through the ages in Grand Rapids as we meander down city streets, past shop windows, restaurants, performance venues, by the Grand River, and museums. What did we do for pleasure back “then”? What made us laugh? Are we really willing to give up our twenty-first century electronic toys for a return to the age of innocence? HA! Maybe. This topic is also available as a presentation.
The Tale of Beer City USA
“In Grand Rapids, the German-born immigrants began arriving in the 1840’s, and within a decade, they were one of the city’s largest immigrant groups. This increased the local demand for beer and the need for more breweries and brewmasters.” This is the beginning of the Tale of Beer City USA…as told to participants and seen through the lenses of beer-colored glasses. In the narrative of this fun and fascinating tour, you will learn about the history of the beer brewing industry in Grand Rapids, its demise and its comeback that earned Grand Rapids the “Beer City” title.
Time, Talent, Treasures
This is the history of philanthropy in Grand Rapids. We are a success story of ordinary citizens and courageous leaders who never stop believing in our community and our future. From our earliest settlers in the nineteenth century until present time, our city has been blessed with a spirit of generosity in vision and action. Criss-cross downtown to visit those places and spaces which were gifted to us to enjoy. For better. For good. For all. The topic is also available as a presentation.
To and Fro. The History of Transportation in Grand Rapids
We are all travelers most days, short or long-distance. We’re fortunate in the 21st century, are we not? Right outside our front doors and garages, we have miles upon miles of sidewalk, road, rail, waterways and air to offer us efficiency in movement to go from here to there. But, it wasn’t always this easy. Buckle in for a fun journey! This topic is also available as a presentation.
Twinklin’ Holiday Lights (December evenings)
Are you feeling festive, fun, and frisky? Come dressed in your finest holiday sweater as we celebrate the merry season together. Experience downtown Grand Rapids bejeweled and illuminated with both contemporary and nostalgic lighting displays. The group will pass by uniquely special places, some of which will evoke warm feelings from Christmas’s past. And as a gesture of community kindness, we will give vouchers for meals at Dégagé Ministries for those we pass who may be in need. This topic is also available as a presentation.
Valent-ICE Sculptures (Offered only in February)
Grand Rapidians believe that winter is a season to be LOVED, celebrated and enjoyed outside, so DowntownGrandRapidsInc organizes World of Winter: A Festival of Frozen Fun each February during Valentine’s Day week. Magnificent ice statues are created by The Food Network and local champion ice carver, Randy Finch. Over 50 incredible, unique sculptures are on display downtown during the festival…some life-size, some interactive, all lighted and the selection is different each year. Bundle up, then join Caroline to learn more about sub-zero art and the intriguing back stories.
West Side Stories
The Grand River. It is our city’s natural dividing line between the east and west…long before the US 131 expressway punctuated the boundaries. Our earliest human history along the banks of the Grand River, is on the West Side. It was on the west bank where the Indian villages thrived amongst dense forests, valleys, swamps and hills. Then, as our tiny pioneer village grew into a city and factories lined both sides of the once-pristine river banks, settlers arrived from all over the world to start a new life. The West Side has its own personality, cast of characters, and unique flavor. The old neighborhood has recently overcome the challenges of time and is rebounding with youthful energy and growth. After all, generations of residents have said, the West Side is the Best Side.
Young President Ford
Grand Rapids’ favorite son – Gerald R. Ford – the 38th President of the US, is buried here, beside his wife, Betty, but he was not born here. In fact, he was not named Gerald R. Ford at birth. This tour will tell the tale of our humble civil servant as you visit actual places touched by “Junior” during his All-American youth – 1913 through 1931 – in old Grand Rapids. Experience an inspirational story of a young man who was raised in this great midwestern city to become a world leader. You will learn where he lived, played, worshipped, studied, and competed athletically. As a final stop, you will observe Gerald Ford’s tomb, then salute his statue in front of the Presidential Museum and his last working office. This topic is also available as a presentation.