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Cheap thrills: How to explore downtown Grand Rapids without breaking the bank


This article is the first installment in Rapid Growth’s series covering ways to explore our city’s incredible neighborhoods without breaking the bank. This week, we head downtown. Don’t let the new, shiny buildings fool you: there’s still plenty of ways to have fun and not spend a ton of dough.

There’s nothing better than an unexpected day off. So, what is there to do around the city if you have an entire free day to spend? Michigan winters can snow on your parade a bit, but it can also unexpectedly, and quite literally, brighten up your day.

First things first, text your best friend and see if they’re available. If you’re a first time day-off adventurer, it may be best to tag team the day with a friend. For all others going solo, bold or otherwise, don’t forget to grab your headphones and make sure your favorite music and podcasts are all downloaded and synced while you still have some strong wifi at home.

If you’re fortunate enough to live inside the city limits, grab your bus pass and check the Transit app for the next bus headed downtown. If you live outside Grand Rapids, or you don’t have a bus pass, grab those keys and head downtown.

This is where you might be asking yourself: why should I take the bus? I have a car with gas to burn and a need for speed. Allow me to answer your question with the following: Slow down, fast and furious, it’s an adventure so try something different; don’t waste your day/money looking for parking, and finally use the free time to hang with your friend or sink into your favorite podcast.

So, the best place to start is at the Downtown Market. If you don’t have bus passes, mosey up the hill to the Silver Line stop on Division near Wealthy and purchase a day pass ($3.50 for an adult). Head back down into the market and grab a hot chocolate and pastry from either Field & Fire or the market’s newly arrived Madcap. As you munch away, put together a loose plan of what you feel like doing. It’s a day off, so don’t stress on packing the day with activities. Travel from spot to spot and let your mood guide you through the day. Heck, I’ve spent whole afternoons riding the same transit line back and forth in major cities just listening to music, and popping out just for snacks -- and I don’t regret a second of it. Here, with your $3.50 day pass, you can kick back and relax while getting to be a tourist in your own city.

When you’re finished with breakfast, head down Ionia, past the bridge underpass and then take a right to pop back up onto Division, where you should be sure to head into any of the Avenue for the Arts shops. Walk into Parliament the Boutique and check out the team’s latest crafts, or just admire the cat it in all its orange glory.

VertigoCross the street to check out some music at Vertigo, and be sure to find a favorite artist in the stacks. Then browse nearby in the same genre and see if you can’t find something that catches your attention. I have found plenty of new favorite artists this way. You can snag plenty of music for under $10 -- including some amazing vinyl finds for $1. Just have your headphones ready for an impromptu album listen right there in the stacks.

Now, if you’re still feeling chill from the Vertigo vibes, take a walk down the street to the UICA and catch a noon film ($4 for members, $8 for non-members). Heads up: for discounts to places like the UICA, check out a Michigan activity pass with your public library card.

Don’t feel like sitting for an entire movie? Keep those legs moving and wander around the city streets, soaking in architecture, art, more art, and history with self-guided (read: free!) tours. Be sure to take this free interactive tour of GR’s Civil Rights history. Created by Kent Innovation High students, the tour includes 12 stops that provide insight into incredible achievements by our city’s African American residents and organizations, such as Helen Claytor, who fought tirelessly for racial justice and was the first black woman to serve as president of the Grand Rapids YWCA.

And, if you’re hanging out on a Tuesday, be sure to head to the Grand Rapids Art Museum -- you’ll be able to get in free all day. (You can also bypass admission costs on Thursday evening from 5-9pm.)

Want to move your feet in a different direction? Head north and keep the tunes blasting because you’ll be catching the Dash North (free and no bus pass needed) to Higher Ground Rock Climbing for some fancy footwork. Be sure to get off the dash near the 6th street bridge and walk on over to Higher Ground. Get set up for your climbing session and let it rip. Pro tip: having wireless headphones will let you turn your climbing session past 10 and straight to 11. (At $22, which includes a day pass and all the rental equipment, this is the most expensive thing on our list -- but you can stay there for as long as your feet can keep climbing.)

So you’ve rocked it at Higher Ground, and now your stomach is clamoring for food. Cross the street and start walking down to the Dash stop right on the corner of 6th Street and Monroe. Be sure to get off right before the bridge underpass. When you’re off the bus, head down to the Silver Line stop, heading south and get off at the Wealthy Street Station to walk back to the Downtown Market.

If your head is spinning from these transfers you can always get out your phone and hail a Lyft, so if your stomach is roaring it’s best to tame the beast and head to food quickly!

Now that you’re back at the Downtown Market, head to Slow’s BBQ. Get the small, $3 pit smoked beans and watch as they kindly fill it to the brim with beans and small chunks of barbecue meat. Walk over to Field & Fire and buy the smallest bread available to help slop up the delectable beans and sauce. Turn around and grab a cold can of guava juice from Rak Thai, then head upstairs into the greenhouse seating area to soak up the sun while it’s still up.

So you’re back where you started, and you’ve had a full day. Congratulations on your mini-adventure, but there’s still hours left on your watch and the night is young. Do you double down and head back out or call it a day? Let us know in the comments how you would continue your mini-adventure, or if you would like to hear our second half of our day off adventure!

Until next time, stay moving, stay cheap, stay curious.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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