As a mom and an enthusiastic Grand Rapids resident, I wasn't surprised last week when Forbes magazine ranked Grand Rapids the best place to raise a family in the United States. But several of the factors that make Grand Rapids a great place for to raise kids make it a great place to visit, too. Here are a few:

Reasonable Cost of Living: Grand Rapids low cost of living for residents means a less expensive vacation for you.

  • Start your stay at a 4-star hotel for less than $200 a night. Both the JW Marriott and Amway Grand Plaza are beautiful hotels located in the heart of the city that often offer rates under $200 a night. If you'd like bigger savings, you can score a room at a Hampton Inn (or similar level hotel) near the airport for under $100 per night, and you'll be a short 15-minute drive from downtown.
  • When you're ready to check out the city, you'll be impressed by the collection at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and even more impressed by the $8 (adult) admission price. Admission to museums in larger cities can run $20 or more per person, but that doesn't mean the GRAM lacks substance. Noteworthy past exhibits included works by Andy Warhol, American Art from the Phillips collection (Homer, OKeefe, et al), and Diana Celebration. If you visit the GRAM more than once a year, and frequent museums in other cities, you can buy a membership to save even more ($50 individual $65 family). The GRAM participates in a reciprocal program with museums around North America, which means your membership card admits you to lots of different museums. Click here for more information. In addition to the GRAM, there are a number of other cultural attractions you wont want to miss while you're in town. Check out what's happening at the Grand Rapids Ballet, Civic Theatre, the Children's Museum, and the Grand Rapids Opera. For even more options, and potential savings, look into the visitors Culture Pass; their website provides links to current events and discounts.
  • If all those art activities leave you hungry, you won't find a shortage of affordable, delicious fare in Grand Rapids. Restaurants like Leo's, San Chez, and Bistro Bella Vita give you big city atmosphere, flavor, and service at a reasonable price. If you're looking for something fancier or more casual, Grand Rapids offers that, too.

Fast Commutes: If you're used to driving in Washington D.C. or Chicago during rush hour, you'll find driving an entirely different--and more pleasurable--experience in Grand Rapids. Drivers here spend almost 3/4 less time waiting in traffic during their commute every year than drivers in those two bigger cities. What does that mean for you? For starters, it means less hassle. As you approach, or leave, Grand Rapids you won't have to worry about sitting on the highway for an hour or more at a stretch. But more importantly, less commuting traffic for us means more freedom for you. When my family travels to Washington D.C. for example, we make sure that we're not on the Beltline between 6:00am 9:00am or 4:00pm 7:00pm. We make similar accommodations when we travel to Chicago. We love both of those cities but we don't love the restrictions the traffic time limits put on our day. In Grand Rapids, visitors are free to plan their day according to their wishes. If you happen to be on the road during rush hour, you'll go a little slower but you wont experience the kinds of delays that ruin your well-laid vacation plans.

Low Crime: With a crime rate below the national average, you can feel good about exploring the diverse neighborhoods that surround Grand Rapids--because, here, downtown is only a part of the big picture. After you've spent some time seeing what downtown has to offer, head a little beyond the city center to see the unique places that make Grand Rapids tick. Here are 4 places loved by locals, in neighborhoods perfect for a morning or afternoon stroll.

  • Martha's Vineyard. To call this place a wine shop is to seriously undersell it. Sure, they have an impressive global selection of wine, beer, and spirits. But the picture that brings to your mind--its not quite right. Add a counter with cheese from around the world, shelves filled with pastas and sauces reminiscent of a corner shop in Italy, and a deli that will end your diet for good. Now you're closer. Go. See this place. And enjoy yourself. Since your diets already over, be sure stop by the Nantucket Baking Company, which is just around the corner, on your way out.
  • Wealthy Street Bakery. It doesn't get much more local than this: the owner lives in the neighborhood, and everyone stops in for coffee, from the young hipsters to the elderly who stay awhile to chat and work on crossword puzzles. It doesn't get much tastier, either. My children live for the days they get to stare at the wares and choose a treat from this divine bakery. One of them chooses a cinnamon roll every time. If its later in the day, you can grab a delicious sandwich on fresh-baked bread, or an afternoon tea and biscotti. You cant go wrong with your selection here.
  • Marie Catrib's. The menu at Marie Catrib's restaurant (pronounced d ka-treeb, not cat-rib, as my father thought) is out of this world. It's nearly impossible for me to go to this restaurant and not order the 3-salad plate. It's like a sampler of every delicious flavor you can imagine. My picks: taboule, black beans & rice, and greek orzo. But there are sandwiches on to-die-for bread, salads that make you eat faster than you thought you could, and bakery treats that will make your sweet tooth sing. For those that prefer more traditional fare (see my aforementioned father), Marie (yes, shes in the kitchen) offers an Adult Grilled Cheese, a BLT (my Dad loves it), and a Chicken Salad sandwich that's a precise blend you wont want to miss. This neighborhood has so much to see, be sure to plan a little extra time. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention three other restaurants here that are worth the trip: The Green Well (I love it for lunch or dinner), Cherry Street Deli (also good for guys like my dad), and Cherie Inn (go for breakfast, you won't be sorry). One of my favorite shops that specializes in fair trade products, Global Infusion, is right here, too. Tea drinkers: buy the creamy earl grey. You'll never go back to Twining's.
  • Jersey Junction. When you step into this ice cream shop, you step into happiness. Founded in 1963 by Polar Express author Chris VanAllsburg's mother, its a tight fit on hot days when the line spills out the door and backs up onto the deck. It's worth the wait. Inside, old school benches and historical pictures of the area line the walls, along with jars of candy waiting to be enjoyed by delighted children. A model train track is installed overhead, close to the ceiling, and if you're lucky, the train will be running. At lunchtime, you can grab a burger or hot dog here but be sure to save room for the ice cream. My favorite, hands-down: Mackinac Island Fudge. Jersey Junction is located in the Gaslight Village area of East Grand Rapids. You can walk through the town, exploring the other shops like Papers Plus and Hot Mama, and wind your way down to Reeds Lake, where you'll find a beautiful walking bath around the park. For dinner, put your name on the list at Rose's, request the deck, and enjoy a view and atmosphere that makes residents and visitors alike call Grand Rapids one of the best places around.