Chicago residents Shay Collins and Je-Shawna Wholley visited Grand Rapids for Pride and Juneteenth weekend in 2023. Seasoned travelers who’ve journeyed everywhere from Belize to New Orleans, the two find great joy in being outside and experiencing new things together.

As black, queer and trans travelers, they were excited to learn that GR’s Pride Festival and Juneteenth Festival were happening less than a block from each other on the same day.  (This year, Juneteenth will fall in the middle of the week and the Pride Festival will be the next weekend, June 22, 2024.) The couple consulted Experience Grand Rapids and online resources to create a weekend itinerary around the two events.

Shay and Je-Shawna took the train from Chicago to Kalamazoo on Friday, then transferred to a bus for the ride to Grand Rapids. “We recommend taking the train. It was a fairly easy experience and a good alternative to driving.”

The Amway Grand Plaza in the heart of downtown was their hotel for the weekend. The Amway features both an Art Deco wing, incorporating the1913-built Pantlind Hotel, and a modern 29-story glass tower. “Our room on the 18th floor was quiet, well provisioned and a had dynamic view of the city, including the Grand River.” The Amway is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, so don’t forget your Hilton Honors membership number.

Je-Shawna and Shay at the 2023 Pride Festival in Downtown Grand Rapids

Downtown Grand Rapids is the perfect place to stay while visiting, with a variety of things to do and places to eat easily located nearby.

Photo by Alina Albin for Experience GR

Food & Cocktails

MDRD, a Spanish restaurant on the 27th floor of the Amway, was the choice for dinner that evening. MDRD offers soaring views of the city and stylish furniture perfect for a cocktail hour or romantic dinner.

“Our cocktails, including the butterfly pea flower gin & tonic, were tasty, innovative, balanced and fun. We ordered exclusively from the tapas menu and found that to be more than enough food. Our favorites were the vieiras al ajillo (scallops) and the costillas de cordero (lamb chops).

“The absolute star of the meal was the desserts – the luz de las vela (a candle shape lit tableside) and el limón (realistic looking lemon) created by Executive Pastry Chef Doug Orr were works of art.”

Shay and Je-Shawna pronounced the food “exhilarating” and the service warm and attentive. “When our waiter asked if we were celebrating anything, we responded with ‘Just being Black and Queer!’, as we always do, and they brought us a card that read “Happy Pride” for the table. How cute is that!? We will definitely be back! We highly recommend making a reservation for MDRD as it’s an experience worth dressing up for.”

During their stay, the couple also checked out these downtown food & drink spots, all within an easy walk of their hotel:

  • The Littlebird was a breakfast destination. “They have a great patio and delicious coffee. Try the steak and eggs breakfast, Caesar salad, or the Littlebird sandwich…they won’t disappoint.”
  • Sunny Boba Tea, a “quirky, queer-friendly spot across the street from Women’s Way, a mural honoring Dr. Ella Mary Sims,” fulfilled their boba craving.
  • Divani impressed with its “sexy speakeasy vibe, focused menu and delicious cocktails.” Shay and Je-Shawna recommend asking the bartender to make his top-secret, not-on-the-menu Mezcal Old Fashioned.
  • Sweetwater Cafe “is queer friendly with great art and even better pastries.”
  • The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck, another of the Amway’s eight on-site restaurants, served “delicious” chicken wings and “it was easy to snag a table without a reservation during the lunch hour.”
Je-Shawna and Shay at the 2023 Pride Festival in Downtown Grand Rapids

The statue of Rosa Parks, located in Rosa Parks Circle, features text that highlights her life and famous quotes.

Photo by Alina Albin for Experience GR

Things to See and Do

Shay and Je-Shawna say they love a good stroll and they found downtown Grand Rapids perfect for sightseeing, mural-gazing and people-watching. “It was exciting to see so many murals featuring BIPOC folks (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and women.” They made a game out of spotting Rad American Women A-Z images painted on downtown electrical boxes.

“We found N - Nellie Bly, S - Sonia, Sotomayor, P - Patti Smith, W - Wilma Mankiller, and Z - Zora Neale Hurston. We’re hopeful to find the rest on our next trip.”

The couple was intentional about honoring the ancestral presences that shape Grand Rapids history, visiting the Rosa Parks statue in Rosa Parks Circle and the symbolic Native American burial mounds in Ah-Nab-Awen Park. “Ah-Nab-Awen is a great place to learn about indigenous history and some of the sacred ceremonies and rituals of that space. The Grand River inside the park is a beautiful place to leave offerings as a sign of gratitude and respect for the indigenous land stewards.

Saturday was Festival day, and Shay and Je-Shawna joined the crowds shifting throughout the day from Pride to the Juneteenth celebration. “Both events were family-friendly and included areas for games, food, music and vendors providing resources for anything from financial wellness to sexual health. We left feeling immense gratitude to witness so many of us gathered feeling safe, affirmed and celebrated to be our authentic selves.”

The plan was to go to the Pride afterparty at downtown’s Rumors Night Club, but long lines dissuaded them and they ended up at the AC Hotel open lobby night. The hotel opens the lobby on Saturday nights and stations a DJ by the bar. “Between the elegant decor, the afrobeats and diverse guests, it made for a very casual yet sexy night out.”

The couple had time to check out a few other things before they left for Chicago on Sunday, and really enjoyed:

  • The Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives (GRAAMA). “Director and Curator Mr. George A. Bayard III is a great storyteller and was eager to share the rich history of Black life and resistance in Grand Rapids.”
  • The Grand Rapids Public Museum. “Perfect for a Sunday morning visit to ride the carousel and explore the various exhibits.” They were particularly moved by the now ended exhibit Overcoming Hateful Things: Stories form the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery, pronouncing it “beautiful and haunting.”
  • Lime Scooter Rental. The e-scooters are “a lot of fun and we definitely recommend trying them out to travel across the city.”
Je-Shawna and Shay at the 2023 Pride Festival in Downtown Grand Rapids

Located in Calder Plaza, the Grand Rapids Pride Festival has celebrated local LGBTQIA+ residents since 1988.

Photo by Alina Albin for Experience GR

The Verdict

“We loved our trip! Grand Rapids is clearly a bustling city with plenty to get into. Staying downtown puts you within walking distance of parks, great food, craft cocktails and rich art and history. We spent most of our days just wandering around to see what we could get into.

“Grand Rapids is a city where you can easily make friends and leave feeling inspired. Perfect for a baecation, girls’ trip or quick family excursion from Chicago.”

Je-Shawna and Shay at the 2023 Pride Festival in Downtown Grand Rapids

Chicago residents Shay and Je-Shawna visited Grand Rapids to explore the city and attend the Pride and Juneteenth Festivals.

Photo by Alina Albin for Experience GR

Authors Bios

Je-Shawna Wholley (she/her) is unapologetically Black and queer, was born in the south and now lives in Chicago, IL. She is an artist, educator and consultant helping communities integrate liberatory practices into their work. She is the founder of Earthseed Black Family Archive Project, where Black folks delve into their family history, while in community, and create something from what they find.

Shay Collins (they/them) is an unapologetic BLERD (Black Nerd) currently residing in Chicago, IL. They work as a program director and IDEAS (inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and social justice) consultant. They are an avid traveler and reader who enjoys spending creative time playing music and being a living room DJ.