Grand Rapids always celebrates the year-end holidays in high style, generating so much excitement and goodwill that we’ve been named America’s Jolliest City.
Lavish light displays are an essential part of our festivities. Millions of glowing, twinkling, flashing and blinking lights illuminate every corner of the city, starting with downtown’s Rosa Parks Circle – the site of Michigan’s most dazzling light display, per the Travel Channel.
Add in a bounty of spectacular holiday events, playful outdoor activities, excellent shopping and a family-friendly atmosphere, and you can see why so many people make a visit to Grand Rapids part of their holiday itinerary.
Here are some of our best “lightseeing” suggestions for your trip:
Head to Rosa Parks Circle for festive nighttime ice skating.
Photo by Brian Kelly for Experience Grand Rapids
Downtown Walking Tour
The city center is especially beautiful at night, when you get the full impact of all of the lights. There are many ways to explore all of the downtown holiday decor, and any of these stops are great on their own if the walk isn’t an option.
If you want to see as many holiday lights as possible, here’s one suggested route to help you hit the highlights.
Ellis Parking Lot: Start Here
Park in or near the Ellis Parking lot at the Monroe Avenue/Lyon Street intersection. The waving Santa on the Ellis Parking Ramp building and lit trees in the parking lot will start your evening off with a smile. (The Pearl Street side of the building is also decorated with lights.)
Now head south on Monroe Avenue to Pearl Street and cross to get to the diagonal Monroe Center Street NW, where 50+ trees glimmer with hundreds of miniature lights over several blocks. Monroe Center is lined with shops and restaurants if you want to pop in for a gift or a bite, and it’s a perfect vantage point for viewing the city’s official Christmas tree.
Towering 40 feet above Rosa Parks Circle, the tree will be lit in a fun-filled Lighting Ceremony the evening of Dec. 1. It provides a beautiful backdrop to the ice skating rink at Rosa Parks Circle, which is encircled by smaller lighted trees and is brightly lit for nighttime skating.
Be sure to check out the giant bow across the front of the Van Andel Arena.
Photo by Brian Craig for Experience GR.
Van Andel Arena
Continue along Monroe Avenue towards Fulton Street. As you approach, you’ll see the lights of Van Andel Arena, and the huge holiday bow that spans the entire front of the building.
Along the way, you’ll see twinkling lights on the trees in front of Plaza Tower Apartments and the Courtyard by Marriott.
Louis Campau Promenade
Continue north on Monroe Avenue to the Louis Street intersection. Just past Louis, look to the left to see lit trees in Louis Campau Promenade, home of the iconic pop art LOVE sculpture. On your right, you’ll pass more lighted trees decorating the lawn in front of Rosa Parks Circle.
During your tour, stop into the lobby of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel to see its holiday decorations.
Photo by Brian Craig for Experience GR.
Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, South Entrance
Walk west (left) at the Pearl Street intersection to see the Amway Grand Plaza’s entrance draped with hundreds of lights in a display that will make your heart leap. Head inside the hotel to take in the exquisite decorations and towering lobby Christmas tree.
JW Marriott Grand Rapids
Back outside the south entrance of the Amway Grand Plaza, cross Pearl Street at Campau Avenue and head toward the main entrance of the JW Marriott Grand Rapids hotel. Trees lining the entrance are dressed up in dazzling blues.
Grand River Bridges
Head back to Monroe Avenue and turn left (west) to cross the Grand River. As you walk across the Pearl Street Bridge, you’ll see the famous Blue Bridge to your left, which is lit up in festive hues every night of the year. Look right and you’ll see the warm white glow of lights adorning the Gillett Bridge.
Trees at the west end of the Pearl St. Bridge are wrapped in multicolored lights, helping illuminate the façade of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the entrance to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Venture onto the Ford Museum grounds and you’ll see a massive wreath over the front door. Walk past the Museum and you’ll encounter the Gerald R. Ford and Betty B. Ford Burial Site, where a sugar maple tree – a gift from the Ford children to their parents – is decorated with lights and garland.
Turn back to the east to see the lights of the city skyline. Red lighting at the top of the Amway Grand Plaza celebrates the season while the signature blue light “stripe” that spans the vertical length of the JW Marriott Grand Rapids seems even more festive at this time of year.
You can head back to the city center the way you came (via Pearl Street) to Monroe Avenue and your original starting point, Ellis Parking.
Heritage Hill Walking Tour
The historic home district adjacent to downtown GR takes on a storybook quality at the holidays, as stately 1800s-era mansions are trimmed with lights and decorations, often evoking their storied pasts. You can stroll neighborhood sidewalks and see the sights at your leisure or take the Heritage Hill Victorian Christmas Walking Tour on Dec. 10 – your tour guide will “introduce” you to the original owners of the homes and share Victorian Christmas traditions.
The Christkindl Markt boasts decorative lights and garland throughout the beverage hall and on the outdoor chalets.
Photo by Bryan Esler for Experience GR.
More than 15,000 lights and a half-mile of garland decorate the shops, chalets and beverage hall of the Christkindl Markt at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. This traditional European-style Christmas village is a great place to find unique gifts, enjoy festive entertainment, and celebrate with family and friends. It’s open Wednesdays-Sundays through Dec. 23.
Taking a carriage ride on a holiday "lightseeing" tour is a favorite local pastime.
Photo by Russ Climie of Tiberius Images
How About a Ride?
Hop on board the BYOB Holiday Lights Trolley for a three-hour guided tour of downtown lights and finery, plus visits to the Christmas Lite Show at LMCU Ballpark and various residential lighting displays around town. You’re invited to bring your own beverages – and since it’s assumed that most will be alcohol, this is a 21+ event. The trolley runs Fridays and Saturdays through December 30.
If you’re looking for a more intimate experience, consider a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets of downtown. Classic Carriage LLC is found on the southwest corner of Pearl & Monroe, in front of PNC Bank and across from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel on Friday and Saturday evenings, beginning at 7:00 pm (other days and times are by appointment only). The holidays are a popular time of year for carriage rides, so reservations (call 616-498-6090) are recommended, but walk-ups will be accommodated with availability. Rates start at $60 for a half hour.
The annual Christmas Lite Show allows you to experience over 50 light displays, all from the comfort of your car!
Photo by Nick Irwin for Experience GR.
Lake Michigan Credit Union Ballpark
Speaking of rides – the annual Christmas Lite Show at LMCU Ballpark invites you to view more than a million lights and 50 animated displays from the comfort of your car, as you drive through the nearly two-mile route.
The Christmas Lite Show is open nightly through December 31 and tickets start at $30 for a family vehicle. Or you can ride the Memory Lane Train for a 360˚ view of the lights – it’s $35 per bench seat, which comfortably seats two adults (small children may sit on laps for free).
Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium
You’ll have to head indoors for this light show at the planetarium located in downtown’s Grand Rapids Public Museum. Let it Snow! features thematic animation, immersive special effects and full-dome scenery set to festive holiday music from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry, Burl Ives, Brenda Lee and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It runs daily Saturdays and Sundays at 4pm through Dec. 16, and daily at 4pm from Dec. 16 - Jan. 7.
Christmas trees representing cultures around the world are on display at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park for the holiday season.
Photo by Ashley Wierenga for EXGR
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
Named America's best sculpture park by USA Today, FMG pulls out all the stops for the holiday every year. Its University of Michigan Health-West Christmas and Holiday Traditions show features more than 350,000 colorful lights plus 46 international trees and displays decorated with handcrafted symbols of beloved holiday traditions.
There are guest appearances by carolers, live reindeer, and Santa and Mrs. Claus. A companion Railway Garden exhibition is a unique horticultural display that incorporates garden design, miniature buildings handmade from natural materials, and model trolleys and trains.
This year’s exhibition features a new immersive light experience surrounding the 24-foot outdoor sculpture, The American Horse. Gather around cozy firepits and enjoy hot drinks as you enjoy Winter Glow. 5:30pm-8:30pm, Dec. 18-22 & 26-30.
Admission is $20 for guests 14-64 years old, $15 for students and seniors 65+, and $10 for guests 3-13 years old. Children two and younger get in free.
Everett’s Gardens Christmas Light Display
Everett’s Gardens, a Christmas tree nursery in Byron Center, stages a drive-through light display every Friday and Saturday through December 22. It’s just $5 per vehicle – and you can enjoy s’mores by the campfire after your drive.
Tanger Outlet Mall
Enjoy the holiday display while shopping 70+ stores at Tanger Outlet Mall. Stroll the heated sidewalks and warm up at the cozy fire pits underneath the beautifully decorated, larger-than-life Christmas tree as you check off your gift list.
The Ada Covered Bridge transforms in the winter to become the perfect holiday walking destination.
Photo by Nick Irwin for Experience GR.
Ada Covered Bridge
This picturesque historic wooden bridge – pedestrian-only – is festooned with twinkling lights set to music. It’s on the Ada Village Winter Lights Walking Trail, which loops for nearly one mile through the charming downtown area decorated with more than 25,000 lights.
Cannonsburg Ski Area
Take a half-mile stroll through the Winter Wonderland Forest at this ski resort 20 minutes from downtown Grand Rapids. Overhead Christmas lights illuminate the path, which is full of themed Christmas displays and inflatables. Open Dec. 1-2, 8-9 & 15-16.
East Grand Rapids
The tree-lined residential streets of this GR suburb are a favorite for holiday lightseeing, either on foot or by car, as many homeowners consider decorations part of their civic duty. The city’s Gaslight Village business district is also decked out for the holidays.
Sparta Candy Cane Lane
For a true small-town holiday experience, head 20 minutes north of GR to downtown Sparta, in the heart of Michigan’s apple country. Drive through streets lined with lights and decorated storefronts, and take a stroll down Candy Cane Lane, a festively lighted walkway open through Jan. 31.
You’ll feel like you stepped into a Hallmark holiday movie when you visit the quaint shopping village of Rockford – especially after dark, when buildings and trees are lit up with lavish strings of multicolored lights. The lighted Rockford Dam Overlook offers a great vantage point for photos.