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Kalamazoo, located in western Michigan, has a fun name to go with the town’s fun, vibrant vibe. You’ll find an exciting craft beverage scene and farm-to-table restaurants. To work off those meals, you’ll find hiking and biking trails, as well as 83 lakes in the county. Art lovers have maker opportunities at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and history buffs have the chance to take in both automotive and aviation experiences.
Kalamazoo makes a great Midwest weekend getaway, located about an hour south of Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, and about 2.5 hours east of Chicago. However, some of Kalamazoo’s attractions are a bit scattered, so if you fly into Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport (AZO), you’ll want to rent a car to make the most of your trip.
Note: Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites hosted my visit at their property. All opinions are my own.
Located in a section of Burdick Street in downtown Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Mall is an outdoor walking mall filled with specialty shops and restaurants.
The Aroma Lab, decorated in shades of blue and white, offers an interactive experience in a stunning setting. My husband and I created our personalized scents from dozens of individual scents at the blue organ. Of course, the cost of the experience depends on the product you choose to add your fragrance to; for example, body spray, candles, or shower gel, to list a few. Each has a different price.
We stopped by the Grazing Table for a mid-afternoon snack where we found a charcuterie board perfect for sharing. While their beautiful boards are a specialty, the menu features salads and sandwiches for light meals. If you want to learn to make a board, register ahead of time for one of their classes in board building. They also feature a small shopping area with crackers, jams, and other ingredients to replicate a board at home.
Pro Tip: This area was America’s first pedestrian mall, but today, the district is open to traffic, and you’ll find convenient parking along the street.
With a mission to provide experiences in glass art, Glass Art Kalamazoo provides the means for you to become a maker. While I enjoy shopping for gifts and souvenirs to remind me of my travels, my memories are more incredible when I make or experience something myself. At Glass Art Kalamazoo, you’ll have the opportunity to experience everything from kiln fusing, cold working, glass blowing, lamp working, and bead making. Their Journey Beads Program especially touched me. They offer a 2-hour class that provides a hands-on way to contribute to the program and have a fun night in the studio creating basic beads.
Pro Tips: The free Kalamazoo Art Hop experience happens the first Friday of every month from 5–9 p.m. You can see a glass-blowing demonstration, watch the Bronson Journey Beads team make glass beads, or even create your own fused glass project. You can shop their gallery exhibit during Kalamazoo Art Hop too.
The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts also offers art classes for children and adults in various mediums — photography, painting and drawing, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, fiber, and jewelry, to name a few.
If you prefer to look at art rather than make it, the institute features 20th century American art collections from throughout the world. Their collection offers everything from photographs and prints to ceramics and sculptures.
The glass work of one of my favorite artists, Dale Chihuly, is also on display. I always learn new things while I’m traveling. While I’m familiar with Chihuly’s glass work, I also discovered he worked with acrylic on Arches archival paper in his piece, Basket Drawing. So now, I’ll be watching for more than just his glass art.
Pro Tip: You’ll find free parking across from the Lovell and South Street entrances.
Michigan is ranked fifth in craft beer production in the U.S., and Kalamazoo is a significant player in the craft beer industry. Some of Kalamazoo’s must-try craft beverage makers include Bell’s Brewery, Green Door Distilling Company, and WL Social House.
The Downtown Kalamazoo Central Commons Refreshment Area provides visitors a chance to enjoy craft beverages in a safe outdoor environment. You can purchase drinks in a licensed establishment between locations within the commons area boundaries and bring them into an outdoor social setting. The outdoor environment lets you enjoy craft beverages in a socially-distanced manner.
Pro Tip: When visiting the Downtown Kalamazoo Central Commons Refreshment Area, don’t take beverages purchased in one location to another restaurant or on another establishment’s patio.
For more information on Michigan’s craft beer cities, check out 7 Fantastic Breweries To Visit Along The Beer City Ale Trail.
Located about 20 minutes from downtown Kalamazoo, in Hickory Corners, you’ll find the largest car museum in North America, the Gilmore Car Museum. The museum features over 400 cars that tell Americans’ history through automobiles. They featured an exhibit on the Corvette with examples throughout the car’s history, including an unlikely station wagon prototype. Another fun one was the 1929 Duesenberg, which initially sold for $20,000 and now is worth over $2 million. That same car sold “used” for $123 in 1947.
What surprised me here was the activities available to engage the younger kids. If you’re visiting with your grandkids, stop by the Kid’s Kiosk and pick up one of the various museum scavenger hunts. One handout featured photos to hunt for; another Road Rally Scavenger Hunt provided specific written clues and multiple choice answers. They even had coloring pages for the younger kids. Another area allows the kiddos to build miniature race cars and use a downhill track to race.
Pro Tips: While the Heritage Center and connecting galleries are open year-round, the best time to visit is from the beginning of April through the end of November. During the winter months, they close six of the outside buildings. If you enjoy guided tours, be sure to visit during the week.
Although officially located in Augusta, W. K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary is convenient when visiting the Gilmore Car Museum. With over 3 miles of trails, it makes a great place to get outdoors for a hike with lots of wildlife to see. While it’s a year-round location, the best time to visit is from spring through fall. If you decide to take a picnic, they offer plenty of picnic tables to enjoy your meal al fresco.
Bird watchers interested in viewing migratory waterfowl — like ducks, geese, and swans — will be excited here. Although it initially began as a refuge for the Canada goose, the sanctuary was also essential to re-introducing trumpeter swans to the Midwest. You’ll also find many species of ducks, herons, and other wading birds. They also have the Bird of Prey enclosure that features bald eagles and eastern screech owls.
I could spend all day photographing birds, so this was a great stop for me. Remember to take your long lens to get the best photos.
Located just south of Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport (AZO), the Air Zoo is a Smithsonian-affiliated aerospace museum with over 100 air and space artifacts. You’ll find lots to do here between the flight simulators, indoor amusement park rides, and theater. Then, board the shuttle to the Flight Discovery Center, where you can climb into training cockpits. You can even watch the restoration of two WWII aircraft that they recovered on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
I always wondered why an airplane museum would be called the Air Zoo. I supposed it had to do with its proximity to Kalamazoo. But no, the answer is more fun than that. Once called the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum, it became referred to as the Air Zoo because of the aircraft’s animal names in the initial collection. You’d find Bearcat, Flying Tiger, Hellcat, and Wildcat, so people began referring to it as the Air Zoo.
Pro Tip: Parking is free at the Air Zoo.
If you decide to spend more than a day exploring Kalamazoo, you’ll find various places to stay, from national chains, like the Hilton Garden Inn and Home 2 Suites, to quaint historic inns. If you’re visiting the Gilmore Car Museum, they offer rustic and some on-site electric camping to spend a bit more time. Whether you choose luxury accommodations or rustic camping, these places to stay will make expanding your trip a pleasure.
Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites at Kalamazoo Center, located in downtown Kalamazoo, is easy to get to via the complimentary airport shuttle servicing Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport (AZO). Once you’ve arrived, you’re within walking distance of many craft breweries, eateries, and attractions. We enjoyed our dinner at Brick + Brine, where the craft cocktails were unique and the steaks superb.
While Kalamazoo has many activities to keep you busy, you won’t want to leave the Radisson with their full-service salon and spa. The hotel features a state-of-the-art, 11,000-square-foot Kalamazoo Athletic Club to fit in a workout. In addition, the indoor heated pool makes for a fun, refreshing swim.
If you’re looking for a Michigan-made souvenir from your trip to Kalamazoo, the hotel gift shop Rio: Regionally Inspired Offerings features many Michigan-made choices, including sweet treats and Michigan wine.
Originally the David Lilienfeld House, built in 1878, this Victorian-style bed and breakfast, became the Kalamazoo House Bed and Breakfast as a tribute to Kalamazoo’s first hotel. Located in downtown Kalamazoo, you’ll be within walking distance of many of the city’s attractions.
Be sure to get up for the two-course breakfast, where the first course features fruit such as their signature brûlée banana and berries. Then, you choose your second course from a menu provided the day before, with selections like stuffed French toast or frittatas.
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Amy Piper is a travel writer and publisher of Follow the Piper, a blog focusing on luxury travel and food experiences. Her passion for travel has taken her to 41 countries. Amy resides in Lansing, Michigan, and as a Michigan expert, she is currently writing the Michigan chapter in four anthologies about the Midwest.