Cleveland, Ohio has a bit of a bad rap. In 1969, the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River running through downtown Cleveland caught fire and Time Magazine published a photo of the flames engulfing a ship. This was followed by a major economic recession in the 1970s and 1980s. The factories closed, unemployment rates soared and there was a mass exodus of residents to the suburbs. It’s a story that’s been repeated all across the so-called “Rust Belt,” America’s old industrial region. But a lot can happen in 30 years.
The river has been cleaned up and the economy is slowly recovering. Cleveland’s downtown area is being revitalized by a variety of development projects, from a casino and convention center to museums and sports stadiums, and residents are returning. I’d heard the city was nice but, quite frankly, didn’t fully believe it. I pictured a drab place littered with the crumbling remains of factories and devoid of big-city culture. But my recent visit to Cleveland proved me wrong. Without further ado, here are seven reasons why Cleveland rocks.
1. University Circle
I was surprised to see how much Cleveland and its people have invested in education and the arts. Anchored by Case Western Reserve University and its Hospital, University Circle is a vibrant cultural district packed with museums, restaurants and beautiful parks. Best of all, the neighborhood is easily walkable. Initially not expecting that much and with the threat of rain, I left my new DSLR camera at home and regretted the decision as soon as I got out of the car. It’s a mistake I didn’t make again (meaning there are better photos later in the post).
2. The Cleveland Museum of Art
The star of University Circle is the Cleveland Museum of Art. Opened in 1916, the museum was founded by Cleveland’s uber-wealthy industrialists and continues to operate on their significant endowments. Of the U.S. museums I’ve visited, the scope of Cleveland’s collection is surpassed only by that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. You’ll find ancient Egyptian and Roman sculptures, African tribal masks, Impressionist paintings, religious artifacts from Constantinople and rare tapestries from all over the world. I was blown away to find here one of the two surviving 14th century curtains from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain! Cleveland’s rich history is evident in the collection of Tiffany and Faberge accessories that once decorated area mansions, while the fabulous room of medieval armor and weapons is a nod to Cleveland’s former steel industry. I could have happily spent all day exploring this vast – and FREE – treasure trove!
3. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Every year, legends of rock history are inducted into the Hall of Fame as a way of honoring their musical contributions. Past inductees include the Beatles, U2, the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Cash and David Bowie; Nirvana and Kiss are among the distinguished 2014 inductees. Artists become eligible 25 years after the release of their first album and must have made a significant impact in the evolution of rock and roll. So we’re talking the best of the best. In 1995, I.M. Pei built a museum in Cleveland, the city where the phrase “rock and roll” was coined, to showcase the musicians’ personal artifacts and concert memorabilia.
I personally enjoyed my visit to the museum, although I know others who were disappointed. “I expected there to be more stuff” was a common refrain. But I thought what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality. Items that caught my attention include Paul McCartney’s hand-written lyrics to “Hey Jude,” hotel room keys collected by the Eagles, the telegram that informed Sid Vicious’ mother of his death, and the Everly brothers’ tap shoes. You’ll also find costumes and guitars used on stage, vintage Rolling Stone covers, Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche and Michael Jackson’s sparkly glove. A soundtrack of classic tunes played throughout the museum is the finishing touch. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth the US$22 price of admission.
4. Great Lakes Brewing Company
Walking around the neighborhood outside Cleveland’s historic West Side Market, one can detect the scent of beer in the air. That’s because Great Lakes Brewing Company, Ohio’s first microbrewery, is located just down the street. Free tours of the brewing facilities are run on Fridays and Saturdays, while an adjacent brewpub serves the popular craft beers along with food made with locally sourced ingredients.
5. Little Italy
Unlike the ever-shrinking neighborhood in New York, Cleveland’s Little Italy is still thriving. Founded in the mid-1800s by Italian immigrants who came to the city to work, their cultural heritage lives on in dozens of restaurants and art galleries. The Venetian Carnivale was celebrated in June and the Feast of the Assumption takes place every August. But we went for the cookies. If you’re in the area, Corbo’s Bakery is a must.
6. Playhouse Square
In the 1920s, five opulent theaters were built within a few blocks of one another along Euclid Avenue and entertained guests with plays, Vaudeville acts and silent movies. But as residents flocked to the suburbs after WWII, the theaters were all shuttered. In 1972, a group of residents managed to save Playhouse Square from demolition and soon “the world’s largest theater restoration project” began. Today all five theaters are operational, making this the second largest entertainment complex in the United States outside New York City. Locals seem to have mixed feelings about the giant chandelier that hangs across the street, but I think it’s pretty!
7. Amish Country
Cleveland is also a convenient base for exploring Ohio’s nearby Amish Country. Drive an hour out of town and you’ll find yourself in the bucolic countryside where well-tended green fields are punctuated by old barns and horse-drawn buggies share the road with cars. Visit on a Monday and the clotheslines will be heavy with fresh laundry. Be sure to stay for dinner and get a true taste of Amish life.
Can you believe all these great attractions are in Cleveland? What cities have most surprised you?