By David Wilkening
In 1969, this Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. It was an event that inspired songwriter Randy Newman to write: “Burn On, Big River.” No big news locally, however: “A strictly run of the mill fire,” said the city’s fire chief.
The image of an oily, contaminated river catching fire has burned the consciousness of travelers since, and I was ready for almost anything when, 37 years later, I came to Cleveland.
Huh? Cleveland? A joke. No respect.
As a travel writer, one of my niches in recent years is going to the U.S.’s most misunderstood cities. I can tell you a lot of reasons why you would want to visit Indianapolis, Indiana, for example, though I draw the line at Dodge City, Kansas (unless you are an afficionado of thrift shops).
OK. No one goes to Kansas or Cleveland for the climate, so I will say that’s a drawback. But I hope my experience gives me some credibility when I say (excuse the cliché) this is nothing short of a great city to visit.
Consider this: University Circle alone has the greatest concentration of museums, medical, educational and cultural institutions you’ll find anywhere in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
University Circle, named after a trolley car that made its turnaround here, is just one square mile in size or approximately 550 acres. So you can walk everywhere.
Cleveland, of course, overcame a highly competitive group of cities to land the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (rockhall.com or 888-764-ROCK) that opened in 1995. It has the type of displays you’d expect, such as Elvis Presley outfits, but what sets it apart is the details.
I could not help but be impressed to see Jim Morrison’s Boy Scout uniform from Alameda, California (bad boy Morrison, of all people?) and mediocre report cards from John Lennon when he attended Quarry Bank Grammar School in Liverpool. And get this: Jimmy Hendrix was a high school football star.
But 50 yards away, and a walk in the rain, there’s also the Great Lakes Science Center (GreatScience.com or 216-866-4506) overlooking Lake Erie. With 400 hands-on educational displays, it succeeds in its goal to make science fun. Its one of America’s largest interactive science museums. You could spend days there.
Why else go to Cleveland? Let’s skip the nightclubs other than to say the best rooftop bar is often said to be the Velvet Dog, in the so-called Warehouse District (which used to be just that); the most famous rock acts are found at The Agora, a historic concert club where Bruce Springsteen got his start; and Fat Fish Blue is where you’ll find the blues.
Besides nightclubs, there are walking trails and other attractions. But for most visitors like myself, history and culture and museums are what the city is all about.
For more on Cleveland’s nightlife, see visit travelcleveland.com.
Here are some highlights of my own visit:
Cleveland has a lot of museums but one of the best is perhaps an unlikely venue: the Lake View Cemetery (lakeviewcemetry.com or 216-421-2665), known as the city’s outdoor museum and arboretum. Former U.S. President James A. Garfield and John D. Rockefeller are among the famous laid to rest here among 285 acres of architecture, geology, sculpture and horticulture.
Some of the stuffed animals at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (cmnh.org or 216-231-4600) looked a little frayed but displays include an eclectic collection of everything from diamonds to dinosaurs. I even found a moon rock from Apollo 12.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAcleveland.org or 216-421-8671) has eleven exhibitions annually and is “helping put Cleveland on the map of the international contemporary art scene,” according to The Plain Dealer.
The Western Reserve Historical Society (wrhs.org or 216-721-5722), Cleveland’s oldest cultural institution, is not particularly large but it does have more than 50,000 articles of clothing from the 1790s to the present. It also has a delightful collection of 200 automobiles that will certainly instill some nostalgia for older visitors.
The Cleveland Botanical Garden (CBGARDEN.ORG or 216-721-1600) was founded in 1930 as the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland, the first such organization in an American city. A glass house that displays recreations of two of the earth’s most fragile ecosystems — the spiny desert of Madagascar and the misty cloud forest of Costa Rica reminded me of the real thing (at least Costa Rica, which I’ve seen).
I learned the difference between lagers and ales during a tour of The Great Lakes Brewing Company (greatlakesbrewing.com or 216-771-4404), which was founded in 1988 as the first Ohio craft brewer. The food at its restaurant-pub is excellent.
If you happen to be staying in a hotel that has a kitchen, as I was, the historic West Side Market is the largest indoor/outdoor market in the country. Prices for various ethnic foods such as kielbasa are very low. It’s easily identified by its 137-foot clock tower.
Where I come from in Orlando, theme parks are everywhere. Not in Cleveland, but it does have Cedar Point (cedarpoint.com or 419-617-2350) in the suburbs. Millennium Force, one of 16 roller coasters, was voted best steel coaster on earth in some surveys.
The Arcade is now an odd collection of electric shops such as convenience and stamp stores, but it’s worth a look because it was the first enclosed shopping mall in America. Huge roof trusses give it a bridge-like look, and that’s fitting because it was built by a bridge company in 1890.
New Yorkers visiting here might not yearn too much for Broadway because Playhouse Square is the second largest performing arts center in America.
Built for vaudeville and movies in the early 1920s, the theater has first-run plays in an atmosphere of gilt and velvet lobbies. Classics are commonly seen at the Cleveland Play House, which is said to be America’s first permanently established professional theater. Paul Newman is among actors who started their careers here.
Cleveland also boasts one of the nation’s great orchestras. When in town The Cleveland Orchestra performs at Blossom Music Center in the summer and the opulent Severance Hall in the winter.
Walking visitors will also find public art everywhere. “Last” involves six orange-colored large sections (spanning 75 feet) in front of the State Office Building. The arch is said to represent the Minimal Art style. Why it’s called “Last” is lost in translation.
Then, there’s the eight, 43-foot-tall art-deco style sculptures — which have acquired the name of “Guardians of Traffic” — at the Hope Memorial Bridge. The later has its own story: it was named after Bob Hope, whose father worked on the bridge as a stone mason.
No city is complete without a trolley tour. Here, it’s Trolley Tours of Cleveland (jollytrolley.com or 216-771-4484). The well-informed guides are great.
I didn’t go there because you have to make advance reservations, but by all accounts the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland (clevelandfed.org or 216-579-2000) does an excellent job of offering the history of money and its value through interactive videos and games (you will find that some countries view large stones as currency).
Residents I met (often defensively) also point out that Cleveland has cheap housing, proximity to even better places such as Chicago, a more laidback pace of life than New York City, virtually no traffic, great public facilities and an excellent library system. And with its array of top-notch medical facilities such as the Cleveland Clinic, it’s one of the best places in the world to get sick, even if you don’t live here.
Where to stay
Hyatt Regency Cleveland at The Arcade
Almost 300 large rooms with a 24-hour business center. Also, historic décor and a very friendly staff in the heart of downtown across the street from the public library. About $200 a night.
(hyattcleveland.com or 216-575-1234)
There are several Holiday Inns in the area, most of which have pools and a “kids for free” policy; some have free internet usage. You can find a room for under $100 (holidayinn.com or 800-315-2605).
Where to eat
Great Lakes Brewing Company (greatlakesbrewing.com or 216-771-4404) Good, basic pub food and excellent local beer and ale served in a masculine
setting heavy on dark wood.
Go at off-hours because there’s often a line at Aladdin’s Bakery and Market (alladinseatery.com or 216-932-4333). That’s understandable when you try their falafel, spinach pies and gyro wraps or other entrees. The pita made here is popular enough to be shipped to stores in five states. You can get a very filling vegetarian meal for less than $6.
Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland
3100 Terminal Tower
50 Public Square
Cleveland, Ohio 44113-2290
(216) 621-4110 or travelcleveland.com
David Wilkening is a former newspaperman and now a freelance writer who specializes in the areas of travel and business. He has worked for newspapers in Detroit, Chicago Orlando and Toronto. He is also the North American editor of TravelMole.com, a London-based business news-information source.
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