I’m walking in a renovated city. Buildings, staples of 20th century American urban architecture, stretch for blocks. Boarded up for most of my life, now they’re home to some of the region’s finest dining establishments, hotels, and bars.
Free bus trolleys are running around downtown moving everyone from real estate developers and local artists to tourists and students through the heart of the city. The ding-ding of the Healthline bus rings out as it wraps around a recently-remodeled Public Square before darting down Euclid Avenue toward the East Side’s confluence of art, academia, and medicine in University Circle.
Cleveland draws a blank for most travelers before they arrive, but locals and past visitors will tell you that it’s a city on the mend (mostly) with a strong, palpable Rust Belt aesthetic and sensibility. Increasingly this core characteristic is being merged–sometimes gracefully, other times not as much–with some of the finer things in life, like 1920’s-styled cocktail bars, luxury dining in a grand, renovated 19th-century bank, and a resurgence in stylish three- and four-star hotels in formerly abandoned buildings.
Truth is, the “Cleveland Renaissance” narrative is tired and trite at this point. Everyone from The New York Times to Anthony Bourdain have dropped by to sing their praises, justifiably so, about shopping for fresh food at the West Side Market, grabbing a beer at Great Lakes Brewing Company, and to celebrate the city’s predominantly no BS attitude. It’s time to look beyond and check in with what’s new in Cleveland.
At the end of the day, it’s still a city of immigrants where a good pierogi is but a block away, it’s the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, and a place where everyone from refugees to former suburban exiles are proud to stake their claim to a slice of this 21st century edition of the Forest City. Read on and we’ll see you soon in Cleveland.
THINGS TO DO IN CLEVELAND, OHIO
Hotels in Cleveland, Ohio
Bask in elegant rehabs or a 21st-century newcomer
This 1975-modernist structure started off as a Westin property before ownership changed hands in the 80’s. The site struggled along with the city through the end of the 20th century, but Westin came back in May of 2014 to purchase the recently-renovated property and join the resurgence of life in downtown Cleveland.
In its short time back, it’s become a favorite of suburban overnighters and travelers alike thanks to its walkable location from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sign up for their “Experience The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” package for two tickets to the museum and complimentary breakfast at Urban Farmer, conveniently located onsite.
Aloft Cleveland Downtown
Aloft Cleveland Downtown will always hold a special place in my heart. This is where my wife Melanie and I held our summer wedding reception, hopping off RTA’s Waterfront Line and happily shuffling into the chic, modern hotel. Like The Westin (and The 9 coming up), Aloft is a relative newcomer on the hotel scene in Cleveland and has proven to be a major player in the revitalization of Cleveland’s Flats neighborhood.
Contrary to the area’s gritty industrial roots, expect to find bright blues, purples, and pinks accented by various shades of gray in the hotel’s “different by design” theme. From the moment you step into the lobby and until you drop your bags in the guest room, it’s a bit of a modernist art museum.
Whether you stay here or not, do make some time to head up to W XYZ for craft cocktails and live acoustic performances. If the weather’s right, step out onto the balcony for a view of the Flats below, watch the train go rolling by, and see the ships wind down the Cuyahoga River.
Metropolitan at The 9, Autograph Collection
Don’t be fooled by the dirty gray, monolithic exterior. The building may look like someone dropped a giant concrete block out of the sky, but the interior of this 2014 rehab project is equal parts remarkable and dazzling. Perhaps that’s why many of the city’s professional athletes have chosen to snatch up one of the property’s 104 concierge living apartments.
If you’re truly trying to hit the Art of the City ethos, you’ll want to consider a booking one of the 156 guestrooms at Metropolitan at The 9. Onsite you have access to several lounge bars, most notably the 1920’s-themed cocktail bar, Vault (more on that later). Dine in at Mediterranean-inspired Adega or pick up your own fixings next door at the Heinen’s Market, itself housed in an astonishingly-rehabbed rotunda that’ll make your neck sore from constantly looking up.
Restaurants in Cleveland
Cleveland cuisine has proudly marched along to the Eat Local movement with a new restaurant opening up seemingly every other week. What was once a meat and potatoes (or pierogis) town has evolved into something eclectic, something where nearly every palate can be satisfied and surprised regardless of how thick or thin your wallet is. You can break the bank with some fine dining by a celebrity chef downtown or grab a filling falafel wrap at the West Side Market made by Lebanese immigrants.
While we could fill this page with old and reliable favorites, from Chef Michael Symon’s Lola on East Fourth Street to the go-to of several visiting travel TV hosts, Hot Sauce Williams, we’re going to focus on what’s new in Cleveland. Hope you’re hungry.
Before You Leave The Hotel…
Lago Cucina Enoteca and Birreria is attached to the Aloft Cleveland, serving up fine Italian dining on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River. A sommelier on staff will make sure you nail your meal pairings. At Westin, you can walk right over to Urban Farmer Steakhouse for a sampling of farm-to-table Midwestern favorites ranging from pork chops to a 24-ounce porterhouse. Metropolitan at the 9 has a couple of fantastic options in store at their property, including Adega, featuring modern Mediterranean cuisine, and the Azure Rooftop Lounge with striking views of the city.
An Experience to Match the Meal
Tall Romanesque columns mark the entrance to Marble Room on Euclid Avenue. I feel immensely more important by association with the grandeur of this late 19th-century, Art Deco masterpiece enveloping me as the hostess escorts me to my table. Melanie and I are offered plush sofa seating positioned in a way to give us a sweeping view of the lunch crowd.
We start with the Yuzu Miso Salmon Rolls and Butternut Squash soup to combat the brisk weather. The salmon melts in our mouths and the pumpkin seeds sprinkled in the soup offer a satisfying crunch that takes me back to the fall season. It’s not long before the chefs drop by to offer some samples of both tried-and-true staples and his latest experimentations.
On one end of the spectrum, we have a Tuscany-style chicken with potatoes and on the other — a bowl of elongated gnocchi sprinkled with cauliflower and black truffle next to a plate of foie gras atop a lightly-powdered funnel cake with fresh strawberries and mango compote. Never had such seemingly bizarre ideas tasted so delicious.
Breakfast on the Square
Andy Warhol aesthetic collides with the dawn of video game pop culture at box-shaped REBoL on Public Square. The turquoise clenched fist overtop the REBoL logo on one wall juxtaposed with a pop art Einstein working out an equation on the other near Abraham Lincoln wearing 3D glasses hints at a political activist designer who likes to have fun.
The countertop service joint came in as part of the $50 million, 15-month renovation project of the historic heart of the city. I order the Yolk Caliente breakfast sandwich with a small chorizo patty and admire The Legend of Zelda Nintendo montage playing on one of the television sets, mounted on the brightly-colored walls.
My sandwich comes out on a brioche bun with cheddar cheese. The bacon aioli oozes with each bite. Meanwhile, Melanie digs into her Breakfast Bol with two fried eggs, goat cheese, sweet potato, mushroom, kale, onion, and chorizo. Topped off with a cup of organic pour over coffee, we’re ready to start the day.
The (In)famous Cleveland Polish Boy
Banter Beer and Wine is the kind of place where the census bureau could make a strong argument for tracking men with thick beards and matching glasses. Anchored on the western-edge of Gordon Square, Banter might first strike you as a craft beer and wine shop off the street. But stay a while and experience what they’ve christened as a “neighborhood tasting room.”
Sticking with the neighborhood sentiment, here’s where you’re going to find one of the city’s best takes on the Cleveland Polish Boy. Not to be confused with Louisiana’s Po’Boy, the (in)famous Cleveland heart attack in a bun smothers a kielbasa with barbeque sauce, coleslaw, and a healthy helping of fries. Banter’s take uses locally-produced Comeback City Barbeque Sauce that adds just enough spice to the city staple to leave me with a glistening flop sweat.
Bars in Cleveland
Vault is the cocktail bar I’ve always wanted with its clear nod to the 1920’s Jazz Age and expertly crafted cocktails. I saunter in, passing the open bank vault door, a plush couch and record player, and grab a seat at the bar. Simply being here makes me feel instantly cool like I’m in the know. I watch as the young man at bar whips together a couple of old-fashioned cocktails for us, capped with a flame against the orange peel and whipped along the rim of the glass.
I feel less cool when my heart skips a beat at the bill, but with that kind of ambiance, you’re paying for more than just a drink.
Jazz and Old Fashioneds
Keep the old-fashioneds rolling at this west side staple — The Velvet Tango Room. It’s hardly new to the scene but it never seems to grab the attention of out-of-town writers despite it constantly being a local favorite. Perhaps that’s because it’s a bit off the main strip of either Ohio City or Tremont on Columbus Road. In reality, it’s an easy walk from either neighborhood and it’s literally around the corner from the W. 25-Ohio City Station.
So however you get there, get there. Enjoy some classic cocktails and settle in for some live Jazz. The Jazz Trio plays every weeknight at 5:30 p.m. with Jesse “The Legend” Dandy on the stand up double bass. Additional shows run throughout the week at 9 p.m. featuring a variety of jazz pianists.
Welcome a Newbie to the Cleveland Craft Beer Scene
Cleveland’s own Great Lakes Brewing Company played a significant role in cultivating the U.S. craft beer scene, and by now, Market Garden and Platform are well-traveled stops in the Cleveland craft beer scene. Check ’em out, but make time for one of my favorite new kids on the block — Noble Beast Brewing Company
I tip my hat to these folks for stepping into a part of downtown that’s long been a bit of a ghost area at night, encouraging city residents and travelers to expand their pedestrian map beyond the fun of Playhouse Square and East Fourth. Shaun Yasaki, the first brewer at the aforementioned Ohio City standout, Platform Beer Co., brews with a nod toward the traditional and the contemporary.
“Noble” refers to tried and true German hop varieties, such as Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. Sure enough, two of the top beers on the menu are a Düsseldorf-style Alt Bier and Cologne’s Kölsch variety. The “Beast”? Well, that’s an affirmation of U.S. brewing ingenuity and creativity. Try the Imperial Cookies And Milk Stout and Sour Strawberry Grisette if you’re into something different.
Rise and Shine in Cleveland
Start your recovery from the night before by grabbing a cup of hot coffee. The artisanal, pour over coffee scene has developed firm roots in Cleveland over the past decade with great options spread out around town. Some personal favorites include downtown’s Pour Cleveland and Erie Island, Rising Star and Phoenix in Ohio City, Civilization in Tremont, and Gypsy Beans in Detroit-Shoreway.
Become The Artist…
The Metropolitan at the 9 is one of the best spots in town to catch up on the local arts scene with their Alex Theater. Have a look at their events calendar to catch showings, like their annual ‘Short. Sweet. Film Fest.’ with projects created by local and international filmmakers alike, ‘Sounds & Stories,’ which showcases a collection of songwriters and musicians, and a variety of stand-up comedy performances, magic shows, burlesque, and drag queen dance.
An Anchor Institution
Every city boasts of an art district these days, but the Cleveland Museum of Art has been an anchor institution, a vital bond in the city’s DNA for over a century. Yes, there’s the free-to-the-public permanent gallery that you’d be foolish to pass by, but the latest addition that appears to be exclusive to the Cleveland Museum of Art is the ArtLens Gallery and Exhibition. Here you interact with the art, using different, innovative tools to dive deeper into the masterworks of the world and learn more than you possibly could be staring deep into the eyes of, say, a 17th-century model. In the studio, you might pose like a Piccaso or draw a symbol that dates back to the Egyptian dynasties. Really, it’s something to experience that words could hardly paint properly–pun 100 percent intended.
Modern Art Gets ‘Far Out’
If you prefer more experimental art, SPACES in Ohio City presents contemporary art in a modest venue. Check their website for the latest events and featured artists. During my last visit, the highlight was a Sonic Planetarium–a dome you walk into playing back a combination of both real and imagined sounds modeled off of satellite traffic. Sitting down inside the model and closing your eyes for a few moments is, like, really far out.
Long Live Rock
You might be one who thinks Rock cannot possibly be contained in a museum. Maybe you’re right, but it can certainly be admired and inspiring for the 10 million-plus visitors to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame who’ve spent hours absorbing the thousands of artifacts from Rock history. I’m talking everything from Michael Jackson’s white sequined glove to John Lennon’s early scribblings turned into memorable classics. Give yourself a good three hours to properly take it all in, though you could certainly spend more.
The highlight at the moment is the Power of Rock at the Connor Theater. Director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) lent his talents to the film, his last project before passing away just months before its debut in Cleveland. The film seamlessly blends together 12 minutes of Rock Hall induction ceremony performances into a single track of awesomeness that ends with Prince shredding away as Tom Petty himself provides the rhythm. If you walk away without chills, then I’m afraid you have no soul. That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact, friend.
Rock Out with the Locals
Want to see where the locals rock out? Head to the Beachland Ballroom in Collinwood where modern rock favorites The Black Keys played their first gig in 2002. Of course, they´re hardly the only notable band to swing through. The White Stripes played back in 2000 and Guided by Voices gave Beachland its best night of bar sales back in 2004, according to co-owner Mark Leddy in an interview with Laura DeMarco at The Plain Dealer. Check Beachland’s website and grab some tickets for the next big act-to-be.
The Vienna of the U.S.
Stopping by the local orchestra or Philharmonic might not seem like the thing to do in most cities, but Cleveland isn´t most cities. While rankings and ratings of such things prove unsurprisingly flimsy, the Cleveland Orchestra is nevertheless routinely discussed as one of the most impressive ensembles in the world. Yes, the world.
The annual Christmas Concert is a local favorite featuring a guest conductor who usually fancies themselves part-stand up comedian as they playfully mock the audience’s vocal abilities during sing-a-longs. The conductor usually, but not always, takes it a little easier on the little boys and girls who run up to the microphone to sing, “Five Golden Rings” during the “12 Days Of Christmas.”
Watch Out New York
Being the largest performing arts center in the country outside of New York City is a point of pride among Clevelanders. Playhouse Square first opened in the early 1920s only to be closed down in coming decades. Once there was even the threat of turning this anchor institution into a parking lot. Thankfully, grassroots efforts saved Cleveland’s theater scene and arguably started the city’s downtown revival. Today you can catch everything from stand-up comedy to Broadway musicals at any one of the district’s nine theaters.
Walk Next Door…
The Aloft Cleveland is a short jaunt away from Cleveland Metroparks‘ Centennial Lake Link Trail, which connects Tremont to Merwin’s Wharf, and now up to Detroit Avenue where, on a short bike ride, you can connect to Edgewater Park. (Go on a Thursday evening from June through August for live music and food trucks.)
Keep Exploring The Emerald Necklace
Welcome to the Emerald Necklace, an impressive compilation of 18 reservations managed by Cleveland Metroparks covering over 23,000 acres that wrap around the city like a horseshoe. Come with eager feet, because there are over 300 miles of hiking trails for you to explore. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can do just about any other outdoor activity from standup paddleboard and kayaking to road cycling and mountain biking.
While I love what Cleveland Metroparks is doing within the city, I’m still a sucker for cycling down to Bedford Reservation where road cyclists can find one of the best climbs of the region heading east up Gorge Parkway. Hikers, meanwhile, can kill a day stomping along the bridle trails around Tinker’s Creek. Make sure you go when the weather’s warm so you’re not shivering when you dip into the creek (sometimes up to your waist) at the northern end of the loop.
trivago Tip: Looking for the best hikes in Cleveland? Well, there’s a book for that. (Please forgive the shameless plug.)
A Presidential Resting Place
Continue your exploration of the outdoors by taking the Red Line over to Little Italy (grab a pastry at Presti’s on your way through Mayfield Road) and walk up to Lake View Cemetery. This is the eternal resting place of the likes of John D. Rockefeller and, perhaps most notably, President James A. Garfield. Try to go when his monument is open, usually starting in April and through mid-November. The tomb itself is designed with touches Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine architecture, and the view of the city is one of the best you’ll find in the region.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park just might be the natural pride of Northeast Ohio and it’s connected brilliantly with Cleveland Metroparks’ Brecksville and Bedford Reservations (the latter if you’re on a bike). The only national park in Ohio, you can find some of the state’s best hiking here. With that in mind, plan an overnight hike on the Buckeye Trail.
The lightly-colored “blue blazes” mark the trail which is just as long as the Appalachian Trail. Relax, you’ll just be doing a leg within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Start at the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad stop in the Brecksville Reservation and hike south to the Stanford House where you can camp under the stars. If you’ve got some extra miles in your feet at the end of the day, you can do a short loop east over to Brandywine Falls. Just don’t expect to be the only one posing for Instagram when you arrive.
Wake up and continue south to the charming town of Peninsula where you can grab lunch at either Winking Lizard Tavern or Fisher’s Cafe & Pub before hopping on the train back north to Brecksville. Of course, if you really want a challenge, you can keep hiking as far as the Northside Station in Akron.
*Feature image by Adam Jaenke. All other photos by the author unless otherwise noted.