CLEVELAND, OHIO – The scene outside the Museum of Art was equally as captivating as anything on the inside. On a gorgeous mid-September Saturday, a chalk-drawing festival on the outdoor patio below the steps served as an ideal accompaniment to picnickers on a spacious lawn surrounded by a stone path. An elegant central fountain, flanked by statues, spouted away. At the museum’s doorway, a bride and groom were posing for pictures. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect tableau.
Yes, this is Cleveland. If your mental picture of that city involves decaying buildings, a river on fire (the Cuyahoga has really cleaned up its act since that last happened 50 years ago) and guys in plaid jackets who look like Drew Carey, get ready for a few surprises.
If you haven’t considered Cleveland as a tourist destination, there’s a lot more to see than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The arts and restaurant scenes are hopping, and the attraction-cluttered downtown is prime ground for a delightful car-free long weekend of urban safaris. A 72-hour dose is just about perfect for most purposes. Embrace the city warmly, and it will likely return your affection. Take the advice of that classic old “30 Rock” episode: Flee to the Cleve, people.
A century ago, it was an industrial powerhouse and the fifth largest city in the U.S. (it’s now the 52nd largest). Yes, Cleveland exemplifies the Rust Belt, and much of its early 20th-century glory is long in the rearview, but the city’s comeback, especially downtown, is also quite real. The locals remain welcoming, in that open Midwestern way.
Both musically and pop culturally, Cleveland has long punched well above its weight, from the days of the pioneering DJ Alan Freed, who popularized the term “rock and roll” on Cleveland radio station WJW in the early ‘50s, through a thriving underground and punk scene in the ‘70s (Cleveland-area bands influenced the entire region and beyond in those days, much as Austin’s music scene did for the Southwest). Two teenage boys created Superman in the early ‘30s in a house in the now-rundown Glenville neighborhood east of downtown, and Cleveland’s spirit animal, the late Harvey Pekar, wrote autobiographical comics and graphic novels here. Pekar, the working-class proto blogger of “American Splendor” fame, is sometimes called the town’s unofficial poet laureate; nine years after his death, his legacy is still doing its part to keep Cleveland weird.
The Cleve (you may also call it the North Coast, the Land, C-town, the CLE or the 216) may not be overtly, self-promotionally hip in an Austin sense — which, by me, is a good thing — but it’s got heaps of working-class soul, strength in diversity, a scrappy attitude and an unshakable sense of place. Could Cleveland actually be the anti-Austin? In a good way? (Fun game: Transpose well-known Texas sayings to a Cleveland setting. You may all go to hell, and I will go to Cleveland. Don’t mess with Cleveland. Cleveland is a state of mind. Everything’s bigger in Cleveland.)
In any case, it was time to find out, and with Ian Hunter’s venerable municipal anthem “Cleveland Rocks” running on a loop in my head, I set off to see what the Cleve had to offer.
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I based myself in Cleveland’s downtown Warehouse District — yep, they have one too — in an Airbnb studio on the fifth floor of an older brick building. The city is filled with plenty of stately edifices dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the first places I explored was the nearby Arcade, an ornate, very old-school (1890) shopping center that now houses a Hyatt Regency, a food court and shops; it’s one of those grand public spaces the Victorians loved.
Fortunately for visitors, Cleveland has a large concentration of attractions in several areas within a few square miles of downtown. Along a short stretch of the Lake Erie shore, you’ll find First Energy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns football team; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and the Great Lakes Science Center. A bit south, Progressive Field, home of Indians baseball, sits right next to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, host to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and various concert events. Playhouse Square is a compact theater district. A few miles east, the University Circle neighborhood, the site of Case Western Reserve University, is where you’ll find the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Severance Hall (home of the Cleveland Orchestra), the Cleveland History Center and the Cleveland Botanical Garden, not to mention a string of parks stretching north to the lakefront. The RTA train system is nothing fancy, but it stops near most places you’ll want to go; add walking and the occasional Lyft or Uber, and who needs to rent a car?
To the highlights, then.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Where the pyramid meets the ear. The gleaming, I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid of the Rock Hall, as locals call it, downtown on the Lake Erie shoreline, is Cleveland’s marquee tourist attraction. Debate till dawn which names should be lining the hall’s corridors, and your favorite glaring omissions — for Keith Richards’ sake, why hasn’t (fill in the blank) made it in yet? — the commercialism (well, hasn’t rock ‘n’ roll always been commercial?) and the arguably undemocratic methods of electing the honorees: All that said, the place still delivers an entertaining few hours of marrying memorabilia to music as a balm to the weary traveler’s soul.
In 2007, when the late Anthony Bourdain visited Cleveland for his “No Reservations” TV show, he admitted to being skeptical of “the whole notion of putting rock ‘n’ roll music in a museum,” and although he wasn’t enthralled by the exhibit on one of his favorite bands (and mine), the Ramones, the group’s former drummer Marky Ramone, who was along for the ride, had, well, no such reservations. In the end, it’s a personal choice. I thought it might make me feel old to see the likes of the New York Dolls’ drumhead, David Bowie’s jumpsuits and Joey Ramone’s leather jacket displayed behind glass in a museum. It didn’t; it was more of an interactive, immersive environment designed to reconnect visitors with their past lives and their bands from the radio, TV and stereo speakers at home and their concert days and nights out.
The Rock Hall is home to an eye-popping array of guitars, stage costumes and artifacts from everyone from Elvis and the Beatles to obscure regional acts, including such oddities as Jim Morrison’s Cub Scouts uniform, drawings Jimi Hendrix made as a teenager in the 1950s and a copy of Kurt Cobain’s death certificate. For fans of contemporary acts, there are exhibits devoted to the likes of Kesha, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and Beyonce, though most of my fellow visitors seemed more fascinated with music of a certain vintage. In truth, I can’t remember visiting another museum where everyone, whatever their age, was so clearly glad to be there. You look at your fellow daytrippers and smile, and they’re likely to give a knowing smile and a wink back to you.
Points, too, to the Hall for maintaining an exhibit called the Garage, where visitors can pick up a guitar, noodle around on a piano, or, as I did, bash away with abandon on a set of drums for a bit. Everybody is a star.
The Cleveland Museum of Art
A genuinely world-class museum, its breadth and quality will surprise you. The CMA is divided into four sections, each on two levels — the 1916 Building, the North Building, the East Wing and the West Wing — and its endowment is said to be the fourth richest in the U.S., behind only the Getty in LA, the Met in New York and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Partner a visit to the CMA with a concert by the acclaimed Cleveland Orchestra at nearby Severance Hall and you’ve got high-culture bragging rights to two of the country’s most underrated arts destinations. The CMA is host to everything from works by Rembrandt, Hals, Warhol, Rodin and Rubens to Egyptian antiquities, 16th-century Italian and German suits of armor, Tiffany glass and on and on. The inner atrium, while modern, is another grand public Cleveland space, host to a good restaurant and occasional special events like an art print fair going on during my visit. To top it off, admission is always free to the museum’s regular collections.
The West Side Market and environs
Cleveland’s stomach is well taken care of in this cavernous market hall, one of the best foodie destinations you’ll find anywhere. Just southwest of downtown, it’s a no-frills hall filled with vendors suggesting infinite diversity in infinite combinations, an Irish bakery near a Polish pierogi stand near an Italian deli near a falafel stand and a Hungarian butcher. Some market vendors date back decades and several generations. Nobody who visits comes away empty-handed. I breakfasted at the counter in the adjacent West Side Market Café amid a bevy of waitresses in the constant motion of a greasy-spoon ballet. The show alone was worth the price of admission, and the home fries were awesome.
The market’s neighborhood, known as Ohio City, is host to bunches of good pubs and restaurants. The nearby Hansa Brewery, a hip European-style brewpub, is a good place to stop for a drink and a sausage or two. The grub is largely German with a Balkan influence, since, as you can tell from several decorations on the walls, the owners hail from Slovenia. If you go, be sure to stop at the Farkas Pastry Shop across the street for authentic Hungarian desserts (mostly takeout).
Other notable places nearby include the Market Garden brewpub and, across the street, the Bar Cento/Bier Markt complex, with Belgian and local beers on tap and good pizza and other specialties.
For a beer scene to the max, it’s hard to beat Oktoberfest at Hofbrauhaus Cleveland, which seems to take pains to duplicate the Munich original as much as possible, down to oompah bands and crowds that make a deafening racket. If things get a bit raucous for your taste, the outdoor biergarten is a good alternative (it’s an urban biergarten, with a good view of the Greyhound bus station across the street, but it’s hard not to be in a good mood anyway).
Speaking of beer, Cleveland’s craft-brewery scene is at least Austin’s equal and may exceed it. At the Destination Cleveland tourist office downtown you can pick up a “Cleveland Brewery Passport” listing 34 breweries and brewpubs in Greater Cleveland, 18 of them within a few miles of downtown. One good venue to sample local food and drink is actually the ballpark, where a dozen or so local food vendors ply their trade and where it’s hard to turn a corner without bumping into yet another craft-beer stand. Speaking of…
The Cleveland Indians
“Retro-modern” Progressive Field, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is a fine place to while away a few hours cheering on the Indians — or, OK, whoever their opponents happen to be. (Formerly Jacobs Field, it was renamed in 2008.) The Indians may not be the most politically correct team in baseball — though as of the 2019 season, the cartoon Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms is finally retired — but their home field is everything a downtown ballpark should be, with good sightlines and a family-friendly atmosphere. For an authentic taste of the Cleve if you’re not counting calories, try Melt Bar and Grilled (crazily souped-up gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches) or Happy Dog, featuring sausages topped with everything imaginable. If you prefer, the park even lets you bring in your own food. On the afternoon I visited, the Indians battled the Minnesota Twins in a close contest and prevailed 7-5, upon which, as is the custom, “Cleveland Rocks” blasted forth from the speakers as the fans cheered. It was a moment.
The Slovenian Museum and Archives
Admittedly a favorite of mine for personal reasons: as a former expat who lived in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, from 1996 through 2001, I’m particularly fond of that country and have maintained a strong interest in it. Cleveland attracted a large number of Slovene immigrants from the late 19th through early 20th centuries, and today the greater Cleveland area is home to the largest concentration of ethnic Slovenes outside Slovenia. Communication between the old country and the Cleveland Slovenes is mutual, to the extent that there’s a street in Ljubljana named for Cleveland. At its peak, the Slovene influence on Cleveland’s political and social life was considerable.
That said, the immigrant population has largely died off, and interest in Slovenia among younger Slovene Americans is a fraction of what it used to be. Still, a few miles east of downtown on a quiet block in what used to be the heart of Slovenian Cleveland, Gerri Hopkins continues as the business manager of the Slovenian National Home, which is a large, elegant event hall, and the adjacent Slovenian Museum and Archives, a few modest rooms that display items like national costumes and obsolete currency, and an exhibit focusing on Slovene rock bands’ interpretation of poems by Slovenia’s 19th-century national poet, France Prešeren. For me, it was the next best thing to a trip back to Ljubljana.
Hopkins opens the storefront museum on request, but tours to the old country are still offered, and in a genealogy office next door, interested Americans can trace their Slovene roots.
If your heart lies in another Central or Eastern European Old Country, the city is also home to museums devoted to Cleveland’s Hungarian and Ukrainian immigrant communities, and a Polish-American Cultural Center.
Sokolowski’s University Inn
To cap off your visit and fortify yourself for a long travel day ahead, make tracks to this local institution, Cleveland’s oldest family-owned restaurant, near the south bank of the Cuyahoga in the Tremont neighborhood. Sokolowski’s, which serves Polish and other Eastern European food cafeteria style, has been around since 1923. For the culinary version of the Full Cleveland, it’s hard to beat the stuffed cabbage with sides of pierogi and kraut. The meal, including a refreshing Polish beer, cost me all of $17. Way to go, Ohio, and here’s to a second 96 years.
By the end of my visit, it was all I could do not to make plans for a return visit in the not-too-distant future. Face it: For some of you, Cleveland could be your Paris, or your Rome. Or it could even be — dare we say it — your beloved anti-Austin.