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Ah, Cleveland — after so many years, I finally got to experience you for myself.
Cleveland is a curious city. It’s a euphemism for the epitome of Middle America. Sadly, it’s all too often a punchline. And every four years, pundits go crazy over voters in Cuyahoga county, often a bellwether of the presidential election.
And then 30 Rock broadcast its iconic “Cleveland” episode. Liz Lemon’s boyfriend Floyd brings her to his hometown and she discovers a utopia where people think she’s a model, the air smells clean, jobs are abundant, and no hobos spit in her mouth. It’s a farcical episode, but it piqued my interest even more.
To be honest, I’ve never really had a reason to go. I have exactly one friend in the Cleveland area (Amanda of A Dangerous Business), but we tend to hang out in New York, Scotland, Puerto Rico, or anywhere else our work brings us.
However, this past winter, I met with representatives from Visit Cleveland and they suggested I come out for a summer visit. (Communications Manager Nick asked me what I thought about when I thought about Cleveland. “Honestly, the 30 Rock episode,” I said. He laughed.)
Should you go to Cleveland? Absolutely! I think it’s the perfect kind of destination for a weekend trip — three days is perfect. You can enjoy the arts scene, explore quirky stores and restaurants, hang out at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, eat fantastic food.
And most importantly, a weekend in Cleveland will cost you a LOT less than a weekend in, say, San Francisco.
So what was it about Cleveland that I enjoyed the most? Here are the highlights from my three-day visit.
Grandeur Hidden in Plain Sight
Probably my biggest surprise in Cleveland was just how much beautiful architecture was on the inside of otherwise average-looking buildings downtown. Above is the interior of Marble Room Steaks and Raw Bar, which made me suck in my breath when I first saw it.
Heinen’s is Cleveland’s local answer to Whole Foods, and their downtown location is set in this incredible building. The rotunda is a beautiful place to have lunch.
The 5th Street Arcades looked like they were plucked from the streets of Melbourne, Australia. I loved the interior, and they’re filled with cool shops selling everything from kilts to cupcakes.
On the right is my favorite shop I discovered in Cleveland: Love, Anji, a “paper florist” selling beautiful paper creations and stationery. This is a good spot for nicer souvenirs — I bought a purple paper rose with some snowdrops made of Cleveland maps to take home!
And finally, a spot simply called “The Arcade” was the grandest interior of all. So many styles of architecture, from Art Nouveau to Deco to modern converge in this decadent hall.
Quirky Spots Galore
If you’re looking for a cool neighborhood to explore in Cleveland, check out Ohio City. Here you’ll find lots of cool shops, coffeeshops, restaurants, and breweries.
The Glass Bubble Project is a collection of glass art for sale, and you can observe their artistry or even book a glass-blowing class of your own. It’s got glass coming out in every direction, but an overall warm and welcoming place.
Best of all? They have a chicken named Morty!
He’s actually Morty the Third (they keep naming the new ones Morty after the old ones pass away). He’s sweet and surprisingly furry. Apparently Morty #2 liked to curl up in your arms and snuggle!
While you’re there, check out Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream, featuring seasonal flavors from local produce. Their strawberry rhubarb is especially worth a try.
Or if you’d rather grab something savory, the Scotch eggs at Market Garden Brewery are fabulous.
Either way, you should head over to the West Side Market, Cleveland’s oldest public market, for all kinds of local culinary treats!
Another neighborhood worth checking out is the Gordon Square Arts District. They’ve got plenty more quirks — a pinball parlor, vintage secondhand shops, the occasional boutique with succulents lining the wall — but my favorite stop was Brewnuts.
Brewnuts, as you might have guessed, specializes in two things: craft beer and craft donuts. And these donuts have some wild flavors! During my visit they were testing out some Italian-inspired flavors for an upcoming festival: cannoli (GENIUS!) and limoncello.
And the shop itself is a great place for Instagram shots. You’ll definitely want to stop there.
And one of the quirkiest activities around is to check out the A Christmas Story house! And it’s more than just an exterior. Unlike many famous houses, the interior is still made up to look like the set of the movie.
A Christmas Story wasn’t a hit when it came out in 1983, but it was given a second life on cable. The movie premiered on HBO in 1985 and since then other networks followed suit, turning it into a holiday classic. Today TBS marathons it on Christmas Day.
It’s straight out of the sixties. Of course the leg lamp holds court in the window!
I even got to decode the radio message from Little Orphan Annie, just like Ralphie. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!
Also, this is probably the only picture of me sitting on a toilet that will ever make the blog.
It’s All About Rock and Roll
I’m sure most people who visit Cleveland plan a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and honestly, it’s worth every bit of hype. Such a cool museum, and so inclusive about its definition of rock and roll, including properly acknowledging the work of black artists. I wrote more about that here.
The Hall is filled with collections of artifacts from different artists — Z.Z. Top’s furry drums, one of Michael Jackson’s Grammy awards, and multiple jumpsuits belonging to James Brown with the word “SEX” emblazoned across the front.
Plus, you can cast your vote for who should be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next! Voting is one factor in who gets inducted. Stevie Nicks was in the lead on the day I visited. (She’s currently inducted as part of Fleetwood Mac; if she’s inducted as a solo artist, she will be the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.)
A Surprising Arts Scene
I don’t think that my expectations for Cleveland were that low to begin with — but even so, the city impressed me again and again. The Cleveland Museum of Art is a world-class museum, and I say that without hyperbole. You’ll find works by Monet and Gaugin, Warhol and Van Gogh. And guess what — admission is FREE!
My visit to Cleveland in July 2018 coincided with two major art exhibits: first was Yayoi Kusama’s Infinite Mirrors exhibit. This exhibit has been traveling the world and will be at the Cleveland Museum of Art through September 30, 2018.
Kusama’s exhibits features several mirrored rooms filled with lights and objects. You step inside and are permitted 20-30 seconds to experience the room. (Tickets are timed for this reason.) These rooms are incredibly trippy — I loved every minute of it. In between rooms, you can enjoy Kusama’s trademark polka-dotted artwork.
Also, if you visit the Cleveland Museum of Art, right across the street is the Cleveland Botanical Garden. It’s a lovely place for a stroll — well worth a visit.
They even have a biosphere dedicated to recreating the spiny forest of Madagascar! That was one thing I definitely didn’t expect to see in Cleveland!
There was also a gorgeous exhibit of books sculpted into flowers. My favorite was a sculpture of roses and thrones carved from Crime and Punishment.
The other exhibit during my visit was FRONT International: The Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. This exhibition features works from more than 100 artists from around the world and is the largest event of its kind in the United States!
The theme is “An American City” and each of the works of art, from a film installation in the First National Bank to murals on downtown buildings, features a take on exactly what that means.
If you’re visiting before September 30, you should take time to check out exhibits around the city.
My favorite exhibit, pictured above, was an exhibition by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare at the Cleveland Public Library. Shonibare’s work explores identity, colonialism, and globalization, and his work called “The American Library” features hundreds of books bound in bright fabrics, labeled with the name of famous first- or second-generation immigrants to the United States who have made major contributions to arts or sciences.
Phil Collins is there. Irene Cara. Alex Trebek. Eva Mendes. And even Mike Pence.
The Greatest Culinary Hits
I had an idea in my head that Cleveland would be stereotypically Midwestern and feature lots of meat-and-potatoes cuisine. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was up to my ears in vegetables! All kinds of vegetables, prepared in interesting and unusual ways, and lots of inventive dishes for vegetarians and vegans.
Perhaps one of the most hardcore farm-to-table restaurants I’ve ever visited is Spice Kitchen & Bar. They have a farm in nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park and 80% of their produce is sourced within 150 miles of Cleveland. As a result, Chef Ben Bebenroth is dedicated to creating inventive dishes that change often with the seasons.
One of those dishes was juneberry borscht. I’m a borscht fiend, but I’ve never tried juneberries before. There’s good reason for that — juneberries are only in season for 10 days each year. You blink and you’ll miss them. But Chef took the time to create a fantastic dish showcasing this oh-so-brief harvest.
That wasn’t all. There were bamboo rice-stuffed mushrooms. Mushroom beignets. Pickled vegetables. Chickpea polenta fries. Pan-fried chicken breast with cauliflower chow chow. And for dessert, a berry pie made with spelt that nearly made me weep.
I love everything this restaurant stands for.
Another exemplary restaurant was The Greenhouse Tavern. Also featuring lots of local dishes, the restaurant aims not to waste and even serves a whole roasted pig’s head if you’re game.
Some of the standouts: clams cooked in foie gras and butter, a deconstructed steak tartare, and the most addictive chicken wings.
That dish pictured above looks incredibly boring — white fish and vegetables. Well, that fish and vegetable dish was anything but boring — it exploded with layers of flavor and freshness and may have been the best dish I ate in all of Cleveland.
And finally, Polish food! Cleveland has historically welcomed Eastern European immigrants in large numbers. To this day you’ll find many people from Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. (In fact, the Cleveland metropolitan area is home to the largest population of Slovenians outside Slovenia!)
I had a Polish meal at Sokolowki’s University Inn, one of the most legendary restaurants in Cleveland. It seems like a simple place — no-nonsense Polish food served cafeteria-style — but the food is so good, it actually won a James Beard Award.
Truth? When I went to Poland back in 2016, I didn’t really enjoy any of the pierogis I tried. I didn’t understand why my friends were so rhapsodic about them. But then I tried the pierogis at Sokolowski’s — and they were so delicious, I couldn’t stop eating them. I ate five and would have eaten another five if I hadn’t been surrounded by colleagues.
Where I Stayed: Kimpton Schofield Hotel
On this trip I stayed at the Kimpton Schofield Hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Cleveland. I’ve stayed at several Kimpton hotels over the years and I always enjoy them — they have personality, cool decor, and complimentary wine during happy hour. This one was as lovely as always, and it gave me inspiration to start a gallery wall in my own home!
The hotel is in an excellent location: downtown Cleveland, steps away from several of the arcades and lots of shopping. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the waterfront and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Also, I have to give a shout-out to the two front desk workers who dealt with an incredibly rude and demanding guest while maintaining absolute decorum and professionalism.
Cleveland and lots of other Rust Belt cities are in an interesting position right now. These cities are growing fast, exploding with art and culture, and are still quite affordable. But the word isn’t quite out yet for these cities to be travel destinations. People see cities like this and say, “Sure, it looks like a great place to live, but would I want to go on vacation there?”
Absolutely! I say go to Cleveland — not for two weeks, but for a weekend. I know so many people who would love spending a weekend here! Three days is the perfect amount of time to enjoy the best of this city. You’ll come home with lots of stories.
Cleveland impressed me from start to finish — especially the arts scene and the restaurants I visited. And in the grand tradition of the midwest, everyone was so lovely.
I hope to return to Cleveland. I want to dive deeper into the art museum, try the latest seasonal offerings from Spice, join in the madness of a sports game, go to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and actually eat ten pierogis this time.
Cleveland has so much to offer, and I hope you have as good a time as I did.
Essential Info: On this trip I stayed at the Kimpton Schofield Hotel, which I enjoyed and would recommend. Rates from $176.
The A Christmas Story house is open year-round, excluding major holidays. Tickets cost $11 and include admission to both the house and the museum across the street.
Admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is $23 in advance, $26 in person.
Admission to the Cleveland Botanical Garden is $12.
For more information on FRONT International, visit their website. It takes place through September 30, 2018.
Using Lyft was a cheap and efficient way to get around Cleveland.
I always have travel insurance on my trips in order to protect myself (and my finances) from ruin. I use and recommend World Nomads.
Many thanks to Destination Cleveland, who hosted me on this trip, covering my airfare, accommodation, activities, and most meals. I paid for incidentals and some food. All opinions, as always, are my own.