Maybe you’ve never considered spending your hard-earned vacation time in Cleveland. It’s certainly understandable because many people only know the city as the “Mistake by the Lake” or the home of the burning Cuyahoga River. But things have changed on the North Coast, and you might be surprised at all the cultural attractions the city on the shores of Lake Erie has to offer — great food, museums, theater, and more. The RTA buses run between most Cleveland locations and Uber just announced that they’re starting service in Cleveland, which will make getting around even easier.
Here are the Top 10 Things to Do in Cleveland:
10. Little Italy
Historic Little Italy is on Cleveland’s East Side, located on “Murray Hill” not far from Case Western Reserve University. It features charming restaurants and bakeries, art galleries, and frequent festivals and art shows. Our favorite restaurant there is Trattoria on the Hill. If you go, try the Shrimp & Gnocchi Trattoria, which features their gnocchi served in Trattoria’s homemade cream sauce with mushrooms, scallions, and a hint of cayenne pepper. If you’re not in the mood for pasta, try the Spinach & Prosciutto Pizza with black olives, white garlic sauce, and feta cheese.
For dessert, stroll down Mayfield Road to Presti’s Bakery for a cannoli or a delicious gelato.
The Feast of the Assumption is the biggest event of the year in Little Italy. Held in August to commemorate Mary being taken to heaven, the festival is an unusual combination of Catholic religious ceremonies, carnival rides, fireworks, lots of incredible Italian food, and heavy, heavy drinking.
9. The Christmas Story House
Are you a fan of the 1983 cult classic movie A Christmas Story? Then you can’t miss visiting A Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. The 19th-century Victorian home, which was used to film the exterior scenes of Ralphie Parker’s house in the movie, was purchased by a private developer in 2004 and has been restored to appear as it did in the movie, both inside and out. After purchasing tickets at the gift shop across the street, you can walk right onto the front porch and into the house with the “soft glow of electric sex” (also known as a leg lamp) in the front window.
Once inside, your tour guide will dish on some of the behind-the-scenes details of the movie (it was actually set in Indiana and fake snow had to be trucked in for the winter scenes on Cleveland Street). You’ll also learn about the restoration of the home and the surrounding neighborhood. Then you’ll be turned loose to explore the house and take silly pictures with the Lava soap in the bathroom, Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB gun in front of the Christmas tree, and dad’s beloved turkey on the kitchen counter. After your tour of the house, you can browse the gift shop and pick up a leg lamp or a pink bunny suit, if you’re so inclined.
8. Playhouse Square Theater District
Playhouse Square, in Cleveland’s theater district, is the second largest theater complex in the United States. Only Lincoln Center and New York City have larger districts. Having fallen into disrepair and subsequently closed down in the late 1960s, the theaters were renovated and reopened during an era of downtown revitalization in Cleveland in the 1980s and 1990s. The historic district includes nine different theaters. Surrounded by hip local restaurants and cafes and anchored by the Wyndham Cleveland at Playhouse Square, the theater district provides a diverse variety of entertainment choices.
7. Cedar Point
Located in Sandusky, an easy hour’s drive west of Cleveland, Cedar Point amusement park is most famous for one thing: roller coasters! Cedar Point features a world-record 72 rides, including 16 coasters (behind only Canada’s Wonderland and Six Flags Magic Mountain). Top coasters include the Top Thrill Dragster (zero to 120 MPH in less than 4 seconds), the Magnum XL-200 (tops 200 feet and you can see Canada on a clear day as it reaches a top speed of 72 MPH, while rocketing over multiple hills, 3 tunnels, and a signature “pretzel” turnaround), and the Millennium Force (the 310 foot giga-coaster with a 93 MPH record-breaking speed).
Allegedly, there are fabulous rides and features at the park for children and families as well. There are also several water parks/resorts in the Sandusky area if you’ve got the kids in tow.
6. Lake Erie Shores and Islands
While most people don’t think of beaches and water sports when they think of Cleveland, the nearby Lake Erie Shores and Islands are huge tourist draws in the summer months. The chain of archipelagic islands in Lake Erie provide opportunities for fishing, boating, and island life and are integral parts of summer for many area families. South Bass Island and Kelleys Island are popular tourist destinations and are accessible by car ferry. Some islands are more developed than others and many boast award-winning wineries and restaurants.
5. LeBron James
Yes, we’re happy that LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Cleveland sports are about so much more than one star basketball player. There is a long and storied history in the city of games — big and small — that help define the culture and spirit of Cleveland. Back in the day, the old Cleveland Stadium was the place to watch the Indians or the Browns. The stadium is long gone, having been replaced by the Browns’ First Energy Stadium and the Indians’ Progressive Field, but the same fans who attended the infamous Ten Cent Beer Night (myself included) and watched Browns games with the outline of the baseball diamond on the field of Cleveland Stadium return year after year to the new venues to support their teams, despite their perpetually disappointing records and notoriously unpredictable weather. It’s about more than winning — it’s about perseverance in the face of challenges and about loyalty to your hometown.
Both Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena are in close proximity to Public Square in the center of downtown, with First Energy Stadium a few blocks away on the Lake Erie shore. All are great venues for sporting events and the occasional concert.
And LeBron is back.
4. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
You might want to consider visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum just for the amazing architecture. Designed by I. M. Pei, the building seems to hang precariously over Lake Erie. The bold geometric shapes of the building are anchored by a 162-foot tower that supports a dual-triangular-shaped glass structure that extends onto a plaza. Once you get past your sense of awe at the amazing building, inside you’ll find cool things like Elvis Presley’s custom motorcycle, Les Paul’s favorite guitar, Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche, Johnny Cash’s acoustic guitar, and Jim Morrison’s Cub Scout uniform.
3. University Circle Museums
Four miles east of downtown Cleveland, the University Circle area features a variety of museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Botanical Garden. The Cleveland Museum of Art recently underwent a $285 million expansion and welcomes half a million visitors a year. Admission to the museum’s regular collection is free. The museum is internationally renowned for its substantial holdings of Asian and Egyptian art and houses a permanent collection of more than 43,000 works of art from around the world.
The Cleveland Botanical Garden features an 18,000 square foot glasshouse that includes over 350 species of plants and 50 species of animal life from the desert of Madagascar and the cloud forest of Costa Rica, including hundreds of butterflies.
Other museums in the area include the Western Reserve Historical Society that focuses on Ohio history and includes the Crawford Automotive and Aviation Collection, the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
2. Warehouse District
Just steps from Cleveland’s Public Square, the historic Warehouse District is a mix of old and new. Historic warehouses have been repurposed into loft apartments, restaurants and bars in an attempt to lure young professionals back to the city center. The four-block area offers a variety of restaurants and includes something for every palate — from high-end steaks and seafood to burgers and Lebanese shawarma.
A hidden gem of the Warehouse District is Johnny’s Little Bar. I first discovered this cozy little nook in the late 1980s when I worked in the Rockefeller Building, right in front of Johnny’s. Scene Magazine says the burgers — made from the filet trimmings from the upscale Johnny’s Downtown kitchen — are the best in the city of Cleveland, and I’m inclined to agree. Johnny’s also has a full-service bar, so it can get loud, especially on weekend nights. Pro-tip: If you get a seat next to the window, you’ll have a nice view of the Terminal Tower.
If you’re in a more adventurous mood, try Brasa Grill Brazilian steakhouse, the first Churrascaria in Cleveland. At Brasa, the meat just keeps coming, as Brazilian gauchos circle your table with a wide variety of cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, sliced directly onto your plate with their “continuous tableside service.” The “salad bar” includes over 40 items, including shrimp cocktail, mussels, pasta, gumbo, and fish. You won’t need to eat again for a week.
1. Ohio City
Ohio City, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cleveland, lies just west of Cleveland, across the Cuyahoga River. The pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is home to the West Side Market, a city-owned, European-style market that attracts over a million visitors a year. The city’s largest indoor/outdoor market space, which began operating in 1840, has been featured on the Travel Channel and the Food Network and its vendors reflect the culturally diverse Cleveland neighborhood. Tenants include those of Irish, German, Slovenian, Italian, Greek, Polish, Russian, and Middle Eastern descent. Food Network Magazine named the West Side Market America’s “Best Food Lovers’ Market” in 2010.
The Ohio City neighborhood is also home to the largest concentration of breweries in Cleveland, including the award-winning Great Lakes Brewing Company. Its brewpub adjacent to the West Side Market occupies a building that formerly housed a pub frequented by Eliot Ness. In addition to their family of craft beers — Eliot Ness Amber Lager and Burning River Pale Ale, among others — the restaurant features many local foods. Many of the popular entrees are made with Great Lakes beers and reflect the ethnic heritage of the neighborhood, such as the Dortmunder Gold Lager bratwurst with potato and cheese pierogi and a side of braised red cabbage topped with sour cream and Dijon mustard.
In some ways, a visit to Cleveland is like a trip to Disney’s Epcot. Travel a few blocks and you’re in a Korean neighborhood. Go another few blocks and you’re in Slavic Village. Turn a corner and you’re in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood. Whatever you choose to do in Cleveland, you can rest assured that the food will be good and the people will be friendly and welcoming (and they’ll be offering you something involving sausage).