A Cleveland guide for love birds and food lovers
The city of Cleveland is a multi-faceted surprise to both newcomers and those who are returning to rediscover a former industrial powerhouse that has become a cultural and gastronomic destination. You might be surprised to discover how many things to do in Cleveland are just right for a romantic getaway–or a lovers’ staycation, if you happen to live close by.
I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, along the shores of Lake Erie. In my youth, Cleveland was “the mistake on the lake” and best known for its urban river that caught on fire due to pollution and shipping contamination.
That river, the Cuyahoga, is still there and ships still pass through its narrow twists but now diners, boaters and revelers cheer those vessels out to the Great Lakes from restaurants and bars that line the former joke of this proud town. Great Lakes Brewing Company, with tongue in cheek, now hosts a Burning River Fest annually on Whiskey Island, where the river meets the lake, at the mid-century modern Coast Guard building they helped restore.
Cleveland has become hip, helped by the attraction of service industries instead of auto and steel factories and, of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When you’re asked to name things to do in Cleveland, this is probably the first–maybe only–thing to come to mind. This one nugget of attraction has become synonymous with the city and this isn’t a bad thing. A visit really is one of the most fun things to do in Cleveland.
The “Rock Hall” is an interactive museum for music fans of all ages, from lovers of Elvis to Madonna to Beyonce. On a recent visit, I happened to arrive there the day after Aretha Franklin died and the place was literally alive with the Queen’s hits, played from speakers around the massive courtyard and in a continuous film compilation on one of the Hall of Fame’s many theaters and studios.
Snuggled along Lake Erie in a downtown that has become remarkably walkable, the businesses that have built up around the popular museum include high rise hotels with rooftop decks that welcome cuddling couples, like Hilton Cleveland’s Bar 32 and FirstEnergy Stadium which hosts the Cleveland Browns, a team that packs the stadium even in a losing season. (The fans call themselves the “dawg pound” and they are tirelessly supportive.)
Although a sporting event may not sound like the most romantic pursuit, you can’t talk about Cleveland activities without professional sports. Progressive Field hosting the winning Cleveland Indians and Quicken Loans Arena that hosts the Cavaliers. Losing homegrown LeBron James was a hit to this city that loves their sports but the locals get it. LeBron helped build a winning team and, like all Clevelanders, he needs to follow a dream.
The Cleveland food scene – this is Michael Symon’s town
Other dreamers that came back to hometown Cleveland to build their lives as well as a culinary and arts scene include other well-known figures like bald, pork-loving Michael Symon, who won the first Iron Chef Competition and a spot on the national daytime television hit “The Chew.” Symon never fails to plug Cleveland and he’s largely credited with the rebirth of attention to trend-setting food here without forgetting his Greek and Sicilian roots. Lola, his first restaurant that garnered the attention of The James Beard folks.
More than two decades after it opened, Lola is still considered one of the best restaurants in Cleveland. And Mabel’s BBQ, boasting “Cleveland-style BBQ,” is also known for producing some of the best Cleveland food. These are two great downtown Cleveland restaurants but Symons’ restaurant empire extends to the suburbs and close by urban neighborhoods. These days, if you ask a local food lover what to do in Cleveland, the first thing they will tell you is eat at a Michael Symon restaurant.
Discover more of the best restaurants in Cleveland, Ohio
Symon isn’t Cleveland’s only prolific restaurateur. Zach Bruell’s stable of restaurants feature many styles and cuisines. For a date night, his French bistro L’Albatros at Case Western Reserve University is a strong choice. And Alley Cat is the place to go for waterfront seafood in Cleveland.
But this isn’t isn’t the only good choice for waterfront dining in Cleveland. Collision Bend Brewing Company in the Flats along the Cuyahoga River, brings casual eatery and beer culture to one of the rediscovered Cleveland neighborhoods. Looking for the best burgers in Cleveland? This might be a good place to start your search. They even have a breakfast burger at brunch.
Cleveland food shopping
Many dreamers have invested in the formerly forgotten neighborhoods close to the city center which are now teaming with young families, executives and retirees who enjoy the reborn cuisine and culture of urban neighborhoods like Ohio City, the Flats (along the river), Detroit-Shoreway and Tremont.
The rush to the suburbs has reversed and now former grocery store shoppers are hitting the 100-year-old Westside Market on West 25th Street in Ohio City as much for its colorful people as its farm-raised meats, creative sausages, pierogis, bakery goods and produce. For food lovers, this is a great place to spend your day.
I remember this place as a child when it seemed so huge, bustling and exotic. It is still the market of one’s dreams and still among my favorite things to do in Cleveland. But now the exotic just seems a fresh selection of what we find in the food world now.
If you can’t make it to the Westside Market, the Heinen’s grocery store housed in a former bank is a marvel of architecture and the food selection is first-rate, especially in the urban cross-section of a major city. You can pick up provisions for a romantic picnic or simply hold hands as you drool over displays of cheeses and baked goods.
Ohio City restaurants
Nearby, a variety of Ohio City restaurants represent the cool, casual eating at neighborhood hangouts and family eateries. It isn’t the cuddle up and whisper sweet nothings kind of dining scene but the food is exciting and the culture vibrant.
A repurposed fire house is now offices, Rising Star Coffee and The Larder, a deli with a variety of traditional sandwiches like pastrami, BLTs and popular fried chicken. The Larder also sells challah, babka and other sweets for those neighbors that gather on the outdoor picnic tables during their strolls through nearby galleries and shops.
If you and your lover are lovers of art, schedule some time to explore the art galleries in Cleveland. You’ll find good options not only in Ohio City but also the nearby Detroit-Shoreway area where apartments and condos are popping up to accommodate the housing demand for walking neighborhoods.
Some of the best cultural attractions in Cleveland
One of the best things to do in Cleveland is explore the trove of museums and cultural institutions that were founded decades, even centuries ago, and continue their vibrancy today.
As more and more buzz is generated from Cleveland’s hospitals and medical research facilities, these unparalleled facilities are a stone’s throw from University Circle where the Cleveland Museums of Art, Natural History, Contemporary Art, the Botanical Gardens and Severance Hall congregate around a huge green space.
The Cleveland Museum of Art was founded to be free of cost to everyone at all times. Only special exhibitions are ticketed. This Museum is full of light and space and a mind-blowing variety of ancient art, European Masters and Impressionists.
I love museums but I disdain crowds and neck-craning while standing in line. Cleveland’s venerable art museum is one of ease and surprise, if walking around a corner to discover a Van Gogh or stumbling on a Picasso is a thrill for you. Without having to pay for entry and enough art and objects to keep anyone in your party interested, at least one visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Cleveland.
Around the corner is Severance Hall, the home of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra and a temple to a hundred years of musical excellence. The historically significant and acoustically perfect concert halls for both the Chamber and primary Cleveland Orchestras are fascinating in many ways, including the use of aluminum plating in place of gold and silver, simply because the head of the aluminum company was a colleague of Jon L. Severance. The Art Nouveau details, including thousands of lotus blossoms have weathered time well and are stunning examples of this period.
If you’re looking for things to do in Cleveland in the summer, find the Cleveland Orchestra 25 miles outside of town at the Blossom Music Center where a pavilion and lawns with reasonably-priced tickets allow all residents and visitors to experience internationally-recognized music performances. This is truly the romantic side of Cleveland tourism.
At all of the museums, cultural institutions and sports parks, Cleveland’s chefs shine and, regardless of how you find it, the culinary movement in Cleveland is on fire. And we’re not talking about the burning river anymore.
For more great things to do in Cleveland, visit the Cleveland Tourism Bureau website.
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