Your very first trip to Cleveland might be an unsettling one. At least if you’re someone like me who has been preconditioned to the hustle and bustle of a much bigger, busier city. Compared to Los Angeles, Cleveland’s streets are practically empty (although that still doesn't stop its locals from complaining about traffic—to which you simply smile and nod sympathetically). There are only a few people out and about, even in its commercial core during what is supposedly rush hour. And it's quiet, unnervingly quiet.
Don't let all that fool you. Bubbling just below the surface is a city at the brink of a renaissance. In actuality, Cleveland—having just woken up from deep slumber—is slowly coming to life. Much like with many of the smaller cities across the country, it’s experiencing gentrification, albeit a milder one. Innovative restaurants, artisanal boutique shops, hip bars like dive-y tavern The Spotted Owl, and craft breweries are emerging every day. And with them come the artists, the musicians, and the younger transplants looking for a cultural urban setting with a much more affordable cost of living.
At the center of this renaissance is none other than Great Lakes Brewing Co, set where else but Ohio City, Cleveland’s hipsterville. As the first microbrewery in Ohio dating back to the 80s, it’s an oldie in this city of new, and clearly one of Cleveland’s most enduring symbols. It is its brews, however, that turned it into somewhat of a cult pilgrimage for the latest set of craft beer lovers. Great Lakes Brewery’s Elliot Ness Amber Lager, Burning River Pale Ale and Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, to name a few, are not only odes to the persons, things and events that shaped the history of the Great Lakes. They are also the incarnations of what good beer should feel and taste.
After a proper tasting there (and possibly a historical brewery tour), a sit down dinner under the industrial arched ceiling of Mabel’s BBQ is in order. Set in Cleveland’s buzzing, string light adorned East 4th Street, this terrific contemporary yet rustic joint serves Cleveland-style barbecue: smoked meat served with Eastern European flair. Hunks of tender brisket, moist pork belly and delicious ribs may be enjoyed here with spaetzle, smoked beets and Cleveland kraut at communal tables—a great choice if one is to experience Cleveland-inspired dining.
As far as authentic Cleveland gastronomy is concerned, however, none can top a visit to the iconic West Side Market, the city’s oldest. It has been around since 1912 and remains, invariably so, to be one of the city’s best stopovers for gourmands. Here, a hundred or so vendors sell a diverse selection of products. Fresh meat, every flavor of bacon and sausages, fruits and vegetables, nuts and spices, pastries and other baked goods, and even quick eats line the stalls that dominate the interior of one of Cleveland’s most notable buildings.
Cleveland’s passion for creation isn’t just limited to craft beer and cuisine. It has set roots in its culture and in its streets as well. Today, the city is essentially a hodgepodge of museums, music venues, grand architectural wonders such as the late 1800 Romanesque Revival The Arcade and the stunning Cleveland Trust Company building, galleries, and of course, public art.
To start one’s art and cultural immersion in the city, a tour of the expansive Cleveland Museum of Art is a necessity. Here, every spectator travels through time and space to celebrate art—from the Old Kingdom of Egypt and Ancient Greece to Van Gogh and even Brooklyn’s modern art scene. But perhaps this museum’s best feature yet is its cutting edge space called Studio Play, which encourages creativity and a lasting appreciation for art through fun, interactive installations.
Championing the city’s local art, surprisingly enough, is a newcomer. The 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown may just have opened its doors in June this year—just in time to host RNC delegates, but it’s already one of the city’s biggest supporters and promoters of local creatives.
The contemporary hotel itself is a museum, a cornucopia of local art. Not only are its stylish guest rooms flourished with deluxe furnishings, cozy beds and beautiful views of the city and Lake Erie (if you want the best panorama, however, head up to Bar 32); they also each showcase a mural that embodies Cleveland. On top of that, the hotel’s common spaces and restaurants are fecund with collages, paintings and murals, all created by local artists, all for the sake of promoting and helping galvanize the city’s art scene.
Among such pieces are the hotel’s selfie wall, an impressive collage of 2,800 Cleveland selfies pieced together to form the city’s most notable skyline, as well as my personal favorites, Madonna Dezal’s Dali-esque painting of music coming out of a piano and the very colorful tape collage of the Beatles, which seem to best fit this town’s musical inclination.
Even today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a crucial part of the city and its ongoing revival. From its polygonal façade to its galleries permeated with exhibit pieces that have helped shaped music history, the museum certainly has an air of rock and roll grandeur. But it’s never too proud to give back to the fans either. For example, through November 27, it’s playing host to the inspiring “Louder than Words” exhibit, which explores how popular music has influenced many of our country’s most important political causes and social issues. The museum also holds a number of music-related events, small music festivals and concert series annually to nurture that collective passion and linear hunger for music.
This is Cleveland after all, the Rock and Roll Capital of the World. And while it’s looking to the future with its culinary, cultural and artistic reawakening, it would still be nothing without its musical roots.
Michelle Rae Uy is a travel writer, editor and amateur photographer based in Los Angeles. Check out her other adventures on Another Spur on the Road.