Cleveland, Ohio Grows Into A Family City | My Family Travels

This northern Ohio city has matured from urban blight to fine museums, parks, great art, cheap convenient hotels and the country's best pita.

In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. It was an event that inspired songwriter Randy Newman to write: “Burn On, Big River.” Locally, however, this was no big news according to the city’s fire chief who deemed it: “A strictly run-of-the-mill fire.” The image of an oily, contaminated river catching fire has burned into the consciousness of travelers since. Visit Cleveland — No Way!

But wait a minute. As a travel writer, one of my niches in recent years is going to the U.S.’s most misunderstood cities. I can give you a lot of reasons why you would want to visit Indianapolis, Indiana, for example, though I draw the line at Dodge City, Kansas (unless you are an aficionado of thrift shops). OK, no one goes to Kansas or Cleveland for the climate, so I will say that’s a drawback. But I hope my experience gives me some credibility when I say (excuse the cliché) this is nothing short of a great city to visit — and that’s particularly true for families.

Consider this: University Circle alone has the greatest concentration of museums, medical, educational and cultural institutions you’ll find anywhere in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Museum of Art. But these are not just any museums; they are entertaining and they are of interest to all age groups. And every year in December, 20 University Circle cultural institutions present a free afternoon filled with music, hands-on activities and holiday shopping. University Circle, named after a trolley car that made its turnaround here, is just one square mile in size or approximately 550 acres. So the entire family can hop out of their car and walk everywhere.

As always, and applicable to all cities, you should start out with a trolley tour, however. Here, it’s Trolley Tours of Cleveland (216/771-4484, Powerhouse at Nautica on the West Bank of Cleveland’s Flats 44113). The well-informed guides are great. You quickly find that Cleveland overcame a highly competitive group of cities to land the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (888/764-ROCK, 1100 Rock and Roll Boulevard, 44114) that opened in 1995. It has the type of displays you’d expect, such as Elvis Presley outfits, but what sets it apart is the details. You can’t help being impressed to see Jim Morrison’s Boy Scout uniform from Alameda, California (bad boy Morrison, of all people?) and mediocre report cards from John Lennon when he attended Quarry Bank Grammar School in Liverpool and get this: Jimmy Hendrix was a high school football star.

Next door, there’s the impressive Great Lakes Science Center (216/866-4506, 601 Erieside Ave, 44114) overlooking Lake Erie. With 400 hands-on educational displays, it succeeds in its goal to make science fun. It’s one of America’s largest interactive science museums and is fun for the entire family. You can easily spend an entire day there and you might want to if you came on a rainy day, as I did. 

What Else is in Cleveland?

There are a lot of museums to choose from but all ages can appreciate an unlikely venue: the Lake View Cemetery (216/421-2665, 12316 Euclid Avenue, 44106), known as the city’s outdoor museum and arboretum. Former U.S. President James A. Garfield and John D. Rockefeller are among the famous laid to rest here among 285 acres of architecture, geology, sculpture and horticulture. A common family game is to see how many famous people you can find.

Nearby, some of the stuffed animals at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (216/231-4600, 1 Wade Oval Drive 4410) looked a little frayed but displays include an eclectic collection of everything from diamonds to dinosaurs. There’s even a moon rock from Apollo 12. So all tastes can be satisfied.

The lesser-known Western Reserve Historical Society (216/721-5722, 10825 East Boulevard, 44106), is noteworthy as being Cleveland’s oldest cultural institution. It has over 50,000 articles of clothing from the 1790s to the present. It also has a delightful collection of 200 automobiles that will certainly instill some nostalgia for older visitors and perhaps arouse the curiosity of younger ones (did someone really drive that thing?).

A long-time favorite is the Museum of Contemporary Art (216/421-8671, 8501 Carnegie Avenue, 44106). With the philosophy that “it’s never too early to start appreciating contemporary art,” children under 12 are always admitted free. There are also regular displays geared just for children.

For a soothing change from city noises, the Cleveland Botanical Garden (216/721-1600, 11030 East Boulevard 44106) is a fine retreat. It was founded in 1930 as the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland, the first such organization in an American city. A glass house that displays recreations of two of the earth’s most fragile ecosystems — the spiny desert of Madagascar and the misty cloud forest of Costa Rica will remind visitors of the real thing.

Disney’s “The Lion King” was recently performed at the Playhouse Square Center (216/771-4444,1501 Euclid Avenue 44115), a theatre known as the second largest performing arts center in America. Built for vaudeville and movies in the early 1920s, the theater has first-run plays in an atmosphere of gilt and velvet lobbies. Classics are commonly presented at the The Cleveland Play House (216/795-7000, 8500 Euclid Avenue 44106) which is said to be America’s first permanently established professional theater. Paul Newman is among actors who started their careers here.

Walking the city turns up public art such as “Last,” which involves six orange-colored large sections (spanning 75 feet) in front of the State Office Building. The arch is said to represent the Minimal Art style, but why it’s called “Last” is lost in translation. Another are the eight, 43-foot-tall art-deco style sculptures — which have acquired the name of “Guardians of Traffic” — at the Hope Memorial Bridge. The later has its own story: it was named after Bob Hope, whose father worked on the bridge as a stone mason.

Another place to visit that I didn’t make because you have to make advance reservations is the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland (216/579-2000, 1455 East 6th Street 44101). By all accounts, it does an excellent job of offering the history of money and its value through interactive videos and games (you will find that some countries view large stones as currency).

Promoters of Cleveland admit it does not have a theme park for kids, but it does have Cedar Point (419/617-2350, One Cedar Point Dr 44870) nearby in the suburbs. Millennium Force, one of 16 roller coasters, was voted best steel coaster on earth in some surveys.

Details, Details

Residents I met also point out (often defensively) that Cleveland has cheap housing, proximity to even better places such as Chicago, a more laidback pace of life than New York City, virtually no traffic, great public facilities and an excellent library system. And with its array of top-notch medical facilities such as the Cleveland Clinic, it’s one of the best places in the world to get sick, even if you don’t live here.

If you happen to be staying in a hotel that has a kitchen, the historic West Side Market is the largest indoor/outdoor market in the country. It’s easily identified by its 137-foot clock tower, and prices for various ethnic foods such as kielbasa are very low.

Visitors might also want to check out The Arcade (Enter at 401 Euclid Ave or 420 Superior Ave 44114) an odd collection of electric shops such as convenience and stamp stores. It’s worth a quick look for no other reason that its historical significance as the first enclosed shopping mall in America. Huge roof trusses give it a bridge-like look, and that’s fitting because it was built by a bridge company in 1890.

Where to stay:
Hyatt Regency Cleveland at The Arcade (216/575-1234, 420 Superior Avenue 44114) has 300 large rooms with a 24-hour business center. They offer historic décor and employ a very friendly staff in the heart of downtown across the street from the public library. There are several Holiday Inns (800/315-2605) in the area, most of which have pools and a “kids for free” policy; some have free internet usage.

Where to eat:
Sergio’s Sarava (216/295-1200, 13225 Shaker Sq 44120). Yes, there is a Sergio and his first restaurant was so popular he opened a second one. Sarava in Shaker Square captures the essence of Sergio’s own warm personality. The word is a greeting like Aloha or Shalom. The food is fine.

Great Lakes Brewing Company (216-771-4404, 2516 Market Ave 44113) offers good, basic pub food and excellent local beer and ale served in a masculine setting heavy on dark wood.

Go at off hours because there’s often a line at Aladdin’s Bakery and Market (216/932-4333, 2447 Cedar Rd 44106) in Cleveland Heights. You will understand when you try their falafel, spinach pies and gyro wraps or other entrees. The pita made here is popular enough to be shipped to stores in five states. You can get a very filling vegetarian meal for less than $6.

For more information, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland (216/621-4110).

This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.