Once the home base of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly, for decades on either side of the turn of the 20th century Cleveland was among the biggest and most prosperous of the Great Lakes industrial giants. A century later, the city has lost more than half its population (down from its 1949 peak of almost a million) and spent much of the past 60 years reeling from Rust Belt decay. The first sign of the city’s renaissance came in the 1990s, when the opening of downtown’s Progressive Field, where the Cleveland Indians (216/420-4487), sold out every game for its first five years. The more recent return of Ohio-born basketball star LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers seems to have fully restored civic pride.
Within walking distance of the sports arenas, Cleveland’s old lakefront industrial district, known as “The Flats,” has undergone a successful face-lift, overlaid by a network of bridges (drawbridges, lift bridges, swing bridges) that form a feast for the eyes. Water taxis run back and forth across the river, linking the bars and restaurants that fill gigantic old mills, factories, and warehouses. Another primal force behind the area’s rebirth has been the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (1100 E. 9th St., 216/781-7625, daily, $23.50), housed in a striking I. M. Pei-designed building. Multimedia exhibits trace the roots and branches of the rock family tree, filling 55,000 square feet of galleries in a 162-foot tower. (Why Cleveland? The Hall of Fame was located here because Cleveland DJ Alan Freed is credited with naming the music “rock ’n’ roll,” way back in 1951.)
East of downtown, in the sedate University Circle neighborhood, some of the best things about Cleveland survive from its early 20th century heyday. Most notable is the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Blvd., 216/421-7350, Tues.-Sun., free), just north of US-20/Euclid Avenue. Building on a long tradition of excellence in Egyptian and Asian art and sculpture, the museum now fills more than 500,000 square feet with memorable works, including paintings by Caravaggio, Zurbarán, and Picasso.
Just east of the museum, at Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery (12316 Euclid Ave., 216/421-2665) many of the grandees from Cleveland’s Gilded Age prime, including “America’s First Billionaire” John D. Rockefeller and U.S. President James Garfield, assassinated by a disgruntled bureaucrat in 1881, rest in peace among a landscaped forest of hardwood trees.
The Cleveland airport, Hopkins International, is 12 miles southwest of downtown, linked by I-71 and the RTA subway (216/621-9500) to central Cleveland. To get a feel for the place, a car is hard to beat, especially since the city sprawls sideways rather than concentrating vertically. Downtown, finding your way around the Cuyahoga River waterfront takes patience, as many roads dead-end and some of the old bridges are closed to traffic; on foot, the Ohio City RTA stop is a good place to start exploring.
In the artsy, low-rent neighborhood of Ohio City, just west of the Cuyahoga River, the West Side Market Café (1979 W. 25th St., 216/579-6800) serves delicious breakfast and lunch meals with most ingredients sourced from the adjacent and always lively West Side Farmers Market. Also here: the Great Lakes Brewing Company (2516 Market Ave., 216/771-4404), which has good food, great beer, and a convivial crowd. While you’re here, check out the Allstate Barber College across the street on 26th and Lorain Avenue—20 chairs, no waiting!
For a place to stay, the DoubleTree Cleveland Downtown-Lakeside (1111 Lakeside Ave., 216/241-5100, $169 and up) is hard to beat. It offers the usual comforts and is near the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Right downtown, across from Claes Oldenburg’s World’s Largest Rubber Stamp statue, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel (24 Public Square, 216/696-5600, $165 and up) is a 1920s classic that has been immaculately updated.
For complete visitor information, contact the Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau (216/875-6680 or 800/321-1001).