Over the years, Cleveland, Ohio, has become an underdog city, and that’s putting it politely. With the burning river, brutal winters, and often-frustrating sports teams, the city has been burdened with the harsh nickname Mistake on the Lake. You know how everyone loves seeing Richmond on those top ten and best of lists from around the country? Well, in 2010, Cleveland claimed the dubious honor of first place on Forbes’ list of top twenty most miserable cities.
Why, then, would you even consider traveling to Cleveland for a vacation with your family?
For the two million residents in the Cleveland area, the city offers innumerable benefits: beautiful, dry summers; access to world-class music and art; the friendliest people you’ll ever meet; and an abundance of family-friendly fun – without the huge crowds you’ll find at more typical tourist destinations.
How do I know this? I had the opportunity to experience Cleveland’s awesomeness firsthand. In the early 2000s, I moved there (yes, somewhat reluctantly) only to find myself surprisingly distraught at the idea of leaving and returning to Richmond nine years later. And I really dislike cold weather!
As you plan your next family trip, why not try something different? Northeast Ohio is a 7-hour drive, and it offers fun and enriching experiences at a fraction of the cost of a major city. Rent a hotel room downtown, or use Airbnb to find a cozy apartment or a house on Lake Erie, and explore what the Rock and Roll Capital of the World has to offer families.
For the Arts
When we called Cleveland home, we spent many long Saturdays at University Circle, adjacent to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and about fifteen minutes from downtown Cleveland. In that one spot, the kids can run around a grassy circle between visits to the several surrounding museums.
Art lovers will enjoy strolling through the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) with its beautiful galleries showcasing art from every era and culture. If CMA reminds you of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), there is good reason. One of CMA’s long-term directors was Sherman Lee, who is known for having brought CMA global attention. You may recall that his daughter, Katharine Lee Reid, served as director for VMFA before going to CMA in 2000.
If you are interested in architecture, you’ll enjoy seeing CMA’s expansion, designed by
internationally renowned Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly. Cleveland boasts several other fascinating buildings by noteworthy architects. From University Circle, you can take a quick walk to the CWRU to see the School of Management’s Peter B. Lewis Building. Designed by Frank Gehry, whose oeuvre includes the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, the building combines brick walls with swooping stainless-steel curves, an innovative design that embodies the creativity embraced by CWRU.
University Circle also houses Severance Hall, a beautiful Georgian/Neoclassical building built in the 1930s. Inside the ornately decorated hall, Cleveland’s world-renowned orchestra plays under the direction of Franz Welser-Most. Throughout the year, the Cleveland Orchestra hosts family concerts to foster a love for classical music in a fun and engaging setting.
Just north of University Circle, you can find the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, a building designed by Iranian-born architect Farshid Moussavi. With its mirror-finished façade, the building literally reflects the urban environment surrounding it.
If your kids are too young to spend hours walking through art museums, take them to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. That was one of our family’s all-time favorite places because there is just so much to do and see. From dinosaur models and an earthquake simulation to a hands-on Discovery Center, planetarium, and outdoor Wildlife Center, the museum has everything kids love.
Within close walking distance of the Museum of Natural History, you can find the Cleveland Botanical Garden. We spent many cold, winter days in the glasshouse there, pretending we had traveled to the Madagascan desert or the Costa Rican rainforest. Outside, kids can enjoy the Hershey’s Children’s Garden, complete with a treehouse, fountains to play in and plants to water.
About four miles west of University Circle on Euclid Avenue, you will find Playhouse Square, the largest performing arts center outside of New York City. With over one thousand events – including touring Broadway shows, concerts, and even outdoor dance workshops – Playhouse Square offers something for everyone. Events take place in ten different venues, five of which were built in the 1920s and later restored. There’s also a children’s theater series here, with kid-friendly shows like Junie B. Jones and The Ugly Duckling at its Ohio Theatre.
Cleveland is also home to the Talespinner Children’s Theatre, a professional children’s theater company that uses acting, dance, music, and puppetry to create imaginative and inspiring shows.
Continue your museum trek and architecture tour by driving along the shore of Lake Erie to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Designed by architect I.M. Pei, the building itself is worth seeing, particularly against the backdrop of Lake Erie. Inside, visitors can take in both permanent and temporary exhibitions that provide opportunities to learn about different eras and types of music. Multi-media and interactive displays help visitors connect with the power of music, whether remembering one-hit wonders, fan-girling over the legends of rock, or celebrating the British invasion.
Right next to the Rock Hall is the Great Lakes Science Center, which houses the NASA Glenn Visitor Center, the Polymer Funhouse to keep young kids entertained, and Cleveland Creates Zone, a maker space that gives visitors a chance to flex their mental muscles. Visitors can also tour the 618-foot William Mather steamship next to the Science Center to see what life was like on a Great Lakes freighter.
Near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Great Lakes Science Center, you will find the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Relatively new to the city, the aquarium is home to more than 1,400 animals representing 250 species. While there, visitors can enjoy touch pools and watch three species of sharks swim overhead.
For Sports Fans
If you like sports, Cleveland has it all. Next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Great Lakes Science Center, you will find FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns and the infamous Dawg Pound, a section of the stadium reserved for the Browns’ most rabid fans. (Yes, they still exist!)
Just a few miles away, the Cleveland Indians play at Progressive Field. The Family Deck there includes an indoor/outdoor area with a parents’ lounge and lactation rooms, plus a Kids’ Clubhouse with a slide, Step2 play equipment, and interactive games.
A couple blocks over, basketball fans can watch hometown hero LeBron James at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena (at press time, there was still a possibility he’ll play in Cleveland next year, but who knows!). Non-hoops entertainment includes the Cavalier Girls, the Scream Team – a group of sixteen energetic male dancers – and the Qstix, a rhythm-pounding drumline.
The Cleveland Monsters (American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets) also play at Quicken Loans Arena. They won their first championship in 2016.
For the Foodies
Food festivals abound in the Cleveland area, particularly in the summer. On any given weekend, you’re likely to find a festival and carnival hosted by a church or area nonprofit organization. The most well-known is the Festival of the Assumption, held in Little Italy by Holy Rosary Catholic Church in mid-August. A 119-year-old tradition, the festival offers amazing Italian food, live music, and rides and activities for young kids. Even if you don’t happen to be in town for the festival, visit Little Italy for its eateries.
The West Side Market is not to be missed. A landmark indoor/outdoor market in Cleveland’s hip Ohio City neighborhood, the market hosts over one hundred vendors selling meats, seafood, fruit, candy, baked goods, and more. Known for its ethnic diversity, West Side Market was named the best food lover’s market by Food Network Magazine and also was visited by the late great Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace.
For Cleveland’s sweeter side, visit Sweetie Candy Company, the largest candy store in North America. In operation for more than sixty-eight years, it boasts more than 4,500 items and over 500,000 pounds of candy, including every type of nostalgic candy you can imagine. This is the kind of store where you tell your kids, “Of course you can – we’re on vacation!” Visitors can also stop in the Soda Shoppe for ice cream and milkshakes.
At the Campbell’s Sweets Factory, visitors can learn about how popcorn balls are made and sample gourmet popcorn flavors. You can also enjoy chocolates, cupcakes, and the famous peanut butter and chocolate buckeye candy for which Ohio is so well-known.
For Thrill Seekers
If you drive about sixty miles west of Cleveland to Sandusky, you’ll reach Cedar Point, also known as the roller coaster capital of the world. The newest, Steel Vengeance, stands 205 feet above the park and breaks ten world records, including tallest, fastest, and longest hybrid roller coaster.
If your kids are too young to enjoy a 90-degree drop, take them to Memphis Kiddie Park in Brooklyn, about ten miles southwest of downtown. In operation since 1952, the park offers airplanes, boats, pony carts, a merry-go-round, and roller coasters especially for kids under fifty inches.
Although A Christmas Story was set in Indiana, exterior filming for the now-iconic movie took place in Cleveland. Ralphie’s house, located in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, has been converted into A Christmas Story House and Museum, where visitors can see original props, costumes, behind-the-scenes photos, and memorabilia from the film. The house is even available for overnight stays.
Speaking of Christmas, at Castle Noel in nearby Medina, visitors can enjoy the nation’s largest indoor, year-round Christmas entertainment attraction. Castle Noel boasts a large collection of props and costumes from Hollywood Christmas movies, as well as animated Christmas windows, an animated Christmas tree, and the Santa-land slide like the one ridden by Ralphie in A Christmas Story.
Movie buffs can also track down the Superman House at 10622 Kimberly Avenue, where, in 1932, then 18-year-old Jerry Siegel created the renowned Man of Steel character with Joe Shuster, who lived nine blocks away. The house is not open to the public, but there is a sign identifying the house and its history.
For Outdoor Families
Lake Erie itself provides many opportunities for outdoor recreation, including surfing – I know it sounds implausible, but I have seen it with my own eyes. Great Lakes Watersports in the Flats rents pontoon boats, speedboats, jet skis, and kayaks that can all be taken out on Lake Erie. 41° North Coastal Kayak Adventures in Lakewood offers kayak and paddleboard rentals and tours. At nearby lakeside getaways like Mentor Headlands and the Bass Islands, visitors can fish, swim, or just relax on the sand. One of the islands, Put-in-Bay, is known for its exciting nightlife. In fact, its nickname is The Key West of the North. (Which finally explains why LeBron left Miami for Cleveland in 2014, right?)
The Cleveland region boasts several park systems that provide families multiple opportunities to enjoy all four seasons. The Metroparks system, for example, includes the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 183-acre site with an Elephant Crossing, Australian Adventure, Giraffe Encounter, Wilderness Trek, and Waterfowl Lake. Families can also enjoy the indoor rainforest as well as a train and carousel.
The Metroparks system includes many other parks within Cleveland and its suburbs. One of our favorites was the North Chagrin Reservation, which includes a nature center with hands-on activities for the kids, walking trails around the wetlands, and fields and playgrounds.
The Lake Metroparks Farmpark in nearby Kirtland fosters a connection to our country’s agricultural roots and helps families understand where our food and clothing come from. Take a horse- or tractor-drawn wagon through the park to see pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and horses. Other attractions include a dairy processing center and quilt exhibit.
Situated along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park includes the Towpath Trail, a multi-purpose trail that follows the route of the historic Ohio & Erie Canal; Brandywine Falls; and the
Canal Exploration Center.
For Transportation Enthusiasts
While you’re visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. You will have a great view of the Park’s wildlife and scenery while learning about the history of the railroad in the Cuyahoga Valley. The complete ride is three and a half hours roundtrip, but you can stop at any of the three depots to explore that section of the park. Many people bike the Towpath Trail and then ride the train back to their car.
In University Circle, the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum of the Western Reserve Historical Society presents the history of transportation with over 140 antique automobiles – from a 1907 Ford Model K to a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 – as well as aircraft, carriages, and motorcycles.
This year, the Cleveland National Air Show is slated for September 1 through 3 at the Burke Lakefront Airport. One of the oldest, most established annual air shows, it was named air show of the year by World Airshow News Magazine. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels will headline the event.
The next time you travel, you could go somewhere predictable like Walt Disney World, or exotic like Tahiti, where you will likely spend a fortune, fight crowds, and return home tired, hot, and broke. Or you could try – yes, I’m going to say it! – Cleveland. Here you get to enjoy unique, quirky, and impressive experiences and return home refreshed and with some leftover cash.
If I haven’t given you enough reasons to visit, consider that National Geographic Traveler included Cleveland in their 2018 list of the top twenty-one places to visit in the world. As University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s (UMBC) performance in the still-painful NCAA Tournament attests – they’re the team that stunned UVA, remember? – the underdog is sometimes much better than we think!