Actually Cool Things to Do in Cleveland
The rest of the nation is slowly learning what denizens of the Land have known for years: Cleveland is actually a pretty cool place. We’ve got a revitalized downtown, a beautiful lakefront park, and a food and drink scene that’s finally getting the national recognition it deserves. Of course, we’re humble about it: we’re from the Midwest.
That said, most outsiders don’t know the things that make Cleveland really rock -- and no, we’re not talking about a certain overpriced museum. We’ve put together this handy guide to places to take visitors that won’t make you feel like a tourist in your own city. Or maybe it will, but in a good way.
Get theatrical at Gordon Square$$-$$$
Once a little-known neighborhood of the Detroit Shoreway, Gordon Square has morphed into Cleveland’s premier arts district. Start your day with brunch at Spice, one of the city’s best restaurants, and catch a movie at the indie-friendly Capitol or a play at any of the area’s theatre spaces.
Take a walk around University CircleFree
A wonder of architectural variety, University Circle is ripe for self-guided walking tours when the weather warms up. The old-world, red-brick charm of Little Italy gives way to the modern mix of Case Western’s campus. Don’t forget painting-perfect Wade Lagoon and the exploded cast of Rodin’s The Thinker.
At last, cat cafes have come to The Land. The cleverly named affoGATO, now open in Tremont, offers patrons the chance to enjoy a latte and (provided they’ve reserved a time slot) play with some cats from CLE. All the cats are up for adoption, so you might end up taking one home!
The Cleveland Museum of Art, where you can see works from Monet, Dali, and hundreds of other masters, has long been free (a few special exhibitions excepted) -- and as of last month, the Museum of Contemporary Art down the road is getting in on the free admission act. Your move, Museum of Natural History!
Hightail it to Whiskey Island$
All right, so it’s a peninsula, not an island -- even so, the green spaces, cheap-o bars, and unspoiled views of Lake Erie make Whiskey Island feel pretty island-y regardless. This place comes alive in warm weather, when volleyball and live bands abound.
Duck onto Duck Island for a cocktail$$
Tucked between Tremont and Ohio City, it’s an easy (but tragic) mistake to overlook Duck Island. It’s home to longtime cocktail destination Velvet Tango Room, which classical Prohibition-style concoctions in a classy setting. Within stumbling distance is Porco Lounge and Tiki Room, another nationally acclaimed cocktail bar -- and the Duck Island Club is a chill place to finish the night with a shot and a beer.
Embrace fish fry season$-$$
Cleveland’s old-world ethnic heritage means that spring in the city is fish fry season. Restaurant-bars like Tremont’s beloved Prosperity Social Club do an admirable job, but if you want the real Eastern European experience, check out some cultural centers or church basements. Our favorite is at the hundred-plus-year-old Slovenian National Home in St. Clair-Superior.
Rock on indoors...$-$$
It’s not the museum that truly rocks Cleveland -- it’s the venues. The Beachland Ballroom in Waterloo lends its stages to bands both local and national, and the Grog Shop in Coventry is a great place to catch bands either coming up or coming back. And let’s not forget the Agora Ballroom -- it is, after all, world-famous.
… or rock out outdoors$$-$$$$
Now that spring is upon us, outdoor concert season can begin, and Clevelanders have great options here. Jacobs Pavilion is one of the nation’s great riverside music venues, while Cain Park in the Heights provides a scenic venue for smaller acts. A little bit south of town, Blossom services the biggest bands touring in the warmer months.
Spend an afternoon down at the Flats$-$$
Located on the banks of the bendy Cuyahoga, The Flats unites the East and West sides as well as generations of Cleveland revelers. You can hit up the Disney-fied spots like Margaritaville, or you can kick it old school with low-key joints like Hooples or The Harbor Inn, the oldest bar in the city.
Walk across the Hope Memorial BridgeFree
The rivalry between Ohio City and Cleveland was once so intense that residents fought a war over it. Now, the Hope Memorial Bridge brings the two together over our crooked river. And they’re home to the unofficial mascots of Cleveland’s revitalization, the Guardians of Transportation.
Here’s a new one for fans of the East Side-West Side rivalry: dueling cemetery concerts. To the East, the nationally-renowned Lakeview Cemetery has a full summer concert series; to the West, the less-known but still gorgeous Riverside Cemetery has an annual music festival in July.
... or boogie with the living$-$$
There are plenty of options for the dance-inclined in Cleveland. Venues like Velvet Dog and FWD offer a traditionally clubby vibe, or you can head to the more casual Twist for infectiously fun beats. If it’s live music you’re after, delicious arepa restaurant Barroco offers live Latin music and dance every weekend at both its East and West Side locations.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, recently ranked one of the best in America, is also a pretty cool place to party. If you want to look at art and also dance in the breathtaking Ames Atrium, hit up the monthly MIX party.
Public Square’s been part of Cleveland since the city’s 1796 founding. In 2016, it got a big facelift when James Corner, architect of Manhattan’s now-famous High Line, reimagined it as a vibrant green space. You can grab a killer coffee at Rebol, or catch any number of public events going on. And speaking of events...
No matter the time of year, there's guaranteed to be something awesome going on in Cleveland that you'll end up hearing about after the fact, remarking "man, how come I never seem to know what's going on?" Break the chain by staying up on CLE's must-dos, courtesy of our seasonally updated, never-invalidated, always-inundated calendar of seasonal events.
Even if you’re not a bookworm, it’s hard not to be impressed by the temple to learning that is the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library. It’s got grand, sweeping architecture, historic significance, and as of recently, no more overdue fines. It’s more than earned its badass moniker of “The People’s University.”
Far more driven-through than walked in, the Cultural Gardens along Martin Luther King Boulevard are a treasure of green space and cultural monuments in the city. Pick a nation of interest -- there are a staggering amount represented here -- park your car, and take it all in on foot.
Explore the creepier side of ClevelandFree-$$
Cleveland is old enough and weird enough to have scored a solid number of Atlas Obscura-worthy attractions. There’s no cost to visit the “weeping” Haserot Angel in Lakeview Cemetery, and a low cost attached to the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft in its new Old Brooklyn home. Plus you can take a ghost tour with the up-and-coming Cleveland Area Paranormal Society.
Need to grab a donut in the evening? A beer in the morning? Brewnuts recently opened its doors in Gordon Square, and has instantly become a staple of the near West Side (and one of our favorite restaurants in all of Cleveland). Festive events, rotating donut flavors like maple bacon and Fruity Pebbles, and a kick-ass draft selection make Brewnuts a place to build a day around.
... or try one of the other best restaurants in Cleveland$-$$
Looking to expand your culinary rotation, but not quite in the mood for donuts? We've got just the thing: an up-to-date collection of the greatest places to eat in Cleveland right now, whether you're looking for homestyle Italian (Molto Bene), farm-to-table bar food (Noble Beast), or just a good piece of steak (Red). Even if you're a local, there's bound to be at least one place you haven't tried -- so find it, and go to that place.
Play some pinball$
Cleveland pinball venues have everything from obscure '60s games to the Jurassic Park pinball machine from that pizza place you loved in the '90s. Check out B-Side on the East Side and Superelectric Pinball Parlor on the West.
Turning the actual house used in the filming of the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story might seem like a total cash-grab, but the house has actually become an interactive, entertaining attraction ($11) that’s open year-round. Head to the 100-year-old Rowley Inn afterward for great atmosphere and some extremely Cleveland food (Buffalo pierogies, anyone?)
Go gaming at the bar$
Arcade and board games are back in a big way, especially when you pair them with beer. Tabletop in Ohio City offers a generous library of board games for adults and children. 16-Bit in Downtown Lakewood has an excellent sampling of arcade games and beer -- get there early. And The Side Quest, Cleveland’s first self-proclaimed nerd bar, offers board and role-playing games along with super-fun themed nights.
Take a brewery tour$
Since Great Lakes Brewing Company blazed a trail for craft breweries back in ‘88, Cleveland has been killing it on the beer scene. You can get an expertly led tour of that brewery (with some very generous beer samples) for just $5. If you want to fit in several tours, Cleveland Brew Bus is the way to go, hitting up prime CLE breweries such as Platform, Terrestrial, and Hansa.
Go on a pierogi crawl of Cleveland$
Pierogies are an essential Cleveland food, and the best neighborhood for these pockets of deliciousness is arguably Tremont. Start at the famed Sokolowski’s University Inn, then head to Prosperity Social Club, perhaps the city’s coolest bar, for their farmhouse cheese variety. Head south to Slavic Village’s Seven Roses Deli to cap off the crawl with a truly old-school Polish experience.
The West Side Market isn’t just a Cleveland gem, it is a damn national treasure. It’s a multi-ethnic melting pot of spices, meats, and cheese that’s more representative of the city than a hundred Bernie Kosar jerseys. And, pro tip for locals: it’s an excellent place to buy your groceries for the week.
Ride to the top of Terminal Tower$
Sure, a ride to the top of a building sounds tourist-y as hell. But consider that this isn’t New York, and Terminal Tower is far and away the most distinctive feature of our skyline. It’s a fun way to get a panoramic city view for just $5. Just make sure to book online in advance.
Grab a drink in some old-school beer halls$
Brooklyn Centre/Old Brooklyn
Hofbrauhaus draws fun crowds, but Cleveland has plenty of off-the-beaten-path options for its beer gardens. Just take Sachsenheim Hall, an awesomely no-frills former social hall with--yes, we mean it--the best tacos in the city proper. For a rowdier evening Cleveland Maennerchor, which has all the German beer and music and none of the crowds.
We've got ourselves a Great Lake in Cleveland, but precious few places to access it. Edgewater Park plays host to a nicely maintained stretch of beach, along with a beach house with giant, adult-sized swings and beer on tap -- and don’t forget about the free concert series in the summer.
Become a patron of the theater$-$$$
Playhouse Square, one of the nation’s largest theater districts, brings a lot of well-deserved press to the CLE theater scene. For productions that are a little edgier and a lot more affordable, Clevelanders have two excellent options: Cleveland Public Theatre in Gordon Square and Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.
Share a story onstage$
Gordon Square/Ohio City
With its excellent selection of indie bookstores, Cleveland is something of a literary town. As such, we have several monthly events dedicated to sharing and hearing great stories. Two of the highlights: Keep Talking, a Moth-style storytelling event in the Happy Dog ($5), and Brews and Prose, a free poetry and fiction reading series in the basement of Market Garden.
Brunch is one of those things that, in 2018, you'll find in basically any major city worth its salt. Does that mean you should forego Cleveland's brunch scene, though, simply because you've sampled the brunch in Milwaukee? Of course not, you goofball! Whether you're sampling the baked goods at Luna, savoring the steak at Urban Farmer, or getting a taste of the continent at Le Petit Triangle Café, Cleveland's brunch scene is absolutely one of the most stacked in the nation. Make it happen. Free
In a move indicative of the New Cleveland spirit, the folks at 78th Street Studios took a former warehouse and turned it into an “art maze.” Billed as the region’s largest fine arts complex, the studios are free and open to the public the third Friday of every month, and host special events throughout.
If you like jazz even a little bit, or just enjoy cool-as-hell music venues, then Nighttown is a must on your Cleveland itinerary. Situated in the increasingly developed Cedar Fairmount district, Nighttown and its noir-y vibes are a monument to the cool of a bygone era. Some of the best jazz acts in the nation pass through here (tickets start at $20), and the menu is fantastic as well.
Get on a boat (or other watercraft)$$-$$$
We’ve got a river and a lake in Cleveland, and you and your visitors should take advantage of it. Book passage on the Goodtime III ($25 and up) for a booze cruise around the lake. If nature trails or more your thing, or if you just want to bar crawl from bank to bank of The Flats, you can cross the Cuyahoga on a Metroparks-run water taxi.
A well-kept secret at the heart of St. Clair Superior, Cleveland’s Asiatown district is well worth a visit any time of year for its dim sum palaces and massive Asian groceries. That said, during the spring and summer months the neighborhood explodes to life with the Night Market festival, a massive celebration of food, music, and Asian culture.
They don’t call Cleveland “Forest City” for nothing (fun fact: some people call Cleveland “Forest City”). The “emerald necklace” of the Cleveland Metroparks is waiting for you log off your Fire Stick, grab your visitors, and bike or hike through. Rocky River Reservation, Edgewater Park, and Squire’s Castle at the North Chagrin Reservation are just a few places to get your adventures started.
Stand-up comedy. Concerts. Bowling. Surprisingly great fried chicken and a great cocktail list. If you can’t find something you or your visitors enjoy at Mahall’s, Lakewood’s oldest bowling establishment, you might not like anything. Also, it might be haunted, so tack it on to that Cleveland ghost tour.
Gordon Square/University Circle
We’re not going to say this could only have happened in Cleveland, but a joint where you can get a quality hot dog with dozens of possible off-the-wall toppings -- mac & cheese, peanut butter, Froot Loops -- for six bucks? Well, that’s pretty CLE. Don’t forget the live music, lectures, and tater tots.
Once Cleveland’s best-loved sports team, the Indians have come out shining from the long dry spell of the 2000s. With vastly improved food options, the long-awaited removal of the Wahoo mascot, and the low-cost District tickets, it’s a great time to watch the Tribe.
Quicken Loans Arena
Aside from the chance to see perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time in action, watching the Cavs in the Q allows you to behold the moves of the Scream Team, the Cavalier Girls, and Moondog.
...or check out the Lake Erie Monsters$-$$
Quicken Loans Arena
Before the Cavs brought Cleveland our first major championship of the modern sports era, the Monsters won the 2016 Calder Cup. And to this day, Cleveland’s hockey team remains a fun, low-cost alternative to the city’s more expensive sporting events.
This architectural wonder was one of America’s first indoor shopping centers, but most of the time it’s weirdly empty. Which means you’ll have plenty of time to take in its vaguely New Orleans-style railings before emerging to the commerce of East Fourth on the other side.
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