Unlike Chicago, its Rust Belt brother to the West, Cleveland and its charms require an appetite for discovery. Many are familiar with “Iron Chef” Michael Symon, basketball megastar LeBron James, and the city’s I.M. Pei–designed Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, but for most, Cleveland remains a mere blip on the tourist trail from New York to Chicago. And yet, this Midwestern hub on the shores of Lake Erie, where John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870 and where the Cleveland Orchestra has produced critically-acclaimed music for nearly a century, is experiencing a cultural and culinary renaissance that calls for travelers to sit up and take notice. Here are five great reasons to visit Cleveland now.
Exploding Visual Arts Offerings
After a decade-long, $350 million expansion, the Cleveland Museum of Art recently opened a new wing housing the museum’s Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian collections. Its most prominent feature is an enclosed 39,000-square-foot glass and steel atrium, which links the museum’s Greek Revival and contemporary buildings and springs to life on Fridays during a popular nighttime cultural program called Mix at CMA.
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Not far away, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland reopened last year in a geometric mirrored building at the corner of two main thoroughfares in the flourishing University Circle district. MOCA regularly holds exhibitions from local and international modern artists in this striking new structure, the first U.S. design by prominent London architect Farshid Moussavi.
Farther west, Cleveland’s eclectic Ohio City neighborhood is home to Transformer Station, an industrial-chic art space housed in a former power converter station, and the Gordon Square Arts District, a cluster of galleries, restaurants, and shops that saturate the city’s once-blighted Detroit Shoreway.
Even more expansion is on the way: the Cleveland Institute of Art broke ground this summer on an 80,000-square-foot building, which will contain the refurbished Cinematheque, an art-house theater showing independent and foreign films.
Beautiful Green Spaces
A notorious 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River challenged Cleveland and resulted in the unfortunate nickname, “The Mistake on the Lake.” Today, that same river is the cornerstone of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which stretches south of Cleveland into winding trails and lush forestland. Jump aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, hop on a bicycle, or hit the hiking trails to explore the park.
Meanwhile, Cleveland's Metroparks System, founded in 1917, is one of the most extensive city park systems in country, encompassing more than 20,000 acres of parkland. Worthy of a walk are the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, three leafy miles along the Doan Brook Valley created in the 1920s to remind Clevelanders of the diverse ethnic groups who contributed to the city’s heritage. Highlights include the 10-foot bronze Mahatma Gandhi statue in the India Garden and the iron trellis, fountain, and bust of composer Béla Bartók in the Hungarian Garden.
Expanding Culinary Scene
The fact that Anthony Bourdain filmed an entire episode of No Reservations in Cleveland in 2007 is proof enough that the city's foodie scene is one of the strongest in the country.
Thanks to countless TV appearances, Michael Symon has become as recognized nationwide as he is in his hometown, while Jonathan Sawyer, who tutored under Symon at Lolita Restaurant in Cleveland's trendy Tremont district, has introduced four seasonally-inspired eateries here in the last five years, starting with Greenhouse Tavern in 2009.
Combining Clevelanders' taste for fine art and fine food, CIA-schooled Doug Katz has recently opened Provenance Café at the Cleveland Museum of Art, using authentic cooking methods to highlight global cuisine mirroring the museum's changing exhibitions. Katz's Fire Food and Drink at Shaker Square is one of the city's most popular restaurants.
Downtown in Cleveland's theater district, Zack Bruell's fifth Cleveland restaurant, Cowell & Hubbard, serves his take on Parisian bistro fare in a former jewelry store with a diamond vault for private events.
Vibrant Musical Community
Disc Jockey Alan Freed not only coined the term “rock and roll” while hosting a radio show in Cleveland, he is also credited with holding the first ever rock concert in the now-defunct Cleveland Arena. “Rock and roll” was formally born in Cleveland during the summer of 1951, and to commemorate this, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened along the shores of Lake Erie in 1995, housing everything from Pete Townsend's Gibson guitar to John Lennon's eyeglasses.
Less raucous but equally robust, The Cleveland Orchestra, known as one of the nation's “Big Five” orchestras, is widely regarded as having the most distinctly European sound of the bunch. Led by Austrian Franz Welser-Möst, former conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra regularly tours Europe but performs locally at Severance Hall, a dazzling Art Deco concert hall that offers free scheduled tours.
Cleveland doesn't skimp on jazz either. At Nighttown—an East Side jazz institution named after the red light district in James Joyce's Ulysses—you might find Wynton Marsalis taking the stage in a surprise appearance or the Count Basie Orchestra playing at full throttle in the often packed, dimly-lit back room.
Oft-touted as the most attractive example of the suburban garden city in America, Shaker Heights offers walking tours of stately homes built along curving roads in Colonial, French, and Tudor styles. At its center is octagon-shaped Shaker Square, the second oldest shopping district in the country, the design of which is patterned after Copenhagen's Amalienborg Palace.
A light rail connects the square to Downtown Cleveland, where architecture buffs can follow a downloadable iOS app, City Maps and Walks, highlighting downtown Cleveland's most unique buildings, including Old Stone Church, Terminal Tower, and The State Theatre, or printable maps of the city's public art and architecture created by the city's convention and visitor's bureau.
Kristan Schiller is a travel editor for Fodor's, specializing in cities and cultural destinations. Follow her on Twitter @KristanSchiller.