It's been a long road from the '60s and '70s, when Cleveland was America's poster child for urban blight, to the lakeside city becoming one of the Midwest's great comeback stories. But even with sufficient buzz generated by new attractions and revitalization in recent years, first-timers are still often surprised by just how much there is to see and do in this affordable, down-to-earth town. Stately architecture and well-endowed cultural institutions date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Cleveland was America's fifth-largest city. Today it's one of the best cities in the country for high-powered theater, big-league sports, world-class museums, and, of course, the heart of rock and roll.
Cleveland is an unabashedly enthusiastic sports town. It was the construction of Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) in 1994 that helped revitalize downtown and turn around the city's image. The home of the Cleveland Indians (2401 Ontario St., 216-420-HITS, tickets from $9) is beloved by locals, pretty much without regard to the team's success, which has varied greatly in recent years. It was one of the earliest of the nation's "modern" ballparks, built with the look and feel of the historic classics but with unobstructed views from every seat.
Cleveland has a long and vaunted baseball history, dating back to the early days of legends like Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau, right up to team's current stars - Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta among them. The season runs from April through September (up to a month longer when the Indians snag a post-season berth).
Before or after a game, be sure to peek inside the 52-story Terminal Tower (230 W. Huron Rd., 216-623-4750) building, near Public Square and connected to Progressive Field via an enclosed walkway. When it opened in 1934, it was the second-tallest building in the world. Today the imposing Beaux-Arts complex adjoins a couple of luxury hotels (the Ritz-Carlton and the Renaissance Cleveland) as well as the Avenue Shopping mall, which contains more than 100 shops and restaurants as well as an 11-screen theater.
4…Snack your way through the Warehouse District.
Having come to fruition during Cleveland's Rockefeller-fueled Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, the Warehouse District suffered through the blight that sank downtown's fortunes for several decades following World War II until preservation-minded developers began rejuvenating this quadrant, bound by Superior and Front avenues and West 3rd and West 10th streets. It's now a mixed-use neighborhood containing some 70 dignified Victorian buildings, many of them buzzing with first-rate restaurants and music clubs.
For a memorable dinner, start with a glass of Sangiovese and a sampling of salumi and cheese at D'Vine Wine Bar (836 W. St. Clair Ave., 216-241-8463), before venturing around the corner to Mallorca (1390 W. 9th St., 216-687-9494), an excellent place to share a few classic Spanish tapas, from broiled chorizo to clams salsa verde. Finish you meal at nearby Brasa Grill Steakhouse (1300 W. 9th St., 216-575-0699), which serves up 16 different kinds of meat Churrascaria-style, plus, oddly enough, terrific sushi.
3…Go east, go west.
Visitors to downtown should take care not to miss the big picture that is Cleveland - some of the city's most charming neighborhoods lie to the east and west. Of particular note is University Circle, a leafy East Side district set around the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Stroll around Wade Park to find the heart of Cleveland's cultural scene, including the outstanding Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7340, free), and the 10-acre Cleveland Botanical Garden (11030 East Blvd., 216-721-1600, $7.50). Noted conductor Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra nearby at one of the most visually arresting concert venues in the country, Severance Hall.
Alternatively, head west from downtown across the Cuyahoga River and you'll quickly discover Ohio City, a historic and ethnically diverse neighborhood, not a municipality. Although lacking attractions, the neighborhood's leafy lanes make for a genial stroll past classic examples of redbrick and clapboard houses from the Victorian age. Finish up your walk at the West Side Market (1979 W. 25th St., 216-664-3387), the city's oldest and most treasured source of delectable eating. The historic building, which celebrates its centennial in 2012, overflows with an amazing variety of food vendors. Don't miss the sauerkraut-and-bratwurst pierogies at Pierogi Palace, and the crunch, savory falafel at Maha's Falafil.
2…Catch a show.
Cleveland's Playhouse Square theater district (centered around Euclid Ave. at E. 14th St.) is one of downtown's greatest assets -- a cluster of historic venues staging blockbuster plays and musicals as well as concerts, comedy, readings, and every other conceivable performance. The complex of seven theaters was built in the early '20s and comprises the largest performing arts center in the country after New York City's Lincoln Center. The district thrived for several decades before downtown Cleveland's urban ills forced most of the theaters to close by the end of the 1960s. Grassroots preservation efforts saved several venues from destruction over the next decade, and by the mid-1990s, the district had been fully restored.
Part of the joy of attending a show here is admiring the splendid architectural elements that characterize these buildings. The first weekend of each month, you can take a free guided 90-minute tour of the complex, through backstage areas and the theaters' ornate lobbies. Compared with shows in many big cities, tickets for Playhouse Square shows are generally quite reasonable, often as little as $15.
1…Rock and roll.
It's the definitive Cleveland attraction: The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1100 Rock and Roll Blvd., 216-781-7625, $22). Set inside an I.M. Pei-designed complex of glass pyramids and both angular and cylindrical towers, the otherworldly structure cuts a striking figure above a formerly industrial stretch of Lake Erie riverfront. Touristy and expensive thought it is, the museum puts on a good show, with its astounding cache of music memorabilia. Rock legends themselves have contributed many of the mementos, from John Lennon's eyeglasses (courtesy of Yoko Ono) to the Gibson J-200 guitar donated by Pete Townshend; on it, he composed the score for Tommy.
Other permanent collections illuminate the careers of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Fats Domino, and Janis Joplin, while rotating exhibits examine everything from "35 Years of Austin City Limits" (through Sept. 2010) to the careers of each year's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees - ABBA, Genesis, Jimmy Cliff, the Hollies, and the Stooges made the cut this year. Outside on a huge plaza, the museum presents concerts during the warmer months, some of them free, such as City Concert Series, which showcases up-and-coming talents.