I found a $110 roundtrip flight to Cleveland for a weekend on Spirit airlines during a weekend that had a Lebron James Cleveland Cavaliers home game on a Saturday (not a common occurrence).
For many people on the West Coast, Cleveland has a reputation for being at the center of the rust belt and for being a largely uninteresting place except for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My coworkers- none of whom have actually been- heckled me all week when I told them I was going to Cleveland. However, my friends who live there or grew up there tell a very different story: a city with a rich history and a real youthful buzz.
The red eye flight left around 11 pm. I sat next to an Albanian singer whose parents moved to Cleveland when she was in high school. She was stopping briefly in Cleveland to see her parents before heading to Tunisia to meet her “soulmate”- a Tunisian man 15 years her junior who reached out to her on Instagram. They have yet to meet in person, but Skype every day. I was so fascinated by her story that I got almost no sleep on the flight.
March 3, 2018: Christmas, Beer, and Lebron
After landing, I headed over to an AirBNB near the Cleveland Zoo- about midway between the airport and downtown. After resting up and getting a delicious Jack Frost Donut, I headed over to my first stop of the day: the house from A Christmas Story.
The home with “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window” is now a museum! Tours are offered every hour from the surprisingly large Christmas-themed gift shop. Unfortunately, I just missed the tour and didn’t want to wait another hour, so I took my pictures and left
Just 5 minutes away is Ohio City. My friends in Cleveland said that Ohio City is where all the hipsters hang out. Walking around, there was a clear buzz and quite a few people there.
My first stop was the famed West Side Market. This 100+ year old produce market still is in operation. I reminded me a lot of LA’s famed Grand Central Market. However, unlike in many other cities where the markets are now full of prepared foods, the West Side Market is still a market at its core. The vast majority of the stalls sell meat, vegetables, and Eastern European baked goods. It appeared that the majority of patrons are regulars.
The West Side Market is the anchor of Ohio City, but it is far from the only thing around. 25th Street is lined with cool mostly independent shops and eateries. There are also four breweries in just two blocks. The largest of those breweries- and the largest microbrewery brewery in Ohio- is the Great Lakes Brewing Company. I signed up for a tour of their facility that included “free” beer tastings. The tour wasn’t very good, but luckily they had a beer tasting session in the middle of the tour so I didn’t have to listen to the tour guide the whole time.
After lunch, I headed over to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As Cleveland’s most famous attraction, I couldn’t not visit! While the museum is expensive (over $20), it was really cool! The museum is split evenly between rock history and costumes/artifacts from famous rock singers. The can’t-miss attraction is the theater on the third floor where the museum plays a 15 minute video showing various rockers rocking out including Prince.
It was now in the late afternoon and almost time for the Cavaliers game. After grabbing a drink in one of the downtown bars, I headed over to the Quicken Loans Arena also known as “The Q”. The area was PACKED- especially the team store. Surprisingly, the food lines and prices were very reasonable for an arena. My seat was way at the top, but I was able to see fine- especially because of the enormous big-screen called the Humongotron.
The atmosphere was very lively despite the Cavaliers losing big time to the Denver Nuggets (weirdly enough I saw the Denver Nuggets win on the road at Golden State too).
After the game, I met up with my friend Jaime who lives in downtown Cleveland. Jaime has been to over 70 countries and recently moved back to Cleveland from New York. His beautiful two-story apartment right in downtown is cheaper than a mediocre studio apartment in LA. Jaime explained how downtown Cleveland has added many apartment units and is now a very lively place to be with lots of young people. Just a few blocks from his apartment is The Flats, a major bar district. Jaime also said that Cleveland has some of the best cultural institutions of any city in America. The symphony, art museum, and theater scene rank far better than any other city its size-Greater Cleveland only has 2 million people. The quality of life appears to be very good here.
After wrecking me in beer pong, he offered to take me out to some of the bars in the Flats, but I was too tired and went back to the AirBNB.
March 4, 2018: Two National Park Sites and the Art Museum
The next morning, I set out to explore two of Cleveland’s National Park Service sites. The first was the David Berger National Memorial. Located at a Jewish Community Center in the suburb of Beachwood, the site commemorates David Berger- an Ohio-native who competed for Israel in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and was among the 11 athletes murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group.
While idea for the memorial seems nice, the reality is that this was the single biggest disappointment of any National Park Service site I have ever been to. The memorial itself is a single statue with a small informational plaque. Inside the Jewish Community Center, the front desk has the coveted National Park Passport Stamp plus a one-page brochure (no glossy pamphlet). The whole visit took at most 10 minutes.
Afterwards, I wondered why this site exists as one of America’s 417 National Park Service units. While undoubtedly a very sad story, it honors a citizen who emigrated to and competed for another county. The only reason I could think of is political. With Ohio being an important state on the national political scene- especially in presidential elections, I can see this memorial being placed by an incumbent seeking the Jewish vote in some key election. In my opinion, the memorial is definitely worthy of being there- I just do not think it is worthy of the National Park Service status (other examples of National Memorials are Flight 93 on September 11th, Grant’s Tomb in New York, the Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore). Maybe the Park Service agrees with me, hence the minimal effort and funding.
Another 30 minutes east in the suburb of Mentor, Ohio is the James Garfield National Historic Site, which honors the 20th President of the United States. The site contains his home, but the story is a bit more interesting. Unlike David Berger, this site actually has a visitor center with rangers.
Widely considered to be the single most qualified person to become President, Garfield was murdered less than 6 months into his term. The home then passed onto his wife Lucretia, who lived in the home for another 37 years with her family. She expanded the home with the help of the 1800’s equivalent of a GoFundMe campaign that raised $350,000 (about $8 million in today’s dollars). In the home, Lucretia built a library of all the books and memorabilia owned by President Garfield. This is considered to be the very first Presidential Library. The purpose of the library was to cement Garfield’s status as a distinguished man and politician- not just a murdered President.
The home was actually purchased by Garfield for political reasons. Due to redistricting he was forced to move to keep his current district. The site in Mentor was very close to not only the main road going east of Cleveland, but also a major railroad. This made it easy to conduct his “front porch” campaign, where citizens by the thousands would come to Mentor to hear Garfield address the crowd from his front porch. This was first presidential election where candidates would actually campaign themselves. Prior to the 1880 election, others would campaign on behalf of the candidate. His 200 square-foot one-room campaign office is located adjacent to the main house. It’s crazy how presidential campaigns have changed- Garfield didn’t even run for president until he was nominated at the convention.
The Garfield House was a true gem and I would highly recommend is for a half-day excursion.
After driving back to Cleveland, I went to the world-renowned Cleveland Museum of Art with my friend Shira. As I mentioned before, Cleveland has some of the best cultural institutions in the country despite its small size. This is in large part due to the old money in Cleveland. 100 years ago, Cleveland had more millionaires than any city in the country including John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in America. These millionaires donated much of their money into institutions such as the art museum (which has the 4th largest endowment of any museum in the nation) and the Cleveland Orchestra (one of the Big Five symphonies), the third largest theater district in the country.
The art museum is free to the public, although the special exhibit (paintings of historical events in 18th century Europe) had a fee. Shira and I spent 3 hours wandering the museum and still didn’t see everything. Truly everything was fantastic. My favorite exhibits were the Indian sculptures. Shira loved the American landscapes.
After a quick decompression ice cream, it was time to head to the airport to go home.
I truly think that Cleveland is a wonderful destination. While the weather and underperforming sports teams give it its national reputation, the truth is that Cleveland today is lively, friendly, easy to navigate, affordable and full of things to do. I did not feel bored at the end of my trip.
Cleveland is part of the larger region of Northeast Ohio which includes a few other medium-sized cities including Canton, Akron, and Youngstown. All those cities are easy day trips from Cleveland. Additionally, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is just 30 minutes away.