When I booked my flight to Cleveland, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. It was my final stop on a whirlwind trip around the country as part of a partnership with The Ritz-Carlton to highlight some of their beautiful hotels as well as the communities they call home. I had never been to Cleveland before, although I was born in Ohio and have spent a fair amount of time in many other cities around the state. Honestly, I was intrigued though. There’s a certain museum in town that I had long wanted to visit and the promise of great Polish food is always enough to get me interested in trying out a new city. So it was with optimism that I arrived into Cleveland, eager to explore and to see for myself why everyone promised me that yes, Cleveland rocks.
Home base – The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland
Located in the center of Cleveland’s downtown, immediately I appreciated the location of The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland for the convenience in exploring the city. The hotel is in a state of flux though. A little overdue for a refresh, grand plans are underway to completely transform the entire property, from guest rooms to the lobby and of course their restaurants and bars. The plans are exciting and looking over the sketches on display in the Club Lounge, I was excited for the hotel. Excited to see what it will become in just 1 short year and while I’m looking forward to returning and seeing the changes for myself, I also wanted to explore the hotel as it is today. Personally, the star of my stay at any The Ritz-Carlton around the world is the Club Lounge and other benefits afforded to Club Level guests. This option is the best among luxury hotels and is an added benefit that always makes my experience more relaxing and productive. What I loved the most about the Club Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland was how expertly they brought in local food culture to the overall experience. Candy jars were brimming with locally made and much-loved treats and in the center of the room was an unusual foodie feature.
Smokies, smoked Slim-Jim-like meat sticks, are hugely popular in Cleveland and The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland pays special homage to them by offering an expansive Smokie bar featuring this cult classic in a wide array of flavors and styles. Chatting with another guest very familiar with the city, he said they were some of the best he’s ever had, and a great (and unexpected) added value to the overall experience. Food is actually an important aspect of staying with The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland and my dinner enjoying some regional classics whipped up by Chef Arnoldi was an important foodie experience for me personally. Homemade sausages, locally sourced vegetables and cheeses and more created the best possible culinary introduction to the city that I could have hoped for.
Overall, The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland is a fantastic base from which to explore the rest of the city, which I couldn’t wait to see for myself.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
There are some museums or sites that make us want to travel just to experience them in person and the expansive Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along the Cleveland waterfront is one of those places. Walking up to the massive facility, I couldn’t help but feel excited and I’m not entirely sure why. Like anyone else, I enjoy music, but I’m not obsessive about it and my own knowledge of groups and people can be somewhat limited. But I knew that this would be a world-class experience and right away I realized my hunch was right. Let’s be clear, an entire day could very easily be spent at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, perusing its many exhibits, touring special collections and listening to the music that has changed the world. It’s up to you how much time you spend at the Hall of Fame, but for me I wanted to see and do as much as possible, following the steady progression through its many levels.
At first the facility can be a little confusing, but everywhere I went inside I found kind and helpful docents eager to point me in the right direction. Built in 1995, the Hall of Fame is part of the larger Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, established in the 1980s to recognize and preserve the history of the best-known and most influential figures in the development of rock and roll through the decades. The building itself was designed by famed architect I.M. Pei and walking through it, the light and airy feel is the perfect vessel for the amazing information and artifacts contained inside.
Before my visit I wasn’t sure how much of the museum would appeal to me, but right away I knew the entire experience would quickly become a personal favorite. I love history, and the course of the exhibits at the Hall of Fame lead guests through the history of Rock and Roll, from its earliest antecedents to the modern era. It’s a fascinating look not only at the music that has shaped all of our lives, but the amazing impacts these simple songs have had on the world. Add in special items, costumes and memorabilia from some of the most famous musicians in the world, and the experience is as much fun as I had hoped it would be. There are also any number of special exhibits ongoing, including one installed this year: Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics. Inspired by the election year, this exhibit chronicles the impact that rock and roll has had on our attitudes about patriotism, equality and freedom. It was a fascinating look at the at-times symbiotic relationship between politics and rock and roll, and I was pleased to also learn that in 2017 the exhibit will move to the Newseum in Washington, DC; another one of my favorite museums.
Whether you’re an ardent rock and roll aficionado or just have a passing interest, this is one of those few museums in the world that everyone should try to visit at least once in their lives.
Revitalized Downtown and Waterfront
Of course there’s a lot more to Cleveland than just the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as I discovered while wandering along both the Lake Erie waterfront, as well as the new downtown core. The waterfront itself is a beautiful and peaceful sanctuary in the middle of the city, and it’s also where many of Cleveland’s top sights are located. North Coast Harbor is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center and FirstEnergy Stadium – home of the Cleveland Browns. But it’s also balanced by great green spaces, including the Voinovich Bicentennial Park and great biking and walking paths following the lake. Throughout the year there are also any number of events and festivals here, making it a fun place to hang out.
The recently held Republican National Convention provided Cleveland with the perfect opportunity to refresh some of the areas downtown, which the city took full advantage of. Most notable is the newly reenergized Public Square. The oldest part of Cleveland, it’s home to some of the city’s most important buildings as well as some impressively tall towers. For years though it had been somewhat forgotten, until a recently finished project that completely reimagined the downtown square. Now featuring green spaces and pedestrian zones, it’s the new heart of the city, reimagined for a new type of downtown resident. When I visited it was a beautiful sunny morning and the farmer’s market was in the process of setting up. Returning at lunch time, the square was packed with folks out and about, picking up light bites and just enjoying the space for what it is. It’s a beautiful addition to the city and I can’t wait to see how it evolves over the coming years.
Food is one of my favorite aspects of the travel experience, and I couldn’t wait to eat my way through Cleveland. A big reason for that is that I personally love great Polish food, an ethnic tradition for which the city is famous. Thanks to its working-class, immigrant roots there are many great restaurants around town not only for Polish cuisine, but many others including Italian and even Mexican food. I was on a mission though, which is why I made sure I tried the buffet lunch at the iconic Sokolowski’s University Inn.
Established in 1923, Sokolowski’s is Cleveland’s oldest family owned restaurant and walking through the doors, I could tell that thankfully not much has changed over the years. The menu is expansive and features all of the classics from Poland and Eastern Europe you would expect, from pastrami on rye to enormous portions of schnitzel. Sokolowski’s is famous for their pierogis though, one of Cleveland’s most important dishes. After my first bite into the buttery and soft pierogi I immediately understood why it’s their specialty; I seriously doubt there’s a better version outside of Poland.
I didn’t have as much time to explore Cleveland as I would have liked, but thankfully I did have the afternoon to venture out beyond the downtown core and to see some of the neighborhoods that help define the city. As a huge fan of Christmas movies, my first stop was a no-brainer – the famous “A Christmas Story” house. Many scenes from this now iconic movie were shot in and around Cleveland, including exterior shots of this house in the Tremont neighborhood. Purchased privately and lovingly restored, visitors today can tour the house, try their hand with a Red Ryder BB gun (unloaded) and even wear a pink bunny suit just like in the movie. It’s kitschy and campy but it’s also just plain fun.
Nearby though is a Cleveland institution no one should miss – the West Side Market. Located in the newly-hip Ohio City neighborhood, the market is an absolute institution in town and is commonly heralded by experts as one of the best food markets in the world. Not only is the market a fun place to explore, but so is the neighborhood which has clearly benefited from some renewed interest. It may be a little hipsterish at times, but it’s also an exciting neighborhood to explore.
Cleveland surprised me in every way, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to its luxury and food options and of course the city’s quirky neighborhoods. I enjoyed my time there much more than I thought I would to be honest and after exploring it I can now agree with everyone else that yes, Cleveland does indeed rock.