Cleveland may be best known for sports and art, but history and nature bring this American city to life and make for some of the best things to do in Cleveland on any visit.
Cleveland’s history is a great story told in its many museums. Nature is a part of many of Cleveland’s attractions, from its parks to its world-acclaimed zoo, and even its famous cemetery where history and nature blend.
Cleveland is perched on the banks of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes that separates the USA from Canada.
1. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on the shores of Lake Erie in Downtown Cleveland, tells how rock ‘n’ roll evolved from the early African American blues and country music and on to modern-day hip-hop. I love that they have memorabilia from early musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Gospel singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, on to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Sun Studio story.
There are sections devoted to later versions like Music of the Midwest and Motown that developed in Detroit. I love the Garage section devoted to live music. You can play an instrument or jam with a group in a studio. There is The Power of Rock Theater for live performances. The actual Hall of Fame is on the third floor.
2. Cleveland History Center
Cleveland History Center is the headquarters for the Western Reserve Historical Society. Its collections of artifacts and documents tell the story of Northeast Ohio in the former Victorian homes of two of its wealthy influential citizens from the Rockefeller era. Exhibits start with the early cars and touch on The NASA Glenn Research Center, which began early research in the 1940s. I appreciated the exhibit on Woman’s Rights from the early days of suffrage to the present.
A historic treat that will appeal to all ages is the Euclid Beach Park Grand Carousel. It was originally at Euclid Beach Park on Cleveland’s lakefront, beginning around 1910. The park was closed more than 45 years ago. You can ride one of the colorful hand-carved wooden horses or sit in one of the seats and admire the hand-painted scene of Cleveland.
3. Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland Museum of Art has a surprising touch of history. It’s located in the University Circle neighborhood on the city’s east side. The original neo-classical building of white Georgian marble, completed in 1916, was later enclosed in an atrium courtyard with a glass canopy fronted by east and west wings.
The museum houses a permanent collection of more than 61,000 masterpieces from around the world. It was voted No. 2 museum in the country by Business Insider magazine. Collections of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sub-Saharan African, Byzantine, Medieval, and American works including paintings, sculptures, and even furniture, populate the many galleries.
One of its most prestigious works is Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The piece was damaged by terrorists and is kept in the damaged condition. It’s a sobering reminder. This amazing museum is free.
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I loved some of the furniture. Especially a French late 19th-century cabinet made by Italian cabinet maker Carlo Bugatti. It’s wood with metal inlays and painted parchment, glass doors, and a mirror.
Another amazing piece is a Prayer Niche called a Mihrab. It was made between 1941 and 1961 but is in a style popular in the 1500s.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If all the art makes you hungry, head to the Provenance Café, which has seating both inside and in the lovely atrium.
4. Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Cleveland Museum of Natural History showcases Ohio’s natural history. There are exhibits, a planetarium, and a live animal section. The Corning Gallery has some art.
A temporary exhibit, Endangered Species by Andy Warhol, features 10 endangered animals he painted in his unique style. Seven of them are still endangered. There are also some John James Audubon paintings.
Younger guests will love the dinosaur fossils exhibit on the main floor.
Another treat for scientists ages 7 and younger is the Smead Discovery Center, a hands-on science center. It’s located on the lower level where kids can explore the wonders of science and nature.
Shafran Planetarium and Mueller Observatory offer a chance to examine other planets through the telescope or view a space-related show.
Perkins Wildlife Center was one of my favorite things to do in Cleveland, as you feel so close to the wildlife. A wooden boardwalk winds through and above letting you watch Ohio wildlife in natural settings.
All the wildlife living here are rescues that could not be released back into the wild.
The four resident coyotes, Red, Tex, Ember, and Charcoal, were relaxing when I visited. Two were resting on the roofs of their houses and the other two were out of sight. Although coyotes are not native to the East, they have been pushed out of the West due to loss of habitat and are now living in all states except Hawaii. They are one of the most adaptable animals in existence.
You’ll meet eight mammal species. Besides the coyotes, there are red and two gray foxes, three bobcats, three river otters, three skunks, one albino raccoon, and a porcupine appropriately named Lancelot.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure not to miss the wildlife section as it is outside the building.
5. Cleveland Botanical Gardens
The Cleveland Botanical Gardens is located on University Circle across from the Art Museum and is open year-round. It has something for just about every interest.
The Madagascar Glasshouse has some tropical plants. For beauty, it’s hard to beat the rose garden. Aspiring chefs will love the herb garden and kitchen garden. There is a Topiary Garden, a Japanese Garden, and you’ll find lots of butterflies in the Costa Rica Glasshouse.
There’s a play space for the youngsters and even a touch of art in The Eppig and Guren Galleries where you will find rotating exhibits by regional artists. Garden Café is where you can get a bite to eat and then visit the earth-friendly Gift Shop.
6. Greater Cleveland Aquarium
The Greater Cleveland Aquarium, located in the Flats West Bank area, opened in 2012. Its marine life sends a wonderful message of conservation, but it has a backstory. It began life in 1892 as FirstEnergy Powerhouse on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.
The first section you visit is “Ohio Lakes & Rivers.” It’s filled with marine life found in Ohio. Then pass into the Asian and Indonesia area where you see a green tree python among many other creatures. In the Tropical Forest section, there’s a weird-looking southern toad, poison dart frogs, and more.
As you wander through the historic Romanesque revival-style building admiring the multitude of fish, seahorses, frogs, turtles, and reptiles in carefully placed tanks, you see reminders of the old building’s use. Massive old brick walls with arched entrances guarded by black iron gates lead into the Saltwater Habitats. An ancient arched window looks out on what was once an industrial Flats area.
A sign mounted on the distressed brick wall next to an exposed metal pipe tells that in 1850, this was an industrial area with factories and refineries. This powerhouse that once powered the streetcars closed in 1920. It went through several uses, including a factory, nightclubs, and an entertainment complex.
This section has spotted eels, seahorses, a touch pool with rays, and a tunnel where you are surrounded by the sea. Sharks swim over and next to you. Divers interact with visitors.
Parks and green spaces cover more than 21,000 acres in Cleveland and pretty much every public square mingles art and nature. The Free Stamp is one of Cleveland’s most photographed spots. It’s a 50-foot-tall, 75,000-pound rubber stamp with the word “FREE” written backward. It was originally intended to sit in front of Standard Oil’s headquarters building, but thanks to a timely sale to BP Oil, it rests in Cleveland’s Willard Park.
A statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish patriot who fought with America in the Revolutionary War, sits in Wade Park. Wade Park also has picnic facilities, tennis courts, a lagoon, and ball fields.
Not too far away at The Cleveland Cancer Survivor’s Plaza next to Mt. Sinai Medical Complex there is another eye-catcher, the five-story high carved brick gazebo of “The Tree of Life.”
It’s topped with a cantilevered grape cluster with aluminum bird wings, representing freedom from stress. Grapevines twisting around huge oak trunks form the four legs of the monument. It is surrounded by a 50-foot-high carved brick gazebo showcasing the wildlife and plants indigenous to northern Ohio including deer, raccoons, robins, and owls.
“Cancer – There’s Hope,” a grouping of eight life-sized family members statues by Victor Salmones, is next to the huge sculpture.
The “Fountain of Eternal Life” is one of Cleveland’s most controversial sculptures. The tall green male figure is nude, but the sculpted “fountain” covers strategic parts. He rises with one hand stretched towards the sky out of a small sphere set inside a real fountain. Marshall Fredericks created it in 1964 to honor local veterans of the Korean War and World War II.
When you drive across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, you’ll see another of Cleveland’s iconic pieces of public art: eight 43-foot-tall “Guardians of Transportation” stone sculptures towering above the bridge.
In addition to its many sculptures, Cleveland has an amazing number of murals. Especially throughout Gordon Square, Little Italy, The West Side Market area, the Flats, and downtown.
I saw art I loved on walls, bridges, and everywhere. The one called “If you see a cloud behind the sun, it must be an egg” on Market Garden Brewery has fried sunny-side-up eggs floating like clouds in the sky over brightly colored produce.
The “By Hand” mural in Market Square Park was painted by Buffalo-based muralist Augustina Droze after studying the hands of people who worked at West Side Market and other businesses in the area. A local artist, Mike Moritz, created the aluminum stripes that run across the mural.
In Little Italy, there’s an entire wall of murals that tell the area’s Italian history. Did you know Dean Martin lived around here? Lots of mobsters did too.
Little Italy is also home to Cleveland’s most famous chef, Hector Boiardi, better known as Chef Boyardee. Legend says he catered President Wilson’s second marriage reception when he married Edith Galt.
A cemetery as a must-see attraction? Yes! The Lake View Cemetery, established in 1869, is the final resting place of President Garfield, John D. Rockefeller, Alan Freed, Eliot Ness, and many other famous Clevelanders. Besides the tombs – some a work of art in their own right – the cemetery is filled with art and monuments.
President Garfield’s monument was closed for repairs when I visited, but you usually can go to the lower level and see he and his wife’s coffins or to the upper-level observatory for a great view of the cemetery.
Alan Freed, who is the Cleveland DJ who first named rock and roll and later moved to a larger New York station, has a tombstone shaped like a jukebox. John D. Rockefeller has the tallest obelisk in the cemetery.
Wade Chapel, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his studios, is worth a visit. Its stained-glass window, The Flight of Souls, depicts the consummation of the Divine Promise.
10. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, located just 5 miles south of downtown in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood, has more than 3,000 animals in 18 separate attractions. It began in 1882 as Wade Park, named for Jeptha Wade, who donated the original 73 acres. Today, it is 183 acres, and is considered one of the best zoos in the USA.
Besides every animal you could imagine, there are many other attractions in the zoo. You can ride a train through the Australian Adventure, take an Eagle Zipline through the sky, or relax in the 4D theater. There are eight sections: Rainforest, Circle of Wildlife, Wildfowl Lake, Wilderness Trek, Australian Adventure, African Elephant Crossing, and the Primate, Cat, and Aquatics.
Since the zoo is so large, there is a park tram service during the busiest hours between African Elephant Crossing and the Primate, Cat, and Aquatics Building.
11. Dunham Tavern Museum
Dunham Tavern Museum is the oldest building in Cleveland still standing on its original site. Lauren Murray, the museum director, gave me a tour. She explained that this was once a stagecoach stop on the Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit post road. Rufus and Jane Pratt Dunham built the two-story home in 1824. It served as an inn and tavern for passengers and drivers on the stage and the Dunhams’ home.
It’s furnished much as it would have been when the Dunhams lived there. There is a small garden at the rear of the home. Tours of the home are by appointment only and are free. The garden and grounds are open during daylight hours.
12. West Side Market
West Side Market in the Ohio City neighborhood is the oldest operating indoor/outdoor market in Cleveland. The building has a 44-foot high Guastavino tile vaulted ceiling, and a clock tower that stands 137 feet tall. The Seth Thomas Clock Company manufactured the clock in the tower. The original market on this site opened in 1840. It was small, so they built this new building in 1912.
I browsed around the magnificent Byzantine-style building and then visited Steve’s Gyros. That gyro was huge and delicious. I took it upstairs where there is limited seating. From up here, I had a great overview of the market.
There are all kinds of vendors, produce, meat, fish, bakeries, cheese, and just about any kind of food you might want.
13. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the only national park in Ohio, protects nearly 33,000 acres of rural land between Akron and Cleveland. You’ll find waterfalls, beautiful sycamore trees, and lots of wildlife here.
One of the best ways to see the park is via the National Park Scenic Railroad Ride. I boarded the Cuyahoga Scenic Train in Peninsula, a tiny town just outside Cleveland. This depot was originally the Boston Mill Depot from the Valley Railway, which opened in 1880. They moved it to the Peninsula Station in the early 1970s.
The train used to come closer to Cleveland, but due to erosion problems, it has suspended this section of the route until they can complete repairs. A tow path runs along the Cuyahoga River, which parallels the railroad from the days when mules pulled boats along the river.
I enjoyed miles of nature and cityscapes in a vintage rail car. I was lucky enough to ride with one of the railroad’s volunteers, Tom Kovach. He filled me in on local history on the 30-mph two-hour excursion. One interesting object along the route was a bronze statue of a Native American walking with a canoe over his head. Tom told me that Indians had to portage a canoe for eight miles on what is called the Portage Path.
The train is operated completely by volunteers. They act as engineers, conductors, café car operators, and usually each car has an instructor to tell you about the train and what you are seeing as you ride.
When we arrived back at the Peninsula Station, I had some great wings at Winking Lizard, located almost next to the station.
More Fun Things to Do in Cleveland
Cleveland has so many fun things to see and do. There are places I would have liked to visit, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, AKA MOCA, and A Christmas Story House in the Tremont Neighborhood, but due to time constraints could not. I wish I could have gone kayaking at Edgewater Park and seen a Broadway play at Playhouse Square.
Where to Stay in Cleveland
I stayed at the Drury Plaza Hotel, which has a touch of history. It’s the former Cleveland Board of Education Building beautifully reincarnated. The icing on the cake here is the free breakfast buffet, Kickstart, which is really a filling dinner, at 5:30, and free popcorn all day. Read my review of the Drury Plaza Hotel here.
Where to Eat in Cleveland
There’s no shortage of great eateries here. You’ll find bakeries, craft beer, food trucks, and more. You can do a food tour or dine on your own.
My favorite meal came from Nuevo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar located on the banks of Lake Erie. It combines traditional Mexican and Latin American food to create their own special dishes. I loved the Polynesian Pork; pork carnitas, mango-fresno salsa, pickled red onion, and agave teriyaki, with three taco shells to heap it into served with Tajin rice.
For adults, Great Lakes Brewing offers tours, beer, and a large menu at their brewpub.