Cleveland, Ohio: home to rock and roll, many sports teams and universities, and a lengthy stretch of Lake Erie shore. It’s one of America’s largest cities, but it joins its Midwest peers in being overlooked as a travel destination. I was determined to find the charm in Cleveland as a proud citizen of a “flyover” city myself. Cities like ours host untold treasures, culturally and gastronomically (check out my #LocalFoodieFriday series for more on that). I went to Cleveland with an open mind, and I wasn’t disappointed.
As an added bonus, the purpose of this trip was to meet an internet friend that I made during the pandemic! I’ve been lucky enough to gain a solid group of friends via Twitter and other social media while we have all been stuck at home, and now the time has come to slowly make it to visiting each and every one. Some places like Finland and Turkey are distant dreams, but luckily one lives right at the end of Interstate 71, connecting Louisville and Cleveland. It felt so good to get out and explore again, and Cleveland was properly safe and masked up while we were there. It was a new normal, but a welcome one.
Cleveland is Cultural
One of the biggest surprises that we discovered about Cleveland was how cultural it was! We stayed in Little Italy near the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Truly it was a little slice of Europe! Brick streets are lined with historic buildings that house local boutiques and Italian restaurants, and the whole place was teeming with life. Our AirBnb was perfectly located and gave us access to so many restaurants.
On our first night we had the pleasure of visiting La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant right at the end of the street that we stayed on. I don’t know that I’ve ever tasted pesto as fresh as theirs! The Caprese salad served as a refreshing starter for the table; though the addition of onions and olives was unexpected, they were delicious. One of the highlights of the night was the chef coming through the tables distributing samples of one of the pastas. It was something that I had wanted to order but didn’t have the chance to, so it was great to be able to try it!
The next day, we took a stroll (well, 4-mile hike, really) through what is one of Cleveland’s greatest attractions for a geography nerd like me – the Cultural Gardens. This is a series of gardens built and maintained by the immigrant groups that call Cleveland home. Each group finances, designs, and tends the gardens. There are gardens from Estonia to Lebanon, and from Armenia to Colombia. The earliest is the British garden that dates back to 1916. From then on, cultural groups have claimed plots of their own to display gardening prowess and design flair with a side of educational history.
Monuments, statues, fountains, and plaques give each garden a unique feel. Events are held there as well, such as operatic performances in the beautiful amphitheater of the Italian garden. The gardens have helped strengthen international ties, such as when the President of Albania attended the opening of the Albanian garden in 2012. And the gardens keep growing, with offerings from Korea, Turkey, and Vietnam on the horizon. There are even gardens that celebrate Black and Native Americans and their history in Cleveland. Even if you don’t walk the entire 2-mile long stretch and back, visiting any garden is well worth your time. It will open up a deeper appreciation for the multitude of identities that call Cleveland home.
Cleveland is Beautiful
Beauty may be Cleveland’s most underrated feature. When approaching the city from the south, you run into steel factories and smelting yards. Buildings that lay vacant, ruins of the industrial age that have moved on. You start to think that you’re entering a city past its prime. But when you’ve arrived and you dig deeper, you find that there’s so much beauty to explore.
Something I did not expect was for Cleveland to have such spectacular museums. We managed to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Botanical Garden but there was so much more that we didn’t get a chance to see. The art museum was free (but prebooked to keep numbers low for COVID precautions) and the collection was incredible. One of my favorite galleries was a whole section dedicated to Tiffany glassworks, near a section dedicated to Fabergé. Even if you have a mild interest in art, the CMA has plenty to interest you!
The Botanical Garden is art in a little less stuffy sense. Gorgeous vines, tendrils, and flowers stretch over acres of land, sloping down hills and climbing stone buildings. The greenhouse is particularly lush, with a second level that puts you right in the trees and gives you the sensation of flying with the birds. Go near sunset for that golden hour lighting streaming through the glass ceiling and lighting up your floral photo subjects in the perfect way that only a gift of nature can.
Of course the botanical garden isn’t the only nature Cleveland has to offer – there’s Lake Erie dominating the climate and begging to be explored. We swung by Presti’s Bakery one morning to grab some breakfast treats before hiking out to the lake and enjoying them with the view.
Presti’s has been a staple of the Cleveland community in the heart of Little Italy since 1903, and it’s not hard to imagine why they have lasted so long. Every pastry that we had was expertly crafted and well-flavored. As a coffee snob, I enjoyed the brew that we had to accompany them. Presti’s was our breakfast stop both mornings we were in Cleveland, and I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else. I recommend the pecan roll and the apple crostata, but you truly can’t go wrong with anything that you choose.
Cleveland is Unique
I think that one of the most pervasive stereotypes about Middle America is that every city is a carbon copy of another, while the big cities live and thrive in their own unique flavor. This is mostly perpetrated by those that have never visited Middle America and those that are desperate to get out. If you look past the stereotypes however, what you’ll find is much more unique than what you bargained for.
One of my favorite places that displays the uniqueness available in Cleveland is Algebra Tea House. Located near Case Western Reserve University, this quirky tea house is everything I want in a restaurant and more. It’s filled with students doing work while sipping tea and snacking on a variety of Mediterranean plates – probably not an uncommon sight in any given city. What makes Algebra special is the care and attention that owner, chef, and artist Ayman Alkayali has given to the café to make it one of a kind.
Every piece of furniture from the stools to the tables to the barback is handmade. The rustic and curving lines of the polished wood make you feel like you’re part of a forest gathering. Like the ancient woods of Cleveland are part of your dining experience. But Alkayali didn’t just make the furniture. He is a ceramics master that has made every plate and every mug that serve dozens of dishes and over 30 kinds of tea. Algebra is the result of decades of soul searching and hard work to find your place in a foreign country. After moving from Syria to Germany to the US and cycling through several degree and career paths, Alkayali has made a home in making customers feel at home. And the result is truly one of the most remarkable places to kick back and relax that I have ever visited.
Cleveland is full of the stories of small creators who are trying to make a name for their craft. Another unlikely success story is that of Marchant Manor Cheese. Founder Kandice Marchant is a doctor and scientist who pursued cheesemaking as a hobby. A lifelong fascination with it led to her opening up Marchant Manor Cheese in 2019. She makes the shop’s specialty triple cream European-style cheeses herself on the weekends while continuing to serve as the Cleveland Clinic’s medical director of hemostasis and thrombosis.
Located in an old bank building, Marchant Manor enjoys a solid reputation as a go-to spot for Clevelanders that know a thing or two about cheese. Marchant hopes to continue the city’s education by hosting cheese tasting and informational classes in one of the bank’s old vault rooms. She highlights the local economy and producers by carrying cheeses and accompanying products from around Ohio, and even gets the milk for her own signature cheeses from a local dairy. You simply cannot visit Cleveland without stopping here!
From Marchant’s, it’s just a short walk down Lee Road to Mitchell’s Fine Chocolates. Mitchell’s began in 1939 as a shop that sold refreshments to patrons of a movie theater next door. When theaters started selling their own concessions, Mitchell’s turned to making European-style fine chocolates. Now, all these years later, they remain one of the premiere chocolate purveyors in the city.
Walking into Mitchell’s, you become the embodiment of a kid in a candy store. Dark brown creations wrapped in bright cellophane are everywhere you look. On the back wall are bins of colorful classic candies. And the counter is a gleaming glass wall of marvels, filled to the brim with chocolates of all shapes and sizes. The staff are friendly as can be, and between offering samples and helping you pick our your dream box of assortments, are more than willing to give out an oral history of the city or a pizza recommendation. It’s customer service the way customer service once was – friendly, affable, and knowledgeable. Between Marchant’s and Mitchell’s, you’ll leave the area happily with your bags stuffed and your wallet empty.
I’m quite happy to disabuse anyone of their preconceived notions of Middle America. Whether it’s my city or an adopted destination, I’m always willing to act as a tour guide and help you discover what makes each city its own special place. I greatly enjoyed my time in Cleveland and I’m so grateful to my friend Diana for showing me around. Now I’m taking up the mantle to bring the glory back to one of America’s first great cities. The North Coast; The New American City; The Best Location in the Nation; whatever you call it, I call it great. Fly on over to flyover country and I’ll show you why.
Until next time, here’s to good drinking, great eating, and even better living.