Cleveland, Ohio, is one of those places that one initially visits without the expectation of too much. Depending on your age, you might have first been exposed to Cleveland by Drew Carry through his 90s sitcom. If a sports follower, then you probably know about the loyal fans who support their teams no matter what. If you are a history buff then you’ve heard about the Cuyahoga River, once, though no longer, known as the most polluted river in the United States, which lead to it catching on fire no less than 13 times.

But as a new visitor to the area, I wanted to see what more the city had to offer besides outdated highlights and how far it has come since.

The following are just a few ways in which first-time travelers such as myself can connect with the city and walk away feeling endeared to it as well.

Cleveland was so much more than I expected

Explore the neighborhoods – they are all so different and great!

As a New York City native, I appreciate any pedestrian-friendly city. Though some areas required me to rideshare—a service that is easily accessible in Cleveland with some of the friendliest drivers anywhere—once I arrived into a neighborhood walking around it was easy and pleasant.

There are tons of great neighborhoods to explore and walk around in

Some of my favorites were Little Italy which has all the wonderful things one would expect in addition to art walks in the Murray Hill area every first weekend of June, October, and December.

The Detroit Shoreway and the Gordon Arts District are home to the Cleveland Public Theater and the Capitol Theater, but most importantly to the Superelectric Pinball Parlor, a walk back in time to the peak days of arcades.

The waterfront neighborhood of The Flats, with bars and eateries and stunning views of the river, is also a great place to rent a kayak from and take in all the beauty from the water.

Brunch with a taste of Paris, and other good eats

Another neighborhood where you might find yourself spending a lot of time in is Ohio City. It will take any visitor wanting to explore a few days to see it all. But I suggest starting with brunch at Le Petit Triangle and ordering one of their freshly made croissants and cafe Au lait. Of course, their Croque Madame is pretty yummy too! Get there early as the line can get long, and if it’s a nice day, take a seat outside and people watch.

After a hearty brunch, treat yourself to a walk through the neighborhood and take in all the cute houses and tree-lined streets around. This walk comes with its rewards because it can lead you right to the doorsteps of Brewnuts, which are hand-made donuts with all-natural ingredients and a touch of local craft brews. The wait is helpful when trying to choose from their unique combinations and flavors.

No matter what you do, you cannot miss a visit to the West Side Market. This market has been open to the public since 1912 and it remains one of the most beloved spots for locals and travelers alike. The vendors sell everything ranging from meats to cheeses to homemade pasta and bread, and so much more. There are plenty of ready-to-eat options too for a bite on the go.

West Side Market

Take in the street art

One of the way artists, not just local to Cleveland but also around the world, have expressed affection and appreciation for this city is by displaying their art for all to enjoy as they go about their daily lives and Ohio City is a wonderful place to start your tour.

Surround yourself with the history of rock and roll

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of the most iconic spots to visit in Cleveland. The collection of musical memorabilia, as well as the stories through history that developed, changed, and impacted music throughout the years, is captivating so much so that you can easily spend a day exploring the various exhibits displayed across the different levels of this massive space.

A brew-lovers delight!

If you like tasting different breweries, then Cleveland is a great place for it. One of my favorites is Market Garden Brewery for its ambiance, service, and delicious food to pair with their in-house brew. You can also take a tour to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse!

Cody York for ThisIsCleveland.com

Another favorite is the Great Lakes Brewing Co. (GLB), also in Ohio City.  This historic site was once a favorite hang out of Eliot Ness, the notorious prohibition officer and after whom they have named an Amber Lager. What is especially inspiring about this particular brewery, however, is how it was the first to give the neighborhood it is in a chance to even try to succeed when others had given up. After decades of hard work and commitment, Ohio City is one of the most coveted and popular neighborhoods in the Cleveland area, thanks in part to the perseverance of the GLB owners. They have a great selection of beers, with a must-try being their Burning River Pale Ale, named in memory of the Cuyahoga River fires.

Try the beer sampler at Great Lakes Brewing!

Where to stay

If you want to be in the center of it all, the Hilton Cleveland Downtown is a perfect spot offering an opportunity to walk to a lot of the cool spots, like The Flats neighborhood and the Rock and Wall Hall of Fame as well as to plenty of restaurants and bars in the area – although their rooftop Bar 32 has some of the most stunning views of the city and Lake Erie.

For a more luxurious experience, check out The Metropolitan at The 9, a favorite of the rich and famous. Don’t miss a night out at The Vault, a bar lounge with century-old bank vaults beneath the Cleveland Trust Rotunda.

About those fires and the Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River has come a long way since its last fire on June 22, 1969. That fire served as a wake-up call to the residents of Cleveland and pushed for change not only in the local industry but also on the federal level. It forced Congress to focus on land pollution. 7 months after the fire, in January of 1970, the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law. This helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the first legislation of which was the Clean Water Act of 1972. Today the river is not only celebrated for its impact on environmentalism but also for the progress it has made and all it has to offer its local community.

View of the Cuyahoga River at night

These are just starting points for a wonderful time in Cleveland. Other things to do along the outskirts of town is taking a dip in Lake Erie from any one of the beaches near Lakewood Park, or going on a hike in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and taking in the views of Brandywine Falls.

The city doesn’t disappoint and is less than a two-hour flight from major cities such as New York, Toronto, and Philadelphia.