Cleveland Rocks Families
Story & photos by Chris ‘Chez’ Chesak
Working in the travel industry, I’m sometimes disappointed by a continuous fascination on the biggest and best, the ‘hot’ destinations, and the most extreme. When I excitedly mentioned to industry friends that my daughters and I were going to explore Cleveland, they were not impressed.
I was disappointed in them, but not at all surprised. They’re used to stories about the Seychelles, Namibia, and Kyrgyzstan and travel to a Midwestern city just doesn’t raise their eyebrows.
But if though, as Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God’, then I was excited to hear the band starting to warm up for our forthcoming lessons. This is the kind of travel that I love; random, ‘Why not!’ sort of opportunities. And, as is often the case with these types of dancing lessons, you go in with no pre-conceived expectations and thus can be nothing but delighted. And delighted we were.
Our first stop was the Great Lakes Science Center, where my three daughters (12, 10 and 8) ran absolutely amuck. We romped in the NASA Glenn Visitor Center, absorbing information on how astronauts live in space, the history of space travel, and the underlying science and engineering that makes space travel possible. We took in the IMAX film “National Parks Adventure” and then explored the interactive exhibits on the top floor. I had a really difficult time prying them away from the exhibits, often forgetting what timed deadline I’d set for them, as I got engaged by their own rapturous engagement with all the interactive displays.
Finally, we broke away, but only to run outside to the William G. Mather, a refurbished Great Lakes freighter steam ship. The 618-foot long Mather was built in 1925 and we bustled past the massive cargo holds, through the brass and oak pilot house and guest quarters, and the four-story tall engine room. There are exhibits inside on the Great Lakes themselves too; how they evolved, their ecology, and some of the environmental challenges they face.
Lunch at the Nuevo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar, just a quick walk from the Science Center, was excellent and the service superb. This tony restaurant is probably best suited for a parents’ date night than an actual family outing, but it was nice to get away from the snack bar scene of the museum. (One caveat though: I did have to return to the snack bar to get pizza for my notoriously picky 12-year old because she didn’t like the fries at the restaurant).
Fueled by lunch, we took the requisite shots by the Cleveland Script sign, then shot off to the gem of Cleveland’s attractions, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also just a short walk away. And, we quickly learned, it is not great for kids. Don’t get me wrong, the I.M. Pei-designed ‘Rock Hall’ is amazing and if you care even a lick about music, make the pilgrimage to this homage of this music genre’s evolution, in the town where the phrase ‘rock and roll’ was first uttered. But unless your kids are music prodigies or have been steeped from day one in rock history, it’s just not relevant to them. My girls enjoyed the few modern exhibits on the ground floor (Taylor Swift, et al.) but were just lost when it came to exhibits about The Who, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, or Cat Stevens (but thanks to my wife’s influence, they were quite fine with exhibits about Michael Jackson and Prince).
The next day we drove out to the University Circle area to see what Cleveland’s museums had to offer. Clustered together around the park-like Wade Oval is the Cleveland Botanical Garden, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum.
We popped into the art museum for a few hours, and I really wish we’d been able to stay the day. The girls had a brilliant time exploring the fantastic atrium space, a 2002 expansion to the original 1916 building. We then progressed to the weapons and armor room, where I was able to provide the girls a very amateur ‘101’ course on armor and weapons from the various periods represented.
Somehow, my 12-year old found out about the interactive ArtLens gallery, and off we went. We could have spent a day here alone. First, the girls were absolutely mesmerized by the 40-foot interactive touch wall that displays in real time all works of art from the museum’s permanent collection, up to 4,500 artworks at any given time. Then the girls had a blast playing in the interactive ArtLens Studio with virtual Portrait Maker, Pottery Wheel, Collage Maker, and Paint Play canvas.
The we broke for lunch, driving the cobblestone streets of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. We opted to sit in the garden of Guarino’s Restaurant, Cleveland’s oldest, continuously operational establishment. The waitress told me that during Prohibition they served liquor in coffee cups and had thick, beaded curtains to prevent anyone from looking inside. The homey décor took me right back to my grandmother’s home in East Boston – as did the food. It was delicious (and Italian is generally a safe bet for kids too).
The newly reopened Children’s Museum Cleveland is fabulous and brilliant fun for younger children. The CMC is situated in an old mansion that for decades was the men’s-only University Club. Now the space has been reborn and includes ‘Adventure City’, a fabulous combination town/maze/playground in the basement next to the Wonder Lab room, where kids can play with a variety of water, air, and light exhibits. Various miniatures dollhouses fill the top floor, where there is a scavenger hunt as well as opportunities to learn how to make miniatures.
During the course of our stay, we were delighted to recall that A Christmas Story House is in Cleveland (although the film takes place in Indiana). If you are even somewhat of a fan of the movie, this attraction is a must see. It is striking to turn a corner of a residential Cleveland street, and then come face-to-face with a holiday icon, complete with glowing ‘leg lamp’ in the window. The house is a blast and is totally interactive. Since it’s not a museum, the house is stocked with replicas from the movie and your family can play with them all, from uncrating the leg lamp, to the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and Lifebouy soap in the bathroom, to – of course – the Red Rider BB gun.
Directly across the street from the house is a museum of the movie, which is next to the very large and extremely well-stocked gift shop. If there is a trinket or gag gift from the movie that you’re looking for, it will either be here or it simply doesn’t exist. Nearby, family-friendly dining options include Rowley Inn (cattycorner to the house) and the delicious Grumpy’s Café (just a short drive away).
For your next family trip, consider Cleveland. It’s affordable, accessible, extremely friendly, and – most importantly – tremendously fun for families!
If You Go
- Stay downtown, where you can easily access many of the sites noted above. We enjoyed the quirky Holiday Inn Express Downtown Cleveland which was once a bank and has some incredibly friendly staff. Hotels in this area offer easy access to restaurants along Euclid Avenue, Public Square (location for many of the city’s festivals), and Progressive Field, where the Indians play baseball.
- For easy and accessible family-friendly fare, consider the local Yours Truly Restaurants, including one downtown on Euclid Avenue.
- For a sweet fix, pop into Rocket Fizz and/or Colossal Cupcakes. The former has an incredible selection of candies, sodas, kitschy memorabilia and more. The later serves up an amazing array of cupcakes, including a cupcake shake.
- Don’t miss another Euclid Avenue landmark: Heinen’s Grocery Store. Also located in a former bank building, the domed interior is stunning – and chock full of gourmet goodness.
- For something more active in the inlet around the Great Lakes Science Center and Rock Hall, rent a stand-up paddle board or kayak with Rock and Dock.
Chris ‘Chez’ Chesak is Managing Director of the tour operator Tracks & Trails, serves on the Board of Advisors for the Family Travel Association, and is a 15-year veteran of the travel industry. While he’s lived all over the U.S. and traveled to more than 30 countries, he has the most fun when he’s exploring with his wife Sally, and three daughters. An avid outdoors person and writer, he’s happiest on a trail, on skis, or nestled into a sleeping bag. And he loves nothing more than more “unexpected dancing lessons from God”.