CLEVELAND -- Once derided as "the Mistake on the Lake" -- the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the center of town, famously caught fire in 1969 because of its rampant pollution -- Ohio's second largest city is on a serious upswing.
A growing foodie destination with a landmark public market and a lively arts community (the Playhouse Square Center is the second-largest performing arts center in the U.S.), there's plenty of fun in store for the weekend traveler. So much, in fact, that Travel and Leisure named it one of America's "favorite cities" in 2009 for affordability and its rockin' music scene: in addition to one of the world's best-known music museums, it boasts a renowned orchestra.
Just 2 1/2 hours by car from Pittsburgh via the Ohio turnpike, Cleveland Browns Stadium in downtown Cleveland is probably the easiest of the Steelers' "away" destinations, even with a 1 p.m. kickoff. If you don't have a pre-sold parking pass and get a late start, though, you may have a tough time finding a cash spot for your car, especially if there's a ship in port. (The stadium is near an active port.) For a guide to area parking lots, visit clevelandbrowns.com/stadium/parking.
Cleveland's major neighborhoods include the Historic Warehouse and Playhouse Square districts (downtown), Ohio City (just across the Cuyahoga River and west of downtown), The Flats (on the banks of the Cuyahoga River), Tremont (just off Lincoln Park) and University Circle (4 miles from downtown and the city's cultural center).
There are plenty of inexpensive chain hotel/motel options for those who plan on making a weekend of it, especially if you stay outside the city in Lakewood, Beechwood or near the airport. Or go upscale at hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton on West Third Street ($299 and up, ritzcarlton.com), the Marriott Downtown at Key Center on Public Square ($229 and up, marriott.com) and the Hyatt Regency Cleveland at The Arcade, located in one of the first indoor shopping centers in America and the first building in Cleveland to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places ($129 and up, cleveland.hyatt.com).
Glidden House is a 1910 mansion-turned-boutique hotel with "modish" guestrooms ($149 and up) and vintage suites ($229 and up) on the campus of Case Western Reserve University (gliddenhouse.com). A stay at the J. Palen House bed-and-breakfast, a purple Victorian built in the mid-1800s and just a short walk from the historic West Side Market, includes a three-course gourmet breakfast. Prices start at $159 (jpalenhouse.com).
Many of the best tastes of Cleveland can be found in its historic West Side Market (westsidemarket.org; open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) in an arched NeoClassical/Byzantine building in the Ohio City neighborhood. (Look for its signature 137-foot clock tower.) In October, the public market celebrated its 100th birthday with a parade, but every day here feels like a celebration for food lovers. Home to more than 100 vendors that show off the city's ethnic diversity -- you'll find everything from Old World smoked meats and pierogies to produce and gourmet cheeses to a French creperie serving to-order sweet and savory crepes -- it's been featured on the Travel Channel and Food Network.
But what if you'd rather order at a table?
Even though Cleveland and Pittsburgh have similar demographics, Cleveland's food scene has a higher national profile. As former PG restaurant critic China Millman pointed out in a 2010 travel story, the food here really rocks. She had especially high praise for The Greenhouse Tavern, noting that its celebrity chef/owner Jonathan Sawyer -- which Food & Wine named one of 2010's best new chefs -- takes "casual fine dining to dizzying new heights." Be sure to order the chicken wings.
Another big food name is "Iron Chef" Michael Symon, whose Lola Bistro on E. Fourth St. (lolabistro.com) is considered "the" place to eat downtown, according to Cleveland Plain Dealer restaurant critic Joseph Crea. Less dressy but still excellent is Mr. Symon's sister restaurant Lolita in the chic Tremont neighborhood (lolitarestaurant.com). "Very, very good food," says Mr. Crea.
Also superb are either of chef Zack Bruell's two spots downtown: the Italian-inspired Chinato on E. Fourth St. (chinatocleveland.com) and Cowell & Hubbard, a contemporary Parisian-influenced upscale eatery on Euclid Avenue in Playhouse Square (cowellhubbard.com).
For vegetarian fare, you can't miss at Crop Bistro and Bar at 2537 Lorain Ave. in historic Ohio City. Once a month, it offers a three-course "Sunday Supper" for $30; the next date is Dec. 2. Pierogies reign at Sokolowski's University Inn, a cafeteria-style eatery with old-fashioned, homestyle food on University Road in Tremont (sokolowskis.com). "It's PURE Cleveland," notes Mr. Crea.
For lunch, Slyman's on St. Clair Avenue (slymans.com) is the unofficial spot for corned beef, but only on weekdays. Serving up the city's most exquisite sushi is Ginko, in the basement of chef Dante Boccuzzi's eponymous (and also great) Dante in Tremont (restaurantdante.us).
If you love beer you're in luck because several brew pubs reflect the national trend toward microbrewing. Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s Taproom at 2516 Market Ave. in Ohio City (greatlakesbrewing.com) not only boasts the oldest mahogany bar in Cleveland but also one of the best stories: Eliot Ness, former leader of Chicago's "Untouchables," drank here and according to local legend, was responsible for the bullet holes in the front room. It offers brewery tours on Thursday and Friday evenings.
The Forest City Brown Ale poured just around the corner at Market Garden Brewery and Distillery (marketgardenbrewery.com) was recently declared by GQ magazine as the nation's best; the BottleHouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights serves Milk Stout Floats in addition to a half-dozen freshly brewed craft beers and mead, cider and rootbeer. Brewery tours by appointment (thebottlehousebrewingcompany.com). Buckeye Beer Engine in neighboring Lakewood (buckeyebeerengine.com) always has 25-plus premium draft beers, as well as two authentic cask-conditioned ales.
Velvet Dog in the Warehouse District (velvetdogcleveland.com) is the place where cool kids go to dance. For jazz, head to Nighttown in Cleveland Heights (nighttowncleveland.com), the center of the city's jazz scene since the '60s.
You'll find more dining and entertainment -- plus the Greater Cleveland Aquarium -- at Nautica Entertainment Complex (nauticaflats.com) on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.
Cleveland's most famous museum is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the shores of Lake Erie (rockhall.com; $22 adults/$13 kids). Among the thousands of iconic artifacts on display in its seven floors of exhibition space is the Gibson guitar John Lennon used to record "Give Peace a Chance," Clarence Clemon's saxophone and Michael Jackson's signature glove; for an additional $3, you also can catch the live-action digital 3-D film, "U2 3D."
Art lovers will appreciate the Cleveland Museum of Art at 11500 East Blvd. in the city's University Circle neighborhood, which boasts more than 30,000 works of art dating from ancient Egypt (clevelandart.org; free admission). Currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which in October opened in a new $22.7 million space at 11400 Euclid Ave. ($8 adults/$5 students; mocacleveland.org), are the works of German artist Katharina Grosse and sculptor David Altmed.
History buffs may be disappointed to learn the waterfront USS COD Submarine, which fired 122 torpedoes and sank more than 12 enemy vessels during WWII, is closed for the season. But with the holidays approaching, now's the perfect time to visit little Ralphie's house from "A Christmas Story." Located at 3159 W. 11th St. in the Tremont neighborhood (achristmasstoryhouse.com; $10 adults/$6 kids), the house and accompanying museum feature dozens of props from the 1983 movie, and hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos. There's also a gift shop if you're in the market for a leg lamp.
If your idea of a good time involves table games and slot machines, head to the Horseshoe Casino (horseshoecleveland.com) in the historic Higbee building on Public Square, a four-block square that's the focal point of the city.
Cleveland doesn't have specific Steelers bars like in other cities, but Winking Lizard in Cleveland Heights is fan-friendly.
More info: positivelycleveland.com.travel - Steelers
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published November 18, 2012 5:00 AM