Q. What's the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic?

A. Cleveland has a better orchestra.

The only lesson you might draw from a trip to Cleveland, many folks would predict, would be never, ever to repeat the experience. Surely that was The Moral of the Story for the Titanic's grateful survivors. "Let's not and say we didn't," might be an even more common response. But it's the desire to avoid that common response, to seek out less predictable experience, that gets the curious traveler going and can make trekking even to Cleveland a capital notion.

Contrary to outsiders' expectations, the 600,000 souls who live in Cleveland (and their occasional guests) do manage to have fun. And it might happen to you in the gritty downtown neighborhood called the Flats or even in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Cleveland Play House, which bills itself as the nation's oldest resident theater company. What's more, meandering through Shaker Heights and other leafy suburbs, you could see rich people and some not-so living on a scale only dreamed of in many cities. And, encountering at every turn the efforts of Cleveland's proud leaders (a can-do crowd if ever was) to cast their town in a flattering light, you may pick up on an unexpected lesson -- a reminder, really: Power always has its limits. Despite that intense boosterism, after all, how does the idea of a vacation in Cleveland strike you?

The simple truism about the limits of power is easily forgotten. On the Titanic, the decks had to start heaving before the corporate titans aboard got the same message. In that perilous situation, wealth and accomplishment lost much of their familiar reassuring force.

Unlike the Titanic, however, Cleveland is not necessarily doomed, though this doesn't hit the visitor full in the face -- not at first, anyway. For that matter, neither do any of Cleveland's considerable pleasures.

Like so many cities on the Great Lakes, downtown Cleveland has a ragtag, gap-toothed look that results partly from an abundance of flat land along the shore: Towering, broad-shouldered buildings rise beside all-but-vacant lots. Venerable classical structures like City Hall open onto formal vistas that peter out in a desultory block or two.

Downtown tucks loosely into vast acreages formed by Lake Erie to the north, the Cuyahoga River to the west and a smoky encampment of factories to the south. As if even these spaciously arranged boundaries constituted too tight a confinement for a Midwestern town, Cleveland spills over unrestrainedly to the east -- in which direction the city stretches nearly 200 blocks.

Within those blocks can be found most of black Cleveland and nearly all the city's prestige institutions: the Cleveland Museum of Art; Severance Hall, home of the city's daunting orchestra; the Cleveland Clinic, currently a favorite of King Hussein and other Middle Eastern potentates in need of repair. Then, too, the richest suburbs roll on out east -- including Shaker, Pepper Pike and an almost ineffably lovely patch of New England, transported to Ohio and given the name Gates Mills.

On the other side of town, across the Cuyahoga, lies white Cleveland, resolutely ethnic. Beyond West 117th Street, Lakewood, Rocky River and other eminently presentable suburbs hug the shore.

At the heart of it all is Public Square, which forms a kind of front yard for Cleveland's tallest building -- the 52-story Terminal Tower. ("Who would believe," inquires a song none too popular at the local Chamber of Commerce, "a city with a tower that's terminal overlooking a lake that's eerie?")

A Midwestern answer to Grand Central Station, the Terminal Tower went up in 1930 and brought offices, shops, and rapid-transit trains together under one roof at the hub of the city. Cleveland's version, however, is cheerier. Sheltered by gently arching white vaults, the shops beneath the Tower sparkle with tiny lights and a snappy array of merchandise. The Terminal complex also houses the city's best emporium, Higbee's. With its lofty ceilings and resplendent crystal chandeliers, Higbee's looks every bit the quintessential department store.

Next door to the Terminal is Stouffer's Inn on the Square, Cleveland's solitary attempt at a grand hotel in the traditional manner. Across the square rises Standard Oil of Ohio's high-stakes gamble on the city's future. The 45-story office building, a brown marble behemoth costing a quarter of a billion dollars and due to open this year, will also have a cluster of shops at its base.

Hereabouts, designers of the shopping centers of the '80s don't have far to look for inspiration. There's no surpassing the Arcade, the 95-year-old shopping-street-under-glass one block east of Public Square. The Arcade is busiest at lunch. Inside the five-story Victorian confection, mainly cast iron but no less dainty for that, a block-long skylight pours sunshine into even the lowest levels. That's where stores and restaurants are located. The floors above house offices and a gallery or two, though an old-fashioned ladies' tearoom hangs on in the uppermost reaches. Very little compromises the perfection of the Arcade, which for honest charm puts recent imitators to shame.

Not so delicate-looking but quite as special is the Flats, hard by the Terminal Tower on the banks of the Cuyahoga. Here, factories that once fed much of the city stand moribund. Or they've been cleared out, giving way to condominiums, upscale restaurants, marine outfitters (Cleveland has lots of sailors) and a couple of costly antique shops. Saloons in the neighborhood have a studied raffishness about them.

This part of the city is a strange, and strangely evocative, place -- a Depression-era landscape of idleness and waste and pockets of money. Every view has a lonely kind of beauty: gravel heaps and weedy gullies and weighty iron bridges leading nowhere in particular, all remnants of the more heavily industrial Cleveland of yore. Nowadays it's becoming the turf of the Yuppies, a sad fate but for the fact that grimly ambitious bunch seems a less blase', more winning group here than elsewhere.

An evening in the Flats surely promises no narrower a range of diversions than do equivalent spots for the young and feckless in other burgs. It may even offer a distinct emotional bonus. Amid the derelict railroad sidings, within the rosy brick walls of the commercial buildings of the last century, Cleveland has launched one of its customary, game attempts to adapt to reduced circumstances. For all but the most hardhearted, the determination that underlies such efforts can be downright moving.

Even in Cleveland, however, some things don't require resuscitation. They go on as they always have -- maybe better. That's the case with the West Side Market, in Ohio City. Local wags have modified signs leading to the community -- just across the Cuyahoga from the Flats -- so that they read "CHIC CITY." But in pinpointing the area's appeal that misses the mark.

Sure, a number of Ohio City's frame houses have been colorfully redone a la San Francisco's "Painted Ladies." Those in search of the funkier sort of antiques will feel right at home in the neighborhood's grimy shops. And area restaurants don't stint on the potted ferns. Still, Ohio City feels heartier than the altered signs imply -- if only because the frankly proletarian West Side Market remains the neighborhood's big draw.

What unabashed abundance unfolds beneath the market's clock tower on West 25th Street! Meats, fish and pastries cram the main building; produce is stacked in heaps in open-air sheds off to the side. There are almost 200 merchants, and the names -- Basalyk, Czuchran, Badstuber, Lombardi -- ring ethnic right down to their Cleveland roots. "We got garlic sausage," shouts one vendor, inciting rival yelps from the stand next door. Citrus fruits lay split open, succulent, for your delectation. Stray hawkers monitor the entrances. There's even a newsstand. Europe has nothing on this place.

Which also might be said of a quite different enterprise, in another world 40 blocks across town. Playhouse Square, though these days frequently highbrow in its aspirations, could have originated only in down-home America. The three theaters that make up Playhouse Square are near Euclid Avenue and East 17th Street.

They got their start as movie houses, opulent outposts of Hollywood culture. One still awaits renovation. But the State and Ohio theaters -- rescued from the threat of demolition, retrieved from years of neglect and redecorated to a fare-thee-well -- now provide performance space for the Cleveland Opera, the newly formed Cleveland Ballet and visiting Broadway road shows. Their flashy, side-by-side marquees have proved a glittering magnet for audiences, with savvy restaurateurs and shopkeepers close on their heels. And the bright lights lend dazzle to a stretch of Euclid quite lackluster only 15 years ago.

Beyond Playhouse Square, though, Euclid Avenue takes on a battered, ill-used look. Cleveland's east side is hurting, has been for a long time. Yet it's also the city's cultural center and where the curious visitor will spend time most profitably.

The Cleveland Play House, on Euclid at East 85th, occupies a Romanesque-style compound designed by native son Philip Johnson. In this splendiferous though still unfinished setting, the company stages a full range of professional theatrical fare.

More obviously part of the surrounding community is Karamu House, long a source of pride for blacks within the neighborhood and of illumination for outsiders of every stripe. It presents plays and carries out its other cultural activities south of Euclid on East 89th Street. Founded in 1915, Karamu House showcased artistic accomplishments of black people at a time when most of white America blithely assumed there weren't any.

All the more familiar, officially ordained names in art pop up in the Cleveland Museum, at University Circle, another 20 blocks farther out Euclid. University Circle is an academic village exploded by the automobile -- not surprising in a city where the public library has drive-up window service. A maze of roadways threads through the Case-Western Reserve University campus, passing cultural institutions that no city -- anywhere -- would sneeze at.

The Natural History Museum is well-regarded, ditto the Art Institute and the Cleveland Historical Society. And Severance Hall provides ideal acoustics for the city's big-time band. But the pride and joy of the neighborhood is the Cleveland Museum, which sits in romantic isolation overlooking elaborate gardens and a lagoon. These days, most visitors bypass that formal approach and come in the back way, through a 1970s addition to the original Greek Revival structure.

The Cleveland Museum has long ranked among the nation's richest, and it puts itself forward as the most rigorously selective. Only the best will do, locals boast, and from the look of things they may be right. Yet the museum has an easy, welcoming feel about it -- partly because bits of furniture and decorative objects put in appearances right along with paintings of the same era. It's a quiet, serious place, relaxed in a way that only supreme self-confidence can engender.

That confidence -- often inspired as much by money as by good judgment -- certainly permeates the air in the flossier suburbs. These days, the city's decision-makers live all over: in town and out, east side and west. But most of those who hold any sway in local matters still hie themselves eastward. Oddly enough, it's while driving through such places as Shaker Heights that a disquieting sense of the limits of power might start setting in.

Outward appearances strongly suggest that Shaker denizens lead near-perfect lives. Big houses, fine trees, easy access to recreation and high culture -- there's even rapid transit to the bank or law firm or whatever cash cow downtown gives its all for the mansion on, say, North Park Boulevard. Yet Cleveland's rich suburbanites live on the edge of a town that for all their well-upholstered success and well-intentioned efforts has for most outsiders barely climbed above the level of national joke.

No longer at (or even near) the top of the heap, Cleveland resembles an athlete long past prime. Its days of industrial and corporate might -- as one of the nation's top manufacturing centers -- may have ended little more than a quarter century ago, but they seem more distant than that. As with an athlete, the tales of former glories, though a matter of record, sound far-fetched as the years go by. Tests of strength more and more often lead to mortifying embarrassment. And, as with any fading star, talk of a comeback assumes an increasingly dreamlike quality.

Discussing the more robust cities of the Sunbelt, for example, many Clevelanders reassure themselves by gazing placidly across the steely expanse of Lake Erie. "After all," they say in a tone that mixes resentment and hope, "we've got plenty of water." When Dallas dries up, they're betting, America will come home to Cleveland. Stranger things have happened. But with aging cities, as with athletes in their dotage, such talk eventually arouses not respect but derision -- or worse, blank disregard.

And yet creaky competitors sometimes do summon the strength for another victory. Better, still more manage to shift gears and make a success of something new. That's what Clevelanders are up to.

What's their plan?

First, they've decided to hope for the best, which helps explain why they stick around and try to make a go of it. Second, they've put on a happy face: Downtown has silvery new office towers and plenty of oversize abstract art, these days the most visible totems of a city on the go. Third, they'll work hard -- witness the navy-suited armies on the corporate march up and down East 9th Street. Then, too, they're willing to take their lumps.

Finally, they'll strive to keep the world guessing. A comeback in the offing? Maybe, maybe not. But it's far too early to light the candles, strike up the hymns and gather 'round the coffin. Considering the city's native assets, and allowing for the occasional comic misstep along the way, a dignified old age seems assured for Cleveland -- with long-term prosperity a distinct possibility.

So the rest of us might stop crowing. Powerhouse or peon, we should all be so lucky.