Cleveland--revitalized symbol of the industrial heartland, unlikely site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, comeback town of the '90s, spiritual home of working-class antihero Drew Carey and the retro-chic powerhouse Cleveland Indians--has recently ascended to that most rarefied level of tourism destination: The City You Don't Really Need to Rent a Car In to Visit.
This is thanks mostly to an extension of the city's long-underutilized rapid transit system. The Waterfront Line connects the city's downtown transit hub, Tower City, with most of the places along the lakefront where visitors want to go: the nightlife-and-boating area known as the Flats, the Gateway zone containing baseball's Jacobs Field and basketball's Gund Arena, the revived Lake Erie waterfront and the marquee attractions of the Rock Hall and Great Lakes Science Center. A stop under construction will deliver fans to the football stadium of the "new" Cleveland Browns NFL team (which replaces the team owner Art Modell moved to Baltimore and named the Ravens).
An existing transit route called the Red Line that runs from Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport to Tower City--and will let you off at the vivid ethnic milieu of West Side Market--transforms a visit into a pleasant series of rail hops. There are several serviceable hotels right downtown. Among the city's must-sees inaccessible by rail is the Cleveland Museum of Art, but an express bus from Public Square has regular departures.
On a recent visit, my family got cheap MetroJet fares out of BWI and took up the challenge to do the town via rail. We booked a room at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, a 417-room pile connected to Tower City, the town's proud Deco landmark that now sports an underground shopping mall in addition to the train station. It also has an observation deck that lets you take in the city from the top of what once was the third-tallest building in the world.
The Renaissance has a perfect location, a place in local history, some breathtaking public spaces and rooms desperately in need of renovation. The furniture in our room was droopy; the edge of the credenza had been splintered; the pool was inexplicably half-filled (on Saturday of a holiday weekend!); the service was spare and often mean. The bathroom offered one of the strangest "upscale" amenities I've seen: a '70s ('60s?) Quasar black-and-white mini-TV mounted on a swivel stand that, alas, produced mostly static. It had been decades since I'd seen that little fading white dot that lingers on the screen when you twist the knob "off."
Still, the rail system was just a couple of angled hallways and an escalator ride away, and soon we were on board. A four-hour pass is $1.50 per person, $1 for kids. The trains are slow but newish (made by the same Italian company that makes the Washington Metro's rail cars), and quite comfortable. The stations are bright and handsome and festooned with local art. While I'm not sure I came away from two days of use fully understanding when and how one is expected to pay one's fare, each station is staffed by live humans who usher the clueless along. No unblinking fare card machines here.
From the Tower City terminus, the train runs first to something called Settler's Landing, a spot you can safely ignore alongside the Cuyahoga River where General Moses Cleaveland first landed with a survey party. There's a small cabin and a park inhabited mainly by the homeless. Next comes the East Bank of the Flats, an entertainment area that rises above many similar yuppie promenades thanks to the enduring presence of the nation's most dramatic and best preserved early-20th-century bridgework: a pair of jackknife bridges slicing into the sky, a rotating bridge that spins like a Lazy Susan, and a Conrail span that is periodically lowered to let a freight train pass, leaving a flotilla of recreational boaters cooling their jets as they wait for "the Iron Curtain," as it's known, to rise. The Flats has haute restaurants and gritty biker clubs, strip bars and dockside seafood grilles. One nightclub has a swimming pool in the middle, where properly attired patrons can just dive in and cool off. During the afternoon and evening of our visit, a really loud rock band played on the west bank to a mass of dancers, boaters were out in full melanoma prowl, and the waterside tables were filled with mostly cheerful folks drinking beer and sweating. At dusk, the bridge lights came on, turning the waterfront into a postindustrial hallucination.
The next rail stop, North Coast, delivers you to the Rock Hall and the science center. It's easy to be cynical about this type of attraction, but here you should resist the urge. As for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, as it's formally known, you don't need to hear much from me other than that you should go, that it's done with more intelligence and less pretension than you'd expect and that the I.M. Pei-designed structure itself is worth visiting (and has become, for worse or better, the inspiration for the many triangle/glass/white-tile knockoffs rising all over downtown Cleveland, including the rail line's Waterfront stations). If you are a music fan of a certain age, you are likely to find yourself, and maybe lose yourself, among the displays. Allow four hours and turn off your cell phone.
Even the science center shouldn't be missed. Yes, it has the inevitable Imax theater, but that's the only conventional museum piece you'll find here. In an era when "interactive" and "hands-on" are the two big lies of juvenile infotainment, this place delivers nothing less or more. We didn't take in the entire museum--there was allegedly a K'Nex exhibit we didn't see--but I did not observe a single artifact or specimen or wall board full of text. The center is essentially a set of giant playrooms where visitors have at hundreds of devices that demonstrate physics, fluid dynamics, mechanical engineering, light refraction and many scientific principles I can't even name. Our boys balanced balls on air streams, arranged gears to perform tasks, directed wind to create tiny sand dunes, fabricated underwater tornadoes and secreted electrical charges from the palms of their hands. We literally had to pull the kids out of there to get to the airport on time. They probably didn't "learn" anything in the strict sense, but I suspect some principles they observed will come more easily to them when they encounter them later. If not, hey, we all had a blast and nobody got hurt.
But speaking of learning lessons: Cleveland has some of that to do. One result of the city's piece-by-piece revitalization has been to concentrate human activity in the new and renovated areas. Most of the shopping, entertainment and transit facilities conspire to pull people either underground, along the water or inside a building. This has had the unmistakable effect of snuffing Cleveland's downtown street life. Just outside Tower City runs Euclid Avenue, once the city's primary artery. It's now a scary desolation zone for more than 10 blocks, where the city's long-ailing Playhouse Square theater district is now taking its turn on the civic-comeback stage. I tried to walk down the avenue to the Square during the late afternoon, but after five blocks I began to see too many people on street corners who seemed to be bored and angry and waiting for the next thing to happen. There was no other pedestrian or vehicular traffic on the street, aside from an occasional bus. Restaurants and stores were closed, some permanently. I turned around and spent the rest of the night indoors.
Cleveland is fun. It is on a roll. But it's still got a long road ahead.
MetroJet flies to Cleveland from BWI for as low as $88 round trip; Continental has a Cleveland hub and often offers competitive fares.
Aside from the Renaissance ($154 per night, including two breakfasts, plus $16 parking), other downtown lodging choices catering to weekend visitors include Cleveland Marriott Downtown (216-696-9200); Radisson Hotel at Gateway (1-800-333-3333), Sheraton Cleveland City Centre (1-800-321-1090) and the Holiday Inn Lakeside (216-241-5100). Weekend rates run from $109 to $200 per night; some include attraction tickets and breakfasts.
For transit information, call the RTAnswerline at 216-621-9500; on the Web, go to http://little.nhlink.net/rta/ rtahome.html for maps, schedules and fares.
For Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum information, www.rockhall.com.
For visitor information, contact the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland (1-800-321-1001, www.travelcleveland.com). A friskier, more entertainment- oriented Web site is at www.clevelandlive.com.