From hosting the Republican National Convention to (almost) winning the World Series, our Midwest neighbor spent much of last year in the national spotlight. And thanks to several multimillion-dollar renovation projects—and a bounty of kid-friendly restaurants and attractions—there’s even more reason to see what the revitalized city is all about. After six nondescript hours on the road, we slid into Cleveland just in time to drop our luggage at the Drury Plaza Hotel and walk to Noodlecat, a low-key, high-flavor ramen shop for dinner. The mix-and-match menu worked well for our family of diverse eaters and the casual vibe meant no one gave us side-eye when my car-crazy kids wanted to stand next to the table and slurped their noodles with audible passion.
To mark its centennial in 2020, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has launched a five-year, $150 million expansion and renovation. Visitors can already enjoy the first finished phase: the Ralph Perkins Wildlife Center and Woods Garden, a 2.2-acre outdoor gallery for native Ohio plants and animals including bobcats, deer and bald eagles.
But my kids were smitten by the museum’s interior offerings, particularly “Steggie,” the Stegosaurus sculpture that dominates a giant room of dinosaurs, and the interactive Smead Discovery Center. They spent hours digging for dinosaur bone casts, scrutinizing real animal hides and working on leaf rubbings. Only the need for naps finally pulled them away. For a speedy meal, we stopped at local chain Melt for crowd-pleasing grilled cheese sandwiches.
This bohemian-chic pocket of Cleveland Heights is crammed with boutiques and shops where kids won’t raise eyebrows (or heart rates). Our favorite stop was at Piccadilly Artisan Yogurt. What looks like a nondescript fro-yo shop is actually a must-stop dessert destination, serving organic dairy and vegan yogurt sourced from a nearby farm.
Though my kids awoke on day two impatient to get to the aquarium, they relented to breakfast. We swung through Lucky’s Café in the artsy, blue-collar neighborhood of Tremont. The farm-to-table cafe prides itself on sourcing most of its menu from within 100 miles and the line during late brunch hours can stretch out the door. Luckily, eating with young kids means “brunch” at 9 a.m.—we were quickly seated and filling our bellies with biscuits and gravy, waffles with honey-infused whipped cream, and pecan-crusted bacon.
Nearby, the Greater Cleveland Aquarium struck me as a pint-sized version of the Shedd. That wasn’t a bad thing: Rather than navigating multiple galleries and options, visitors walk one path from start to finish—winding past kid-height tanks of native fish, spacious pens for slow-moving desert tortoises and overhead tanks of luminescent jellyfish. We lingered most at the sting ray exhibit and the sea tube, a 175-foot underwater tunnel where sharks, eels and massive grouper surround you on all sides.
We headed to Cleveland’s Little Italy for lunch, where Prestis Bakery has been drawing loyal crowds since 1943. Grab a number by the door and spend your wait trying to choose between the range of offerings: lasagna, pizza, antipastos, Italian subs.
Happily fed, my kids wanted “more animals!” so it was off to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Fans of the more intimate Lincoln Park Zoo will find some cavernous exhibits at the 165-acre zoo disappointing—if the animals aren’t near the viewing area, you’re out of luck. But we got to see the elephants, and I was grateful for our all-day pass for the carousel ($8).
I wasn’t sure what my kids would think of Mabel’s BBQ, chef Michael Symon’s famed downtown restaurant that marries mustard, Eastern European spices and smoking over local fruitwood to create a distinct style of barbecue, but I needn’t have worried: They gobbled the brisket and licked clean the plate of cucumber salad with red onion and dill.
We broke up the drive home to Chicago with a one-night stay at Cedar Point Castaway Bay Indoor Water Park.
My kids loved the wave pool and toddler splash zone, and I loved that we only had to clock four hours driving the next day.