Water Under the Bridge

If downtown Cleveland is like an old friend you haven’t seen in awhile, then it’s time to reconnect. And when you do, you’ll notice its had a little work done. In the last five years, city officials, developers and community organizations have turned their attention to the waterfront. The result? New recreational opportunities, al fresco dining options and entertainment venues that make people want to linger downtown, on Lake Erie and along the Cuyahoga River a little longer.

The most dramatic push has been in the lead-up to the Republican National Convention (RNC), which will shine a national spotlight on the city in late July. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a historical event,” says Emily Lauer of Destination Cleveland. “And there are going to be plenty of other things to do. There is so much happening downtown.”

Construction crews have been working overtime to complete a revamped pedestrian-friendly Public Square designed by the same urban design firm that constructed the High Line in New York City. The finishing touches are being added to the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, a 600-room high-rise hotel connected to the Cleveland Convention Center. In addition, the Kimpton Schofield Hotel opened on East Ninth Street in a once-vacant Victorian-era building that dates to 1906. Billed as the first boutique luxury hotel in the city, it boasts rooms with modern finishes that celebrate the rich social and industrial history of Cleveland.

The Flats

The changes are just as striking in the Flats, which is in the midst of a remarkable revival. Stroll along the new 1,200-foot riverfront boardwalk on the east bank, and you’ll feel the energy: Norfolk-Southern trains rumble across the vertical lift bridge, while cars whizz by atop the hulking blue steel trusses of the Main Avenue Bridge. People are everywhere.

Until a couple of years ago, this area might as well have been the domain of trolls — it was a wasteland of empty buildings filled with hollow echoes of silence and distant memories of its brief heyday in the 1980s. Now there are new restaurants, bars and entertainment venues in the lower level of a shiny new waterfront building topped with a neon sign hailing the return of the “Flats East Bank.”

This will be the first full summer season for the $275 million mixed-use development, which capitalizes on its location on the Cuyahoga River, which freighters and pleasure boats meander up and down. And starting Memorial Day, the Cleveland Metroparks will launch a water-taxi service connecting the east bank of the river to the west bank, where you’ll find Shooters, the Music Box Supper Club, the Jacobs Pavilion concert venue, the Greater Cleveland Aquarium and Great Lakes Watersports, which rents boats, jet skis and kayaks.

“I’m looking forward to the full Flats experience,” says Bobby Rutter, who co-owns FWD Day + Nightclub, a Miami-style venue on the east bank. “There’s a great mix of places for people to go.”

The sophisticated Alley Cat Oyster Bar, which opened late last summer in a stand-alone building right on the boardwalk, is a great place to take in the picturesque view and a famous Lake Erie sunset. Zack Bruell’s latest restaurant has a dining room with a west-facing wall that opens during warmer weather. An outside patio seats 60 people, and upstairs there’s a patio and bar that can accommodate 90 more.

Across the street, there are more outdoor dining options. Clevelanders who are accustomed to inclement weather have been gathering around the large fire pits at Beerhead Bar & Eatery all winter and spring.

Chef-entrepreneur Steve Schimoler generated some heat of his own with the opening of his trio of venues: Crop On Air, Crop Stix and Crop Rocks. For the latter, Schimoler teamed up with former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum executive director Terry Stewart to showcase Stewart’s private collection of 20,000 albums. 

North Coast Harbor

There’s more rock and roll memories to be made at the Rock Hall, arguably Cleveland’s top attraction, which can be reached by taking the RTA’s waterfront line to North Coast Harbor. Just in time for the RNC, the museum will debut its latest exhibit “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics” on May 20. The collection will explore how artists from John Lennon to Pussy Riot have used their influence to stimulate discourse and create change. 

Right behind the iconic Rock Hall building, a new lakefront vision is taking shape that builds upon existing attractions, including the Great Lakes Science Center, FirstEnergy Stadium and the Steamship William G. Mather Maritime Museum. A new multi-use waterfront development on the East Ninth Street Pier will eventually bring retail, residential and dining options to the North Coast Harbor, starting first with the opening of Nuevo Modern Mexican and Tequila Bar, a two-story structure with twin patios that should be complete in time for the RNC.

The pier, which has a new boathouse that spells out “Cleveland” in nautical flags, is also the spot for recreational activities. The Rock and Dock Marina can accommodate 53 boats, but even if you don’t have your own watercraft, you can get out on the water with paddleboat, jet ski, kayak and SUP rentals. 

Whether it’s from the helm of a paddleboat or your perch on a patio overlooking the water, there are so many ways to experience Cleveland in a new way this summer. And, as the RNC approaches, you can expect more exciting activities that will engage and delight both visitors and locals — no matter their political persuasion.