Discovering Ashtabula

Ashtabula County has always been known for its covered bridges — and they’re certainly worth exploring — but it’s also a great place to eat, drink, explore and enjoy the water. 

For decades, Ashtabula was one of the busiest ports not just on Lake Erie, but on the Great Lakes. It was a rough-and-tumble town that unloaded coal, ore and other materials by day — and tried to have a good time at night, at one of the many bars, pool halls or even brothels that dotted the city.
Today, it’s not the port it once was. And while it’s not as much the tourist destination like its neighbor to the west, Geneva-on-the-Lake, it’s still easy to have a good time in Ashtabula. The town’s a little tamer, but they don’t whitewash their past, says Stephanie Siegel, director of the Ashtabula County Visitors Bureau.
“It’s still a little gritty, but they’ve really embraced that heritage,” says Stephanie Siegel, executive director of the Ashtabula County Tourism Bureau.

The main tourist-friendly area in Ashtabula is the harbor area on and around Bridge Street near the city’s bascule bridge. Up on the hill are a pair of museums open seasonally, the Hubbard House (, formerly a stop on the Underground Railroad, the network that transported slaves from the south to freedom in Canada, and the Ashtabula Maritime Museum ( There also are elements of history throughout the city. The buildings on Bridge Street each have plaques detailing the businesses that used to be there (it seems like every other building was a pool hall at one point in time), and there’s a historical marker in front of what used to be the Hotel Ashtabula on Main Street (now an office building).

Main Street is trying to undergo its own renaissance, even if it’s in its nascent stages. “Lots of local efforts are being made to make it a destination again, but it’s in its infancy right now,” Siegel says. The Main Street area is less destination-oriented and more event-oriented right now, with monthly First Fridays featuring arts and crafts, food and other activities.

There also are events at the harbor, beginning with the Burning of the Socks in June, an event that symbolizes the coming of summer — and the end to the need for socks until the fall — and continuing with a Wine and Walleye Festival in July (

As is the case with many portside towns, there’s always an opportunity to go fishing on Lake Erie, particularly for walleye. Ashtabula is part of the lake’s central basin, and fish from the shallower western basin migrate eastward as the water warms up. 

“Fishing peaks in the summer, and charter captains don’t have to stay out too long, maybe as little as 45 minutes, before people catch their limits,” Siegel says.
And if you’re looking to explore beyond the city limits, Ashtabula County is the covered bridge capital of Ohio, with 19 spans, some dating back to the days following the Civil War. Among the bridges is the shortest in America, the 18-foot West Liberty Bridge in Geneva (built by students in the Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School), and the longest, the Smolen-Gulf Bridge, 613 feet long and 93 feet over the Ashtabula River.

Ashtabula County’s 28 wineries also are a must-see for wine-lovers, as well as anyone who enjoys a scenic setting on a sunny afternoon. Siegel point out that about half of Ohio’s grapes are raised here, but you’ll also find fresh-pressed grape juice, hard ciders, craft beer and locally made spirits. 

The Bridge Street area has no shortage of small bars and restaurants with a variety of items to sample. “The harbor has really distinguished itself as a foodie region,” Siegel says. Regularly recommended is Briquette’s Smokehouse (, a three-story building overlooking the harbor and offering lip-smacking barbecue. Rennick Meat Market (, housed in a building that was formerly a butcher shop, offers steaks and cocktails in a rustic environment. And new this year is Cloven Hoof Brewery, which opened in October and makes a variety of brews, from light cream ales to heavy porters and stouts.

A lot of visitors staying overnight do so in nearby Geneva-on-the-Lake, but there are options within the city of Ashtabula itself.
In 1887, saloonkeeper Michael Cahill built a large stick-style home on a hill overlooking the city’s port, and, 99 years later, it reopened as the Cahill Bed and Breakfast ( It’s within walking distance of the city’s lakefront district, but bookings fill up fast. There also are several chain hotels on the outskirts of town near Ohio Route 11.
Options near the waterfront are expected to broaden next year with the opening of the River Bend Hotel at the intersection of West Sixth Street and Goodwill Drive. The River Bend, the first hotel built in the city since the construction in 1920 of the Hotel Ashtabula (now an office building), will feature 26 rooms, meeting spaces and, befitting the county’s role as a grape and wine producer, two wine bars — including one on the rooftop of the five-story building, affording views of the river and lake.