Thank you to the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, the Great Lakes Science Center, the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for each providing complementary tickets for my family. All opinions are my own.
Cleveland is typically not a city that comes to mind as a vacation spot but has been growing as a tourist destination in recent years. While venturing out of my office for lunch at North Coast Harbor this summer, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by casually dressed visitors rather than the usual business crowd. National Geographic Traveler‘s “2018 Best of the World” list recently named Cleveland as one of seven cities in its culture category. Editor George Stone described Cleveland as a city “that you kind of thought you knew but you don’t.”
If you look beyond its historically bad reputation and unfortunate football team, Cleveland really does have a lot to offer both its residents and visitors. Playhouse Square is the second largest performing arts center in the country, behind only New York City’s Lincoln Center, and now boasts the world’s largest outdoor chandelier. The Cleveland Orchestra is world-renowned and considered one of the country’s “Big Five” symphony orchestras, and the hospital systems are consistently top-ranked. Cleveland’s downtown has added a number of hotels and residential housing developments. A variety of amazing museums around the city, including the world’s only Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, offer something for everyone. In 2016, the Cavs won the NBA finals, hosted the Republican National Convention, completed a $50 million renovation to Public Square, and the Indians played in the World Series. LeBron James has led the Cavaliers to the last three NBA finals, and the Indians had a 22-game winning streak last season. There also is definitely a Cleveland food scene with world-famous chefs Michael Symon, Jonathon Sawyer, Rocco Whalen and Chris Hodgson each owning several hot spots in town.
If any of that is convincing enough to persuade one to travel to Cleveland, be warned that winters here are admittedly long and chilly. The weather has been so bad recently that various area schools have closed for extreme cold, ice or snow on five different days this month. With that in mind, try to visit between April and October, if possible. The absolute best time to plan a visit is during a championship parade. But, Cleveland sports teams have been notoriously cursed, so there has actually been only one during my lifetime. I can assure you that my family was there to share the June 22, 2016 celebration with 1.3 million of our closest friends and family. We had a spectacular view of the festivities right from my office window.
With no championship parades in sight, we decided to make the most of our recent winter break staycation and truly become tourists in our own city and enjoy all it has to offer. Our kids were thrilled to visit many of the city’s premier museums. Here are our five fun family activities in alphabetical order:
#1: Children’s Museum of Cleveland
The Children’s Museum of Cleveland reopened, in November 2017, in the former Stager-Beckwith Mansion, one of the four remaining mansions still standing on Millionaire’s Row. We had been members of the Museum at its previous location in University Circle when my oldest son attended preschool nearby. The Museum was housed in an old Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Although our boys thoroughly enjoyed their visits, the space was choppy with a few stairs here, there and everywhere such that it was a stroller nightmare. The Millionaire’s Row mansion in Midtown had most recently served as the main campus for Myers University and an elegant banquet hall. One of my best friends had her wedding reception in the space that now houses Adventure City. The new site and $10 million renovation really puts the newly expanded and totally accessible Museum in a different ballpark.
The Museum features these four permanent exhibits:
- The Wonder Lab is an industrial science laboratory with water tables, whirlpools and jets that particularly fascinated my daughter. My sons spent most of their time building ball tracks on the magnetic wall. This was my kids’ favorite exhibit.
- Adventure City offers an amazing indoor two-story climber with a construction site theme. The space also recreates the much-loved grocery store, doctor’s office, nursery and kitchen that were featured in the Museum’s prior location and also adds an auto shop. Building a car was a huge hit.
- Making Miniatures features a collection of dollhouses created by local artist, Cathy Lincoln and completely entranced my daughter. Each house was placed on a pedestal and enclosed with a plastic casing. Children could get up close by standing on small step stools and carefully explore the houses with available flashlights. My boys were less enthusiastic, but the Museum seemed prepared for them. They placed a tiny CMC logo in each house for a “hide and go seek” challenge, which was right up their alley and occupied them while their sister carefully examined each dollhouse.
- Arts & Parts is a bright art studio with different prepared art projects for children to create. My kids created paper lanterns and played with playdoh.
The Museum also features a Sensory Friendly Room for children who get overwhelmed in loud and crowded spaces. While only vending machines are available on site, the Café offers tables and a microwave for families packing lunch. There are also party rooms.
We visited right after New Year’s Day when most schools were still on holiday, and the Museum was packed. But the only real issue we had with the crowds was in the Coat Room. Despite the fact that this was the best Coat Room, which included shelves with baskets to help store cold weather accessories and lunches and also a window into the Wonder Lab below, it was a challenge to find a spare hanger when we arrived. The exhibits themselves were buzzing with activity but all accessible to my children.
The Museum is geared for visitors aged birth to eight. My nine year old enjoyed the Museum with his siblings – particularly the Wonder Lab and Adventure City and also joined their pleas for “five more minutes” when it was time to leave. But, he did get a bit bored in the Making Miniatures and Art & Parts exhibits and inquired whether it was time to move on. If the youngest child in your group is over eight, this may not be your ideal activity or, perhaps, only a short visit. I really love that adults are not admitted unless accompanied by children and that children are similarly not admitted unless accompanied by adults.
The former Stager-Beckwith Mansion is a huge improvement over the prior setting for the Cleveland Children’s Museum and definitely worth the wait. My kids had so much fun in this ideal place for kids to explore, imagine and create.
- Kid Facts: Anson Stager, who is known for creating the most effective secret code used during the Civil War, originally built this home in 1866. Stager sold the home a few years later to Thomas Sterling Beckwith, the founder of Cleveland’s first carpet and interior store. In the 19th century, this portion of Euclid Avenue was known as Millionaire’s Row and home to powerful industrialists, including John D. Rockefeller.
#2: Great Lakes Science Center
The Great Lakes Science Center opened next to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 to support STEM learning. Its North Coast Harbor location on the shore of Lake Erie is picturesque setting, and the wind turbine, which was installed in 2006, provides about 7% of the building’s electrical needs.
We met friends visiting from out-of-town at the Science Center a few days after Christmas. Between our two families, we had five boys and one girl ages three to eleven. Even though it was mid-week, it was a very popular day due to the holiday. We started in the hands-on exhibits in the main exhibition space upstairs. This area was a bit of a zoo with the number of families running around, but the kids didn’t seem to mind at all. This exhibit checked all the right boxes for my oldest, who is a kinesthetic learner. He could have easily spent all day trying out absolutely everything.
One of the kids’ favorite activities was building a catenary arch with a few other visitors. Each cushion needed to be arranged in number order and carefully held in place until the entire arch is completed. Due to the height, the final cushion required adult assistance, but the rest of the arch was predominately constructed by kids, who were very excited about the free-standing finished product.
After about an hour of intense scientific discovery, we took a break to watch the Rocky Mountain Express in the Cleveland Clinic Dome Theater. The film depicts the construction of the first transcontinental railway of Canada. The IMAX photography really makes viewers feel like they have been transported to Canada. The film not only had beautiful cinematography, but we learned a lot about the building of the Canadian railway. Naturally, we straight to All Aboard! The History of Trains after the film.
The NASA Glenn Visitor Center has been housed at the Great Lakes Science Center since 2010. The highlight of this exhibit is the 1973 Skylab 3 Apollo Command Module. Visitors can try out a nearby replica capsule, which, even with the door removed, was so small that it screamed claustrophobia and made me wonder how the astronauts handle such confined spaces.
At another exhibit in the Visitor Center, kids can operate a remote control rover using a controller and video screen. The rover itself is located across the room, and this simulation gives kids the chance to experience the challenges of remotely operating similar rovers exploring Mars.
We finished our time at the Science Center in the Cleveland Creates Zone, which offers various activities for kids to invent, design, tinker and create. The five boys were particularly fascinated by the rocket pod and tried several different designs.
We did not make it to the Polymer Funhouse, an area geared for scientists aged seven and under because half of our crew was too old. However, my daughter would have a blast there, especially on a less crowded day. We also couldn’t take the self-guided walk of the William G. Mather, which is closed November through April, but hope to come back in the Spring to check it out.
- Kid Facts: It cost about $120,000 to move the Apollo Command Module from the NASA’s Brook Park facility to the Science Center in 2010. The move required a year of planning but took only about 30 minutes to complete the 13-mile journey.
#3: Greater Cleveland Aquarium
The Greater Cleveland Aquarium opened in its current location in the Flats’ FirstEnergy Powerhouse in 2012 and remains Ohio’s only free-standing aquarium. When we arrived, the diver presentation was just beginning in the shark tank, so we decided to head straight there. Watching Matthew, the diver, feed the aquatic life was the highlight of our visit. A special microphone allowed Matthew to talk directly to the audience. We learned that most shark bites are really caused by mistaken identity. Sharks explore the world with their mouths, and surfers often look like fish from below.
The 230,000 gallon Shark SeaTube includes four species of shark, stingrays, angelfish, a giant barracuda and a whole host of other ocean creatures. You can literally walk under the tank to get a whole new perspective. If you want to take a peek into the shark tank in real-time, check out the shark cam.
The Aquarium has more than 50 exhibits, 250 species and 1,450 animals from Lake Erie and all across the globe. Some of our favorite animals included the turtles, lion fish and clown fish with the stunning anemone.
My son particularly enjoyed the Invertebrate Touch Pool where he got the chance to feel a starfish with the official “two-finger” technique. The Aquarium is an amazing place to learn about aquatic animals and get a glimpse of life under the sea.
- Kid Facts: The Aquarium has someone on site 24/7 to check on the tanks and make sure all the animals are safe.
#4: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland
The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) is one of 20 modern art museums in the US. MOCA opened its new facility in 2012, and a video on its website shows the construction process in under three minutes. A Poet*hical Wager, opened in October 2017 to celebrate its fifth anniversary in University Square. In conjunction with its opening, MOCA announced that it would no longer charge entrance fees for guests under 18, which is a great benefit for families.
The main exhibition space on the fourth floor is a wide-open space that is very different from the typical gallery in traditional art museums with paintings and sculptures. The current exhibit also did not have any barriers. While the exhibition featured in this space changes several times a year, it is probably best suited for children over five.
Many of the installations in the current exhibition, A Poet*hical Wager, challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions about art. Several docents were on hand to explain the background for this exhibition, which was inspired by the book of the same name by Joan Retallack. Most featured artists in this exhibit come from low-income backgrounds and third world countries. Mexico City artist Abraham Cruzvilleges contributed a black and red acrylic painting to cover up newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, tickets, napkins and other items. He also created an installation from various found objects in Cleveland that my daughter likened to a space ship.
Another memorable installation was Rashid Johnson’s Shea Butter, which was a cinderblock wall with shea butter used in place of mortar and sometimes in place of the cinderblocks themselves.
The third floor features an exhibit by British artist Phil Collins (not to be confused with the popular musician) that consists of listening booths that contain vinyl recordings for guests to play on actual record players. Collins anonymously recorded conversations from a homeless shelter phone booth in Cologne that offered free domestic and international calls. A group of musicians used the recordings to create the musical works contained on the records. The novelty of the record player was pretty exciting for my seven year old who had never used one before.
The enclosed Yellow Staircase, which includes a sound installation was a fun way to travel between floors of MOCA.
My kids’ favorite part of our visit to MOCA was the Marjorie + Anselm Talalay Classroom on the third floor where kids could create their own art. To go along with the theme of the main exhibition, the Obfuscation Station encouraged kids to layer colored tape on top of magazine clippings. My kids had so much fun creating works inspired by the exhibition that I’m seriously considering investing in a colored tape dispenser.
MOCA offers monthly Pre-K Play Dates on Saturday mornings. These events are free for kids. On the first Saturday of each month, MOCA offers free admission and family friendly workshops and activities courtesy of PNC Bank. MOCA is a great resource for Cleveland families and encourages children to use their imaginations to create art in non-traditional ways.
- Kid Facts: This $27.2 million building was designed by Farshid Moussavi, a world-famous architect.
#5: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was established in 1983, Cleveland lobbied hard to be chosen as the site of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and won the honors in 1986. As a Cleveland native, I remember the excitement when Cleveland scored the Rock Hall and was lucky to tour it shortly after its 1995 opening. The Rock Hall is definitely a reason why some tourists decide to visit Cleveland.
The lobby area is impressively large and has a car suspended from the ceiling above the Café (which we also enjoyed). This was probably the first suspended car I’ve ever seen.
The Rock Hall features both permanent and special exhibits. The Legends of Rock is a permanent exhibit that includes artifacts such as handwritten drafts, instruments and costumes. The recently renovated Beatles’ exhibit is the world’s largest artifact-based collection of the famous English rock band. The Rock Hall also has always featured a standing Elvis exhibit that features different artifacts. My husband and son watched the exclusive 14-minute Elvis video.
The costume exhibits are really fun. It’s always surprising to see first-hand how small many of the musicians are in real life. I did feel really old when my younger son asked if Michael Jackson was a basketball player and realized that the King of Pop actually died before he was born.
The boys even found costumes of musicians they recognized like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. We are all still amazed that Lady Gaga actually wore this contraption.
We particularly enjoyed Rolling Stone: 50 Years, which includes celebrities’ letters and interviews and a stunning wall display of the magazine’s iconic cover images. This exhibit encompassed floors 4-6 of the museum, and now the boys have some familiarity with the popular culture magazine.
We noticed more families with young children touring the Rock Hall than we expected. While our kids are not familiar with most of the featured musicians, they enjoyed the multi-media exhibits. My husband and I could have easily spent a few more hours perusing the exhibits, but our shorter highlight tour was a perfect introduction for our kids.
- Kid Facts: Cleveland’s Alan Freed was the disc jockey who originated the term “rock ‘n’ roll.”
Cleveland really is an up and coming destination city with so many family-friendly activities. These five amazing museums are just the tip of the iceberg. Check back for more Cleveland features to come.
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