The first thing I ditched was my ice scraper.
I was 23, fresh out of grad school and eager to start my new job — and life, really — in Florida. After driving my Honda Civic two days and nearly 1,200 miles from northeast Ohio to my new home in St. Petersburg, I opened the trunk and removed the ice scraper, a relic from real winter.
In the decade since then, I met my husband, bought a house and had a baby girl. I return to Cleveland with them a couple of times a year to visit my parents, usually during the mild spring or summer, conveniently.
The city has changed a lot in recent years, thanks in part to burgeoning arts and foodie scenes, a thriving downtown and LeBron James.
"Really within the last 14 to 18 months, perhaps, people are taking notice of us, and it is (because of) things like, yes, LeBron . . . coming back to Cleveland. That certainly doesn't hurt," said Emily Lauer, senior director of public relations and communications for Destination Cleveland, Cuyahoga County's convention and visitors bureau.
Last year, Cleveland was named among the best places to visit in 2015 by both Travel + Leisure and Fodor's, the latter calling it a "Rust Belt-chic town for art and culture vultures, basketball fans, and stalwart foodies." Add to that list politicos — Cleveland will host next summer's Republican National Convention — and families, including mine.
We spent the bulk of our summer there, but for most families a long weekend is probably more realistic. Here are some highlights I'd show my 3-year-old daughter, Norah, in three days.
My family crashed at my parents' place in the 'burbs, but really your best bet is to stay downtown, so you'll be centrally located. The Westin Cleveland Downtown is upscale yet homey, with sofa beds, local artwork and striking views of Lake Erie. Holiday Inn Express and Residence Inn are other family-friendly options.
Regardless of which hotel you choose, staying downtown will put you in walking distance of some of the city's best-known attractions. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority also operates a trolley service downtown on a "smile and ride free" policy, which is a fun way to get around town with little ones.
First up, take the kids to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, not only because its lakefront structure looks cool, but because its exhibits are proof positive that music existed before Taylor Swift. If you have little kids in tow, then parents can divide and conquer: Let the older ones explore the Rock Hall while you take the kids next door to the Great Lakes Science Center.
For lunch, everyone can head together to Heinen's Grocery Store.
Stay with me here.
This local supermarket chain offers a variety of sandwiches, wraps, rice bowls and other prepared foods to appease even the pickiest of eaters. It is housed inside the historic Cleveland Trust Rotunda Building — think ornate columns and Tiffany stained-glass ceilings — so parents feel like they're having a grownup meal. The self-serve wine tasting dispensers don't hurt, either.
In the afternoon, depending on the season, you can catch a pro football, basketball or baseball game; the Browns, Cavs and Indians all play downtown. Or treat the family to some culture with a musical at downtown's Playhouse Square, the largest performing arts center in the nation outside of New York City.
For dinner, head to East Fourth Street, a pedestrian-friendly stretch of downtown that's frequented by bar-hoppers during the late hours but is kid-friendly enough for an early dinner. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, but a good bet is the Greenhouse Tavern, with dishes like an artisanal jerky plate, crispy chicken wings confit and lamb burger that are just familiar enough for kids and just exotic enough for parents.
Explore the East Side
The Cuyahoga River splits Greater Cleveland into East and West sides. Just about 5 miles east of downtown is University Circle, a 1-square-mile district packed with cultural attractions. You could easily spend your entire vacation exploring this little area, but for the sake of time, devote a day to these family-friendly highlights:
The Cleveland Museum of Art is always free, so even if you don't stay long, at least let your kids ooh and aah over the armor court, which proves that knights in shining armor aren't just the stuff of Disney movies. For lunch, the museum's Provenance Cafe is a welcome surprise.
If you're up for another museum, explore additional options at University Circle, including the Children's Museum of Cleveland or the Cleveland Botanical Garden, with daily butterfly releases. At the Cleveland Cultural Gardens you'll find a series of greenery and sculptures, each dedicated to a different nationality.
In the evening, head to Coventry Village, a boho-chic neighborhood in Cleveland Heights. Have dinner at Tommy's Restaurant, which features unfussy food for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans, plus some of the thickest, best milkshakes in town.
Enjoy the West Side
I'm an East Side girl, but there's just something about the West Side Market. Located in Ohio City, just west of downtown, this century-old building is like a trip back in time. Even kids who are normally glued to their tablets will snap to attention in order to take in the sights, sounds and smells of this Cleveland institution: fresh flowers, cheeses and coffees; vendors beckoning you to taste that their mangoes are fresher than the next guy's; senior citizens, office workers and young families picking out pierogies for the night's dinner.
For a sit-down lunch, try the grilled cheese mecca Melt Bar and Grilled. Save room for dessert at Mitchell's Ice Cream, a movie theater-turned-sweet shop.
This next stop requires some pretrip homework: Show your kids the holiday classic A Christmas Story, then visit the house whose exterior was featured in the 1983 movie. At A Christmas Story House and Museum, visitors can tour the home, check out original props and costumes, and buy their own leg lamp in the gift shop.
For dinner, you can't come all the way to Cleveland and not eat at Lolita, owned by celebrity chef Michael Symon. Staples like pizza and roasted chicken make the menu suitable for kids, while house-made pork rinds, macaroni with rosemary and goat cheese, and Alaskan halibut are comforting offerings for grownups.
• • •
Even after eating, playing and learning our way through a summer in Cleveland, there was so much more my family wanted to do: explore the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse decked out with poinsettias, tap trees for maple syrup in nearby Amish Country, ice skate in Public Square, cheer on LeBron.
Come to think of it, those are things you can do only during colder weather. So as Thanksgiving approaches, maybe I'll invest in another ice scraper after all.
Dalia Colón is a journalist in Brandon. Follow @daliacolon.