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Cleveland, once called the mistake on the lake, is on the cusp of cool

I am sitting on the deck of a once-derelict building that is now the city's trendiest microbrewery, watching the sun set over old smokestacks, the arches of early 20th century bridges and a river that once burned, and I am thinking that something intriguing is happening in Cleveland.

The city is getting, uh, cool. Cleveland? Yes, Cleveland.

Count me among the most surprised to see amazing stuff happening in the Rust Belt. I fell for a local guy and moved here a few years ago, a baby boomer who spent 30 years in Boston, which in my mind is the center of the universe.

But this old Midwest city — thrust into the Industrial Revolution when John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil here in 1870 — continues to reinvent itself.

Cleveland on the rise

Recent news and sports events brought big attention: the Republican National Convention, the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James winning their first NBA championship title, the Cleveland Indians making it to the World Series (don't ask about the Cleveland Browns!), all televised and taking place downtown.

But this city of nearly 400,000 residents is where millennial boomerangs are returning and transplants are arriving, bringing with them big ideas. New enterprises are taking over old industrial buildings, people are moving into downtown, and there's a new energy in the air (which like the Cuyahoga River is no longer filthy).

Food and arts scenes are leading the revival of entire neighborhoods, including the East Bank of the Flats on the river, where the new Collision Bend Brewing Co. is bubbling. (The brewery gets its name from a passage of the winding river that's historically tricky for freighters to navigate.)

A hidden gem

Julian Bruell, 27, is a prime example of the new, young energy in town. A graduate of the hotel school at Cornell University in New York, he now directs service at Collision Bend and several other restaurants run by his dad, chef Zack Bruell.

"I came back because there is opportunity to have an influence in the growth of this city," said the younger Bruell. "It's becoming more dynamic, a place where people like me can be creative."

Asked to rate the city's cool factor on a scale of 1 to 10, Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson not surprisingly said "It's a 10," adding, "It’s nice that everyone else is now recognizing what we have known for some time."

Ivan Schwarz, an Orange County transplant whose résumé includes co-producing the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," like me arrived in town not knowing what to expect.

“When you get here you have no idea, and then you’re going, ‘How come I had no idea?’ ” said Schwarz, who has headed the Greater Cleveland Film Commission since 2007. “We are certainly a really good secret. We're like that great restaurant that only special people know about.”

Schwarz has successfully lured to the city big-budget film productions such as Marvel’s “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (for which a major highway was shut down), though usually with Cleveland doubling for New York or somewhere else.

Music, theater, parties

Visiting music fans know to make a pilgrimage to Cleveland for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which opened in 1995 and is stocked to the gills with memorabilia. Exhibits change constantly. Each time I visit I plan several hours to explore.

One of the first things I did when I got to town was to buy a membership, which means a chance to snag early tickets for occasional Hall of Fame-produced concerts, which typically feature one or more rock legends. The museum's I.M. Pei-designed building, with its striking glass pyramids, is a great photo op.

Two other places I found for Cleveland selfies: Artist Claes Oldenburg’s “FREE” stamp next to City Hall is the world's largest rubber stamp, an odd piece commissioned then rejected by Standard Oil and donated to the city as public art. The world's largest outdoor chandelier is an extravagant sight in Playhouse Square, which outside of New York is the largest theater district in the country (10 stages within retro-cool vaudeville-style theaters).

My favorite party scene is outdoors on brick-lined East 4th Street, a block of renovated buildings connected by strings of twinkling lights.

It's people-watching nirvana even before you wander into the bars, clubs and restaurants, including a couple owned by Iron Chef and James Beard Award-winner Michael Symon (also co-host of ABC TV's "The Chew"). When I am not on one of my frequent vegetarian kicks, I've found that Jonathon Sawyer, another James Beard Award winner, does amazing things with meat at his casual gastropub, the Greenhouse Tavern.

To really get to know Cleveland, I recommend also going beyond downtown; the city is sprawling.

Culture-vulture attractions

Cleveland connects its venerable cultural institutions to downtown with a 20-minute ride on the RTA HealthLine bus, past the dozens of blocks belonging to the Cleveland Clinic hospital, to University Circle.

Here clustered together are the Cleveland Museum of Art, with the surprising bonus of free admission; the Cleveland Museum of Natural History; and beautiful, historic Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. It's one of the most beautiful cultural hubs I've encountered anywhere.

While in the neighborhood, I recommend checking out the wild metal curves of the Frank Gehry-designed management school building at Case Western Reserve University, and indulging in French cheese and a glass of Bordeaux on the patio of L'Albatros Brasserie, on the school's campus.

Architecture buffs will also want to take a peek at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, housed in a stunning, multi-sided, gem-like building designed by Iranian-born London architect Farshid Moussavi.

Vegging out

Back downtown, there are new hotels such as the Kimpton Schofield Hotel, in repurposed buildings, where a stay comes with cool perks such as a free guitar loaner program and access to a collection of Clevelander Harvey Pekar's underground “American Splendor” comic books.

The sparkling new, taxpayer-owned Hilton high-rise has views of Lake Erie, especially from Bar 32 on top.

If you're a caffeine addict like me you'll appreciate that there's a coffee scene. Rising Star Roasters is one of six downtown independent coffee shops that have banded together to offer a "Disloyalty Card," which means your sixth coffee is free.

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Also downtown, I like popping into a secret imbibing spot in Heinen's grocery store, which occupies the rotunda of an old bank building and has self-service wine and snacks on the second floor.

It's worth walking across the Cuyahoga on the historic Detroit-Superior Bridge to get to Ohio City (also accessible on light rail), where you can reward yourself with treats at the indoor West Side Market, 105 years old and going strong.

I like to walk the aisles of food vendors while munching a crepe made of local goat cheese from Crêpes de Luxe. Breaking again with my sometimes-vegetarian efforts, I also can't resist the thick and spicy beef jerky at J&J Czuchraj Meats (a great souvenir). Plan to linger, because near the market are a number of craft breweries.

Cleveland made

A little farther out in the Gordon Square Arts District, local artists show off their talents at 78th Street Studios, dozens of galleries in a massive old American Greetings card complex (this is the place to be Third Fridays when hipsters come calling).

Also in Gordon Square, the city is starting to show some fashion sense at Fount, featuring made-in-Cleveland luxury leather handbags and accessories. The brand is one of several new businesses touting local products, a development credited in part to Cavs star James and his entrepreneur-inspiring CNBC reality show "Cleveland Hustles."

Local pride is also a philosophy embraced by young returnee Bruell, who said, “Cleveland shouldn't try to be like New York or Chicago or other cities. It should be unique and different.”

Schwarz, of the film commission, compared what's happening in Cleveland to the renaissance of Portland, Ore.

"Old-time Clevelanders may question the cool factor. I see an untapped gold mine," he said. "I think we really should shout from the rooftop about the virtues of this city."

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO CLEVELAND

From LAX, United and Frontier offer nonstop service to Cleveland, and Delta, American, United and Southwest offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $407, including taxes and fees.

Kimpton Schofield Hotel, 2000 E. Ninth St.; (216) 357-3250. This boutique hotel occupies several floors of a landmark 1902 building. Free local craft beer (and wine) nightly at social hour in the lobby. Doubles from $180 per night.

Drury Plaza Hotel Cleveland Downtown, 1380 E. Sixth St.; (216) 357-3100. The old Beaux Arts-style Cleveland Board of Education now houses a 189-room hotel. Teacher's Lounge bar/cafe, lap pool and fitness center. Doubles from $130 per night, including hot breakfast.

Hilton Cleveland Downtown, 100 Lakeside Ave. East; (216) 413-5000. Catch views of Lake Erie and the city from this 600-room glass high-rise attached to the convention center. Doubles from $199 per night.

WHERE TO EAT

Collision Bend Brewing Co., 1250 Old River Road; (216) 273-7879. The menu of tasty, affordable small and large plates and pizzas is influenced by SoCal street food (including many variations of tacos for $6 to $9), and pairs well with the beer brewed on site.

Greenhouse Tavern, 2038 East 4th St.; (216) 443-0511. Chef Jonathon Sawyer likes things over the top, the meatier the better. Go with the foie gras steamed clams ($15), decadent Ohio Beef burger with raclette cheese ($18) or shareable roasted pig head ($56).

L'Albatros Brasserie, 11401 Bellflower Road; (216) 791-7880. Chef Zack Breull has a mantra that good food should be affordable, and that includes French cuisine. At this romantic spot, indulge in escargot ($12) and a juicy hangar steak with frites ($23).

WHAT TO DO

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1100 Rock and Roll Blvd.; (216) 781-7625. Plan to spend hours exploring the world's largest collection of rock and roll artifacts. General admission $23.50, seniors $21.25, youth (6-12) $13.75, 5 and younger free.

Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.; (216) 421-7350. The building is stunning and so is the collection, with more than 45,000 works by Dalí, Warhol, Monet and more. Free admission (there is a charge for special exhibits). Closed Mondays.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1 Wade Oval Drive; (216) 231-4600. The museum is famous for its "Lucy" discovery, one of the most complete skeletons of a human ancestor found to date. Reconstructions are on view. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for youth (3-18) and seniors.

West Side Market, 1979 W. 25th St.; (216) 664-3387. If you can pull your eyes away from the more than 100 food vendors, check out the public market's impressive architectural features such as the yellow tile vaulted ceiling and clock tower.

TO LEARN MORE

Destination Cleveland; (800) 321-1001

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