Walking the aisles in Cleveland's massive West Side Market gives "sensory overload" new meaning: on my right are the sharp-smelling cheeses and creamy sweet butter from Amish country, barely an hour south of the city. On my left, the aromas of sweet poppyseed strudel and grainy nut breads mingle with the squawks of old women, arguing over the price of chicken feet. Here, in the heart of the Ohio City neighborhood, I'm surrounded by delicious reminders that Cleveland is a city of busy ethnic neighborhoods. I munch on a smoked sausage and stroll the produce section, intrigued by the strong reds and greens of berries and leafy veggies just ahead.
Neighborhoods here hold layers of surprises. In Little Italy, old schools converted to artists' colonies beckon with handcrafted jewelry, gold-flecked fabrics and mysterious pottery shapes, all against a backdrop of generations-old pasta and pastry houses. In progressive Detroit Shoreway, an award-winning eco-village and soon-to-open indie movie theatre redefine this onetime Romanian settlement. And the acclaimed restaurants in old-industrial Tremont have brought celebrity to Cleveland chefs on Iron Chef America.
While downtown redevelops, Cleveland's neighborhoods rejuvenate on their own agenda, many becoming destinations in themselves. They welcome visitors in any numbers, though since many are smaller, compact communities, groups of more than 50 to 80 might overwhelm the entrepreneurial shops and restaurants if they arrived all at once.
For a deeper understanding of the neighborhoods as you tour, expert guides are available from several operators. Perhaps the most popular is Lolly the Trolley (216-771-4484, 800-848-0173; www.lollytrolley.com), whose menu of themed tours includes churches and ethnic markets, as well as general historical tours of the city.
An alternative look at Cleveland's history is available from Walking Tour of Cleveland (216-575-1189; e-mail at www.clevelandwalkingtours.com). And for free digital walking tours of downtown and various neighborhoods, go to www.cityprowl.com - the newcomer to Cleveland's touring scene-and download podcasts onto your MP3 player.