If there were a contest for the Ohio city with the most unexpected history, Akron would win. The hamburger was supposedly invented here. Thomas Edison visited often (his wife was an Akronite). Around the turn of the century, Akron’s supremacy in tire manufacturing helped it become known as the “rubber capital of the world.”
(And let’s not forget a certain NBA superstar who calls Akron home—they even renamed Main Street “King James Way” after him.)
Though it’s a city, Akron also has that bucolic, small-town charm going for it. There’s even a bike path that you can ride all the way up to Cleveland. The 85-mile “tow path” snakes through some of Ohio’s most scenic countryside, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the 11th-most-visited national park in the country, with its rolling hills, forests, hiking trails, and even waterfalls. Back in the 1800s, mules used to pull merchant boats up and down the historic Ohio and Erie canal, but the vibe is way more relaxed today: Chill Ice Cream, for example, sits right off the trail, making a convenient pick-me-up as you make your way through the valley.
But music might be Akron’s true legacy. It’s no coincidence that Devo, Chrissie Hynde, and The Black Keys all came out of Akron. “Akron, to me, is a very cool place,” says Maria Nagel, an employee of Lock 3, the city’s biggest outdoor music venue. “It’s a little cooler than Cleveland . . . it’s more avant-garde.” Indeed, during the 1940s and 1950s, when black musicians were routinely being turned away from hotels in Cleveland, Akron opened its doors—specifically, a cluster of eight or so jazz clubs that sprang up along Howard Street—and became known as the “jazz corridor” of the Midwest.
Today, what’s really keeping Akron on travelers’ lists is the Historic Arts District, where nightlife is huge. “Akron really comes alive at night,” Zack Jaworski, who runs an artisanal ice cream shop nearby, says, citing an indie movie theater and “Ohio’s best jazz club” as examples.
Here’s a list of what you should check out on your next trip to Akron:
Chill Ice Cream
Small-batch ice cream shops have become something of a requisite for small American towns looking to up their foodie cred, and Chill Ice Cream fits the bill. Founded by three brothers, the shop has been heartily embraced by Akronites (yes, that’s what they’re called). “We have a passion for ice cream,” explains one of the brothers, Zack Jaworski. And that’s evident in the exotic range of flavors: honey habanero (made with local honey), salted sweet corn with sage, honeydew cucumber cilantro, and a recent collaboration with Hoppin’ Frog, a local brewery.
You wouldn’t have guessed it, but Akron is home to four restaurants given top honors by Wine Spectator. The wine bar 750ml is one of them—located in Pilgrim Square, owner Lauren Carpeta stocks French, Italian, and Oregon-based wines, which are served alongside charcuterie boards, artichoke asiago dip, and wild mushroom flatbread. It’s also one of the most romantic spots in the city: There are always candles in the evening, and the handsome wood interiors kind of feel like you’re inside a barrel of wine.
Akron’s most underrated nightlife spot, a jazz club named Blu, sits just a few blocks from Howard Street, which during its heyday in the late 1950s and 1960s, was affectionately known as “Jazz Corridor.” The eight or so jazz clubs clustered there lured the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald as they made their way west from New York to Chicago. These days, their original concert posters are plastered on the walls at Blu, which draws a range of national and local talent, continuing a legacy of great jazz that started in Akron almost 100 years ago.
Akron’s take on the indie filmhouse—a single-screen theater funded partly by Kickstarter—shows there are more than a few unique ways to spend an evening here. The nightly program focuses exclusively on locally produced movies, as well as obscure documentaries, foreign films, and first-run indie features (in other words—titles you’ve likely never heard of, and that’s the point). Like other modern art houses in L.A. and Miami, Nightlight is small (just 50 seats), so it complements, rather than competes with, other cultural venues in the ‘hood—like Akron Art Museum, which sits across the street.
Classic, family-style Italian joint Luigi’s has been around since the late 1940s, and holds a special place in locals’ hearts. The storied pizza spot can seat almost 200 people, and its thick-crust pies are laden with copious amounts of bubbling cheese—what’s not to love? “Everybody that comes to Akron has to go to Luigi’s,” explains Lock 3’s Maria Nagel, who’s a confessed devotee. A recent rumor that the iconic pizzeria had closed prompted the headline: “Stop Panicking!”—fortunately, the rumors were false.
Proving that it’s not all about hipster ice cream and Devo groupies, a city-run performing arts center called Lock 3 makes the case for Akron as a family destination, too. Since opening in 2003, Lock 3 has become a central part of Akronites’ summer routine—from Memorial Day through Labor Day, there’s an outdoor concert every Friday night, and important town events, like the National Hamburger Festival, are held here. In the colder months, things are just as festive, with Winterfest bringing a 10,000-square-foot ice skating rink and an indoor Polar-themed putt-putt golf course.