A post-industrial, Rust Belt town that has only the fourth highest population in Ohio and sits sprawled out over old docklands and riversides on the very edge of the Great Lakes, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that Toledo is so often overlooked by travelers making their way through the Midwest.
But those who do opt to linger just a little in the so-called Glass City are usually pleasantly surprised by the secrets hidden amidst its canal-boom neighborhoods.
There’s picturesque Old East End to see, the largest Victorian come Georgian area this side of the Mississippi, complete with its photogenic mansions and churches.
Then there are the wild urban parks, trodden by geese and deer, not to mention the highly-acclaimed Toledo Zoo and the Toledo Museum of Art.
Add to that a booming jazz culture and some enticing all-American eateries, microbreweries and cafes, and you’ve got yourself a city that’s really worth visiting! Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Toledo!
1. Seek out European masterworks at the Toledo Museum of Art
Set between the beautiful rows of Edwardian and Georgian mansions that adorn the famous Old West End area of central Toledo, the Toledo Museum of Art is home to some seriously totemic works that are a must for any culture-vulture hitting T-Town.
Be sure to catch the classic masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rubens that await in the main collection displays, and don’t forget to case out the gorgeous array of glassworks that helped make the museum so famous.
More recently, a stylish, glass-clad auditorium and workshop space was added, famed for its gorgeous curved glass walls and designed by the revered Frank Gehry no less.
2. Get hands on with science at the Imagination Station
An immersive and hands-on exhibition space that’s dedicated to unravelling the wonders of science for children of all ages, the Imagination Station has been a staple of the Toledo waterfront since opening way back in the late 90s.
Today, the institution is one of the most acclaimed in the city, offering a whole range of so-called ‘Learning Zones,’ where visitors can expand their knowledge about things like healthy eating, fossil fuels, solar energy, kinetics, gravity, sound waves, agriculture, optical illusions, weather systems – the list goes on!
There’s also an eatery on site (appropriately-named the Atomic Café), serving up all the family favorites, from burgers pepperoni pizzas.
3. Critters and conservation at the Toledo Zoo
Hailed by many as the single best zoo in all of America, the Toledo Zoo has a whopping 13 individual exhibitions that showcase animals of all shapes and sizes from right across the globe.
Since opening more than 100 years ago, the institution has pioneered all-new modes of conservation and zoology – it was one of the first in the world to transition to real habitat enclosures!
That means visitors today can see attractions like the African Savannah, where the grassy mounds hide elephants and hippos, and Cheetah Valley, where the big cats stroll between dusty rocks and ridges that mimic Namibia.
There are also penguins, gorillas and polar bears to boot!
4. Get in the local sporting spirit at the Fifth Third Field
The home of the Toledo Mud Hens is sacred space for many a local of T-Town. Looming high above the criss-crossing streets of the Center City in the midst of the downtown, it draws huge crowds to its 9,000-capacity interior, all eager to watch the local minor league masters hit home runs aplenty.
The stadium itself has been championed as one of the best in the American lower leagues, offering panoramic game-viewing from the appropriately-named Roost terrace, along with countless family-friendly eateries, going from the hearty burgers and buns of the Birdcage Bar & Grill to the succulent steaks and salads of NINE.
5. Wander the pretty streets of the Old West End
North-west of the Center City district is where visitors to Toledo will discover the much-talked-about Old West End. A grid of neatly arranged streets and boulevards that’s dotted with swaying plane trees, the neighbourhood has been attracting the city’s most moneyed and well-to-do citizens since it first sprung up in the late 19th century.
That means visitors who opt to simply wander the streets, or those who take one of the regular guided tours of the area, can expect exquisite rows of Victorian and Georgian builds, pretty Edwardian mansions, and colonnaded churches alike. It’s a truly beautiful spot!
6. Feel the rhythm with the Art Tatum Jazz Society
Named after the great virtuoso jazz pianist, Art Tatum, a native of Toledo himself, the Art Tatum Jazz Society is known right across the city as the go-to place for real American jazz, blues, bebop and more.
The folk here organise regular jazz nights and meetups, including the uber-popular Jazz under Glass series, which is done in conjunction with the Toledo Museum of Art and hosted in its famous glass extension in the Old West End.
The jazz society is also responsible for a whole host of trombone and piano gigs across the city, showcasing the cream of musical heritage from this corner of northern Ohio.
7. Get a taste of Ohio’s best sausages at Tony Packo’s
Tony Packo’s is nothing short of legendary on the line-up of Toledo’s casual eateries. Touted as a mashup of Hungarian and American cuisine, patrons flock here to sample the Magyar-influenced, ragù-doused original hot dogs.
The spot is actually steeped in history, having been selling its famous buns from the street corners of West Toledo since the years of the Great Depression and Prohibition.
Thankfully, beer adorns the modern menu next to the iconic dogs, while there’s also a medley of baked strudels, Hungarian-style stuffed cabbage leaves, Hungarian dumplings and chilli bowls to get through besides. One thing’s for sure: you won’t go hungry!
8. Find your green fingers at the Toledo Botanical Garden
Spread over more than 60 acres on the eastern fringes of Toledo, the Toledo Botanical Garden is a patchwork of pretty flower beds and herb gardens, well-maintained shrubberies and charming walking paths.
Visitors (of which there are more than 120,000 per year!) are invited to come and learn about popular horticulture techniques, seek out the interesting art works and sculptures that pepper the lawns, and discover all-new ways of sustainable growing.
The summertime also sees the Crosby Festival of the Arts arrive, while June and July mean evening jazz shows on the grass and a real local, community vibe.
9. Glimpse the Ohio backcountry at the Wildwood Preserve Metropark
The Wildwood Preserve Metropark is one of the largest and most visited of the various municipal green areas peppering the center and outskirts of Toledo.
Crowned in the middle by one glorious Victorian come Georgian manor house built by the local entrepreneur Robert Stranahan in the 1930s, the sprawling area also comes criss-crossed with meandering walking trails and boardwalks, cut through by the meanders of the Ottawa River and decorated with rolling grasslands and meadow, oak forests and prairies.
Visitors today can take free tours of the on-site mansion, while birdwatching for the American woodcock and other curious critters is also a popular pastime.
10. Seek deer and swans at Swan Creek
The second of the urban Metroparks of Toledo to make this list comes in the form of the pretty, triangle-shaped enclave of Swan Creek. Found wedged between the suburbs of the city on its south-eastern outskirts, this wild dash of beech trees and oaks is home to an interesting array of habitats.
Most notably, the site is famed as a stopover for migratory birds, while the riparian woodlands also offer up the chance to see wild deer and foxes.
What’s more, the area is imbued with a clutch of picnic spots (great in both the summer and the winter thanks to their covered roofs) and playgrounds for travelers with kids in tow.
11. Trace Toledo’s history at the National Museum of the Great Lakes
One of the newer museums to grace the town of Toledo, this fascinating exhibition center contains everything from replica ships to models of freighters, machinery left over from the industrial boom times of the Midwest to dinnerware from the grand pleasure steamboats of Lake Erie.
The museum is also home to the Col. James M. Schoonmaker ship; the erstwhile Queen of the Lakes (the title awarded to the largest shipping vessel in operation on the American Great Lakes), which dates all the way back to 1911 and offers an immersive glimpse at the industrial culture of the Maumee River and beyond from the early 20th century.
12. Lunch like a local at The Café by Maumee Bay Brewing Co.
Simply named and hearty to the hilt, The Café is one of the well-known outlets of the local microbrewers, Maumee Bay Brewing Co. Stripped down and with just an edge of industrial-chic décor, the spot oozes a real local charm; one part American diner, one part stylish hipster coffee house.
The menu touts bulging breakfast sandwiches next to tasty tomato and basil soups, fresh breads straight from the adjoining bakery, and oodles of cupcakes and sweet pastries besides.
The service is hailed as friendly and welcoming, while the range of in-house beers is top-notch to say the least (the joint is run by a brewery after all!).
13. Seafood galore at the Real Seafood Company
Bringing just a little taste of New England and the Eastern Seaboard to the heart of Toledo and the Great Lakes, this much-loved local eatery touts a sprawling, six-foot raw bar that’s packed full of fresh oysters, clams, lobsters, shrimp – you name it!
The dinner menu, meanwhile, ranges from fried crab cakes to coffee-rubbed mignon steaks, stuffed flounders to Atlantic salmon dishes.
There are also oodles of combos on offer for patrons arriving in groups, along with special lobster platters and even standalone wine tasting menus that draw on the finest of Californian reds and whites.
14. Wonder at the gorgeous Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral
Commanding the very heart of the Old West End, where the pretty Georgian mansions cluster around the leafy streets, the soaring frontal spires and flying buttresses of the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral remain some of the most beautiful architectural creations in Toledo for sure.
Designed and built in the early 20th century, the style of the construction is largely unique throughout North America. In fact, it was intended to mimic the elegant Mudéjar, arabesque and Castilla-La Mancha styles of the city’s namesake town over the pond in Spain!