Save me from Culture Shock!
May 3, 2010 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Moving to a small town in NW Pennsylvania in a couple months. What the hell is there to do?!

The particular town is Meadville, which is relatively near to Erie, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Youngstown -- that I know of. There might be other cool small towns nearby, but I don't know the area yet. I've lived in small, mid-sized, and large cities all my life, and I'm trying to avoid too much culture shock when I relocate to a rural area that lacks many of the amenities and cultural attractions I'm used to. So, I'm looking for suggestions of things to do/places to go on weekends and such that will keep me entertained. In particular, my likes & interests:

1) A good martial arts school (pref. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/submission grappling, Muay Thai, Boxing)
2) Cool independent record stores & bookstores (esp. that buy/sell used stuff)
3) Good independent/art house cinema
4) Good theater (anywhere from small community troupes to polished professionals)
5) Bars/clubs that have live bands (rock, JAZZ, independent acts especially)
6) Good grocery stores (ie, NOT wal-mart)
7) Museums, botanical gardens, interesting historical sites
8) Good restaurants, of all varieties/price levels
9) Any other culturally enriching/educational type places/groups

Any recommendations current or former residents may have are much appreciated. I know that Meadville itself is lacking in most of these areas, so anywhere within a 2 hour drive is cool.
posted by Saxon Kane to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The only thing I miss about NW Pennsylvania is Wegmans.
posted by zamdaba at 6:21 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

We went to college about 45 minutes south of Meadville. In that broad area, roughly where I-80 and I-79 cross, is a local restaurant group called Springfield Group. It's traditional American food, that varies in price per establishment. But I still have physical cravings for some of the food we ate there.

You'll be near Sharon PA on your way to Youngstown. At least once you should stop by the original location of the Quaker Steak and Lube chain. The new buildings that are built in the strip malls are boring warehouses, but the original is an old gas station and has some nice charm and automobile kitsch.

Let me think some more about the region - it's been a bit since we lived up that way.
posted by librarianamy at 6:55 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry - I borked that link.
posted by librarianamy at 6:56 PM on May 3, 2010

Pittsburgh proper is within a two hour drive (Google Maps says 1 1/2 hours). For groceries, you have the strip district (rows of ethnic/specialty grocers) and the nearby Right by Nature (think if Whole Foods and Trader Joe's had offspring). Caliban Books is a used book store in Oakland that my lit-type acquaintances shop/work in. Jerry's Records is an independent record store in squirrel hill dealing (I think) exclusively in vinyl -- they have constantly changing hours, call ahead to make sure they're open.

There are the Carnegie museums and library in Oakland, along with the botanical garden Phipps Conservatory. They're quite nice and inexpensive (<$10) to boot, but do expect to pay for parking...there's a University of Pittsburgh lot (open to everyone, code PH) that's not too far away and four dollars all day. Though the Carnegie lots aren't that much more expensive, and closer by.

Bars/clubs with live music tend to cluster more on the south side than the strip district. Others may have more specific suggestions, but I'd suggest pulling up the websites of random bars on East Carson Street and also seeing if anything interesting is going on at the small to mid sized venues (The Rex and Diesel).
posted by ayerarcturus at 6:57 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

My fondest memory of my summer in NW PA was Hank's frozen custard.

Otherwise, I expect you're going to become quite familiar with the route to Pittsburgh.
posted by Tsuga at 7:01 PM on May 3, 2010

Pittsburgh & Cleveland have all of those that you wish, in spades, and are both about 2 hours (comfortable) driving. You don't menton outdoor or scenic activities, and the only reason I mention this is b/c my list would be about the same as yours--except the Capoeira & martial arts stuff, but I also like the woods & backroads & all. You'll be an hour or so from the Allegheny forest & about 40 mins to Pymatumm Pymatunnng Pymatuning State Park.

Erie, PA is kind of a wasteland rustbelt cadaver, but had one of the most interesting Salvation Army stores I have ever seen. It is brutal there (Erie) in the winter, but I imagine that Erie-ites can tell you about the hidden gems there (I can't--I was always only passing through). Bradford is about 2 hours away, ancestral home of Zippo lighters & the Dresser flexible coupling, which, in 1885, made distribution of crude oil feasible. (Meadville is in the heart of the original American "oil country").

Hour and a half to Mentor/Willoughby, OH. Decent restaurants there. 2 hours to Buffalo--there are many events associated with the universities there, an underrated brewpub, a sweet little minor (AAA) league baseball park, etc. Double-A basebal club in Erie.

My sister lives in Pittsburgh, and I find it hard to imagine a more livable city in the northeast. The Church Brewery in Pittsburgh is worth the trip from Meadville, and Pittsburgh has jazz clubs, blues, and so on. When I've visited, we've just gone to a variety of restaurants on the (generally) west side of Pittsburgh and I've been impressed whether it's on the $5/person to $25/person range.

Finally, the Southern Tier of NY is gorgeous and the Finger Lakes are within easy driving range.

You are moving into scenic splendor--your cultural enrinchment in Meadville might be thin, but you have quite a bit withing reasonable range.
posted by klangklangston at 7:13 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I've lived in Meadville for close to 30 years now and spend a fair amount of time in Erie, Sharon, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh for work so I'm pretty qualified to answer your question...

Unfortunately it's getting a little late for me to really get into an answer tonight (early day tomorrow) but feel free to mefi mail me and I'll try to get you any info you need.

Good luck, and it really won't be that bad of a move.
posted by joshgates at 7:17 PM on May 3, 2010

Pittsburgh has everything on your list, especially in the theater, museum, and grocery store categories. I would recommend a trip to the Strip District if you are looking for unique, local, independent grocery stores. There are dozens in the space of a few blocks.

As far as record stores are concerned, there is Jerry's in Squirrel Hill and Attic Record Store in Millvale. Both are huge.
posted by Alison at 7:45 PM on May 3, 2010

One thing you must do is buy a bunch of cheap bread and go to the dam at Pymatuning. There are ridiculous numbers of carp there (the water is solid with them), and if you throw bread into the water they will pile on top of each other to get it. Then the ducks will come along, walking on top of the solid carp. It's absolutely bizarre and a very memorable experience.
posted by Emanuel at 7:51 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, when in doubt, just drive down to Pittsburgh. Closer by, however...

3. Pretty much a wash, as far as I know, although the local community theatre shows some independent/foreign films.

4. Many small ones, but I'd check out the theatre department offerings for the various nearby universities- Edinboro, Pitt Titusville, Pitt Bradford, Grove City, etc.- you're likely to get a more interesting offering than the community theatres. The Erie Playhouse is probably the nearest larger theatre.

5. Ditto for the above in regards to music, as many of these campuses hold arts series or book bands and orchestras. Unfortunately I don't know too much about the local bar scene.

6. The Market House looks interesting, though I've never been inside.

7/9. The Chautauqua Institution is about an hour and a half northeast- more of a place to spend a short vacation, as the gate pass is expensive, but it's a lovely place to spend a few days during the summer, and hosts lectures, symphonies, opera, and the like. The Allegheny National Forest has good hiking and camping, and a three-hour drive north will put you at Letchworth State Park, aka Grand Canyon of the East. You can also visit the center of the Seneca Nation, about an hour and forty-five minutes north at Irving, NY.

Feel free to memail me if you like. I spent two years in Bradford and am very fond of the area.
posted by notquitemaryann at 7:58 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Cleveland's two hours of easy driving, and has a lot of what you're looking for.

Cleveland has a surprisingly great food scene. Michael Symon has three restaurants that are either in Cleveland or right near there: B-Spot (casual place, does burgers, awesome milkshakes, bratwurst, that kind of thing), Lola and Lolita (Lola is pretty formal, Lolita is a little more midrange). All three of them are meant to be fantastic, though I've only been to B-Spot. If you decide to hit the B-Spot, I'd suggest getting there earlyish--consider having a very late lunch, maybe. Lolita has great happy hour specials (I think that happy hour if 4-6--double check if you're interested.)

If you're into breweries, the Great Lakes Brewing Company is good times--they've got fantastic beer (I like the Dortmunder and Eliot Ness, and, if it's in season, the Christmas Ale) and good food. If you're into wine, Ohio has quite a few wineries of varying quality. More importantly, we have Vintage Ohio, which is a giant, awesome winefest.

Tommy's of Cleveland is something of a hipster landmark. Um, but the food's actually good, and Cleveland hipsters are less annoying than the hipsters of other cities, in my experience. Tommy's is also in a neat little area called Coventry--lots of little independent shops and the like down there. It's a nice place to walk around.

The Flying Fig is a midrange eatery--I've only been there once, but really enjoyed the food. Vine and Bean Cafe is much more casual and focuses on food that's produced within a hundred miles of the restaurant. Their menu changes regularly, so I can't say much about the current menu, but I've been there several times and it's always been good.

If you're looking for something more casual, go check out Johnny Mango (incredibly cheap, super delicious), The Stone Oven, or the West Side Market Cafe. The latter is located inside the West Side Market, which is a historic market in Cleveland--they've got basically everything from organic veggies to handmade pastas to whole pigs and goats. Some of the stalls are owned by larger companies, but there are some that've been owned by the same family for the last hundred years. It's a neat place to walk around, and there are actually quite a few eateries in there. All very casual (the Market Cafe is the most "upscale", and by that I mean that there are tables to sit at), but there's good brats, any kind of baked good you want, Middle Eastern food, Mexican and Cambodian, plus stuff like gyros, Mediterranean... It's epic. If you go, climb upstairs to eat on the balcony that overlooks the market--it's fantastic. The market and everything in it shuts down around three, just so you know.

If you want a crazy-awesome bar, go check out the Velvet Tango Room. Dress up. It's basically a modern speakeasy, and -- as you might expect -- is pretty awesome.

If you're okay walking around looking for somewhere, Little Italy has some fantastic shops and restaurants. Many of them keep weird hours/days of operation, though.

There's also L'Albatros Brasserie-- I've heard it's amazing, though it's a bit steep for my pocketbook. Blue Point Grille is meant to do fantastic seafood, but as I'm allergic, we've never gone.

This is by no means a comprehensive listing, it's just a bunch of places I've been and found memorable for one reason or another.

Moving on to things to do...
If you're into music, there's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though I haven't seen it, they currently have a Springsteen exhibit that's supposed to be great, and Motown exhibit that runs through the end of the summer.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has just opened their newly renovated east wing, and the collection is amazing. Admission, pleasingly, is free. There's also the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is small but neat.

If you're in a more playing-with-things mood, the Great Lakes Science Center can be pretty fun--they have a lot of hands-on exhibits. (It's also literally right next to the Rock Hall, so if you wanted, you could do a doubleheader without paying twice for parking.)

This one's a bit odd, but there's the William Mather museum, where you're going through an old steamboat. It's incredible and I love it, but if you're claustrophobic, I would recommend against it.

Cleveland has a surprisingly wonderful zoo. Part of it is an indoor rainforest, and they've done pretty amazing things with it. It's also enormous--you can easily spend a whole day there and still not see everything.

Depending on what time of year you're going to be there, the Cleveland Botanical Garden or the Cleveland Cultural Gardens can be neat. That said, if you're going to be here before, say, June, it's probably not worth it, since everything outside will just be mud. Along similar lines is the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse.

Maybe this is weird, but I love taking people to the Lake View Cemetery. It's absolutely stunning--full of amazing old graves, gorgeous monuments, and there's a chapel designed by Louis Tiffany (of stained glass fame), and it's just as beautiful as you'd expect.

If you want music, check what's playing at the Grog Shop, the Beachland Ballroom, or the House of Blues. Bonus: Grog Shop and the Ballroom tend to be really cheap, too, with some shows as low as a couple of bucks.

If you want a different kind of music, go check out the world-class Cleveland Orchestra--they're considered among the top ten orchestras in the world, better than anyone else in America save for Chicago's Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Theater, go look at Playhouse Square. It's a fairly impressive theater complex--it's a group theaters from the twenties that all closed in the sixties. There was discussion about knock them all down back in the 70s, but a group of people formed a preservation group and between, I think, 1980 and 1999, they've totally restored all five of the theaters--it's gorgeous inside. They do a pretty wide variety of stuff now, ranging from, like, fashion shows to Broadway, and tickets can often be had for as little as $10. (And, okay, they're a little nosebleedy, but I've paid way more than ten bucks for worse.)

For more outdoorsy stuff, there's the Headlands Beach State Park--a mile of sandy beach, hiking trails, all sort of nice stuff. Also, Cleveland's Metroparks system is second to none--miles upon miles of trails, wildlife reserves, all sorts of stuff. There's even a haunted castle!

If you're interested in kayaking, I hear that 41 North is well worth the price. Rock climbing? Try Kendall Cliffs if you want indoor, or Whipps Ledges if you want to be outside.

Cleveland also has a couple of great independently owned bookshops. Mac's Backs Paperbacks and Visible Voice Books both come to mind.

If you're willing to drive a bit further, Kelleys Island can be a nice visit--bird watching, swimming, kayaking, sailing, swimming, scuba diving (with shipwrecks!), lighthouse tours, and the largest easily accessible glacial grooves in the world, which are pretty incredible.

About the same distance as Kelleys Island is Cedar Point, which has more rides than any other amusement park and ties for the world record of most roller coasters in an amusement park. There's also a beach, an indoor waterpark, an outdoor waterpark, a marina, a bunch of restaurants, and go-karts. It's been voted the best amusement park in the world for something like ten years running.

Somewhat less impressive than Cedar Point (but also more one-day-tripable) is Kings Island. It's worth mentioning that Kings Island tickets are discounted by $15 if you purchase them online, which makes it markedly cheaper than Cedar Point tickets are.

Also, consider heading to Akron once in a while. Though a lot more limited than Cleveland is, it has Lock 3, a grassy downtown area that hosts the occasional concert and, more importantly, the National Hamburger Festival.

Akron's also home to the Blossom Music Center, which has a wide variety of concerts, including concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra, who are apparently performing with Yo-Yo Ma.

Also, re: grocery stores: Wegmans. We don't have them in Ohio yet, and oh god, do I miss Wegmans.
posted by MeghanC at 9:45 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Start reading the Meadville Tribune.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:14 AM on May 4, 2010

Where are you moving from? I think that your expectations will determine a lot.

If you are moving from somewhere like NYC or SF or LA and you absolutely love living there, you will find it a huge culture shock to move to the middle of nowhere PA.

I lived in Pittsbugh for a year in 2008 / 2009. It was ok.

I was disappointed in the quality of a lot of the restaurants, even a lot of the well reviewed / recommended ones.

But the city is really nice to walk around in the spring and fall. It gets cold, but didn't snow very much the winter I was there, although I hear that it out of the ordinary.
posted by reddot at 2:48 PM on May 4, 2010

My father's apparently logged in as me, for whatever reason (probably left myself logged in on his laptop some months ago), so I'll just echo the big ups for the Great Lakes Brewing Company, and point out that their Edmund Fitzgerald Porter is maybe the best beer ever in the history of anything.
posted by klangklangston at 4:25 PM on May 4, 2010

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