With a lively waterway and a powerful sense of place, Toledo, Ohio, shatters expectations—and the record for the country’s largest mural.

Stepping onto the massive Great Lakes freighter Col. James M. Schoonmaker, I'm awestruck. First launched in 1911—the same year as Titanic—the colossal 617-foot-long vessel once carried coal, iron ore and grain. Today it's part of Toledo's National Museum of the Great Lakes, some 5 miles downriver from Lake Erie. The painstakingly restored cargo hold, engine room and captain's lounge evoke a bygone era of freshwater transport. Wandering around the top deck, I can't decide which has captured my heart: the ship itself or the westward view of Toledo's skyline.

Maumee River

I grew up just an hour or so north of here, in a suburb of Detroit. Yet not once did we venture to the Glass City. People talked about the zoo, the Libbey Glass Factory Outlet and even the nearby Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, but the city—which takes its nickname from its manufacturing roots—was known to me only as the place where Jeeps were made. (They still are.) We'd whiz by the plant on Interstate-75 without exiting.

Last summer, I made a point to stop. I wasn't sure what to expect. Around the Great Lakes, some towns feel stuck in time, limited by their industrial, port-city roots. Toledo, however, is flourishing—redefining itself as a destination in ways that uniquely celebrate its heritage.

Glass City River Wall
Credit: Emily Berger

Last year, nationally lauded artist Gabe Gault and a team of local artists transformed a ribbon of riverside grain elevators into the largest mural in the country—a stunning composition of sunflowers and Native American women. Visitors can book a boat tour for an up-close look.

Middlegrounds Downtown Park
Credit: Emily Berger

The city has put docks back in the Maumee River near Promenade Park, a popular spot for local boat owners to drop anchor and take in the city's summer concert series. The Toledo Museum of Art has striking galleries showcasing Ohio's glassmaking tradition. The extensive Metroparks system recently turned an urban landfill into a 28-acre green space and dog park known as Middlegrounds. And the Glass City Riverwalk will soon connect pedestrians on both sides of the river via two of the city's striking bridges.

I'm trapped in a conversation with myself about how this is no longer the Toledo I'd been told about as a kid when one of my own children tugs at the bottom of my dress. He wants help reading a sign about how the Schoonmaker's crew would lower a bulldozer into the cargo hold when it was time to unload coal. I help him with a few of the trickier words, but my mind lingers on how naive I'd been to only book a two-night trip. Next time, we'll stay for four.

National Great Lake Museum
Credit: Emily Berger

What to Do

The Warehouse District is home to galleries, restaurants, the farmers market and Fifth Third Field, where the Toledo Mud Hens play Minor League baseball. Nearby, the National Museum of the Great Lakes highlights centuries of history with artifacts, photos, hands-on exhibits and a restored freighter.

More boats, you say? The Sandpiper is a cute 65-foot tour boat that was constructed in nearby Maumee. On occasional Mondays, you can cruise to see the Glass City River Wall mural.

Toledo Glass Pavilion Hot Shop Demo
Credit: Emily Berger

Just beyond downtown, the sleek Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art holds one of the country's most impressive collections of blown glass (and hosts hot shop demos each afternoon).

Kodiak Ridge, a new exhibit at the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium, houses brown bears rescued from Kodiak Island and Yellowstone National Park. To see a local habitat—the Great Black Swamp ecosystem—head to Oak Openings Preserve and try to spy indigo buntings or Karner blue butterflies.

Where to Eat

M*A*S*H ended 40 years ago, but visitors still flock to the original Tony Packo's, a Hungarian-American institution made famous by the show (and known for its display of celebrity-signed hot dog buns). Check that pop culture box, but you'd also be smart to line up with locals for chicken and waffles at Fowl and Fodder, a downtown breakfast-all-day hot spot.

Souk Mediterranean Patio
Souk Mediterranean Kitchen
Left: Credit: Emily Berger
Right: Credit: Emily Berger

In the evening, grab a lemon shandy at Maumee Bay Brewing Company's historic Oliver House location before supper at Souk Mediterranean Kitchen and Bar in the Warehouse District. Chef Moussa Salloukh plates kibbeh nayeh (lamb tartare), duck and sweet corn sambousek (savory pies), and other dishes from his native Lebanon.

The Heights Cocktail Bar
Credit: Emily Berger

And don't overlook the food and drinks at the Renaissance hotel: Natural light pours into Brim House, where chef Michael Rigot's Czech, Polish and Southern roots guide the seasonal menu. Upstairs, The Heights nails cocktails, pizza (go for roasted mushroom), and 360-degree views.

Renaissance Toledo Hotel
Credit: Emily Berger

Where to Stay

Nestled along the western bank of the Maumee River and Promenade Park, the Renaissance Toledo Downtown Hotel is within walking distance of many attractions. The lobby houses a vintage Jeep and a petite but well-curated exhibit of blown glass. Many rooms overlook the river (as does the rooftop bar and restaurant), and an above-par fitness center features floor-to-ceiling windows.