Under the radar USA: music, murals and museums in Akron, Ohio

You’re never far from a live performance, art gallery or public art installation in Akron, Ohio. Over the past decade, this Great Lakes city – home to artists like Devo and the Black Keys – has transformed from a rundown former industrial town into a vibrant hub for artists of all kinds (and a wallet-friendly tourist paradise).

Sign reading "welcome to Akron Ohio, home of the Black Keys' surrounded by hydrangeas with a stadium in the background
Today's Akron has a creative vibe that can't be ignored © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

Take a colorful walking tour

Begin your cultural tour of Akron in the heart of downtown to enjoy some open-air art. In its heyday, Akron was the Rubber Capital of the World, a manufacturing hub supplying the trucking and automobile sectors. The industry’s decline in the late 20th century brought with it empty storefronts and a steep decline in population. The Curated Storefront Project has found a way to repurpose some of those storefronts around Main St by turning them into an ongoing, rotating exhibition of multimedia artworks. Consider checking it out both day and night to take advantage of some of the lighted displays. You can pop into the Akron-Summit County Public Library downtown for a Curated Storefront illuminated walk-through exhibit.

Northeast Ohio is notoriously gray, which might explain why troupes of artists are seeking to add a little color: throughout downtown, you’ll pass murals completed by the Akron Art Bomb Brigade, a group of University of Akron students and alumni who work with community partners to undertake ‘spacelifts.’ Don’t hesitate to duck into alleyways and gardens to find Akron’s hidden visual gems.

Exterior shot of the Akron Art Museum, a modern glass and concrete building
The Akron Art Museum is a modern landmark © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

A duo of dynamic museums

The Akron Art Museum is a work of art itself. The three-story glass entrance and cantilevered metal outcropping stand in stark contrast to the historic buildings dotting the surrounding landscape. The architecture was intentional, meant to reflect Akron’s evolution as it entered the 21st century. Although smaller than what you may find in other cities, the museum offers a treasure trove of modern and contemporary art. Both permanent and temporary exhibitions allow the space to feature 5,000 objects, including painting, sculpture, photography, print and mixed media. If you’re an Ohio resident, you can visit the library across the street to check out an original work from the museum’s collection to display at home for up to four weeks.

Two blocks east, you’ll find Summit Artspace. This nonprofit arts center and gallery offers an area for local artists to display their works, along with arts education and demonstrations. It also acts as an incubator for those seeking to pursue art as a business. Admission is free, and you can expect to find a rotating exhibition of paintings, textiles, photographs, glass, sculpture and more by dozens of artists, all selected to align with the gallery’s featured theme or genre. Often, these displays are paired with an artist panel or Q&A for the public. Summit Artspace also plays host to a large visual arts display during Akron’s annual High Arts Festival, and offers a monthly trolley ride through the city that stops at various galleries and studios.

An old brick building is now covered in abstract geometric designs in yellow, blue, purple, orange and red. The sidewalk in front of building has colorful circles painted on it.
The 'Akron Art Bomb' is the city's largest public art installation © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

Akron’s underground jazz and indie rock

The Black Keys, Devo and dozens of other acclaimed artists have roots in Akron, and the city has something to fit every taste in music. Larger music venues, including Akron Civic Theatre, Lock 3 and EJ Thomas Performing Arts Hall, host the big names, but the best way to see emerging and well-known acts is to head to the more intimate establishments.

In the Historic Arts District (home to the largest of the Akron Art Bomb Brigade murals) you’ll find the award-winning BLU Jazz+, a cozy brick space reminiscent of a mid-century jazz club.  The live music here pairs well with the Southern-inspired cuisine served up at the bar, and the club is putting Akron on the map as a preeminent destination for jazz enthusiasts. Grab a table early (tickets for both free and paid shows are general admission) or sidle up to the bar for smooth acoustics. Musicians occasionally host jam sessions or Master classes after their shows – check the schedule for details.

If jazz isn’t your thing, head across the street to Musica. This renovated warehouse features nationally touring rock groups with some local musicians sprinkled in. With a capacity of 450, this small venue puts you right next to the music, making it feel like a private concert. No matter the show, you’ll find a range of ages and a laid-back vibe – there’s a smattering of seats but the venue is mainly general admission. You can enjoy live music several nights a week here, and shows often sell out, so it’s recommended to buy tickets in advance.

In the nearby Northside District is Jilly’s Music Room, a mainstay of the Akron music scene. Jilly’s features live music four days a week, typically without a cover, and patrons are never afraid to take to the dance floor. Their lineup is eclectic, but the multifaceted artists are the perfect fit for the sophisticated crowd the venue draws. If you’re headed there on a Friday or Saturday, be sure to make a reservation, or you might find yourself seated in the lounge area, farther from the stage. Once you’ve danced up an appetite, dive into gluten-free tapas, unique drinks and creative takes on popcorn.

A man with a guitar, a woman singing, a woman with a washboard and a man on a flute perform music on stage in a dark club
Musicians take the stage at Jilly's Music Room, an intimate venue in Akron © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

To take in all that Akron has to offer, make a weekend of it. The Courtyard by Marriott Akron Downtown is located in the Northside District, steps from Jilly’s Music Room and a quick drive to the city’s Historic Arts District.

Embracing its manufacturing roots, Akron remains a no-frills city, and while you’ll find amazing food at some quirky locations, the restaurant scene is more homey than trendy. Local favorites include Luigi’s, serving up casual Italian fare, and Swensons Drive-In, an Akron-area chain that’s home to what’s touted as ‘America’s Best Cheeseburger,’ The Galley Boy.

'Under the radar USA' is a series of articles about lesser-known USA destinations. Previous pieces explored Cheyenne, Columbus and Paducah.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.