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Wholly Toledo!

From humble beginnings a year apart in the early 20th century, the Toledo Museum of Art and the Toledo Zoo have become major attractions and points of pride for the northwestern Ohio port city.

The Toledo Zoo, which has more than 4,700 animals representing 700 species, began with a single woodchuck that was donated to the city’s parks board in 1900.

The following year, a group of local citizens formed the Museum of Art in two small rented rooms in a downtown building with no permanent collection. Today, the museum’s extensive collection in a wide range of disciplines is housed in 35 galleries in a classical-style main building and five galleries in the three-year-old Glass Pavilion.

The zoo and the art museums are two group-tour anchors for Toledo,

Cathy Miller, director of tourism for the Toledo Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Museum of Art is “one groups have just got to see, not only the main museum but the Glass Pavilion across the street. The beautiful sculpture garden right there in front of the museum is really nice.”

Edward Libbey of the Toledo-based Libbey Glass Co. and his wife, Florence, were major early benefactors of the museum and donated much of their extensive collection of ancient art and sculpture to the museum.

Group tours usually begin in the museum’s ancient wing. “This is where the Libbeys began collecting,” said a docent. “Many of the items were collected by them personally. We have a very comprehensive collection of the ancient world. We bring groups here first.”

The museum also has large collections of European and American painting and sculpture, Asian and African art, decorative art and its world-renowned collection of more than 5,000 works of glass art from ancient to contemporary times.

The innovative Glass Pavilion with its curved glass walls also features studios where groups can watch glassmaking demonstrations.

To take glass art or utilitarian glass pieces home with them, groups need to head downtown to the 16,000-square-foot Libbey Glass Factory Outlet. “We get tons of groups that come there and enjoy the shopping experience,” said Miller. “It is inexpensive, and you can get really nice pieces for the home.”

Groups can take home unforgettable experiences with behind-the-scenes looks at several areas of the Toledo Zoo, including the building where large animals such as giraffes, zebras and wildebeests in the African exhibit are kept when not on display and the life-support building for the Arctic Encounter, where visitors might get a close-up view of a polar bear.

“As far as land mammals, there is none bigger and badder,” said a zookeeper as a polar bear peered through a grate in a door leading to his holding area.

Other behind-the-scenes tours include the zoo’s gardens and conservatory, and its historic buildings, many of which were built by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s.

Toledo is the busiest grain port on the Great Lakes, and a good way to get a feel for the city’s shipping industry is a cruise on the Maumee River aboard the Sandpiper, a re-creation of an Erie Canal boat.

In addition to passing under Toledo’s symbolic 1931 Anthony Wayne Bridge 110 feet overhead, the Sandpiper takes passengers past the Willis Boyer Ship Museum and many large grain elevators on both sides of the river.

The 617-foot-long Willis Boyer, built in 1911, hauled coal and iron ore on the Great Lakes for years. Tours of the ship show what life was like on a large lake freighter.

The Sandpiper also provides a great view of downtown Toledo, which is undergoing a major revitalization with several new retail shops, restaurants and nightspots. The newest addition to downtown will be a concert and sports arena that will open this fall, forming a “trifecta” with the nearby fan-friendly baseball stadium and the city’s convention center.

“It is designed to fit right in with the downtown buildings with a brick facade,” said Steve Miller, general manager of the convention center and the new Lucas County Arena. “We now will have year-round activity for people to come downtown for.”

The arena, which will seat 7,500 for sports and 8,000 for concerts, will be home to two new professional sports teams: the Toledo Walleye of the East Coast Hockey League and the indoor arena football team, the Bullfrogs.

“Another place that is fun downtown is the Oliver House,” said Cathy Miller. “It is the oldest building downtown, and there are four different restaurants in there. Maumee Bay Brew Pub, the only one in town, has a wood-fire oven and is known for its wood-fire pizza. It is a casual, fun place.

“The building is beautiful. Groups will be stunned by the old brick and polished hardwood floors. It is a gorgeous piece of architecture.”

Beautiful architecture is on abundant display in Toledo’s Old West End near the Museum of Art, where one of the country’s largest collection of late-Victorian houses is spread over 25 city blocks, with pristine examples of Colonial, Georgian, Italian Renaissance, Queen Anne, Dutch Colonial, French Second Empire, and Arts and Crafts design.

“I also recommend groups go to Tony Packo’s if they haven’t been there,” said Miller. “It is the most original restaurant in Toledo, with the signed hot dog buns on the wall and original Hungarian food.”
Tony Packo’s has hundreds of Styrofoam replicas of hot dog buns on its walls signed by celebrities, from the first one in 1972 signed by actor Burt Reynolds to those signed by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The Hungarian lineup features chicken paprika, stuffed cabbage rolls, Hungarian vegetable soup and the restaurant’s signature Hungarian hot dog, a smoked sausage smothered in finely ground beef, chopped onions and mustard. If you are really hungry, or ambitious, try the foot-long M.O.A.D. (mother of all dogs).

Groups can get another distinctive dining experience about 30 minutes south of Toledo in Grand Rapids at La Roe’s. “They are a group-friendly restaurant, and they just added an outdoor patio that overlooks the river,” said Miller. “It is brand-new and enticing, especially in the summer.

“Grand Rapids is a neat experience,” said Miller. “The town is an old canal town with all the old wood buildings and a mule-drawn canal boat ride on the Maumee. It also has an old gristmill and a general store from the 1800s that you can tour.”