I know we all have a limited amount of vacation time. I also know that most people are enticed by the exotic, beachy, or popular destinations when you do spend that precious vacation time. So why am I telling you to take that vacation time and travel to Cincinnati? Have I lost my mind?
I too was slightly skeptical about Cincinnati when I decided to go there. Prior to arriving the only thing I knew about it was the Cincinnati Reds and the WKRP in Cincinnati sitcom. But my friend and local resident Chez told me “You have to come, it’s great here. You’ll love it!” Even though I trusted him, I had set my expectations low. After all, there were no mountains, no oceans, and no glitzy skyline.
Why Cincinnati Was My Biggest Travel Surprise This Year
Little did I know that Cincinnati didn’t need any of those glitzy things…it instead had surprisingly cool history and personality that I didn’t even know existed in middle America. It was sort of like that aloof, quiet kid in high school that you barely noticed until you were thrown together with him in biology lab, and suddenly you realized this dude is really cool.
When something can surprise me, I’m pretty destined to like it. I’m arrogant, I think I know everything – but when a destination or culture teaches me things I didn’t know about, I get pretty excited. It goes back to being an explorer when you travel. I want to channel my inner Lewis and Clark and help you chart a path to someplace new. I write a lot about how I love the idea of feeling like I discovered a place; see my posts about Wrangle Island, Saba , the Ross Sea, and Tuktoyaktuk.
On this trip, I discovered Cincinnati.
It was full of culture and quirkiness and I spent most of my time saying the words, “I had no idea Cincinnati had this!”
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Wait…Where is Cincinnati?
I know – most of you right and left coast dwellers may be thinking…hmmm…Cincinnati…where is it again? It is actually considered the Midwest in Ohio. However, it sits at the southwest border of Ohio with Kentucky and Indiana as very close neighbors. The Ohio river is its border with Kentucky and it is this river that made it so important over the years. It was a shipping hub in the 1800’s which is what drove it’s growth. And during the Civil War the Ohio River was the dividing line between North and South.
I took a direct flight from Denver, but Cincinnati is also within a day’s drive of 49% of the United States populace, the most of any city in the United States.
St. Louis: 5 hours
Chicago: 4.5 hours
Pittsburgh: 4.5 hours
Nashville: 4 hours
Detroit: 4 hours
Cleveland: 3.5 hours
Indianapolis: 2 hours
Louisville: 1.5 hours
Surprising and Fun Things to do in Cincinnati
1. Brush Up on Your North/South History
Growing up firmly rooted in the middle of the country, Peoria Illinios, I felt light years away from the South. However, there are parts of the Midwest that are just a few steps away from the South – like Cincinnati. Cincinnati is where the North meets the South, and the two cultures intermingle. This confluence of culture is seen throughout the city and it’s probably one of the only areas in the US where you can experience such vibrant North/South culture just by going over a bridge!
Visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
This relatively new museum in downtown Cincinnati is a must. As a museum of conscience, it educates and encourages dialog about freedom during and since the Civil War. In a way, Cincinnati was at the end of the Underground Railroad – if they made it to Cincinnati, they were free. The Ohio river was the dividing line and many slaves crossed that line and have stories to tell.
The museum is multiple floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions that are quite immersive and modern. They even have a full-size wood building inside the museum. This Slave Pen, was recovered from a farm in Kentucky, less than 60 miles from the Freedom Center. The structure was used as a holding pen by Kentucky slave trader, Capt. John W. Anderson, to temporarily keep enslaved people being moved farther south for sale.
Plan on spending a half day here as you move from floor to floor and look out on that very river that meant freedom.
Not only do you get a dose of North/South History in Cincinnati, you also experience this cultural divide through food! I crossed over from the North to the South in Cincinnati by simply driving over a bridge. I ventured into Covington Kentucky to have a little taste of the South at Ottos restaurant. How about some fried green tomatoes, shrimp & grits, and bread pudding? Yes please! There are a number of places that serve traditional Southern food around the Cincinnati region. It’s sort of like two vacations in one because it’s so easy to experience North and South food culture!
2. Learn About the Immigrant Influence Over Cincinnati
German immigrants were among the earliest settlers of Ohio. Beginning in the 1830s, many lived in the area known as Over-the-Rhine, where there were German churches, clubs, schools, and even German-language newspapers. Today, nearly half of all Cincinnati’s population claims some German ancestry. And that explains why Cincinnati has the largest Oktoberfest celebration outside of Munich!
Over the Rhine Neighborhood
A trip to Cincinnati means that you must stop in the Over the Rhine (OTR) neighborhood near downtown. Its name comes from the fact that there was a canal that ran through Cincinnati and all of the Germans tended to settle on the other side of the canal that the Germans affectionately called the Rhine River.
Once thriving in the 1800’s with the flow of immigrants, it fell into dire straits and was known as the sketchiest part of the city up until just a few years ago. However, now it’s had a revival. One could say that the revival is a nice way of saying re-gentrification – but as I walked around the area on my visit, I found that it’s still quite a mix of cutting edge and sketchy all living together. Public housing is still being built and maintained in the area instead of being completely shut out. This gives it a bit of a different feel than a completely re-gentrified area. It’s a thriving neighborhood that is full of history, great shops, architecture, and restaurants.
3. Take a Cincinnati Underground Tour
What do German’s love more than anything? Beer. Because of the city’s rich German heritage, the pre-prohibition era allowed Cincinnati to become a national forerunner in the brewing industry. Before prohibition it was the 5th largest brewing city in the US! However, what happened when suddenly the drink of choice became illegal?
Dig deep into Cincinnati’s beer history by heading below ground! I toured the Over the Rhine Neighborhood with American Legacy Tours and learned all about how OTR continued its beer production throughout prohibition. Deep underground you’ll learn all about the hidden breweries and first residents of Cincy. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill tour where you are lectured to about history – this tour tells a story of how the Germans in the Over the Rhine neighborhood lived and survived. It’s a fascinating past that will leave you thirsty for more!
Modern Day Craft Brewing
Present day Cincinnati still has a love of all things beer. New craft breweries have popped up all around the OTR neighborhood and you don’t have to be German to enjoy them! I stopped at 3 Points Brewing in the Pendleton Neighborhood bordering OTR. They have not only brought a great variety of craft brews into the area, they also brought art. The open-air bar is filled with artwork that is for sale. It is also a co-working space; who doesn’t want an office in a bar?
4. Drink Your Way Through the Largest Collection of Bourbon and Rye in the World
I walked into Bourbon heaven when I entered Prohibition Bourbon Bar.
Meet Kim and Peter Newberry – owners of Prohibition Bourbon Bar. This is not just a bourbon bar – it’s the world’s largest collection of bourbon and rye whiskeys! I’d like to say that I tasted them all…but instead I stuck to a wonderful smoky bourbon that Peter picked out for me!
What started as career burnout, turned into Peter leaving his legal job and starting a coffee roastery. That then morphed into a bourbon bar at night thanks to Peter’s interest in Bourbon. He had heard that the largest collection of Bourbon was in Japan, and was mortified. He felt the home of Bourbon, should be Kentucky, so he set out to amass the largest collection in the world.
And through this process he learned that he as related to Pappy Van Winkle. That is some serious serendipity.
He now has over 2,000 bottles of bourbon, rye, and whiskey – and he’s tried all of them. You want it? He has it. If you are a bourbon lover then this is a must stop. It’s also part of the B-Line, an collection of craft distilleries, bars and restaurants in Northern Kentucky, the Official Gateway to the popular and world famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
If you love Bourbon, then don’t miss my Barrel to Bar itinerary in Louisville Kentucky!
I hit it off with Peter and Kim immediately and quite honestly it felt as if I had known them forever. It was a highlight meeting them and learning about their story of how they went from a couple on the ‘normal 9 to 5 track’ to this incredibly unique couple who has made bourbon their life project! And they do it all to raise money for Stray Animal Adoption Program (SAAP)! As someone who fosters kittens regularly – their dedication and love of animals was admirable.
Stop in, tell Peter hi, and ask him what he recommends…he won’t steer you wrong.
5. Admire Cincinnati’s Art Deco Design and Architecture
Cincinnati is original. In fact – it’s the OG of many things that we know today such as the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s even the OG of the Superfriend’s Hall of Justice!
But it’s not surprising, Cincinatti has as history of being original. In the1850’s it was the first city in the United States to establish a Jewish Hospital, and where America’s first municipal fire department was established. In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings (a.k.a. the Cincinnati Reds) became the world’s first paid professional baseball team. In 1935, major league baseball’s first night game was played at Crosley Field. It’s also the home of the world’s first re-inforced concrete skyscraper(1902), the Ingalls Building.
As I toured around Cincinnati, I was astonished to find out just how original it was.
Netherland Plaza Art Deco Walk
Did you know…Cincinnati is an Art Deco wonderland? The glitzy Art Deco style of the 1920’s is used throughout the Cincinnati area in bridges, office and government buildings, and transportation hubs.
I visited the Netherland Plaza developed by John Emery who was blessed with luck. He had a dream to make a building that was a city within a city (think modern day mall), and he funded the construction all by himself in 1929. Luckily – he had cashed in all of his stocks to pay for the construction, avoiding the big stock market crash, and was able to actually finish the construction of the building in 1931. The building has a fascinating history that makes it a must see.
Check out this incredible walking tour you can do of the building and see what famous visitors set foot there during it’s hey day.
The Empire State Building was actually modeled after the Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati! That explains why when I set foot in the building it felt as if I was in NYC. The history is cool, but the art deco details are even better to come see in person!
I recommend you end one of your nights in Cincy at the Art Deco bar and listen to live Jazz and sip bourbon; it will transport you to another time.
Take a Walk Over the Roebling Suspension Bridge
When walking around Cincinnati, sometimes you have a deja-vu feeling…like when you look at this Cincinnati bridge.
If it looks weirdly familiar to you – you are not crazy! The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge connects downtown Covington to the riverfront of Cincinnati. This is the same John Roebling who designed the very similar looking Brooklyn Bridge – coincidence? No. Cincy was the testing ground for his design.
It was first opened to pedestrians on December 1st, 1866. At the time of its opening, the Roebling Bridge became the world’s longest suspension bridge (1,057 feet).
6. Visit Union Terminal and Activate your Super Power
I’m a 70’s kid and every Saturday I would wake up at an ungodly early time (to the dismay of my family) to sink into my beanbag chair with a blanket to watch cartoons. One of my favorites was Superfriends. When I walked into the stunning Union Station in Cincinnati, I was transported back to those bean bag mornings. I was entering the Hall of Justice…just like Wonder Woman. This was a childhood dream come true!
Union Terminal was indeed the inspiration for the Hall of Justice, but instead of super heros, it was teeming with families there to experience the Cincinati Museum Center. The center is home to the History Museum, Children’s Museum, Natural History Museum, and Holocaust and Humanity Center.
The building was originally built 1928. Passenger trains stopped service to the station in 1972, and the all but abandoned building was at risk of demolition when the city of Cincinnati bought it in 1975.
Thank goodness this architectural wonder was saved! It is now bustling with people and as you look around in the great hall, you can’t help but be in awe of the mosaics and incredible Art Deco touches.
7. Visit a Sign Graveyard
Where do Signs go to die? Cincinnati.
What’s something you see hundreds of every day, but never really notice them? Signs.
I visited the one and only American Sign Museum. Here you walk through a half century of sign making history from gas lit signs, to light bulbs, to plastic, to neon. It was sensory overload – but so incredibly interesting.
I walked through the space with ‘sign expert’ Jesse. He explained the various changes in sign making history, and shared interesting stories about some of the businesses. The curating of the museum was really impressive. And quite frankly, it’s an Instagram heaven with all of the colors and figures. The non-profit museum actually rents out the 20,000 square foot space for private events. They even hosted a high school prom there!
I wore a permanent grin walking around looking at and photographing all of the variety of signs, and am now forever aware of the signs around me! This is a wonderful one-of-a-kind stop on your Cincinnati visit!
Read Sign Museum Reviews | Visit Website
8. Cincinnati Chili The One and Only
When you bring up Cincinnati Chili the next question is normally Skyline or Gold Star; the two wildly popular chili parlor chains that divide the hearts and stomachs of the city. However, I went to Camp Washington Chili Parlor to meet with owner Maria and learn about their family owned single business. That’s right, it’s not a chain, it’s just one parlor…but it’s a parlor that has a James Beard Award!
I thought I knew chili, however when they slid the steaming bowl of chili in front of me and it was on top of a pile of spaghetti, I did a double take. “Is this right?” I asked my friend. I ordered Chili 5 Ways – the typical way a local would order it, but I had no idea that one of those 5 things was spaghetti noodles! The 5 refers to the ingredients on your plate; onions, cheese, beans, noodles, and chili!
I met Maria and her dad Johnny Johnson – a Greek family who started Camp Washington Chili in 1940! I learned all about their business and I even got to make my own chili!
How Many Days Do You Need in Cincinnati?
I only had 2 ½ days in Cincinnati and honestly it wasn’t enough. There were so many of these activities that I wanted to stay longer!
But you have to leave something for your next visit. With all of these fun and surprising things to do in Cincinnati, I’m positive there will be another visit!
I was a guest of Visit Cincinnati during my stay, however all opinions expressed here are my own.