Cincinnati is one place that’s been popping up on our radar consistently over the past decade: through its street art revolution, through its beer scene, through its place in innovation, boasting the headquarters of such global enterprises as Procter & Gamble. And despite it only being a five-hour drive from Nashville, I’d never visited Cincinnati—until last month. And what I found was more or less what I expected: a city mindful of its approach to urban growth and one bursting at the seams with talent in every possible arena.
The Queen City isn’t a flyover pinprick on the map of America; no, this regal gal is a vibrant powerhouse of social inclusion, economic bomblets and smart government investment. Befitting its namesake, Cincinnatus, who placed the highest regard on the common good versus his own interests, the mid-sized Midwestern city is a beautifully executed microcosm of how leadership and community can work together for a better place in today’s too-easily divisive society.
The 17th state of our union has always been at the crossroads of civilization on the North American continent, with the Ohio River, buffalo traces, Native Americans, and—finally—European settlers shaping the bluff peaks, limestone rock and extensive river systems into a geographically ideal location for commerce and farming.
We spent a glorious four days getting acquainted with our new urban love during a media conference last month and can’t wait to return this October for BLINK, a light-based arts festival that brought 1.2 million people out to its inaugural event two years ago..
Still need some convincing? I’ve got 23 reasons why you should go to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky ASAP.
It’s got 100 murals in the downtown alone
That’s enough of a reason to lure me into Cincinnati—and I’ll admit, it’s why it first caught my eye a few years ago—but the pioneers like ArtWorks Cincinnati have piqued my interest further with their investment in the community since 1996. Not only has ArtWorks transformed entire neighborhoods, but it brings in kids and teens to help sculpt (and learn from) the creative process. To date, the team has hired more than 3,300 youth and 2,900 professional artists for a total of 12,000 public and private art projects. I’m really looking forward to seeing more about how they made it all happen when we’re back this fall through taking one of their popular mural tours.
There’s a serious beer scene brewing in Cincy
With more than 60 breweries operating in the Cincinnati area, it would take a month-long trip to properly explore them all. But what I found even more fascinating is the history behind the brewing culture: Over-the-Rhine, historically, was populated by German settlers, and 36 breweries were producing more than 30 million gallons of beer in the 1800s. In fact, there were more than 1800 drinking institutions, including breweries, alehouses and saloons, in downtown Cincy in 1890—earning it the nickname “the Beer Capital of the World”—meaning it’s a city that’s always known how to quench its residents’ thirst, long before the beer boom we’re now seeing.
The lager tunnels still exist
One thing I learned on an American Legacy Tour with guide Craig Maness is that “lager” means “to store,” and back in the 1800s, the German brewers kept their beer in tunnels beneath the city because they provided optimal storing conditions in terms of temperature. Even cooler is that a couple of these tunnels were recently discovered intact, so now you can descend into them on an American Legacy Tour, which is not only historical but also wildly entertaining. And for my fellow claustrophobes, you can do this—it is large and airy down there!
Unsurprisingly, temperance movement failed here
Local legend has it that Carry Amelia Nation, the bane of spirits manufacturers and saloons across the country during the dark days of violent attacks by fervent anti-alcohol activists, walked into downtown Cincinnati with her hatchet, righteously about to smash up the joint, looked around with a sigh and said, “I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a block.” Then she left. More than a few people raised their glass at that statement!
Its public market is 167 years old
Open year round, the Findlay Market provides a marketplace for locally sourced foods and a social gathering place for almost a million people per year for the city. Dropping into a city’s vibe and history is one of the cherished journalistic things that we do when traveling, so having a broad spectrum of options all in one place makes it that much easier to kick start our understanding and research. The market sustains a wide variety of economic activity, but our favorite was the food business incubator Findlay Kitchen, a non-profit that provides access for start-ups and entrepreneurs in the edible space. We love us some food! And an organization that breaks down the financial barrier for good ideas is such an innovative and common sense concept that we can’t believe it isn’t everywhere.
Cincy has foods you can’t find anywhere else
Don’t know what a goetta is? Neither did I until my first morning dining in Over-the-Rhine. But in the course of three days, I had it in various dishes, and let me just tell you this combo of ground meat and steel-cut oats flavored with bay leaves, rosemary, salt, pepper and thyme is delicious (think: the Cincinnati version of scrapple, only tastier). What I didn’t sample on this visit? The famed Skyline Chili. You better believe that’s on my list for the moment we return. (But you know, I didn’t leave town without Graeter’s, so I’m not a complete monster!)
It also has a sweet side
So many of the recommendations I crowdsourced from Cincy natives revolved around sweet treats: Graeter’s ice cream, the baked goods from Busken Bakery, Taste of Belgium’s waffles, Holtman’s donuts, the cinnamon buns and other delicacies at Brown Bear Bakery. But we learned even more about Cincy’s sweet tooth when we ventured out to Doscher’s Candies and took the factory tour. Not only does Doscher’s make French chews and those famed candy buttons that come in sheets, it also is one of the biggest manufacturers of candy canes in the country. Despite my love for all things sweet, I’d never gone full-on Willy Wonka and done a factory tour, so this was a treat!
There’s a 21c Museum Hotel
Anyone who knows me is well aware that I will travel far for a great hotel, and the 21c brand has been one of my favorites since I first stayed in its inaugural Louisville property seven years ago. On this visit, however, not only did I get to luxe it up at the 21c Cincinnati, but I even got to meet the founder, Steve Wilson, of whom I’ve been a fan for a long time. SVV and I had a chat with him about our own artistic endeavors, and his story is so fascinating that it merits its own post in the future. Cincy’s 21c is going to make it a lot harder to go back in the fall and stay elsewhere now that I know this property is an option right in the heart of downtown. Even if you aren’t a guest of the hotel, the museum is open and free to the public seven days a week.
Over-the-Rhine is the neighborhood you wish your city had
One area that has seen robust economic revitalization recently in the city is called “Over-the-Rhine,” a nickname that extends back into the 1800s when there was a canal to cross on the way to the German neighborhood. The man-made river has since been turned into Central Parkway and marks a distinctive shift in architectural style and density.
The neighborhood is one of the largest preserved historical districts in the entire country, with hundreds of structures that potentially rival New Orleans and Savannah in number. Incredibly, Over-the-Rhine was a neglected feature of the city due to high crime rates and years of paralyzing neglect until 3CDC, a private non-profit formed in 2003, took on the task with a decidedly non-governmental vision to transform the vibe.
The results are stunning. A place that residents once shunned is positively brimming with capital improvement projects, hip restaurants, public art, fancy hotels and has become the place to live or invest. We’re all about strong activism through private means, so it will be with real interest that we dive a little deeper into the origins of 3CDC in the fall.
The Union Terminal is a historic gem
This former train station that many of you will know as the Hall of Justice was built at the apex of the Art Deco era, from 1929 to 1933, for $41 million. It once welcomed soldiers home from World War II and, today, welcomes thousands of visitors a year to learn more about the area’s storied past.
The museum culture is inspiring
Within Union Terminal is not one, but three museums, as well as an OMNIMAX Theater and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. In addition to permanent exhibits, the Cincinnati Museum Center hosts plenty of traveling collections, like the current Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs, which is in the United States for the first time and whose 350 artifacts spanning 4,500 years will be on display through Aug. 18.
There’s Art Deco architecture everywhere you look
My website design was inspired by the Art Deco era, and aside from midcentury, it happens to be my favorite style of architecture, too. I was thrilled to find so many Art Deco relics populating the downtown. Union Terminal isn’t the only example of this period; we took a walking tour with a historian who showed us highlights from the era that pepper the entire downtown corridor. As a result, Cincinnati has become a hotbed for film activity; many production crews are now using it as a backdrop to recreate 20th century New York City.
The Carew Tower—need I say more?
Besides being stuffed with formwork, steel and aluminum fixtures that marked an era of futuristic enthusiasm, the entire 49-story structure is an absolute gem of engineering and the Art Deco style, and was used by the architect William Lamb of the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, that built it as a basis for designing the Empire State Building. Plus, you can go up to the very tip-top for panoramas over Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky from the Carew Tower Observation Deck if you aren’t scared of heights!
The Palm Court
This radiant masterpiece of an Art Deco bar and lounge has the classy feel of a speakeasy, with fancy cocktails to match. The main stage features jazz musicians every evening except Sunday, when they perform during brunch. Check out the fabulous Egyptian-inspired sculpture behind the band and take a walking tour of the public spaces to each side for a glimpse of historical grandeur. We lucked out and ran into a very animated Palm Court employee, Aerin, who saw our interest in the building and took us behind the scenes and deep into its history.
Public murals keep popping up into our lives, so how about one of the original masters of the genre, Louis Grell, being featured 18 times throughout the bottom floor hotel? They were done in the 1930s, no less, and are still immaculate. Ugh, so dreamy. Also, hello universe, we see you!
The metro area spans not one state, but two
Did you know the Greater Cincinnati region also includes Northern Kentucky? In fact, you could throw a stone from downtown Cincy and hit Covington and Newport, both of which are just over the bridges that cross the Ohio River. So for those of you state collectors who have never been to Ohio or Kentucky, you can explore two new states on one trip, and if you’re a runner, the annual Flying Pig Marathon travels across the state line. For those just in Cincy for a quick business trip, you can still walk the half-mile Purple People Bridge, which was built in 1886, over to Kentucky for a sip of bourbon, then back again.
Speaking of … there’s a bourbon trail just over the state line
Now that you know Northern Kentucky is part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area, you should have seen this coming. After all, you know what Kentucky is all about … bourbon! On our way out of town we stopped by New Riff Distilling, a shiny, family-owned operation that’s been around since 2014, and we also went to The Party Source—which was described to me as “a toy store for adults,” in that it has alllll the spirits available for purchase for good prices—to stock up on some other Northern Kentucky bourbons we’d yet to sample. Fall screams bourbon to me, so in October, we plan to tackle the entire B-Line, which combines experiences at four distilleries and five bourbon-centric bars. As if I needed another excuse to visit Kentucky!
Don’t like bourbon? There’s also an urban wine scene
Thanks to engineer Kate MacDonald, who started making wine for fun over a decade ago, Cincinnati has an urban winery, the Skeleton Root, that debuted in 2016 right in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, a throwback to the 1800s when winemaking was all the rage in the region before it turned its focus to industry. If you want even more wine, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have a handful of wineries around their perimeter.
The restaurant scene is overwhelming in its variety
We had so many great meals in Cincy that I’m already saving my calories for the fall as I have a growing list of places to eat. Among the meals we loved were Please, Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, Metropole, Brown Bear Bakery, Pho Lang Thang and brunch at Taste of Belgium.
Handmade pottery? They’ve got that, too
One of the coolest things we did in Cincinnati was go behind the scenes at a few different maker studios, the most impressive of which was the 130-year-old Rookwood Pottery Company, a factory-scale artisan tile maker with deep roots in the area. SVV has been dying to throw pottery, so for him the experience was illuminating, and now I’m worried about how much garage space we’ll have left once he starts buying equipment.
Cincy has a streetcar
If there’s one thing I wish more U.S. cities had it’s a mindful public transit plan. There’s nothing worse than spending valuable time inside a car in rush-hour traffic while on a trip. In 2016, Cincinnati became one of the only cities in the country with a fully functioning streetcar by creating a 3.6-mile loop as an arterial connection to various hotspots in the downtown core, including the ballpark of the Cincinnati Reds and the brewery district.
It was the terminus for the Underground Railroad
Technically the end of the line from the Southern states that still allowed slavery, crossing the border of the Ohio River into Cincinnati was just one crucial part of the journey of African-American fugitives to freedom. The most contentious issue of the era that eventually spawned the Civil War, thousands of human lives were liberated by residents of the city in the years prior to the final reckoning of battle.
It’s culturally diverse
Many cities in the Midwestern and Southern states still feel pretty homogenized—including much of Tennessee where I’m from—and, to me, Cincinnati felt much more blended, with 49.3 percent of its population white and 44.8 percent black, according to the last census. The 1800s saw German and Irish immigrants arriving in the area by droves, so there’s a strong component of each of these cultures, as well. The resulting cultural zeitgeist feels distinctly liberating and accepting, which stands out in this region.
It’s a city that invests in the arts
Many economic impact studies have shown that the arts benefit cities tenfold than other areas like sports, and yet where I’m from, we place all our emphasis (and dollars) behind sporting events and are still debating investments in public art. Well, we could take a page out of Cincinnati’s book. As if the murals weren’t enough of an indicator that art can transform, BLINK showed in its inaugural year that people will travel far for a four-day public art experience. According to the Cincinnati Business Courier, during the first BLINK in 2019, “more than 100 artists were showcased, coming from as far away as Gex, France; Lahore, Pakistan; Penang, Malaysia; and Tasmania, Australia. Sixty local Cincinnati artists participated. Thirty entertainers performed on six different stages. Brave Berlin engineered 22 projection mappings overseen by Artworks, as well as 35 light-based art installations … and eight new murals.” You can read the full story on BLINK’s impact on the community here.
We have so many things on our to-do list this fall, but if you have Cincy experience of your own, let me know in the comments what we need to add to the list! Otherwise, plan to visit during BLINK, which takes place on both sides of the border this year, and I’ll meet you there, armed with local beer and bourbon.
Are you surprised to learn that Cincinnati is so multi-faceted?
This post is part of an ongoing partnership with Source Cincinnati. All opinions are our own.