Greetings From Cincinnati

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They call Cincinnati the Queen City, and, rest assured, you will be treated like royalty.

It’s appropriate that the nickname came from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, as Cincinnati has always been infused with culture and vitality. However, it once had another name. When it was founded in 1788, the first settlers named it Losantiville, meaning “town opposite the mouth of the Licking River”—which is a small portion of the Ohio River. At that time, the area was the location of Fort Washington.

Losantiville was short-lived. In 1790, General Arthur St. Clair, Commander of Fort Washington, renamed it Cincinnati—because Losantiville wasn’t enough of a mouthful—in honor of the Society of Cincinnati, an organization of Revolutionary War officers.

In the early 1800s, Germans began settling in the Ohio city. The strong German heritage can still be found in the city’s architecture, and Bavarian-themed restaurants and festivals held throughout the year. With the Ohio River coursing along the city’s southern border and more than 100 parks and green spaces scattered throughout Cincinnati, the scenery isn’t bad either.

Although at 77.2 square miles it’s only the 65th-largest city in the nation, Cincinnati feels like a much larger metropolis. It helps that the surrounding cities, such as Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River, feature their own unique attractions and act as an extension of Cincinnati. The population of the metropolitan area, which includes Newport, is 2,214,954.

As the first and only city to build and own a major railroad (1880), you’d be surprised to learn that their public transit system is a work in progress, literally—tracks for a new streetcar system are currently being laid, with a completion date scheduled for fall 2016. Luckily, they have an efficient bus system and copious highways stretching across the landscape.

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Photo by Robert Annis

Day One

Morning
Most of the day will be spent downtown in the historic Over the Rhine neighborhood. A decade ago, this area was considered one of the nation’s most dangerous places, but over the past five years, it has seen a remarkable transformation. Before, the intersection at 12th and Vine was Cincinnati’s No. 1 hot spot for police; now it’s a diverse, thriving place of commerce.

You’ll be doing a lot of walking, so fuel up on sugar at Holtman’s Donuts. The gourmet confectionaries come in flavors like maple bacon and red velvet, and run about $2 each, which is a small price to pay for a taste of heaven. On a weekend morning, the line can stretch out the door, so be prepared for a bit of a wait.

As you’re taking in the neighborhood, keep your eyes out for the nearly 30 massive murals painted on the sides of various buildings. The Cincinnati Strongman: Henry Holtgrewe mural may be the largest and most informative of the bunch; marvel at Holtgrewe’s illustrated exploits, which included lifting the entire Cincinnati Reds baseball team.

Stop by one of the Red Bike kiosks (pictured above) and rent one of the three-speed two-wheelers. Eight dollars will get you a 24-hour pass with unlimited 60-minute rides. (A text alert will pop up on your phone to let you know if you’re getting close to your allotted time.) From the kiosk, pedal over to Washington Park, a gorgeous 8-acre outdoor space that hosts free concerts, fitness classes and events throughout the year. Toss a frisbee around or jump into a kickball game. If you’re missing your pooch at home, make some new four-legged friends at the on-site dog park.

Afternoon
If you worked up an appetite playing in the park, swing by Senate, a gourmet street food restaurant specializing in unique hot dogs so overloaded with toppings, you might need to eat it with a knife and fork. Favorites include the Trailer Park dog, consisting of a bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with American cheese, coleslaw, crushed potato chips and a brioche bun, and the Lindsay Lohan, a beef hot dog topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, balsamic and “lots of drama.” Take a look at their creative Hot Dog of the Day. My visit coincided with the airing of Diane Sawyer’s interview with a certain former Olympian turned reality-TV star, so I had the hot dog of the day, which was the Bruce Jenner 2.0—“part hot dog, part taco.” Some critics complained that the dish was in poor taste, but I found it rather delicious, myself.

Skip dessert and head north to Findlay Market, which is a bit like a year-round farmers market. A Cincinnati tradition since 1855, the market is about a full city block long and is packed with butcher shops, fresh produce stands, baked goods, handcrafted art pieces and much more. Be sure to grab a four-pack of freshly made Belgian Waffles from the Taste of Belgium stand and seek out some goetta—a German sausage made from pork and pin-rolled oats that’s considered a local delicacy.

If you have more time, take a tour of Over the Rhine. American Legacy Tours offers an Underground Tour that takes you into and underneath some of the neighborhood’s most iconic buildings and breweries. Guide and lifelong resident of the area John Funcheon showcases his vast knowledge and love of Over the Rhine, revealing Cincinnati’s connection to Annie Oakley and the process of making Pilsner in the 19th century.

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Photo by Robert Annis

Hop back on the Red Bikes and head toward the Taft’s Ale House nearby. Located in a formerly condemned church, the three-story microbrewery and restaurant (named after former president and native son William Howard Taft) recently opened after multimillion-dollar construction. Most new breweries take a while to perfect their beers, but the Taft nailed each of their first 10 offerings. The Key Lime Caribbean Ale, Maverick Chocolate Porter and Mooly Wooly Coffee Stout are exceptional, while the remaining choices range from merely very good to excellent. In particular, the Mooly Wooly uses beans from the local Coffee Emporium roaster to give its tasty oatmeal coffee milk stout richness with a nice, mellow finish. Be sure to buy a growler of your favorite brew to take with you.

Evening

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Photo by Mike Simmons/Getty

Visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which features displays detailing slaves’ harrowing escapes from the South before and during the Civil War, as well as rotating exhibits such as Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz. It’s a sobering, but worthwhile, experience.

Assuming you haven’t had your fill of great local microbrew (is that even possible?) visit the Moerlein Lager House for dinner, located right in Riverfront Park across the street from the Great American Ballpark. You can get 10 of Moerlein’s current offerings on tap or choose from a list of local and national favorites. The restaurant’s menu features not only your typical bar food, such as burgers, wings and nachos, but also several startling urbane options, such as the shrimp negril and balsamic tofu. The pork shank is perfectly cooked, and the shaved Brussels sprouts are simply sautéed in oil, but very tasty. On a nice night, try getting a table outside on the second-floor patio, which offers views of the Ohio River.

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Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty

If the Reds are in town, an evening at the Great American Ball Park is always a good idea; Cincinnati was the first American city to have a professional baseball team, afterall (they were called the Cincinnati Red Stockings at the time). Built in 2003, there’s not a bad seat among the 42,000 in the stadium. Just try not to blink or you might miss speedy center fielder Billy Hamilton steal second. Be sure to arrive early for batting practice or to walk through the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, which features rotating and interactive exhibits, and frequent autograph signings by both current and former players.
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Photo by Robert Annis

Day Two

Morning
After a busy day Saturday, head to the city’s east end to take a leisurely stroll through Hyde Park and nearby Oakley Square, the former home of late 19th-century markswoman Annie Oakley. Oakley was actually born Phoebe Anne Mosey; the famed sharpshooter took her stage name to honor her beloved home. Unfortunately, there’s little in the neighborhood to commemorate the area’s most famous daughter.

While in Oakley Square, grab a mimosa and settle in for brunch at the nearby Red Feather Kitchen. The rustic hot spot has an extensive wine selection and specializes in fresh takes on classic American dishes, such as shrimp and grits or the smoked pork chop.

If you have children at home, pick up a book at Blue Manatee before indulging in gourmet ice cream and chocolates from Aglamesis Bro’s. The business has been ruining dieters’ wills since 1908. The coconut clusters—a coconut center encased in dark chocolate—is a must try.

As you’re walking around Oakley Square, you’ll notice the Art Deco 20th Century Theater (pictured above), which was built as a movie house in 1941, but has found new life as concert venue and event hall. Walk by the window to see if any of your favorite artists will be performing that night.

Afternoon
Make your way up to Mount Adams. Once America’s most celebrated winery, the area is now home to the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Krohn Conservatory, and an eclectic neighborhood filled with shops; cafes and eateries.

Atop Mount Adams, take a while to relax in the 186-acre Eden Park and enjoy one of several scenic vistas of the city—the park is so large, in different directions you’ll see different areas of views. Look to the west and see the art deco masterpiece Union Terminal. Once the hub for rail transportation in the city, it’s now an acclaimed museum. If you grew up in the 1970s and early 80s, it might look a bit familiar; that’s because it was the real-life inspiration for the Hall of Justice in the Super Friends cartoon.

Elsewhere on Mount Adams, you’ll find the Rookwood Bar & Restaurant, which was once a factory making some of the nation’s finest pottery. The facility was revamped into a restaurant years ago, but its industrial roots are still evident; patrons can even dine in one of three former kilns. The food menu mirrors the Rookwood’s artisan roots; be sure to try the bacon-wrapped, goat cheese-stuffed dates or the grilled cheese sandwich of the day and one of the Rookwood’s barrel-aged cocktails, which are typically smoother and a bit more mellow.

Late Afternoon – Evening
While not technically part of Cincinnati, both Covington and Newport, in Northern Kentucky, are viewed as southern extensions of the city. They’ll be even more intertwined in the coming year when the Red Bike program crosses the Ohio River.

Technically you’re in Kentucky, so by law you’re obligated to drink some bourbon. Covington’s Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar features nearly 300 different types of bourbon, many from the Bluegrass State. Sample a flight of three different whiskeys or try the cocktail of the day. The bartenders know their bourbon and can help you pick your poison.

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Don’t get too sauced, because the Newport Aquarium is next. Walk the suspension Shark Bridge just inches from the 385,000-gallon Surrounded by Sharks tank and marvel at the wonder of the endangered hammerheads. Children will love the Penguin Encounter, which lets them get up-close and personal with the friendly, flightless birds.

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Photo by Robert Annis

If you’re ready for a snack, the York Street Café has a kitschy atmosphere thanks to velvet paintings of Elvis, shelves of toys that were raided from a 25-cent box at a yard sale and a menu full of locally sourced dishes. The savory hummus is made in-house, as is a spinach potato soup that has nice ginger zing.

Nearby, La Mexicana is a bit of a dive, but you won’t find more authentic Mexican street tacos without paying in pesos. You can order your meal with basic meats—chicken, steak or pork—or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try seasoned beef tongue or marinated veal brains.

Getting There
The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is located just across the Ohio River and is about a 15-minute drive from downtown.

To Stay
The Cincinnatian Hotel was the tallest building in Cincinnati when originally built, and it continues to soar in terms of luxury and convenience. Styled after the great European hotels of the 19th century, the Cincinnatian offers free trips throughout downtown via an old-timey taxi. Rates start around $130 a night, with free valet parking.

On Airbnb, this modern loft apartment in the Over the Rhine neighborhood rents for $125 a night. Located in an 1875 Car Barn with a balcony view of Crew Tower, the loft is just a block from the bustling bars and restaurants. Typical Airbnb rates range from $80-$150 a night, based on location and amenities.

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis finally broke free of the shackles of gainful employment and now freelances full time, specializing in cycling and outdoor travel journalism.

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