It's a conversation I often have when I'm traveling: the “so where are you from?” conversation. And, weirdly, when I tell people that I'm from Ohio, there always seems to be a good chance that the person I'm talking to will respond with, “Oh, I went to Cincinnati once!”
This always used to baffle me. Of all the places that I know and love in Ohio, the southern city of Cincinnati was never in my top 5 – maybe not even in my top 10!
But if so many people from outside of Ohio (and outside of the US, even) were visiting Cincinnati, I felt like maybe I was missing something.
A quick history lesson
The city of Cincinnati sits at the confluence of the Licking and Ohio rivers, right across the state line from Kentucky. The city was settled in 1788, and quickly became a “boom town,” growing rapidly in both population and wealth. In fact, by the mid-1800s, Cincinnati was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in America thanks to the steamboat trade and the pork processing it became known for.
The city has a few other notable claims to fame, too, like…
- Cincinnati is home to the first professional baseball team: The Cincinnati Red Stockings (later the Reds) were formed in 1869.
- The first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, is a Cincinnati native. (And so is George Clooney.)
- Cincinnati was also home to 5 US presidents: William Howard Taft, Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, and Benjamin Harrison.
- The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden opened in 1875 and is the second-oldest zoo in America.
The boom years of Cincinnati faded after the Civil War, and the economic downturn that affected many other rust belt cities 100+ years later hit Cincinnati hard, too.
But, just as cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Indianapolis have been turning the tides of their city narratives in recent years, so too is Cincinnati.
48 hours in Cincinnati
After admitting that there *must* be something about Cincinnati that I was completely missing, I decided to head down to Ohio's southwestern corner for a long weekend.
And the verdict? There's definitely more to Cincinnati than I originally realized!
Here are just a sampling of what there is to do there over a weekend:
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
During the Civil War (and in the years leading up to it), Cincinnati was a border town in Ohio (a free state) across from Kentucky (a slave state). The city unsurprisingly played a huge role in both abolitionism and the Underground Railroad.
The story of slavery in America is told at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is a fantastic museum right on the river in downtown Cincinnati. The museum doesn't just focus on the early days of America, though. According to its mission statement, the museum's goal is to “reveal stories about freedom's heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary time, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps to freedom today.”
Along with large exhibits on the slave trade in the Americas and the Underground Railroad, the museum also has exhibits on modern-day slavery and the fights for freedom that are ongoing in our world today.
No visit to Cincinnati would be complete without spending some time in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where you can experience the city's German influences. My favorite stop in this part of the city is the Findlay Market, which is the city's oldest open-air public market, dating back to 1852. The market building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and inside you'll find fresh produce, meats, and pastries year-round.
Spot the murals
I'm a huge fan of street art, and it turns out that Cincinnati is a great city for murals. An organization called ArtWorks was tasked by Cincinnati's mayor about a decade ago to create a mural in each of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods – and they are well on their way to doing that and more. Even just around the downtown area, you can find all sorts of cool and colorful murals.
John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge
If you think the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge looks familiar, that's because it was designed by the same guy who would go on to build the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Cincinnati's Roebling bridge was completed in 1867 and at the time was the longest of its kind anywhere in the world. Today, the bridge connects Cincinnati to the city of Covington, Kentucky.
American Sign Museum
A museum of signs might not immediately sound exciting, but I promise that the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati is worth the time and the admission fee. The museum takes visitors through 5 decades of sign-making, from the gold leaf signs of the early 1900s, to the neon signs of the '30s and '40s, to the funky plastic signs of the 1950s.
One large room in the museum is set up to look like a 1950s-era main street, completely decked out in all manner of colorful, blinking, and spinning signs.
The museum offers free tours Wednesday-Sunday, and even has a working neon shop inside. This was one of my favorite places in Cincinnati!
Other museums worth visiting in Cincinnati include:
- Cincinnati Art Museum (one of the oldest art museums in America)
- Duke Energy Children's Museum (located in the Cincinnati Museum Center, which is in the city's former Union Terminal)
If you have one more day
Making a long weekend out of your visit to Cincinnati? Then I would suggest driving a little north of the city to Butler County, where you can find some other really unique things:
The Donut Trail
In 2016, Butler County officially launched the Donut Trail. This “trail” features 10 independent, family-owned donut businesses spread throughout the county. I LOVE this concept – not only does it allow you to eat some delicious donuts that don't come from Dunkin, but it's a fantastic way to promote and support local businesses, some of which have been around for generations.
Head up in the morning and hit up a few stops on the trail (I really liked Kelly's Bakery and Jupiter Coffee and Donuts), but just be aware that many of these shops do close as soon as they sell out of fresh donuts!
Google Jungle Jim's, and you'll be told that it's a grocery store. But I'm here to tell you that this 6-acre behemoth is so much more than just a grocery store! Jungle Jim's is a tourist attraction in its own right, with its funky decorations, giant cheese tower, and more than 180,000 food items from around the world. Go for the spectacle, and stay to fill up a shopping cart!
The original Jungle Jim's is in Fairfield, north of Cincinnati. But they recently opened up a second store in Eastgate, much closer to downtown.
READ MORE: A Butler County Bucket List
Where to stay in Cincinnati
Looking for a great place to rest your head for your trip to Cincinnati? Here are the hotels I would recommend:
Not only is this hotel located smack dab in the middle of downtown (within walking distance of many local attractions and restaurants), but it's also located in an historic building that used to be home to the Cincinnati Enquirer. If you like historic touches along with large and comfortable hotel rooms, then this is the place for you.
If you're looking for a more budget-friendly option, head across the river into Kentucky. I love the Aloft Newport of the Levee. Aloft hotels in general are modern and a little funky, and this one is also within a few steps of dining, shopping, and the Newport Aquarium.
Have you ever considered Cincinnati as a tourist destination? If not, will you now?
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