Straddling the divide between the Deep South and the Midwest as it sprawls out across the banks of the Ohio River (one of the major tributaries to the Mississippi River), Cincinnati oozes with a curious mix of American industrialism, BBQ heritage, baseball fanaticism, riparian come railroad character and a deep sense of its own history.
These are all clear in the town’s wealth of museums, bursting out of the green swathes of Eden Park and the Union Station alike, not to mention its revered Major League sporting institutions.
However, Cincinnati is also a city on the up. Its districts pulse with bohemian coffee bars, art cafes and more microbreweries than you can shake a Midwestern local IPA at.
The art exhibitions are both cutting-edge and thought-provoking, and there are some mouth-watering restaurants to boot. Check out this list of the best things to do in Cincinnati, the fabled Queen City of the West…
1. See endangered gorillas and more at the Cincinnati Zoo
Situated just north of the city’s University district, Cincinnati Zoo is home to a real medley of curious and exotic creatures.
Exhibits range from the speedy cheetah to elusive snow leopards, sand cats to Siberian lynxes, bears to wolves, venomous snakes to slow-moving armadillos.
Oh, and there’s just a smattering of sunfish and sharp-toothed piranhas thrown in at the aquarium for good measure!
Cincinnati Zoo is also known for its accomplished CREW conservation program, which has worked hard to preserve – among other animals – the great lowland gorilla of the Congo.
2. Get a hit of caffeine and art at BLOC Coffee Company
Nestled between the up-and-coming streets of the Price Hill neighbourhood on the western edge of the city, BLOC Coffee Company is the epitome of the independent American café.
The menu touts a medley of filling grilled cheese sarnies and potato chips, but the focus really is on the brews. There are alternative offerings of Chemex coffee and Hario V60s, along with French presses and chai lattes, all backed-up by the usual range of espressos and Americanos.
The walls of the joint are regularly graced with local artists too, with past exhibits showcasing photography and landscape portraiture alike.
3. Contemplate freedom and America’s dark history at the National Underground Railroad
A relatively recent addition to the line-up of world-class museums in Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad only opened its doors back in 2004.
In fact, the institution is one of all-new breed of so-called ‘conscience’ museums in the country, attempting to confront the nation’s darker past, chronicle raw and often sobering historical episodes, and get visitors thinking.
Here, the focus is on slavery, and even the museum’s location, right on the banks of the Ohio River, holds significance as the spot where escaped prisoners would hold up while making for the freedom of Canada in the north.
The collections contain films and relics from the abolitionist years, along with a haunting slave pen installation – one of the few surviving examples in the United States.
4. Unravel the city’s history at the Cincinnati History Museum
Housed in the magnificent Union Terminal, a disused relic of the great railroad age of America, the Cincinnati History Museum does well to chronicle the rise of The Queen City of the West since its earliest years.
The various exhibitions here range from World War Two artifacts to centuries-old reconstructions of how life was like for the first settlers and pioneers of Cincinnati.
There’s also a huge replica of a Mississippi steamboat from the 1800s, evoking the time when this town was a major stop-over on both trade routes and recreational river tours to the Deep South.
5. Hit a home run at the Great American Ball Park
Completely built anew and opened in 2003 to replace the erstwhile home of the Cincinnati Reds at the Cinergy Field, the Great American Ball Park is the place to come and watch Major League Baseball in the Queen City.
Located just on the edge of Nuxhall Way in honour of the late MLB broadcaster Joe Nuxhall, the site has some curious architectural features.
There are the Power Stacks, which are supposed to mimic the look of the steamboats that would once drift up the Ohio River from Mississippi, along with a series of mosaics dedicated to the glory years of Cincinnati baseball.
Adjoining the stadium is the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, where all the greats of the local game are honoured.
6. Get fine panoramas from the top of the Carew Tower
This Art Deco masterwork has towered high over the downtown of Cincinnati and the meanders of the Ohio River since it was first raised in the 1930s.
Now a veritable icon of the Queen City of the West, the skyscraper houses a luxurious Hilton hotel that’s famed for its elaborate mirrored eating halls and original Secessionist features.
The complex also hosts countless shops and restaurants, while the 49th storey (the highest elevated of all the floors in the city) boasts an observation deck where sweeping views of the downtown and the plains of Kentucky across the river to the south unfold on all sides.
7. Wander the elaborate graves at the Spring Grove Cemetery
Out on the far northern reaches of Cincinnati City, where the suburban neighbourhoods begin to give way to the forests and fields of Ohio, travelers can discover one of the most haunting National Historic Landmarks in the state.
At over a whopping 700 acres all in, the Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum hails as the second largest graveyard in the entire of the United States.
It’s home to countless resting luminaries whose paths crossed with the Queen City during their lifetime, from Civil War generals to baseball pitchers, former mayors and abolitionists.
It’s also a pretty, solemn place to stroll, complete with forestry and beautifully carved sepulchres and mausoleums.
8. Seek out masterpieces at the Cincinnati Art Museum
Bursting with masterworks by the likes of Rubens and Bouguereau, Memling and Modigliani, the Cincinnati Art Museum is considered by many to be one of the top classic art museums in the country.
It’s been serving the city fine art for nearly 150 years, first opening its doors in Eden Park in 1886. Aside from the permanent collection of worldly masters, the institution also hosts regular touring exhibitions, with former events ranging from fan creations relating to HBO’s Game of Thrones to revivalist looks at etching work and even live performances of swing dance.
There are also regular family and child-friendly art workshops organised on-site.
9. Enjoy all-American staples at Eli’s BBQ
Loved by locals and travelers alike for its mastery of the classic American barbecue, Eli’s BBQ offers up a medley of greasy ribs and hickory-smoked pulled pork burgers, smoked rib tips and beef dogs.
Sides include the quintessentially USA mac and cheese, Tex-Mex jalapeno-infused cornbreads and baked beans. Meanwhile, the interior is charming and homey, done out in hearty woods and set on the pretty Cincinnati riverside. T
here’s arguably nowhere better in the Queen City to get acquainted with the mouth-watering kitchen that’s grown up on the north-south divide of Ohio and Kentucky.
10. Sip local craft ales and beers at MadTree Brewing
Set in a cool, industrial-chic warehouse on the far north-eastern fringes of Cincinnati City, MadTree Brewing is leading the wave of all-new independent microbrews in the town.
With makeshift timber bars and a chalkboard menu where all the ales of the moment are scrawled, the tap room is a fine place to come and sample the various creations that issue from MadTree’s pipes.
There’s the hefty and appropriately-named Gnarly Brown, along with the flavour-packed Dreamsicle, a kolsch that fuses vanilla and orange – and that’s just two of many!
Patrons here can also enjoy wood-fired, Neapolitan pizzas from a resident food truck: Catch-a-Fire Pizza. Tours of the brewery take place each Saturday.
11. Board a riverboat on the Ohio River
Nostalgically evoking the high times of the 1800s and early 1900s, when Cincinnati was a hub of tourists and trade thanks to the riverboats that weaved their way both up and down the waterways to and from the great cities and ports of the Deep South, there are now various companies in town offering trips on the classic steamers.
Visitors can choose between dining cruises in the evening or sightseeing cruises in the day, while some providers even cater to the little ones with a whole host of interesting themed cruises.
12. Enjoy the gazebos and pathways of Eden Park
Spread out over the Ohio River banks amidst the leafy streets of Walnut Hills, Eden Park is perhaps the best place to come for a spot of urban greenery in Cincinnati.
Overlooking the banks of the meandering waterways, the site is home to babbling fountains and countless little architectural gems. Check out the curious Moorish, arabesque styles of the Spring House Gazebo – now an icon of the area – along with statues of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, suckling at the famous she wolf who raised them.
In short, this is a great spot to stroll and seek some of the Queen City’s more unusual sights.
13. Stroll the Riverwalk
No trip to Cincinnati could possibly be complete without making a beeline for the famous Riverwalk that spans the length of the Ohio River as it meanders east-to-west along the borderline of its eponymous state and Kentucky to the south.
Along its courses, the Riverwalk offers up pretty broadside views of both the Queen City’s downtown and the far banks, along with countless playgrounds and picnic spots.
It’s also possible to stroll across the industrial steel bridges into Kentucky and back again, passing local joggers, dog walkers and bike riders as you go.
14. Get the adrenaline flowing on Kings Island
Drawing a whopping 3.2 million visitors every year (and that’s just between springtime and late summer when the park is open), King’s Island is one of Cincinnati’s most popular entertainment draws.
It can be found in the far outer suburbs of the city, a short 25-minute drive from the downtown area. Here, rollercoasters like the twisting, turning Banshee mix with the appropriately-named Beast (the longest wooden ride of its type on the planet), while Soak City waterpark offers both refreshment and wild rides in the hotter months, complete with dinghy slides and wave pools alike.
King’s Island is also known for its spooky Halloween parties, which see the park open again for one haunting weekend in October.
15. Go shopping and eating in Findlay Market
Nestled deep amidst the charming historic streets of the Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood, with its pretty tenement blocks and cobbled pavements, Findlay Market is one of the prime attractions of the Queen City for retail lovers and avid shoppers.
Awash with local craft stores and local producers, the complex is the place to come for farmer’s foods and, handmade cakes, bespoke chocolates, flower bouquets, home-brew beers and spirits, artisan tarts, ethically sourced meats, fresh dairy – the list goes on!
There are also regular neighbourhood events hosted here, like a small version of Oktoberfest each week courtesy of the folk of the OTR Biergarten.