There’s an incredible array of fun things to do in Cincinnati, from underground tours, to neon museums, art gallery hotels, to bourbon whiskey tasting.
We never even imagined going to Cincinnati
OK, frank admission here, we didn’t know there would be so many fun things to do in Cincinnati. Cincinnati wasn’t even high on our list of cities to explore in the United States. That’s not to say we didn’t want to visit, but it just lacked the big ticket attractions of say a Chicago or a Vegas.
In fact the only reason we decided to go was that we had itchy feet, a tiny budget, and a hunger to escape our tiny Greenwich Village studio apartment at the time. So, when we trawled Google Flights for the cheapest destinations for a weekend getaway, Cincy won out. With low expectations, the city blew our minds and had us raving highly to the world that it’s one of America’s most-underrated destinations.
Why you should go
This is a city that has seen it all. Once one of the five biggest cities in the union, she’s experienced a death of a thousand cuts that has seen Cincinnati go from boom to bust to rebuild to bust and now she’s on a new wave of recovery fueled by dirt-cheap real estate, a burgeoning foodie scene and an exciting new generation of creative and entrepreneurial minds.
In 36 hours we discovered that while offering plenty on first impressions, this is a place where when you dig below the surface things get really interesting – it’s the underground aspects that will excite you most – from the underground art to once forgotten subterranean tunnels to a magnificent new museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad – the heroic movement that helped slaves escape the clutches of a life of misery in Kentucky and the Deep South to a new life in the north.
From bourbon festivals to boutique hotels with modern art galleries join us as we highlight the what, where’s and how’s of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Arriving in Cincinnati Airport
The main point of entry when you fly to Cincinnati is the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The airport code is CVG – an abbreviation for Covington, Kentucky, the nearest city and yes, we were surprised that we’d landed in Kentucky and not Ohio too! It’s a modern, well-appointed airport with an impressive array of art deco murals, sculptures, and installations that set the scene and introduce travelers to the region’s rich history. For the pop culture vultures, the murals and airport were a feature in the movie, Rain Man.
If you’re driving, Cincinnati is perfect for road trips. It’s within a five hour drive of 49% of the US population!
How to get around Cincinnati
We made the mistake of taking a cab from the airport. Don’t bother. It’s everything wrong with American taxis. It stunk, there was no meeting, you had to negotiate a fare, the driver went in the wrong direction and tried to charge more (and did we say it stunk of sweat and uric acid?). Take Ubers. The cars are new, and you have an agreed rate locked in.
Once on the ground, walking is fine if you stick to the main areas. It’s the kind of place where if you go down the wrong street you may come across sketchy areas so stick with the crowds and Google Maps and try not to look like too much of a target (says the people juggling a GoPro and full-frame DSLR camera). There is also a trolley/tram system that gets you to most places or a faux trolley bus to get over to the Kentucky side of the bridge.
Things to do in Downtown Cincinnati
Like most cities, the fun things to do in Cincinnati aren’t necessarily in the heart of downtown, but it serves as a jumping off point for our explorations. Established in 1788, the same year that Australia was colonized, the city boomed early due to its location on the Ohio River and its pork processing – which attracted German migrants. As a port city, bordering Kentucky, it also marked the line between the north and the south.
Chill at Fountain Square
Every city the world over has that central meeting place where you’ll find a plaza full of tables, a nice warm ray of sun, and a fountain. Fountain Square at 5th and Vine Streets is Cincy’s plaza. In winter, it houses an ice skating rink, in summer, outdoor movies, and in September, the Oktoberfest Zinzinnati with its legendary Running of the Wieners (sausage dogs). The main focal point of the square is the Tyler Davidson bronze cast fountain, The Genius of Water, an homage to the city’s reliance on the waters of the Ohio River, which has brought it prosperity.
Come face to face with the man who walked on the moon
You may not know this, but the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong was a Cincinnati resident. He was born and raised in Ohio and went on to pilot the Gemini 8 and then the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing. An impressive mural depicting him can be found on the side of the Fifth Third Bank Headquarters at 511 Walnut Street.
Discover America’s dark past at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Cincinnati
It’s not underground and has nothing to do with trains. Instead, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center traces the origin of slavery in the Americas through to today, with a focus on the Underground Railroad, a term for those who were prepared to help slaves from the south to flee to freedom in the north. Given the city’s position north of the Ohio River, it was considered a free haven and once slaves crossed the river, they’d be helped by northerners to get away from their slave masters. It’s a sombre experience, yet it’s one of the best things to do in Cincinnati.
Fun things to do in Cincinnati beyond downtown
Your eyes will light up at the American Sign Museum
We can completely say, free of irony, that the American Sign Museum was one of the biggest highlights of our time in Cincy. Part working neon light company and part drain on the power grid, see hundreds of flashing bulbs and neon tubes come alive to showcase the history of American signage from early gold leaf to the icons of today like the Golden Arches and Big Boy. In summer you can catch live acts in the small auditorium in the back of the museum.
Explore the Germanic Over the Rhine
With its mostly German population and location over the other side of the former Miami and Erie Canal than Downtown Cincinnati, the area was derogatorily (or perhaps affectionately) known as Over the Rhine or OTR.
At its peak it was home to over 130 bars, saloons, breweries and theaters. Prohibition wreaked havoc on the already poor migrant community and as the twentieth century moved on, it became the place where the council dumped the mentally ill, the drug addicted and the criminal elements, effectively putting all the bad eggs in one basket. Today it is gentrifying rapidly with great shopping, bars and dining – just keep to the main drags – especially at night.
Stop in for ice cream at Graeter’s
Before there was artisanal, small batch tubs of ice cream, there was Graeter’s. Since 1870, it’s been a fixture in Cincinnati and has now expanded nationally. Drop in to 1401 Vine Street in Over the Rhine to sample the chocolate dipped waffle cones filled with some of the most delectable ice cream you’ll ever taste. If you have a sweet tooth, it has to be almost top of your list of fun things to do in Cincinnati – especially if you’re traveling with kids.
Discover Cincinnati Street Art and Murals
Cincinnati is an arty, cultural city, renowned around the world for its orchestra. What you may not know is that there’s also an incredible support for murals and street art. As one of the more downtrodden and now gentrifying neighborhoods, Over The Rhine is where you’ll find the lion’s share of the fresh pieces done “organically”. In recent years, Cincinnati council has actually commissioned the not-for-profit, Artworks to work to paint murals across the city’s 52 neighborhoods. They offer weekend tours, or download the map and do it yourself.
Wander the banks of the Ohio
With its bluegrass, old-American twang, the traditional 19th century murder ballad, The Banks of the Ohio tells the story of unrequited love, where a man was going to propose to his girl by the river and when she rejected him, he stabbed her and pushed the body into the water. It’s a brutal tale and it was updated in the 1970s by Olivia Newton John with the roles reversed. Thankfully the banks are green and not blood red and the whole riverside has been beautifully landscaped with paths, parks, gardens, breweries, and eateries.
Ride a paddle boat and see Cincinnati from the river
Back in the 1800s, the Ohio River was the lifeblood of the region, serving as the main transport and haulage solution for the two states. Get a taste of what it was like back in the day on the Belle of Cincinnati, run by BB Riverboats. They run daily cruises including lunch, brunch, and dinner cruises with live performers. If you want a change of pace, it’s one of the best things to do in Cincinnati for families. Sunset cruises start at $28.
Catch a ball game
The Cincinnati Reds was America’s first professional baseball team, forming in 1869 as the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The Reds’ home field is the Great American Ball Park, a modern stadium built in 2003 that looks over the Ohio River to Kentucky. To capture the essence of the city’s steamship roots, the stadium features steamer smoke stacks that pour out smoke machine mist every time the team scores.
Visit Washington Park and the Music Hall
Once part of the city’s badlands, Washington Park has been rejuvenated with fountains, bars and convenience stands. It is watched over by one of Cincy’s most stately buildings, the 1878 Music Hall. The recently renovated hall was built over a pauper’s cemetery and is considered to be one of the most haunted buildings in America. It’s also home to the city’s renowned Cincinnati Pops and Symphony Orchestras.
Explore early lagering tunnels on the Queen City Underground Tour
Descend beneath the streets of Over the Rhine and explore early crypts and pre-prohibition lagering tunnels harking back to the days when beer ruled and fueled the town. Take the American Legion Queen City Underground Tour for a chance to step back in time.
Visit Findlay Market, Cincinnati’s oldest market
Regional cheeses, preserved meats, butchered beef and lamb and poultry are all in fresh and ready supply at this local market that has been there since 1852.
Cross the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge to Kentucky
If the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge looks familiar, it’s because it is. Linking Kentucky and Ohio, the bridge was the test run for the Brooklyn Bridge, Roebling’s most famous work. Built in 1867, it incorporated the caisson techniques and engineering that were scaled to construct the much larger Brooklyn Bridge.
Visit Newport, Kentucky
Perched behind a levy, picturesque Newport has some impressive stately homes dominating the waterfront. The standout attraction for visitors is the Newport Aquarium and the Newport Southbank Bridge which has the weird nickname – the Purple People Bridge, though its purple paint has long faded. If you’re lucky, you might even stumble upon a festival by the water like we did.
The Bourbon, Bacon and Brew Festival
We happened to be in town for the annual Bourbon, Bacon and Brew Festival and it was every bit as wrong as its title may suggest with not a hint of health food or a juice bar to be found.
Where to dine and drink in Cincinnati
Queen City Radio
A super casual beer garden, Queen City Radio is a welcoming place to sit and enjoy a cold drink on a hot day with friends. On the site of a gas/petrol station dating back to 1929 that last served as a radio supply shop, it has kept the name of the previous tenant. Inside, the decor is dive bar Americana with the addition of plenty of natural light in the daytime. Outside, an Airstream has been converted into a cocktail bar and the bright blue food truck is on hand to line your tummy with greasy sometimes treats.
Computer game arcades used to be a place you’d blow quarters, drink coke and eat candy. Now there’s an adult version where you can play your favorite arcade games, pinball machines and even consoles, with adult drinks like cocktails with rock candy swizzle sticks and vodka with rocket icy poles to fuel hours of hardcore retro gaming. 16-Bit Cincinnati is an arcade bar done just right – plus all the games are free when you’re drinking (pinball excluded).
Boomtown Biscuit and bourbon
In our home country (Australia), a biscuit is a cookie and we’ve always been told a biscuit is more like a savory scone. While true, it’s closer in flavor to Australia’s damper, an old colonial bread made with three ingredients. The colonial theme is central to the styling of Boomtown, with gold rush references, spaghetti westerns playing on the main screen and southern comfort favorites like grits and biscuits with pulled pork. If you like craft beer, craft bourbon and barbecue, you’ll love Boomtown.
Prescribe Yourself Cocktails at Sundry and Vice
It’s hard to debate the medicinal qualities of a strong cocktail – especially when it’s served to you in a former pharmacy. Sundry and Vice captures the speakeasy feel without the hidden entrance. Instead you get a cute time capsule of a bar, where antique medicine bottles, pharmaceutical paraphernalia and microscopes dress the windows and cozy booths provide a quiet haven to cure or earn a hangover. With cocktail names like Penicillin there’s something to cure all ills. Also check out the wallpaper in the bathrooms – it’s made from actually prescriptions from the old pharmacy.
Rise to a healthy buzz brunch at Sleepy Bee
Sleepy Bee is a place to go when you want to wake up positively buzzing and when you’ve only got a weekend to enjoy all the things to do in Cincinnati, this is the place to start. This cute downtown café features healthy, sustainable locally sourced ingredients with plenty of vegan and gluten free options. Glass flowers, blown and designed by one of the owners add color and design smarts to the restaurant as does a wall of hand drawn bees placed there by local businesses to support charities. Plus, they call their cocktails stingers – how cute is that?
Get a taste for it at Rheingeist Brewery
With a sinister logo that looks like a cross between Voldemort’s Dark Mark and comic book hero, the Punisher’s emblem and beer taps styled like candy skulls, Rheingeist is a local brew with edge. It’s main brew house offers the normal tour (look – big metal things) but it’s the party atmosphere you’ll want to come for. There are bags of corn flying across the room with game after game of cornhole bonding and dividing friendships and couples and the muscular posturing of buds turning foosball into a blood sport. It’s loud, fun and smells like a brewery – and that’s what makes it so popular with the locals.
Located in the same building as Rheingeist, Sartre is the new kid on the block of the Cincinnati dining scene. With a chic, semi-industrial vibe, it offers French flavors with a local flair.
Where the locals recommend
With only 36 hours the body can only take so many drinks, but we asked our bartender at Boomtown his favorite local watering holes and he recommended Wise Guy, Longfellow, and Japps.
Where to shop
Downtown Cincinnati is like any large American city. Most shopping is chain stores like Macy’s. The city has outlets just out of town but for the best boutiques and fashion, head to over the Rhine where it had just that little fashion forward edge. A couple of standouts worth a visit are The Native One and Kismet.
Where to Stay in Cincinnati
We normally choose AirBNBs or hotels with a story if they are within our budget and in Cincinnati, we were able to stay in one of the newest and buzz-worthy boutique hotels without blowing the paycheck. The 21C in the historic Metropole Hotel is a modern art gallery and chic hotel adjacent to the Aronoff Theater. The first two floors are full of contemporary art works, with each floor having a central piece by the lifts. The caliber of the art is high, and the rooms are modern, spacious and quirky in their own rights, with anatomical body parts in the white bathroom tiles.
Overall, we felt fairly safe in Cincinnati. It’s edgy in places, particular in downtown on the weekend and in the back streets of Over the Rhine. Close to the river is a tent village of homeless people who seemed fairly harmless. At night, keep your wits about you and don’t venture alone or to places that feel sketchy, as they probably are.Follow & Connect with us