THE BIGGEST DILEMMA you’ll face when you only have 24 hours (or less, like on a layover) to spend in a city is whether you should rush around to see the top tourist attractions or mosey around one or two neighborhoods like a local. One of the best things about Cincinnati is that its smallish size makes it feasible to actually do both.
Head to Findlay Market in the Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, a year-round indoor market showcasing local artisans, a ton of food and a beer garden. Shake awake your senses with a coffee and a thick Belgian waffle from A Taste of Belgium and hop on a quick guided tour of the market to learn about the history of the neighborhood and nibble on goodies from popular vendors (starting at $10 for 30 minutes). Take note of items you want to pick up after the tour for later.
Cincinnati is quite artsy and proud of its heritage, so you have to hit up a museum or two. If you own a beatnik beret and managed to stay awake in art history class, or if the Midwest humidity seems extra oppressive, head downtown and spend a few hours indoors exploring the Cincinnati Art Museum which overlooks the 186-acre Eden Park , the Contemporary Arts Center, an edgy place where some of the most interesting artworks can be viewed on the patrons themselves, and the Taft Museum of Art, a National Historic Landmark and former home of America’s 27th president and a pioneer of Cincinnati’s notoriously conservative political scene. At the very least, stop by the award-winning 21c Museum Hotel, where modern art exhibits are accessible 24/7 (and can be viewed with a craft cocktail in hand.
If you’re more of a history buff, don’t miss the Museum Center at Union Terminal featuring a science and history exhibits and some creepily costumed docents, or the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where you’ll learn that Cincinnati was a pivotal stop for many on the underground railroad. All of these places can be accessed in an Uber or the city’s handy Red Bike system with stations at Findlay Market, Eden Park and the Freedom Center.
If you’re already nodding off just reading about these museums, try an underground approach—literally—and learn about Cincinnati’s history and architecture with American Legacy Tours . In two hours you’ll hear fascinating facts about gangsters and ghosts, bootleggers and breweries, while exploring the city’s maze of abandoned subway tunnels and grottos.
Get yourself to Taft’s Ale House, a renovated church building with a pub-style food menu and 14 craft brews on tap, several of which give a nod to the city’s German heritage including a Dortmunder lager and several Hefeweizens. And, we have a saying: if you give an Ohioan (or a German) a beer, he’s going to want…like, ten more, at least. You could spend the rest of the afternoon sampling as many suds as possible on the Cincy Brew Bus tour and absorbing trivia fodder, like the fact that Cincinnati was once one of the largest beer producers in the country pre-prohibition. You’ll be handed a giant pretzel then shuttled to a selection of the city’s top breweries like MadTree, Rhinegeist and Moerlein Lager House for tours and tastings.
If you’re the type who doesn’t like to imbibe before “cocktail hour”, check out Cincinnati’s recently revamped waterfront by taking a stroll/bike/Segway/rollerblade down to The Banks , a fun, mixed-use project situated between the Red’s and Bengal’s stadiums. It’s full of bars, restaurants and live music. Continue over to Smale Park and hop on the carousel depicting Cincinnati-themed animals like Bengal tigers, pigs and cicadas (if you’re inner child scoffs at carousels, raise the bar with a day trip to King’s Island, easily one of the best amusement parks in the country with epic roller coaster rides, a waterpark and weekend firework displays. It’s located about 20 miles north of downtown). Alternatively, you could also venture across the half-mile long “Purple People” bridge to Newport, KY, where you’ll find a riverfront area with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and an aquarium.
OK, seriously, now you must really need a drink. And maybe a nap. And probably a shower. After a little R&R, cue up whatever handy car-ride app you prefer and head to Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati in the Clifton neighborhood to see FC Cincinnati, the city’s new United Soccer League team, in action. In its first year of play the team has been breaking attendance records and garnering a ton of hype. Promise you’ll eat a Coney Dog from Skyline Chili, perhaps Cincinnati’s most famous food item.
Reds games are also a classic way to spend a Cincinnati summer evening, as are concerts at the Riverbend Amphitheater located about 10 miles southeast of downtown. Both venues offer hazy views of the river. If it’s cold and/or rainy, you can also check out a Bengals game at Paul Brown stadium or concert listings at indoor venues like Bogarts or the US Bank Arena.
Continue the drinking fest and throw in some food while you’re at it. Cincinnati is surrounded by some seriously fertile soils (aka the Ohio River Valley) and restaurants here can easily and cheaply procure some fabulous locally-farmed edibles (sorry, the nutritious kind, not the THC kind). The farm-to-table trend is alive and well here, and you’ll see it in everything from tapas to cocktails. Fancy foodies will want to head towards Fountain Square to try scoring seats at Jean-Robert’s Table, Nada, Boca or Orchids at Palm Court, the only AAA five-diamond restaurant in the state (it also has a stellar cocktail lounge in one of the city’s most prominent buildings, and where a lot of locals’ grandparents used to go dancing on Saturday night’s in the 40s).
For an edgier scene, or if you’re craving a liquid dinner, get back to Over-The-Rhine (OTR). This once off-limits gathering place for trouble is now a trendier-than-thou collection of eateries, galleries and bars where hipsters belly up next to housewives to sample the latest cocktail creations and listen to live music. Here you will find everything from coffee houses to brewpubs. Plan to spend a few hours here perfecting the art of people watching.
Cincinnati Cliff Notes:
Not to miss neighborhoods: OTR and the Waterfront
Ways to get around besides the ubiquitous Uber: Red Bikes (aka B-Cycle); Cincinnati Streetcar (expected to launch in September 2016)
What to consume: German beer, Skyline chili
What to pack: Rain jacket, anti-frizz hairspray