On the banks of the Ohio River, Cincinnati is the third biggest city in the state but it can lay claim to having the most diversity of food, culture and history. Known as the Queen City, Cincinnati’s story begins back to the 18th century when westward travelers landed on this particular spot along the river. But it was the addition of a variety of newcomers from across the country and the world that set the city on a path of culinary and cultural uniqueness.
Today, travelers can enjoy the fruit of their labor as they explore the old markets and districts that boast beautiful 19th-century buildings and historic breweries that now create modern craft beers. Through downtown and along the waterfront, you’ll find a rich collection of budget-friendly attractions and a city with storied sporting traditions.
Stroll the Waterfront
After arriving in Cincinnati, it’ll help to get your bearings. You can do just that, while enjoying a leisurely and scenic stroll along the city’s waterfront. With the Ohio River on one side and the city’s rising skyline on the other, you’ll enjoy beautiful views with a splash of local culture.
But the waterfront doesn’t just feature a single trail that lines the river banks. In fact, it’s home to the sprawling Smale Riverfront Park, with spans 45 acres along the Ohio River with stadiums, public art, playgrounds and hiking trails.
Travelers can walk from one end to the other with plenty of green lawns to chill out on along the way. Not to mention a charming carousel, fountains and a splash park great for those hot July days. Cincinnati is also a great sports city, and you’ll find the home of the Bengals and the Reds along the riverfront at Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park, respectively.
One trail to add to the bucket list also departs from Smale Riverfront Park. This is the Ohio to Erie Trail that runs from Cincinnati to Cleveland over 326 miles.
Wander Through the Over the Rhine District
Next up on the best things to do in Cincinnati is to head north of downtown to the charming neighborhood of Over The Rhine. Known simply as OTR, the district has seen a magical revitalization that has made it a must see for all travelers.
OTR’s story begins in the middle of the 1800s when large groups of German immigrants laid down some roots. Back then, a canal split the area from the rest of downtown and the newcomers named the waterway after the German river, The Rhine.
Today, the canal may be filled in but the name has continued, so too the historic architecture that remains much the same decades on. Over the Rhine is one of those places where it’s fun to get a little lost. You’re never sure what lies around each corner, including National Historic Places, prominent landmarks and an array of architectural styles like Victorian, Italianate and Greek Revival. It’s within OTR that you’ll also be able to visit the famous Findlay Market and embark on the Brewery Heritage Trail.
Load Up the Picnic Basket at Findlay Market
Over the Rhine boasts Cincinnati’s oldest open-air market. Today, over 150 years since it first ran, the market continues on strongly as both a valued part of local life and a fantastic attraction for travelers. The market, which opened in 1852, is now on the National Register of Historic Places with its mix of fresh produce and artisan treats, making it a one stop shop prior to your picnic.
The market is nestled in the same storied architecture that makes the district such a joy to explore. The tenement blocks enveloped in cobblestone walkways sweep you off your feet and take you to the heart of Europe.
Among the fabulous buildings and within the rows of eclectic stalls are over 50 vendors operating from Tuesday to Saturday. Beyond fresh produce, you’ll discover handcraft goods, fresh flowers, street performers and plenty to eat. The latter including waffles at the Taste of Belgium and the mouthwatering Eli’s Barbecue Ribs. All the while, music floats through the air and the atmosphere is as enticing as the produce on offer.
Explore the Brewery Heritage Trail
Travelers won’t be too surprised that upon settling in Over the Rhine, the Germans brought their brewing techniques with them. After all, you don’t need a suitcase to pack that kind of knowledge. Not long after finding a home in Cincinnati, OTR features 17 breweries, which in turn created a sub-district now known as the Cincinnati Brewery District.
In the years leading up to Prohibition, the Brewery District was the largest of its kind in the United States. Upon the banning of alcohol, the momentum and incredible growth scuppered. But just like the surrounding OTR, the district is once again flourishing, providing a haven among those that like a pint or two.
Today, modern breweries have taken over the space held by those who led the charge pre-Prohibition. Murals are splashed against the walls, showing life as it was in the early 20th century. You can explore it all on the Brewery Heritage Trail, that guides you from one pint to the next with information of early breweries found all along the trail.
Visit the Cincinnati Museum Center
Housed within a 1930s art déco train station, the Cincinnati Museum Center is both an architectural icon and home to a trio of fascinating museums. For almost four decades, the space was the city’s union station before reopening in 1991 to showcase Cincinnati culture and preserve its history.
The three museums are the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, and the Duke Energy Children’s Museum. Depending on your appetite for facts and the past, you could explore all three or just focus on the one that stands out the most.
For those with kids in tow, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum is one of the top attractions in Cincinnati. The museum offers a series of hands-on exhibits for the little ones that will get them thinking about the world around them, stoking curiosity and creativity. The Museum of Natural History and Science offers fossils, explores the Ice Age and comes with a fabulous exhibit on Neil Armstrong. Lastly, the History Museum dives into the city’s past and involvement in the Second World War.
Complementing the museums is the OMNIMAX Theater, library and archives plus the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.
Have a Park Day
After a day visiting the museums in the old Cincinnati Union Station, it’s time to get back outside a bathe in the Ohio sun. With a packed picnic basket from Findlay Market, make your way to Eden Park for a day among the trees, lazing on the soft grassy lawns and taking in the local atmosphere.
One a sunny day, residents flock to Eden Park creating a vibrant scene. The park boasts two glistening lakes, surrounded by nature trails, bike paths, playgrounds and space to break open the charcuterie board. But the highlight of Eden Park is its wondrous views. The park flows over a hill and, from your elevation, you’ll be able to look upon the Ohio River and across the water to Kentucky.
As you explore the park on foot or on a bike, you’ll stumble upon several landmarks such as the Hinkle Magnolia Garden, the Bettman Fountain, the Krohn Conservatory and renowned Cincinnati Art Museum.
See the Butterflies at the Krohn Conservatory
In Eden Park, the Krohn Conservatory is a botanical garden that features a mesmerizing display of butterflies. The conservatory was created in the 1930s and over the year it has developed an outstanding collection of over 3,500 plants.
In the spring, the cherry trees bloom and illuminate the path as you walk towards the Krohn Conservatory. The building itself, made from glass and aluminum, is as gorgeous as the pink blossoms and inside you’ll discover a greenhouse rich in plant species.
There are several sections, broken up into diverse habitats that represent geological regions from around the world. There are fern, palm and desert halls that place a wide range of flora on a silver platter. The highlight, however, is the hall of miniature trees and the conservatory’s beautiful rainforest waterfall.
The best time to visit is in the spring when not only can you see the cherry trees but the International Butterfly Show takes place. This sees thousands of butterflies roam a themed garden.
Visit the Cincinnati Art Museum
The last stop on your adventure through Eden Park is the Cincinnati Art Museum. Having opened in the 1880s, the museum is one of the oldest art galleries in the United States. Today, it boasts a collection of over 65,000 pieces.
It’s all found within an impressive Romanesque Revival building which was drawn up by James McLaughlin. The gallery is surrounded by the park’s lush grounds, several public art pieces and features its own elegant entrance with multiple stone columns.
After making your way inside the free Cincinnati Art Museum, you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice. The thousands of works span as far back as the 15th century with as many ancient artifacts and contemporary art on display.
Each hall is split up into a variety of themes and eras. These can include pieces from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, plus sculptures, textiles and a fantastic collection of historic photographs. You’ll also find plenty of local and national art complemented by European Masters like Murillo, Monet and Picasso.
Like any art museum worth its salt, visitors can also expect a captivating temporary exhibition to go along with their permanent collection.
Catch a Game at the Great American Ballpark
From March to October, there are few better things to do in Cincinnati than to watch the city’s beloved Reds play ball at the Great American Ballpark. Found along the waterfront, the stadium, which was built in 2003, is just one part of the franchises rich tradition.
The Cincinnati Reds began playing in the big leagues in 1869, although they were called the Red Stockings back then. Over the next 100+ years, the team built a storied tradition and is at the forefront of a sports loving city.
When the sun is out, crowds flock to the ballpark that can host up to 42,300 fans. Grab a hot dog and your chosen refreshment and settle in for what is both a fun and budget friendly way to spend the afternoon. There is an added bonus if you get to watch your hometown team walk off the field victorious.
To learn more about the history of the Cincinnati Reds, visit the teams Hall of Fame and Museum. This is found at the ballpark and is a popular option if you’ve arrived out of season. Travelers can also take guided tours of the stadium.
Try Some Local Delicacies
Cincinnati may not immediately strike you as a foodie destination, but travelers should prepare themselves for some yummy surprises as they explore the city. The wave of newcomers in the 19th and early 20th century set Cincinnati on a path towards being an underrated food city.
There are two major dishes you must try during your time here, those are Cincinnati chili and fish and chips. The latter may be a shock, but we will get to that in a minute.
The local chili is a carbo-loaded gem of a meal that is a version of Mediterranean chili. Brought over by immigrants in the 1920s, the meal is now served in a number of ways. These are the three, four and five way, each adding an addition concoction of ingredients. We recommend the three way to start off and there’s no better place to try it than at Skyline Chili.
As for fish and chips, you’ll want to arrive early to beat the cue at Alabama Fish Bar. This local institution is busy at all hours, but the take away, cash-only nature of the restaurant means the orders and people flow fast. Alabama Fish Bar keeps it simple with just three types of fish, perch, whiting and cod. Alongside the fries and tartar, your taste buds will be jumping for joy.
Take a Cruise
As you make your way around town, you’ll get regular glimpses of the Ohio River. The river is 981 miles (1,579km) long and begins in Pennsylvania, cutting through Ohio before ending at the mouth of the Mississippi River. But don’t spend your too much time admiring the scene without getting out on the water yourself.
A great way to experience the river is by boarding a riverboat, which also offers a serious dose of nostalgia. The classic boats are a throwback to life on the river during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was then that Cincinnati played a strong role in trade along the river, also welcoming its fair share of tourists.
Cruises on the Ohio River come in all shapes and sizes, with the main options being a lunch and dinner cruise. All last for around two hours, with the lunch coming with a buffet and great views of the skyline. The latter offers guests a three-course dinner, and a fully stocked bar with the lights of the city skyline reflecting on the river. On Sunday evenings, they also run a family-friendly cruise.
Explore the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Since opening in 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been an important part of Cincinnati’s excellent collection of museums. The center helps us explore parts of the country’s dark past with a focus on slavery and African Americans escaping from slave states to free states in the north.
The Underground Railroad was a network of people, black and white, that under the cover of darkness and secrecy helped slaves escape to freedom. The term was first used in 1831 to describe a slave who had escaped via an “underground railroad” from Kentucky across the river to Ohio. Due to many laws, escaped slaves would often continue on to the guaranteed freedom found in Canada.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center doesn’t just focus on the facts and cold reality of life in the 18th and 19th centuries. It helps to illuminate historical figures who helped the escapees such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Other poignant aspects of the center include films from the abolitionist era, and one of the last examples of a slave pen in the United States.
Take the Kids to Cincinnati Zoo
The Cincinnati Zoo was one of the first zoos in the country and opened in 1873. Around 150 years on, it’s now one of the most renowned with over 500 animals, thousands of plant species with a strong focus on conservation and environmental education.
If you, or the little ones, like visiting zoos, then it’s one of the best things to do in Cincinnati. The range of attractions ensures you’ll need to leave open a sizeable chunk of the itinerary to see it all. Highlights of the Cincinnati Zoo include the white Bengal tigers and the endangered lowland gorillas from the Congo. Both are fantastic examples of the zoo’s CREW program that works to preserve and strengthen several animal populations.
Other highlights of the zoo include cheetah, snow leopards, snakes, bears and wolves. You’ll also find an aquarium with a wide range of fish and even piranhas, plus the zoo’s beautiful botanical garden. That’s where you can put your naturalist hat on and learn all about plants from around the world.
See the Taft Museum of Art
Another stop in Cincinnati for art aficionados is the Taft Museum of Art. The art gallery does a great job of complementing the Cincinnati Museum of Art, so there is little crossover between the two. Those who visit the Taft Museum of Art will also appreciate the building itself, which is a registered National Historic Landmark. The gallery is within the Baum-Longworth-Taft House, a Palladian-style mansion from the 1820s.
After taking some time to appreciate the building and the exterior statue of Abraham Lincoln, wander inside to discover a brilliant collection of works by Old Masters, historic furnishings, sculptures and decorative arts from around Europe.
Much of the art on display was collected by the Taft family and donated to the city in 1927. These are all housed in various rooms of the mansion, which makes for a different way to experience an art gallery. To experience the Taft Museum of Art in more depth, sign up for a guided tour or one of their regular gallery talks. In the summer, there are also live concerts and presentations by local artists.
Experience a Concert at the Music Hall
Speaking of live music, for a night of high culture you can enjoy the Cincinnati Opera, symphony orchestra and the ballet at the Music Hall. Concertgoers will have access to the hall’s two-tiered balconies that house over 3,000 people in its deep rouge seats. The elevated ceilings feature beautiful gilded woodwork and opulent panels, maintaining the hall’s old-world charm.
Even if you aren’t a fan of opera, symphony or ballets, find some time to check out the Music Hall during the day. You’ll find the building in the Over the Rhine district and it’s one of the best preserved 19th-century buildings in Cincinnati. It was built in 1878 and its deep red facade comes with arch entryways, cathedral-like windows and two towers. As it was built on the site of an old cemetery, so some believe Music Hall to be one of the most haunted in the city.
Check Out Wayne National Forest
Spread across 12 counties and three sections of southwest Ohio, the Wayne National Forest is your ticket to nature while traveling in Cincinnati. As Ohio’s only national forest in Ohio, there’s no better place to enjoy a drive and some outdoor adventure.
You’ll find all sorts of activities in Wayne National Forest. Hikers will be able to work up a sweat on the Buckeye Trail or stick to some shorter day walks along the various “Oak” trails and the Old Beach Trail. There is also a boat launch for a day of fishing or floating along the water.
For those who wish to enjoy the sights from an air-conditioned car, then don’t fret, you’ll be able to experience the majestic Covered Bridge Scenic Byway. The byway takes you along the gorgeous Little Muskingum River through resplendent countryside that features charming small towns and informative signs along the way. If you can’t bring yourself to leave, the byway is also home to four campgrounds.
Chill Out at Fountain Square
There are many great free things to do in Cincinnati, including its duo of fabulous art galleries. But Fountain Square is another example. The square has been the official center of Cincinnati since 1871 and is complete with an open-air plaza and the striking Genius of Water fountain.
Otherwise known as the Tyler Davidson Fountain, is boasts a bronze sculpture that measures 43 feet (13m) tall and has become the symbol of the city. The square is a popular gathering point for locals, who can then stick around and enjoy the great atmosphere or journey to one of the many nearby attractions.
Surrounded by restaurants, this is a fine place to grab a bite to eat. In the summer, large crowds congregate, creating a splendid vibe out on the patios. In the winter, the square hosts an ice skating rink plus ice bumper cars.
The regular Fountain Square events are another reason to visit. Aside from the ice spectacle, you can expect regular free concerts, movie nights and Cincinnati’s take on Oktoberfest.
Go to the Top of the Carew Tower
For the best view of Cincinnati, you’ll have to make your way to the observation deck at the top of Carew Tower. The striking art déco building was constructed in 1930 and, for 80 years, it was the tallest building in Cincinnati, standing at 574 feet (175m) tall.
Carew Tower is now a National Historic Landmark and features a shopping arcade along with a hotel. Admiring the building from street level may be fun, but the views from the top of the 49th floor is the real star of the show.
On a clear day, you’ll be afforded incredible views from the outdoor observation deck, which comes with binoculars for further help. Having spent some time in Cincinnati, you’ll be able to gaze upon the city and pick out all your favorite landmarks and attractions, while enjoying the scenic Ohio River and views of far-off towns and countryside.
Visit the American Sign Museum
One of the most unique things to do in Cincinnati is to visit the American Sign Museum. Before you shake your head and say, pass, there’s something fascinating about the collection of neon-lit signs that showcase the ever changing nature of our lives.
The American Sign Museum has no shortage of nostalgia and presents five decades of sign marking in the US, with many iconic and long-lost brands brought back to life. You find signs from the turn of the 20th century to the neon signs of the 40s.
The highlight is the 1950s section that is spread out like a main street and laden with prismatic signs that blink and spin and take you right back to life in the middle of the century.
The American Sign Museum is open from Wednesday through Sunday, and free guided tours are offered. But visitors should book ahead to reserve a spot.
Have a Night Out
When the sun falls behind the western horizon and Cincinnati’s skyline lights up, it’s time to start thinking about our nighttime plans. Cincy may not be Las Vegas, but you’ll find a vibrant and importantly a varied nightlife that has something for everyone.
It all begins within the city’s restaurants. After some chili and fish and chips, you’ll find a downtown packed with great eateries that represent Cincinnati’s diversity.
After loading up on Greek, African or Asian, it’s time to reconnect with the city’s exceptional brewery scene. But along the way you’ll also come to learn about Cincy’s award-winning craft cocktail scene with Zula Bistro and Sundry and Vice being two delicious examples.
With a few drinks down, unleash your inner-child at 16-Bit Bar + Arcade. Come for the dozens of epic games that will have you reliving your childhood, but this time with some colorful cocktails. Lastly, end the night with some live tunes at MOTR & Woodward. The intimate bar hosts live music every night of the week.
Day Trip Over to Louisville
Around 90 minutes southwest of Cincinnati is the Kentucky city of Louisville. If you aren’t hitting up the city on your travels, then spare some time for a quick day trip. The city encapsulates what Kentucky is all about, while perfectly blending Southern and Midwest culture.
Louisville boasts many memorable attractions and sporting events, plus an exceptional hospitality scene. However you wish to explore the state’s biggest city is up to you, but some of the highlights include visiting Churchill Downs home to the iconic Kentucky Derby. Travelers can also make their way along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to such distilleries like Bulleit, Evan Williams and Jim Beam. Baseball fans will love the Slugger Field and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and it’ll be hard to pass up a visit to the Muhammad Ali Center.