Cincinnati: hip Rust Belt city

Urban renewal is making the Queen City cool again.

A view of Great American Ballpark between riverboats on the Ohio River.   stock photo
  • A view of Great American Ballpark between riverboats on the Ohio River. stock photo

Cincinnati has roots in so many different worlds: North and South, rust belt and agrarian, skyscrapers and green space, historic and hip. Neighborhoods that were marginalized for decades are now favorites of young professionals. Artistic murals on older buildings jazz up the whole area.

Can a Midwestern city be fun? Yes!

Where to stay

Rooftop view from Cincy's Hilton.

Rooftop view from Cincy's Hilton.

For a bit of classic Cincinnati – when major cities had a signature hotel that gave you some of the flavor of what they stood for – I felt elegant and nostalgic at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. Winston Churchill and the Kennedys were among the world players who loved the Art Deco décor and the exquisite service of the hotel. It’s not content to rest on its laurels, either: they’ve earned the Four Diamond award from AAA. The HHonors Club room deck has breathtaking views of the Ohio River. The Executive Chef of Orchids at Palm Court has won so many national honors, it’s hard to count! They use a great deal of local and roof-grown produce – not easy in the quantity that a large hotel consumes.

Do you ever grab your travel companion’s arm, going “Look! Look!” 21c Museum Hotel is a still-rare concept: funky modern art museum in a hotel, with modern furniture and décor. They have a super-popular rooftop terrace bar with a hot tub that’s sadly only available for private parties... something about glass beer bottles, martini glasses and slippery surfaces. On the ground floor, they have a terrific restaurant in Metropole, a wood-fire kitchen that makes perfect steaks and roasted veggies.

Murals are everywhere in the Queen City.

Murals are everywhere in the Queen City.

What to do

Want to find out parts of Cincy that nobody knows? Imagine being led into hidden underground tunnels, churches and breweries, learning about the secrets they hold. American Legacy Tours has a number of different walks they do, involving tales of girls, gamblers, booze and ghosts.

The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has a mix of flavors, from the gritty to the gentrified, with shops, restaurants, bars and even an intimate, serious theater: Ensemble Theater.

Another in the Over the Rhine neighborhood.

Another in the Over the Rhine neighborhood.

What to eat and drink

Bakersfield OTR (Over the Rhine) serves upscale Mexican food at very reasonable prices, with the Bakersfields-style of alt-country, along with outlaw country, playing in the background. Unexpected flavors of tacos include mahi, short rib and huitlacoche – Mexican “corn truffles”. They carry lots of Mexican and local beers, and make margaritas with freshly squeezed fruit juice.

There are nine bridges crossing the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Kentucky. Covington is one of the two communities on the Kentucky side, with Mainstrasse, its historic German neighborhood. Here, you’ll find little indie boutiques, cafés and bars. A very special bar is Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, owned and managed by bourbon expert/author Molly Wellmann. Molly Wellmann has the dedication of a Martha Stewart, but the outward appearance of a Bettie Page/Roller Girl pinup lass. Her little place has no TV, to foster conversation. She has dozens and dozens of bourbons, from drinking man’s quality to rare craft bourbons. Wellmann’s bourbon tastings are super instructive.

Wellmann also owns a super classic mixologist cocktail bar on the Cincinnati side of the river, a former old-school beauty parlor: Japp’s Since 1879. It seems everyone who’s everyone hangs out here, as I saw several different people I had just met that day, incongruously together in the bar! They have live Americana-style music nights. The place is decorated with some of the remnants of the beauty parlor.

Rhinegeist has a German name for what it’s doing – bringing an old brewery back to life on the edge of a neighborhood that’s been brought back to life. They focus on a hoppy West Coast style, and though they're only a few months old, their sales are through the roof! Their building site is over 100,000 square feet, so no doubt there will be exciting events and developments in the future. They're currently hosting live bands.

Findlay Market is where locals go to get fresh produce, pick up lunch, sit outside and browse the perimeter shops. These include wine shops, gourmet delicatessens with hard-to-find European sausages and other good spots. There’s a man – a neighborhood character – who draws caricatures outside for tips.

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