I’ve had a certain image of Cincinnati in my head for many years, but I knew that it was probably outdated and not terribly fair. And with the city only two hours up the highway from my home in Louisville, I knew I was long overdue in exploring the Queen City.
What I discovered is that Cincinnati is a beautiful blend of historic and modern, with a strong German heritage that it seems to be rediscovering and celebrating. I found myself thoroughly charmed by the historic architecture, the vibrant street art, and enamored with the food.
So I wanted to share my thoughts on things to do in Cincinnati, and how to get the most out of a visit.
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A little about Cincinnati…
Often considered the first truly “American city”, as the first founded after the American Revolution, Cincinnati’s history is a tale of several different phases. It was a boom town and became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the mid-1800s due to its bustling steamboat trade, and called the “Paris of America”.
it was seen as a gritty, industrial city through much of the 1900s, and by 2001 had the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous cities in America. But over the past 20 years it has clawed its way back and now offers locals and visitors beautiful historic architecture, cool history, an up-and-coming food and craft beer scene, and a number of Fortune 500 companies as key employers.
As I mentioned above, Cincinnati also has a very strong German heritage (rather like Louisville). The city had a ton of German immigrants in the 1700s and 1800s, and by 1900 a full 60% of the population was German! This influenced the city’s architecture, food, and beer industries among other things.
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Areas of Cincinnati to focus your visit on
At the very beginning of my trip research, there were a bunch of different neighborhoods that popped on my radar to explore…OTR, downtown, Woodburn, Walnut Hills, Mount Adams, Covington over the river in Kentucky. Yeah, the list gets long.
But since I only had a couple days, I really focused in on the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) area and the historic Downtown all the way to the waterfront. This had a couple benefits. It made most of what I was doing (technically all, but I got lazy a couple times) totally walkable. I parked my car Friday in OTR by my Airbnb and didn’t move it til I left town.
It also meant I didn’t lose lots of time driving between neighborhoods, finding parking, and that kind of thing. I really got to immerse myself in a pretty compact area, and all that walking helped me burn off all the calories I was consuming on my foodie explorations.
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How to get around
This will depend a lot on where you’re staying (more on that at the end of the post). Because I chose to base myself in the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, I just walked everywhere…I put on like 15,000-20,000 steps a day! (A good excuse for my food explorations.)
Parts of Cincinnati are very walkable, including the OTR and Brewery District, Washington Park area, and all the way through Downtown to the river. It’s one of the best ways to really explore the beautiful historic buildings, local businesses, and colorful street art.
In this area you can also take the tram, otherwise known as the Cincinnati Connector. It goes up and down between the waterfront and up to OTR, and you can get a day ticket (or when I was there over the weekend it was free).
Lastly, either driving or Ubers/Lyfts are definitely an option in Cincinnati. I took Ubers at night a couple times to get home from dinner when I was further away and wasn’t positive about walking in certain areas alone at night. I also would have driven to other neighborhoods (including some of the further-out breweries) if my visit hadn’t been so short.
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Things to do in Cincinnati
If you stick with a pretty focused area (and honestly even if you don’t, but are here on a weekend trip without rush hour traffic), you can see and do quite a lot during your time here.
I feel like I have to give my usual caveat that I’m really not a museum person. But if museums are your thing there are some great ones here—I’ve heard the American Sign Museum, the National Underground Railroad Center, and the Cincinnati Art Museum are awesome. Also there’s a Lucky Cat Museum which…YES.
Immerse yourself in Over-the-Rhine (OTR)
Once one of those “absolutely don’t go there” places from a safety standpoint, Cincinnati’s OTR area is now jam-packed with hip bars, celebrated restaurants, and local boutiques.
Outside of the main drag there are definitely still some transitional parts, abandoned lots, etc., but it now boasts one of the country’s most up-and-coming food scenes (Food & WIne), vibrant and varied street art, and a fascinating collection of historical buildings and architectural styles.
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Cincinnati has some of the best intact examples of 19th-century Italianate architecture (built between 1850-1900), and while you can find them sprinkled all over the city, the OTR area has a concentration. In particular around the 12th and Vine area gives you some good ones (like the first pic below).
Some of the hallmarks of this more romantic style are tall thin windows, decorative bracket-like eaves on the windows, and a belvedere-like thing at the top. I don’t know if the bright colors were as common back in the mid-1800s, but I absolutely love the colorful, fanciful effect!
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On a side note (and this building is further down past the Washington Park area), I adore these skinny houses! Most of the time they’re all stacked together in a “row house” style (like the ones above), but this guy is just sitting out there on his own.
Something that a friend told me (but I couldn’t figure out how to confirm) was that you see a lot of super skinny row houses and buildings, and that was because the people who built those houses were from Germany, where houses were taxed by the width of their lot. A cool historical note if it’s true!
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Enjoy all the intricate details…and make sure to look up!
Right alongside the larger architecture you can behold, one thing I loved about exploring both OTR and downtown was all the amazing DETAILS.
Below are just a few examples, some a main part of the buildings, and others newer additions that just add to the area’s overall charm.
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Spend some time at Findlay Market
Located in the heart of OTR, Findlay is Cincinnati’s oldest public market and today is packed full of food stands, fresh meat and produce vendors, and locally-made goods.
You can both walk around and through the inside of the market (inside is fully covered, but quite a tight squeeze during peak times). The market is surrounded by many of the brightly-colored historic buildings in the OTR area and so makes a great photo op as well (would have been even better with blue skies).
If I’d had more time I definitely would have looked for a food tour here to be able to sample a bunch of different things. They also offer regular market tours focused on the market’s history. Check out their opening times, special events, parking info, and more at the official website.
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Head up to the Brewery District
Still (as far as I can tell) a part of the OTR area, the Brewery District is another place you need to wander around. It stands to reason that with a significant amount of German immigrants, a robust brewery culture would develop in this part of Cincinnati.
The first brewery opened in 1853, and this area north of Liberty Street became the heart of Cincinnati’s brewing industry. At its peak, Christian Moerlein Brewing Co was the largest and occupied three full city blocks. Prohibition took its toll on the whole industry in the 1920s, but in the last decade or so it’s really seen a revival.
I didn’t spend a ton of time up here, but absolutely made a point to visit Rhinegeist Brewery. If you are interested, you can take a number of different tours, including a Brewery Heritage walking tour or the Ultimate Queen City Underground Tour (think cellars, tunnels, etc.). The street art in this area is also awesome.
Visit a local institution–Taft’s Ale House
As I was doing some research before my trip, almost every single thing I read told me to make sure I paid a visit to Taft’s. And I definitely concur! Named after former U.S. prez William Howard Taft (a Cincy native), Taft’s is located in the former St. Paul’s German Evangelical Protestant Church (wow, that’s a mouthful).
The church was built in 1850 but fell into disrepair after it was abandoned in the 1980s. Thankfully it was able to be saved and renovated, and is now an awesome place for a bite and a drink.
They’ve done a great job of beautifully blending the former church with a brew-pub atmosphere (and do offer a little walking tour if you want to learn more about the history). You can learn more at their website.
I was still stuffed from my morning pastry adventures and didn’t want to fill up much before my early dinner reservation, so just had a light lunch and a half pour of the hazelnut latte coffee stout. Mmmmm!
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Enjoy the Washington Park area
Just down the street a bit from Taft’s is pretty and chill Washington Park. Take a stroll around (there was either music or a musician playing at night when I was there) and soak in some of the awesome buildings nearby, which were some of my favorites.
The other great thing to see here is the Cincinnati Opera House (also called Music Hall). Built in 1878 and designated as a National Historic Landmark, the building is a super impressive Victorian-Gothic style and photographs like a dream. It also is home to the country’s second-oldest opera company (which I didn’t know!).
Head toward downtown and Fountain Square
Fountain Square is often called the symbolic center of Cincinnati, featuring a fairly dramatic European fountain dedicated in 1871. There isn’t really anything to *do* here, per se, but it’s worth a quick stop. And from here you can even see Carew Tower.
Note, the fountain isn’t running all year (usually from right before baseball opening day until it gets too cold November/December-ish).
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This dramatic art deco building is the tallest elevated building in Cincinnati (second-tallest overall), dating back to 1930. I’ll be honest, it’s cool but a little underwhelming from the outside when compared to how many super unique buildings Cincinnati can claim. Specifically it’s considered a really fine example of French Art Deco and was modeled after the Empire State Building.
But INSIDE it’s pretty amazing. The tower houses the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, which I was fortunate to stay in a few years ago on a business trip (one pic below, and one at the end of this post).
It’s opulent and glamorous, including a Versailles-style Hall of Mirrors banquet room and featuring an observation deck on the 49th floor with amazing panoramic views.
Don’t only focus on Carew Tower…wander downtown
There are a number of awesome buildings and architectural styles and details throughout downtown that are more *outwardly* impactful than Carew Tower.
The styles (in my incredibly uneducated opinion) do tend to run more toward Art Deco (early 1900s to 1930s) and not as dominated by the mid/late 1800s styles as much. Here are a few I loved.
If you’re looking for things to do in Cincinnati and are as intrigued by the buildings here as I am, I’d definitely look into some of the different Cincinnati architecture tours on offer.
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Soak in those waterfront and bridge views!
As with my own home just downriver in Louisville, Cincinnati is a river city defined by the bridges crisscrossing the Ohio River into Newport, Kentucky.
Four of the bridges are pedestrian-friendly, and they’re all fairly close to each other. If the weather is nice, you definitely have to walk across for the great views of the city! The four pedestrian bridges are John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, Purple People Bridge, Taylor Southgate Bride and Clay Wade Bailey Bridge.
I walked the Roebling one, built in 1867. And if it looks vaguely familiar, it should…it was designed by the same architect who later built NYC’s Brooklyn Bridge.
It was sadly overcast when I was there so the photos were good but not amazing. I’ve heard sunset is an amazing time for photos if you can swing it (I’d look into which bridge is best for that).
Similarly, Smale Waterfront Park (which is where the Roebling Bridge starts) is worth a walk around on a nice day. The views are great, there’s a fun playground for the kids, and I even loved it on an early morning run…isn’t that lit-up bridge gorgeous?!
Seek out all Cincinnati’s best street art
I’ve written a much deeper post that’s kind of an ode to Cincinnati’s murals, so definitely check that out. There is such a variety of styles, colors, and topics throughout the city.
You can take a walking street art tour if you want to make sure you see all the great ones or just have a deep interest in learning more about the individual pieces of art. Or, like me, you can just wander all over and happen upon them yourself.
Catch a Cincinnati Reds game
I didn’t on this trip (it wasn’t baseball season), but when I visited a few summers ago for work we got to take in a game.
On a beautiful summer night, this is a super thing to do in Cincinnati to experience the city even if you’re not a baseball fan (I’m…eh on it depending on the day but enjoy being there).
So as you can tell, I packed a lot into my weekend trip so hopefully this gives you tons of ideas for what to do in Cincinnati. And we haven’t even talked FOOD yet! So let’s get to it…
Where to eat & drink in Cincinnati
As I mentioned at the outset, the food scene here has really see a renaissance in the past several years. I had a blast eating and drinking my way through the city, and have done a super IN-DEPTH post on Cincinnati’s bars, restaurants, breweries, bakeries, and coffee shops. Below is just a taste…
Starting with cocktails (as I often do…). I fell in love with cool, retro Sundry & Vice and made it there both nights of my trip, including for to-go drinks.
I also had good cocktails at both Sotto and Abigail Street when I went for dinner, and AMAZING food. Sotto in particular blew my mind, and both of these dinners were rave-worthy. Make sure you get reservations well ahead for Sotto!
I also had brunch at Sacred Beast Diner (get the corned beef hash!), but it would also make a great lunch or dinner option. And don’t forget to spend some time wandering around both the inside and outside of Findlay Market (more on that above in the Things to Do in Cincinnati section).
Cincinnati’s craft brewery scene is worth an exploration all its own as well, and I just scratched the surface with a quick visit to both Rhinegeist Brewery and Taft’s Ale House (delish food, cool ambiance). Some of the others that were on my list were further out in other neighborhoods, but if craft beer is your thing then I’d say they’re worth the drive.
I also made my way to several local coffee shops and bakeries…sadly none of the coffee shops were allowing inside seating at the time, but I got some delicious coffee at 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab, Coffee Emporium, Collective Espresso, and Urbana Cafe at Findlay.
None of the coffee shops had *amazing* pastries so I sought out the local icon Holtman’s Donuts and then stumbled upon Cherbourg Cyprus Bakery at Findlay…seriously the most DELICIOUS strawberry scones I’ve had.
The boozy milkshakes at Buzzed Bull Creamery are worth a shout-out as well!
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Where to stay
While I considered a cool hotel on this stay, I ultimately ended up deciding that an apartment in the up-and-coming Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the way to go, for walkability to a variety of the restaurants, breweries, and bars I wanted to try out.
I found this adorable Airbnb right around the corner from Findlay Market in OTR.
I found myself nice and cozy here, including cuddling up in the robe provided!
I’ve also stayed at the historic Hilton Cincinnati Netherland, a beautiful French Art Deco hotel and National Historic Landmark dating to 1931. This hotel really is stunning and opulent, and a unique option for where to stay in Cincinnati.
So I definitely didn’t skimp on this Cincinnati weekend trip…this guide has got your back! Hopefully these recos will be helpful for planning your own weekend adventure in the Queen City.
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