Founded along the banks of the Ohio River directly across from Kentucky in 1788, Cincinnati is a city steeped in American history. While its archives are decidedly worth exploring—from its role in German beer brewing to its key position in the Underground Railroad—this hilly, Midwestern metropolis keeps one eye on the past with another fixated on its future.
October 2017 saw the Queen City present BLINK, a free-to-the-public light art festival that spanned the greater downtown area to include 60 large-scale installations and projections. Having successfully hosted Lumenocity for four years, an event that paired projection mapping with music from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, they decided to go big and create a display inspired by the likes of Vivid Sydney or London Lumiere. And grand it was; over one million people attended, helping lock in the goal of it becoming a regional, if not a national, attraction.
We recommend marking your calendar for the next rendition of BLINK, but while in town for the inaugural fête we found myriad reasons to visit Cincinnati any time of year. Here, youl’ll find a few highlights from an inspiring weekend spent walking around Ohio’s celebrated port.
21c Museum Hotel
If you’ve ever hoped to slumber inside a museum, 21c is your chance. This boutique hotel is the brainchild of contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, who commission site-specific installations and curate rotating exhibitions for their growing chain of culturally minded accommodations. The downtown Cincinnati location is tastefully covered in art, from the lobby to the elevators to the rooms. Even the shower has something to consider; custom subway tiles by storied ceramics producer Rookwood Pottery are a nod to the human form with moulds of ears, noses, breasts and more subtly protruding from the walls.
If you’ve never heard of goetta, you can get hip to it at Findlay Market. The German-American breakfast staple is a slow-cooked patty made from ground pork and beef, combined with onion, steel-cut pinhead oats and spices. Eckerlin Meats has been serving up the classic Cincinnati dish since Findlay Market opened in 1855. But if you’re after a sweeter concoction be sure to try the uniquely fluffy waffles at Taste of Belgium, one of the market’s newer stalls but equally authentic: they’re created by native Belgian Jean-Francois Flechet. These two locales topped our list, but there are over 100 vendors to peruse. If that sounds daunting, take a food tour with Barb Cooper, a Findlay Market veteran that ran a produce stand for several years before sharing her love for the entire location with that of hungry tourists.
Contemporary Arts Center
Just around the corner from 21c is Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, a free museum and the first in the US to be designed by a woman (none other than the legendary Zaha Hadid). The multistory institution should be of note to any enthusiast—it’s been home to several major surveys over the years, from Daniel Arsham to Do Ho Suh to its current focus, Swoon. The CAC is not to miss, but those seeking even more art can also hit the Cincinnati Art Museum (where Iris Van Herpen is on display through 7 January) or the tiny yet impressively packed Lucky Cat Museum further afield in Eden Park.
Taft’s Ale House
If beer is your beverage of choice, Cincinnati is your city. By the mid-1800s, Over-the-Rhine (OTR)—an area home to German immigrants—counted 36 breweries producing over 30 million gallons of beer. Today, it’s attempting to catch up once again with places like Taft’s Ale House, a church-turned-brewery named after one of Ohio’s eight presidents, William Howard Taft. What’s on tap is always TBD, but we enjoyed a flight that spanned an American IPA (the Gavel Banger, in homage to Taft’s time as Supreme Court Justice) to a toasted coconut-infused brown ale. To really get a grasp on OTR’s place in brewing history, take a tour of the underground beer tunnels, which were painstakingly built to keep kegs cold and ready to roll back out onto the street.
American Sign Museum
A larger version of Las Vegas’ Neon Museum, the American Sign Museum is a brilliant way to get to know the nation’s businesses both old and new. Located in the up-and-coming Camp Washington neighborhood, where many of the city’s creatives have taken artistic residence, the museum feels right at home as an industrial space dedicated to preserving America’s typographical and technological efforts. Highlights include examples of glue-chipped gold-leaf glass, the plethora of plastic forms and the functioning neon repair shop in the back.
One of Cincinnati’s fastest growing breweries is Rhinegeist, situated in renowned brewer Christian Moerlein’s bottling plant from 1895. Spend some time sampling the beers here while playing a round of corn-hole before dinner. Then move next door (reservations recommended) to its newly opened restaurant, Sartre. The menu is nuanced farm-to-table with French leanings, serving dishes like country pate, black lentil falafel with crudité, whole roasted chicken and other seasonal fare. The drinks menu of course features their signature beers, but also includes expertly mixed cocktails and an extensive wine list.
Cincinnati Music Hall
Another testament to Cincinnati’s eye on the future lies in preservation. The historic Music Hall lining the edge of OTR’s Washington Park was built in 1878, and just underwent $143M facelift to restore it to its original beauty while taking its acoustics to today’s standards. Both the ambiance and sound are simply stunning, as we found out on a night listening to the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra play the music of legendary composer John Williams.
Sundry and Vice
There’s perhaps no better way to spend a Sunday in OTR than cozied up at Sundry and Vice with one of their liquor-fueled ice cream floats. The apothecary-inspired cocktail bar is laid-back in the way all things in Ohio are, but its trio of owners is certainly serious about booze. The menu, originally co-conceived with LA barman Brandyn Tepper, takes it back to the basics with pre-Prohibition classics and contemporary twists. After a few tipples, check out the bathroom for more inspiration; the walls are lined in a decoupage treatment of antiquarian prescriptions, including those for cocaine, opium and weed.
BLINK image courtesy of BLINK, CAC building courtesy CAC, all others by Karen Day