Because so many of Cincinnati’s best things to do are centered close to downtown, deciding what to do is not an issue. Historical treasures, art, architecture, ballet, botanical delights, exotic animals, sports and trains: You can see and do it all. Planning a Cincinnati vacation is more about knowing when to go to each place to maximize your experience. For example, the Taft Museum of Art is free on Sundays. Some restaurants have a brunch that rocks. Other attractions are closed on Monday. During your visit, take time for Covington and Newport, two of Kentucky’s Ohio River towns, and if Kings Island is open, that’s a must—but it’s better on a weekday, when lines for rides may not be as long.
This zoo has more than just 500 animals and 3,000 plant species. Although the bounty of both plants and animals put the Cincinnati Zoo in the top tier of American zoos, another reason to go is the buildings. The Elephant House, Reptile House and the Passenger Pigeon Memorial elevated the zoo to National Historic Landmark status in 1987. It is also the second-oldest zoo in the country, having opened in 1875. The zoo has “Sarah,” the world’s fastest land mammal. This crowd-pleasing cheetah earned her status by running a 100-meter sprint in 6.13 seconds. At the zoo’s new Cheetah Encounter, part of Phase I of the Africa Savannah expansion (there are three more to go), you can watch Sarah and her three cheetah buddies run. Another of the zoo’s exhibits, Giraffe Ridge, puts visitors at eye level with those guys with incredibly long necks. Check out the schedule of “meet the Zoo Keeper” and animal encounters held throughout the day.
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The Taft Museum of Art combines beauty with the influence of old Cincinnati’s gentry. This jewel of a museum housed in an 1820 Federal-style mansion is considered one of the best small art museums in the U.S. The mansion’s residents, starting with Cincinnatian Martin Baum and ending with Anna Sinton Taft and her husband Charles (President William H. Taft’s half-brother), were prominent folk with an eye for art and the cash to buy it. Works by European old masters, such as Rembrandt, and 19th-century American artists, such as John Singer Sargent, are among the treasures. The decorative arts collection, including Limoges porcelain, is just as impressive. Even those not into art will enjoy the museum’s home-like ambiance. The tastes of Charles and Anna Taft, who lived here until their deaths—his in 1929, hers in 1931—are present in the house they loved and in the 690 pieces they gave to Cincinnati. Also of note are the pre-Civil War landscape murals in the foyer by African American painter Robert S. Duncanson. A recent, major museum expansion created space for changing exhibitions that include contemporary art.
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The glass and aluminum peak of Krohn Conservatory’s Palm House rises above the treeline of Eden Park. This art deco gem dazzles as much it did when it first opened in 1933. Tiffany stained-glass windows at the entrance are the first marvel. The jungle inside is another. Sweet and musky scents mix with mist and the cascading rush of a 20-foot waterfall. Other rooms are a botanical feast. In all, 3,500 plant species create the effect of traveling through the world’s landscapes without ever leaving Cincinnati. Each December, Ohio native Paul Busse’s whimsical modern train exhibit, featuring models of Cincinnati’s historic buildings made of bark and dried plants, has become a holiday tradition. Admission to the conservatory is free, but donations are welcome. Pop into the gift shop for a garden-related trinket. Parking is also free. Be diligent. Someone will pull out and leave you a spot. Honestly.
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Attend a Cincinnati Reds—baseball’s first professional franchise—game to experience a Cincinnati summer tradition on the banks of the Ohio River. Although Cincinnatians’ love of baseball hasn’t changed much over the years, the ballpark has. Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, two Reds greats, didn’t play here—their park was Riverfront Stadium, a less-visually-interesting venue in the same location that was torn down in 2002. The Great American Ball Park was designed so that the Ohio River is a constant visual fixture. You can see it when you sit in the stands. This means that from the Newport Levee in Kentucky, you can watch and hear the crowd.
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The fact that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is downtown, next to the Ohio River, is fitting and important. Perhaps Alabama and Mississippi come to mind first when you think Civil Rights Movement. But envision Cincinnati in abolitionist Ohio in the 1800s, with slave-holding state Kentucky on the other side of the river. Crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky was one of the biggest steps toward freedom. The museum does history proud. Interactive maps showing the route of the Underground Railroad, artifacts from slave days and displays about the United States’ involvement with the slave trade are a moving history lesson. Most sobering is the actual slave holding pen that was used by a trader in Kentucky. The museum also educates visitors about current slave-trade situations around the world.
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In the spirit of the Ohio River’s historic role in transportation, BB Riverboats continues the tradition of majestic riverboat travel. Victorian-style riverboats “The Belle of Cincinnati” and the “River Queen” resemble the white-with-red-trim beauties of the post-Civil War era. Of course, these two were built within the past 20 years, but the look and experience evokes what Cincinnati travel would have been like in the late-1800s. Boat excursions vary from the one-hour sightseeing trip to the two-hour dining cruise. It’s possible to take the longer cruise without paying for the meal. Even if you don’t eat, you can dance. There are dance floors on each deck of the “Cincinnati Belle” and Sunday’s brunch and dinner excursions include a Dixieland band. All trips include highlights of Cincinnati’s landmarks and history. If you just want a snack, there’s a concession stand on board.
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Once a bustling hub of Cincinnati travel, Union Terminal still bustles—just not with trains. In a flash of genius, and through the generosity of Cincinnati taxpayers, the building was saved from decay. Here you’ll find the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, Duke Energy Children’s Museum, an Omnimax Theater and visiting exhibitions. The building was dedicated in 1933 and has stunning art deco details and design elements you won’t see elsewhere. The American Institute of Architects recently named Union Terminal one of the 50 most significant buildings in America. Outside, it looks like a console radio. Inside, mosaic murals of laborers toiling at their crafts are a visual equivalent of Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing.” There are two must-dos before you leave. Peek into the Rookwood Ice Cream Parlor that’s tiled with Cincinnati’s renowned Rookwood pottery tiles. Then visit “Tower A,” where the Cincinnati Railroad Club is keeper of Cincinnati’s train history. They’ve created a small train museum and have the best views of the rail yard in back of the terminal.
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The Cincinnati Music Hall is the oldest and most elegant of Cincinnati’s entertainment venues. Built in 1878, this “modified modernized Gothic” structure is glittery and marvelous with its gold décor and crystal chandeliers. Springer Auditorium is home to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival Chorus. The Aronoff Center, a modern building of glass and brick designed by Cesar Pelli, is another performing arts venue that’s grouped with the Cincinnati Music Hall under the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) umbrella (although they’re not neighbors). Touring performances and other Cincinnati performance arts organizations are auditorium hallmarks. The ballet appears at the Aronoff Center. The Music Hall is in Over-the-Rhine and the Arnoff Center is near Fountain Square. The CAA website (www.cincinnatiarts.org) lists the performance schedule for each. Music Hall tours are available.
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Founded in 1881, this art museum in Eden Park offers art and history, from antiquities to the present day, in manageable amounts. Called “The Art Palace of the West” when it opened, the museum has undergone several restorations over the years; the last was in 1993. Don’t miss the greatest collection of Nabataean art outside of Jordan. In the decorative arts section, pieces of Rookwood pottery, prominent in the art deco scene, are a Cincinnati trademark. Also significant is the entire Cincinnati Wing devoted to works by both historic and contemporary artists born or trained in Cincinnati. The wing is a significant showcase of Cincinnati’s current art scene. The museum also hosts special exhibits throughout the year. Both museum admission and special exhibits are free. Parking is $4. That’s all you’ll pay, even if you’re bringing a carload of family and friends.
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Author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Walnut Hills, a mostly historic residential area, offers a slice of American history from the angle of an important Cincinnati family. Here is where Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” lived from 1832 to the early-1850s. The house is a testament to progressive thinking about women’s rights and abolition, and the struggles to achieve them. Stowe wrote notes about her ideas about slavery here and later turned them into “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a novel about the pain of slavery and the quest for freedom on the Underground Railroad. The novel, published after the fugitive slave laws were enacted, was instrumental in influencing public impressions that impacted the Civil War. Hours are limited; it’s open only on Wednesdays from 10AM-Noon and Saturdays from 10AM-2PM, closed in January. Appointments can be made for other times.
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