Where to Eat, Play, and Stay in Cincinnati: A Local’s Guide to the Queen City
You might think of Ohio as a flyover state (and yes, there are many corn fields), but its major metropolises have big-city energy and charm well worth a venture to the Midwest—especially Cincinnati, which has experienced an incredible revival over the past few years and is now teeming with cool places to eat and hang out. JS editorial assistant Jackie Homan, a native Cincinnatian, dishes on the best the city has to offer.
Ask any Cincinnatian about the best food in the area, and they’ll point you straight to Skyline, the city’s famous restaurant franchise—but there’s a lot more to this hip city than just the nation’s best chili (don’t fight us on this).
For breakfast, take a seat at Taste of Belgium, known for their uniquely tiny-but-dense waffles. You may scoff at their size, but just one or two of them—especially those topped with s’mores or banana-nutella—will fill you right up. (Just hope you have room left for their salty frites or goetta, a classic Cincinnati meat dish.) Craving something healthier? Sleepy Bee Café serves breakfast sandwiches, omelets, tofu scrambles, and more using locally-sourced ingredients.
When lunch time rolls around, the options are limitless. For Mexican food, we’re calling it a three-way tie between Mazunte (the salsa bar is a must), Bakersfield (prepare for tasty but strong margaritas), and Nada (the fried avocado tacos are next-level). Visit Senate OTR for gourmet hot dogs (yes, you read that right); the best is the “Lindsay Lohan,” topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, and balsamic. Feel like a kid-at-heart grilled cheese with a twist? Make your way to Tom+Chee for inventive dishes like the Grilled Mac+Chee and the famous Original Grilled Cheese Donut. The restaurant, which you might recognize from its appearance on Shark Tank, has since franchised to other cities, but Cincinnati’s proud to be its home base.
For dinner, stop by Incline Public House for a variety of classic American bites and one of the city’s best views. Craving Italian? Sotto is one of the most elegant restaurants downtown, right across from Fountain Square. Make a reservation to avoid a long wait, and whatever you do, don’t skip the ricotta doughnuts for dessert. If you don’t mind a drive away from the downtown scene, check out CWC in the suburban town of Wyoming. Only a year-and-a-half old, the weekend-only spot is the restaurant realization of culinary multimedia platform Cooking with Caitlin and is incredibly underrated.
Cincinnati is home to a vibrant microbrewery scene. Housed in the former bottling plant of pre-Prohibition Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., the 25,000-square-foot facility at Rhinegeist in Over-the-Rhine includes a bustling taproom and rooftop, plus a variety of tasting and tour options. MadTree Brewing Company, which re-opened after an $18 million expansion in Oakley last year, has over 25 beers on tap and a café serving yummy wood-fired pizzas. Fretboard Brewing Company, further from downtown in the Blue Ash neighborhood, is the newest in the game and worth the trek for its live music, fun taproom games, and Smoked Out Cincy barbecue.
In the booming OTR district, drinks are also served with a side of fun. The Rook features a free library of over 800(!) board games that patrons can check out and play while they sip craft beers and munch on pretzel bites. Not the board game type? Battle your friends at over 50 vintage arcade games in 16-Bit Bar + Arcade, where whimsical cocktails pair perfectly with classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
For cocktails with a hipster vibe, you’ll want to hit apothecary-themed Sundry and Vice, where the scene is moody and the drinks are beautiful.
Into speakeasies? Just pull down the right VHS from the top shelf of The Video Archive to open the doors to a Quentin Tarantino-inspired bar with creative décor and drinks.
And if the weather’s nice, why not go on a drinking tour? Cincinnati Pedal Wagon offers a fun alternative to typical bar-hopping.
For a food and drink experience that’s more of an activity, it’s time to hit Findlay Market, a hotspot for locals and tourists where you can pick up bites and spend hours shopping. You’ll find over 100 merchants selling everything from meats to candles, and half the fun is simply navigating through the space and people-watching.
Cincinnati is a mecca for art-inclined folks, going way beyond just the Cincinnati Art Museum (which is home to works by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and more). The beautiful Contemporary Arts Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, features a variety of creative rotating exhibitions in its sculptural building.
For an even funkier collection, check out the off-the-beaten-path American Sign Museum, where you’ll find hundreds of Art Deco neon roadsides advertising everything from churches to McDonald’s, some the size of entire rooms. Plan your trip around 2 p.m., when you’ll be able to join their free walking tour.
Want to spend time outdoors? Washington Park has a view of the ornate Music Hall, and there’s always something to do. If you come between April and December, you might be able to catch the City Flea, a monthly curated urban flea market where you can shop for handcrafted goods and more.
From there, walk 25 minutes down to the new Smale Riverfront Park for amazing river views, and then continue your workout as you traverse the nearby pedestrian-only Purple People Bridge, which will cross you into Northern Kentucky, and back.
There’s no shortage of cute boutiques the city. The Native One is your best bet for on-trend women’s basics and accessories, while fashion mainstay Sloane offers some edgier pieces. As for non-fashion shopping stops, plant and design lovers flock to Fern for gorgeous house plants and planters, Coffee Emporium has high-quality coffee blends and beans (plus an amazing café), and music fans will want to check out Shake It Records for its vast collection of indie vinyls.
When it’s time to sleep, there’s no stay like the 21c Museum Hotel. Housed in a National Register of Historic Places-listed building, the art-centric hotel houses a 8,000-square-foot contemporary gallery that’s free and open to the public around the clock. Guest rooms are chic, and the bar and restaurant, Metropole, does not disappoint. As for the location, it doesn’t get much better; you’re a stone’s throw from all of downtown Cincinnati’s most popular neighborhoods.
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