Located on the Ohio River, 19th century Cincinnati rivaled larger coastal cities in size and wealth earning it the nickname “Queen of the West.” Here’s what you should do, see, and eat if you have 48 hours in the Queen City…
My experience with Cincinnati has largely been limited to flying in and out of the airport on my way to Kentucky for work. An article about the Queen City’s amazing murals placed it on my Travel Bucket List a while back, and the birth of Fiona, the new hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo, made Cincinnati our chosen destination when a personal travel window of opportunity opened for the end of September.
Restoration and rebirth seem omnipresent across the city, from the $212 million project underway at the Cincinnati Union Terminal to the up and coming Over the Rhine neighborhood. The city was very walkable, and I always felt quite safe, even after dark.
I paid full price for any expenses associated with these experiences in Cincinnati and always share my honest opinions.
Breakfast at Maplewood Kitchen and Bar
7:30 am to 8:30 am
Start your first, action-packed day by fueling up with a big breakfast at Maplewood Kitchen and Bar. The restaurant defines itself as “West Coast-style cuisine” because it offers healthier options with a focus on locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but I call it “just like we eat at home in Kansas City.”
I would also call it quite delicious!
Once you place your order at the counter, your food is prepared fresh and delivered to you. Although the food is served relatively quickly, the Maplewood Kitchen and Bar doesn’t feel like a typical fast-casual restaurant, probably because the food is served on real plates and the staff is incredibly friendly and attentive.
Charlotte is a pancake kid, so she selected the blueberry granola pancakes. Louise selected the Greek yogurt with chia seeds, fresh berries (strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries), and a touch of locally-sourced honey. And I had the “eggs your way” because I need my eggs every morning for breakfast, even when I’m on the road.
The portion sizes are more than generous, and we couldn’t take our leftovers with us. We could have easily selected two entrees to share between the three of us in order to not waste anything.
Mural Walking Tour
8:30 am to 9:30 am
During a city exchange with Philadelphia back in 2007, former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory was both impressed and inspired by their creation of 3,000 murals in 30 years. When he returned to Cincinnati, Mayor Mallory challenged the Queen City to create a mural in each of Cincy’s 52 neighborhoods. As of 2017, non-profit ArtWorks has spearheaded the creation of more than 130 murals in 44 Cincinnati neighborhoods.
Pro Tip: Stay at a hotel near the Fountain Square so that you are within walking distance of Maplewood Kitchen & Bar, the murals on my self-guided walking tour, and other activities below. We stayed at the Westin.
9:30 am to 5:00 pm (includes travel time to the zoo by car)
Head over the nation’s second oldest zoo in the Camp Washington neighborhood to meet Fiona the baby hippo, Kendi the baby black rhino, and more than 1,800 other creatures who call the Cincinnati Zoo home.
Fun Fact: The Cincinnati Zoo has held the title of “Greenest Zoo in America” since 2010.
From its early days, the Cincinnati Zoo has had an active breeding program, earning it the nickname “the world’s sexiest zoo” by Newsweek magazine. Knowing that black rhinos are critically endangered, it was exciting to see baby Kendi safe from poachers.
Dinner at Senate
5:00 pm to 7:30 pm (includes travel time from the zoo by car)
While fresh oysters, poutine, and pork belly grilled cheese are also on the menu, we were there for the gourmet hot dogs. The Senate’s hot dogs were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and Guy Fieri called the “gangster” hot dogs “winner weiners.”
Charlotte had the Korean, featured on Guy’s show. It’s an all-beef hot dog topped with kimchi, braised short rib, and pickled cucumber. Topped with goat cheese, carmelized onions, bacon, arugula, balsamic, and tons of drama, Louise enjoyed the Lindsay Lohan. And I called my Croque Madame an American in Paris because it was a hot dog in a brioche bun (the American piece) topped with bechamel, ham, and a poached egg (the Paris part).
When we ordered, our amazing waitress told us that everything was housemade, from the kimchi on the Korean dog to the bechamel sauce on the Croque Madame. Oh, and so are the brioche buns for their out of this world hot dogs!
Riverfront Park and Suspension Bridge
7:30 pm to 10:00 pm
Now that you’ve refueled and found your second wind, head down to the Ohio River to explore some more!
Fun Fact: Cincinnati is nicknamed the Queen City as a nod back to being called the Queen of the West by residents back in the early 1800s.
Nestled between Paul Brown Stadium, where the Cincinnati Bengals play football, and the Great American Ball Park, where the Cincinnati Reds play baseball, is Smale Riverfront Park. Running parallel to the Ohio River, the 32 acres of immaculately-maintained green space includes:
- a carousel,
- pergola-covered, oversized swings that face the water,
- a 1.75 acre tree grove and rose garden,
- unique play areas with log climbers, a rope bridge, a flying pig, and a giant foot piano,
- multiple fountains and other water features, and more
The park is bisected by the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge that spans the Ohio River and connects Ohio to Kentucky. At a round trip of less than a half mile, it’s a beautiful, easy walk across the bridge into Kentucky. I recommend crossing the bridge toward the end of the day, allowing enough time to view the Roebling Murals along the wall on the Kentucky side of the river before crossing back over the Ohio River as the sun starts to set.
Fun Fact: When the Roebling Suspension Bridge first opened back in 1866, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
So what’s with all the flying pigs in Cincinnati? Back in the 1800s, Cincinnati’s nickname was “Porkopolis” because it was the nation’s chief pork processing center. It was apparently not uncommon to see pigs running through the downtown streets, and the city has embraced its porcine history by calling its marathon the Flying Pig.
American Sign Museum
9:30 am to 11:00 am (includes travel time to the museum by car)
The American Sign Museum is America’s largest sign museum featuring signs from 1900 through the 1960s. Whether it’s from your childhood or from Mad Men, you’re sure to recognize many of the iconic signs at the museum dedicated to preserving and displaying these historic signs.
Guided tours (included in the price of admission) are at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm daily. We did a self-guided tour and had a fantastic experience, but if a guided tour is important to you, you’ll want to adjust your itinerary for Day Two accordingly.
Pro Tip: Read these 13 fun facts about the American Sign Museum before your visit!
Lunch at Skyline Chili
11:00 am to 12:30 pm (includes travel time from the museum by car)
Cincinnati Chili was born in the 1920s when Macedonian and Greek immigrants cooked it up to expand their customer base by moving beyond the most traditional dishes from their homelands. Different from the more common chili con carne dish, Cincy chili features Mediterranean ingredients like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cumin, and unsweetened dark chocolate.
Like other first-timers, I didn’t know this piece of Cincy history, and when I took my first bite of chili at Skyline, so I was expecting a much different flavor. As one of my Cincinnati native friends said, “It’s an acquired taste.” She’s right, and while I haven’t acquired a taste for it quite yet, giving it a try is as important as eating barbecue in Kansas City.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
12:30 pm to 5:30 pm
Located on the bank of the Ohio River, where thousands of slaves escaped once they crossed the river, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center portrays nearly 400 years of slavery, from the first Africans brought to the “new world” in 1619 to those still enslaved around the world today. The museum is a well-done, sobering history lesson with exhibits that range in age appropriateness from elementary students to adults.
We purchased additional tickets to the Rosa Parks Exhibit, a virtual-reality experience that allows you to be the brave, civil rights activist on the bus that fateful day.
We skipped “The Struggle Continues” and the “Invisible: Slavery Today” exhibits that focus on modern day slavery and genocide because they are recommended for visitors 13 and older and my daughter, Louise, was with me.
Pro Tip: The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Over the Rhine Shops
5:00 pm to 7:00 pm (includes time to travel from museum to Over the Rhine by foot)
We wanted to balance the heavy experience of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center with something a little lighter, so it was back to Over the Rhine for a little shopping and dinner. Founded in the mid-1800s by the mass of refugees from Prussia, Bavaria, and Saxony that arrived in the area, the Over the Rhine neighborhood started facing an economic decline during World War I that only went downhill from there. Fast forward to 2004 when Cincinnati’s nonprofit 3CDC started investing more than $200 million into renovating dilapidated buildings, developing vacant lots, and attracting businesses.
We had a blast browsing the unique boutiques, and wanted to share our favorites:
MiCA 12/v. Located at the corner of 12th & Vine, MiCA is a family owned, independent gallery and gift boutique.
Elm & Iron. A block and a half down the street from MiCa, Elm & Iron offers unique home furnishings, accessories, and decor.
Kismet OTR. Across the street from Elm & Iron, Kismet OTR has unique women’s clothing and accessories.
Dinner at Bakersfield
7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Pro Tip: If it’s a busy night, put your name on the list for a table at Bakersfield first and then go explore the shops while you wait.
After another fantastic day of sight-seeing, stop at Bakersfield for street tacos and drinks, preferably one with tequila or whiskey. By the time we were seated, we were starving, so we ordered the chips and guac as an appetizer. That was probably the best guac I’ve ever had in my life, and I eat a lot of guac! Bakersfield makes all of their tortillas in house, and we had heard that their tacos were amazing, so we ordered one of everything so we could try them all as a traveling trio.
Our favorites were:
- Fish – crispy mahi, tabasco lime sauce, citrus slaw, and cilantro
- Bistec – marinated grilled short rib, chipotle slaw, and cilantro
- Huitlacoche – corn truffles, roasted poblano, corn, onion, cotija cheese, and cilantro
When ordering your dinner at Bakersfield, be sure to save room for dessert at the next stop!
Fun Fact: Bakersfield is owned by the same group of restauranteurs as the Maplewood Kitchen and Bar.
Grab some Graeter’s
9:00 pm to 10:00 pm (includes travel time from OTR by foot)
As you walk back to your hotel near Fountain Square, be sure to grab some ice cream from Graeter’s, a Cincinnati favorite for over 145 years. Their signature flavor (and #1 best-seller) is black raspberry chocolate chip (photo above) which is quite amazing, but I opted for the Bourbon pecan chocolate chip. I mean, hey, I’m also in bourbon country, right?
Fun Fact: Graeter’s developed a special ice cream flavor this summer to help raise money for Fiona the baby hippo. Chunky Chunky Hippo is toffee ice cream mixed with milk chocolate caramel truffles and peanuts.
Fountain Square at Night
If the weather cooperates, take your Graeter’s ice cream outside to the Fountain Square and enjoy whatever festivities are going on. During our 48 hours in Cincinnati, we saw a parade of food trucks coming and going at each major mealtime and watched salsa dancing in the square. It’s a cosmopolitan fountain and square experience that reminds me of Europe.
Fun Fact: The Tyler Davidson Fountain in Fountain Square can be seen in the opening credits of WKRP in Cincinnati, a television series from the late 1970s.
What about you? Have you spent time in the Queen City? Would you change anything on this list if you had 48 hours to spend in Cincinnati? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!