I wasn't sure I would survive the month of May, with all the end-of-school projects, events, performances and field trip chaperoning---it was our first year with all three kids in school. But it's finally over, and now we're all breathing easier for about ten weeks. One of the highlights of summer for our family in the last few years--which is evolving into a sort of habit or family tradition--is taking short, semi-spontaneous trips to places around Indiana or the Midwest we've never been before. (This is a relatively new thing for us, since our youngest has only been out of diapers for the past couple years; it's so much easier to travel when you don't have to take along baby food, portable crib, diapers etc.) Last summer we explored downtown Louisville (and the favorite hotel of F. Scott Fitzgerald) and hiked though Clifty Falls State Park, stopping in downtown Columbus (which has a great restaurant and ice cream parlor!) on the drive home. We have yet to visit the City Museum in St. Louis, although it's at the top of our list. But last week, to kick off our summer, we headed over to Cincinnati to explore its historic urban neighborhoods and revitalized downtown.
Cincinnati is quite a bit older than Indianapolis or Chicago, which is something I didn't know before our visit. In 1811, steamboats on the Ohio River spurred Cincinnati's rapid growth as a city, ten years before the first log cabin was built along the White River at the future site of Indianapolis. Over the next forty years, Cincinnati's population grew to ten times its former size; canals and railroads were constructed, and trade was booming. Proud residents began referring to their city as the "Queen of the West" or the "Queen City," the latter of which is still a favorite nickname for the city today. The great thing about this for visitors is that much of Cincinnati's historic architecture has been preserved; stunning public buildings, bridges, churches and charming rowhouses surround you as you explore downtown Cincinnati and its urban neighborhoods.
We stayed in a two-bedroom Airbnb apartment in the historic Mount Adams neighborhood, situated on a hill overlooking the Ohio River and the central business district. It was a manageable walk uphill from there to nearby Eden Park, a large green space with a small lake, walking paths, wooded areas, a theater, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Krohn Conservatory. We visited the art museum one afternoon; it offers free admission and a fun kids area for hands-on craft activities. My kids had fun making terracotta warriors out of disposable wooden spoons, yarn, foam sheets, colored paper and markers. We also had a good time walking through a few galleries; built in 1886, it's one of the oldest art museums in the country. Afterward we wandered through the tropical rainforest inside Krohn Conservatory and got to observe butterflies up close. The conservatory is larger than our own Garfield Park Conservatory and costs $4 for adults and $2 for children aged 5 and up.
Another afternoon we visited the Cincinnati Zoo (the second oldest zoo in the U.S., established in 1873), and it was great! It is much larger and cheaper than the Indy Zoo; it costs $70 for a family of five compared to $90. There also seemed to be much more shade at the Cincinnati Zoo, which we highly appreciated while walking around for three hours in the June sunshine! The original Reptile House, built in 1875, is still in operation. We didn't have time to see everything, but my kids' favorite things there were the gorillas (so amazing!) and the large and fascinating World of Insects exhibit. My 5-year-old son is obsessed with insects, always trying to catch bugs at the park and bring them home so he can study them up close, so this exhibit was like a dream come true for him. The zoo has collected live insects from all over the world and placed them in habitats where visitors can observe them closely--with only a pane of glass between you and a giant tarantula, for example. Kind of terrifying for those with arachnophobia, but super exciting for children. My kids loved the insects building so much that it alone may have been worth the price of admission for the entire zoo! Money-saving tip: buy your tickets online in advance; it's cheaper and you can use them any day, in case your plans change. We also went hiking that day in Mount Airy Forest, northwest of downtown Cincinnati. It's a nice 1,500 acre wooded park with hiking trails, a treehouse, and an arboretum with gardens and a small lake. Next time we'll make sure to print a trail map before we go, so we could venture farther; there were more trails than I expected and I didn't want to risk getting lost.
One of our favorite places on this trip--and where we spent a lot of time--was the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, just north of the central business district. We sampled the delights at Holtman's Donuts, which my kids can't stop talking about. The 8-year-old's favorite was the chocolate-frosted Lucky-Charm-marshmallow-topped yeast doughnut otherwise known as the Sugar Ring of Doom. (I appreciated the good variety of cake doughnuts at Holtman's, compared to what's typically offered at our Indy favorite, General American Donut Co.) Washington Park was a fantastic discovery; the kids played tag on the large green lawn with the stunning Cincinnati Music Hall in the background, and then took their shoes off and walked through the fountain before exploring the beautiful, shaded, fenced playground with synthetic grass and play equipment built to resemble historic Cincinnati structures. When we went back the following evening, the scene at the park at sunset was beautiful, peaceful, and full of life; it was exactly what a true city park should be: a microcosm of the city. There was a group of people doing yoga on the lawn; kids wearing swimsuits laughed and ran through the splash pad while parents and grandparents sat on the surrounding benches and chatted; young children built with sand, climbed up the play castle and slid down the tunnel at the playground; millennials walked their dogs to the dog park; people shared drinks and snacks at the Southwest Porch; and if we'd been there on a weekend there would be live music from the bandstand. All different ages, races and socioeconomic classes of people were together, side by side, with natural beauty and architectural beauty everywhere around us. It was beyond lovely.
We ate dinner in Over-the-Rhine, once at the kinda fancy Salazar and once at the casual Taste of Belgium, which is a popular local Cincinnati chain of gastropubs. The restaurants were hip and charming, but the food was not the highlight of our trip. Salazar was okay but not as good as we'd hoped, especially considering the price. Taste of Belgium had a great beer selection and fantastic pretzels with beer cheese, but service was painfully slow and they had run out of several ingredients in the other food we ordered, which was a bit strange and disappointing. They did give us extra take-home Belgian dessert waffles to make up for it, though. At 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab, I got a gorgeous lavender latte. Over-the-Rhine seems to have lots of good boutique shopping as well, although since we had our kids along, I only window-shopped. The neighborhood is also home to Findlay Market, which is a historic indoor/outdoor food market similar in some ways to the Indianapolis City Market and definitely worth a visit. From there we took the streetcar, called the Cincinnati Bell Connector, down to the riverfront. The streetcar is relatively new, completed in September 2016, and runs on a 3.6 mile loop around downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Tickets cost $1 for adults, and children under certain height limits ride free or half-price. It was a fun experience for the kids!
Smale Riverfront Park was another amazing park we thoroughly enjoyed; I wish we could have spent more time there. Completed about 6 years ago, it is located along the Ohio River about one block away from the Great American Ball Park where the Cincinnati Reds play. My kids loved the life-size chess and checkers, the many water play areas, the adventure playground (with rock climbing canyon, log climbers, twin racing slides, and a rope bridge), the labyrinth, the giant foot piano, and the flying pig--and we saw the swings from a distance but didn't make it all the way over there, or to the historic carousel at the other end of the park. At the center of this park stands the Roebling Suspension Bridge, a beautiful architectural masterpiece dating from 1865 (the Brooklyn Bridge was actually modeled after this one when it was constructed in 1883). We had a wonderful time exploring a new-to-us Midwestern city and would highly recommend it! I was super impressed by how Cincinnati has made city parks a priority over the past decade, investing in its downtown area and building spaces that are fantastic for kids, but because they're tasteful and well-designed, they're not only for kids. Indianapolis has quite a bit of room for improvement in this category. Let's all visit the Cincinnati parks to catch the vision for what's possible here, and then we can help our own beloved city move forward. Deal? You can even make it a fun, inexpensive day trip from Indy; visit the riverfront and Washington Park, walk around Over-the-Rhine, and get some donuts. Doesn't that sound like a perfect summer day?