CINCINNATI — A recent weekend trip up Interstate 75 to the Queen City brought to mind a truism: The best things are often hiding in plain sight. Cincinnati is the large city that's most accessible to Lexington, but I wonder how often we take advantage of all it has to offer.
I generally visit once a year and usually go to the same spots: Fountain Square; boho Mount Adams, with its trendy shops and cafés; the ballparks; and the Eden Park cultural area.
I usually take in a performance at the Aronoff Center for the Arts and stay at the Hilton Netherland Plaza, always having a meal at its signature restaurant, Orchids.
This time I decided to shake things up a bit and try something new.
I'm glad I did, as it made me more convinced than ever that Cincinnati is a gem, one that I need to get to more often.
From blighted to vibrant
My first stop: the energetic, so-hip-it-hurts Over-the-Rhine area, just north of downtown. If ever anyone wanted proof that thoughtful, creative development by builders with a conscience and community spirit could bring a neighborhood back from the dead, they have only to come here.
In less than a decade, Over-the-Rhine has gone from being one of America's most blighted and crime-infested neighborhoods to one of its most vibrant. The Urban Land Institute referred to it as "the best development in the country today."
Like so many troubled American neighborhoods, it had history going for it. In the 19th century, the area was heavily populated by German immigrants (hence the name) who made it the heart of the city's brewing industry. In 1853, Christian Moerlein opened his brewery, leading the way for others to follow.
At one time, Over-the-Rhine had some 36 breweries. (Cincinnati itself had 150, producing enough beer for every resident to drink 50 gallons a year, according to the book Cincinnati Breweries.)
Over-the-Rhine also had block after block of ornate buildings (nearly 1,000 remain), mostly Italianate, but also including other late 19th-century styles: Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Gothic and Art Deco.
Often referred to as the country's most intact urban district, Over-the-Rhine has been compared favorably to New Orleans' French Quarter and New York's Greenwich Village.
Today, many of these buildings house bookstores, galleries, boutiques such as MiCa 12/v and bistros including 1215 Wine and Coffee Bar. Others are being converted into lofts and incubators for small businesses. Pocket parks offer welcome green space in the midst of what otherwise might be a concrete jungle.
Speaking of green space, Lexingtonians, many of whom have come to love their own field in the middle of downtown, can see what they will be missing should CentrePointe come to fruition by visiting Over-the-Rhine's Washington Park.
A large open space with Cincinnati Music Hall as a backdrop, it bustles with picnickers, dog walkers, young lovers, children happily splashing in the fountain, and a general joie de vivre day and night.
Another Over-the-Rhine attraction that should not be missed is Findlay Market. Ohio's oldest continuously operating farmers market, Findlay resembles Boston's Faneuil Hall.
The indoor market, open Tuesday through Sunday year-round, offers everything from meat and fish to cheese and flowers. Adjacent to the permanent market is an outdoor farmers market on weekends from April to November.
Findlay Market's sights, smells and sounds — its leaders encourage street performers — attract a diverse crowd from across the city.
From Over-the-Rhine to down by the river isn't a long distance in miles, but it's quite a change in ambience. When I started going to Cincinnati some years back, the Bengals and the Reds played in Riverfront Stadium. Today, the Reds play home games in Great American Ball Park, and the Bengals' home turf is Paul Brown Stadium; both opened in the early 2000s.
The two are connected by a mixed-use project known as The Banks. The area is a montage of riverside condos and entertainment venues such as Holy Grail Sports Bar, Jefferson Social and Mahogany. Adjacent to The Banks is Smale Riverfront Park, a 50-acre green space with water features, walking trails and public art.
On game days, the area is transformed into a giant tailgate party. There are few better places to cheer on the teams than Moerlein Lager House. Opened in 2012 on the site of the original Riverfront Stadium, it pays tribute to Cincinnati's brewing history. Large windows provide a panoramic view of the Ohio River and Newport and Covington on the Kentucky side of the river.
21c the Second
Don't be surprised if a 5-foot tall, canary yellow penguin greets you in the lobby or rides up in the elevator with you. Just relax and know that you are in the second of the 21c Museum Hotels, following the first in Louisville. Next door to the Contemporary Arts Center and across the street from the Aronoff Center, it is a welcoming oasis in the middle of downtown.
Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson's Cincinnati venture is a 156-room boutique hotel. Having a previous existence as the Metropole Hotel, it lacks the warehouse feel of Louisville's 21c but has more of a historic pedigree than the chain's third hotel, the purpose-built property in Bentonville, Ark. (The chain expects to open its fourth and fifth properties, in Lexington and Durham, N.C., in 2015.)
Rooms are spacious and comfortable; seldom have I encountered a friendlier, more welcoming staff, and the wraparound cocktail terrace — unlike the one at the Louisville property — is open to the public. It has quickly become a Cincinnati hot spot, so if you want a seat to go along with your cocktail, be there when it opens at 5 p.m.
Of course, as with all 21c hotels, art is a focus, displayed here in 8,000 square feet of space on the first and second floors. Exhibits rotate; the current one features an eclectic mix to say the least. Among the standouts are Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's image of Marlene Dietrich created through a composition of photographs of diamonds, and British/Nigerian photographer Yinka Shonibare's fascinating and disturbing series interpreting Oscar Wilde's classic story The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I found the most unusual exhibit to be Schizo, in which Swiss artist Christoph Draeger overlays both versions of the film Psycho — Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 original and Louisville native Gus Van Sant's faithful homage from 1998 — to create a ghostly effect.
Great neighborhoods, great food, great art — the next time you are hankering for a quick trip that will yield bountiful rewards, give a thought to Cincinnati.
Where to stay: 21c Museum Hotel, 609 Walnut St. 21cmuseumhotels.com.
Where to eat:
■ Boca, 114 E. Sixth St. A visually stunning restaurant in what was once the legendary La Maisonette. Gone are the red velvet banquettes and tuxedoed waiters, although a Phantom of the Opera-style chandelier still dominates the dining room. You may eat in a quiet booth or at the white linen communal table. Bocacincinnati.com.
■ Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, 700 Walnut St. Always reliable for its choice cuts of beef with all the trimmings, extensive wine list, excellent service and the chance to spot a sports celeb or two at a nearby table (on the night I was there, former University of Kentucky basketball player Kenny Walker was dining with friends.) Jeffruby.com/cincinnati.
■ Main Bite, 522 Main St., Covington. You'll have to journey across the river to Covington to enjoy this gem of a café, which looks as if it could have been transported from New York's West Village. The charm of its tree-shaded front patio is equaled by tasty items such as sun-dried tomato artichoke dip and blackened tilapia tacos. An interesting twist on dessert is the cupcake and white wine pairing, and the lemon basil martini is a must. Mainstrasse.org/main-bite.
Learn more: CincinnatiUSA.com