Cincinnati’s historic neighborhoods are well worth visiting

Restaurants such as Otto's (left) and Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar have made Mainstrasse in Covington a dining mecca.
Restaurants such as Otto's (left) and Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar have made Mainstrasse in Covington a dining mecca. Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism

When it comes to travel, a common misconception is that it takes a blockbuster trip to deliver a rewarding experience. True, Patagonia, Bora Bora and the Canadian Rockies are spectacular, but a trip to any of those requires a lot of effort, not to mention a lot of money.

Sometimes, we’re just in the mood for a nice getaway — one that doesn’t take too much advance planning and doesn’t put a substantial dent in the bank balance. Cincinnati, a little more than an hour’s drive from Lexington, offers great value for a reasonable price.

If you haven’t been to the Queen City and its environs lately, you may be surprised. Old favorites have new twists: Kings Island Amusement Park has two new family-friendly rides — Snoopy’s Space Buggies and Woodstock Gliders, based on the popular cartoon characters; the Cincinnati Zoo has added a meerkat manor to its Africa exhibit, and the Newport Aquarium recently introduced North America’s first Shark Bridge, a 100-foot rope bridge suspended above a 385,000-gallon shark tank.

For the sports fan, a ticket to a Bengals’ game at Paul Brown Stadium would make a great stocking stuffer (after the game, be sure to check out Smale Riverfront Park and marvel at the Cincinnati-themed carousel unveiled this past spring.)

If it’s culture you’re looking for, the Cincinnati Art Museum in Eden Park and the Cincinnati Museum Center in Union Terminal (housing the Cincinnati History Museum, Museum of Natural History & Science, Duke Energy Children’s Museum and an OMNIMAX Theater all under one roof) offer first-rate exhibitions.

The Cincinnati Symphony, under the direction of renowned conductor Louis Langree, is one of the nation’s top 10 orchestras. I was reminded of how stellar it is during a recent performance at the Music Hall, which included along with Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet, the world premiere of Flex for orchestra, a six-movement concerto by American composer Sebastian Currier.

Neighborhood renaissances abound

The real surprise awaiting visitors is what is happening in the city’s historic neighborhoods. Anyone who has been to Cincinnati in the past few years has noticed the revival of the Over-the-Rhine area. What was once a derelict neighborhood full of boarded up buildings has become a spiffy hood where those buildings now house trendy shops, bars and restaurants, and where inelegant graffiti has given way to murals and public art projects.

Over the Rhine may be Cincinnati’s most visible example of a neighborhood renaissance, but it is far from the only one. The city has 52 unique neighborhoods, each with its own history and distinctive style, and that’s just north of the Ohio River. I couldn’t see them all in a weekend, so I decided to concentrate on two of my favorites — Mainstrasse, on the Kentucky side of the river in Covington, and Mt. Adams, perched high above the city.

Mainstrasse is a place I’ve always thought of as a sort of living history museum, channeling the mid-19th century when the area experienced an influx of German immigrants. The village’s primary attraction, the Goose Girl Statue and Fountain, was based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, and the annual Oktoberfest celebration testifies to the surviving German influence.

Today, however, Mainstrasse has blossomed into a foodie’s paradise as I was to discover. When he opened Otto’s in 2003, chef/owner Paul Weckman did it with a sole employee (himself) and $300 in food. The intimate American bistro (try the squash-prosciutto risotto or the tomato pie) was the first in a group of chef/owner establishments that have re-defined this historic area.

Across the street is Frida 602, a vibrant, high-energy spot where it doesn’t take the Diego Rivera-inspired murals on the wall to know that the “Frida” was Rivera’s wife and fellow artist Frida Kahlo. The restaurant’s contemporary art serves as a background for authentic Mexican cuisine and an enviable collection of tequilas.

Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar, with its eclectic, farm-to-table menu is a perfect spot for dinner, and next spring, Lisse, a Dutch-inspired steak house, will open in the former Chez Nora, a Mainstrasse icon for years.

You can sip as well as sup in style in Mainstrasse. Stop in for a bourbon tasting at Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. Owner/mixologist Molly Wellmann, a perky blonde sporting scarlet lipstick and an assortment of tattoos, is nationally known as a bourbon expert, and her love of the spirit seemingly knows no limits.

Wellmann is making her mark with a number of innovative neighborhood watering holes. In addition to OKBB, where more than half of the 400 American whiskies are bourbons, she owns Myrtle’s Punch House in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. Instead of individual glasses, groups imbibe from a communal punch bowl.

Mt. Adams can be compared to San Francisco

Another day was given over to becoming re-acquainted with my favorite neighborhood. Mt. Adams, perched high above the city on one of Cincinnati’s seven hills, has always been a gem. With its steep streets and gaily painted Victorian and Italianate gingerbread houses, it has been compared to San Francisco.

Surrounded on three sides by Eden Park, a vast green expanse which is home to the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Tony Award-winning Playhouse in the Park, and the Krohn Conservatory (especially lovely this time of year with its display of fiery poinsettias).

The area originally known as Mt. Ida was named for a somewhat eccentric washerwoman who made her home in the hollow of a sycamore tree. The change occurred after John Quincy Adams was invited to inaugurate the Cincinnati Observatory (at that time the world’s most powerful) in 1843 on the grounds of what later became Holy Cross Monastery.

Although it closed as a monastery and chapel in 1977, the manicured grounds of the former Holy Cross make one feel as if a cowled monk could glide past at any moment.

A religious structure that is still going strong is Holy Cross Immaculata Church, occupying a prominent outlook on the hilltop. With its beautiful stained glass windows and alter where seven paintings depict the Immaculate Conception, the church was built just before the Civil War to serve the area’s German population.

After another church, Holy Cross, serving Irish Catholics, closed, the congregations merged. Today, Immaculata has two annual events of note. On Good Friday, hundreds climb the 85 steps to the church’s front door, stopping on each step to offer a prayer.

On a more whimsical note, every February members of the ancient Order of Hibernians arrive at the church and request permission to “borrow” the six-foot statue of St. Patrick. With bagpipers leading the way, the statue is paraded around the streets of Mt. Adams before being returned to its usual position.

Learn the neighborhood’s history on a guided tour (April through November), where locations range from the former Rookwood Pottery (now a restaurant) to the private home which was once the dance studio where Cincinnati native Doris Ann Kappelhoff learned to hoof. You know her better as Hollywood legend Doris Day.

Following your tour, stop for a cocktail at the Blind Lemon, a “secret hideaway café,” and don’t be afraid to enjoy it on the patio. Even in winter, a bonfire keeps things warm and cozy. Afterward, book a table at The Celestial, a 4-star restaurant frequently said to have the best steaks and skyline views in the Queen City.

With Mainstrasse and Mt. Adams under your belt, you’ll probably want to start planning for a return visit to discover more of Cincinnati’s vibrant neighborhoods.

If you go to Cincinnati

Where to stay: Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown Hotel, 36 E. 4th Street; A great example of adaptive re-use of a historic building. Once a bank dating to the turn of the last century, elaborate touches such as marble floors, decorative columns and arches and ornate elevator doors have been retained in the public areas, while the guest rooms are thoroughly modern.

Where to eat: Otto’s, 521 Main St., Mainstrasse, Covington; Frida 602, 602 Main St., Mainstrasse, Covington. Bouquet Restaurant & Wine Bar, 519 Main St., Mainstrasse, Covington; The Celestial, 1071 Celestial St., Mt. Adams, Cincinnati;