Jerrod Carmichael
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Cincinnati is a Hidden Midwestern Gem Ready to Surprise

Cincinnati is a Hidden Midwestern Gem Ready to Surprise

In the past, when people would ask me if I’ve ever been to Cincinnati, I was never sure how to respond. While I’ve been through the city plenty of times (maybe upwards of 50!), it was always on the way to Atlanta or Orlando or Memphis, or some other distant place. We’ve even overnighted there, but that was only because it was a convenient stopping spot, and we never ventured far from our highway-side hotel. So, my husband and I were certainly overdue to thoroughly check out this southeastern Ohio gem, an easy 3.5-hour drive from our Cleveland-area home. Cincinnati is quite accessible to a large swath of the country, being a five-hour drive or less from such places as Pittsburgh, Chicago, Asheville, Nashville, and Detroit.

Because we were serious about getting the city experience, we chose the centrally located 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati as our hub. This gorgeous upscale hotel, part of a small but growing chain, focuses heavily on art — think of it as a hotel within an art gallery. Upon entering the Cincinnati property, you’re greeted by a lovely, enormous Kehinde Wiley painting behind the front desk. (Wiley is known to many as the artist who painted former President Barack Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.) Much more artwork is spread across the ground floor, along with some works on the guest room levels, too.

 

The 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati

The lobby of the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati

 

The boutique hotel features 156 rooms, a rooftop lounge, and modern, bright guestrooms with a clean design and plenty of space. You’ll also find a 24-hour fitness room, full service spa, a fun museum shop, and an assortment of bright yellow plastic penguins in unexpected places — sort of the hotel’s mascot, designed by Cracking Art. (And yes, you can purchase your own penguin to take home, right in the gift shop.)

The Cincinnati Bell Connector is a free streetcar that runs a loop from downtown to the trendy Over-The-Rhine yet architecturally historic neighborhood. We found it extremely convenient, easy to use, and practical. It runs from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. Attractions along the line include Findlay Market, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Washington Park, the Contemporary Arts Center, Great American Ballpark, and the Music Hall. Streetcars run about every 15 minutes, and there are digital countdown clocks at each station.

 

A room at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati

A room at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati

 

Museums galore!

One of my favorite discoveries was the American Sign Museum, located about 10 minutes northwest of downtown in the Camp Washington neighborhood. I was at first skeptical of the concept — but count me among the museum’s evangelists now! The concept here is to show the history of signs in this country, starting with elegant goldleaf glass designs that were the rage in the early 1900s, through different materials, including wood, plastic, and of course neon. You’ll find yourself wandering the rooms recalling brands you’ve long forgotten, from Kona Lanes to Howard Johnson’s to SOHIO. There’s a full-size, old-fashioned McDonald’s sign that towers over visitors, as well as funky “animated” neon signs and retro spinning signs that once dotted businesses across the landscape. The museum also does a lot of restoration work, resulting in a beautiful and moving series of displays. 

We visited the elegant Cincinnati Art Museum, located in peaceful Eden Park, to add a bit of culture to our first afternoon in the city, and it did not disappoint. From the manicured grounds to stunning Art of the Ancient Middle East Gallery, we loved our time here. Check out the aforementioned gallery’s clerestory windows which feature backlit modern works that the museum actually commissioned for this space. The new grand driveway/entrance for the museum, which was part of the original plan from more than 130 years ago, opens on June 1. 

 

Cincinnati's Sign Museum

The Sign Museum

 

The art museum features 67,000 artworks covering 6,000 years of human history and is arranged across two floors. It even boasts a courtyard and restaurant for those who are making a day of it. Admission to the museum is still free, but there are charges for special exhibitions. The two we saw were quite worthwhile and thought provoking. One focused on the photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, a groundbreaking African American collective of photographers in New York City that began in the 1960s. The other was a look at the career and work of David Driskell, an important advocate for African American artists, painters, and photographers — and a painter himself. Through June 19, another exhibit runs at the museum, entitled “Black & Brown Faces: Paying Homage To.”

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located near the city’s riverfront, midway between the professional football and baseball stadiums. It’s an easy walk from the center of downtown. In addition to tracing the history of slavery and the part that Cincinnati played in the Underground Railroad, the museum has some incredibly moving permanent exhibits on modern day slavery and human trafficking. There’s a full-sized reconstructed slave pen from the 1800s, movies, and a range of temporary exhibits. Through August 7, you can see the exhibition, “Marking Time — Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

 

The Cincinnati Museum Center

The Cincinnati Museum Center

 

The Cincinnati Museum Center is housed in the city’s Union Terminal, a mind-blowingly beautiful piece of Art Deco architecture, and likely the most beautiful building in the entire state. If you grew up watching the SuperFriends cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s, you’ll probably think you’ve arrived at the series’ famed Hall of Justice. Wander through the main atrium space even if you don’t plan to hit any of the museums, as it is worth the stop. But if you have more time to peruse, you can hit the multiple museums that are housed here, including the Cincinnati History Museum, Children’s Museum, Museum of Natural History & Science, Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, an OMNIMAX theater, and more.

 

The Cincinnati History Museum

The Cincinnati History Museum

 

Fun times in OTR

Just north of downtown, Cincinnati’s famed Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood is very queer friendly and has something for everyone, from shopping to craft breweries to LGBTQ+ businesses. Make sure to stop at the Findlay Market, the state’s oldest public market, for food, vegetables, sweets, ethnic dishes, and more. The people watching here is top rate, as well. Across the street, have brunch at French Crust Bistro and Cafe, a local institution that’s worth the wait, which sometimes stretches out the door and down the street. (They do take reservations, so call ahead.)

Ghost Baby is a super fun nightclub that’s built into Cincinnati’s historic underground tunnels that were originally used for cooling and aging beer. Once in the door, you descend roughly five stories under the city streets and come upon several incredible spaces, including a bar and a nightclub area with a performance stage. The atmosphere here is high end, lively, and glamorous, and the lighting makes the space feel otherworldly. Check Ghost Baby’s website for a schedule of upcoming live music performances.

 

The Ghost Baby nightclub

The Ghost Baby nightclub

 

Other great food we found around town include amazing cocktails and top-notch Italian fare at Sotto in downtown (do try the wild thing cocktail, and the Cappellacci — it was an explosion of flavor!), great coffee and breakfast items at Mom ‘n ‘em Coffee & Wine, and yummy cupcakes and sweets at Happy Chicks Bakery in the cute Northside neighborhood. And check ahead for the city’s many summer festivals. We enjoyed the Asian Food Fest while we were downtown, and even ran into the city’s popular new mayor!

 

Some queer fun in town

There are a multitude of queer-owned businesses in town, but two really stood out to us on our trip.

The e19 Lounge Bar & Discothèque, in OTR, is a gorgeous, upscale club that is conveniently located right near a streetcar stop, and it was absolutely hopping on the Saturday evening that we visited. In fact, Saturday evenings at 10 p.m. mean Rouge, a raucous drag show hosted by Brock Leah Spears that features different guest performers each week. e19 also has a lot of other programming, including RePaul’s Drag Race watch parties, Drag Bingo, and even art classes. 

 

Brock Leah Spears at the e19 Lounge Bar & Discothéque

Brock Leah Spears at the e19 Lounge Bar & Discothéque

 

The cocktails here are generous and tasty and will keep you coming back for more. Plus, there are enough nooks and crannies among the different rooms at e19 that you can either hang with your gaggle of gays or canoodle in the corner with your special someone.

The highlight of our time in Cincinnati was visiting OTR Stillhouse, a fantastic new venue that opened in December 2021. OTR Stillhouse is owned by Michele and Amanda Broughton‐Hobbs, a lesbian couple who have long been area entrepreneurs. (Make sure to check out their Pet Wants store near Findlay Market. They even have their own brand of dog food.) 

 

The OTR Stillhouse

The OTR Stillhouse

 

Outside, there’s a fun beer garden feel, with long wooden tables, umbrellas, and lights strung across the expansive space. Inside is a welcoming, modern industrial vibe, with plenty of communal tables, a bar area, and a large stage. And thanks to huge doors located all alongside one wall, the two areas essentially become one on warm weather days.

We enjoyed both a live band and a DJ while we were there, and Michele explained she wants the concept to be more of a “day drinking” space than a late night party one, and based on the crowd while we were there, she is right on track. They’ve worked hard to make different communities feel welcome here — such as at a recent event that featured multiple Asian DJs or being the host location of the upcoming Black Lesbian Pride in August. There’s also a Cincinnati Pride kickoff tea dance planned, and local lesbian group Black Pearl Experience have “Sunday Funday” events that rotate around, including at OTR Stillhouse. That said, this isn’t a “queer bar” … it’s more of an “everyone’s welcome” place. In fact, while we were there, a straight couple and dozens of their friends had reserved a portion of the inside for their engagement party.

 

The OTR Stillhouse

The OTR Stillhouse

 

OTR Stillhouse’s Knox Joseph Distillery creates a tasty mix of gins, bourbons, and blended whiskeys — as well as beers and wine. Although my husband has never been a fan of drinking straight spirits, he discovered that he so loved their white gin that we ended up buying a bottle to take home. And I’m rarely a fan of unique house-created cocktails, but I tried a flight that featured four of OTR Stillhouse’s signature cocktails, and every one of them was a winner in my book.

The food here was also fantastic, although Michele is working on a new concept for it, to be unveiled in the near future. But suffice it to say, on future trips that take us through Cincinnati, we’re now going to be coordinating departure times so we end up at OTR Stillhouse for dinner and drinks. We no longer look at this delightful city as simply a place to get through on the way to somewhere else. Cincinnati is definitely worth much more of our time. 

Tags: Travelogue, Ohio

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