In the lexicon of Cincinnatians, press is what you do to doorbells, and buzz is the sound they make. This is a town of best-kept secrets, where the thrill of a new discovery lies around every corner. But humility hasn't always been good for the Queen City. In 1990, when police shut down a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, natives knew that the flap was the crusade of an overzealous county prosecutor. But the headlines spoke louder than the locals, and the city became a nationwide symbol for heartland prudery.
In the 14 years since, Cincinnati has embraced its turbulent history as a catalyst for even more progressive art and architecture, in order to shape its future as a world-class city. Peter Eisenman completed the modern (and somewhat controversial) Design School for the University of Cincinnati in 1996—the same year that Frank Gehry broke ground on the university's Vontz Center for Molecular Studies, a striking, fun-house edifice of red brick and glass. In 1995, Cesar Pelli's Aronoff Center for the Arts (ballet, musicals, and theater) became the anchor of a new downtown arts area, dubbed the Backstage District. A few years later, the ribbon was cut on a Contemporary Arts Center. Designed by architect Zaha Hadid, the CAC is an angular sculpture that hovers over the district like a minimalist lantern, the beacon for a revitalized city. The newest downtown attraction, unveiled in August, is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum and research center on the riverfront that chronicles the struggles of American slaves, as well as the battles for personal and political freedom that continue around the world to this day.
Cincinnati, along the banks of the Ohio River, has found its voice, and it's not just resonating off the walls of grand cultural institutions. At a packed opening at a new gallery in Brighton, in a vintage clothing store in Northside, in renovated Over-the-Rhine town houses, Cincinnatians are crowing—in their own quiet way, of course.
WHERE TO STAY The best hotels are downtown, near the Backstage District. The slender façade of the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza (35 W. Fifth St.; 800/415-8667 or 513/421-9100; www.hilton.com" target="_blank">; doubles from $99), built in 1931, is an Art Deco gem. Inside, bulbous sconces, fluted-brass torchères, Italian black marble, and brushed stainless steel create a vision of Jazz Age splendor, but the comforts—250-thread-count sheets, wireless Internet access—are strictly up-to-date. • The spartan Millennium Cincinnati (141 W. Sixth St.; 800/876-2100 or 513/352-2100; www.millenniumhotels.com; doubles from $99), just blocks from the galleries and museums, wouldn't win any architecture prizes, but its 422 rooms have been newly redone in Ikea-style, minimalist chic: blond wood, chrome, and rakish lamps. • A harpist serenading guests during afternoon tea at the Cincinnatian (601 Vine St.; 800/942-9000 or 513/381-3000; www.cincinnatianhotel.com; doubles from $280) is just one of the old-world luxuries at the city's grandest hotel. Here the spacious rooms have fireplaces, soaking tubs, and dual-head showers.
WHERE TO EAT Cincinnati, a.k.a. Porkopolis, is best known for its German roots, but Jean Robert de Cavel's bistro JeanRo (413 Vine St.; 513/621-1465; dinner for two $70) is changing all that with classic brasserie fare (steak frites, cassoulet). • The stars of Cincinnati's home teams (the Bengals, the Reds, the Mighty Ducks) mix it up with the city's old-money swells at de Cavel's other restaurant Jean-Robert at Pigall's (127 W. Fourth St.; 513/721-1345; dinner for two $280), a modern room downtown serving French cuisine with contemporary American flourishes. Regional ingredients abound: Kentucky oyster mushrooms and spoon fish caviar. • At the corner bistro Aioli (700 Elm St.; 513/929-0525; dinner for two $80), Julie Francis deftly mines the flavors of Asia, the Mediterranean, and Mexico in dishes such as salmon tartare with celery root-apple slaw, and chipotle-braised beef tenderloin tips with blue-corn cakes and crème fraîche. • The excellent grilled portobello sandwich at Tucker's (1637 Vine St.; 513/721-7123; brunch for two $15) doesn't compromise an ounce of the old-school vibe at this eclectic diner, a favorite among bankers, art-school grads, and produce farmers in town for the nearby Findlay Market. • For pristine sushi and other authentic Japanese delicacies (natto, or fermented soybeans, squid, dried-gourd maki, sticky mountain potato), in-the-know Cincinnatians head to Jo An (3940 Olympic Blvd., Erlanger, Ky.; 859/746-2634; dinner for two $50), owned by an employee at Toyota—the company's North American headquarters are just a short drive from downtown.
ART SCENE Founded in 1939 by three Cincinnati ladies dedicated to showcasing the work of "the last five minutes," the Contemporary Arts Center (44 E. Sixth St.; 513/345-8400; www.contemporaryartscenter.org) has never flinched in its mission to exhibit provocative art. The gently sloping open stairwells and oddly shaped galleries make moving through the building as invigorating as the art on display. • Fresh from a 2 1/2-year renovation, the Taft Museum (316 Pike St.; 513/241-0343; www.taftmuseum.org) offers one of the finest collections of decorative art in the country, including French Renaissance Limoges and American paintings from the late 19th century; the crown jewel is the series of pre-Civil War murals by African-American landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson. • Local artists Chris Daniel and Carissa Barnard converted a former brewery into the Mockbee (2260 Central Pkwy.; 513/929-9463; www.themockbee.org), a nonprofit gallery with dramatic barrel-vaulted exhibition spaces that puts on shows of area universities' top artists, as well as companion exhibitions to larger shows at the CAC. • The 15 galleries that make up the Cincinnati Wing at the Cincinnati Art Museum (953 Eden Park Dr.; 513/721-2787; www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org) chronicle the evolution of the city's art, fromthe work of Industrial Age silversmiths, to that of early-20th-century furniture makers and potters, to pieces by contemporary Cincinnati artists such as Jim Dine and Tom Wesselmann. • An early promoter of Nam June Paik and Claes Oldenburg, Carl Solway has been a force for contemporary art in the Midwest since 1962. His Carl Solway Gallery (424 Findlay St.; 513/621-0069; www.solwaygallery.com), housed in a renovated carriage factory in Over-the-Rhine, has a collection featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Keith Haring. • Fourteen thousand people—including Muhammad Ali and Laura Bush—attended the groundbreaking for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (50 E. Freedom Way; 513/333-7500; www.freedomcenter.org). Among the exhibits at the 158,000-square-foot center is a circa-1830 slave pen found on a Kentucky tobacco farm.