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.
NIGHTLIFE At the eastern edge of Over-the-Rhine, Club Clau (1133 Sycamore St.; 513/352-0352) is Cincinnati's answer to Crobar in New York, with bottle service and VIP-only lounges. Justin Timberlake, Jessica Simpson, and Snoop Dogg hang at the Clau, but it's also a scene with a mission: the minimalist white bar doubles as a gallery, showcasing the latest work by city artists. • The tempo is more relaxed at the Bar at Palm Court (35 W. Fifth St.; 513/421-9100), in the restored former lobby of the Hilton Netherland Plaza, where a young crowd gathers to dust off its fan kicks and shimmies to live jazz. • On the Kentucky side of the river is the area's premier concert hall, the Southgate House (24 E. Third St., Newport, Ky.; 859/431-2201), in a former 1814 mansion that makes an intimate venue for catching indie rock bands like the Strokes. • A DJ spins dance-club hits while runway fashion shows play on plasma-screen TV's at Beluga (3520 Edward Rd.; 513/533-4444), a high-energy sushi-and-cocktails bar in Hyde Park. Themed parties on weekends attract the martini-and-Manolos crowd.
WHERE TO SHOP A design district has blossomed in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which is clustered around Main Street just a few blocks north of downtown. On the last Friday of each month, stores and galleries open their doors for a neighborhood-wide vernissage. Furniture dealers from Los Angeles and New York flock to Mainly Art (1417 Main St.; 513/378-8261) for Mark Fisk's tightly edited collection of Mid-Century Modern furniture in a lofty storefront. (Locals lounging on the Paul McCobb sofas will offer great touring tips.) • St. Theresa Textile Trove (1329 Main St.; 513/333-0399) is stacked floor to ceiling with bolts of cloth from around the world: Japanese silks, hand-dyed Balinese cottons, and African mud cloths in riotous colors. • Lifeesthetics (16 E. 12th St.; 513/723-1901), Leah Sweeney Spurrier's home-furnishings boutique, has one-of-a-kind retro furniture, candles by Red Flower, and exquisite stationery. • Dean & DeLuca meets South of the Border at Jungle Jim's (5440 Dixie Hwy., Fairfield; 513/674-6000). Among the 1,000 varieties of hot sauce and soft drinks from India are larger-than-life animatronic dioramas of, say, Elvis as a dancing bear.
MATT LEE and TED LEE are contributing editors for Travel + Leisure.
Carl Solway OWNER, CARL SOLWAY GALLERY
TRAINSPOTTING "Go to the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal [1301 Western Ave.; 513/287-7000] to see the city's most incredible Art Deco masterpiece. Union Terminal is a National Historic Landmark and Cincinnati's oldest train station. The glass tile mosaics by Winold Reiss in the rotunda are the largest in the world."
COLD COMFORT "In Hyde Park there's an ice cream rivalry between Graeter's [2704 Erie Ave.; 513/321-6221] and Aglamesis Bros. The raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream at Graeter's is a killer—it's great any time of year."
TO THE BRIM "Batsakes Hat Shop [1 W. Sixth St.; 513/721-9345] has been doing wonderful custom work for ninety-seven years, and I've owned my Batsakes brown felt fedora for more than twenty-five."
RED SAUCE "I love the intimate atmosphere and the linguine with hot Italian sausage at Scotti's [919 Vine St.; 513/721-9484; dinner for two $50], a fifth-generation classic Italian place with landscape murals, checkered tablecloths, and dripping Chianti-bottle candles."
1 Cincinnati chile, the Queen City's culinary claim to fame—ground beef spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and served over spaghetti. The Hartwell location of Empress Chili (8340 Vine St.; 513/761-5599; $3.65) makes our favorite plate. 2 The grilled goetta sandwich, a German breakfast patty of oatmeal and pork, seared on the grill, smeared with hot mustard, and served on white toast, at Eckerlin Meats (216 Findlay Market; 513/721-5743; $2). 3 An almond bear claw, a flaky, buttery croissant slathered with dark chocolate and thinly sliced almonds, at Shadeaux Breads (1336 Main St.; 513/665-9270; $1.30). 4 Hot metts, smoky, fiery chile-laced pork sausages that have drawn hungry diners downtown to Avril-Bleh & Sons (33 E. Court St.; 513/241-2433; $2.50) since 1894.
With a small-town vibe, terrific restaurants, and artisans of all kinds, Northside is on the move. "We don't take credit cards, but we could send you a bill," said the waiter at Slims (4046 Hamilton Ave.; 513/681-6500; dinner for two $65), a sun-splashed room with communal cherrywood tables. Young chefs turn out creative dishes like sriracha-roasted shrimp served with house-brewed lemongrass ginger ale. • Weekend crowds pack Boca (4034 Hamilton Ave.; 513/542-2022; dinner for two $85), where signatures include yuzu-marinated oysters with red onion and fennel. • Across the street, catch bands like the Griefs at Jacobs' on the Avenue (4029 Hamilton Ave.; 513/591-2100). • James Hazel earns a living repairing Waterford goblets at his warehouse studio Hazelglas (4150 Hamilton Ave.; 513/591-2800), but his real passion is sculpting molten glass. • John Lee Hooker mixes it up with T. Rex on the jukebox at the Comet (4579 Hamilton Ave.; 513/541-8900). The real draw is live and local: garage-rock and country-punk bands. • Next door, the vintage clothing store Avant Garage (4577 Hamilton Ave.; 513/542-8268) keeps bar hours (8:30 P.M.-12:30 A.M.), and brims with finds like a $35 three-piece Brooks Brothers seersucker suit.
Number of slaughterhouses in Cincinnati in 1850. Today, only three remain
Number of seats in the Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds
Number of distinct neighborhoods in Cincinnati