I I first walked around downtown Cincinnati, just a few blocks north from the downtown Ohio River with sparse skyscrapers, when I started following street art. Vast, colorful murals adorn many of the walls, from the exteriors of restaurants and apartment complexes to the half-destroyed buildings where vacant lots are now used as special parking lots.
The vivid images help me understand a little more about Cincy’s past and present – affectionately known to locals – whose work ranges from illustrations of local heroes, such as Modernist wildlife artist Charley Harper and many other sports stars, to images of food, abstract design and other messages of political tolerance and solidarity. One even described several toys invented by the Cincinnatian company, Kenner Products, many of which were childhood staples of British children: Care Bears, Star Wars action figures, Play-Doh.
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Since I had arrived the day before on a new non-stop British Airways flight, where a fellow passenger, an Englishman who had lived here for five years, described the place as “a big city with a small town feel”, laid-back Cincinnati and the midwest appealed to me in every way – especially because the late Jerry Springer was once its mayor. To begin with, it lies on three states. The majority of it is located in Ohio, while a piece stretches to Indiana. However, you fly to northern Kentucky, located just across the Ohio River that flows through the city. This is where I met historian Rick Pender – author of 100 things to do in Cincinnati before you die – at my hotel, the shiny new one North, in Covington. This charming neighborhood is all about ornately decorated low-brick Victorian buildings interspersed with trendy coffee shops, independent shops (or both in one, such as Roebling Books and Coffee), stylish bars and restaurants, like the famous farm-to-table Bouquet. I loved it immediately.
“Cincinnati has two stories to tell,” Rick began. “Where we are is the gateway to the South, and the land of bourbon, but if you cross the river, it’s all beer.” Cincinnati was officially founded in 1788, when the Americans began to expand westward. They chose to settle here, at the confluence of two rivers – the other being called Licking – and the city is named after a former Roman statesman, Cincinnatus (to whom George Washington is often compared for his civic pride). However, most of the industry that developed after that was thanks to the Germans.
“We’re famous for our brewing, pork processing and meat packing, thanks to the massive influx of German immigrants in the 1830s,” says Rick. Aside from the availability of work, they are attracted by the riverside’s similarity to the Rhine and the sense of belonging that it brings. By 1840, 30% of Cincinnati’s population was German; by 1850 it was 50%. You have to thank them for the deliciousness sausage You can find it on many menus and in food markets – which once earned the city its delightful nickname Porkopolis – and its craft beer heritage.
One area where the Germans settled was the historic Mainstrasse Village. This set of ridiculously beautiful streets and avenues is lined with the kind of fine homes you might find in London’s Notting Hill – all with pale facades and tall windows – except that they sell for a quarter of the price. Many German details remain, from the Gothic writing on some shop signs to businesses owned by family names such as Jentz, Kemper and Frisch, as well as the picturesque, if slightly out-of-the-way, glockenspiel bell tower inside Goebel Park. At the Cock and Bull village pub on Main Street, I drank some local beer; Rheingeist Brewery’s Truth IPA has a refreshing, tropical flavor, but I prefer the ballast, thick batter of home-baked cookies, dipped in beer-infused melted cheese.
In keeping with Cincinnati foodie tastes, I crossed the dramatic, light blue Roebling Suspension Bridge – designed by the same architect as New York’s Brooklyn Bridge – to Ohio, and my next destination: Over-The-Rhine, or OTR. Here you will find the beating heart of the city. This is where the locals come to have fun, with streets like Vine and Walnut teeming with trendy cocktail bars and pubs, from the inventive Lost and Found, which mixes drinks with the likes of bubble gum and fennel, to the New Orleans-inspired Nolia Kitchen, where chef Jeff Harris crafted high-end dishes based on the flavors of his old hometown.
The OTR has a rather unwieldy name because the Germans also settled around its canal – known as the Rhine, but now depleted – that separates the area from the city centre. To get there, I walked through the middle of the giant stadium for the city’s two major sports teams, the Cincinnati Reds (baseball) and the Bengal Tigers (NFL), which dominate The Banks, a newly recreated riverside precinct.
Next, I headed straight up Vine Street to Findlay Market. Opened in 1855, today it is home to more than 50 merchants and stall owners. On an average weekday afternoon, it’s always packed with locals stocking up on ingredients for dinner. Tempted by Tasha, who runs Gramma Debbie’s Kitchen (Debbie is her mother-in-law), I sampled goetta, a special German pork sausage in Cincinnatian made with spices and oats. Deep-fried and cut into squares, this dish is rich, meaty and slightly spicy, and is eaten by locals for breakfast with eggs.
I also tasted the pierogis stuffed with Cincy’s chili. It’s definitely something to try, but “Cincinnati peppers” aren’t quite the chili we know them to be. Created by a Greek immigrant in the 1940s, you can sample it at any “chili shop” – Skyline is best known for it – and ask for a “hologram”: you’ll be served a pile of spaghetti, layered with a mixture of minced beef, tomatoes, cinnamon and cocoa powder, all aged in grated cheddar cheese. To me, it tasted like something a student would whip to stop, or relieve, a hangover; Cincinnati people are crazy about it.
I save what I consider the best example of the city’s cuisine for last. During my visit, I heard the same name time and time again, by anyone, from Uber drivers to owners of vintage stores: Graeters, which turned out to be an ice cream parlor with German roots, should come as no surprise. It was founded in Cincinnati and now has 18 branches across the city. A flavor repeated in a reverent tone as if describing the Holy Grail: dark raspberry chocolate chip. I bought a small mug from the Vine Street store and took it to nearby Washington Park, one of Cincy’s many green spaces (the city has more than 70 parks). It blew me away; Creamy and fruity, and with chunks of milk chocolate crunch before melting. Extraordinary and interesting – just like the city itself.
Roundtrip flights from London to Cincinnati with Airline British from £497.
double at North by Hotel Covington from $289 (£221), room only.
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