Spring in Cincinnati comes in two waves. The first: a pride-filled Opening Day parade through town and a hope-filled game at the Reds' Great American Ball Park. The second: Bulbs bursting in parks overlooking the Ohio River and in the Queen City's diverse neighborhoods.
Click ahead to read about our spring getaway to Cincinnati. A detailed trip guide is on slides 6 to 8.
Three F/A-18 Hornets thunder in tight formation over Cincinnati's Race Street, the growl of their engines ricocheting through the run-down Over-The-Rhine neighborhood and its foodie paradise, Findlay Market. People decked in red around the market look up, applaud and cheer, then go back to shining old fire trucks, petting draft horses and prepping for the Opening Day parade. No one asks why the Navy jets are here; everyone knows they make an annual National Anthem run over the Reds' Great American Ball Park.
It's a source of pride in Cincy that the nation's first professional baseball club always opens its season at home—the only team to do so. No matter when it takes place, Opening Day marks a fresh beginning for Cincinnati, a place that local historian Bennie Butler calls a Southern city with a Northern address because of its position along the Ohio River and its conflicted past. That Southern feeling stems from the weather, too. Spring arrives weeks earlier here than it does throughout most of the Midwest.
Flowering dogwoods and pear trees along Eden Park Drive draw visitors to Krohn Conservatory, where trees grow plump with oranges, lemons and kumquats. Iron-trimmed park benches overlooking the river offer a moment's peace and a bird's-eye view of boat traffic. Daffodils peek out of wooded parkways in the Tudor-style Mariemont neighborhood, and at the Cincinnati Zoo, more than a million bulbs cluster around historic buildings powered by new solar panels.
But before that color pops, the 'Nati has some baseball business to take care of. "I think Opening Day has something for everyone," says Dan Fischer, who started coming to the parade and the game with his dad and brother 25 years ago. He tosses a baseball to his son inside the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, then pauses. "My mom and my sisters, they're not baseball fans," he says. "But they still get something out of it—tradition ... family ... renewal ... hope."
Even if you're not a fan, the fever is infectious. Bars open early, TV crews broadcast the 2-mile-long parade, and visitors fill the classy Reds museum, located inside the steamboat-theme ballpark along the river. They snap pix of the 4,256 baseballs mounted on the stairwell wall, each representing a hit by record-holder Pete Rose, and see famous photos of catcher Johnny Bench holding seven baseballs in one huge paw.
Pictured: Visitors can wind their way from the Reds' gift shop to the engaging Hall of Fame and Museum.
Once the Reds pull out a victory and cars honk in the streets, visitors can't help but notice that many big attractions focus on the past. In the 1800s, Cincinnati was the biggest boat-building city in the nation, and 125 steamboats stopped here every day. That commerce funded an impressive arts community that thrives at the hilltop Cincinnati Art Museum and downtown's smaller but stunning Taft Museum of Art.
The Civil War also changed Cincinnati's trajectory. Boats could no longer travel safely between North and South. The unrest spurred slaves to dream, thinking if they could just make it from Kentucky across the Ohio River's 175 watery yards, they might live in freedom. At the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Novella Slaughter helps people understand that geography. "If you're a slave and you want to run away, you want to go in the fall and winter, when the days are short and the river water freezes," she tells a group of kids. "Are there going to be people to help you? Yes. They're going to give you food, water, shelter.
"Is it underground? No. Are there railroad tracks? No. What is the Underground Railroad? It's people helping people," she says.
Pictured: Murals at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center recall slavery's injustices.
Across town at the Cincinnati History Museum, Bennie Butler dresses as a Civil War soldier and tells of the 1862 Siege of Cincinnati, when Confederates hungrily eyed Cincy's pork supply but didn't invade because forts built by the Black Brigade deterred them. The history lesson holds particular relevance for the native Kentuckian, an African-American brimming with passion for his adopted city. "We have two [professional sports] franchises, all these museums, a symphony orchestra. ... There is so much to see," Bennie says. "Every time I go to Eden Park, I imagine I'm an explorer looking across the river."
He isn't the first, and he won't be the last. Whether you want to admire blooming trees, home runs or thoughtful museums, finding Cincinnati's springtime sweet spot turns out to be pretty easy.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2012. Click ahead for our Trip Guide.)
Ault Park Perched over the river in Mount Lookout, this 100-year-old park includes gardens, trails and a pavilion. (513) 221-2610; aultparkac.org 
Cincinnati Art Museum You'll learn the history of Cincy's arts scene and see furniture, oil paintings and sculptures. (513) 721-2787; cincinnatiartmuseum.org 
Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal This old depot houses four amazing attractions: the Museum of Natural History and Science, the Duke Energy Children's Museum, the Cincinnati History Museum and an Omnimax. See Midwest Living's reviews of the Museum of Natural History and Science , the Duke Energy Children's Museum and the Cincinnati History Museum . (513) 287-7000; cincymuseum.org 
Cincinnati Reds Opening Day tickets go fast; if you can't find them at reds.com , try stubhub.com . Even if you're not a Reds fan, it's still worth the $10 to tour the Hall of Fame. (513) 765-7923; reds.com 
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden This National Historic Landmark shines during Zoo Blooms in April. (513) 281-4700; cincinnatizoo.org 
Eden Park Follow the steep hill to its peak and drink in views of the Ohio River. (513) 352-4080; cincinnatiparks.com 
Findlay Market Treat yourself to some of the specialty food stalls serving diverse dishes. You'll find Belgian waffles, an organic takeout spot, old-fashioned meat counters and more. (513) 665-4839; findlaymarket.org 
Kings Island Families can spend a day at this seasonal amusement park northeast of downtown. (513) 754-5700; visitkingsisland.com 
Krohn Conservatory An indoor waterfall complements the tropical garden. Admission charged for the spring butterfly show. (513) 352-4080; cincinnatiparks.com 
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center The sobering messages aren't easy to hear, but they are well-told lessons to remember. (513) 333-7500; freedomcenter.org 
Taft Museum of Art Located in a home that belonged to President Taft's brother, this impressive collection includes sacred pieces, a Rembrandt and more. The cafe is a lovely place to lunch, especially when you can sit on the patio. (513) 241-0343; taftmuseum.org 
Pictured: Built in 1933, Union Terminal's soaring Art Deco lobby welcomes visitors to the three museums inside.
Jean-Robert's Table (pictured) Local celeb chef Jean-Robert de Cavel opened this French bistro in 2010 one block from Fountain Square. You'll find traditional French dishes, as well as a burger. Try the salmon served with bacon. (513) 621-4777; jrtable.com 
The BonBonerie Sugar cookies decorated like baseballs and daffodils highlight the springtime array of baked goods. The cafe is a cozy place for a soup and sandwich lunch. (513) 321-3399; bonbonerie.com 
Camp Washington Chili Cincinnati has a love affair with chili; we like the 1950s diner feel here, plus the heaping mound of five-way—spaghetti, chili, beans, onions and cheese. (513) 541-0061; campwashingtonchili.com 
Daveed's Exceptional service and seasonal cuisine bring locals to Mount Adams for the Ohio golden beet salad, an amazing white asparagus soup and duck breast served with wild mushrooms. (513) 683-2665; daveeds.com 
Flavors of the Queen City Food Tour Started in 2010, the three-hour walking tour starts and finishes at Fountain Square, stopping at both historic establishments and promising new ventures. You'll learn cool city trivia along the way. (513) 703-0880; flavorsofthequeencity.com 
Graeter's Since 1870, this Cincy institution has sated patrons' hankering for premium ice cream and candy at its locations throughout the city and suburbs. graeters.com 
Local 127 Smoked meats star at this farm-to-table spot. The Daily Daring appeals to adventurous diners; otherwise, the potato skins and pork are rich and cheesy, and the French onion soup comes crowned with French cheeses. Try the Mason jar cheesecake for dessert. (513) 721-1345; mylocal127.com 
Nada Mexican food goes upscale in a colorful dining room downtown. Sample homemade chips and guac, lovely grapefruit margaritas and braised meat tacos. (513) 721-6232; eatdrinknada.com 
Nectar The small menu in Mount Lookout changes depending on what's available. Springtime options have included a Mediterranean hummus plate, veal meatballs topped with a fried egg and sea scallops flavored with lemon. (513) 929-0525; dineatnectar.com 
Best Western Premier Mariemont Inn (pictured) A renovation brings new energy and preserves Tudor style in Mariemont. The neighborhood also has a Graeter's, a movie house and the amazing Quarter Bistro. (513) 271-2100; mariemontinn.com 
Hyatt Place Cincinnati Northeast An impressive budget option in suburban Mason offers big, beautiful rooms and free breakfast. (513) 754-0003; hyatt.com 
The Cincinnatian Hotel Recently renovated, this 130-year-old property with great suites hasn't forgotten each guest is special. (800) 942-9000; cincinnatianhotel.com