Spending a December weekend in Cincinnati feels like pulling out a faded memory and finding it buffed to a new gleam. Before malls siphoned business from city centers and Amazon took over the world, families put on their good shoes and went downtown at Christmastime, taking in the glittering department stores and white-tablecloth tearooms. All that festive, street-level energy is back in this Ohio river city, albeit with a thoroughly modern streak. (Tablecloths out, barnwood in.) Even to an out-of-town visitor, the local pride is palpable, and moving.
The showpiece of the turnaround is Over-the-Rhine, a clutch of 19th-century buildings on downtown’s northern edge. Once the home of Cincinnati’s German immigrants, it became the epicenter of the city’s race riots in 2001. Fifteen years later, and the neighborhood has transformed again, as creatives and entrepreneurs build a new legacy. Dan Korman of vegan cafe Park and Vine explains, “This has always been a neighborhood of change, it’s just a different sort of change now.”
The latest metamorphosis has its challenges. (It would be easier to go over the river and through the woods on a sleigh than to find Friday night parking here.) But that’s a good thing. People no longer come downtown just to grind through a workday or watch a Broadway show and flee. They’re staying to trade bites of duck leg rillette at buzzy Salazar or sample seasonal brews at Rhinegeist Brewery and Taft’s Ale House, named for Cincinnati’s homeboy-turned-president. So take a cue from the past: Leave the car in your spiffy hotel’s garage, put on those good (comfy) shoes and hit the town.
(Clockwise from top left) Shopping at MICA 12/v; City Flea holiday market at Washington Park (December 17); Orchids at Palm Court inside the Netherland Plaza hotel; dessert at Salazar
A Cincinnati Sampler
Over-the-Rhine is alive with revitalization, but two architectural landmarks provide a bit of historical gravitas. Findlay Market is an 1852 public market. Cathedrallike Music Hall is closed for renovations but makes a striking backdrop to a stroll through Washington Park. Places to eat and drink abound: Stop in Blue Oven Bakery for artisanal English muffins, Abigail Street for knockout small plates or Taste of Belgium for authentic waffles. The shopping scene is an urban mix of vintage stores, boutiques and the odd ethnic grocery. MiCA 12/v stocks an array of arty gifts for all ages. The Candle Lab invites customers to blend custom scents.
Unless you snag a sweet loft on Airbnb, plan to stay in one of the city’s refreshed hotels. Most are a 15-minute walk from Over-the-Rhine (or an easy ride on a much-touted new streetcar). The boldly stylish 21c Museum Hotel, the Renaissance and a new Hampton Inn in the Beaux Arts Cincinnati Enquirer building are all solid picks. For a big-city splurge, sample the work of two of the area’s best-known chefs at Jean-Robert’s Table or David Falk’s Boca. And don’t miss the quietly exquisite Taft Museum of Art, which dresses up for the holidays with festive antiques.
For more area info, visit cincinnatiusa.com.
Families pack Fountain Square’s ice rink and the glowing booths of the Cincideutsch Christkindlmarkt.
Hot holiday tickets
Holidazed and Confused Revue The Second City’s raucous improv show at Playhouse in the Park nails everything we love (or don’t) about the season (November 5–December 31). cincyplay.com
The Nutcracker Jazzed Up! Duke Ellington meets Tchaikovsky at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. This version combines 1940s New York and the iconic ballet (November 27–29). cincinnatiarts.org
Holiday Pops Temporarily relocated from Music Hall to the Taft Theatre, the renowned Cincinnati Pops Orchestra rings in the season with this year’s guest: American Idol’s Melinda Doolittle (December 2–4). cincinnatiarts.org