Ohio’s third largest city, Cincinnati, is enormous. I still have not entirely wrapped my mind around the full layout, and there are several downtown neighbourhoods I have not even began to explore.
Most of my time in Cincinnati has been spent chasing murals and wandering the Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood. Click the links above to read my blogs about those experiences.
For the sake of simplicity, this one will be about the downtown Riverfront district known locally as The Banks, Krohn Conservatory, the Mushroom House, Cincinnati Zoo, and a few other rad places in the area.
The Banks is the new name for Cincinnati’s commercially developed Riverfront property, stretching along the literal banks of the Ohio River and up to the Over-the-Rhine district directly north.
You can find several restaurants and bars in The Banks including Jefferson Social, E+O Kitchen, The Filson Queen City Kitchen & Bar, and Moerlein Lager House.
All of The Banks’s 85 acres are within DORA (Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area) so you can take your booze to go while you check out everything between the Paul Brown Stadium and the Great American Ballpark.
Sing the Queen City is an installation by Tommy Sheehan that references a poem called Seven Hills and a Queen to Name Them, written about the Queen City, Cincinnati’s common name in the early 1900s.
Visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to learn more about Cincinnati’s network of safehouses and other influential history in the Underground Railroad.
Next to the Sing the Queen City installation, take a selfie with this Greetings from Cincinnati Mural painted on the side of The Filson.
SMALE RIVERFRONT PARK
I typically run from “Live. Work. Play.” developments, but I could not resist a stroll along the river through the Smale Riverfront Park.
John G. Smale donated $20 million dollars for the creation of this park, to honour his wife, Phyllis, after she passed away. Smale was the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble and chairman for General Motors, two prominent businesses in the region.
The 32-acre park includes a carousel, a playground and even a “sprayground” with water features during warmer seasons.
Walk through the Duke Energy Perennial Flower Garden, Gardener Family Grove and Rose Garden, and follow the long segment of the Ohio River Trail that runs through the park, or chill out in the oversized Rosenberg porch swings.
Look for sculptures and interactive installations like the Black Brigade Monument, the Vibrantscape musical features (once it reopens), and the “Flying Pig” below.
Cincinnati’s first statue solely dedicated to a woman is this one, of public servant Marian Spencer:
My favourite feature is the Barr Labyrinth, and I was thrilled to be the only human in sight when I visited.
This “Medieval 9-Circuit” labyrinth with a 78-feet diameter was designed by Sasaki and finished in 2012.
ROEBLING SUSPENSION BRIDGE
From the park, you can follow the pedestrian entry to the Roebling Suspension Bridge.
Walk the 1,057 feet long bridge all the way across the Ohio River into Covington, Kentucky and visit the famous Roebling Murals.
Try to visit Fountain Square and the Taft Museum of Art while you are near the Riverfront.
Krohn Conservatory is one of my top places in all of Cincinnati.
It was built in 1933, originally called the Eden Park Greenhouse, and contains many elements of Gothic and Art Deco style.
More than 3,500 species of plants from around the world create a lush environment, somewhat steamy at times.
Plants are divided among themed gardens like the Palm House, Fern House, Bonsai and Orchid Collections, various exotic fruit trees, and a Desert Garden.
The Conservatory’s water system flows naturally through the gardens, leading visitors from one mini ecosystem to the other.
Krohn Conservatory hosts a variety of annual events, exhibits, classes, and is available to rent for private events.
In the center, the waterfall is the most popular part of the Conservatory.
There is a colourfully lit tunnel that runs below it to keep traffic flowing, but most visitors like to flock to the waterfall and linger.
There were so many species I had not seen before, or at least not in person.
I really enjoy this succulent called Devil’s Backbone, or alternately, Jacob’s Ladder.
There were also several plants I had seen, but only as small houseplant versions. It was wild to see how large they can get when they are not confined to a window sill or the corner of a desk.
A moving model train runs along tiny tracks all throughout the site, and sculptures that look like they were taken from a magickal 1920s circus carousel embellish each garden, a fun surprise at every turn.
Krohn Conservatory is located in Eden Park, and from the entrance you can see the old Eden Park Standpipe in the distance.
The Standpipe is a type of water tower, built in 1894. Not only is it a historic and rare architectural oddity, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It stands 172 feet high, but the lookout is closed to the public now.
Eden Park is also home to the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Hyde Park is one of the oldest commercial districts in Cincinnati, full of independent shops and businesses like Knickers Lingerie and Peace Love & Little Donuts.
It was cute but sleepy, and lacked the sort of authenticity of places like Over-the-Rhine, or Yellow Springs which are also known for having a unique collection of independent businesses.
Hyde Park Square has a small garden and commemorative statue in the middle of its boulevard, with benches and street lanterns.
The Mushroom House is Hyde Park’s most popular attraction, and the reason I made the trek out there.
Architect Terry Brown spent over fourteen years building this masterpiece, starting in 1992 and finally completing it in 2006.
Brown used it as a living model to teach his students, and eventually made it his second home and studio.
Keep this in mind when you visit, it is private property and not open to the public.
The exterior is made of hand-carved swirling cedar, and the roof / ceiling is made of copper. Submarine style windows give it the appearance of watching any visitors that might try to learn its secrets.
Unfortunately, Brown passed away just two years after its completion. The Mushroom House is currently being looked after by a close friend, and people never seem to tire of standing below the fungus-like tower and admiring his work.
There is no official website for the Mushroom House, but you can find it at 3331 Erie Avenue in Hyde Park.
Coffee Emporium across the street has a hot latte with cayenne called Aztec Warrior, and it made my day.
The interior is crowded, but there is an abundant patio out back that was just right.
I parked down the little side street, Victoria Avenue, that passes the Coffee Emporium. As I was walking back to my car, I noticed a distinct architectural style among the houses there, and had to check them out.
White and grey scale, A-frames, Craftsmen, and Victorian homes with unique windows and stone designs sit on hilly manicured lawns. They seemed so similar at first, but each one is strikingly different from the next.
While you are out here, check out the Cincinnati Observatory, attend an event at the Mustard Club (German Social), or pay your respects at the Walnut Hills German Cemetery.
CINCINNATI ZOO & BOTANICAL GARDENS
In the northwest part of Cincinnati, between the Clifton and Avondale neighbourhoods, visit the Cincinnati Zoo. The drive is less than ten minutes from the Krohn Conservatory.
Fiona the Hippo is, unquestionably, the zoo’s main attraction. Fans have been following her life and daily antics for years, and now she has a new little brother.
I have always loved the usual zoo animals like giraffes and elephants, even though I have conflicted feelings about zoos in general.
We seem to have interrupted some ancient penguin ritual with repeated cycles of head movements and odd noises. They turned their backs to us and screamed in unison at the small penguin near the top corner. This went on for a really long time.
The manatee cave ended up being my favourite experience here. Several of them do a surreal type of synchronized dance then watch visitors intently, mimicking movements, and pressing their faces up against the glass.
Manatees seem to possess an unusually high level of sentience and intuition, and I swear that the longer you stare at them, the harder they stare right back into you. My family and I watched them for nearly an hour, in amazement.
On the way to the zoo, I always freak out over the cool houses that line either side of the hill.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Boulter House is one of them, but it is private property and hard to get a close look at.
Across the street is the historic Lowrie House, known for being one of the finest and oldest early Modernist homes in the US, and the oldest modern home in Cincinnati. It was built in 1935, featured in a Folgers Coffee commercial, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other homes in the area are a patchwork of vibrant colours, stonework, unusual windows, and many of them have a very German-like appearance with timbered exteriors and pointed roofing.
After a long and busy day, I went to Mecklenburg Gardens, Cincinnati’s oldest restaurant and oldest German restaurant by default.
I could not decide between sauerkraut balls, fried pickle spears, or potato cakes, so the server brought me a little of everything.
For my actual meal, I ordered Wienerschnitzel with spaetzle and blau kraut. Mecklenberg’s schnitzel is unlike any that I have had before, topped with buttered artichokes and capers. I ended up taking more than half of it home after having that appetizer, but everything was delicious.
Traveling a bit further west will lead you to Kreimer’s Bierhaus in Cleves, the German Heritage Museum, and Steinkeller Restaurant.
There are also several German organizations like the Germania Society of Cincinnati, the Fairview-Clifton German Language School, and German American Citizens League, demonstrating the strong history of German people and culture in Cincinnati.
In the area for a while? Follow me through Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine District and check out some of the Queen City’s dazzling murals.
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6 thoughts on “Queen City & Beyond; Nature, Art, & Architecture in Downtown Cincinnati”
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Thanks for the trip! Did you stay downtown? And do you need a car to get around?
You’re welcome! I stayed in Covington, which is literally just across the Roebling Bridge from Cincinnati. I would suggest parking in a central location that you can get back to in a reasonable time, or planning to Uber from place to place. Some areas I wrote about in other blogs felt very unsafe to me while traveling alone.
(Btw, this is Mary Nietling)
Hiiii Mary ❤ ❤ ❤