Cincinnati, because of its location on the Ohio – Kentucky border, offers a surprising variety of mid-Western history and cultural attractions for families.
The best part about traveling to southeast Ohio is the two-for-one: two states, one trip. With Kentucky right across the Ohio River, you have access to double the fun in just minutes. The cities of Newport, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio offer so many family activities; we had a hard time fitting them all into one weekend.
Ohio UnMuseums & Museums
Our first stop was Cincinnati’s striking Contemporary Arts Center (513/345-8400), one block from our downtown hotel. Praised at its August 2003 opening for its innovative architectural design by architect Zaha Hadid, the curators added a sixth floor just for kids called the UnMuseum.
The Unmuseum is filled with interactive exhibits that are smart, sophisticated, and quite unlike any other museum we have ever visited. The Art Lab is stocked with every supply imaginable. Kids are encouraged to create, and then climb different levels in the display area to show off their work. The result is an eye-catching collage. The Growing and Raining Tree responds to movement as viewers walk around it. Kids can make music on the Overblown Piano (made of inflatable vinyl) or conduct an orchestra at a display called Paavo’s Hands. The ideas here captivated our daughter so much, she begged to come back.
The rest of the museum is geared for adults. Some of the contemporary art was R-rated, which the staff made us aware of when purchasing tickets. It didn’t matter as we spent all our time in the UnMuseum! Note the museum is located at 44 East Sixth Street and charges an admission fee of $7.50/adult, $5.50/kids, but children under the age of 5 are free.
For a different museum experience, head for the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal (800/733-2077). Opened as a train station in 1933, Union Terminal is one of the country’s most spectacular examples of Art Deco architecture and one of its most innovative reuse projects. In nearly 12 football fields worth of space, it’s home to the Historical Society Library, History Museum, Cinergy Children’s Museum, and the Museum of Natural History and Science. Throw in the OMNIMAX Theater, and a visit here can easily take a whole day. The details here: 1301 Western Avenue; admission is $7.50/adult and $5.50/kids. A variety of combination passes for admission to multiple attractions are also available at discounted prices for adults and children alike.
Kentucky Museums & Aquariums
The aquarium’s 14 galleries and over 70 exhibits include over 200 feet of seamless, clear acrylic tunnels. It’s eerie and awesome at the same time to see a 10-foot sand tiger shark swimming overhead — and beneath your feet — just inches away. The Live Dive demonstration shows divers interacting with sharks and other creatures. Also, you can even ask the divers questions while they are underwater and hear their responses. Theater-style seating in front of the Kingdom of Penguins exhibit encourages you to sit and watch a while. It’s impossible not to! The Newport Aquarium is located at One Aquarium Way and admission is $23/adult, $15/kids and kids under 2 are free. Check their website under Admissions and Pricing to learn about coupons and special savings.
Once you’ve seen all the underwater creatures, explore dry land about 20 minutes away at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens (513/281-4700 or 800/94 Hippo). It’s the nation’s second oldest zoo and is consistently ranked as one of the top. Adults will pay $15 to enter, and children are $11.
A nice way to cap off your visit is to catch a Red’s Major League baseball game at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark (513/765-7500) at 100 Main Street. They still have $5 seats, and the two-for-one view is fantastic.
Multi-Ethnic Cincy Especially for Families
Since our visit, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (513/333-7500) has opened on Cincinnati’s Ohio River shores to help visitors learn more about the major struggles for freedom throughout history, such as the Underground Railroad, the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement.
In three pavilions, the center presents eight galleries of historical exhibits like a two-story slave pen, research archives, interactive media and live cultural performances in addition to two theaters and a cafe. The wide-ranging educational programs taking place most weekends include concerts, lectures and workshops such as “What makes someone a hero?” in which children ages 6-12 are encouraged to define their heroes and collaborate on a mural of their portraits.
If you’re traveling with school age children, take advantage of the local company that gives guided half-, full-day and two-day Secret Passage Tours (513/563-9380) bringing the Underground Railroad experience to life.
Other special-for-family attractions include the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education (513/487-3055), a multi-media presentation created for all ages; the Children’s Theatre (513/569-8080) specializing in entertainment for the young; and the widely recognized Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (513/487-3055) regional theatre.
This two-for-one city region like to celebrate the diverse heritages of its population, so festivals abound. Mid-late August brings the annual Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion (513/281-3300), a three-day arts, entertainment and foodie festival attracting 250,000 to its family-focused event since 1986.
Two States – Sleepless in Cincinnati?
If you arrive by air, don’t be surprised to find the efficient Cincinnati Airport and its fine collection of Art Deco murals in Kentucky. Those driving will have easier access to both cities, but I recommend choosing a hotel in downtown “Cincy.”
We stayed at The Cincinnatian at 601 Vine Street (800/942-9000), a Mobil four-star, AAA four-diamond historic hotel that’s well worth the splurge. The 146 rooms and seven luxury suites overlook an eight-story atrium or the city; ours was elegant and spacious due to extra high ceilings and a roomy sitting area. Customer service skills, well honed after more than 120 years of guest service, are top notch. Every person we came in contact with, from cleaning staff to doormen, greeted us. In particular, concierge Miranda Schroder was very helpful in suggesting kid-friendly activities.
Not on the list, however, is The Cincinnatian Hotel’s formal Palace Restaurant. It’s exquisite and appropriate for a very special occasion, but I took one look at the menu and white tablecloths, and decided it was way too fancy for our pre-schooler.
Instead, we found room service very accommodating. We ate breakfast in our pajamas and had no trouble finding lunch and dinner spots nearby. I have heard that the hotel’s English Afternoon Tea, served daily to live harp music from October through May, is not to be missed.
But if you do happen to stay in Newport, Kentucky, Cincinnati is accessible by nine bridges. The most interesting of which is the Newport Southbank Bridge, built in 1872, which is more commonly called “The Purple People Bridge.” Since 2001 when it became a pedestrian-only roadway, this bridge has become the first of its kind: a bridge that connects two different states, by foot. It is a brisk 20 minute walk across the 2,670-foot-long bridge.
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