World-Class Cincinnati

Whenever I travel, I always seek the unique qualities of a place. I taste its flavors, savor its smells, relish its sights, touch its monuments, and listen to its rhythm.

And every place I visit has its own distinct beat, thrumming beneath the surface. If you stop and listen, you’ll hear the voices of its past, humming together, the sounds of people whose blood, sweat, and toil helped define the lay of the land.

I traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, last summer to take a closer look at a city I’d skimmed by in the past. My oldest brother has lived there for more than three decades, yet I’d never fully explored this culturally rich city with roots that go deep into our country’s past. From humble origins, Cincinnati grew to become the fourth largest city in the U.S. in the 1800s, its location on the Ohio River a logistical boon. Even today river commerce is vital to the city’s economy—and to the delight of arts lovers, the city’s long-standing tradition of supporting the arts ensures that the beat goes on.

Next summer between July 4 and July 14, the beat will go on and on and on. Cincinnati has been chosen to host the 2012 World Choir Games, an event never before held in the United States. Often called the Olympics of music, this competition will attract choirs and choral groups from around the world, each one eyeing the top prize—a gold medal, what else? Categories for competition include folk, gospel, jazz, barbershop, pop, and more. Organizers expect more than 400 choirs from around the world as well as tens of thousands of visitors who will come to view performances and cheer on their favorites.

Exactly a year before the 2012 Choir Games, local dignitaries and city leaders started the clock that will count down 365 days until the opening ceremony on July 4, 2012. Under a warm summer sun, singing groups belted out songs at Fountain Square, one of the many venues where performers will dazzle audiences with their world-class music. It was just a taste of what’s to come when singers arrive next July from Austria, Canada, China, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, the Ukraine, Venezuela, and of course from the good ol’ USA. The Choir Games offer you the perfect chance to see and hear the world—right in your backyard!

And while the thrumming sound of music from exotic far-flung countries is sure to enchant visitors, Cincinnati is busy polishing off its already impressive list of attractions to ensure folks from out of town discover that this historic river city still maintains its world-class reputation. From stellar arts institutions and history centers to nature sanctuaries and family attractions, Cincinnati offers a feast for all five of your senses.

For a peek into Cincinnati’s storied past, stop in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center overlooking the Ohio River. In fact, the building’s very design suggests the river with curving architecture and wide, open spaces that house exhibits designed to make you stop and think. Turns out Cincinnati was an important link in the Underground Railroad and offered a safe haven for slaves traveling northward. Besides celebrating freedom heroes of the past, the center also spotlights those who continue to fight for freedom today. I was deeply moved by an exhibit about contemporary slavery called Invisible: Slavery Today, which explores the lives of real men, women, and children around the world who are enslaved right now. It’s an eye-opening, inspiring experience, highly recommended for all ages.

Across the river in Newport, Kentucky, another family attraction provides a different kind of experience. The Newport Aquarium is a state-of-the-art facility that offers “a million gallons of fun,” according to the brochure. Make sure you plan your visit to witness the Penguin Parade held every morning at ten a.m. on the plaza out front. The aquarium features five species of cold-weather penguins and offers a penguin encounter program with an experienced biologist. I loved the aquarium’s huge saltwater tank with 13 species of sharks languidly circling amid rays and other fish. As you walk through a tunnel, the sharks look like they’re swimming in the air above you. The jellyfish gallery is also other-worldly. Walk-around tanks “enable you to experience jellyfish as art,” explained Roger Pille, the PR director for the aquarium. While classical music plays in the background, nearly 100 species of translucent jellyfish dance and pulse—like art in motion.

Next to the aquarium, a complex of restaurants and shops called Newport on the Levee offers dining and shopping choices. Down the street the country’s first authentic Hofbräuhaus, which opened in 2003, serves German beer and food—schnitzel, bratwurst, and sauerbraten, for example—in a lively open dining room with music and entertainment. Chicken dance, anyone?

Families will also enjoy touring the river on the Newport Ducks, amphibious vehicles that offer a sightseeing experience that takes you from dry land to (splash) the river in seconds flat. Everyone gets a “wacky quacker” to make quacking noises as you roll through the city streets and then, if the mood strikes, feel free to quack some more as you go rolling on the river.

Take a break from the city and head to Eden Park, Cincinnati’s green oasis and also home to the Krohn Conservatory, a beautiful art deco structure that houses more than 3500 species of plants from around the world. Concurrent with the World Choir Games, the Krohn Conservatory will offer a butterfly show called: On the Wings of Harmony: Butterflies of the World. While you’re in Eden Park, stop in the Cincinnati Art Museum, where you’ll be captivated by art spanning six thousand years.

Whether you visit Cincinnati with kids or you’re just a kid at heart, one destination offers more fun than you can imagine: Cincinnati Museum Center. Housed in Union Terminal, a landmark Art Deco train station, the structure now provides a stunning setting for three amazing museums—Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, The Duke Energy Children’s Museum—plus an IMAX Theater and an historical library.

Mosaic murals representing Cincinnati’s history look down on the spacious rotunda and concourse and depict the workers who helped build America—along with the various modes of transportation instrumental in our nation’s history. The center attracts 1.3 million visitors annually, said Elizabeth Pierce, VP of marketing. “It’s an incredible family destination,” she continued. “You can’t possibly do it all in one day.” During the World Choir Games, Cincinnati Museum Center will feature the blockbuster exhibit “A Day in Pompeii,” one of only three venues in the U.S. to offer a glimpse of the tragic storyof the Italian city that vanished under a thick cloud of volcanic ash in A.D. 79.

Another architectural marvel—this one decidedly more modern—is the Contemporary Arts Center, noted by the New York Times as one of the most important buildings built since the Cold War. Its cavernous stature, concrete staircases, and street-level glass walls unify the building with its surroundings and provide a monumental space for the center’s changing exhibits. Popular with children, the Unmuseumon the top floor is a delight for adults as well and will bring out your inner child.

For a unique perspective of Cincinnati, sign up for a tour with American Legacy Tours. You can explore the city’s underground breweries, follow in the footsteps of famous gangsters, or enjoy a spooky good time while investigating paranormal activity in some of Cincinnati’s haunted halls.

Take a break from your sightseeing and visit historic Mt. Adams, a lovely hilltop neighborhood filled with funky shops, cafés, and art galleries. Mt. Adams Bar & Grill is a popular dining establishment offering a variety of excellent home-cooked food. Next door the Blind Lemon is a cozy hideaway, where you can enjoy live music in front of a bonfire in winter or relax in a flower-filled patio in summer. Its Old-World charm will captivate you as will its eclectic collection of toys, trains, knickknacks, and artifacts.

Other recommended restaurants in Cincinnati include Hathaways, a cute-as-a-button breakfast eatery downtown; Nicola’s, an Italian restaurant with fresh pasta and awesome risotto; and Walnut Street Grille, an American restaurant serving tasty fare in a cheerful atmosphere.

Accommodation options range from budget to luxury. At the top of the scale is the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, which opened in 1931 and features some of the world’s finest examples of French Art Deco. Housed in the Carew Tower, a landmark skyscraper synonymous with Cincinnati, the Hilton recalls the elegance of yesteryear. The Orchids at Palm Court offers fine dining as well as a terrific bar, all surrounded by exquisite décor—a fountain with seahorses, murals depicting the leisurely life of French aristocrats, and pyramid shapes reflecting Egyptian influences. Rooms are equally opulent and worth the splurge when you come to Cincinnati.

Whether you plan your visit for the World Choir Games or any time of the year, Cincinnati has something to offer everyone—especially if you enjoy exploring a city that’s culturally rich, arts oriented, and family friendly. Join the fun!

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