Family Vacations to Cincinnati

Last updated 11th May 2018

There’s a resurgence on the banks of the Ohio River – and its name is Cincinnati.

Once the site of large swaths of urban blight, riots, and the occasional trampling-to-death of fans at a concert for the band The Who, Cincinnati has cleaned up its act, converted its blight into bright, reborn neighborhoods, and generally created a fun, engaging atmosphere for any family.

The best example of Cincy’s turn around is Washington Park. Located in the Over the Rhine (OTR) neighborhood (so named for the German immigrants who settled on the other side of a canal) across from iconic Music Hall, the park has become the heart of this once decrepit neighborhood.

On any given weekend day, you’ll see children playing in a splash park while dogs play and yip nearby in a park of their own. Adults can sit out and watch their kids play, beverage in hand, from the confines of ‘The Deck’ bar. There are kickball leagues, concerts on the grass, the occasional band or folk singer strumming in the gazebo, and just generally a joyful atmosphere here, all under the gaze of the stately concert venue Music Hall. It is a wonderfully stark contrast to the activities in this park just a few years ago.

The park’s transition reflects the changes within the entire OTR neighborhood surrounding it. Once the scene of a four-night-long riot in 2001 that paralyzed the city and decimated early efforts to gentrify the neighborhood, now OTR is bustling with hip bars, coffee shops, stores, new parks and pools. Bring the kids to nearby Graeter’s ice cream (just one location of this local favorite) and try the black raspberry chocolate chip (trust me). Check local event listings for a variety of festivals and events, both in OTR as a whole and specifically Washington Park.

“What a fantastic city!” said Megan from Pennsylvania after a recent visit. “ We were so impressed with Cincinnati and spent 98% of our time in OTR. I spent two weeks in Cincinnati in 1997 and the city we just visited is completely and utterly different than what I saw back then.”

What to See

But to really get to the heart of a city, you need to go deep. That’s where Cincinnati’s tunnels come into play. In an effort to naturally chill their beer, the German immigrants once dug cellars to store their beverages. Then they dug tunnels to connect their cellars to move their beer around. Now you can explore these fabulous tunnels via the “Queen City Underground” tour.

Cincinnati’s riverfront is also brand spanking new and worth your family’s time. The once industrial waterfront is now rife with bike trails, a variety of playgrounds and play spaces, rocker swings, splash parks – even a restored merry-go-round that features creatures with distinct references to some part of Cincinnati.

From the riverfront you can make your way to Fountain Square, the city’s central gathering place for all major events. The square is surrounded by a variety of restaurant options, from family-friendly (including another Graeters) to more tony fare. Be sure to make your way to the fantastic Contemporary Arts Center as their top-floor ‘Unmuseum’ is built for kids to play, touch, and interact with the artwork located there.

If you do not take your family to Cincy’s Museum Center, then you’ve missed one of the best family attractions in the city, not to mention a stunning example of art deco architecture. The former train station now houses three museums; Museum of Natural History & Science, Cincinnati History Museum, and the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, as well as an Omnimax Theatre and special exhibits.

Another great family attraction is the zoo, which is consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation.

Walk or bike across the ‘Purple People Bridge’ to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky. There you’ll find the Newport Aquarium, shopping, some great German food, and the embarkation points for both duck boat and river boat tours.

Just north of the city is the regional icon of King’s Island, a large amusement park that has been delighting families since before the Brady Bunch came to visit the park and film an episode in 1973. Further, the region (but not necessarily the city itself) is rife with some fantastically long bike trails – the Loveland Bike trail alone being more than 70 miles long.

Finally, you may have heard that Cincinnati is known for its chili, which is served atop spaghetti and laden with cheese. While it’s not necessarily for everyone, the city’s abundant chili restaurants are great for families, as the fare, while simple, is fast, filling and inexpensive. Kids generally keep it plain with just pasta, fries and ample piles of shredded cheese. The adults can experiment with the basic ‘three way’ of pasta, chili, and cheese or build up to four- and five-ways, even getting to higher combinations in some of the more upscale chili joints.

The bottom line is that while Cincinnati may not have originally been on your radar, it’s a great, affordable, fun destination for families to stay for a weekend or even several days.

Chris ‘Chez’ Chesak is Executive Director of the Family Travel Association and a 15-year veteran of the travel industry. While he’s lived all over the U.S. and traveled to nearly 30 countries, he has the most fun when he’s exploring with his wife Sally, and three daughters, Lillian, 12, Sylvia, 10, and Linda, 8. An avid outdoors person and writer, he’s happiest on a trail, on skis, or nestled into a sleeping bag.