NORTH AMERICA, U.S.A.

Low-key weekend in Cincinnati

Weekend trips, while always a blast, are often a hotbed of planning and packing-related stress. It can be nigh impossible to avoid the pressure to fit absolutely everything into just a few days. Between internal pressure (I might not ever have the chance to go back, so I don’t want to miss a thing!) and pressure from social media and travel blogs like this one (the 50 must-do things in X city), you’re almost certainly setting yourself up to fail at crafting the “perfect” itinerary.

Getting over this involves a shift in perspective that can take years to accomplish – I haven’t even come close! Over the past few months, I’ve been struggling to approach my everyday life and work with more mindfulness, by “letting go” of certain stressors and trying to “go with the flow” of my environment more comfortably. It’s been a daunting challenge in my day-to-day, so how could I expect to transfer this mindset instantly to my travels?

I got a taste of it earlier this month when I flew to Cincinnati to visit Lily, one of my closest friends and the most giving, lovely person I know, for a low-key weekend. I’ll admit that I did my research ahead of time and came prepared with my own “must-see” list, but allowing Lily and her boyfriend (also a good friend) to take charge was the secret ingredient to a weekend that was fully enjoyable and not at all over-scheduled from start to finish.

After having a wonderful time eating, exploring and relaxing in Cincinnati, I’m thinking “travel mindfulness” and playing it by ear is the way to go for micro-vacations! Here are some highlights from my low-key weekend in the Queen City:

One of Over The Rhine’s many colorful murals

Where we went

My friends live in a section of downtown Cincinnati called Over The Rhine (OTR for locals in the know), which is said to be the one of the largest, most intact concentrations of historic buildings in the country. With its mix of 19th-century architecture and colorful murals, there is something different around every corner.

Settled originally by German immigrants, OTR has a rich industrial and community-based history. These days, some of the main streets (Main, Liberty, and Vine) are populated with loads of local shops, bars and restaurants. If you want to pick up a classy souvenir, locally-made art, or a gift, the shops in OTR are the place to go. For a pick-me-up in between stores, pop into Holtman’s donut shop. Keep in mind that lots of things are closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Another district of Cincinnati that’s worth checking out is Mt. Adams. This area offers gorgeous views across the river into Kentucky. Lily and I drove up through San Francisco-esque streets just to sit on a bench and talk while gazing out over the Ohio River, a nice respite after spending a few days down in the busy city.

The view over the Ohio River from Cincinnati’s Mt. Adams neighborhood

What we did

American Sign Museum

Though Cincinnati is home to plenty of fantastic museums (The Cincinnati Museum Center and The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center are on my list for the future), we visited just one during the weekend – The American Sign Museum. This museum is exactly the kind of thing that is a must-see just because of the spectacle. At its face, the history of neon signs seems like a niche topic, but the museum’s setup makes it feel like you’re stepping back in time, then walking slowly through the whole of American history. After all, what’s more American than advertising?

The bright lights of the American Sign Museum

Rhinegeist Brewery

You’d be remiss if you didn’t stop for a beer at one of Cincinnati’s many local brewing companies. We tossed back some “Bubbles” Rose Ale at Rhinegeist Brewery in OTR. I’ve been on more brewery tours than I can count in my life growing up in Milwaukee, so just having a drink was enough for me, but Rhinegeist and others offer regular tours if you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes.

Toasting to a great weekend at Rhinegeist Brewery

Smale Riverfront Park

The Cincinnati waterfront area, officially called Smale Riverfront Park, provides hours of free entertainment for all ages. On a sunny, warm day, you could stroll the paths alongside the river, play with any one of the numerous interactive sculptures, or spread out a blanket for a riverside picnic.

Architecture nuts will want to take a stroll across the Roebling Suspension Bridge, which was the longest in the world at the time of its opening in 1867. The style will look familiar – the architect, John A. Roebling, later built what’s now known as the Brooklyn Bridge.

Smale Park is also where you’ll find the “Sing the Queen City” sign, a photo-op if there ever was one!

What we ate

Having local tour guides is the best when it comes to finding good food in a new city. No matter how many Yelp reviews you read, nothing compares to dining out with people who have personally vetted all the restaurants. We crafted the perfect weekend menu – a balance of Cincinnati classics, independent local restaurants, and gorgeous appetizer spreads and wine on the couch:

Three heaping portions of Skyline Chili
  • Otto’s: We came to this beloved Covington spot for brunch, but their menu is chock full of rich, Southern-inspired dishes for any time of day.
  • Graeter’s: I’m not sure if Cincinnati is home to any other ice cream shops, but I don’t think it needs to be – a scoop of their signature flavor, Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip is frozen treat perfection (and that’s coming from a Midwest-custard purist).
  • Skyline Chili: This chain restaurant is home to the ultimate Cincinnati meal – a massive bowl of spaghetti noodles with red beans, chili with a hint of cinnamon, and all the cheese, for well under $10.
  • Sleepy Bee Cafe: This locally-sourced breakfast/brunch spot has a sunny atmosphere, and a menu with plenty of filling, yummy veggie options and delicious hot drinks.

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Even without a strict schedule, I managed to pack quite a lot into a four-day trip, in addition to plenty of catching up with my friends and cheering on Team U.S.A. at the Winter Olympics. I didn’t see everything I thought I “wanted” to, but I am at peace having had a wonderful time and knowing I’ll return in the future.

How do you make the most of a weekend trip?

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