Cincinnati Essentials

Here are the Ohio city's best spots to eat, drink, shop, play and more.
By: Geoff Williams
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Cincinnati downtown buildings

Cincinnati downtown buildings

Cincinnati downtown skyline / highrise buildings with a beautiful sky in the background.

Food and Drink Essentials: The Best Places to...


Jungle Jim's International Market, 5440 Dixie Highway, Fairfield, Ohio, 513-674-6000

Sure, there are more Kroger’s, making that the most popular grocery store in Cincinnati, and Bigg’s is in shorter supply but also much admired. But if you want to buy anything that you can find at a normal grocery store -- for regular, comparable prices -- as well as purchase everything you can’t find anywhere else, Jungle Jim’s is where it’s at.

Nursing homes from three hours away have been known to bus their residents over here, so people can shop at the store, which covers six acres. If you hail from another country and have been transplanted to Cincinnati, you go to Jungle Jim’s to find food from your native homeland.

It’s almost impossible to explain how diverse this grocery store is. For instance, the honey table is as long as a normal grocery store aisle -- filled with jars of raw honey from numerous states and far-flung nations like New Zealand, Greece, the West Indies and the Cayman Islands. The cheese shop has 1,600 varieties of cheese. There are also singing characters here to entertain the kids (think: Chuck E. Cheese) and a cooking school. It’s like a theme park for anyone who likes food. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll eat ...


Saigon Market, Findlay Market Square, 250 Store Front at 1801 Race St., 513-721-8053

Frankly, the best ethnic grocery store should also go to the aforementioned Jungle Jim’s International Market, but if you want an alternative, Saigon Market at Findlay Market Square, has more than a thousand products from Vietnam, Thailand, China, Japan and the Philippines, as well as some other countries. Open Tuesday-Friday: 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday: 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.


Hyde Park Tavern, 3384 Erie Ave., Cincinnati, 513-321-3869

Hyde Park Tavern is a sophisticated sports bar with great food and 16 beers on tap.

Mecklenburg Gardens, a02 E. University Ave., Cincinnati, 513-221-5353

If even more sophistication is your thing, Mecklenburg Gardens also a good place to quench your thirst. They have 15 beers on tap and up to 80 bottles to choose from, and it’s a good place to eat -- The New York Times once dubbed Mecklenburg the best place to eat in Cincinnati.

Mainstrasse Village Pub, 619 Main Street, Covington, Ky., 859-431-5552.

Rather sit back, have a good time and not worry about the atmosphere? Mainstrasse Village Pub is the place to go. Their motto is, “Drink better beer.” They have $2 daily specials on select imports and microbrews, and they have an ever-changing selection of more than 200 bottles of beer.

Hofbrauhaus, 200 E. Third St., Newport, Ky., 859-491-7200

Because of the city's German heritage, the Hofbrauhaus in Munich chose Cincinnati as the locale for its first sanctioned beer garden outside of German borders. The beers are brewed on site according to the time-honored Munich methods, and there's a huge covered patio out back. Inside the vast bar, revelers dance on the benches (don't worry, they're sturdy) as the house polka band plays favorites like "The Chicken Dance," "Sweet Caroline" and Ohio favorite "Hang on Sloopy."


The Root Beer Stand, 11566 Reading Road, Cincinnati, 513-769-4349

It opened as an A.W. Root Beer Stand in 1957, and then long after the franchise ended in 1982, the owners simply changed the name to the Root Beer Stand. Cincinnati Magazine consistently ranks “The Stand” as one of the top 100 places in Cincinnati. It’s one of those perfect old-fashioned root beer stands (they take cash only), and you can buy the root beer by the gallon.


White Castle, various locations

If you want something simple, there’s no better place than White Castle, a regional fast-food restaurant chain that offers sliders steamed with pickles and onions as well as the usual hamburger joint fare. It's very popular in Cincinnati and open late throughout the city and often open 24 hours.

Pacific Moon, Newport on the Levee, Newport, Ky., 859-261-6666

If your late-night cravings are a little more high-end, check out the Pacific Moon, open until 2 a.m., seven nights a week at Newport on the Levee.


Front Porch Coffeehouse, 5245 Glenway Ave., Western Hills, 513-471-5282

Front Porch Coffeehouse is located on the west side of Cincinnati. They have a play area for kids and a lending library and often live music entertaining the customers and most importantly, intensely delicious coffee.


Camp Washington Chili, 3005 Colerain Ave., 513-541-0061

Cincinnatians love to devour a thin, beanless, Greek-style chili that's more sauce than soup, and Camp Washington Chili has served up one of the best recipes in town for more than 60 years. But don't just take my word for it -- the restaurant was honored by the James Beard Foundation in 2000 as an "American Regional Classic" restaurant, and Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the best 10 chili parlors in the country in its May 2009 issue.

You can get your chili in a bowl, but it's traditional to order up a coney or a 3-way: spaghetti topped with chili and a huge mound of finely shredded cheddar cheese. A 4-way comes with beans or onions, and a 5-way comes with "the works." The restaurant also has terrific double-deckers. It stays open 24 hours Monday through Saturday, so you're likely to run into the after-the-bar crowd if you head in for a late-night bite.

Skyline Chili, various locations

It would be an overstatement to say there's a Skyline on every corner, but the local chili chain is very common -- there are 85 restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area. Greek immigrant Nicolas Lambrinides started Skyline Chili in 1949 with a winning chili recipe -- some say the sweet, cinnamony blend gets its signature taste from chocolate, but the founder's remaining family members keep the secret spice blend locked down. Whatever's in the chili, it keeps locals coming back for more at lunchtime and for a late-night bite -- most Skyline locations are open until 3 a.m.


Pompilios, 600 Washington Ave., Newport, Ky., 859-581-3065

Celebrating its 76th year in 2009, Pompilios serves up authentic Italian food in a relaxed, family-friendly setting. If it looks familiar when you walk in, you may remember it from Rain Man -- it was chosen as a filming location for the 1988 flick. The movie crew loved to order the Italian sampler: spaghetti, lasagna and eggplant.


Graeters, now a regional chain, has been a Cincinnati institution since it started here in 1870. The Graeter family still owns the business and still makes the ice cream two gallons at a time using the "French pot" method. Try the black raspberry chip. Many locals also love Aglamesis Brothers, a nostalgic, turn-of-the century ice cream parlor (3046 Madison Road and 9899 Montgomery Road), and United Dairy Farmers, a regional ice cream and convenience store chain.

Nightlife Essentials: The Best Places to...


Saturday Night at the Movies, Fountain Square

Saturday nights, May 2 to Sept. 12, Fountain Square -- the meeting spot in downtown Cincinnati -- holds Saturday Night at the movies. Some families, groups of friends and a lot of young couples can be seen, bringing sleeping bags, blankets, chairs and pillows. You can buy beer, wine and soft drinks, and just relax and have a great time watching two movies back-to-back. It’s free, thanks to corporate sponsorships, and the movies tend to be crowd-pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Independence Day.


Mad Frog,1 E. McMillan St., 513-784-9119

Popular with college kids (it’s near the University of Cincinnati) Mad Frog features a lot of original bands. Monday nights are Latin Music Night with a lot of salsa and merengue dancing. Tuesday nights are college nights with two different rooms of dance music, and the rest of the week is a collection of funk, reggae and rock acts. The shows usually start off at 9 p.m., and there’s a daily happy hour at 6 p.m.

Metropolis, 125 Cincinnati Mills Drive, Cincinnati, 513-671-2881

Metropolis is also popular with the younger crowd. It’s located at Cincinnati Mills (locals still call it the Forest Fair Mall, even though it’s been forever since that was its name) on the second floor. It’s a trendy nightclub with separate rooms for a lot of different dance tastes: top 20, R&B, hip-hop, country and techno. Mostly full of the 18- to 24-year-old crowd.

Jim & Jack's on the River, 3456 River Road, three miles west of I-75, Cincinnati, 513-251-7977

Or if you’re a little older, or your tastes are a bit more mature, you could join the Cincinnati Bop Club, dedicated to preserving older forms of dance like the Jitterbug, Bop and Shag. They dance every Tuesday night, at 7 p.m., at Jim & Jack’s on the River.

Entertainment Essentials: The Best Places to...


If you’re new in town, it’s always tough to meet people. One way of doing that, of course, is by volunteering, and so if that’s something you’re interested in, you might want to try the Cincinnati Arts Association. Help with ushering or fundraising and learn about the plays coming into the city. If you don’t make any lifelong friends, at least you’ve learned about one of the gems that makeup Cincinnati. Of course, if the arts isn’t for you, you could do something similar and volunteer at the Cincinnati Parks, where a big benefit is that you get to be outside. The Cincinnati Zoo also has a volunteer program.


Kings Island, Kings Island Drive, Mason, Ohio, 45040, 800-288-0808 or 513-754-5700

Your kids won’t forgive you if you don’t occasionally take them to the big theme parks like Kings Island, an incredible theme park that just keeps improving (fun fact: in its early years, a Brady Bunch episode filmed here). That said, Kings Island is so big it has its own water park, not to mention numerous roller coasters, Nickelodeon Universe (the kids' area) and a replica of the Eiffel Tower. It’s not quite as big as the real thing in Paris, but take the elevator to the top, and you’ll still have spectacular views of the countryside.

The Beach Waterpark, 2590 Water Park Drive, Mason, Ohio, 513-398-7946

Located right down the road from King's Island, heading to The Beach Waterpark is the perfect way to make oppressive summer heat bearable. The park boasts water slides big and small, a huge wave pool, and a "lazy river" perfect for soaking up the sun.

The Blue Marble, 1356 S. Fort Thomas Ave., Fort Thomas, Ky., 859-781-0602

This children's bookstore has been around since 1979; the store is in the front part of the owner’s house. One entire room of the bookstore is modeled to look like the room in Goodnight Moon. It's a charming, charming bookstore that nobody, including the locals, seem to know about.


Plum Diore, 6099 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ride, 513-351-PLUM.

You want to shop? There are plenty of quirky stores in and about Cincinnati. Plum Diore is a fashion boutique with offerings for your closet, your couch and other places in the home.

Guitar Lovers Store, 7342 Kenwood Road, Kenwood, 513-793-1456

Guitar Lovers Store is a must for guitar players and those who just love guitar music -- they’ll sometimes host live music by local musicians.


Carew Tower, 441 Vine St., Cincinnati, 45202

To really see the city, go to the top of one of two spots: the Carew Tower, which opened to the public in 1931. It’s 49 stories tall, that's 574 feet, and for $2 admission for adults, and $1 for kids under 11, it’s worth the few bucks to take the elevator up and see amazing views of Cincinnati’s riverfront along the Ohio River, not to mention all of downtown, including historic Over-the-Rhine. Or visit the Great American Tower building, which clocks in at a whopping 660 feet.

Outdoor Essentials: The Best Places To...


There are still a few parks that you can visit in Cincinnati that don’t cost anything. At the Hamilton County Park District’s parks, you have to pay $2 to enter, or you can get a $5 annual pass, making it practically free. But in the spirit of truly free, why not go to Loveland, a suburb of Ohio, and visit their bicycle trail?

Loveland Bike Trail, West and East Loveland, between Karl Brown Way and SR 48

The Loveland Bike Trail, which is what the locals call it, is part of a 60-some bicycle trail that stretches way up north to Yellow Springs, Ohio, near Dayton. But you don’t have to cycle the entire trail to have a great time, or even bicycle. Take a walk along the Little Miami River, or wander down and skip rocks. If you have kids, there’s a playground at the trail. If it’s the Fourth of July, enjoy the free fireworks display. Sure, there are restaurants, ice cream stands and vending machines nearby, as well as bicycles and canoes to rent, but you can have a perfectly nice afternoon doing nothing but sitting on the river bank and watching the water rush by.


Parky's Farm at Winton Woods, 10073 Daly Road, 513-521-7275

If your wallet is groaning, and you have young kids (let’s say, 10 and under), there are some really fun kids’ activities to be found in Cincinnati’s park system. Kids love Parky’s Farm at Winton Woods, which is a free, educational working farm. The look on your child's face when he or she milks a goat, for instance, will (almost) rival anything you do at Kings Island. If you decide to splurge on the pony ride, indoor playground with ball pit, wagon ride and, say, ice cream, it will probably set you back about $20.


Sometimes it feels like you can’t travel a mile or two without stumbling into some sort of park. USA Today ranked Cincinnati as one of the three top urban park systems in the United States, and it’s easy to see why. There are five regional parks, 70 neighborhood parks and 34 nature preserves; all in all, and 10 percent of the city’s land are managed by the Cincinnati park system. But if you want to get outside and get some exercise -- beyond biking, jogging, hiking and roaming around -- there’s plenty more to do. During the winter, there are several ski resorts in the area, and during the warmer months, there are plenty of campgrounds and places to whitewater raft and canoe.


Mt. Airy Dog Park, Westwood Northern Boulevard between Montana Avenue and North Bend Road.

There are 11 dog parks throughout Cincinnati, according to One particularly fun one is on the west side, a two-acre, fenced-in dog park in Mt. Airy Forest known as Mt. Airy Dog Park. Trees to sniff at, hills to run up and down on and almost always -- lots and lots of other dogs and people to play with. There’s also the Bark Park at Miami Meadows Park on SR131, with two fenced-in areas, one for big dogs and one for small.

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