A weekend festival made for food lovers and a famous hippo at a popular zoo are just a few reasons why you should grab the family and head to Cincinnati for a few days.

By Kelly Corbett
Updated December 10, 2019
Courtesy of Kelly Corbett

On the border of Ohio and Kentucky lies a colorful, charming city loaded with family-friendly activities. While it’s quieter than most metro areas, it has all the sights, events, and flavorful fare your family could want packed into a vacation. 

It’s here you’ll find the headquarters to seven Fortune 500 companies such as Macy’s and Kroger’s supermarkets. And where you can get a scoop of Graeter’s infamous Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip ice cream IRL in one of their brick-and-mortar parlours, a personal fave of Oprah’s.

Not to mention, Cincinnati is a hop and skip away from neighboring states Kentucky and Indiana. And while this area is touted as the Over-the-Rhine district (due to its first settlers being German immigrants), it should also be called the Over-the-Rainbow district, as the streets burst with colorful murals and storefronts. 

Sure, you may have Disney World or Sesame Place Park on your radar for potential family vacation destinations, but consider a slower-paced, culturally-rich, and educational escape to Cincinnati. Because let’s be real, long theme park lines and the overpriced merch that comes along with it can get old fast.

Here are eight reasons why Cincinnati is a great place for families to visit. 

Camp Washington Chili

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Before dining at Camp Washington Chili, the majority of chili that I’ve ever consumed has been at Wendy’s (I’m so sorry world!). So trying this spicy stew on top of a hotdog (their specialty), along with a chili taco salad at this very retro restaurant, was an experience like no other. The minute you walk into Camp Washington’s you’ll feel like you traveled back in time with the shiny red vinyl seats and black and white tiled floor. On the wall, you’ll find numerous awards noting its amazing chili; and it’s no surprise why. The recipe is flavorful, zesty, and rich. And there’s no shortage of the cheese and crackers that complement the dishes. It’s the comfort food you didn’t know you needed served at prices and in portions that keep your wallet and tummy full.

American Sign Museum

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Prepare for some Holiday Inn, McDonald’s, gas station, and various diner and drug store relics—to name a few. American Sign Museum is the largest public space dedicated to commercial signage in the country. While the kids will enjoy the colorful array of flashing and neon lights, you’ll feel the nostalgia sink in as you travel around this very Instagram-friendly museum. Try not to snap a picture—I dare you!

Kids can complete scavenger hunts where they are prompted to search for certain signs to check off their lists. While the museum may look small at first glance, there is so much packed into each room that you’ll find yourself constantly discovering more and more flashy displays you didn’t notice at first glance. While many of the signs on display represent national brands, there is also a special space reserved for Cincy and midwest-specific signs. Be sure to stop by the workshop where you’ll catch the pros refurbishing some bent-out-of-shape oldies.

Findlay Market

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Enter Findlay Market, a public market offering so much tasty variety that can actually please your entire family's specific tastes. The market offers a variety of tours, some free, and some for an additional cost depending on what you would like included.

But what’s unique about Findlay Market is the coming together of different cultures all in one place. The property boasts more than 100 merchants with indoor and street vendors (which include sit-down eateries), each serving up some distinct and often hard-to-find bites. Vendors include Eckerlin Meats, The Arepa Place, Mimi's Gourmet Egg Rolls & Curry, Babushka Pierogies, J. E. Gibbs Cheese, Tweedles Mini Donuts, Findlay Market Biergarten, and Deeper Roots Coffee. See the full list here.

While you’re sure to get a good hearty meal at the market, many of the vendors and eateries sell their foods uncooked, so you can shop for ingredients in between eating gelato from Dojo’s Gelato or a gyro from Areti’s Gyros, as well as purchase artisanal gifts to help you savor your visit.

The Cincinnati Zoo

Courtesy of Kelly Corbett
Courtesy of Kelly Corbett

Zoos are always a fun time, especially when they boast over 500 different species like the Cincinnati Zoo. But what also makes the Cincinnati Zoo a must-visit is the fabulous Fiona of course. Back in 2017, Fiona the hippo was born 6 weeks premature. It was almost certain that she was going to pass, but this queen became an international phenomenon overnight when she defied the odds and became the smallest hippo ever to survive. The Cincinnati Zoo hand-raised her and even had her hooked up to an IV from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Today she is thriving. 

Of course, there’s more to the Cincinnati Zoo than a celebrity hippo (sorry, I’m obsessed with her). It’s a warm, friendly, notably clean, and sustainable environment, staffed with a crew of workers who undoubtedly love their jobs. Much like the zoo’s wide breadth of animals, it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to food. Families can pick from sit-down restaurants to a variety of food trucks serving up some one-of-a-kind grub. Hops, the zoo’s first beer garden, just opened and offers a wide selection of local and national brews as well as a food menu.

But what makes this zoo a must-visit for families are the numerous opportunities it offers guests to get up close with the animals. Here are the daily animal encounters included in your admission but, for an additional cost, guests can go behind the scenes and feed giraffes, take selfies with Fiona, help bathe an elephant, and more! Explore those opportunities here

Blink

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According to Cincy locals, the two major city-wide extravaganzas that really get the community out of their homes and parading into the streets are opening day for the Cincinnati Reds and Blink. Born in 2017, Blink is a free art and light festival that runs 30 blocks long (all the way to Kentucky), and takes place over the course of four nights. As the sun sets each night, the city comes alive through colorful murals, light installations, interactive sculptures, and other forms of immersive art created specifically for this occasion. Guests can enjoy live entertainment plus special food and drink vendors scattered around the city. 

Newport Aquarium 

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Disclaimer: Newport Aquarium is actually located across the river in Kentucky. But all you have to do is take a quick ride across the Roebling Suspension Bridge, which connects Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky, to be face-to-glass window with albino alligators, sharks, and sometimes even mermaids. The Newport Aquarium is open 365 days a year and is always hosting fun activities for kids to complete in between marveling at their new marine pals.

At any time of day, kids can pet sea stars, horseshoe crabs, and other marine creatures in specific tide pool sections under employee supervision. They can also go visit the penguins and watch them waddle around their cold weather habitat designed to mimic the arctic with real snow and hills. Side note: watching penguins waddle is wildly entertaining.

For fans of the Jim Henson Company’s animated series Splash and Bubbles, the aquarium offers a whole playspace dedicated to it. Kids can crawl through Coral Cove, learn about ocean conservation through hands-on games, and create their own fish which, through magic technology, will look like they are swimming through a special Splash and Bubbles pool.

And for the fearless, there’s the chance to walk across across the Shark Bridge. This V-shaped rope bridge is 75-feet long, and lies just inches above a pool home to a dozen sharks and some other sea creatures. No biggie, right?

Cincinnati Museum Center

Head to the Cincinnati Museum Center for hours and hours of educational fun. The Center, home to several attractions including the Duke Energy Children’s Museum and the Museum of Natural History & Science, is housed in Union Terminal, which previously operated as a train station and is now a National Historic Landmark. 

Think of Duke Energy Children’s Museum as an educational Chuck E. Cheese sans the chaos. The Children’s Museum transports kids to a fun, interactive imagination world where they can roam around and explore to their heart’s desire. Most notably is Kids’ Town, a mini play neighborhood that has its own Kroger grocery store, veterinary clinic, diner, and Post Office. Kids can also explore The Woods, Little Sprouts Farm, and other tiny simulated areas made specifically for imaginative play and discovery. 

Make sure to stop by the Museum of Natural History & Science as well, as it is extremely kid-friendly. Here, kids can see massive standing skeletons of Jurassic beasts at Dinosaur Hall, or explore a replica limestone cave with real waterfalls and all the darkened corners and twists necessary to make you forget you’re at a museum. Best of all, it’s wheelchair accessible so everyone can enjoy. Not to mention that the museum has an interactive science playscape where the kids can conduct experiments, like flying paper rocket cones in a 13-foot tornado vortex.

And until February 2020, guests at the Cincinnati Museum Center can experience Apollo 11 with its traveling exhibit of the spaceship. Tickets for the separate museums and exhibits can be purchased separately or in special packages. See pricing options here.

Goetta

If you’re a foodie and haven’t yet tried goetta, that is one reason alone to go to Cincinnati. You’ll find goetta (pronounced get-ta, rhymes with feta) on most menus in the area (if you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry, I was once a goetta virgin too). It’s their go-to breakfast meat. Think scrapple, but mixed with grains, seasoned, and crisped to perfection.

The locals love it so much that there is a two-weekend festival called Glier’s Goettafest, where attendees can enjoy numerous goetta-based creations such as fudge made with goetta and goetta-style pizza. 

Bottom line: if you’re itching to try some, you need to head to the Queen City to goetta your hands on some—it’s a unique fare that nobody can fix better than the Cincinnati locals. And hopefully you don’t take your first bite while pregnant, because there’s a huge possibility that it will instantly land on your list of pregnancy cravings.

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