Sunday 18 November 2018

Cincinnati: Eat like a king in Queen City

It may not immediately spring to mind when planning a trip to America, but the growing popularity of Cincinnati as a holiday destination cannot be ignored

The city of Cincinnati, on the Ohio River, has a spirit that combines northern sensibilities with southern charm and midwest values
The city of Cincinnati, on the Ohio River, has a spirit that combines northern sensibilities with southern charm and midwest values
Findlay Market, in the heart of Cincinnati, is a shining example of the city's love affair with food
John Greene

John Greene

The 'Queen City' is a beautiful place, rich in history and character, brimming with energy and colour, and adorned with a real European feel.

A recommended starting point for your visit is breakfast at Maplewood Kitchen & Bar, one of the city's most popular eateries that offers a huge selection of fine food to chose from. We sampled a little bit of everything and if I had to choose, then the dish that left the greatest impression was the 'chicken hash', an unusual way to start the day but absolutely delicious.

Chicken hash features rotisserie chicken, goetta (this is a local specialty, pronounced 'get-uh', which blends the textures of pork, beef, wholegrain oats, onions and spices), hash browns, onions, bell peppers, jalapeno, mushrooms and two eggs!

Having sampled a taste of Cincinnati, take the short walk to the observation deck on top of the Carew Tower to get a real sense of the city. It's worth paying the few dollars required to be accompanied by a guide, who will point out the city's landmarks and give you a flavour of the area's history. It's the perfect way to kick off your visit. Incidentally, the Carew Tower - which stands at 49 storeys - served as a prototype for New York's Empire State Building.

Cincinnati, in the state of Ohio, has a long tradition in arts and cultural enterprise. It was America's first major inland city and quickly thrived because of its location on the Ohio River, looking across at the state of Kentucky. It is, say the locals, a blend of northern sensibilities, southern charm and midwest values. It has also incorporated a lot of mainland Europe influences into its architecture and culture.

Unlike so many cities across the US, there is no discernible Irish influence in Cincinnati. That's not to say there isn't one - there is - it's just not as visible. The German influence, however, is everywhere: in the street names, the architecture and the thriving beer business of yesteryear which is now on the rise again.

Findlay Market, in the heart of Cincinnati, is a shining example of the city's love affair with food
Findlay Market, in the heart of Cincinnati, is a shining example of the city's love affair with food

The city's best known area is called Over-the-Rhine, so called because of the influx of Germans there in the mid-19th Century. The name refers to the canal which ran through the city's heart but has since been paved over. Over-the-Rhine is one of the biggest historic urban districts in the US. With more than 1,100 buildings, it is comparable to New Orleans' French Quarter and after many decades in the doldrums, new life has now been breathed into it, and it has become one of the trendiest neighbourhoods in Cincinnati.

One of Cincinnati's most historic buildings is the Music Hall, built in the early 1800s. It's located in the Over-the-Rhine district and is home to the oldest continuous choral festival in the western hemisphere - the May Festival Chorus. The Music Hall, which has recently undergone a $143m (€124m) renovation, is at the cultural heart of the city, hosting ballet, opera, symphonies and more, all year round. We were fortunate to enjoy a lunch of some Cincinnati staples while there. These included goetta and a dish I had been tipped off about in advance - skyline chilli, a local chilli served with spaghetti and shredded cheese which didn't disappoint.

Beneath the city streets, as I discovered when I took a walking tour with American Legacy Tours - which specialises in bringing tourists into the city's underground network of beer tunnels and crypts - lies an all-too familiar reminder of the Irish story. In the crypt of St Francis Xavier Church, located on Sycamore Street, there are tombs of Irish immigrants from the first half of the 19th century.

The very first I stopped at provided a chilling coincidence, as it read 'In memory of James Kelly, A native of the County of Longford, Ireland'. Kelly died aged 41 in 1834, and as I climbed the stairs out of the crypt I wondered what his story was; what conspiracy of circumstances had brought this man from my native county so far from home to this particular city?

The beer tunnels that are the central attraction on the underground tour lie 30ft below street level, and were used to store the finished product in a consistently cool temperature, away from the heat of the city above ground. New tunnels are being discovered and explored all the time, revealing more and more of the city's rich beer heritage.

For fans of whiskey and beer, no visit to this part of the world would be complete without a tour (or two!) of a local brewery (or two!). When you're out, you're out... so I went for two options: beer tasting in Taft's Ale House, a microbrewery and restaurant named after Cincinnati native William H Taft, who was president of the United States more than 100 years ago; and, a tour and tasting at the New Riff Distillery, makers of whiskey and bourbon, just across the river in Newport, Kentucky.

As for food, you will be spoilt for choice. While in Newport, check out the adjoining town of Covington and the MainStrasse Village district which is a lively mix of traditional southern bars and newer, trendier spots.

We enjoyed a pre-dinner drink in one of the more traditional bars - the kind of place where you get a funny look for ordering iced tea - before enjoying a beautiful, rooftop meal at Commonwealth Bistro.

Covington feels like an authentic slice of small-town life in the American South, or at least how you might imagine it to be. It was certainly noticeable how the vibe differed to Cincinnati, even though all that separates them is the river. The John A Roebling Bridge, built in the 1860s and named for the man who designed it, connects the two. Roebling, incidentally, went on to design New York's Brooklyn Bridge using this one as a prototype of sorts.

Art museums are not usually top of my wishlist while on holiday, but Cincinnati Art Museum left a lasting impression and I highly recommend it. Aside from an extensive and impressive collection of art, including work by Picasso, Renoir and Monet, the museum is known for its exhibitions.

There were two when I visited: Terracotta Army, Legacy of the First Emperor of China, which runs until August and features 120 exhibits, including 10 life-size terracotta figures; and a mesmerising exhibit by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson called The Visitors, which features video of eight musicians, all filmed in different rooms of the same house, performing a haunting lyric which slowly builds.

Speaking of Iceland, we flew to America with WOW Air, via the land of fire and ice. The airline offers low-cost access to a host of American cities, and the Iceland stop allows you to build in a visit to the island if you wish.

On the outward journey, we continued on to Cincinnati on the same day but had enough time during our stopover to spend several hours at the Blue Lagoon. The geothermal spa is, of course, one of the (ahem!) hotspots in Iceland and believe me it's well worth a visit. It's a short bus ride from Keflavik Airport and you can spend as long as you like luxuriating in the mineral-rich warm waters.

Then, on the return journey we built in an overnight stay in Reykjavik, giving us a chance to explore Iceland's exciting capital. However, nothing in the country is cheap and even basics like a burger and a pint can set you back close on €30, even if you shop around.

That said, the bus journey from the airport to Reykjavik, and tours in and around the city (the capital is easily navigated on foot and has a population not much greater than Limerick) give you a real sense of the island's raw and rugged beauty.

All in all, this proved to be a most fascinating trip, one that created a whole lot of lasting memories.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Just across the water

Covington lies just across the Ohio River, in Kentucky. MainStrasse Village is a bustling, historic district with a broad mix of bars and restaurants. As a contrast to city life, this has a real ‘small town’ feel.

Cross the state line

Spanning the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Kentucky, the John A Roebling Bridge was once the world’s longest suspension bridge. It was the inspiration for its more famous cousin, the Brooklyn Bridge.

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