Editor’s note: Sam Spector captures his take on a place I’ve written about a lot: Cincinnati. My father has lived outside Cincinnati for years, so I am in the area frequently. For a full guide on the city, click here for the Ultimate Guide to Cincinnati. And for more of Sam’s writing, click here to visit his index page.
Frequently, I write about my adventures around the world to tourist favorites like Japan, and off-the-beaten-path spots like Azerbaijan. It may come as a surprise to many that one of my favorite cities in the world to visit is in… Ohio?!?! Ohio and vacation are not two things that most would associate with each other, as the state is more known as being at the heart of the American Rust Belt than a place where people would vacation. However, the city of Cincinnati is a must visit for every American at some point in their life. With its great food, people, culture, and attractions, each time that I get an opportunity to go to Cincinnati, I jump at the opportunity.
A question is: how do I wind up in Cincinnati if international travel is my passion? As a rabbi, the city of Cincinnati is important. I was ordained as a rabbi on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the primary seminary of Reform Judaism. Though my school also has campuses in Jerusalem (a gorgeous campus designed by famed Israeli architect Moshe Safdie) and New York, our original and flagship campus is, of all places, in Cincinnati. How did it come to be that the first rabbinical seminary in America was located in Cincinnati? Cincinnati is located on the Ohio River, and during the mid-1800s, German Jewish immigrants established themselves on cities along rivers, as they were important trading and shipping posts for merchants. One Jewish immigrant at the time was a rabbi named Isaac Mayer Wise, who was a rabbi in Albany, New York. Wise started doing what was considered at the time radical reforms such as counting women as part of a prayer quorum, allowing men and women to sit together, and rejecting the concepts of the messiah and resurrection, among other theologies. As a result of his controversial nature, he found himself in a political dispute with his synagogue’s board of trustees that culminated in him being in a fistfight on the bima (Jewish equivalent of an altar) on Rosh Hashanah with his synagogue’s board president. Something us rabbis know is fistfighting your president on the bima in front of your congregation on Rosh Hashanah is a very good way to find yourself out of a job and needing to move to a new city. That is exactly how Isaac Mayer Wise found himself out of Albany and heading down the river to Cincinnati, a city that gave him a chance and where he would open his seminary.
Arranging a visit to the Hebrew Union College (HUC) is a great experience for every American Jew. The campus is located in the Clifton neighborhood of the city, a nice college neighborhood that is also home to the University of Cincinnati, with great restaurants and shops, as well as Burnet Woods, a nice urban park. On the campus of the Hebrew Union College is the American Jewish Archives, which houses the largest collection of Jewish documents outside of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At the archives, there are numerous documents that are vitally important to the history of American Jews, including the Reigner Telegram, warning American Jews for the first time of the Final Solution and mass gas extermination of their European brethren. Also on the campus is the David Ellenson Rare Book Room, which houses incredibly beautiful and historical books such as a 500-year-old collection from the Jews of Kaifeng, China and a colorful, artistic 600-year-old German Passover Haggadah. Finally, while on the campus, be sure to visit the Skirball Museum to see Near Eastern archeological artifacts that were found in Israel and also items that showcase the American Jewish experience. Speaking of American Judaism, another place that visitors should go while in Cincinnati is the Plum Street Temple (also known as the Isaac M. Wise Temple) built in 1866. On both the outside and the interior, the Plum Street Temple is one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world, designed in an Exotic Revival style and painted to resemble Moorish décor with different colors inside.
Cincinnati is a city that has had a challenging racial history that has at times been problematic and at other times inspiring. Cincinnati was located on the underground railroad, and there were abolitionists in the city who helped escaped slaves make their way north to freedom. At the same time, there were multiple deadly race riots in the mid-1800s in Cincinnati that were tolerated, if not promoted, by the city leadership and newspapers. These stories of heroism and atrocity are told at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which has three floors of exhibits, one focusing on people around the world being trafficked today and facing modern forms of slavery, another focusing on the Underground Railroad, and a third focusing on the racial history of Cincinnati. Visitors spend anywhere from a couple hours to a half day at the museum. On the ground level, there is a center dedicated to the study of implicit bias with computers that allow visitors to take tests that reveal their own implicit biases, which every person has. A particularly interesting exhibit in the museum is an actual slave holding pen that was discovered sixty miles south of Cincinnati.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located in between Paycor Stadium (home to the Cincinnati Bengals football team) and Great American Ball Park (home of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team). Great American Ball Park is one of the most beautiful stadiums in baseball with views overlooking the Ohio River and the docks of the old-timey riverboats. There are also smokestacks that light up with flames and smoke when a Reds player hits a homerun, a tribute to the riverboat history of the city. Cincinnati had the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, founded in 1869, which is immortalized with a pavilion dedicated to the team outside the stadium. At the stadium is a museum that every baseball-lover should visit that tells the history of Cincinnati baseball and is home to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. The museum chronicles the glory days of the Reds in the 1970s, each of their World Series Championships, and the feats of legends like Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose, including a display of 4,256 baseballs, one for every hit that Rose collected in his record-setting career. The museum also has exhibits on the Cincinnati Tigers Negro Leagues team, and this year features an exhibit on women in baseball. I always appreciate cheering for Cincinnati sports teams because they truly have some of the best sports fans in the country; win or lose, Cincinnatians take pride in the Bengals and Reds, and cheer on their teams, embracing them as part of the culture of the city.
From the stadium, spectators will be treated to views of Roebling Bridge, built by John A. Roebling in 1866. Stretching 1057 feet across the Ohio River and connecting Ohio with Kentucky, this bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was constructed. It is similar in style to Roebling’s most famous bridge, that overtook the record in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge. On the Ohio side of the river, walk, jog, or bike along the riverfront, swing on the bench swings that overlook the water, and read the exhibits on the riverboat history of the city. Whether you drive or walk across the bridge or take a ferryboat across the river, make sure you take a trip over to the Newport Levees. Here, there are great bars, shops, live music, and spectacular views of Cincinnati. On a hot summer evening, going to the Newport Levees is a fun night out, especially once the bridge and skyline are illuminated.
No visit to the Queen City is complete without having two Cincinnati classics, which will not break the bank. An absolute must have is Cincinnati chili, which Anthony Bourdain called, “the story of America on your plate” and Smithsonian magazine ranked as one of their “20 Most Iconic Food Destinations in America.” (Click here to read more about Cincinnati chili.) While there are many chili parlors, the most famous is likely Skyline Chili, which now has 160 locations in the region and Florida. Founded in the 1940s by a Greek immigrant, this is not your typical chili con carne, but rather a secret recipe with Middle Eastern spices that you can get either 3-way (mixed with hot spaghetti and topped with a heaping mound of shredded cheddar cheese), 4-way (add onions or beans), or 5-way (onions and beans). For people who are vegetarian or like me, eat only kosher meat, they can easily make their chili vegetarian. Another classic Skyline hit is their Cheese Coney, featuring a hot dog in a steamed bun topped with mustard, chili, onions, and their famous mound of shredded cheddar cheese. Forget Michelin-star restaurants; I will take Skyline Chili as my dinner over anything else I can think of in America.
While Skyline Chili is hearty, I also have a notoriously bad sweet tooth and will never pass up ice cream; well, it so happens that Cincinnati might be home to the best ice cream in the country, Graeter’s. This delectable creamy treat is a pride of Cincinnati, and they have fresh flavors that circulate monthly; one of the few that is a permanent fixture is their most popular flavor and my favorite, the black raspberry chocolate chip, made with gooey fudge chunks. Fortunately, you do not have to travel to Cincinnati to try this, as Grater’s is sold in over 6000 stores across the country, and you can find the one closest to you on their website; but I suspect that nothing beats getting it at the original store. Back across the river in Kentucky, you are in the heart of Bourbon Country. Make sure to visit some of the distilleries while there, sample different bourbons and cocktails. And, for those hot, humid Midwestern summer days, be sure to cool off with one of the state’s famous bourbon slushies.
While it is likely that Cincinnati has not crossed your mind as a place to plan your next vacation, there is nowhere where you will get a more all-American experience than this city and its Kentucky suburbs. With its great history, sports, drinks, food, and people, a weekend getaway to Cincinnati will give you the best American heartland experience.
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