If you still think of Cincinnati as just another Ohio city that starts with the letter C, we've got news. The state's third largest metropolis is now home to a flourishing arts neighborhood, trendy new restaurants, and a sparkling new public park – not to mention venerable cultural institutions like Cincinnati Opera, which is the second oldest opera company in the country. Here's how to get the absolute best of the city without breaking your budget...
High Culture, Low Prices
If the upcoming 2014-2015 season lineup is any indication – September's gala opening performance will feature three Beethoven works led by Lang Lang, followed by subsequent evenings honoring Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, and more – the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is the city's premiere cultural institution. Tickets for the orchestra's pops concerts start at $25, but for $12, you can enjoy a more traditional symphonic program.
The CSO happens to share a home (namely, the 136-year-old Music Hall) with the equally-esteemed Cincinnati Opera, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2014. The upcoming season, which begins June 12, will include such highlights as Carmen, La Calisto, and Madame Butterfly. Of particular note is Opera In the Park, which kicks off the season with a free, outdoor performance in Washington Park.
Thanks to a $93 million revamping project, formerly derelict Over-the-Rhine has re-emerged as the city's main arts and culture district, with beautifully-renovated historic homes, expanded pedestrian areas, and tons of charming boutiques. It follows that the epicenter of Cincinnati's burgeoning culinary scene is also found here. Start off by feasting on homemade waffles ($3.50), as well as other Belgian-inspired cuisine at A Taste of Belgium.
Or, try a meal at Quan Hapa, the neighborhood's runaway favorite when it comes to an affordable (and seriously delicious) lunch. On the menu, you'll find everything from lemongrass-and-honey-marinated wings, to okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), to Banh Mi burgers – none of which cost more than $11.
Cheap, Chic Hotels
Just as the city lends itself to easy exploration via its many bridges, $1-per-ride trolley system, and 200-strong public bike fleet, Cincinnati is also home to an array of modern, innovative, and, yes, affordable, hotels. Stick with the "smart luxury" theme with a stay at the Symphony Hotel, a converted mansion right across the street from Cincinnati Music Hall, where the room categories are named after famous composers (a "Beethoven" standard room, for example, can be had for $99 per night).
Generating serious buzz right now in the city is the 21c Museum Hotel, which we recently featured as one of our favorite hotels with free art. In addition to the constantly-rotating galleries and installations, guests will enjoy the chic, museum-style rooms that offer designer desk chairs, all-white tiled bathrooms with Malin + Goetz toiletries, Nespresso coffee machines, and free Wifi. At $239 per night, 21c is a pricier choice than Symphony, but there are only three 21c hotels in the entire country. We think it's worth the splurge.
Green Spaces Galore
One of the centerpieces of Over-the-Rhine's recent transformation is an eight-acre public space known as Washington Park. Converted from a former empty lot, the park was unveiled last summer to much enthusiasm from locals and visitors alike – and it's easy to see why. The eco-friendly project includes an outdoor concert venue, interactive fountains, a children's playground, restored historic bandstand, and the neighborhood's only dog park. As the weather turns warmer, visitors will get to fully enjoy the park's gorgeous landscaped grounds, which will host yoga, art installations, and jazz concerts, all free of charge.