I was not expecting to fall in love with Cincinnati during our last family vacation, but that’s exactly what happened. The Queen City combines history, culture, and sophistication with a Midwestern lack of pretension that’s completely charming. For families, it is safe, clean, and there is plenty to do, whether you have toddlers or teens.
Here are some of our favorite places in Cincinnati to play, eat, and stay.
Located in the Newport on the Levee “retail entertainment center” across the river from downtown Cincinnati, this aquarium is home to thousands of animals from around the world and holds more than a million gallons of water. Here, you can pet stingrays, penguins, and sharks, learn about seahorses, and play in the little kid-friendly Frog Bog. But the main attraction is the Shark Bridge — the only suspension bridge in North America built right above an enormous tank holding two dozen sharks. It’s the final attraction in the aquarium, so you might want to make it a surprise for your kids; otherwise, if they’re anything like mine, they’ll rush through the aquarium to get to that bridge as quickly as possible!
Consider this a must-do if you’re visiting Cincinnati with kids. Open since 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo is the second-oldest zoo in the US and it’s magnificent. Here, you’ll find more than 500 animals, 3,000 species of plants, and plenty of beautiful walking paths. Be sure and stop for a visit with Fiona the famous hippo. Born premature in 2017, she now weighs over a thousand pounds and seems to love the attention she gets from visitors!
The Ohio River is Cincinnati’s lifeline, so why not see the city (and get some amazing skyline photos) on a riverboat cruise? Sit inside or outside the boat and learn the history of the city while checking out some of Cincinnati’s most striking landmarks, like the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, a prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge, which Roebling built several years later. While we liked the tour, we loved our tour guide, a Mr. Rogers’ doppelganger who sang songs, told corny jokes, and made us feel like family.
This downtown Cincinnati museum spotlights the struggle for freedom in our own nation’s history and around the world. Experience the history of slavery and segregation through interactive exhibits and bring America’s troubled past to life for your children in a way no classroom lesson can replicate. Visitors rave about this museum and call it “powerful,” “informative,” and “inspiring.”
Just north of Cincinnati, you’ll find the largest amusement and waterpark in the midwest. With more than 100 attractions (including 15 roller coasters) and 50 waterpark attractions, it’s safe to say everyone in your family can find something to love here. And if you have kids on the smaller side, you’ll be happy to know King’s Island has won the coveted Golden Ticket award 17 years in a row for Best Kids’ Area.
You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world on the roof of this 1930 Art Deco building in downtown Cincinnati, the highest elevated building in the city. We loved the observation deck’s breathtaking views, but half the adventure for us was the journey to the top of the building, which includes a second tiny elevator that seems as old and creaky as the building itself.
Cincinnati’s massive Union Terminal, once an Art Deco train station, now houses the Cincinnati History Museum, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science and an OMNIMAX® Theater. Best of all, one ticket gives you access to all three museums! A 2 ½-year renovation of the building was just completed, so there’s never been a better time to visit.
Murals are popping up on barrier walls and buildings across the country, but Cincinnati deserves a blue ribbon for its very visible efforts. ArtWorks is a local non-profit that trains youth apprentices to create these murals, and all of Cincinnati is reaping the benefits. 147 ArtWorks murals have been painted in Cincinnati neighborhoods to date, transforming urban streets into wonderlands of creativity. Enjoy them as you sightsee or download the ArtWorks brochure and take a self-guided tour.
We fell in love with this massive museum, where the collection includes 6,700 works of art that cover a 6,000-year time span. Best of all, admission is free! Located in idyllic Eden Park, you’ll love the drive to get there and the Pinocchio statue out front is one of the most Instagrammable spots in the city.
Located in the heart of Cincinnati’s fashionable Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, Washington Park is the perfect place to let the kids run free, and on a nice day it’s also a lovely option for family photos. Even my older kids loved its unique playground filled with musical instruments and imaginative structures. In the summer, a 7,000 square foot interactive water park gives littles a great, free way to cool off. And an underground parking deck makes visiting Washington Park a breeze.
With the stunning Cincinnati Music Hall, built in 1878, as a backdrop, you’ll feel like you’ve dropped into a scene from Harry Potter. We thought it looked just like an American Hogwarts!
This vibrant public market has been in operation since 1855 and it’s a perfect spot for a family lunch. Here, you’ll find vendors selling delicious pierogis, pizza, fresh-baked sourdough bread, tamales, ice cream, egg rolls, donuts, and more. We loved sampling a variety of foods here, but we went bonkers over Taste of Belgium’s made-on-the-spot waffles. They were by far the best I’ve ever eaten, and this may well be the first place I go the next time I return to Cincinnati. Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves these waffles — Taste of Belgium got its start at Findlay Market and now has six locations throughout the city! Breakfast, anyone?
Cincinnati is famous for its breweries and some are definitely more kid-friendly than others. Moerlein Ale House opened in Cincinnati in 1853 and it’s been going strong ever since. Centrally located in Smale Riverfront Park downtown, it’s a top-notch brewery with inventive beers, delicious food, and a passionate, knowledgeable staff. Even better, it’s also spacious and includes a kids’ menu, making it a first-rate dining option for your whole family. We had lots of memorable meals in Cincinnati, but this was unexpectedly one of my favorites. (We were here, after all, for the beer.) The short rib grilled cheese, mushroom spaetzle, and Squash Wellington were all phenomenal and highly recommended.
Problem: You want to explore Cincinnati’s local food scene, but your kids make fine dining all but impossible. Solution: Frenchie Fresh. Jean-Robert de Cavel is Cincinnati’s hottest chef and runs chic restaurants all over town. He created Frenchie Fresh so that parents, for one, could enjoy his amazing creations in a casual, kid-friendly environment. While everything we tried was delicious here, we especially loved the popular Banh Mi sandwich (crispy tofu might not typically be your thing, but trust me on this), the decadent macaroni and cheese, and the Parmesan and Truffle-seasoned Frenchie Fries. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
You’ve definitely got to be in the know to find this Cincinnati hotspot. Eli’s is a no-frills barbeque joint on Riverside Drive with only a pig on its storefront sign, and it felt to this tourist like it was in the middle of nowhere. Once we went inside, though, the place was packed and the food was amazing. We especially loved the ribs, which had a sinfully sugary dry rub, and Eli’s famous loaded hot dogs. The cracklings and coleslaw on top set them apart from anything I’d eaten before. I will definitely be making a return visit the next time I’m in Cincinnati.
Visiting Cincinnati without eating chili is like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower — it’s simply not done. Lucky for you, the chili experience will probably be the most budget-friendly meal you have on your vacation. Locals here generally have a preference for either Skyline Chili or Gold Star Chili. Blue Ash Chili is another favorite. You’ll find chili “parlors” everywhere you turn throughout the city, so pick one and give it a try! We opted for lunch at Skyline Chili and while the chili by itself was a little soupy for my taste, we all really liked it atop Skyline’s loaded Coney hotdogs.
Graeter’s is another Cincinnati experience you’ve just got to have while you’re here, preferably over and over and over again! Louis Graeter began selling ice cream in Cincinnati’s street markets way back in 1868 and Graeter’s Ice Cream has been in operation ever since. What sets Graeter’s apart from the others? It’s the only ice cream in the country made in two-gallon batches in French Pot freezers — the same process Louis Graeter used in the 1800s. The results are undeniably delicious. Graeter’s has 18 locations throughout Cincinnati, so choose one and give it a try!
We stayed at this Marriott property while were were in Cincinnati and loved it. It’s clean, modern, spacious, stylish, centrally located, and the price is right. No complaints! Added bonus: Moerlein Lager House is right next door and the Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a two-minute walk away.
Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
Located in the same building as the Carew Tower Observation Deck, this historic hotel has hosted guests like Elvis Presley and Winston Churchill. You’ll love the Art Deco details in the fabulous lobby and enjoy being minutes away from many of Cincinnati’s best restaurants and attractions. An indoor pool makes this hotel just as popular with kids as it is with their parents.
Looking for something a little different? I’m completely charmed by the Mariemont Inn, located about 15 minutes from downtown Cincinnati in the historic Village of Mariemont. This historic Tudor-style inn was built in 1929 as the centerpiece of the village, which is known for its unique architecture, treelined streets and walkable historic district. Consider it an adventure all on its own within your Cincinnati vacation.
Can you understand now why I have such big love for Cincinnati? Give it a try — I’m absolutely sure your family will have just as much fun as we did.
Although the author received media accommodation for some of her Cincinnati activities, she researched and created her itinerary independently and all opinions/ recommendations are her own.
This article was originally published on