CINCINNATI AND COLUMBUS OHIO
written by HEATHER KW BROWN
photos courtesy of CINCINNATI CVB; FLYING PIG MARATHON; EXPERIENCE COLUMBUS; MIKE BEAUMONT
ANYONE DOUBTING THE OLD ADAGE “WHEN PIGS FLY” NEED NOT BOTHER. I can confirm this as truth — at least, as it applies to Cincinnati. The winged character is what sent me, and 37,244 other runners from all 50 states and 20 other countries, to the city’s streets earlier this year. Before I race too far ahead, let me back up.
As a travel writer who loves to run, I’ve merged these pastimes by signing up for races in different places. Over the years, I’ve realized many runners across the country are doing the same. From organized groups to families searching for vacations, these “race-cations” have become incredibly popular.
Having recently talked both family and friends into joining me on these adventures, I’ve enlisted willing readers to tag along too. Even if running is only of interest in emergencies, this tour of Ohio and Montana might kindle your curiosity and inspire your next change of scenery.
A REASON TO ROADTRIP
Chronicles of Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio
The stairs were tight and twisted, but our determination did not wane. As we descended through a jackhammered hole into the underground tunnel, my mom and I exchanged a quick look. Equally nervous and excited, we’ve learned how these unexpected detours often become the stories we recount back home.
For her, Cincinnati had been home until her teens and she had not been back in more than 50 years. When I realized the heart of downtown Cincinnati is a direct drive up I-75 from Atlanta, the decision was an easy one — she could retrace her youth while I created my own memories in her hometown one stride at a time.
PENGUINS AND PIGS ON THE MOVE
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect to see penguins in a place dedicated to winged pigs but the 21c Museum Hotel was our headquarters. The boutique brand has established a reputation for engaging contemporary art and revitalizing American downtowns. In Cincinnati, 21c Museum Hotel now resides in what was formerly the Metropole Hotel, a century-old historic landmark that remains a beloved downtown architectural gem. Once inside, inspiration can be found from rotating exhibits to the penguins, color-specific for its location. Yellow penguins move freely and often in this locale, compliments of playful placement by creative guests.
Penguins are just one way the hotel integrates joy and appreciation into a stay. The onsite restaurant, Metropole, magnifies this notion with menu options like the burnt carrot salad served with avocado, pickled onion, feta, garlic chips and pumpkin seeds. So too, does Cocktail Terrace, the hotel’s rooftop bar, which not only provides fun drinks like poptails and adult slushies, it also comes with a great view of the city at night. Beautiful as it was, I’d come to see the surroundings from another perspective.
From the moment flames shot through the torches at the start of the Flying Pig marathon to the Finish Swine in downtown, locals lined the course to cheer. Why is the race called The Flying PIg, you ask?
Due to its stockyards and meatpacking industry in the 1800s, Cincinnati was dubbed “Porkopolis.” Word is that farmers and traders even ran pigs through the streets of downtown. Fast forward to 1989 when an artist by the name of Andrew Leicester proposed to commemorate the city’s bicentennial with a four-winged pig atop a suspension bridge. After much debate whether the symbol would signify a dirty industry the city had outgrown or embrace the city’s spirited side, the snouts came out and pigs officially now fly. The founders of the marathon aptly chose to stay high on the hog, and named the race accordingly.
THE CITY TOUR
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of “The Pig,” which follows mostly a riverside course along the streets of Cincinnati, into Covington, Ky., and back for a city tour you can’t book otherwise. While it would take many more miles to cover each of the 52 neighborhoods that comprise Cincinnati, the marathon routed us from downtown into highlights like East Walnut Hills, Hyde Park and Over-the-Rhine.
The downtown area, where the race starts and finishes, is also home to Sotto, a traditional Italian trattoria tucked inside the basement of another restaurant. Chef and owner of both restaurants, David Falk is a Cincinnati native whose homemade pasta alone warrants an extended dinner, but should you do nothing else, go for Sotto’s out-of-this-world ricotta doughnuts.
A few blocks the opposite direction is Mita’s. This restaurant from James Beard-nominated Chef Jose Salazar is named after his Colombian grandmother (his “mita”). The farm-inspired menu focuses on the foods of Spain and Latin America, and the tapas leaving the kitchen easily explain why people wait patiently for a table.
In East Walnut Hills, O Pie O crafts pies that satisfy the appetites of runners and spectators alike, while Myrtle’s Punch House pours almost as much personality into each drink as the venue itself. Days before the race, we sampled punch recipes dating back to the 1700s, as well as innovative newer creations.
Through the open windows of The Woodburn Brewery across the street, I caught a glimpse of Hans Solo. Laughing at the thought, I insisted on investigating. Once inside, I realized the life-size cutout of the action hero was indeed propped at the bar and one of the brews on tap was called Hans Solo. The coffee-infused blonde ale, like the “Star Wars” movie itself, resulted in an immediate request for more.
Dashing in and out of the Hyde Park neighborhood is easy, as it’s a quick two-block span of high-end shopping, restaurants and a widely popular ice cream shop called Graeter’s.
Of all the neighborhoods we explored, Over-the-Rhine (OTR) has the best comeback story. Nearly 45,000 immigrants, most of German descent, and roughly 38 breweries once inhabited this 2-square mile area. Prohibition and anti-German sentiment during the early part of the 20th century sent people packing and the area became a hub for miscreants. Thanks to a real-estate development organization that spent more than $250 million to revive it, OTR is now one of the largest intact urban historical districts in the country. Breweries are back with an official OTR Brewery District, along with upscale shops and restaurants as well as at nearby Findlay Market. As Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market, Findlay welcomes more than a million visitors a year.
Debating between Maverick Chocolate Co. and Bretzel for a late afternoon treat, we opted for gourmet Bavarian-style pretzels, as it was the perfect tie to our American Legacy Tour. Ranked as one of the Top Five Underground Tours in the U.S. by National Geographic, this route takes curious visitors and locals alike through OTR, explaining its history before descending three stories below the street into former lagering tunnels.
Here is where we found ourselves anxiously squirreling down a dimly lit staircase. We listened as guides explained how more tunnels are being discovered and how it continues to transform the city of Cincinnati. Whether you prefer to trek through the city on foot or explore beneath it, Cincinnati has plenty of reasons for a road trip … or, in our case, a return trip.
CRUISING TO COLUMBUS
Not quite ready to leave the Buckeye State, we resumed our course. Less than two hours later, we cruised into downtown Columbus.
This time of the year is all about Ohio State football games, but during our visit, the buzz in central downtown revolved around the grand opening of Hotel LeVeque. One of the city’s most iconic buildings, its rich and storied past began in 1924 as the American Insurance Company and the historic LeVeque Tower has been lighting up the skyline of downtown Columbus ever since. The Tower now shines as a boutique beacon within the Autograph Collection, a member of Marriott Rewards. Coincidentally, it is also home to The Keep Liquor Bar, a modern French brasserie and bar concept courtesy of Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants.
Calling Hotel LeVeque home for a couple of nights was a dream and played perfectly into the property’s theme. Replete with fine linens and marble-tiled bathrooms, the design literally reflected luxury with a VIP-turndown service that included bringing stars to light our room each evening.
Besides football, Columbus is perhaps best known for having the third highest concentration of fashion designers in the country, behind New York and Los Angeles. Celebrated designer Celeste Malvar-Stewart frequently enables visitors to unleash their inner fashionista with a farm-to-fashion experience. Short on time, we simply went where we could find fashion.
Essentially the stretch of High Street between downtown and The Ohio State University campus, the Short North area is home to indie coffee shops, craft breweries and notable restaurants sprinkled among more than 20 high-end shops like the Chunky Armadillo, Ladybird, Rowe and for retro wear, Smartypants Vintage and Royal Factory Atelier.
After validating the shopping scene, we moseyed into Mukha Salon for a complete makeover. Mukha Cosmetics is the creation of internationally recognized make-up artist Tim Maurer whose work has been featured in the U.K. edition of Vogue, on global fashion runways and in feature films. We left with a handful of professional tips and a stylish, new look.
Settling in for a stint at Wine on High, where patrons can sit back and sip or purchase and go, we waited for our table at the wildly popular Marcella’s. Atlanta has Ford Fry restaurants, while Columbus has iconic Cameron Mitchell restaurants. Regardless of which you choose, you’re guaranteed an incredible meal, as was the case for us at Marcella’s. We slowly but surely made our way from one side of the menu to the other, ending with arguably the best Tiramisu outside of Italy.
Much like our visit to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood known as German Village just south of Columbus, is rooted in history. As German immigrants arrived in the early 1800s, small lots were sold to them, and the community became “die alte sud ende” (the old south end). In 1959, Frank Fetch bought and restored a small cottage and the following year, he and a group of like-minded people established the German Village Society to rehabilitate the “Old South End.” Columbus officially recognized the historic preservation activities shortly thereafter and renamed the area German Village. Since 1960, more than 1,600 buildings have been restored, and today German Village is credited as one of the most premiere restoration districts in the world as well as one of the most desirable areas to live in the city.
Walking the brick-paved streets, we admired the beautiful homes and wrought-iron fences surrounding them as we popped in and out of unique shops. We spent a significant amount of time inside Helen Winnemore’s. Founded in 1938, the shop is a haven for anyone with a penchant for custom-made gifts – from jewelry to kitchenware and cards, you’ll find it. For books, head to the Book Loft, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores housed in pre-Civil War era buildings. Books are easy to find, but it is a challenge to find another bookworm among the 32 rooms.
Coffee and food served as easy motivation for us to resume our tour of German Village. Among the many detours, we stopped at Stauf’s coffee for a much-needed caffeine kick, ventured into Vernacular for a wardrobe update and finally sunk into a booth at The Sycamore. The casual neighborhood tavern comes with a cool rustic vibe and an exceptionally high level of food.
Packed with memories and memorabilia of Ohio, we headed back to the Atlanta ‘burbs, where conversation soon turned to another race-cation.