Think you know Cincinnati? This small midwestern city, my husband’s hometown, has changed dramatically in recent year and even lifelong Ohio-ans may not recognize the Queen City. Check it out yourself – there are at least five compelling reasons to plan a trip.

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The historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. Credit: Judy Antell / Vegetarian TravelingMom

5 Reasons You Must Visit Cincinnati

Mark Twain allegedly said “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.” And my husband, who grew up there, considered it completely behind the times.

Well, Cincinnati now is a revelation.

On a recent trip, we explored Over the Rhine, a neighborhood that was voted the most dangerous in the country as recently as 2009, but has a burgeoning farm to table restaurant scene, along with craft breweries and bespoke cocktail bars.

5 Reasons you mustBest of all, we found a new (ish) museum, the American Sign Museum, which celebrates neon and other storefront and roadside signs in a delightful, unique attraction. We found 5 compelling reasons to visit Cincinnati.

Are You a Foodie?

The first place we went in Over-the-Rhine was Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest pubic market, which has indoor and outdoor stands selling artisan and ethnic food. We bought spectacular blue cheese stuffed olives, (jumbo sized, they were called Queens, evoking Cincinnati’s nickname, the Queen City) for amazing martinis, delicious kimchee spiced pickles and great dense, chewy bread that I thought didn’t exist in the land of packaged carbs.

We also had cheese made by a nearby farmer and, most shockingly of all, ate a delicious lunch of vegan pho, spicy and vibrant with flavor.

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Findlay market, the oldest public market in Ohio, is a foodie must. Credit: Judy Antell / Vegetarian TravelingMom

Just a couple of blocks away, in the heart of Over -the-Rhine, we bought soft pretzels at Brezel. The hand-rolled Bavarian-style pretzels come in flavors like chipotle cheddar or pesto, with dipping sauces. Then we found Happy Belly, which offers mostly vegetarian “clean’ food; no butter, refined sugar or white flour is used. We got great homemade energy bars and a sweet potato and black bean burger to go.

Then we discovered Red Bike, a bike share program that costs $8 for a 24 hour pass. Unlike most urban bike share programs, that have one speed bikes, these are three speed; Cincinnati has some hills.

Late Night Scene

We returned later to Over -the-Rhine for Sundry and Vice, an apothecary theme craft cocktail bar with an authentic tin ceiling and perfectly executed drinks. This bar wouldn’t be out of place in New York City, no surprise since the owners consulted with a bartender from Milk & Honey in Manhattan. We had several excellent drinks and were glad that Cincinnati has also entered the Uber market.

Forget Letting Your Freak Flag Fly; Here It’s Your American Flag

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Some of the historic signs at the American Sign Museum. Credit: Judy Antell / Vegetarian TravelingMom

It may not be surprising to visitors from other parts of the country, but in Manhattan and Brooklyn, American flags are not generally displayed in front of our private homes (Staten Island is a different story). On my mother-in-law’s cul de sac, every single house had a flag.

This makes sense in a city steeped in Americana: the hometown baseball team, the Reds, play at the Great American Ball Park and the tour of underground beer tunnels we took was with a company named American Legacy Tours. But first we visited a unique bit of Americana, the American Sign Museum.

This museum opened in 2005 and moved to its current home in 2012. It features recreated streetscapes where you can see hand-lettered and gold leaf storefront signs, then moves through light bulb signs, neon and plastic. This is the place to embrace nostalgia; bring an older relative and watch her reminisce about long defunct companies’ pre-Internet banner ads. The bright, flashing signs are equally compelling for kids.

The museum offers free guided tours Wednesdays – Saturdays, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., 2 p.m. only on Sundays. But you can also explore on your own.

Don’t miss the neon workshop in one corner of the museum; artisans work repairing neon signs, in full view of visitors (weekdays only). The museum is in the Camp Washington section of Cincinnati, close to downtown.

One Last Revelation

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The beer tunnels that run under Over-the-Rhine. Credit: Judy Antell / Vegetarian TravelingMom

Our final surprise was the Queen City Underground Tour, also in Over-the-Rhine. American Legacy Tours offer several tours, but this one, taking us into an ancient crypt and to newly unearthed layering tunnels, seemed the most compelling. The entertaining tour guides didn’t shy from Over-the-Rhine’s checkered past, and unflappably ignored a street fight occurring within shouting distance of our sold-out tour.

I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised by the size of these giant beer tunnels, which weren’t used during prohibition, but kept beer cold. Nothing was surprising us anymore, and at the tap room at the end of the tour, where there were over a dozen craft beers, we realized that visiting the relatives was not the only reason to plan a trip to the Queen City.