Such is the geographical dilemma many find themselves in when Cleveland and Cincinnati are brought up in the same conversation. It seems preposterous to the locals, of course. These are two inextricably different cities with their own respective stories. Once more, they look completely different. Cleveland is flatter than a pancake run over by a steamroller and Cincinnati has hills on hills on hills on hills.
It must be said from the get go that both are uniquely fantastic cities. Still, it’s worth jumping in and looking at what makes each one special. What separates them, what makes them tick, why you should want to visit, and most importantly for the traveler, where specifically to go.
Both Cleveland and Cincinnati are cities of neighborhoods with strong roots to their immigrant pasts that lead into the present. Cleveland has objectively one of the greatest Little Italy neighborhoods in the country on the east side of the city with pockets of Polish, Irish, and hispanic immigrants on the west side in Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway, and Kamm’s Corner, respectively. For more specifics on Cleveland neighborhoods, check out the Off The Tourist Trek Guide to Cleveland.
In Cincinnati, the first thing that comes to mind is the German legacy of Over-The-Rhine. This is a gorgeous neighborhood dripping with history. Speaking of dripping, the Germans did more than bring themselves and their ridiculously long words to street signs (though these street signs were changed with the outbreak of The Great War). They brought beer. Lots and lots of beer. If that tickles your fancy, then you need to sign up for a Brewing Heritage Trail tour.
When those German immigrants weren’t busy brewing brews, they built what is believed to be the largest collection of Italianate Architecture in the United States. Thanks to recent revitalization efforts, Over-The-Rhine is easily one of the most fascinating and enjoyable neighborhoods to walk around in the whole of the country — full stop.
You won’t be hard pressed to find good eats in either city. Cities across the United States are experiencing some level of return migration coupled with a renewed importance placed on having local, fresh food readily available at markets and restaurants. Chefs are among the crowd leaving the oversaturation of big city competition to open something up back home. Cleveland and Cincinnati are no exceptions in that regard, but they both at least have some exceptional standouts in the restaurant department, each with a food scene anchored by phenomenal marketplaces.
In Cleveland, the anchor is the West Side Market. Google it and you’ll see quotes from renowned chefs across the country singing its praises. Indeed, the early 20th Century market is worthy of all the adulation and then some. You can find it in the aforementioned Ohio City neighborhood, one of the first to receive the “cool” stamp in the city’s recent revitalization efforts. Inside you’re treated to a cultural cacophony by way of food. (It’s the best kind of cultural cacophony, after all.) As a former resident, I frequented Dionne’s Meats often for their chicken chorizo — still the best stuff I’ve had anywhere in all of my travels.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, has Findlay Market — the oldest continuously operated public market in Ohio and a member of the National Register of Historic Places. Go on a Saturday or Sunday through March to December for the farmers’ market surrounded by street performers and other special events. Baseball fans will want to visit for the Cincinnati Reds’ annual Opening Day parade. (The Reds were officially the first team in Major League Baseball and continue to hold the honor of throwing out the first pitch of the season.)
Given the market’s Over-The-Rhine location, it makes for a great destination after a long walk. Then again, the new Cincinnati Streetcar has its own stop for the market on Race Street just past the Brewery District. It’s a great walk into the city, but tired legs can save energy by taking the streetcar through Over-The-Rhine and into the Banks of Downtown Cincinnati where you can spend a sunny afternoon hanging out along the banks of the Ohio River or check out a live show at Fountain Square.
For more on Cincinnati food, check out Serious Eats’ 10 recommendations.
Ideally, Cleveland and Cincinnati could be paired together nicely in one trip. Unfortunately, plans to connect the cities with rail were foolishly scrapped, leaving travelers with Greyhound (there’s nothing wrong with Greyhound!) or five hours of yelling at traffic as they make their way through typically clogged I-75.
Until the state catches up with the 21st Century, you should plan weekends in both cities separately. Besides, there’s no shortage of wonderful places to stay in Cleveland or hotels in Cincinnati that you’ll want to make the most of. I can personally recommend the Symphony Hotel in Over-The-Rhine and the Metropolitan at the 9 in Cleveland.