Rediscovering Cincy (And Other Great Local Daycations)

The American Sign Museum.

The American Sign Museum.

We all love Louisville – of course we do and so we should. We devour our ever-growing food scene; we partake in plenty of outdoor activities, and we can’t get enough of bourbon and locally brewed beers, all while soaking up our local arts scene. But sometimes it’s good to mix it up, right? Sometimes it’s refreshing to broaden your horizons and realize that our own doorstep is a little wider and more varied than we assume – or are used to thinking – it is. So what did we at The Voice-Tribune do? Well, we chose to take a brisk drive to a not so distant corner of our doorstep – Cincinnati – and see all that it has to offer.

Firstly, a disclaimer: I did not want to go to Cincinnati for a number of reasons. While Louisville is my adopted home, I have also lived in New York and Europe and thus cities have a high bar to be deemed exciting, thrilling or engaging. I have seen both U.S. coasts and experienced New Orleans and Chicago. Couple that with the fact that my prior impressions of Cincinnati and its outskirts were of its sketchy downtown (totally unjustified) and the aquarium (just lots of fish, also available in Kentucky) and you have a bitter old unshakable cocktail, garnished with a steadfast loyalty to Louisville. But, as I am about many things, I was just plain wrong.

The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.

The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.

While the majority of our trip was spent in Cincy, the first real treat of the day was Covington, an old, historic small blue-collar town with the pointed backdrop of Cincinnati behind it. What you think is Newport, land of the Aquarium and not much else, is likely Covington, and Covington is basically anything left of the Licking River – a small vein running off the mighty Ohio River just as you get off the highway.

Take a drive through downtown Covington, and it’s like the set of “Mad Men” – if the show was set in a small mid-west enclave as opposed to bustling New York. Mid-century buildings along its main stretch of Madison Avenue are adorned with mid-century shop signs advertising businesses that seem like they have been there since, well, at least the mid-century. There are also older buildings with equal charm interspersed that look like they have been around even longer. But Covington is worth the 90 minute drive from Louisville for one reason above all others: St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.

Personally, I have always loved cathedrals and their ability to make you forget that there is an outside world the moment you step through their doors. Covington’s neo-gothic sanctum can be seen from miles away as you approach it, its front facade thoroughly European in character – a smaller less monolithic Parisian Notre Dame. Inside is an array of stained glass windows flown in from Munich in 1910, the highlight of which is the north window that measures 67 by 24 feet and remains one of the largest stained glass windows in the world. When inside the cathedral, the best thing to do is pick a pew, close your eyes and let the silence wash over you. Then open your eyes and watch the colors of the windows soar high and bright toward the vaulted ceiling where the light makes the colors dance on the floor below as well. Whether at the beginning of your day in Cincy or at the end, the cathedral is a must-stop as it is an architectural and aural delight.

Loveland Castle.

Loveland Castle.

But what about Cincy and Ohio itself? The first stop was another one of immense color. Opened in 2005, the American Sign Museum moved into its permanent home on the northern reaches of the city in 2012. The cost of entry is $15 and is well worth it. The American Sign Museum, as the name suggests, is full of signs: neon, painted, drawn, metal, wooden, and each one is composed of fonts indicative of bygone times. It’s a treasure trove for anyone looking to wander around and be transported back in time to the middle of the 20th century when the preeminent form of advertising used glowing neon.

Visitors are free to explore the nearly 20,000 square feet of space that is adorned floor to ceiling (28 foot ceiling) with a plethora of signs depicting corporations, shops, bars and restaurants past and present. The museum is certainly unique and also educational as there is an adjoining workshop where visitors can see how a neon sign is made.

TVT_3951As it’s the middle of summer, it’s always a delight to find engaging and interactive indoor activities. And Cincy has plenty to offer. One  option is to meander through Mt. Adams, the picturesque neighborhood on the steep, green and lush slopes that hang over the banks of the Ohio until you find Eden Park – home to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Founded in 1881, it’s one of the oldest dedicated art museums in the country, and with 60,000 works, it boasts a plethora of time-periods to explore within its cool interior away from the glaring summer sun. Walk beyond the museum’s Doric and Ionic column-lined exterior and get lost in the balmy world of the Impressionists – Monet, Renoir and Sisley – or enjoy the whimsy of pastoral life courtesy of the old Dutch masters. There are pottery and ceramics to absorb as well as more contemporary fare. It’s hard to beat the pleasure of a good art gallery, and while Louisville’s Speed Art Museum awaits its re-opening, Cincinnati is worth a visit just for this.

TVT_4096A lesser known piece of artwork in Cincinnati that’s also a must see is the Loveland Castle. No, this is not some long-lost Disney annex, but rather a testament to the lifelong passion of a local eccentric and visionary. Officially named Chateau Laroche, Loveland Castle – given its name because it’s in the nearby town of Loveland – was the work of Harry D. Andrews. A few things about Andrews who passed away in the 1980s: He was a World War I veteran who was pronounced dead after going missing in action but later turned up to earn two degrees in architecture – including one in wartime France – to satisfy his love of castles. No one loved castles more than Andrews, whose love of them forced him down to the nearby creek to pick up rocks and slowly but surely spend the next 50 years building a castle entirely by hand. It’s a strange but wonderfully whimsical place, a curiosity that simply needs to be seen to be believed.

As you can tell, one thing we tried to do was pack as much as we could into one day. Because if we could do it, it means you could too. So as the sun was setting, we decided the best course of action for trying to burn off some of the calories we took in at The Root Beer Stand and fending off the food-coma brought on by Eli’s BBQ was to go for a walk. Where did we do this? A walking bridge in downtown Cincy. While the Purple People Bridge gets all the attention in town, we decided to take a stroll across the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge. Why? Because it gets less attention, has a great pedestrian walking lane on either side and offers an equally impressive view of the skyline as the sun starts to set. And after all, aren’t suspension bridges much cooler anyway?

With the food sweats walked off, the final stop of the journey came courtesy of The Voice-Tribune’s Chris Humphreys, who insisted that if the sun had not gone down we should go to Ikea. I have never been to Ikea, so I did not think of a good enough reason in time to object. I’m glad I didn’t. My impression of Ikea was of an inevitable and seemingly endless passageway that took you along two floors that sought to reaffirm that nearly every object in your own house is either –  A. not as pretty as the ones right here in this Swedish “Mecca of flat pack” or B. they don’t have adorable Scandinavian names like everything here (including the toilet brush). The food was nice, as were the pear and apple ciders I got that I would have struggled to find elsewhere. A not unpleasant end – Ikea was a surreal period at the end of a day filled with pleasurable commas.

Cities are so much more than first impressions, and Cincinnati and its entire vicinity are fabulous with so much to offer that I cannot wait to come back for seconds. In fact, as the rest of this story hopes to attest, there is so much on the doorstep of Louisville – at most a few hours away – that it’s criminal not to get in your car and go exploring. In the same way that Kentucky is so much more than Louisville, there is so much more to the immediate South and Midwest available to us than Kentucky. So get out, pump the gas and go see the world. VT

Bites to eat in Cincinnati

Eli’s BBQ | 3313 Riverside Drive,

While Cincy is not necessarily renowned for its BBQ, perhaps it would be wise to rethink that. After indulging the senses at the Cincinnati Art Museum, we made a stop at Eli’s BBQ on the recommendation of our Voice-Tribune colleague Joanna Hite Shelton. She could not have steered us to a better place. Upon entering, we TVT_4123found the employees fiddling with a Marshall amplifier that they’d hooked up to a record player. Finely coiffed facial hair twitched as they were figuring the connections, while old vintage beer cans sat perched above their heads, and an antique typewriter idled by the back door. It was a nice place with even better barbecue. Ask for a pork rib, and you get plenty of meat on a bone on all sides with a sweet dry rub. Ask for a pulled pork sandwich, and the result is a smoky and unusually crispy pile of pork between a very large set of buns. On the whole, a superb detour to refuel, especially when we found out there were beef frank options and smoked turkey to boot.

The Root Beer Stand | 11566 Reading Road,

Barbecue is salty, which means one thing, you build up a heck of a thirst. So what better place to follow Eli’s with than Cincinnati’s legendary Root Beer Stand. Opened in 1957 as an A&W Root Beer stand, it switched to making its own homemade brew in 1982 when the TVT_4185franchise expired. Before the days of interstate highways, the stand, which looks like a small 1950s era diner, was home to truckers on their way from Michigan down to Florida. We ordered a glass of orange soda and root beer to quench our thirst. I’ll be honest; the orange soda was intense. The sugar content may have quickly burrowed a cavity in one of my teeth, entered my bloodstream and elevated the risk for type 2 diabetes. Was it delicious? Sure. Refreshing? Perhaps not. The same cannot be said of the root beer. Cold, frosty and dark brown, the root beer was all flavor and all-refreshing. Its delightful sassafras flavor made for a perfect pit-stop before getting back on the road. Additionally, the fact that the interior of the store is adorned with dozens and dozens of dangling baseball caps belonging to old patrons makes for an old time charm that should not be missed when in town.

More daycation ideas…

Indianapolis, Ind. |

A little under two hours north of Louisville, Indiana’s capital, Indianapolis, boasts numerous unique establishments and activities for visitors to explore this summer.

Need some retail therapy? The Indianapolis City Market is an extensive, covered market filled with a variety of food and gift options from around the world. Open Monday through Saturday, the Indianapolis City Market offers an endless array of dining options and also features the Original Farmers’ Market every Wednesday through October. Visitors to the farmers’ market have the opportunity to shop for local foods.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is a great stop for families with children of all ages to enjoy. This summer, the museum features many exciting exhibits such as Hot Wheelsâ„¢ – Race to Win (July 14-August 16), Inside Hollywood Film & TV – You’re on the Set (July 14-26) and Leonardo – The Mummified Dinosaur (July 14-December 31st). The Children’s Museum also houses a carousel and a 130 seat planetarium. This summer, the museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and offers free admission on Thursday, August 6 and Thursday, September 3.

For all racecar enthusiasts, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a must see. The speedway is home to the Hall of Fame Museum and will host two exciting events this summer. From July 24 to July 26 the speedway presents the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard. The speedway will also host the Red Bull Indianapolis GP from August 7 to August 9, an event that includes a Free Kids Zone with fun and games for children to enjoy.

  • Where to eat: Indianapolis is home to The Flying Cupcake, which is not only Indianapolis’ original cupcake bakery but also the first cupcake bakery in all of Indiana.
  • Freebie: Take a walk or bike ride along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. The trail stretches eight miles and features seven public art projects along the way.
  • Hidden Gem: Throughout July, August, and part of September, White River State Park is home to numerous outdoor concerts.

Lexington, Ky. |

For any and all Louisvillians searching for a new spot to explore this summer, be sure to swing by Lexington for a unique day trip that won’t break the bank but will be sure to please. From horses to the bourbon trail, Lexington has something to offer every curious visitor.

Lexington and the surrounding areas are home to three bourbon distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Town Branch Bourbon, conveniently located in central Lexington, includes both a distillery and a brewery. It was founded in 2012 and ages all of its bourbon in charred white oak barrels. Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey Bourbon are also in the area, only about 20 miles outside of Lexington, and, like Town Branch Bourbon, include guided tours of their facilities.

Known for horseracing, Lexington is home to The Kentucky Horse Park, an establishment that both celebrates and participates in equine shows and competitions. Summertime at the horse park offers a wide variety of events, such as the daily Breeds Barn Show, which features a diverse display of horse breeds. From Tuesday, July 28 to Sunday, August 2, the park will host The Kentucky Summer II Classic, an exciting hunter/jumper show featuring local and international riders. One of Lexington’s most famous race tracks, Keeneland, should most certainly be a stop on your daycation this summer. Although racing does not resume until this fall, Keeneland will host the Concours d’Elegance Car Show on July 18.

For history buffs, both The Henry Clay Estate, also known as Ashland, and The Mary Todd Lincoln House are located in Lexington. Those visiting these homes will be treated to a guided tour of the houses’ interiors and then have the opportunity to explore the gardens at their leisure. For nature enthusiasts, Ashland offers a guided tour called The Trees of Ashland, which introduces guests to the 40 different tree varieties growing at the estate.

  • Where to eat: Stop by Windy Corner Market, a restaurant resembling an old country store and featuring Kentucky foodstuffs for visitors to purchase.
  • Freebie: Check out The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky to fuel your interest in the fine arts.
  • Hidden Gem: The Kentucky Theatre, opened in 1922, includes a stunningly elegant theatre for movie goers to enjoy.

Cave City, Ky. |

Eighty-six miles outside of Louisville, Cave City is home to Mammoth Cave, one of the seven wonders of the natural world according to its website. It is the longest cave system in the known world. It’s also the oldest tourist attraction in the United States and still Kentucky’s most popular tourist destination. According to Cave City’s Tourism and Welcome Center, there are five caves and 21 different cave tours guided by the National Park Service, which owns and manages the caves. Some parts of the caves have been outfitted with electric light. If you’re feeling more adventurous, though, there are two tours on which visitors must carry their own paraffin lamps. If that still doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping, you can go in for one of the “wild” tours that take visitors off the beaten track into dusty tunnels and muddy pathways. This is the National Park Service, though, so most tours will be educational. You will learn about how caves are formed and about how they interact with human history and our cultural development.

If you tire of caves, there is a plethora of antique stores, flea markets, horseback riding, wine tasting, hiking, cycling, canoeing and other outdoor activities.

Cave City is also a great destination for people into ziplining. What’s ziplining, you ask? Ziplining happens wherever a wire cable is strung far above the floor or ground and people suspend themselves from the wire. Gravity does the rest, and the zipliner makes a sort of controlled fall while staying attached to the cable. At its best, ziplining gives you a bird’s eye view of some beautiful scenery. And it may be as close as most of us will every get to flying – unless you go in for hang gliding or parachuting. Cave City boasts three such ziplines.

  • Where to eat: El Mazatlan, an informal Mexican eatery on Gardner Lane. Try the chalupas.
  • Freebie: Magaline’s Antique Mall offers at least two hours of window shopping pleasure.
  • Hidden Gem: Park Mammoth Winery, a part of Park Mammoth Resort.

Owensboro, Ky. |

If you were to put out a boat on the Ohio River and let the current carry you, you’d arrive, after some twists and turns, at Owensboro.

Downtown streets, rich in history, bustle. Their buildings stand in ranks aligned with the river as though admiring it. For a Louisvillian, it feels like a little version of home.

As Kentucky’s fourth biggest city, Owensboro has a newly recreated waterfront that beckons you to enjoy the view. Next to the blue bridge across the river, Smothers Park is full of unique cascading water features, playgrounds and overlooks.

The RiverPark Center hosts concerts, plays and performances of the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra.

And a short walk downriver lies the newly opened 92,000-square-foot Owensboro Convention Center.

To experience the heart and soul of Owensboro, you’ve got to stuff your face with some chopped mutton. It’s smoked for hours over hickory and flavored with an inimitable sauce. You won’t find better barbecue.

The city’s most famous restaurant, Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, boasts a plentiful buffet with a big kettle of burgoo – a stew of mutton, potatoes and corn. You’ll be going back for bowl upon bowl.

Last May, the annual Owensboro International Barbecue Festival brought thousands of revelers downtown. And on Oct. 17 and 18, the annual Apple Festival will offer endless crafts, foods and carnival rides at Reid’s Orchard, where apples, pears and strawberries grow in abundance. The festival has been named a Top 10 event by the Kentucky Tourism Council.

In a former Carnegie library building on Frederica Street, the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art presents a collection of American, European and Asian arts from the 15th century to the present. And since Owensboro isn’t far from the little town of Rosine, Ky. – the birthplace of Bluegrass music – it’s the perfect location for the International Bluegrass Music Museum, located on Daviess Street near the river.

  • Where to eat: The mutton at award-winning Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, 338 Washington Avenue, is regarded by many as the best in town.
  • Freebie: Just outside the city limits, Panther Creek Park features 1,800 feet of elevated walking trails through beautiful, wooded wetlands.
  • Hidden Gem: Andria’s Candies, 217 Allen Street, has been crafting delicious chocolates since 1959 and was recognized as a Southern Living Favorite in 2003.

Brown County, Ind. |

Brown County is only 88 miles away from Louisville, but you might feel like you have passed through a portal and entered another world. Brown County is still assertively rural, old-fashioned and, simultaneously, progressive about conserving natural resources. It is best known as a destination for people who want to take a step back in time. You can camp in Brown County State Park or Bill Monroe Music Park and Campground or you can easily rent a log cabin. Any number of leafy hikes and bike rides awaits you. Because it is so heavily forested, Brown County is a popular destination for “leaf lookers,” i.e. people who travel to see the most gorgeous and colorful fall foliage. The county also offers opportunities for canoeing and horseback riding.

The quaint town of Nashville, the county seat, yields a glimpse back into America’s history via historic buildings like the Bartley House. Nashville is also home to the Brown County Art Colony, founded in 1907 by notable painter T.C. Steele. So collectors and art-lovers can hope to score some original and possibly affordable artwork. You can hobnob with the artists who frequently drop into the local coffee shops, breweries and wineries. If you’re tired of looking and want to throw some clay or splash up a watercolor yourself, you can also take a class. Classes are offered year round at the Arts Village.

Drive a little further and you can enjoy the Covered Bridge Loop, which takes you through six counties and through nine bridges. Other nearby historic sites are Story, Indiana; Pioneer Museum; and the TC Steele State Historic Site.

The Bill Monroe Music Park and Campground is the site of numerous music festivals showcasing bluegrass traditions. You can also catch live entertainment at the Saloon at Seasons Lodge and the Hickory Sports Bar.

  • Where to eat: Big Wood Pizza. They make signature pizzas and brew their own ale and root beer.
  • Freebie: Stone Head, a carved mile marker created by Henry Cross in 1851, located at 4645 Bellsville Pike in Nashville. Superstition has it that kissing the statue’s head is good luck.
  • Hidden Gem: Melchior Marionette Theatre, located on S. Van Buren Street in downtown Nashville,  offers two puppet shows most Saturdays.

Bardstown, Ky. |

The town’s online tourist guide touts it as “the most beautiful small town in America.” Forty miles outside Lousville, Bardstown, Ky. offers perhaps the best opportunity in the world to sample different bourbons on the region’s legendary bourbon trail.

No bourbon tour in Bardstown would be complete without a visit to Barton 1792, a bourbon distillery with a proud history. The distillery’s 1792 small batch earned a hefty 92.5 rating in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Also on the tour are Four Roses Distillery, the Maker’s Mark Distillery, Old Talbott Tavern, Willett Distillery and several other museums or sites of historical interest relevant to bourbon. There’s a lot more to bourbon than just getting sloshed. Take the tour and learn what connoisseurs mean by “spice,” “nuance,” “small batch” and “flight.”

If bourbon is not your thing – or if you have been swallowing instead of spitting the samples and you now need a break – there are many other things to do including golfing on an 18-hole green, antiquing and bookstore-hopping. You can also clop through town at an elegant, leisurely pace in a brilliantly white horse drawn carriage. If you are traveling with a great number of people, y’all can rent a stagecoach. There are many attractions for the history lover, including the Bishop Flaget Log House & St. Thomas Church for which you must make an appointment. Do so, and step back into 1812 when Bishop Flaget made his home there.

If you have imbibed so much bourbon that you now feel the need for a journey of repentance and reflection, head to the Abbey of Gethsemani, open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Sunday (naturally). Founded in 1848, the abbey is home to Trappist monks who will give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse into religious life. There’s also a gift shop.

  • Where to eat: Kreso’s, a fine-dining family restaurant repurposing the Arco and Melody Theaters.
  • Freebie: Bourbon County Soaps, on 94 Court Square, offers free whiffs. (You have to pay for soap, though.)
  • Hidden Gem: Hadorn’s Bakery, 118 Flaget Street. Try the donuts or butter kuchen.

Quick Trips from River City

Green Turtle Bay Resort |
Enjoy boating and fishing – the whole aquatic lifestyle – at Green Turtle Bay Resort where elegant condominiums and an elegant marina await the daycationer. If you’re not entirely into sun and spray, you can relax at the resort’s Jade & Earth Spa.

Red River Gorge |
Rock climbers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts will not want to miss Red River Gorge, a huge canyon system in central-east Kentucky that offers breathtaking views at almost every turn. Designated a National Natural Landmark, the gorge features picturesque natural bridges, waterfalls and sandstone cliffs.

Simpsonville, Ky. |
For the avid shopper, a daycation to Outlet Shoppes of the Bluegrass, only 24 miles outside Louisville, is a no-brainer. Shop ’til you drop at Banana Republic, Saks Fifth Avenue, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Gap, J. Crew and dozens of other prestige shops.

Bowling Green, Ky. |
Only 122 miles from Louisville, Bowling Green is a great alternative for a daycation. The main attraction is the National Corvette Museum, which boasts over 70 different models of the Chevrolet Corvette. Take a trip down American cars’ memory lane. It’s a must-see for lovers of the muscle car.