by Lori Erickson
SOPHISTICATED ATTRACTIONS AND RURAL BYWAYS LURE TRAVELERS TO SOUTHWESTERN OHIO.
Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Davidson
Call me fickle, but sometimes I want it all on a vacation. I don’t want to have to choose between big-city sophistication and meandering rural byways or between world-class museums and that quaint little country inn that serves awesome pies. The wonderful thing about Cincinnati is that it pleases both sides of my personality. After marveling at a Rembrandt and cheering at a major-league baseball game, within a half-hour I can be driving through the gently rolling countryside north of the city, scoping out antique stores.
My favorite place to begin a tour of Cincinnati is where the city began: on the riverfront. Many of the city’s top attractions are found within a few blocks of the Ohio River. Most impressive is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a $110 million complex with undulating walls that echo the curves of the river. The museum chronicles the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement in America. Strolling through its multimedia exhibits, visitors learn why Cincinnati is a fitting place for the facility – the city’s location just across the Ohio River from the slave-holding state of Kentucky made it a center for abolitionist activity before the Civil War. It’s impossible not to feel emotionally engaged while touring this museum, especially when standing inside a rough-hewn cabin that was once used to hold slaves and during the film that recreates the experience of a slave escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Not far away, the city boasts three exceptional art museums with collections ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde. The Cincinnati Art Museum, one of the oldest visual arts institutions in the country, spans 6,000 years of artistic creation. On each visit I discover some new treasure (my latest favorite: the decorated scrolls of the Far Eastern collection). To see inside the imaginations of today’s most creative artists, I head to the Contemporary Arts Center, a building designed by Zaha Hadid – the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architectural Prize (2004). With no permanent collection, the museum always features cutting-edge works. The Taft Museum of Art offers works of a more traditional cast, all displayed in the serene surroundings of a nineteenth-century mansion. Among its treasures are Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair and Whistler’s early masterpiece, At the Piano.
But I appreciate Cincy for more than its high culture. “Play ball!” is the unofficial motto of the city, for Cincinnati has two major-league sports teams that attract legendary devotion. Both make their home on the riverfront – the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium and the Cincinnati Reds in the Great American Ballpark (which even houses a museum dedicated to the home team). After a day spent in the hushed environs of museums, an evening of cheering at a ball game serves as the perfect counterpoint.
And then it’s time to slip into a slower gear. Heading north out of the city, within a half hour I can be in rural Warren County, driving through a landscape of rolling hills, meandering rivers, and sleepy small towns. Among its many quaint villages, Lebanon holds a special place in my heart. First settled in 1796, it’s a haven of antique stores, specialty shops, and stately homes. Lebanon also celebrates its Shaker history, for in the early 1800s this area was a major stronghold for the religious group that came to be known both for its religious devotion and its beautifully crafted furniture and household goods. You can still find Shaker-built antiques in the town’s stores, and the Warren County Historical Society Museum provides more information about the stories that fill the town’s past.
No visit to Lebanon would be complete without a stop at The Golden Lamb, the oldest continually operating inn and restaurant in Ohio. The building has seen a parade of notables pass through its doors: 10 presidents have dined here as well as such literary giants as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. I love the traditional dishes on its menu, especially the Hot Shaker Chicken Salad and the delectable Sister Lizzie’s Shaker Sugar Pie.
To best appreciate the scenic beauty of the surrounding countryside, a traveler needs to trade a car for a canoe. The Little Miami River, designated as one of the nation’s first National Scenic Rivers, is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. From the river I can spy jack-in-the-pulpit flowers and delicate trillium, graceful great blue herons and raucous wild turkeys.
To end my tour of the area, I like to head to Fort Ancient State Memorial, one of North America’s largest prehistoric sites. Built 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell Indians, it perches atop a wooded bluff that rises 235 feet above the Little Miami River. More than three miles of tree-covered earthen walls encircle the hilltop, an enormous under-taking that has mysterious origins. Far away from the bustle of the city, I can almost hear ancient voices of a time long ago.