"Skyline Chili -- that's where everybody goes in Cincinnati," flight attendant Amy Finucan was advising some passengers during the landing approach.
They're not hard to find, certainly. There are 68 Skyline Chili restaurants in Cincinnati, owned by a Greek immigrant who opened the first in 1949 and named it for the view from Price Hill. There are also 80 Gold Star Chili restaurants owned by four Jordanian brothers, who got their start in 1963, and another 50-odd chili purveyors all around this hilly, spread-out city of 385,000, serving a signature dish that has very little to do with what the rest of the country calls chili.
Cincinnatians eat this stuff with a fork, off a plate, for heaven's sake. It consists of a heap of spaghetti smothered with a Greek-style meat sauce seasoned with cinnamon and chocolate and chili powder. That's two-way chili. Nobody eats it that way. Top it with mounds of grated cheddar cheese, it's three-way chili; add onions or kidney beans, it's four-way; add onions and kidney beans, and it's five-way. Why they don't just call it Cincinnati Spaghetti is anyone's guess.
But we digress.
Cincinnati surprises first-time visitors with more than its idiosyncratic chili. The downtown area, on the north bank of the Ohio River, is fresh-scrubbed and sparkling. Several gleaming new office complexes, municipal buildings and hotels have popped up among some splendidly rehabbed vintage structures, making for an eye-catching architectural mix.
On a sunny day, Fountain Square is a lovely place to sit and take in the structural sights at the city's center, as well as lunchtime entertainment; it has been cited for making the best use of urban space in the U.S. Just a few blocks away, sports fans can enjoy an afternoon or evening Cincinnati Reds game at Riverfront Stadium from June through September, or a Bengals game in the autumn, though tickets to the latter are said to be sold out well in advance. It's so close to downtown, though, that you can easily stroll over before a game to see what the scalpers are offering, and for how much.
Along the Ohio River just east of the stadium and the coliseum (where concerts and other big-ticket events are staged) lies the Serpentine Wall, an undulating, terraced 40-foot-high concrete structure where thousands gather to bask during sunny lunch hours. The seating is such, though, that you seldom feel crowded. Occasionally noontime concerts are offered. Mostly it's just a pleasant place to watch the river flow past, dotted with barges and riverboats.
Just up the hill from the wall lies Yeatman's Cove Park, a nicely landscaped area with a running path, which was donated to the city as a bicentennial gift by Procter & Gamble, one of Cincinnati's biggest employers. And above the park are the delightful Concourse Fountains, with terraced pools spilling into one another, and jetting spouts sending out a delightful spray over a large wading pool. The wall, the park, the fountains, the stadium and the coliseum all offer terrific views of the skyline and the river.
A pedestrian bridge leads from the fountains to Lytle Park, a pretty formal garden on the eastern edge of downtown. It in turn leads to the Taft Museum, a stunning Greek-Revival mansion thought to have been designed either by White House architect James Hoban or by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and built in 1820. It was inhabited by a succession of prominent local families, most recently by Charles Phelps Taft, the half-brother of William H. Taft, who announced his acceptance of the presidential nomination from the front portico in 1908. (President Taft's birthplace, at 2038 Auburn Ave., is currently closed for restoration.)
The regal home on Pike Street became a museum in 1932. The refined interior architectural details and period furnishings set off a fine collection of paintings and decorative arts, including striking examples of 16th-century French Limoges enamels and Italian Majolica ceramics. Noteworthy among the canvases are a sensitive portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, a large impressionistic "Rape of Europa" by preimpressionist J.M.W. Turner, portraits of young women by J.A.D. Ingres and Franz Hals, Goya's portrait of Queen Maria Luisa and two Rembrandt portraits of men -- one very loosely rendered, the other more formal and detailed. There are also lovely displays of intricately enameled watches and delicately painted fans from the 18th and 19th centuries.
From the Taft, it's just a short walk west on Fifth Street, past the elaborate gardens of Procter & Gamble Park, to the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), which faces Government Square. The CAC is on the second level of the Mercantile Center building (which has a lovely skylit arcade); there is no permanent collection, but a new show opens every six or eight weeks in the airy exhibition space.
On the west side of downtown, near the new Convention Center, three historic buildings at Eighth Street and Plum are worth a look:
City Hall, a splendid, sturdy Romanesque structure of red granite, completed in 1893. Its marble stairs inside lead past stained-glass windows depicting allegorical scenes from Cincinnati's early days. (The city's bicentennial will be celebrated next year.)
The St. Peter In Chains Cathedral, a Greek Revival church built between 1839 and 1845.
The Isaac M. Wise Temple, also known as the Plum Street Temple. Completed in 1866, it is Byzantine and Moorish in style, with a multidomed ceiling and the columns and walls entirely hand-painted with ornamental stenciled designs. It houses the Congregation B'nai Yeshurun, and is historically significant because Rabbi Wise was the founder of the institutions of Reform Judaism in the United States. The temple was restored in 1950, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
In inclement weather, visitors can still see much of the lovely downtown without having to bundle up: A 13-block network of skywalks connects major department stores, hotels, more than 80 shops, movie theaters, banks, office buildings, restaurants, the Convention Center, the coliseum and stadium, providing several good vantage points along the way.
There are no sleazy bookstores, video shops or strip joints downtown -- a decade of civic, legal and religious crackdowns have purged all materials and emporiums deemed even remotely offensive by Cincinnati's conservative burghers. Even video stores across county lines have been prosecuted for delivering blue movies to Cincinnatians. Those with a taste for such things can cross the bridge into Covington, Ky., to frequent the tawdry bookstores and clubs there, but even those are in decline these days. Pressure from the "right" side of the bridge is considerable; the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography last year cited Cincinnati as being one of the most porn-free cities in the U.S.
But, yes, we digress.
Cincinnati has a remarkably expansive, pastoral feel beyond its efficient, gleaming downtown. It is forested and rolling, covering 78 square miles. It seems to be less a single city than a collection of small towns and villages nestled among a dozen hills. (A curious aside: Cincinnati is said to have been founded on seven hills, and thus considers itself a sister city to Rome. But no one seems quite sure which of the dozen hills the seven original hills were.)
One of the most attractive yup-and-coming enclaves of Cincinnati is the Mount Adams neighborhood, a short drive east of downtown. Its streets are steep and narrow and picturesque in a San Francisco sort of way, lined with snappily gentrified real estate that commands prices as breathtaking as the views of the river, northern Kentucky and downtown Cincinnati.
For visitors, the best place to enjoy the view, along with a drink or a meal, is on one of the five outdoor decks of the Pavilion, on the street of the same name. The slick-looking spot won Cincinnati magazine's "Best After-Work Bar" award in 1986. Another novel place to graze on Mount Adams is Rookwood Pottery, a ceramics factory founded by Nicholas Longworth's granddaughter Maria that operated from 1892 until 1967. The bar and dining area are arranged around the huge round kilns, with intimate seating available inside the kilns themselves.
A few blocks away, a landmark of the early Mount Adams settlement is the Immaculata Shrine Church, which was built in 1859 from Mount Adams stone. Each Good Friday the Roman Catholic faithful climb the 300 stairs from the Ohio River to the church, saying a "Hail Mary" on each step and an "Our Father" on each landing.
In the 1800s Mount Adams was the site of vineyards planted by Taft house builder Martin Baum. Longworth subsequently acquired the vineyard, which developed the catawba grape, which produced America's first champagne. Mount Adams' early vintner cottages were copied by subsequent German and Irish immigrant settlers, and yuppified by the recent wave of developers.
Longworth had the foresight to designate 200 acres of Mount Adams as Eden Park; the city acquired it in 1859. The fourth-oldest, fourth-largest park in the city, it is a beautifully landscaped 200-acre delight for runners, strollers, bicycle riders, picnickers and Sunday drivers. The grounds are immaculately kept -- graffiti and litter seem to be unknown social evils here.
Within Eden Park's perimeter lie some of the city's best cultural offerings. The Cincinnati Art Museum opened in 1886 and has expanded several times to its present 118 galleries. The collection is extensive, varied and handsome: It encompasses Cycladic figurines, Greek kraters, Turkish and Persian rugs, illuminated manuscripts, Chinese ceramics, Egyptian and Iraqi bas reliefs, Nabatean artifacts from a little-known ancient Middle Eastern culture, Hindu and Buddhist statues, historical musical instruments, medieval religious statues, European and Oriental decorative arts, Hollywood costumes, assorted prints, drawings and photographs and vast selections of European and American painting and sculpture.
In the latter two categories, I particularly enjoyed the sensation of "discovering" works by known artists I hadn't seen before in art history books or in person. My favorite such discovery was Van Gogh's "Undergrowth With Two Figures," painted in 1890, the year of his suicide, depicting a gaunt, shadowy couple walking among slender blue-violet tree trunks and a yellow-green explosion of ground cover.
The collection does include better-known works as well, such as Grant Wood's delightfully stiff-lipped "Daughters of Revolution," Franz Marc's "The Red Horses," John Singer Sargent's "Italian Girl With Fan," Claude Monet's "Rocks at Port-Goulphar" and Frederic Bazille's "Terrace at Meric," a lush garden scene distinguished by the ghostly image of a woman on a bench in the foreground, which Bazille sketched in but never completed.
Elsewhere within Eden Park lies the Krohn Conservatory, one of the world's largest public greenhouses. It's a wonderful, spacious enclosed retreat inhabited by 1,500 flower and foliage plants -- particularly inviting when it's cold and miserable out. There are six seasonal flower shows, plus the permanent displays of orchids, desert plants, rain forest palms and shrubbery, and other tropical exotica.
The Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, and the Cincinnati Historical Society are all housed in Eden Park, but only until 1990 or so, when they will move into the soon-to-be-renovated old Union Terminal, a splendid art deco structure on the west side of town, which saw its last trains in 1972. Currently a women's discount clothing store occupies the terminal's rotunda, but it will close Dec. 31. In late February and March a Soviet cultural exhibition will be held there, and then the remodeling will proceed.
In the meantime, visitors to the terminal can see the enormous Italian-tile mosaic that encircles the half-dome rotunda with scenes of local pioneering, farming, riverboating and industry, as well as the wonderful art deco interior details, from the ticket windows to the aerodynamic-looking waiting benches.
Near the entrance there's a modest little Railway Museum, full of old prints, signs, photographs, switch locks, air brake gauges, playing cards, washroom plaques, sounder boxes, telegraph keys and conductors' caps. If you've got a question, Cecil Scott will answer it, and supply a fountain of additional facts. He worked in the terminal during its glory years and promises that after the renovation "it'll look like it did in the old days."
Well, not quite: "The garage downstairs is really immense -- when the museum moves in here, there'll be an Ice Age exhibit down there, with real ice on top, a real lake on the side and motorized prehistoric animals that'll look like they're taking a drink. We've got a lot of good plans for this place."
A must for visitors with some free time and good walking shoes is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. A good 15 to 20 minutes from downtown, it's a bit of a treasure hunt to find by car; every time I thought I was lost for sure, another sign appeared, and another turn. But it's well worth the effort.
The zoo's landscaping is terrific. Paths wend through big stands of trees and bushes (1,200 plant species in all) from one outdoor exhibit to another, so vistors come upon tigers and gorillas and tropical birds in naturalistic settings and don't feel crowded by hordes of other zoo-goers. There are few wide-open spaces, which makes the zoo seem bigger, as it takes longer to explore. Even the Children's Zoo is a delight of clever design and inviting display, for adults and kids alike.
Indoor exhibits include the charming Butterfly Garden, a walk-through rain-forest habitat stocked with free-floating butterflies; the delightfully icky Insect House (where a special scale will give you your weight in insects -- about 184,000 bugs per pound), Reptile House and Nocturnal House; the handsomely redesigned Cat House; and the poignant Passenger Pigeon Memorial. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, lived here till her death in 1914, as did Incas, the last Carolina parakeet, who died in 1918. Their pagoda-style home is now a memorial exhibit to all extinct animal species.
As for the Cincinnati-style chili, I never did get around to trying it. Maybe next time.
Magda Krance is a free-lance writer living in Chicago.