The Loneliest Road

US‑50: Across Cincinnati

US-50 survives pretty much intact across Cincinnati, though most of its former traffic now follows the freeways that loop around and cut through the city. West of downtown, US-50 follows the Ohio River along River Road, but the old alignment veers away from the freeway-sliced waterfront along State Avenue, running through downtown along 7th, 8th, and 9th Streets. East of downtown, old US-50 rejoins the riverfront around Mt. Adams, then follows the Columbia Parkway east to the garden city of Mariemont, where we rejoin it.

Exploring Cincinnati

Spreading along the north bank of the Ohio River, Cincinnati, which has nicknames that range from “Queen City” to “Porkopolis,” was once the largest and busiest city on the western frontier. During the heyday of steamboat travel in the first half of the 19th century, the city’s riverside location made it a prime transportation center, but as the railroad networks converged on Chicago, Cincinnati was eclipsed as the prime gateway to the western United States. Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, started here in the 1830s, making soap out of the abundant animal fat from the city’s hundreds of slaughterhouses. In recent years, the city has welcomed some cutting-edge art and architecture, most notably in the angular forms of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center (44 E. 6th St., 513/345-8400, Wed.-Mon., free), downtown. But Cincy is also known for a variety of less salubrious things: race riots, the fall from grace of baseball hero Pete Rose, and the TV antics of talk show host Jerry Springer. (Onetime mayor of Cincinnati, Springer started his media career here in the 1970s as a hard-rock radio DJ.)

Cincinnati’s modest population, just over 300,000 people, ranks it just ahead of Toledo as Ohio’s third largest city, which from a traveler’s point of view makes it an easily manageable and usually stress-free place to visit. A good first stop in Cincy is the Museum Center (513/287-7000 or 800/733-2077, daily, $14.50), west of downtown in the former Union Terminal off I-75 exit 1. This 1930s art deco railroad station has been converted into an enjoyable complex of science and history museums, plus an Omnimax Theater. Nearby Eden Park holds the respected Cincinnati Art Museum (513/721-2787, Tues.-Sun., free), amid acres of greenery.

Unfortunately, most of Cincinnati’s once vibrant waterfront area, known as “The Basin,” has been torn down in the name of urban renewal. What the 1940 WPA Guide to Ohio called “a museum of city history and the building styles of the past century” has been demolished in favor of a stadium each for the Reds (513/381-7337) and Bengals (513/621-8383), standing on either side of an open-air riverfront mall called “The Banks.”

The other main attraction along the Ohio River (which, until the Civil War, marked the dividing line between slave and free states) is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (513/333-7539, daily, $15), a flashy, $110-million museum drawing links between slavery, the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, and the spread of free-market democracy worldwide. The sole survivors of old Cincinnati are found in the expansive and rapidly gentrifying “Over the Rhine” neighborhood, north of Liberty Street around historic Findlay Market (1801 Race St.), and across the river in Covington, Kentucky, which you can reach by walking or driving across the Roebling Bridge, built in 1867 as a precursor to the more famous Brooklyn Bridge.

Along with art and history, Cincinnati is also home to a marvelous museum embracing a more unusual subject: the American Sign Museum (1330 Monmouth St., 513/541-6366, Wed.-Sun., $15), housed in an old parachute factory in the Camp Washington area. The high ceilings provide plenty of room to display hundreds of painted signs, sculpted signs, neon signs—you name it, they’re here.

Where to Eat and Stay in Cincinnati

Most major airlines fly into the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, which lies southwest of downtown in Kentucky. Getting around town is best done by car, if only so you can drive back and forth across the Ohio River on the Roebling Bridge.

No road-tripper in his or her right mind should pass through Cincinnati without sampling its excellent road food—mounds of chili and stacks of melt-in-your-mouth ribs, finished off with a scoop or two of Graeter’s ice cream (available all over the city, both at its own parlors and at most good restaurants). Cincinnati-style chili is poured over spaghetti and served either “3-way” (spaghetti, chili, and grated cheese); “4-way” (add onions); or “5-way” (add beans). One road-food landmark, Camp Washington Chili (3005 Colerain Ave., 513/541-0061), 3 mi (4.3 km) north of downtown, right off I-75 exit 3, is famous for it. More than 100 other places around town serve this subtly spiced local specialty. Downtown, Arnold’s Bar and Grill (210 E. 8th St., 513/421-6234) is a fine old place, a cozy circa-1860 tavern and deli that also features good live music. Just east of downtown along the river, Montgomery Inn Boathouse (925 Riverside Dr., 513/721-7427) serves some of the best barbecue ribs in America in a pleasant river-view setting.

From the neon signs to the peanut shells on the floor, one place that turns on the retro-nostalgia charms is The Turf Club (4618 Eastern Ave., 513/533-4222), always packed with families and friends enjoying pretty good burgers in a roadhouse right on old US-50, east of downtown. Closer in, at the foot of Mt. Washington, the hickory smoked barbecue ribs and pulled pork sandwiches at Eli’s BBQ (3313 Riverside Dr., 513/533-1957) have earned it awards and fans all over the Ohio River Valley.

Thanks to all the suppliers, retailers, and advertising execs courting Procter & Gamble business, there are hundreds of rooms available in national chain hotels and motels along Cincinnati’s I-71 and I-75 freeways, so finding a place to stay shouldn’t be a problem. The handy and spacious Best Western Plus Cincinnati Riverfront (200 Crescent Ave., 859/581-7800, $120 and up) overlooks the Ohio River from Covington on the Kentucky side of the Roebling Bridge. Downtown, the nicest place to stay is the art deco Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza (35 W. 5th St., 513/421-9100, $190 and up), one of the country’s grandest old hotels.

Map of the Loneliest Road through Ohio.
Map of the Loneliest Road through Ohio.

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