Family Road Trip Guide: Cincinnati, Ohio

Fall fun and winter festivities await just a short drive from metro Detroit

If you’re looking to shake things up on a family getaway that isn’t too far away, the Queen City makes an enjoyable road trip. Located on the Ohio River in Southwest Ohio, Cincinnati was named the Queen of the West for its arts and culture over 200 years ago. Today, you can partake in family fun at the world-class zoo, museums, ballpark and nearby amusement park.

No other city in the world has more chili restaurants. You simply must try Cincinnati’s chili to decide if you’d rather give it a thumbs up or thumbs down. Plus, Cincy is an emerging foodie city with James Beard-nominated chefs and Ohio’s oldest continually operated public market. The holiday months are a delightful time to see Cincinnati decked out in sparkling lights.

Getting to Cincinnati

Take I-75S for about four hours or 263 miles and you’ve made it from Detroit to Cincinnati. Easy peasy. Plus, the surrounding rolling hills add some scenic beauty to your drive.

What Families Love About Cincinnati

Proclaimed “Greenest Zoo in America” for its sustainability efforts, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is the second oldest zoo in the country.

Recognized with a 2022 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award, Cincinnati Zoo is also home to the world-famous hippo, Fiona. Born premature, Fiona required 24/7 critical care to survive, yet she is now 5 years old. See her playful spirit in person, then find the five Fiona fairies in Fairyland at the 40th annual PNC Festival of Lights, which runs Nov. 18-Jan. 8. Four million LED lights will twinkle in the night, brightening holiday cheer. You can also catch a blacklight puppet show and see the Wild Lights show on Swan Lake. Celebrate the New Year with a kid-friendly countdown at 8 p.m. on Dec. 31.

The revitalized Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, or OTR, is an energizing mix of cool shops, eclectic restaurants and craft breweries. Plus, you’ll find vibrant parks, artistic murals, Italianate architecture and the famous public market.

Open Tuesday through Sunday year-round, Findlay Market is bursting with fresh baked goods, produce, meats, flowers, cheese, ethnic foods and more. Blue Oven Bakery bakes up bread, scones, doughnuts and other artisanal treats so tasty that people consistently line up for them. If you’re headed to Cincinnati for Thanksgiving, you’ll be thankful for the holiday specials the market offers. From turkeys to appetizers and holiday pies to flavorful sides, you can scoop up everything you need at the Findlay Market.

Washington Park in Cincinnati. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

Washington Park is public green space in the OTR with games, The Porch that serves drinks, and all sorts of events and festivals. Al Neyer Winter Market starts Friday, Nov. 25 and runs weekends through Dec. 18. Other parks to check out include Smale Riverfront Park with a carousel and Zeigler Park with climbing structures.

Cincinnati Museum Center is home to three museums including The Children’s Museum and is currently featuring a Dinosaurs of Antarctica exhibit and OMNIMAX film. Holiday Junction is the model train exhibit, which runs Nov. 11-Jan. 2. Snap adorable holiday photos and partake in a scavenger hunt.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is one of the most prestigious art museums in the country and general admission is always free.

Peruse 100 years of American signage history at the American Sign Museum. See neon store signs and nostalgic business memorabilia for a fun walk through memory lane.

A visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center can be very educational and eye-opening, especially for older children.

Cross the bridge over the river into Kentucky to find Newport Aquarium. Voted one of the best aquariums with thousands of aquatic exhibits, families enjoy interactive activities like touch tanks and a rope bridge you can cross over a tank full of sharks. Located in The Levee shopping, dining and entertainment complex, you’ll also find festive activities like menorah and tree lighting celebrations.

Saturdays Nov. 26-Dec. 17, celebrate the season at Downtown Dazzle. See Santa rappel off a Cincinnati building and watch fireworks light up the night sky. Enjoy a hot chocolate and ice skating at Fountain Square.

Blue ice cream at Kings Island, Cincinnati. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

Kings Island is the largest amusement and water park in the Midwest. Located 24 miles northeast of Cincinnati in Mason, Ohio, Kings Island boasts record-breaking coasters and Planet Snoopy kids’ area, which has consistently won awards. WinterFest runs on select evenings Nov. 25-Dec. 31. You can ice skate on the Royal Fountain, be dazzled by the Eiffel Tower replica decorated as a Christmas tree, watch the WinterFest Wonderland Parade, decorate cookies with Mrs. Claus, and, of course, ride some coasters. You are definitely going to want to try Mystic Timbers, the tall, fast wooden coaster that delivers 16 moments of airtime.

In 2023, Kings Island will debut Adventure Port, a new themed area with two additional family rides, Sol Spin and Cargo Loco. If you’re visiting over the summer, the kids will want to dive into a blue ice cream, the park’s famous blueberry soft serve, and splash at Soak City Water Park.

If you’re in town during baseball season, nab tickets to the Cincinnati Reds, America’s first professional baseball team. Their home opener at the Great American Ballpark is scheduled for March 30. Regular season games continue through September. The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum is next door and interesting to explore. It is the largest team hall of fame in all of baseball.

Where to Stay in Cincinnati

Lytle Park Hotel is a chic choice of accommodations for tweens and foodies for its stunning rooftop views, crackling fireplaces and fine dining Italian fare. Located within walking distance to the ballpark and concerts, Lytle Park Hotel is a lovely oasis amongst the cityscape. For the holidays, the rooftop will be decked out with giant, heated Snow Globes, in which guests can enjoy gourmet hot chocolate and seasonal bites. Join Breakfast with Santa for a photo opp with the big guy in red.

Artsy families will appreciate AAA Four Diamond The Summit Hotel, which showcases contemporary artists throughout the luxe accommodations and even includes an art gallery. The new downtown Kinley Hotel is pet-friendly and features modern rooms with bunk beds. The Graduate Hotel is also pet-friendly and located on the University of Cincinnati campus, near the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. The vibrant décor and Fiona’s restaurant, named after Cincinnati’s famous hippo, make it fun for families.

Where to Eat in Cincinnati

You can’t go to Cincinnati without trying Cincinnati Chili. A sweeter version than most chilis, it is typically seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and tops hot dogs and spaghetti. Find it at Skyline Chili throughout town or stop by Camp Washington Chili near the zoo. Camp Washington is a mom-and-pop diner that has served Cincinnati Chili since 1940 and won a James Beard award as an American Regional Classic. I ordered the Chili 5-way with spaghetti, onions, beans and cheese. I can’t say it’s my favorite chili, but you should definitely try it. Kids growing up in Cincinnati can’t get enough of it.

Chili five ways. Cincinnati is known for its chili. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

You’ll find family-owned Graeter’s ice cream all over Cincinnati, from the ballpark to many retail outlets, and beyond. Their rich ice cream is crafted in French Pots to make it extra creamy. Scoop up a classic flavor or a seasonal specialty, like apple pie ice cream or pumpkin milkshakes. Graeter’s also ships ice cream all over the country, if you have a taste for a party pack.

Sleepy Bee Café is an awesome breakfast and lunch place with three locations across Cincinnati. Paying homage to bees, which work together to bring us so many delicious foods, these delightful cafés serve up scrumptious and healthy dishes such as scrambles, bee cakes and, of course, Cincinnati’s favorite breakfast sausage ground with grain, goetta.

Mita’s Columbian-inspired fine dining restaurant by James Beard-nominated chef Jose Salazar serves up mouth-watering tapas like short rib empanadas. The chef’s Goose + Elder casual restaurant is across the street from Findlay Market. Order the thick, homemade mozzarella sticks for the perfect combination of gooey and crunch. Yummy!

Content sponsored by Southeast Michigan Ford Dealers. Visit

Cortney Fries
Cortney Fries
An award-winning travel journalist, Cortney Fries (pronounced "freeze") has been writing about family travel for over a decade. She knows that parents planning trips are looking for all members to have fun and make lasting memories. Cortney believes that you should definitely try anything that makes you slightly nervous.


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