Opening Day. It’s a proper noun. For Cincinnatians it’s recognized as a “city” holiday. Kids get the day off of school to head down to Fountain Square to see the elephants and former Reds heroes lead the Findlay Market Parade. Office workers skip the afternoon meetings to sip Bud Light on a patio somewhere in what is usually spring’s initial awakening. As the league’s oldest franchise, the tradition of Opening Day in Cincinnati dates back to 1882. And though in recent years the MLB has bastardized that trend by scheduling international games and prime-time cash grabs the night before, baseball fans the world over look to Cincinnati that first Monday in April for the official rebirth of the season.
Part of the fervor is that the day serves as the highest point of enthusiasm for Reds fans. They’re in first place and there’s nowhere left to go but down in the standings. It makes attending Opening Day a pilgrimage of paramount importance. Whether it’s your maiden voyage to Opening Day, or, like me, your 15th consecutive year, Cincinnati on Opening Day can be daunting if you don’t know what to expect. Should you choose to make the journey, anticipate a full day of adventure that can be thoroughly enjoyed whether you have box seats or not. The following is by no means a definitive list, consider it more an “insider’s” guide to mapping your trip.
Leave early. Though the games now have a 4 p.m. first pitch, you’ll want to allow plenty of time to navigate and participate in the pre-game festivities. My brother and I usually depart Columbus at 9 a.m., imperative should you want to take in the Findlay Market Parade, but mostly because we need a proper lunch when we arrive. Ballpark hot dogs and peanuts will no doubt be a part of the routine later in the day, but I prefer a Cincinnati classic like Zip’s Cafe (1036 Delta Ave.) to start. The unassuming little pub sits in the picturesque hills of the Mt. Lookout neighborhood, and though it looks like any number of casual diners throughout Cincinnati, head to the back bar and you’re instantly inside a saloon atmosphere that likely hasn’t changed since 1926. Order the Zip Burger, one of the city’s finest, or if you’re feeling extra empty, you can go for the Girth Burger, which sports a grilled and split Mettwurst on top. Make sure to cap it with a hometown Hudepohl on draft, as it’s only right and natural.
Park in Kentucky. Though it’s tempting to land somewhere in downtown in the heart of the action, trust me, you’re better off crossing the border. I-71 will guide you right into historic Newport, Kentucky, where there are a number of convenient and much cheaper places to gather your wits and tailgate should that be your thing. The payoff comes with the walk over the mighty Ohio River on either the Taylor-Stephenson or the majestic Roebling Bridge. With a perfect view of the skyline and Great American Ballpark in the distance, it will get you adequately pumped for the day ahead.
Avoid the Crowds. In the wake of constructing Great American Ballpark (now in its 12th season) the city has done an admirable job of building up the riverfront adjacent to the park. These days it’s where most people gather for pre-game revelry. Should you not wish to wander too far, there are many beer halls within the block, from the Moerlein Lager House to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grille (worth a stop for the novelty alone). Sadly though, the usual clientele is composed of amateur boozers and fair-weather drunks, so I prefer to venture further north into downtown to escape the throngs. Arnold’s, Japp’s, and Knockbat Nats all provide the experience of historic tavern life in Cincinnati and are all worthy suggestions, but one place I always return is O’Malley’s in the Alley (25 Ogden Place). The charming dive has the size and feel of a troll’s hovel (peanut shells litter the floor) and on Opening Day fans spill out into the titular “alley” to consume cheap tall boys and Jello shots, and harass any motorists who unsuspectingly choose to use the street party as a shortcut.
Eat Chili. Like sausage and sauerkraut on New Year’s, Cincinnati chili on Opening Day is ritual. After the game I either celebrate a Reds win or drown my sorrows in one of the city’s many chili parlors. You have a lot of options. There’s Dixie in Newport (the oldest and most traditional), Price Hill to the west (the best, should you find yourself in that part of town), Camp Washington (directly off of the interstate), and Blue Ash (9565 Kenwood Road) on the outskirts. I prefer the latter as it’s far enough that you’ve already tackled the post-game traffic and can treat it as a last stop in what was likely an epic day of magical baseball.