Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is an iconic spot in the Queensgate neighborhood, a stone’s throw from Over-the-Rhine and the Ohio River. What debuted as a train station in 1933 has morphed into a museum hub and an Art Deco jewel that now appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Train service has come, gone, and returned over the years. Currently, Amtrak runs three times a week, between Chicago and New York City.
I grew up going to Cincinnati’s Union Terminal with my Grandpa. We especially loved to visit during the holidays. That’s why I love returning this time of year. Walking back through the terminal’s grand Rotunda, I can practically smell his spicy aftershave and feel his big warm hand enveloping mine as we take in the grandness of the half-dome entrance. We’d wander from one end to the other, admiring the mosaic murals and the ten-story high ceilings in between. He loved this place- the attention to detail and its history. His amorous feelings spilled over to me, and the appreciation I have now is thanks to him. Here are my favorite things about Union Terminal and what you mustn’t miss!
1. Sit at the Fountain
When I think about Union Terminal, the first image that pops into my head is the beautifully tiered emerald green fountain in front. The stunning shape and color remind me of the Emerald City of Oz. Add on the dome’s grandness, and you certainly don’t feel like you’re in Kansas anymore.
The fountain has had a recent facelift to restore it to its original condition. A rough terrazzo in a mossy jeweled green hue debuted in 1933, and that is what you see today, thanks to the restoration. Just by looking at it, you would never know it wasn’t the original.
2. Admire the Cincinnati Skyline
It’s a pleasant climb to the top, but don’t forget to turn around and admire the view. You have a 180 perspective of the Cincinnati skyline, including the crowned Great American Tower. Back in the day, when our school would take field trips out here, we’d eat our brown-bagged lunches on the steps in front of the fountain and enjoy looking at the city from this vantage. Though I’d be surprised if they still allow al fresco dining on the steps, it is peaceful to take a seat and appreciate the downtown from here.
3. Verify the Time at the Clock
I love this giant clock! No, let me try that again. I love any and all giant clocks. Who else sees one on a building and thinks of Back to the Future?? Anyone? I guess my 80s are showing…
Oversized clocks are magical. It’s all engineering, math, architecture, and design. The terminal clock’s design is Art Deco and original to the structure. That’s right- all five tons of it hanging since the terminal’s grand opening in 1933. That’s pretty spectacular if you ask me. So before you enter, pay homage to the clock and allow it to grandly (and fashionably) tell you the time.
4. Revel in the Grandness of the Dome
Marble and plaster make up a lot of the Rotunda’s structure. As you step inside, space and golden color envelopes you. I remember as a young kid looking up at the climbing canopy and thinking, “That’s heaven.” It’s truly breathtaking, not to mention slightly dizzying, when you look up to the nearly ten-storied ceiling. It’s worth it to take a minute and appreciate the largest half-dome in the western hemisphere.
5. Visit the Information Desk
When Union Terminal opened, ticket windows lined the northern wall, and what we know now as the information desk served as a newspaper and tobacco stand. Nowadays that’s where you go for tickets, as well as information. A stop by the desk is a must for tips from an insider who will point out all the exciting things to check out in the terminal, which leads me to my following recommendation.
6. Try Out the Whispering Gallery
A whispering gallery is where a structure with curved architecture, often dome-like, will have a specific space that carries sound along a wall’s curvature in waves that reach distant ears. A well-known example of this phenomenon resides in the U.S. Capitol Building. In the terminal’s case, two water fountains along the Rotunda’s eastern wall, approximately 30 meters apart from each other, are the two points. You can carry on a conversation with someone at the neighboring fountain like you were standing next to each other.
7. Hunt for Mosaic Murals
You can’t miss the murals when you walk in, although you might mistake them for paintings at first glance. They are, in fact, mosaic, and once you know that, the colorful display is even more impressive. As you enter the terminal’s dome, the mural on the left represents U.S. history, and on the right, Cincinnati’s. The two are like timelines in a storybook, both fascinating to study.
But the Rotunda’s murals are just the beginning. Throughout Union Terminal, you’ll find more by the same artist, Winold Reiss. Some of his murals from Union Terminal have moved over the years- you can find a few on display at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
8. See a Film in the Omnimax Theater
The OMNIMAX Theater brings big adventures to giant heights- 5 stories high, to be exact. A typical film here involves soaring among the mountains, floating in space, or diving deep into ocean depths. It’s an immersive experience, to say the least, thanks to the hugeness of the screen, the very realistic cinematography, and the luxurious reclining seats.
9. Visit a Museum or Two or Three
In the 1990s, the Cincinnati Museum Center made its home at Union Terminal with the Cincinnati History Museum, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, and the Omnimax theater. Since then, they’ve added the Children’s Museum, The Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, and featured exhibitions. Add in the shopping and dining, and you’ve got a whole day of activity.
10. Study the Art Deco Features
If Union Terminal is known for one thing, it’s the shining example of Art Deco, a style born in the 1920s. Construction for Union Terminal started in 1928, in the thick of the Art Deco period. Vertical lines and geometric ornamentation characterize the style. From its architectural shape down to the material used and the fonts on display, Union Terminal is a working, breathing example of its time in history.
If you haven’t experienced Union Terminal for yourself, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s in a city full of history and art, exciting activities, good food, beautiful neighborhoods, and charming hotels. And if you’re coming from Chicago or New York City, you’ve got direct access to the Queen City via train. Travel can’t get more charming than a train ride into the city!
Till next time,