(Editor’s note: This article was first published in early 2021.)
While busy creatively adapting to a post-COVID 19 reality in 2020, NKY tourist attractions and destinations continued to draw in visitors while planning for a brighter 2021.
A regional tourism economic impact study conducted in 2018 revealed that the industry supported more than 80,000 jobs and created 26.6 million visitor connections, $5.3 billion in spending and $1.2 billion in tax revenue.
Though the pandemic took a toll on the hospitality/tourism industries in 2020, MeetNKY President Julie Kirkpatrick predicts that as the pandemic wanes, “You’re going to start to see the return of some of the great events in this region,” like the Glier’s Goettafest, celebrating the area’s favorite German-inspired sausage called goetta. The free event was expanded to eight days but postponed for 2020.
Likewise, Taste of Cincinnati was postponed twice and Taste of Newport’s June event was canceled, as was the 29th annual Newport Italianfest, Rides on Monmouth Car Show and Oktoberfest. Still, other attractions were open with new safety measures once state mandates allowed.
Newport on the Levee, a dining, shopping and entertainment venue, welcomed guests with new distancing and enhanced cleaning measures, among other precautions. Free signature events were held last fall through December, including yoga, live music and trivia nights. The mixed-use development was purchased in 2018 and is being renovated and re-imagined.
In November, an 11,000-s.f., temporary artisan market was unveiled at the levee. Other new developments include the open-air Bridgeview Box Park, featuring retail shops, takeout food, a tiki bar, wine bar and Second Sights Spirits.
The Newport Aquarium, also at the levee, has been open with new safety protocols, though some exhibits, activities and animal attractions remained unavailable. New in 2020 was the exhibit “Shipwreck Realm of the Eels.”
In Williamstown, Ark Encounter and its accompanying zipline, playground, restaurant and zoo offered free admission to kids 10 and younger in 2020.
The Creation Museum, which includes a zoo, planetarium, special-effects theater and zip lines, reopened its Petersburg facility and reduced its visitor capacity. It also employed enhanced safety and cleaning measures. In Covington, another open-air box yard opened in September called Covington Yard, offering food vendors and a large variety of beer and cocktails. It’s dog friendly, too, and has outdoor TVs and occasionally, live music. Yoga is listed among its future plans.
Bourbon, breweries and wineries
Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch are the co-founders of Second Sight Spirits in Ludlow, which produces 2-year-old straight bourbon, six types of rum, hazelnut liqueur and four types of moonshine. The distillery opened in 2015 and uses smaller, 15-gallon barrels.
In addition to the box yard presence in Newport, tours in Ludlow continue with limited numbers and outdoor tastings, said Waggoner.
“I think we have one of the most unique tours on the craft trail at our location,” Waggoner said. “We built our still ourselves with a bunch of repurposed parts and pretty much the whole shop has been built through repurposed parts and bartering.”
Northern Kentucky touts itself as “The Edge of Bourbon Country” and a gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, inviting guests to take the B-Line, a 14-stop tour of the area’s distilleries, breweries and restaurants. In addition, Covington, Bardstown and Frankfort have joined forces in the marketing push called “Come Find Bourbon.” And another “Select Six” – BB Riverboats, NEAT Bourbon Bar, Rich’s Proper, Union 42 Bourbon & Brew, Midway Caf and Mainstrasse Village Pub – conducted special barrel picks in 2020 to drum up excitement for Kentucky’s native spirit.
With free admission, the Bacon, Bourbon and Brew Festival is held each (nonpandemic) year in Newport, and is already set for July 8 at Riverboat Road in 2021.
The Sprouts & Stouts Festival in Covington was canceled in 2020, but organizers are looking ahead to 2021 with its traditional plant fair that will feature live music and beer from local breweries Rhinegeist (Cincinnati) and Wooden Cask (Newport).
The Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail features six local wineries including Stonebrook, Baker-Bird, Seven Wells, Atwood Hill and Redmans Farm Winery and Camp Springs Vineyard. Craft Connection Northern Kentucky offers a variety of local brewery stops, visiting several breweries in three to four hours.
Hotels, dining and retail
Joshua Hunt, director of business development in Florence, said racing fans can look forward to continued changes at the old Turfway racetrack, purchased by Churchill Downs in 2019. Plans are to build a new $150 million gaming and racing facility there.
“With that is a brand new track, which has already been completed,” he said. Hunt said hotels have been one of the biggest growth sectors in Florence, with eight new hotels in the last three years, three more pending and a fourth possible. Currently the city has 29 hotels with 2,589 rooms. He said the investors and developers he speaks with are optimistic and haven’t slowed down plans.
“Our market is really good for hotels,” he said, citing the area’s proximity to major interstates, low-cost air flights and growth in business travel at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in recent years.
The Aloft Newport on the Levee hotel is located near Newport’s popular entertainment district, and also nearby is the Hampton Inn & Suites Newport/ Cincinnati and the Holiday Inn Cincinnati Riverfront in Covington’s MainStrasse Village.
In early 2020, it was announced that the 114-room Hotel Covington would undergo additions to bring 12,000 s.f. of retail space, 27,000 s.f. of office space and an urban bourbon distillery.
Retail is faring well in Florence, too, Hunt said, with no big box vacancies. The Florence Mall has Aeropostale, American Eagle, Build-a-Bear and a wealth of dining options, and Duluth Trading Co. recently opened a new location on Meijer Drive.
To help local retailers weather the pandemic, MeetNKY compiled an extensive list of local establishments where gift cards and gifts could be purchased during the holiday season and beyond. MeetNKY also promoted local businesses on their social media channels.
A food lover’s dream
Northern Kentucky continues to establish itself as a place where foodies can feast, with a variety of restaurants in Covington’s MainStrasse Village, Newport on the Levee and historic Main Street areas. And, of course, there are the area’s famed Cincinnati-style chili establishments.
Knotty Pine on the Bayou offers Cajun fare and seafood tucked away on the banks of the Licking River. Yonder by Commonwealth, a rooftop bar nestled above MainStrasse, offers an adventurous small-plate menu that changes each week. Three Spirits Tavern is a fun neighborhood bar in the heart of Bellevue that serves drinks, flatbreads and more. Fort Thomas is home to the hidden gem Grassroots & Vine, a dedicated artisan food market, eatery, retail bottle shop and tasting room bar in the historic Midway District. And don’t miss out on the Bircus Brewing Co., where the surreal world of the circus meets the love of beer. Performers there juggle clubs, breathe fire, hula hoop, walk on kegs and perform trapeze acts.
The 2021 Great Inland Seafood Festival is scheduled for Aug. 12 on Riverboat Row in Newport and Taste of Newport showcases restaurants, breweries, local artisans and shops.
Many restaurants across the region have created outdoor patio and sidewalk dining options to keep customers fed while adapting to new COVID-19 mandates. MeetNKY has compiled a full list of outdoor dining options in Northern Kentucky at meetnky.com.
A sampling of tourism attractions in Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati:
Big Bone Lick State Park
Blue Licks Battlefield State Park
Braxton Brewing Company
Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs
Elk Creek Vineyards
Full Throttle Adrenaline Park
Great American Ball Park
New Riff Distilling
Newport Gangster Tour
Newport on the Levee
Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail
Purple People Bridge
Riverbend Music Center and Coney Island
Riverside Food Tours
Roebling Suspension Bridge and Murals
Sherlock Escape Rooms
Smale Riverfront Park
World of Golf
World Peace Bell
Click here for more Kentucky business news.