Last visit: August 20, 2023
Cincinnati’s ballpark is a tale of missed opportunity.
It’s an open downtown riverfront park that somehow doesn’t really offer a good view of either the skyline or the river. It’s a relatively small park that still doesn’t feel particularly intimate. Other than all the red seats, you really don’t get a firm sense that you’re in Cincinnati. And the one landmark that should help identify the place (the faux steamboat smokestacks in center field) once caught fire.
Despite all said, it’s still a good ballpark and continues to get better. The local scene keeps improving year over year. The beer selection is top notch. Given its reputation as a bandbox, odds are you’ll see a lot of scoring. And it remains an affordable excursion.
Exterior aesthetics 5/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 7/10; Sightlines 3/5; Seating 4/5; Traffic flow 2/5; Scoreboard 7/10; Amenities & entertainment 4/5; Bars & Restaurants 3/5; Celebrating history 5/5; Grand entrance 5/5; Sense of place 17/25; WOW Factor 6/10. Total 68 points divided by 2 for 34
The park’s disjointed interior architecture is really its fatal flaw. It just lacks symmetrical flow: there seem to be a lot of breaks and stops for no obvious reason. A Feng Shui masterpiece this isn’t.
- While the exterior main entrance isn’t among the best, they do have some nice statues to greet you. You’re met by Crosley Field legends Joe Nuxhall, Frank Robinson, Ernie Lombardi and a sleeveless Ted Kluszewski. The Reds have also added statues honoring members of the Big Red Machine: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. So there’s an immediate sense of history.
- While it requires a separate admission, the attached Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame is excellent and a must for any ball fan
- There are quite a few social areas around the park where you can congregate outside your seats
- There’s a really good kid’s play area including a few batting cages to allow you to squeeze in a few more innings.
- There’s a bar dedicated to the Big Red Machine that includes a mini electronic scoreboard, the Zamboni used at Riverfront and plenty of memorabilia
- The city skyline is actually behind home plate and is best viewed from the outfield. The Reds tried to make it easier for a view and built “The Gap”: a hole in the upper deck to allow for a better sightline. It’s a cool idea, and I like that the building it frames best is the Great American tower across the street from the park. But most fans are facing the other way, and it just adds to the “stop and start” non-flow of the interior.
- The exterior architecture is a bit of a mishmash with white steel, brick, and cast stone
- Like many of the newer parks, the upper deck is pushed back significantly. While you get a better view of the river before dark, you’re far from the action.
- While the lower bowl concessions provide views of the field, a large chunk is not viewable due to the fairly expansive home plate club area
- Great American Ball Park’s home plate is set well over 500 feet from the river making a splash hit virtually impossible
- PNC Park, another small-market riverfront park, has a gorgeous view of the iconic Roberto Clemente bridge. GABP has a view of the Taylor-Southgate Bridge, a nondescript white steel bridge heading into a lower population density area of Newport Kentucky.
- Concessions can also be confusing with key stands being tucked around corners or up a half flight of steps. It would be easy to miss a park gem on your first, second or even third visit.
The design just seems a little off. I can’t tell if it’s an issue in execution or planning, but there are a slew of misses that really drag this score down.
Critics deride the Reds food offerings as being ordinary. I think it’s better than that. While I now often get a pre-game bite outside the stadium, I think you can be quite satisfied with the offerings here.
Options include a pork schnitzel sandwich, smoked tri-tip, mac and cheese dog and Nashville hot chicken. The Big Red Machine Burger is good featuring a Big Red Smokey, Sauerkraut, Beer Cheese and Grippo’s Potato Chips on a Servati’s Pretzel Bun. Local faves such as Queen City Sausage, Montgomery Inn BBQ, LaRosa’s pizza, and Graeter’s Ice Cream are available. Sausages are well represented in items like Goetta Burgers (a German sausage in a patty), Queen City Metts (skinless sausages), and even the above-average bratwursts. There’s a Frisch’s Big Boy as well as standard ballpark fare.
My personal fave are the polarizing Skyline Coney cheese dogs. Locals complain that they’re double the price than at their local Skyline Chili. Some critics complain there’s way too much cheese and the chili is only mediocre. Ignore them. This one of the most delicious dogs available at any ballpark!
This is an area that the park has improved on greatly in the past few seasons. Its beer selection is now squarely in the Top 5 or 6 parks in baseball now.
Local and national craft delights are readily available on the lower concourse. Local options include stuff from: 50 West, Rhinegeist, Madtree, Moerlein, Fretboard, Nellie’s and West 6th. The Taft’s Ale House on the third base side offer a range of their brews (including the top-notch Gavel Banger IPA). National “craft” brews can be had from Ballast Point, Elysian, Sweetwater, New Belgian, Sam Adams, Deschutes and Breckenridge. And you may still be able to find a Hudy’s Delight Light Beer if you feel like drinking like an old timer.
At the risk of angering the good people of Southern Ohio, I thought the area around the ballpark used to be a pit. There was nothing really at the waterfront, and downtown Cincinnati could be a little dicey after dark. I used to cross the bridge and pre-game in Newport, Kentucky.
But that’s radically changed over the past few years. Several good establishments have opened up in the space between the football and baseball parks. You can do a nice little pub crawl on game days and not even have to cross the Interstate that separates downtown from the riverfront. This is often what civic leaders hope for when they fund new stadiums, and while it took a bit of time, the results are now starting to show. The places are a mix of local, regional chains and national chains, but a Reds game is hardly an “in and out” proposition anymore.
Other than the top of the line home plate club seats, good infield box seats can be had for among the lowest price in baseball. Parking is also affordable. Concessions prices are typical for MLB.
Public transit isn’t strong in Cincinnati, though a modern streetcar now runs from the Brewery District down to the ballpark. You’re likely coming by car, and the good news is getting in and out is relatively easy, and I’ve only had an issue with parking once (I just had to go further than I wanted when I arrived late to a busy game). If pre-gaming in nearby Kentucky, there’s a shuttle but you could also walk it. Out-of-towners will likely stay nearby and walk to the park.
Cool & wet springs and humid summers. If you can find a “perfect” night, get to the park and enjoy.
The Cincinnati Reds should have the same level of fan support as the St Louis Cardinals. Both are storied National League franchises. Both are regional teams that draw from a fairly wide area. But while St Louis draws a near full house of die-hards year round, Cincinnati draws relatively poorly for non-weekend dates. I could never figure out why. In fairness, there hasn’t been a lot of meaningful Reds baseball lately while St Louis seems to perpetually be in contention, but there’s no way there should be half as many people at a Reds game than at a Cardinals game.
Also on the negative side, is the lack of visual interest coming from the outfield after dark. If you’re facing the outfield from your seat, it feels like you’re watching ball in a small town even though you’re IN downtown Cincinnati. This makes the game feel less important.
There are are quite a few positives though:
- The 7th Inning stretch featuring Connie Smith’s “Cincinnati, Ohio” is solid
- The Reds occasionally use vintage graphics on the videoboard to subtly conjure up the glory years at Riverfront Stadium
- Mr. Redlegs is among the best baseball mascots (though I could do without Mr Red, Rosie Red and Gapper)
- Many of the fans (usually older women) are, like me, keeping score of the game; I’ve seen a lot of well-worn scorebooks on many a lap
- Most adult Reds fans tend to be good baseball fans, enabling good conversations during the game; Cincinnati is where the Midwest and South come together, meaning your fellow fans are usually quite friendly, but it’s also a town with a strong German heritage meaning they’re not over-the-top friendly
- The Reds allow re-entry into the stadium which is useful on a bobblehead day, since you can collect your giveaway, then drop it off in your car (or, if there’s a rain delay, you can hang in one of the nearby watering holes rather than trying to stay dry in the ballpark)
- The PA Announcer, Joe Zerhusen, is one of the best in the business (I could listen to him read the phonebook)
- And there seem to be a lot of younger vendors, and more female vendors than in other parks (not that I’m anti the grizzled beer guy, but it’s a nice change of pace).
In the end, I’d consider it an average atmosphere with significant variability. Summer weekend games can be hopping; early season weekday games can be outright dead.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Three fun Cincinnati restaurants:
- Taste of Belgium (Ballpark and OTR. Great galettes, waffles and beer in this local mini-chain.)
- Arnold’s (Downtown. Hopping, historic restaurant often with live music.)
- Camp Washington Chili (Camp Washington. If you want to do Cincinnati-style chili or coneys, this venerable institution may be your best bet.)
Three places to imbibe before the game:
- Moerlein Lager House (Ballpark. A legit taproom steps from the park.)
- Holy Grail Tavern and Grille (Busy place right across the street from the stadium. It can be the final stop on a pre-game bar crawl that may include Jefferson Social, Condado Tacos, Fishbowl and The Stretch.)
- Tin Roof, The Yard House or the Hofbrauhaus. I’m lumping these three dissimilar places together simply because they’re all chains (who do what they do really well). Tin Roof is casual dive for beer and some live tunes. The Yard House is a beer haven (and one of the few within walking distance of an MLB park). And the Hofbrauhaus, just over the river in Newport Kentucky, offers good German food and drink.
One bar in the area worth hitting:
Standard Beer (Over the Rhine. Part beer store, part bar, this place is run by a knowledgeable dude and offers a fantastic selection of obscure and challenging beer styles. Top notch. Plus the neighborhood is fun, giving you the option of a pub crawl that may include Copper & Flame, MOTR, 16-Bit Barcade, and a couple of breweries)
Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:
- Rhinegeist Brewery (Brewery District. Acclaimed brewery accessible by streetcar from the park)
- Taft’s Ale House (Over the Rhine. Beautiful place located in an old church, accessible by streetcar)
- Mad Tree Brewing (Oakley. Cool, expansive taproom 8 miles NNE of the ballpark)
Three fun tourist attractions in the area:
- King’s Island (World-class amusement park 24 miles away in the burbs)
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (a sobering museum telling an important story a few blocks from the ballpark)
- Cincinnati Zoo (rated the nation’s top zoo in 2021 by USA Today)
Great American Ball Park has some design flaws that moves it down the list. And mediocre attendance can sometimes mute the overall vibe. But it has everything else you need for a fun stadium experience including a local scene that keeps getting better; an affordable ticket; good stadium food and drink; and a legacy team with some rich history. Grab a buddy, cop a nice pair of seats in lower deck and enjoy the game.