When Cecily Hill, Director of Marketing and Communications for Books@Work, first moved to Columbus, Ohio for graduate school, her friends and fellow Southerners were quick to comment. They warned her that she would be trading the Gulf South’s coastal getaways and mild winters (where she lived at the time) for a brutally cold Midwestern climate. Despite their concerns, she quickly fell in love with Columbus and all it has to offer, from its summer outdoor film and concert series, to its Winter Wildlight extravaganza at the much-lauded Columbus Zoo — and she’s not the only one. In 2014 alone, Forbes named Columbus the #1 Opportunity City in the nation, and The Atlantic lovingly profiled the city as part of its American Futures series.
Columbus boasts the nation’s top-ranked public library and some of the best food and shopping in the Midwest. It also plays host to the nation’s largest multi-sport festival, named after Arnold Schwarzenegger. The city’s vibrant opportunities and entertainment always surprise outsiders — but never locals. This week’s city guide comes to us from bookworm Cecily, featuring a just a sliver of her favorite things to do and see! –Sabrina
German Village/Brewery District
Neighborhood B&Bs are a rarity in this city, but the German Village Guest House features clean, modern rooms and gives you the option of renting your own separate hideaway.
German Village, with its quiet narrow streets and quaint houses, is my favorite neighborhood for walking in the city. If you take the time to wander, you’ll end up at Schiller Park, which hosts the city’s Shakespeare in the Park every summer.
Across from High Street in the German Village, you’ll find the Brewery District, which used to be Columbus’s nightlife hub. That’s moved a bit farther north now, but it’s still a nice place for a pub crawl. Alternatively, spend your evening at Shadowbox Live, a nonprofit performing arts center featuring improv and musical theater.
Entering The Book Loft is a bit like venturing into a rabbit hole. With 32 rooms of books spread across interconnected buildings, it’s easy to get lost here — but if you do, you’ll never lack entertainment!
Pistacia Vera serves some of the best French pastries in Columbus. Their macaroons are available in seasonal flavors, and their chocolate chip and pistachio cookies are to die for. The bakery offers brunch every day until 1 pm and, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and marble-topped tables, it’s the perfect place to bask in the sun or stare out at snowdrifts.
Katzinger’s Delicatessen is a classic German deli — many call it the best in the city — offering a wide variety of sandwiches and kugels, as well as gourmet breads, butters, olive oils, and pastas to take home. I like their MushRuben and free, all-you-can-eat pickles.
Old Town East/Downtown/East Franklinton
When I moved to Columbus, the city’s downtown had little going for it. Few people lived there, and it was empty on the weekends and evenings. This newly-revitalized city center now houses many and offers a wealth of entertainment options for residents and visitors alike. Directly to the east and west of Downtown, respectively, Old Town East and East Franklinton are up-and-coming neighborhoods worth visiting for their gardens, museums, and arts spaces.
I have a soft spot for the downtown Westin. Though it’s admittedly a chain hotel now, when it was originally built in 1897, it was known as the Great Southern Hotel. The building still retains its late 19th-century elegance.
Columbus has a symphony orchestra and a ballet, and hosts a revolving assortment of Broadway and off-Broadway plays, classic films, authors, comedians, and musicians through CAPA. For outdoor entertainment, head to the Columbus Commons. This large green space in the center of downtown is at its best in summer, when it plays home to a food truck court, daily free exercise classes, and a summer symphony series. If the weather isn’t nice, head to Old Town East. Though it’s beautiful throughout the year, like many locals I enjoy the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens most in winter, when its desert and rainforest areas flourish in stark contrast to the freezing outdoors.
For something more hands-on, try one of Columbus’s maker spaces located in East Franklinton. At The Idea Foundry you can learn about everything from blacksmithing to sewing, while at Glass Axis you can try your hand at glass blowing — I recently made an ornament there. Both offer frequent date nights and family events.
With drinks like the Kevin Bacon and the Molly Ringwald, a vending machine selling candy necklaces, old school movies, and free-play classic video games, 16-Bit Bar is paradise for children of the 80s and 90s.
Plantain Café is a bit of sunshine in downtown Columbus. They serve a wide variety of Cuban food, and a number of plantain dishes. On a summer afternoon, it’s the best place to go for sangria and fish tacos. Or try Dirty Franks. Located right next door to 16-Bit, this Columbus landmark serves more than 40 different kinds of hot dogs — including veggie dogs — as well as alcoholic slushies.
Victorian Village/Short North/Italian Village/the Arena District
Moving north from downtown, you’ll pass by the Arena District, so-called for its proximity to the Nationwide Arena and home of Columbus’s largest bars and clubs, before moving into the Short North. Columbus’s premier arts district, the Short North, is full-to-the-brim of galleries, restaurants, and clothing and home decor shops. It’s bordered to the west by Goodale Park and Victorian Village and bleeds into Italian Village on the east side of High Street.
This area offers the largest variety of housing options in the city. For a luxurious stay, try Le Méridien’s The Joseph Hotel, located in the Short North. The newest hotel in the neighborhood, The Joseph offers extensive spa services, an art-filled space, and, for those of us who prefer to travel with our animal friends, has a generous pet policy. For old-fashioned charm in the heart of Victorian Village, try Neil Avenue Bed and Breakfast. The B&B, which dates to 1893, serves organic, free-trade breakfasts and specializes in allergy-free accommodations.
The Short North’s Gallery Hop is the first Saturday of every month. If you aren’t lucky enough to visit then, take a walk around Goodale Park. Once the winter home for a traveling circus, Goodale Park is now full of flowering trees and plants, surrounded by stately Victorian mansions. Head up Neil Avenue into Victorian Village to see more of these restored homes. If dancing is more your speed, try Ladies 80s at Skully’s Music-Diner on Thursday nights or salsa on Fridays at La Fogata.
The Short North has the best shopping in Columbus, and no brief list of stores could do it justice. Bungalow Home specializes in stylish furniture and accessories, while ReVue/Grandview Mercantile offers high-quality furniture resale and antiques. Flower Child sells an astonishing array of vintage merchandise, ranging from toys, to clothes, to home goods — it’s like stepping back into your childhood. For contemporary women’s fashion, try Ladybird or Rowe. And if you want to do good while spending, try thrifting at Out of the Closet, where 96% of every sale goes to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
There’s no shortage of watering holes in the Short North. I love Union for their extensive martini selection and safe LGBT-friendly atmosphere. For something a bit more upscale, try Mouton’s vintage cocktails.
The Short North is the home of two Columbus-area food institutions. Northstar Cafe serves up local, organic, and ethically-sourced meals. Lines are out the door for weekend brunch, but I favor the salads on their lunch and dinner menus. For dessert, go to Jeni’s Ice Cream — also made from locally-sourced ingredients and inspired by classic food pairings — and try everything. (Both institutions have locations throughout the city.)
For something quick, head to the Arena District’s North Market, where you can sample the best of Columbus without having to sit down!
The Ohio State University/Campus Area
If you know about The Ohio State University, you probably know about its historic rivalry with the University of Michigan, its athletic program, and The Best Damn Band in the Land. You might not know that it is also a world-class research institution and that there is easily enough to do on and around campus to keep you occupied for days.
OSU’s own hotel, The Blackwell, caters to university clientele and as such has modern rooms and a scarlet and grey lobby. If you’re visiting the northern part of the city, hotels are scarce and this is easily the nicest among them.
The university is home to a number of spots worth visiting. With two or three traveling exhibits per year, The Wexner Center for the Arts is one of the nation’s best contemporary art spaces. In the summer, catch the Drive-In@the Wex series to watch contemporary and classic films under the stars. Directly across the plaza from the Wexner Center, the Billy M. Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum has an ongoing treasures exhibit, perfect for lovers of cartoons and graphic novels of all ages. The Oval is always worth walking around, and, tucked in historic Orton Hall, you can visit the skeleton of a giant land sloth at the Orton Geological Museum. Thompson Library, too, has permanent exhibit spaces where you can view items from the university’s costume and fashion collection, the Byrd Polar Archive, and Rare Books and Manuscripts, among other treasures.
For the most part, OSU’s campus is surrounded by the chain restaurants one associates with university life. Avoiding those, I would try Heirloom Café at the Wexner Center for the Arts; owned by Northstar Café’s first executive chefs, Heirloom offers similarly high-quality salads and sandwiches. I’m a big believer in their toasted muenster, a genius blend of muenster cheese and raspberry jam. They serve breakfast all day.
Old North Columbus/Clintonville
Old North Columbus is located directly north of OSU, and, as its name indicates, was at one time the city’s northernmost boundary. Now, it’s inhabited by many OSU undergraduates and graduate students. Old North Columbus shares a zip code with Clintonville, which was once a small town in its own right. This leafy residential area retains a high ratio of locally-owned businesses and is known for its outspoken citizens.
In late spring and summer, wander around the Whetstone Park’s Garden of Roses and the miniature prairie located on the Olentangy River Bike Path.
On the first Saturday of every month, Ace of Cups hosts what I think is the best dance party in Columbus — Heatwave, which is self described as an “all-vinyl dance party spinning Motown/Garage Rock/Mod/R&B/Oldies.” The bar features live music throughout the rest of the month.
For a quieter evening, head to Studio 35, an independent cinema and drafthouse for a beer tasting or a movie.
Near the intersection of High Street and Como Avenue, there’s a slew of independent clothing and home stores. Eclectiques Antique Mall has furniture, but its best-kept secret is the selection of vintage clothes in the basement. Further north, stop by Elm & Iron for vintage school maps, fresh-smelling candles, and eclectic home accessories. If you’re looking for a gift, paper product, or quirky print, Wholly Craft’s entire stock is made by independent artists.
Bars in Clintonville, especially, are few and far between. The Crest is popular for its burgers, truffled fries and extensive drink menu, while I like the Local Cantina’s serve-yourself chips and Dark ‘n Stormies.
Whole World is Columbus’s oldest vegetarian restaurant. They make a mean and massive eggplant-meatball sub, and have an inspired rotating soup menu. In the Old North neighborhood, Ray-Ray’s Hog Pit sells the best ribs this native southerner has ever eaten, while Angry Bear Kitchen is a great choice for weekend brunch — try their pork belly eggs benedict.
Located west of the Olentangy River from the Ohio State University, parts of these areas are technically suburbs and they feel much more like small towns than the rest of Columbus.
Bike, run, walk, or rollerblade the Scioto Trail, which runs along the Scioto River from Grandview Heights into downtown. This peaceful trail passes over and under a number of bridges and provides ample opportunities for bird watchers.
Acorn Books is a quintessentially-perfect used and antique bookstore. You might recognize it from the Josh Radnor film Liberal Arts. I could spend hours there or in Cosecha, a gourmet kitchen store specializing in perfectly-organized, dream-pantry goods.
My favorite restaurant in Columbus is Z Cucina, which serves simple but elegant Italian food. Their menu rotates seasonally and is always delicious. Go on a Wednesday evening to take of advantage of their 3-course chef’s choice wine dinner. Nearby Third & Hollywood is another popular option, loved for their whole grilled artichokes, cheddar herb biscuits, and Sunday Jazz Brunch.
Locals flock to Brazenhead Pub for its daily happy hour specials and Wednesday burger night. Their new Big Bad Music Trivia Night, each Thursday, is already a hit. If you’d rather go for something non-alcoholic, the Chocolate Café serves decadent hot chocolates and fondue.
Farther Afield & Personal Favorites
In summer and autumn, I drive out to Lynd Fruit Farm in nearby Pataskala to pick apples and to buy fruits, vegetables, and Amish cheese, pasta, breads, and fried pies. Lynd’s has an annual corn maze and pumpkin patch, which children especially enjoy.
Finally, as a long distance runner I love to take advantage of the city’s many trails and parks. I’ve listed no few above, but saved the best for last: for bikers and runners alike, you can’t do better than the Olentangy Trail, which bisects Columbus from north to south; for trail running, I go to Highbanks Metro Park. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the wild bald eagles living near the park.