Last spring, we did a travel story on one-tank trips, featuring Chicago, Kansas City, Louisville, Nashville, Memphis and Indianapolis. In the story comments and in emails we heard one thing repeatedly: You should go to Columbus, Ohio.
Honestly, we hadn’t considered it. Besides the Blue Jackets hockey team, what’s in Columbus? And it’s easy to mix up Columbuses. Like Springfield, there are so many in the U.S. Besides, at 415 miles away, it’s not really one tank away, more like a tank and a half.
But we were intrigued. What we found is that Ohio’s capital is young and hip, thanks to Ohio State students who stick around and populate the various trendy neighborhoods, from the boho Short North Arts District to the more clubby Brewery District. What we found was a fun college town, a booming arts town and a bunch of colorful neighborhoods sprinkled throughout the city.
The Scioto Greenway, completed in November, adds an extra urban punch to the town. Located in the heart of downtown, the Scioto Mile is made up of more than 145 acres of parkland. It stretches from the Scioto riverfront through an integrated system of parks, boulevards, bikeways and pedestrian paths. Along the way, find interesting art sculptures (a deer looking like it’s poised to jump off a bridge), fountains, a free outdoor climbing wall and buildings lighted at night for a stunning effect.
And a number of attractions make Columbus a bona fide tourist destination. The Center of Science and Industry (CoSi) on the Scioto River is one of the nation’s best science centers. The zoo made famous by Jack Hanna features naturalistic displays and a few animals you won’t find in ours (koalas!). The Ohio, Palace and Southern theaters are making downtown thrive with Broadway shows, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, ballet and more.
Just south of downtown, one of those hip neighborhoods shines above the others: German Village. A step back in time from the shiny, multistory buildings just a few streets to the north, German Village is collection of brick streets, with historic homes and buildings lining them. Settled in the early to mid-19th century by mostly German immigrants, the whole village is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s mostly residential, with brick houses, gas lanterns and wrought-iron fences, but a number of charming shops and restaurants make visiting a treat. A few art galleries line the streets, as do hip clothing and jewelry stores, but the stop you want to make is at the Book Loft, one of the country’s largest independent bookstores, with 32 rooms in a pre-Civil War building that once housed general stores, a saloon and a cinema. Books beckon from every nook and cranny. There are so many, they almost create a dizzying effect — so much to read, so little time.
Just up the street, stop at Katzinger’s Delicatessen, which has been around for more than 30 years. Its sandwiches are huge, filled with many locally grown ingredients. The Janis’ Special Can-Do with smoked turkey breast, Muenster cheese and Honeycup mustard grilled on challah was $11.50 for a small, but worth every penny. The best part: while you wait, help yourself to pickles served in giant barrels.
For authentic German food, try Schmidt’s Sausage Haus and Restaurant, known for many Bavarian foods, but none so decadent and amazing as its Jumbo Cream Puffs.
Just a few streets over, the Brewery District has a number of great places to grab a bite or a drink. I did both at the Columbus Brewing Co. The Creole Shrimp Linguini ($16.95) is made with fresh pasta and a lively cream sauce with roasted red peppers, spinach and tomatoes. But the highlight there is the local beer. I tried a flight. Five generous pours for less than $10. We tried a number of winter ales, but I especially like the Land-Grant Beard Crumbs, a stout with chocolate and coffee flavors.
For a more decadent dinner, we headed to suburban Worthington. Whitney House has had a lot of buzz since its opening in 2015, including being named to Columbus Monthly’s list of best new restaurants. Chef Maxwell Avon puts a modern twist on old family favorites with an emphasis on local foods. We sat at the chef’s counter and watched as servers and chefs worked together to serve other diners. Even on a busy night, they all talked to us about the food, the weather, youth sports. The food was simply incredible. The appetizer of Pistachio-Crusted Goat Cheese ($6) was so good my son wanted to order another. He tried the Hangar Steak ($24), served with a slightly tart demi-butter that complemented the smoothness of hand-cut beef. I tried the daily special, No-Knife Short Ribs ($27), and they lived up to their name.
Things to do
The Center of Science and Industry: Getting to the science museum, known as CoSi, currently requires a bit of a hike, as construction blocks your path for part of the way, but it’s worth the walk (the construction should be finished by fall). Its 320,000 square feet include a planetarium (as all good science centers do), working Ohio State Science labs, a TV station, and room after room of exhibits. Some favorites: the outdoor Big Science Park, part playground and part learning lab; Progress, where you travel through time, first to 1898 complete with general stores and telegraph machines to 1962, with diners and phone booths; and Ocean, where you can climb in a mini sub. Admission is $20 for adults; planetarium and giant screen theaters as well as a few other adventures cost more. You can get in free with reciprocal benefits if you have a St. Louis Science Center membership. More info: Cosi.org
Columbus Museum of Art: Right in the middle of downtown, which was surprisingly easy to drive in on the weekend, is the 100,000-plus-square-foot Columbus Museum of Art. With a historical focus (it opened in its current building in 1931 with a sizable expansion opening in 2015) on European and American art, recent collections have added more contemporary pieces. Highlights include works by Cezanne, Degas, Matisse and Monet. And of course you find work there by Columbus native George Bellows. Don’t miss the Wonder Room, a sort of science center for art filled with hands-on activities for all ages and featuring the work of local artists. $14 for adults; columbusmuseum.org
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium: It’s always hard to visit other zoos when ours is so awesome, but this is the zoo that Jack Hanna built. He transformed the zoo and introduced the world to animals through his various TV shows and appearances. The 588-acre park features more than 10,000 animals representing more than 600 species. It’s also more than just a zoo; in the summer, Zambezi Bay is a next-door water park, and the Safari Golf Club is an 18-hole course. It has all the requisite attractions — elephants, lions, apes — but it also has some you can’t find at the St. Louis Zoo. The most notable are the animals of the aquarium, particularly the majestic manatees. We also fell in love with the fluffy koala and the stubby wombat from the Australia and the Islands exhibit. In summer, a boat ride, much like something you’d see out of Disney, takes you through parts of it. Admission is $19.99 for adults (water park and other attractions extra); columbuszoo.org.
Where to stay
I always love staying at a place a little out of the ordinary when I visit a new city. That’s why the Victorian Village Guest House was perfect for me.
Just northwest of downtown, the location’s tree-lined street is lined with majestic, restored homes built around the turn of the 20th century. One home is an 1895 beauty owned by Lisa Craig Morton and her husband, Jeff.
When they moved in in 2004, they decided to build a two-story garage at the back of their property, a carriage house, if you will. They kept their cars below and used the upstairs as an apartment for out-of-town guests. But then the recession hit and Morton lost her job. A new opportunity presented itself: turn the upstairs into a luxury guest suite and rent it out.
So today, the 950-square-foot suite includes a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and great room with 17-foot ceilings.
“It has a lot of charm,” say Morton. “And it’s convenient to so many things. You can walk to the Short North (arts district).”
We agreed. It was a perfect way to get a taste of the neighborhood and is convenient to everything while allowing relaxation in a private yet luxurious setting.
Rates start at $199. victorianvillageguesthouse.com