Columbus, Ohio, is trying really, really hard, and I don’t mean that patronizingly. A visitor could spend a long weekend exploring the outsized footprint of the largest city in Ohio and the Midwest’s fastest-growing metropolis. Neighborhoods are among the most beautiful and walkable in the Midwest. The arts are well supported and thriving. Retail, restaurants and nightlife are thriving. Rents are cheap. Ultimately, Columbus’ biggest selling point is its quality of life. And what’s good for residents is also good for visitors.
German Village and OSU
Begin in German Village. This gorgeous neighborhood of Italianate red brick miraculously survived the wrecking ball of urban renewal. Founded in 1938, Helen Winnemore’s is supposedly the oldest craft store in the United States. Its beautiful wares, like glazed pottery and an array of personal accessories, embody dignified Americana (1-614-444-5850).
“We just dig European cafe culture and think we need it on more street corners,” said Anne Fletcher, who opened the Pistacia Vera pâtisserie in a formerly vacant building with baker Spencer Budros, her brother. Buy a rye croissant or savor fleeting perfection with a macaron (1-614-220-9070). Schmidt’s Sausage Haus since 1886 has been a Columbus tradition, with its frequently refreshed buffet (hey, it’s the Midwest) with four kinds of wurst, hot potato salad and red cabbage. The famous cream puffs, seasonally flavored, are half-price with the buffet (1-614-444-6808).
Downtown, the Scioto Mile park alongside its namesake river is a lovely expression of urban landscape design. The Columbus Museum of Art houses the renowned Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art, which vividly captures midcentury scenes of poverty, segregation and urbanity. The museum also has a collection of the late native daughter Aminah Robinson, a black feminist artist celebrated for her mixed-media works (columbusmuseum.org).
Take Ohio State University as an opportunity for more gallery-going. The Wexner Center for the Arts (wexarts.org) is a multidisciplinary contemporary arts space with running exhibitions, with recent retrospectives of photographer Cindy Sherman and fashion designer Todd Oldham. OSU also hosts the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum (cartoons.osu.edu), the premier American institution devoted to the funny pages. Laymen will appreciate Ohio native Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” displays; nerds will go ga-ga for original “Krazy Kats” and underground comics.
“First and foremost, we’re a soda house,” said the bartender at the earthy, off-campus Rambling House, pleasantly devoid of frat boys. It’s true: The cola and sarsaparilla were great, as was the “Relentless Mule” with honey and house-made ginger beer, named for the house bluegrass band that plays every Tuesday night. There’s music every night, and 24 taps hosting Ohio brews (1-614-468-3415).
High Street area
Columbus’ best neighborhood is Short North, centered along High Street between downtown and the campus. It’s pedestrian- and transit-oriented, with booming construction, classy retail, risk-taking food and drink — and Midwest friendly. Complete the triumvirate of Columbus art museums at the Pizzuti Collection (pizzuticollection.org). Three or four shows a year are curated exclusively from the thousands of contemporary art pieces in its collection and shown across 10 galleries. The permanent sculpture garden (free) shines through four seasons.
Give your nose a workout at the Candle Lab, where customers choose a complementary blend of scents and pour it into a handsome soy candle. Mine combined earth and rain with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit (1-614-915-0777). Columbus’ fashion industry is the third-largest in the country (Victoria’s Secret, among other brands, is headquartered here). Kiln Mercantile focuses mostly on artisan American labels, though I was most tempted by beautiful handmade Scandinavian knitwear. Look for cast brass accessories and a great selection of independent design publications (1-614-867-5610). At Rowe Boutique, shop for contemporary womenswear like Mother denim, Allsaints leather and Snythe outerwear (1-614-299-7693).
How’s American-Bangladeshi fusion for a uniquely Columbus experience? Believe it: Chef Avishar Barua radiates talent and ambition. At his Service Bar, even the misfires are spectacular. Our table enjoyed family-style smoked brisket with pepper-jack queso and flour tortillas, chicken served four ways (one being tandoori) and root-to-stem carrots prepared 10 ways (1-614-947-1231).
Finish with a nightcap at faddishly Nordic but cool Denmark, an experimental cocktail bar with big second-floor windows overlooking High Street. The ingredients in red on the seasonally changing menu are house-made and include infused spirits (peanut-scented rum, anyone?), syrups, tonics and bitters (1-614-984-7351).
Katalina’s is a trendy brunch spot with a too-cute patio in the well-kept neighboring Victorian Village. The seasonal menu has a funky Mexican slant, but you can’t go wrong with the pancake balls filled with Nutella, dulce de leche or pumpkin-apple butter and served with the house spicy-sweet bacon (1-614-294-2233).
Outside of the central city, Columbus sprawls. Drive, then, to the New Harvest Cafe, a center of black cultural life. Melvin Robinson curates regular displays of local and national artists’ work, and the community garden focuses on healthful eating and urban farming entrepreneurship. It has another stellar buffet, serving classic soul food (1-614-447-8810).
While most travel guides recommend downtown’s North Market, I say go to the faraway Saraga International Grocery for its nonstop multiculturalism. Find Argentinian yerba mate, Central American pickled date palms and green mangoes, processed Japanese yakisoba sauce and German cookies, a halal butcher, West African fufu flour and Thai crab paste (1-614-447-8588). Counter-service Momo Ghar has Himalayan specialties like pan-fried or steamed momo dumplings in a tomato sauce seasoned with house-mixed masala, all made from scratch. Get a side of bread, lest you drink the sauce directly from the bowl (1-614-749-2901).
Lodging and getting around
Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph is Columbus’ newest luxury hotel and spa — look for Amish woodworking and local artists’ works throughout (lemeridiencolumbus.com). The Hilton Columbus Downtown has a central location and a great atrium, while the homey, OSU-adjacent Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel is a good option for budget travelers (wayfaringbuckeye.com).
Public buses exist, but you’d be better off with ride sharing or a rental car. The attraction-heavy neighborhoods have CoGo Bike Share stations.
Aaron Gettinger (adgettinger.com) is a Chicago-based journalist.