In an attempt to broaden our horizons, we reached out to other city-focused blogs across the Midwest. Our goal is to provide a quality tour guide for city-lovers in each large Midwestern city. We asked each of our writers recommend around 10 things that can be done in their city and to orientate the guide around someone staying at a downtown hotel without a car (including transit options if anything was outside of walking distance). Each guide author took things in a slightly different direction, and the resulting collection of articles has something for everyone.
Our fourth profile is of Columbus, and is written by Walker Evans who runs Columbus Underground.
Walker Evans has spent the majority of his life in Central Ohio, and is one of the biggest fans of the city of Columbus. He currently lives in the King Lincoln District (located a short walk east of Downtown) with his wife Anne and their son Desmond. In addition to ColumbusUnderground.com, Walker is a freelance creative consultant specializing in online marketing, social networks, graphic design and digital communications
First things first… welcome to Columbus! If you’re like most people who live outside of Ohio, you probably know very little about Columbus. I’ve found that actually works in our favor when hosting first-time visitors, as their expectations are a blank slate and it’s not too hard to leave them with a positive impression of our city. We’re home to the Ohio State University, the largest college in the United States, and serve as the capital of Ohio. Despite our location in the heart of the “rust belt”, Columbus was not founded as an industrial town and has managed to continue to grow and thrive. Our citizens are youthful, friendly, humble, creative and welcoming.
If you’re arriving in Columbus from Milwaukee via air travel, your best option to get from the airport to a Downtown hotel would be by taxi. There will most likely be several waiting for fares at the airport, and Downtown is a quick 8 mile highway ride away.
Once settled into your hotel, it’s time to start exploring what Columbus has to offer!
The three easiest ways to get around the central part of the city are by bus, by bike, and by foot. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) runs the local bus system and everything we’re going to touch upon below can be reached with bus lines #2, #10 and #16. If you’re in the mood to bike, a relatively new bike sharing program called EveryoneBikes allows for easy short-term bike rentals in the Short North neighborhood. The majority of the things we’re going to touch upon are also easily walkable destinations as well. Columbus is a very flat city, which keeps it very easy to get around by bike and foot.
Hands down, your first Downtown stop should be the North Market. This historic public market is home to a variety of micro-businesses that include bakers, farmers, butchers, ethnic eateries and more. Some of my personal favorite vendors include Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (who’s operations are expanding rapidly and will most likely be available in Milwaukee in the near future), Kitchen Little (great options for a comfort-food lunch), Omega Artisan Baking (grab a loaf to go, or a smaller snack to eat immediately), and Taste of Belgium (seriously, forget what you know about waffles… these things will blow your mind). Keep in mind that every Saturday morning throughout the summer, the North Market hosts one of the larger regional farmer’s markets (try out a sample of Blue Jacket Dairy‘s “grilling gretna” cheese), and Sundays are home to “Artisan Sundays” an event where local artists and crafters display and sell their wares (you might want to take home a sweet screenprinted poster from Clinton Reno). Additionally, the market hosts a variety of festivals and events, so check their calendar before planning your trip if you want to experience the excellent Ohio Wine Festival, the Grillmasters Festival or the Fiery Foods Festival, just to name a few.
Located in the north-west corner of Downtown, you’ll find the Arena District, home to Nationwide Arena and the Columbus Blue Jackets NHL team. If you’re not in the mood for hockey, the neighborhood has also recently added Huntington Park, a new award-winning baseball stadium (Voted Ballpark of the Year in 2009) for the Columbus Clippers, the Triple-A baseball affiliate team for the Cleveland Indians. Surrounding these sports venues you’ll find a beautiful urban infill mixed-use neighborhood that has been completely erected in the past 10 years on the site of a former condemned penitentiary. During the daytime you can stroll over to North Bank Park for a beautiful riverfront view of the Downtown Skyline and watch kids play in the fountain while cyclists zoom by on the bikepath. At night, the Arena District and Park Street nightlife scene provides entertainment ranging from the casual sports bars like the R Bar, to more upscale cocktail lounges like Mozaik or The Social Room.
Short North Arts District
Next up… The Short North Arts District is the neighborhood that is typically on the top of everyone’s list for visitors. This mile-long neighborhood is located immediately north of Downtown running along High Street, the city’s main north-south artery. Here you’ll find a a mix of art galleries, restaurants, bars, boutique shops, and more. Some great shopping can be done at stores like Tigertree, Loot, Milk Bar, Rowe, What the Rock?! and Rivet. If you’re hungry for a snack, check out Bakery Gingham‘s cupcakes, but if you’re looking for something more substantial, lunch at Betty’s or dinner at the The Rossi offers a great look at our independent restaurant scene. If you’re interested in some night-time bar hopping, don’t miss the rock-n-roll-cowgirl-themed Surly Girl Saloon or the cocktail selection at the MoJoe Lounge at The Cap (which is located on a one-of-a-kind retail highway cap that’s seated over top of interstate 670). It’s also worth mentioning that the first Saturday of every month is when “Gallery Hop” takes place throughout the Short North. If you can time your trip to visit on that busy weekend, you’ll be treated to a massive festival-like crowd of art gallery patrons, bar hoppers, people-watchers, outdoor musicians, pedicabs and sidewalk vendors.
Ohio State University
If you continue to venture up High Street, a few blocks north of the Short North you’ll find the Ohio State University‘s main campus. The southern end of the University District is anchored by the South Campus Gateway development, which is home to mostly student-oriented retail and restaurants. The OSU campus itself is home to some beautiful historic buildings worthy of a self-led walking tour, as well as a mix of more modern buildings including the Wexner Center for the Arts. Affectionally known by locals as “The Wex”, the venue hosts a constantly rotating schedule of modern visual art displays, performance arts, musicians, films, and other productions. Other notable University District points of interest include Buckeye Donuts (open 24/7), Used Kids Records and the Newport Music Hall.
Old North Columbus
North of the Ohio State University is a neighborhood called “Old North Columbus”. This area is home to a high population of students and recent graduates and is somewhat of an extension of the University District. The area is worth pointing out as it’s home to several great restaurants including Alana’s, which has been voted as best restaurant in Columbus two years in a row by ColumbusUnderground.com readers. Other popular eateries include the Blue Nile, Sage American Bistro, the Blue Danube and Hound Dog’s Pizza (another 24/7 establishment). For live music and entertainment, there’s the Ravari Room for rock and Dick’s Den for bluegrass and jazz.
You might want to catch a bus at this point (the #2 runs constantly up and down High Street to take you to all points along the route that we’ve covered so far) if you want to venture a little further up to the Clintonville neighborhood. It’s a great place to do more boutique shopping with stores like Skreened and Wholly Craft, and totally worth your while to pop into Pattycake Bakery for a treat.
Heading back Downtown, the Capital Square area acts as the city’s Central Business District, which is alive from 9-to-5, but otherwise a bit empty during weekends and evenings. The biggest exception to that being the Gay Street area where you can find multiple independent restaurants like Due Amici (semi-formal Italian) and Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails (Ohioanna comfort food) that both offer a great patio atmosphere. Other Gay Street businesses worth visiting include the new Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties, which offers some of the best brownies in the nation, and Cafe Brioso whose baristas are some of the most knowledgeable and professional when it comes to making quality espresso drinks. If you have time, take a stroll eastward on Gay Street to check out the condo development under construction called Neighborhood Launch. It’s another great example of Columbus urban infill that is in the process of taking over nine blocks of parking lots and replacing it with a new residential neighborhood.
Located just south of Downtown, you’ll find the wonderfully preserved German Village neighborhood. This entire neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places and outside of a few modern touches like fire hydrants and parking signs, it looks almost entirely unchanged from when it was originally settled in the early 1800s: brick homes, brick sidewalks and brick streets. Walk down City Park Avenue to admire the homes and walk back up Third Street for the retail experience. Stop by Schmidt’s Fudge Haus for gifts and navigate the seemingly endless maze of rooms at the Book Loft. If you’re hungry, grab a bowl of Shrimp & Grits at the bar at G. Michael’s Bistro, a deli sandwich at the Brown Bag Deli, or a macaroon or two (or ten) at Pistacia Vera, a beautiful little dessert boutique.
Olde Town East, Woodland Park, the King Lincoln District
East of Downtown you’ll also find historic neighborhoods like Olde Town East, Woodland Park and the King Lincoln District. These areas aren’t quite as visitor-interesting since they’re more residential in nature, but one great spot worth visiting is the Franklin Park Conservatory. From Downtown, you can hop on the bus (the #10) to travel down Broad Street to get there easily. This indoor botanical museum features 400 species of plants throughout multiple climate-controlled rooms. On Thursday evenings, you’ll find the “Cocktails at the Conservatory” event where drinks, hors d’oeuvres and live music accompany your admission fee.
Easton Town Center
Last but not least, it’s worth mentioning the region’s premiere shopping destination: Easton Town Center. Located 10 miles north-east of Downtown, your easiest non-auto access is by bus (the #16). Easton opened in 1999 as one of the country’s first open-air “Lifestyle Center” shopping areas designed to be more mixed-use in function. Just about every standard chain mall store can be found here in addition to some unique regional stores including Puma, Burberry, Henri Bendel, The Lego Store, Roll, and more. A wide variety of restaurants also await, and some solid nighttime entertainment can be found at the Shadowbox rock-and-roll cabaret.
Hopefully that’s enough to keep you busy on your first visit to Columbus! There are plenty of other great places to go, things to do and foods to eat that aren’t on this list, but there’s always time to make a return trip in the future. If you have additional questions about the area, feel free to leave a comment below or ask for help on the messageboard on ColumbusUnderground.com. We’re always happy to help visitors have a pleasant experience.
Thanks again to Walker Evans from Columbus Underground for putting this together.