One of the Fastest-Growing Big American Cities Is Often Overlooked

·12 min read
Courtesy experiencecolumbus.com
Courtesy experiencecolumbus.com

I was raised in Ohio, and then I left to earn some degrees and become a professor—a short-lived career that I decided wasn’t for me. But before I exited that exciting life of grading and faculty meetings, it brought me back to Ohio and, so far, I’ve stayed.

Ohio is more than the controversial headlines it makes. It’s more than beautiful farmland. It is pinned on almost every corner by creative, vibrant cities, cool, small college towns and historic villages, with a flourishing outdoor world in-between. All of that magic of Ohio comes together in the state’s capital, Columbus. At the invitation of Experience Columbus, I road-tripped down from my place near Toledo, and spent a weekend exploring the city’s food scene and its newest greenspace—which includes a waterfall—and I was reminded why I’ve stayed in this state.

Situated along the Scioto River in central Ohio, Columbus is south of Toledo and Cleveland and northeast of Cincinnati and Dayton. It is also the 14th largest city in the U.S., with a population of 906,528, a greater metro area of 2 million, and is one of just 6 cities among the nation’s 15 largest to increase in size during the pandemic. My love for visiting Columbus is that despite being Ohio’s largest city, it is still small enough to navigate to its various neighborhoods, cultural centers, and food scenes.

My home for the weekend was the 149-room Hotel Leveque, a boutique hotel in the historic 47-story LeVeque Tower that was built in 1927. At the time, this Art Moderne wonder was the fifth-largest building in the world. It still stands out in Columbus’s skyline, especially when it lights up at night.

The hotel has an art deco vibe: from its external facade to the furnishings and fixtures of the lobby and the rooms. There is also a celestial motif that appears in the form of symbols and art throughout the hotel, with the inclusion of small telescopes in the rooms and a projector for having a constellation above your bed, and a large and lit tubular abstract sculpture hanging in the lobby that resembles a constellation. Rooms are spacious (king bed from $300+). It is centrally located, making it easy to get around the city by foot, car, scooter, or eBike.

Day 1 in Columbus was a busy one, taking me to the new Budd Dairy Food Hall, a chef-driven incubator in Italian Village just north of the city’s downtown, which makes for a great lunch stop after a road trip into town. A former dairy plant, it opened in April of 2021 and out of the gate was named one of Fodor’s 10 best food halls in the country.

Within Budd Dairy Food Hall are restaurants like Boni Filipino Street Food, the comfort food of Modern Southern Table, and Hatch, a rotating kitchen for chefs to test out concepts. Currently, Hatch features Pablo’s Havana Cafe from Chef Pablo Taura. Craving a Cuban sandwich, I immediately dove into their satisfying El Cubano (pressed Cuban bread with roasted pork, honey ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard), along with a side of tostones (crunchy salty plantains served with garlic oil). Budd Dairy also has a stylish, but relaxed open rooftop bar for kicking back with drinks.

I then made my way over to 400 West Rich, a collaborative artist space with more than 100 studios in Columbus’s ever-growing Franklinton Arts District. The district, which sits west of downtown Columbus, is home to galleries, performance venues, and maker spaces. Their longest-running, and award-winning mural festival, Scrawl, (Oct. 15-16) features mobile murals, artists, vendors, DJs, and food trucks. During Pride month, they put on a Scrawl Pride Group Show, which showcased mobile murals and artwork by LGBTQIA+ Scrawl artists, with 25 percent of sales going to a grant that supports LGBTQIA+ artists.

The creation of an arts district has other benefits as well.

“Where the artists go, development follows,” the district’s Executive Director, Johnny Riddle, told me, leading me across the street to Land-Grant Brewing Company. Land-Grant Brewing sets out to be a sustainable brewery serving the community.

While I was there I had a beer flight. If it is a hot day—and it was—their pale ale Lemon Glow, (which gets its citrus flavor through its hops), Pool Party (a crisp pilsner with Southern Hemisphere hops), Inflatable Flamingo (a watermelon wheat ale), or the non-alcoholic, CBD Ginger Beer, are always refreshing.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Beer flight at Land Grant Brewery.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

Beer flight at Land Grant Brewery.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

That night, I darted off to one of my favorite neighborhoods in Columbus, the Short North Arts District. Sitting on North High Street between downtown and Ohio State’s campus, the Short North is home to galleries and murals, restaurants, stores, and is considered strongly LGBTQIA+ friendly.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Mural of Hodan Mohammed, founder of Our Helpers, in the Short North.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

Mural of Hodan Mohammed, founder of Our Helpers, in the Short North.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

The Short North is home to one of my favorite murals: a stunning multi-story portrait of Hodan Mohammed dressed in vibrant red and orange, set against an energetic blue and yellow background. One of the lesser-known facts about Columbus is that it is home to the second-largest Somali community in the United States. Hodan, who I had a chance to meet once right before the pandemic hit, founded Our Helpers, which helps immigrants get established in the Columbus area. The mural is a reminder that Columbus, like the rest of Ohio, is not monolithic.

The Short North is also never short on surprises. For example, at the new TENSPACE, you can have a free immersive experience that allows you to get a taste of an online brand (a brand without a brick and mortar storefront) in real life. Every eight weeks, TENSPACE tells the story of a different brand. The day I showed up, OLIPOP was showcased—a soda company that uses plant fibers and prebiotics botanicals to make a healthy soda that still tastes like the flavored sodas we love and know. Bright colors, large floor-to-ceiling straws, scented flavor rooms—which smelled amazing—a flavor voting space, and a vintage soda bar all surrounded their flight tasting space.

While there, I also wanted to get a quick look at ComFest—a free annual neighborhood and volunteer-run festival with food trucks and music that shuts down the streets—all done without corporate sponsors.

“Look for the half-naked hippies,” someone told me earlier in the day.

Instead, I followed the scent of weed off of High Street (no pun intended) to find a crowd gathered in the park. Most weren’t hippies, or half naked. (Bandaids over nipples classify as clothed, right?) I did, however, have to carefully dodge a boomer hippie in a flowery dress. Holding her shoes up in the air, she spun in circles, dancing to the music of a band playing in a gazebo. She was living her best life. (I made a note to myself to come back next year.)

That night, I ate at DEL MAR SoCal Kitchen, whose menu is inspired by the cuisine of Southern California. DEL MAR’s open kitchen greets you at the door, and a bright dining space sits between it and the bar. Their menu is centered on sea food. Their shrimp ceviche is refreshing and their salmon (roasted tomatoes, asparagus, squash, white bean puree, and lemon caper vinaigrette) doesn’t disappoint.

For later evening drinks, there were plenty of options within walking distance, like Lincoln Social Rooftop Bar, which has a fantastic view of the city. This night, however, I was checking out the new jazz bar, Ginger Rabbit. Housed in a basement, the swanky and moody space shrouded in soft purple and red lights belongs to the speakeasy era. The owners say it is inspired by La La Land. The food menu falls into the smaller, snack arena, like pita and house made hummus or Black Radish Creamery cheese (with crackers and seasonal jam). They also have a range of conservas available (high-end, tinned seafood served with bread, salted butter, and microgreens).

As you can probably tell, one of the things I love about Columbus is the food—if you’re not eating your way through Columbus, you’re really not doing it right. Every trip there means discovering a new restaurant or revisiting a Columbus staple.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Katalina’s.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

Katalina’s.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

I stopped by one of those staples the next morning for breakfast. The brain-child of Kathleen Day, Katalina’s is set up in a 100-year old gas station in the Harrison West neighborhood. With colorful pens left at the tables, the restaurant inside and out is textured with graffiti from guests. Famous for its addictive pancake balls (with fillings like nutella or dulce de leche), the menu at Katalina’s is creative, organic, and local. This time around I had their fresh and bright breakfast tacos served with an Mexican elote cob corn.

If food is the first half of my love for Columbus, its balancing half filled the next part of my day: its outdoors.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Waterfall at Quarry Trails Metro Park.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

Waterfall at Quarry Trails Metro Park.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

Fueled up, I set out for the new Quarry Trails Metro Park just a few minutes from downtown, which features hiking, mountain bike trails, a calming 25-foot waterfall, lakes, and a lot of birding opportunities—like the great blue heron, great egret, and killdeer. This fall, Quarry Trails will also be home to a new via ferrata—a trail built into a vertical cliff face using metal rungs and safety cables. This 800-foot horizontal climb is set to be the first in an urban setting. With easy access to the outdoors both within and surrounding the city, it is easy to make a visit to Columbus about nature. There are 20 parks within Columbus’s Metro Parks, which manages the regional park system of over 230 miles of trails, covering seven Central Ohio counties.

Extensive cycling trails can be found running through the city, like the Scioto Greenway trail (12 miles long), which runs along the kayakable Scioto River. There are bike trail connections leading to city neighborhoods and the suburbs of the greater Columbus area (like the Camp Chase trail to the west of the city). In fact, Ohio has a bike trail system that runs the width of the state and Columbus’ bike trails are key sections of the Great American Rail Trail, a bike trail network created by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that will eventually reach from coast to coast.

Best of all, Columbus’s outdoor connection stretches to its surrounding area.

Just roughly an hour outside of Columbus is Hocking Hills, which offers wild landscapes of preserved land ripe for hiking through forests and waterfalls. A frequent way I like to visit Columbus is to split my time between hiking in Hocking Hills State Park (Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave are must sees) and hitting restaurants in the city. A favorite stay of mine is The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls to the south of Columbus, which has fantastic boutique yurts ($379+) and geodomes ($379) with forest views for glamping lovers.

But if your idea of being outdoors is in the form of gardens, then Columbus’s Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is for you. Both indoor and outdoor gardens are mixed with other exhibits. Indoor gardens showcase the world’s largest private collection of Chihuly glass artwork. During my visit, visitors could experience the Topiary Takeover outside, featuring 25 incredible topiaries of animals, composed of plants to mimic their colors, fur, skin, or scales, and which are inspired by UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Topiary Takeover at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

Topiary Takeover at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

In other words, Columbus is a city woven together by natural spaces.

After spending an afternoon at Quarry Trails Metro Park, the rest of the day was dedicated to—wait for it—more food. I grabbed lunch at the city’s 145-year old North Market, which has no shortage of food options. Hoyo’s Kitchen has incredible authentic Somali cuisine that ranges in spice. My dessert of choice is always any flavor from Columbus’s gift to the world of ice cream, Jeni’s, which is also at North Market.

Later that evening, however, I found my new go-to stop when I’m in town—Understory. Named for the growth under the tree canopy in the forest, the restaurant combines both Columbus’s food scene with its natural spaces. Opened this last January, the restaurant is in an historic 1927 schoolhouse. It includes different concepts—The Lounge (a bar with re-imagined classic cocktails), Commons (offering a fast-casual menu), and the Patio, which sits under a forested space that runs along the Olentangy River and the 22.5-mile Olentangy Trail.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Crispy shrimp at Understory.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

Crispy shrimp at Understory.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

The Lounge has a great vibe—open and well-lit by large draping windows—as well as an unforgettable menu. The Crispy Shrimp (firecracker sauce, napa cabbage slaw, and ginger dressing) and the Goat Cheese Croquette (sweet pepper aioli, jalapeno jam, and frisée salad) were the stars of my weekend. Their refreshing Highball (Japanese whisky, umeshu, clarified green apple, kakuto, and bubbles) and their bright Paloma (tequila, sotol, sherry, amaro, citrus, and vegan foamer) are worth the visit.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A German Village in Columbus.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Brandon Withrow</div>

A German Village in Columbus.

Courtesy of Brandon Withrow

Before I left the next day, I stopped in German Village. Hands-down, German Village—with its historic buildings, tight alleys and cobblestone streets—is the most photogenic neighborhood in Columbus. It is home to Katzinger’s Delicatessen, a must-eat Jewish deli that is always fortifying and Pistacia Vera, a French-style patisserie whose pastry menu makes it hard to buy only one thing. (I’m addicted to their palmier, classic eclairs, and homemade macaron.) If you’re there in the evening, don’t miss a show at Shadowbox Live, the largest resident theater company in America, where you can enjoy food and drinks while watching a variety of music, comedy, and other high energy performances.

I’m always telling people they should visit Columbus, and often they ask me why? This is why: Columbus is a lively, diverse city that never fails to surprise this Ohioan. It reminds me of the reasons I love this state, even when its politics madly frustrate me. Columbus is the Ohio I wish everyone else could see.

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