You might think of Columbus, Ohio, as just another boring seat of state government, as uninteresting and flat as its capitol without a dome.
You would be wrong.
Columbus, OhioTourist information: Experience Columbus, (800) 354-2657, experiencecolumbus.com/
Where to stay:
• Hilton Downtown Columbus, walking distance to the riverfront, Arena District, North Market and Short North Arts District, (614) 384-8600, www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/ohio/hilton-columbus-downtown-CMHDWHH/index.html
• Hotel LeVeque, opened in December overlooking the Scioto Mile, (614) 324-3270, marriott.com/hotels/travel/cmhak-hotel-leveque-autograph-collection/
Columbus has become a hipster hangout, young and vibrant with a sizable population of millennials, tons of fun bars, restaurants, craft breweries and coffee roasters, a burgeoning arts scene, a huge fashion and design industry and expanding acres of green space for biking, running or just soaking up the sun.
Columbus ranked highest in the Midwest for visitors satisfaction in a 2016 J.D. Power study and in 2015 TIME magazine ranked Columbus third on its list of "Best Cities for Millennials," who make up about 26 percent of its population. The Ohio State University adds to the youthful buzz giving Columbus one of the highest per capita student populations in the U.S. And plenty of those students stay after graduation to take advantage of job opportunities and an affordable cost of living. They're hooked on the city's friendly, low-key lifestyle that earns Columbus its reputation as "Biggest Small Town in America," though its population tops 800,000.
Visitors find plenty of ways to soak up the city's new energy. In the evening, head to the Arena District, arenadistrict.com/, built around downtown's Nationwide Arena where the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets play. You'll be awash in a young crowd frequenting its bars and pubs.
Browse the stalls in the North Market, northmarket.com/, a historic downtown food hall with 35 merchants selling flowers, fish, fresh produce, beer, wine and the city's own Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and Destination Donuts. Order a takeout meal from one of the food vendors or join a long line at wildly popular Hot Chicken Takeover, the Nashville-style fried chicken and soul food restaurant on the market's second floor, hotchickentakeover.com/.
River changes course
Perhaps the biggest change in Columbus has been redevelopment along the Scioto River. Once a brown, sludgy waterway, the $80 million Scioto Mile project removed a low-head dam restoring the river to its natural flow. The Scioto became a narrower, free-flowing river meandering along the downtown skyline. In the fall of 2015, 33 acres of reclaimed green space opened along its banks joining the 175-acre Scioto Mile comprising parks, fountains, a performing arts pavilion, walking and bike paths. No bike? No problem. Check out one from the CoGo Bike Share stations scattered around the city.
Changing the course of the river also changed the course of history in the city's Franklinton neighborhood. In the city's early days it was known as "The Bottoms," a low-lying area subject to repeated floods, including a particularly devastating one in 1913. Developers couldn't get insurance to rebuild and the neighborhood languished as a hodgepodge of rundown warehouses and factories. A floodwall completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2004 now protects the area and, as often happens in newly gentrifying neighborhoods, artists were among the first to move in.
An old building at 400 W. Rich St. became a warren of 140 artist studios, 400westrich.com/. They open their doors to the public on the second Friday of every month when a Handmade Market stocks one-of-a-kind finds.
Next door, Strongwater Food and Spirits, strongwatercolumbus.com/, operates a bar and restaurant in what once was a drinking fountain factory. Last year, Land-Grant Brewing Company, landgrantbrewing.com/, opened down the street in an old elevator factory. The taproom serves beer brewed on site. Edibles are supplied by a rotating schedule of food trucks parked outside.
It's a short walk to the Columbus Idea Foundry, columbusideafoundry.com/, a community workshop housed in a former shoe factory. Packed with industrial equipment and arts and crafts tools for rent, it's open for tours on Saturdays and Mondays. You can try your hand at welding, blacksmithing, woodworking, 3-D printing, leatherworking, jewelry, glassmaking, sculpture, painting and photography.
Arts and fashion
Franklinton is the sort of evolving artist enclave that the city's Short North Arts District once was, shortnorth.org/. Located just north of downtown and joined to it by a cap built over I-670, the area had been undesirable. Now it's a well-established, vibrant neighborhood of galleries, boutiques, busy bars and trendy dining spots. During Gallery Hop, on the first Saturday of the month, galleries and shops stay open late and street performers add to a festival atmosphere.
The Short North turns into a street party for 30,000 revelers toward the end of every October for HighBall Halloween. In addition to a public costume show, Columbus fashion designers participating in Costume Couture create outrageous duds and compete for prizes. Columbus ranks as the third-largest fashion center in the nation, after New York and Los Angeles, due to the number of designers based here. Among the fashion brands headquartered in Columbus are The Limited, DSW, Eloquii and Victoria's Secret.
Art and fashion are found in more places than in galleries and on models, of course. The Columbus Art Museum opened a 50,000-square-foot expansion last fall to exhibit 400 modernist works. And art finds its way into Columbus hotels, too. The Hilton Columbus Downtown has a $1 million collection with more than 200 works by area artists on display. When visitors walk into the Hotel LeVeque after it opens in December they will be greeted by staff in uniforms designed by Columbus designer Liz Bourgeois. The hotel, part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, is housed in the 1927 LeVeque Tower and staff fashions will be an eclectic mix of vintage and hip.
No visitor to Ohio's capital city goes thirsty thanks to the Columbus Ale Trail and Columbus Coffee Trail, two craft distilleries and a meadery.
Millennials help fuel the success of the city's coffee shops, 21 of them on The Columbus Coffee Experience trail, cbuscoffee.com/. Pick up a card at any of them, order a drink and have it stamped. After four visits you qualify for a free T-shirt.
The Roosevelt Coffeehouse, rooseveltcoffee.org/, opened downtown in April 2015 and quickly made a name for itself, not only for its specialty coffees, but also for its furnishings made of reclaimed bowling-alley wood and its commitment to social justice. Half of the tip jar goes to causes, such as digging wells in Africa and fighting child trafficking. "We make coffee to save lives," says founder Kenny Sipes, a former youth pastor, and its patrons are all in. Millennials are more likely to support social justice early in their lives, he says, while older generations often wait until retirement before becoming active in charitable causes.
In 2015, a young couple -- she a former editor and baker in New York -- he a coffee expert -- transformed an old garage purchased on Craig's List into Fox in the Snow Cafe, foxinthesnow.com/. It soon became the "in" spot for coffee, from-scratch pastries and breakfast items, including an egg sandwich ordered by as many as 300 patrons on a busy Saturday morning. In addition to its menu of hot coffee drinks, it's known for its New Orleans Iced Coffee cold-brewed for 18 hours and flavored with chicory.
Columbus has climbed aboard the craft beer bandwagon in a big way. More than half of the city's 28 breweries opened in the past five years. Pick up a copy of the Columbus Ale Trail booklet at the first brewery you visit, get it stamped after purchase and you'll earn a commemorative pint glass after partaking of brews at four establishments. If you manage to drink at all 28 by April 30 next year, a custom deck of playing cards awaits you, cbusaletrail.com/.
Elevator Brewing Company, elevatorbrewery.com/, is one of four breweries within a mile of one another in what owner Dick Stevens calls the city's "new brewery district." Owners support each other "united in our vision about good beer," he says. In addition to its brewery and taproom located in an old grain elevator, it operates a restaurant nearby. Down the street, another family-owned brewery and restaurant, Wolf's Ridge Brewing Company, wolfsridgebrewing.com/, serves up craft beer and cocktails along with executive chef Seth Lassak's innovative creations, such as duck confit tacos.
The art of brewing goes back to ancient times, but the world's oldest fermented beverage is mead, says Justin Devilbiss, mead maker at Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar, brothersdrake.com/. Housed in an old auto garage, it offers tours and tastings on weekends that explain how mead is produced like wine but with honey instead of grapes. Other flavors often are introduced. Its apple pie variety is its most popular, but perhaps its most unusual is its peanut butter and jelly mead. Devilbiss says he created it as a joke but "within an hour the keg was blown."
Watershed Distillery also offer tours and tastings of some of its seven products, namely vodka, gin, bourbon and rare bottles of nocino, an after-dinner liqueur made from black walnuts, watersheddistillery.com/. Co-owners Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo, chosen CEOs of the Year by Columbus CEO magazine, named their business after what Lehman describes as a "watershed moment" when they made a life-altering decision to leave the corporate world. And what did these young CEOs do before turning to making spirits? Rigo sold toilets, Lehman sold pharmaceutical drugs to pig farmers.
Sounds like a change worthy of a few strong drinks.
• Information for the article was gathered during a writers' conference sponsored by Experience Columbus.