8 Reasons to Drive to Columbus

What’s round at the ends and high in the middle?

For Clevelanders, Columbus is a bit like a younger cousin. You don’t see them as much as you should, but when you do visit it’s like, “Damn cuz, when did you become so cool?” It’s a city that’s risen from humble origins. Once described as “barren” and “unremarkable” by its very own newspaper, Columbus is in the midst of a meteoric boom and since 2010, it’s consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. But what makes Columbus truly worth the drive—besides an obligatory stop at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn—is that it’s managed to maintain its character-laden grit while also amassing a slew of shiny new bars, restaurants, and other modern draws. If Columbus is indeed the city of the future, there just might be some hope for us yet. Here are eight reasons to plan your Cbus getaway, stat.

Sample your way through local and international beers

It doesn’t seem like that long ago (it wasn’t) that Columbus had just seven breweries. Now it has over 50—for those counting, that’s about a sixth of the breweries in the state. Head to Hoof Hearted (they have a pool!) for dank, knock-you-on-your-butt IPAs, or hit Antiques on High for Atomic Warhead-level sours. For a dose of natural beauty alongside Belgian-style brews, head just outside the city to Rockmill Brewery. And let’s not forget UK giant Brewdog, which established the world’s first craft beer hotel in Columbus. Since the Bus is a big ol’ college town at heart, don’t skip the educational portion of your trip: Brewdog has a Beer Museum on-site too.

Take in an impressive array of visual art

Between state-of-the-art institutions and a lively contemporary art scene, Columbus is a non-stop reminder that the arts are alive and well between the coasts. The Columbus Museum of Art presents a collection strong in Impressionist and Modernist-era art, featuring works from Cezanne, Picasso, and George Bellows, the latter of whom was a Columbusite (Columbian?) before chronicling New York City in his paintings. Called “the best arts event in the state,” the Short North’s monthly Gallery Hop recently restarted, giving Ohio artists a chance to display their work and giving viewers the chance to take it all in while pub crawling along High Street’s bountiful bars. And while Chicago may have Seurat’s Pointillism masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte at its Art Institute, Columbus is the only city to have re-created the painting entirely through topiary sculptures. How do you like them apples, Second City? See this charming horticural achievement yourself in the city’s seven-acre Topiary Park.

Embrace nature in the city’s ample green spaces

The aforementioned Topiary Garden isn’t Columbus’ only opportunity to commune with the great outdoors. The 13-acre Park of Roses is one of the nation’s largest rose gardens, playing host to over 12,000 specimens. It’s so gorgeous that it’s downright silly, and admission is completely free. If you’re looking for a little more botanical variety, head to the Franklin Park Conservatory for a staggering variety of plant life. Biomes represented are as wide-ranging as the Himalayas and desert climates, and the orchid and bonsai collections are like nature’s art galleries. For those inclined toward running, cycling, or even skateboarding, the Scioto Mile has your back. An exemplary case of urban renewal where green space trumps condos, the Scioto Mile links nine city parks along the banks of its namesake river. Head to Milestone 229 at night for what might be the best skyline view of the city, and don’t miss the dynamic waterworks at Bicentennial Park’s show-stopping fountain.

Stock your bookshelf—and record collection—at friendly neighborhood shops

Home to the nation’s largest university, you bet your cap and gown that Columbus takes its literature very seriously. Book lovers are essentially required to make a pilgrimage to The Book Loft, German Village’s handsome pre-Civil War home now playing host to “32 Rooms of Books.” Just try leaving without an armful of discount hardcovers. For the avant-garde readers, there’s also Two-Dollar Radio in South Side, which is your standard issue Midwestern indie bookstore/publisher/bar/vegan cafe. 

Vinyl enthusiasts have an abundance of options in Cbus as well. Used Kids, long a campus-area staple, has over thirty years of history and thousands of records to dig through. The Needle Exchange, a new contender on the scene, isn’t just a clever name: In addition to LPs, the shop offers free Narcan on-site and a plethora of resources from partner org Harm Reduction Ohio. Can’t decide between reads or jams? Visit Kafe Kerouac in Old North Columbus, which has a generous selection of books and records plus coffee, cocktails, and an intimate performance space.

Stroll through charming historic neighborhoods

In the midst of all the expansion, revitalization, and new Cameron Mitchell restaurants, Columbus has thankfully carved out space to preserve its oldest neighborhoods. The Italianate homes, wrought-iron fences, and brick-paved streets of German Village are storybook beautiful. It’s a perfect neighborhood for a long walk, which is exactly what you’ll need after a hearty, old-world meal at Schimdt’s or Valter's at the Maennerchor. The ornate late-18th century homes of Victorian Village and the abundant trees that shade them make it a premiere perambulatory destination as well, a perfect way to walk off your pancake balls from Katalina’s or a midday cocktail from The Bottle Shop. Olde Towne East, as made plain by its silent es, dates back to the 1830s and showcases buildings spanning more than 50 architectural styles while essential spots like Upper Cup Coffee, Yellow Brick Pizza, and Olde Towne Tavern have your food and drink needs covered no matter your particular design inclinations.

Get lost in immersive experiences and attractions

We’ve already covered this a bit with the art and beer museums above, but the Bus offers even more cultural venues for public enjoyment. Named more than once the best science center in America, COSI (Center of Science and Industry) offers a wealth of interactive exhibits that are just as appealing to adults as they are to children—especially with a local beer in hand at one of the COSI After Dark events. For those with even a remote interest in comics, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is a must-visit. Housed in Ohio State’s palatial Thompson Library, the museum holds thousands of archived materials from industry giants ranging from Winsor McKay to Cleveland’s own Bill Watterson. And the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, with its laudable goal of bolstering mental health aid for US veterans, is also worth a gander for its striking architecture alone.

But museum fatigue is a real thing, and maybe your brain has processed all the learning it can handle after a pint or two from Land Grant. Or maybe you just want to hit up something that’s not quite classifiable as art or an adult playground or an escape room because it’s basically all these things in one. Enter Otherworld. Listed among our best national attractions in 2019, Otherworld is a surreal, digitally-augmented playscape complete with secret passages, sea monsters, and an Adventure Time-style dedication to a sense of wonder. Go forth and discover.

Settle in for a spirited supper at a distillery

Thanks to recent rollbacks of Ohio’s puritanical liquor laws, the state is seeing a rise in dining programs accompanying its sixty or so distilleries, and Columbus is leading the pack by pairing boozy flights with scratch-kitchen MIdwestern dining. Watershed Distillery, best known for its beloved Four-Peel Gin, boasts a bar and kitchen cloaked in Gatsby-esque trappings in the Grandview area. Middle West Spirits' Service Bar, nestled in trendy Short North, may have them all beat with an adventurous menu that could stand on its own but, thanks to the elevated cocktail program, doesn’t need to. These heavy-hitters are more than worth building a night around, but the city’s smaller outfits are also carrying their weight. Case in point? 451 Spirits in Old North Columbus, dedicated to “esoteric, boundary-pushing” concoctions, once made a batch of bourbon distilled with pizza from beloved local pizza joint Mikey’s Late Night Slice. With this kind of mad-scientist approach to boozing, we’re along for the ride with whatever genius concoctions 451 cooks up next.

Get your fill from High Street’s abundant eateries

Cleveland has the Polish Boy and Cincinnati has five-way chili, but Columbus doesn’t have a go-to signature dish (candy buckeyes, though delicious, don’t really count). Instead, it has a thriving food scene that combines and recombines the surprisingly diverse influences of the region. The excellent spots are too numerous to list in their entirety here (we’ve done so elsewhere, don’t worry), but a trip down High Street beautifully illustrates the variety and quality of what’s available. Start off on a healthy note with plant-based offerings at Northstar Cafe up north in the Clintonville area, or go HAM on a diner-style breakfast with the works from Old North Columbus staple Jack & Benny’s.

Heading south down toward campus, a stop into Buckeye Donuts for a freshly made sugar-dough concoction is a must, and while you’re at it, patronize a lower-key spot like Diaspora with surprisingly excellent Korean food. Continue south and you’ll hit the Short North, where kicking a stone will hit any number of excellent eateries. Cameron Mitchell joint The Pearl and longtime grilled-cheese destination Bodega are just a couple examples. 

Because all good gluttonous runs must come to an end, finish up at North Market—okay, technically it’s just off High Street, but cut us some slack. Predating Cleveland’s West Side Market by almost 40 years, the North Market plays host to 35 vendors representing food from around the world. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, the by-now national empire that expanded the boundaries of what ice cream could be, started off as a North Market stand and still maintains one today. Ditto Hot Chicken Takeover, with its mission to bring Nashville’s best culinary export to Ohio. Check off these itinerary options and you might just find yourself too full for a sample run at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn on the way back home—emphasis on the “might.” 

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Billy Hallal was an honorary Columbusite for several years, though he only just learned that you call them Columbusites. He currently lives in Cleveland and his writing can be found here and at
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