Out of Town: Columbus, Ohio

A cutting-edge foodie culture, lively gay nightlife and legendary arts institutions make this swing state capital worth a visit.

As a gay destination, Columbus has increasingly earned cred as one of the coolest and most welcoming cities in the Midwest. Progressive and prosperous, it’s home to several outstanding art galleries, a handful hip and historic neighborhoods with visible LGBT populations, and one of the largest institutions of higher learning in the country, Ohio State University. More recently, it’s become a hot culinary destination, with a seemingly endless parade of young, creative chefs and restaurateurs – and even some artisan brewers and distillers – generating plenty of buzz.

Columbus (experiencecolumbus.com/glbt.cfm for tourism information), in the dead-center of the state, lies within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population and has a major airport minutes from downtown. The metro region covers a large area, most of it encircled by I-270. But most key points of interest fall within a rectangle that extends from just south of downtown, where you’ll find charming German Village, to several miles north of downtown, past the trendy and quite gay Short North neighborhood to the campus of Ohio State University. The most prominent exception is the world-famous Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, about a 20-minute drive north of the city center, and well-worth the detour – it’s a pretty incredible place.

Downtown is home to the handsome Ohio Statehouse, which is surrounded by a burgeoning theater district. From Capitol Square, Broad Street leads west to Ohio’s Center of Science & Industry, which overlooks the Scioto River, a picturesque waterway fringed by attractively landscaped parks. Head east on Broad to reach the superb Columbus Museum, known for its modern American and German expressionism collections, and beyond that the gentrified neighborhood of Bexley, where you can explore one of the most impressive botanical gardens in the country, the Franklin Park Conservatory.

Extending just beyond downtown’s upper edge is the Short North, whose century-old redbrick architecture supports a dynamic arts community, dozens of cool indie shops, a bounty of notable eateries and cafés, and a number of gay-owned businesses. In these parts you’ll also find evidence of the city’s fervent embrace of artisan beverages, including Middle West Spirits (middlewestspirits.com), a partly gay-owned producer of exceptional whiskey and flavored vodkas, and Brothers Drake Meadery (brothersdrake.com), which turns out distinctive mead wines made from honey.

Continue north of the Short North along High Street, and you’ll reach Ohio State University, a virtual city in itself. Tours are available of this immense campus. One must-see is the respected Wexner Center for the Arts, a frequent host of provocative (sometimes LGBT-themed) exhibits and events.

German Village, just south of downtown, fell into disrepair in the middle of the 20th century. In the face of plans to demolish much of the neighborhood, concerned residents created the largest privately funded historical foundation in the nation and preserved this 233-acre haven of cobbled lanes, wrought-iron fences, flower gardens, redbrick cottages, and stately homes. Providing some greenery, the Huntington Gardens in beautifully landscaped Schiller Park blooms with perennials from spring through fall.

The city’s outstanding restaurant scene has become known among adventurous eaters as one of the best in the Midwest. Right in German Village, there are several great options, such as Barcelona (barcelonacolumbus.com), a snazzy and fun Mediterranean restaurant with a queer-trendy following. Whether for breakfast, an afternoon snack, or dessert, do not miss Pistacia Vera (pistaciavera.com), a gorgeous bakery and coffeehouse serving stunningly colorful yuzu-pink guava, black raspberry, and other French-style macarons, plus delicious quiches and croque monsieur. Also try Katzinger’s Deli (katzingers.com), which has long been renowned for its massive sandwiches and wonderful soups and cheesecakes, and the dapper pizzeria, Harvest (harvestpizzeria.com) – try the delicious pie topped with chevre, sopressata, basil, and cherry tomatoes.

In the Short North, a romantic gay-popular eatery that excels in contemporary and classic French cooking, L’Antibes (lantibes.com) employs a polished yet friendly staff. Loosen your belt to sample rich and exquisitely prepared fare like beef short ribs with black truffle potatoes and shiitake mushroom ragout. Check out campy and fun Betty’s (bettyscolumbus.com) for contemporary renditions of traditional comfort food (with Asian and Latin influences) and excellent microbrew beers and fun cocktails. Casual, affordable Tasi (tasicafe.com) doles out fresh and creative breakfast and lunch fare, and airy and light-filled Northstar Cafe (thenorthstarcafe.com) serves food all day, but is especially renowned for breakfast and brunch.

Bodega (columbusbodega.com) is a diverting, lively restaurant specializing in tapas (the garlic fries with spicy tomato aioli are hard to resist). For exceptional coffee, stop by Impero (imperocoffee.com), a first-rate artisan café. A bit farther north in up-and-coming Clintonville, Sage American Bistro (sageamericanbistro.com) serves innovative mod-American cuisine and has a fun happy hour; and Alana’s Food & Wine (alanas.com) has become well-regarded for some of the most interesting, globally inspired fare in the city.

Browse the wonderful stalls at North Market (northmarket.com), which is usually swarming with foodies, including plenty of attractive lesbians and gay guys. It’s the original home of the beloved ice cream shop, Jeni’s (jenis.com), which has developed a roster of truly unusual flavors (consider goat cheese with sour cherries, or sweet corn-black raspberry) and now has several shops around the city.

From here, you can continue south into downtown to find plenty of other intriguing dining options, including gay-favorite Sidebar 122 (sidebar122.com), a romantic and modern spot that fuses Latin American and Mediterranean cuisine; de Novo Bistro (denovobistro.com), an elegant venue that’s ideal for dining before or after a show at one of the nearby theaters; and hipster-favored Double Happiness (doublehappinessohio.com), a late-night favorite in the Brewery District known for swish cocktails, fun people-watching, and tantalizingly tasty yakitori.

Columbus has always had plenty of fun gay bars, including a number of friendly neighborhood spots, although quite a few establishments have come and gone over the years. In the heart of the Short North, Axis (columbusnightlife.com) is the city’s hottest and hippest gay disco, with a nice-size dance floor, an intimate (though often packed) upstairs lounge, and some of the best drag shows around. The same owners run nearby Union Station (columbusnightlife.com), a handsome and festive gay bar and restaurant, caters to a smart-dressed bunch of lesbians and gay men.

Downtown’s Wall Street (wallstreetnightclub.com) is a spacious women’s club that’s especially appreciated for its theme nights, which feature everything from drag to stand-up comedy. And in the Brewery District, Club Diversity (www.clubdiversity.biz) is a welcoming martini bar, cabaret, and theater with a steady lineup of engaging entertainment.

If you’re looking for a hip and intimate hotel, try The Lofts (55lofts.com), a sophisticated boutique property that’s adjacent to and run by the much larger Crowne Plaza (ichotelsgroup.com). It’s on the edge of the Arena District and occupies a historic 1882 warehouse. Rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick, sleek custom-designed beds and furnishings, and bathroom walls decorated with actual New York City subway tiles. Downtown’s Westin Columbus (westincolumbus.com) is a National Historic Landmark that’s been fully restored to its 19th-century splendor – it’s arguably the cushiest lodging option in town.

Rooms are large and comfy at the Hyatt Regency (columbusregency.hyatt.com), and just around the corner, the moderately priced Hampton Inn & Suites (hamptoninn3.hilton.com) sits right in the southern end of the Short North and is also an excellent option. And by the Ohio Statehouse, the stylish and upscale Renaissance Columbus (marriott.com) is a favorite of business travelers.

The gay-owned German Village Guesthouse (gvguesthouse.com) is one of the most elegant accommodations in the city, offering smartly decorated rooms and suites in two historic buildings steps from great restaurants and bars. It’s an ideal option if you’re seeking the intimacy of a small inn but the privacy and independence of a private apartment.

There are also a few charming B&Bs close to the Short North and popular with gay and lesbian visitors. Occupying a lavishly restored redbrick Victorian house, 50 Lincoln-Short North B&B (columbus-bed-breakfast.com) has seven warmly furnished rooms. Also quite charming, Harrison House B&B (harrisonhouse-columbus.com) is nearby in the historic Victorian Village area. This stunning 1890 Queen Anne mansion contains four high-ceilinged rooms with fine antiques. Either property offers guests an introduction to Columbus’s rich history, charming architecture, and warm hospitality, all of which combine to make this one of the country’s most inviting gay destinations.

Andrew Collins is the editor in chief of the LGBT travel magazines OutAloha and OutCity, and he covers gay travel for the website GayTravel.About.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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