Arriving in Columbus, Ohio, on a Tuesday evening in late September, I was looking forward to a quiet evening in before a two-day press trip hosted by Experience Columbus officially began the next day. But as my cab pulled up to the 532-room Hilton Columbus Downtown, just across from the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC) on High Street, the sidewalks were thrumming with activity and the windows of any number of restaurants were glowing like lighted pumpkins. I dropped my bag in my room and headed back outside. It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago, the area around the convention center was known more for empty storefronts than for the thriving dining and entertainment scene I encountered. In the last 15 years, the number of people who live in the city’s center has more than doubled, drawn downtown by the reinvigorated urban landscape that inspired a recent National Geographic Traveler story headline: “Why All the Cool Kids Love Columbus.” Over the next 48 hours, with the help of my hosts, I would discover some of those reasons.
The next morning, we walked a few blocks into the Short North Arts District, where vintage 20th-century brick storefronts house wine bars, art galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants, including the elegantly rustic Guild House. Built with repurposed wood beams and wide plank ﬂoors, The Guild House adjoins the sleekly modern Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph. Both establishments opened in January 2016, and both illustrate how local hotels and restaurants celebrate the city’s homegrown natural resources and creativity. The Guild House’s menu lists the names of the local farmers and other purveyors who supply its kitchen, while Le Méridien’s public and private spaces — 135 rooms and suites, plus seven meeting spaces with more than 6,700 square feet of ﬂexible event space — are ﬁlled with work by local and regional artists. There’s seemingly no detail that can’t be improved by an injection of local ﬂavor. Even the eleva-tor music is curated by a local DJ.
Next up was what was planned as a fun, fast way to see downtown Columbus — a Segway tour, departing from the GCCC. As we got a crash course in maneuvering the vehicles, a light rain began to fall. Undaunted, we donned plastic rain ponchos and took off.
A few blocks out, the rain turned into a drenching downpour, making for an abbreviated ride. We ﬂew by award-winning Huntington Park baseball stadium in the Arena district, and took a spin on the Scioto Mile, a recently developed system of parks and pedes-trian and bike paths along the Scioto River. My takeaway? If the riverfront could be so appealing even as my shoes were ﬁlling up with rainwater, it must be spectacular in the sunshine.
After drying off, we headed to lunch at nearby North Market, a popular venue for receptions and other events. From a second-ﬂoor dining area, the ground ﬂoor of the 1876 market reminded me of a crazy quilt, with stalls stocked with produce, fresh ﬂowers, and spices beside vendors selling everything from barbecue and Vietnamese pho to chocolates and Bel-gian waffles. The historic market also serves as a kind of laboratory for the culinary innovators that Columbus has become known for, such as Jeni Britton Bauer, who founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at the market in 2002. Her ice cream, featuring imaginative ﬂavor proﬁles such as sweet-potato éclair and Thai-curry pumpkin, is now sold from shops in seven states.
Then it was time for a tour of the GCCC, which is currently undergoing a $125-million renovation that will add 100,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space along with new outdoor event plazas and green space, a café featuring locally sourced cuisine, and a plentiful infusion of local art. When it opens in July 2017, the fully renovated center will have a total of 1.8 million square feet and a more polished, flexible configuration, with new lighting, furnishings, and fixtures. After the tour, we joined Experience Columbus Customer Advisory Council members for handcrafted cocktails, craft beer, and pizza at Black Brick Bar, a comfortably upscale version of a beloved local pizza empire. From there, we went for dinner at the Tap Room event space at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, a family-owned and -operated craft brewery — one of 28 stops on the Columbus Ale Trail — which sources all of its products locally, including the furniture.
THE FIRST STEP IS COFFEE
In addition to brewing, Columbus has a strong coffee culture, and we hit it hard the next morning by visiting two of the coffee shops on the Columbus Coffee Trail. First up was Fox in the Snow, where the coffee was delicious but over-shadowed by the array of pastries. Then we headed back to the Short North Arts District, to One Line Coffee, where we participated in a “cupping” (i.e., tasting).
Sufficiently caffeinated, we took a hard-hat tour of Hotel LeVeque, an Autograph Collection Hotel. LeVeque will open next month with 149 guest rooms, a restaurant and bar, and three meeting rooms on ﬁve ﬂoors in Columbus’ famous, 47-story LeVeque Tower, an Art Deco marvel that once was the ﬁfth-tallest building in the world; pilot Amelia Earhart used it as a beacon. The Columbus penchant for using local products is on display in the hotel as well, with signature bath amenities and candles created by local entrepreneurs.
Then we toured the historic red-brick cottages and gardens of German Village, which was settled in the 19th century by German immigrants, many of whom worked making beer. The neighborhood is also home to The Kitchen, a venue that specializes in participatory cooking and events, where we had lunch. Tapas were on the menu — I sliced potatoes and beat eggs for a Spanish tortilla — but the menus can be customized to adjust for group sizes. Not everything that Columbus has to offer is downtown. We took a 20-minute ride to the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, one of the nation’s top zoos. Meeting space in the “Heart of Africa” — one of several venues available for groups — has a ﬂagstone veranda overlooking a savannah where we could spot giraffes and zebras.
Finally, on the last evening, I did get to stay in for dinner at the Hilton Columbus Downtown, where we dined at the hotel’s Gallerie Bar & Bistro. Chef Bill Glover demonstrated his commitment to local agriculture with a tasting menu designed around ingredients rather than courses — egg, carrot, tomato, tuna, beet, chicken, chestnut — paired with wine, ale, and liqueur distilled with Ohio black walnuts by Watershed, a local distillery. And then — why not? — we went out on High Street one last time, for a nightcap at Denmark on High, notable for its cocktails as well as its cozy second-ﬂoor perch across t h.e street from the convention center.