Travel
4 min

Getting to know Columbus

Ohio’s capital is the hidden gem of the Midwest

The Short North archway against a clear blue sky. Credit: Mike Beaumont

When editors at The New York Times recently devoted the newspaper’s beefed-up Sunday travel section to stories about LGBT getaways, they made one glaring omission.

In the main feature, “In Pursuit of the ‘Pink Dollar,’” writer Stephanie Rosenbloom discusses the development of America’s medium-sized cities — such as Rochester and St Louis — as “regional destinations” for gay tourists. But Rosenbloom’s piece (along with a sidebar about lesser known or up-and-coming LGBT hotspots) fails to include in this group Columbus, a Midwest city of almost one million that seems to have emerged as one of the country’s most compelling regional destinations for gay tourists.

During a recent visit to Columbus, I met gay people from Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania — all there to take in the gay nightlife in Ohio’s capital. Each said they regularly make the trip because Columbus’s gay vibe is better than other major centres in the region. After four days in the city, I was ready to agree. In fact, after sampling the local food, nightlife, culture and shopping, I believe that if Columbus keeps adding to its queer credentials, it’ll soon be fighting for a spot on the list of the very best destinations in the US. Watch out, Chicago and Miami.

Food lovers: don’t miss the North Market, a covered public market that was established in 1876 and remains the most important hub for those looking to sample the city’s best wares. My first stop was A Touch of Earth coffee shop, where the barista showed off her Dressed to Kill glossy souvenir book — purchased at the Cher concert the night before. “I love her,” she gushed, noting that because she is the only gay person on staff her boss had given her the day off to see her favourite diva. I flipped through the book as she foamed some skim milk and serenaded her customers with a few lines from Cher’s “Welcome to Burlesque.”: “Show a little more, show a little less, add a little smoke, welcome to burlesque.” It was an ideal introduction to Columbus.

I wanted a little something more to go with my latte, so I wandered over to Pistacia Vera, a local French pastry shop known for its ambrosial macarons and apple galette. Pistacia Vera’s main sit-down location is in the city’s historic German Village district, where you should grab a macaron and then wander over to The Book Loft, one of the country’s largest independent bookstores. The pastry shop’s owners, siblings Spencer Budros and Anne Fletcher, returned to Columbus after living elsewhere for many years. Fletcher says neither she nor Budros had thought they’d ever move home, but now both say they’d “never live anywhere else.” I heard that often during my visit.

Two other partnerships stand out in the food and drink category. The first is The Kitchen, a “participatory dining experience” owned by lesbian business partners Anne Boninsegna and Jen Lindsey. The friendly and very patient duo provide plenty of wine-pairing and food-prep tips to diners of all culinary levels who pitch in to create their own meal. But if you’re like me and hate cooking, leave the heavy lifting to your friends and head straight to their bar, pull up a stool and order a drink made with OYO vodka or whiskey from local distillery Middle West Spirits. Co-founders Brady Konya (another local homo) and Ryan Lang launched their ever-expanding product line in 2010, and their tasty spirits are now enjoyed frequently by respectable tipplers in Columbus. They also provide tours of their downtown distillery, where you can see close up where many memorable nights begin. My favourite is the OYO Stone Fruit Vodka, a plummy spirit that Columbus booster Amy Weirick suggested I drink neat to get the best of the cherry and fig flavours.

I did get both of those, along with a killer hangover. Thankfully, I managed to temper its worst effects with a syrup-drenched breakfast at Katalina’s, another Columbus institution that’s known for its pancake balls stuffed with such delights as fig jam, strawberries and Nutella.  

While Columbus should definitely be viewed as a major foodie destination, the city’s other real draw is what Betsy Pandora (not a drag queen) calls its “entrepreneurial spirit.” Pandora is the director of the Short North Alliance, a group that serves the neighbourhood of the same name. The Short North District, which was once a depressed and dangerous part of town, now hosts the trendy monthly Gallery Hop. On the first Saturday of every month, tourists and locals head to the Short North and its main artery, High Street, for an outdoor — and very gay — street party dedicated to celebrating art. But even if you can’t make it for the Gallery Hop, a wander down High Street (which intersects with Gay Street at what is surely one of Columbus’s most photographed intersections) at any time illustrates Pandora’s point. The area is home to dozens of independent and locally owned galleries (don’t miss the celebrated Pizzuti collection), restaurants (marvel at the simplicity of Basi Italia’s outstanding zucchini salad with toasted almonds and pecorino), bars (grab a beer at local microbrewery North High), cafés (you can’t go wrong with a coffee from the local bean artisans at Mission Coffee Co) and clothing shops (I dare you not to buy something in Tigertree).

Short North is also the centrepiece of Columbus’s burgeoning gay community and home to several of the city’s best known gay bars, clubs and restaurants. However, as in any LGBT hotspot worth its salt, most establishments are gay-friendly. Scratch that: I did not meet one unfriendly person anywhere in Columbus. It’s possibly this last point that makes it such a great shame that Columbus doesn’t get more attention as a gay destination. Sure, the locals are entrepreneurial, but they’re also some of the friendliest people I’ve met anywhere — and not because they’re in pursuit of the pink dollar. Columbus came to be its super-gay-friendly, hidden-gem self in an organic way, over time and, perhaps most importantly, in spite of the fact that it is Columbus, Ohio — which is exactly why you should go there.

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Columbus, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.