Pictured above, a sculptures by artist Terry Allen of a deer looking over Columbus's Scioto River.
Growing up two hours to the north of Ohio’s state capitol, Columbus was mostly a place to drive through. My family felt there was no reason to stop or stay overnight. Even as a young adult, it wasn’t really a place that appealled to me, not the way other cities drew me with their diversity and energy.
But Columbus today is on a fast-growing streak, and this once-quiet town is making noise as a queer destination. Pre-pandemic, its annual Pride celebrations were attracting almost 500,000 people and up, putting it on par with events in places like Chicago. My husband and I recently spent a long weekend in Columbus to see what the fuss was all about, and we came away impressed with the city’s dynamic nature and interesting mix of attractions.
Vibrant Short North
Short North, a dynamic and eclectic — and very gay — neighborhood, is a great base to explore Columbus from. The neighborhood runs north and south along N. High St., which features gorgeous metal arches every block or so that light up at night. They pay homage to wooden arches that graced the city more than a century ago and gave Columbus the nickname, “Arch City.” The relatively new Moxy Short North hotel is in the heart of the action, surrounded by fantastic restaurants like Forno Kitchen + Bar, Union Café (a very gay-friendly bar and restaurant), and Tasi Café, a good breakfast choice.
All along N. High Street, you’ll find galleries, candle shops, clothing stores, bars, restaurants (both local establishments and recognizable national chains), ice cream and more. Walk about 10-15 minutes north and you’ll come upon Stonewall Columbus’ beautiful new two-story digs. (Keep going a bit further north and you’ll run into the sprawling campus of Ohio State University.) And located half a mile east of Stonewall Columbus, the bustling and very fun Budd Dairy Food Hall is worth a visit for lunch.
Neighborhoods worth exploring
German Village is one of Columbus’ most famous neighborhoods, and with good reason. This quiet, leafy area is full of beautiful brick homes, as well as great restaurants. Make sure to check out Tremont Lounge, one of Columbus’ oldest gay bars where all ages enjoy karaoke and shows, Boscoe’s, which is known for drag shows and all-male revues, and Cavan Irish Pub, said to be the state’s only queer Irish pub! And The Book Loft is a popular neighborhood attraction, too — this enormous shop is one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores, featuring 32 rooms that you can (accidentally or on purpose) lose yourself in.
Franklinton, right on the edge of downtown but separated by a series of bridges and waterways, has long been an overlooked industrial wasteland — but it’s coming back in surprising ways, thanks to art galleries, plenty of artist studios, food, and beer. Take the Franklinton Walking Tour offered by Columbus Food Adventures, to get a sense of the neighborhood, as well as sample plenty of food and drinks. On our tour, we finished at Ray Ray’s BBQ and sampled some incredible meat with truly incredible BBQ sauce (we wanted to purchase a bottle or two to take home, but alas, they don’t sell it).
Italian Village, the city’s “Little Italy,” is well worth exploring, too. Check out Big Fun (an outpost from the original in Cleveland), a throwback toy store, where you can find everything from old magic sets to action figures, and plenty of items that you’ll be surprised still exist. Fitness is on the menu here, too, with Chiseled Gym, LIT Life + Yoga, Ohio Strength CrossFit, Heartfelt Yoga Studio, and GO: Fitness Italian Village. The neighborhood also boasts some interesting shops like Chunky Armadillo Boutique, Flower Child Vintage, and Mary Catherine’s Antiques.
Chihuly Glass at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Columbus unveiled its National Veterans Memorial and Museum in 2018, and the architectural wonder has garnered rave reviews ever since. The idea for the museum was first conceived by former Ohio Senator John Glenn (also the first American to orbit the Earth) and cost $75 million to build. Inside, the museum tells moving and heartfelt stories of American’s veterans from different eras — and gives plenty of context to events that were shaping the world and America’s political policies at various points. We found the LGBTQ portion, such as the impact of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” lacking, but here’s hoping that with enough comments from visitors, they will add some much-needed personal stories and perspective.
Make sure to plan out some time to visit the lovely Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. This horticultural treasure has plenty of things to experience, both inside and out. The impressive buildings contain the lovely Pacific Island Water Garden, which will be hosting the 28th anniversary of its Blooms & Butterflies event from February 26th through May 30th this year. You’ll see hundreds of the colorful creatures flying freely in the indoor space, along with lush flora and plenty of nectar blooms for feeding time. Outdoors, you can wander through a sculpture garden, children’s garden, and more.
The Conservatory also owns the largest private collection of Chihuly glass sculptures in a botanical garden. On display until the end of 2025 will be 18 pieces of Chihuly artwork. Plus, once a month, a special nighttime viewing of the art is offered from 7 to 10 p.m., allowing visitors to experience the sculptures in (literally) a new light.
Anisa Love performing at District West.
A must stop for queer visitors is the city’s exciting new drag venue called District West, which celebrates all types of drag, performance, and entertainment. The space is located in downtown Columbus on 5th Street between Long and Spring Streets. We saw the fun, raucous “ANISA LOVE presents BLOCK PARTY,” a two-hour journey through her personal 90s R&B playlist, where the whole audience seemed constantly into Anisa’s high-energy groove.
The District West venue is run by drag queen Virginia West and the whole West drag family. You can enjoy some delicious — and amusingly named — specialty cocktails, as well as wine, bubbly, beer, and a selection of non-alcoholic beverages. Pro tip: right next door is Slammers, one of the last true lesbian bars left in the country. Stop by there before your show, and have some of their seriously delicious pizza. We had heard locals rave about the pizza, and we were not disappointed!
New and exciting
Even in the last few months, Columbus has seen many new openings. The city has had two new parks debut: the Washington Gladden Social Justice Park in the Discovery District, near the State Capitol Building; and the Quarry Trails Metro Park, which features a 25-foot waterfall and places for fishing, mountain biking, and climbing.
Through May, COSI, the city’s amazing science museum, is hosting the fourth stop of the “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit, which includes original Marvel comic books and plenty of interactive displays. And for sports fans, the new Lower.com field for the Columbus Crew soccer team has opened, within walking distance of the city’s other two sports stadiums, which are dedicated to baseball and hockey.
On the restaurant front, the city’s exploding there, too. Recent openings include two dueling piano bars (Howl at the Moon and Big Bang), Icarus Sandwich Shop ad El Segundo in Short North, the Bleu & Fig café, Macaron Bar, Chapman’s Eat Market, and Boxwood Biscuit Company. On tap for the rest of 2022 are Trolley District’s East Market, The Dry Mill and Understory in Clintonville.
Lastly, make sure to plan a visit to study up on van Gogh at the Columbus Museum of Art, with its new exhibit, “Through Vincent’s Eyes: van Gogh and His Sources.” The exhibit runs through February 6th, before moving across country to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for a three-month run. This collection has brought 17 works by van Gogh to Columbus, along with more than 100 works by artists and authors who are known to have inspired the man.