Budget Guide 2013: Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio, is known as both “Cowtown” and “The Biggest Small Town in America,” nicknames that begin to shed light on the destination’s Midwest charm mixed with big city amenities. Relative to other urban centers, the streets are safe and the people are friendly, yet you’ll find restaurants, galleries, shops and other attractions that have Columbus competing with cities two and three times its size.

Contrary to many other cities across the nation, the population of Columbus has been growing steadily. This influx of new residents has led to many new business openings in the city, and kept healthy competition amongst both old and new proprietors. Here, the average price for a beer at a bar is a modest $3.50, and meals at reasonably priced restaurants will only set you back about $10 per person. The food scene is delicious, there are plenty of attractions to explore, and getting around is simple – whether you’re traveling by foot, bus, bike, taxi or even pedicab.

If you need more convincing, consider this: Columbus has been ranked a top shopping destination by Forbes, a top arts destination by American Style, a top city for biking by Bicycling Magazine, and the city’s Science Center, COSI, was named the number one in the country for families by Parents Magazine. On top of that, National Geographic recently named the city one of the top 10 best fall trips. Spend a long weekend in this city, and you might find yourself wanting to come back for more.


Hotels

The Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel: Columbus is known for its mega-sized university, Ohio State, and this newly established house-turned-hostel is the place to be if you want to stay in the heart of it all. The whole place is ready to party: on the front porch you’ll find a beer pong table, the common area is outfitted with a projector screen for movies and a foosball table, and the back patio frequently hosts music performances. Despite the frat house atmosphere, managers keep the hostel clean, and visitors can also take advantage of free Wi-Fi, bicycle rental, laundry facilities and more. From $25.
WayfaringBuckeye.com 2407 Indiana Ave.; 614-754-0945.

The Lofts: At this recently renovated boutique hotel in Columbus’ Arena District, old meets new: the hotel’s exterior is set in a historic former warehouse, yet inside you’ll find clean, contemporary designed rooms with exposed brick walls. Other amenities include an indoor swimming pool and an on-site restaurant. Be sure to check into package deals, as the hotel has been running a special where they throw in a third night stay for free, bringing the overall price tag way, way down. From $144 (before discount).
55Lofts.com 55 East Nationwide Blvd.; 614-461-2663

German Village Guesthouse: If you’re looking for something a little quieter, the cozy German Village Guesthouse is not only ranked as the top bed-and-breakfast in Columbus on TripAdvisor, but was also voted the “Best Hotel/B&B in Columbus” in the 2012 reader poll by 614 Magazine. Some of the rooms offer great views of the Columbus skyline, and on the ground you can explore the cobblestone streets and lush gardens of historic German Village, a neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Districts. From $195.
GVGuesthouse.com 748 Jaeger St.; 614-437-9712

Eat and Drink

Grass Skirt Tiki Room: The newest oasis in Columbus’ downtown area is this tiki-themed bar, the brainchild of the city’s ragtag group of unorthodox restaurateurs, the Columbus Food League. Here you can chow down on a Loco Moco (traditional Hawaiian dish of burger patties over rice smothered in gravy and a sunny side-up egg) while throwing back a mai tai, or you could head to one of the group’s other restaurants: the Surly Girl Saloon, Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits, or Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, where you’ll also get a dose of Ohio history.
GrassSkirtTiki.com 105 N Grant Ave.; 614-429-3650

Bodega: Every Monday night hipsters flock to Bodega, when the restaurant offers $1 panini-style grilled cheese sandwiches. What money you save on dinner you can contribute to trying one of the restaurants 50+ craft beers on tap – which, by the way, are also half off from 4 to 8 p.m. Don’t forget to try the local suds, including Columbus Brewing Company, Buckeye Lake Brewery, Elevator Brewing Company, Hoff Hearted Brewing and more. The patio makes for a great spot to people watch, while the interior has an artsy, sophisticated vibe. ColumbusBodega.com 1044 N. High St.; 614-299-9399

Food Trucks: These days, it seems as though you can’t talk about cheap eats without mentioning meals on wheels. Columbus is no exception to the food truck craze, with nearly 100 roving restaurants circulating the city. Options range from creole to crepes, Indonesian to Italian, pierogies to pulled pork, or Jamaican to Korean, but the trend that has really taken off are taco trucks. More than 40 of these trucks cater to Columbus’ fastest growing population – Latinos – as well as anyone else who wants a quick, tasty bite.
StreetEatsColumbus.com

Budget Activities

North Market: In the late 1800s there were four public markets in Columbus, each with a name paying homage to its cardinal direction. Today, only one remains: North Market. The current 36 merchants inside the building include delis, bakeries, pastry shops, ethnic restaurants, specialty goods sellers, produce stands and more. Even if you only pop in for a taste, don’t miss Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. This creamery takes the label “artisan” seriously, promising “[e]very single thing we put in our ice cream is legit.” Just last year, head honcho Jeni Britton Bauer won a James Beard Foundation Book Award for her cookbook, “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams At Home” – a great takeaway if you’re looking to bring a piece of Columbus back home.

Experience Cafe Culture: It would be far-fetched to say Columbus is the next Paris, but this city has become obsessed with cafe culture recently. Artisan roasters and craft coffeemakers are popping up all over the city, promising a cafe on nearly every street corner – that isn’t Starbucks. Cafe Brioso and Staufs Coffee roast all their coffees in house, while Back Room Coffee Roasters operates out of a local bike repair shop and Thunderkiss roasts single-origin coffees in less than five pound batches. There are also mainstays such as Cup o’ Joe and Crimson Cup.

Swim with Stingrays: You no longer have to go to a place like Belize’s “Shark Ray Alley” to swim with stingrays. Last year, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium opened a new attraction, Stingray Bay, inside an 18,000-gallon saltwater pool that allows you to get up close and personal with the creatures. Touching the stingrays in Stingray Bay is perfectly safe, and it only costs an extra $3. Even better, you’ll be inside a top-rated zoo that was developed with great help from famed zookeeper Jack Hanna and is currently home to more than 9,000 animals. If that’s not enough, the zoo is adjacent to the Zoombezi Bay Waterpark. A day pass to both attractions is less than $30, and you’ll also save on parking!

Get Around

Columbus is easily walkable, with much of the city centered around the main north/south drag: High Street. Along this road you’ll find some of the city’s best bars, restaurants, art galleries and specialty shops. Several neighborhoods are worth a walk-through, particularly the Short North, the arts and entertainment district. If you happen to visit during the first Saturday of each month, the Short North hosts a free gala on fine art and food starting at 4 p.m., when all the galleries along High Street open their doors to unveil new exhibitions – and many offer small bites and samples of wine.

However, if you need to get from one end of High Street to the other faster than your legs will take you, the #2 bus operated by Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) can get you anywhere along this main artery for $2 per trip or $4.50 for a day pass. Since the city is flat, renting a bike is also a great option, or if preferred you can have someone else do the legwork by taking a ride in one of the many pedicabs that navigate the city.

Buses also service Port Columbus International Airport, which is six miles from Columbus. Use the trip planner on the COTA website to find the next bus, or just pop the address into Google maps to get bus directions to your starting (or ending) location. The next best option is a shuttle bus, of which there are many options to and from the airport.

Budget Tip

If you’re looking for a night out on the town without hurting your wallet, check out the Columbus-based website 20 Dollar Dates. There you’ll find plenty for two people to do, and you’re guaranteed to never spend more than a Jackson. Date ideas range from happy hour specials to nearby hikes to holiday-themed activities.

[Photo credits: Flickr user Jack Zalium (top image) and Flickr user codydean]

Middle West Spirits is making great vodka in Columbus

Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio will be celebrating their 1st birthday this summer and as a nod to the delicious liquor I tried during my most recent trip to Columbus, I wanted to say… Happy Birthday, guys.

Ryan Lang and Brady Konya were new to Columbus from the West Coast when they started Middle West Spirits. And although they were newbies, they got the attention of the vodka-drinking Buckeyes without any trouble. OYO Vodka (pronounced Oh-Why-Oh) is actually some of the best vodka I’ve ever had. Made from wheat grown in Northern Ohio and milled locally, the care infused into this vodka surpasses the locality of the ingredients.

Distilled over the course of seven days, Lang and Konya make their vodka in defiance of traditional vodka guidelines.
Generally speaking, vodka is thought to be a colorless, tasteless, and odorless liquor. But Middle West Spirits doesn’t like their vodka that way. It might be difficult to pinpoint, but OYO Vodka has a distinct taste–one that stands out when taste-tested against well-known brands, like Grey Goose.

Drop by Middle West Spirits the next time you’re in Downtown Columbus, Ohio. They have open house every Wednesday from 5-7pm or you can arrange a tour by contacting tours@middlewestspirits.com.

How to Make a Vodka Gimlet

Organic flower farms: a trip worth making

Organic flowers aren’t as talked about as organic food. And it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s been tough getting the public at large to focus on organic food–food, something we ingest and rely on as fuel for our body. Focusing the public eye in on the importance of organic flowers, in addition to their food, isn’t an easy task. But organic flower farmers are out there and with a little field trip to one of their farms, you can learn more about organic flower farming than you’d probably guess and savor some breathtaking views while you’re at it.

%Gallery-121462%I had a chance to visit my first organic flower farm in August 2010. I pulled up to Sunny Meadows Flower Farm, a farm within the Columbus, Ohio city limits, not knowing what to expect. I had heard few things about Gretel and Steve Adams, the young couple who own the farm and farm the land. Of those few things I had heard, the general consensus seemed to be one that was in unison: Gretel and Steve are remarkable people doing something remarkable with their lives. And with this kind of build-up, I figured I could only be disappointed. Rarely does anything, particularly anyone, built up so well fill the shoes of their own reputation. I soon found out that this would be one of those rare instances, an exception to the rule.

The dust and gravel kicked up at the friction of my tires as I parked in their driveway. I slipped out of the car to find myself within a dusty fog within a summer’s haze within a lush paradise. I wondered if I was truly, actually, technically still in the city of Columbus. Intellectually, I knew that I was. But this didn’t feel like Columbus.

I grew up just two hours or so southeast of Columbus in Marietta, Ohio. Marietta is a small town, a country town. My taste for rurality isn’t one I’ll deny. I’ve always enjoyed long walks in the woods, the smell of summer, bonfires, barbecues, and wild flowers. But a certain duality within me, a flip-side that craved culture and art and good food and music festivals and people, kept me busy creating reasons to visit Columbus while growing up in Ohio. And so, for all intents and purposes, Columbus was my big city.

Columbus was where I went to feel grown-up and tempered, well-rounded and experienced. Of all the things Columbus was for me, there were some things it definitively was not. Columbus was not a place to visit an organic flower farm. I was a little miffed to return to the Ohio capital on this visit and find that things had changed, that Columbus was something other than I had decided it was long ago. As I shook hands with Gretel and Steve Adams and began my tour of their 10 acre farm, it was clearer than it ever was: there was a lot more to Columbus than I’d previously assumed.

Walking through their farm was surreal. Here I was, in the middle of an actual city, not a city like New York City, but still a fully functional city and The City of my childhood… and yet I was surrounded by blossoming flowers everywhere, their colors splattered like paint across a wide canvas. I brushed the silky petals as I walked past them. I rubbed their leaves between my thumb and index fingers. I wasted no time with concern over pesticide remnants on my fingertips–there were none. Their flowers are organic.

“Nothing is as beautiful and peaceful as a huge field of flowers waiting to be harvested, teeming with life, slightly swaying in the wind”, says Gretel, a woman who clearly loves what she does for a living. “You will see the bees flying around doing their work, monarchs love zinnias, and we encourage praying mantises and ladybugs to come to our farm and be our pest control”. Gretel furthers her infatuation with the organic flower process by explaining to me that non-organic flowers have a sterility to them, a difference that you can feel.

Steve and Gretel revealed to us pieces of their story and their selves as we walked through the dirt passageways, dimmed in some parts by plants so tall and heavy that they canopied over their stems at their tops. Neither Steve nor Gretel had experience farming before starting Sunny Meadows Flower Farm. They refer to themselves as serendipitous farmers and it certainly appears as though serendipity has been working in their favor.

An apprenticeship at Anderson Orchards seeded a passion for farming within Steve, who was lucky enough to have Gretel around, who was lucky enough to have inherited a 10 acre lot in Columbus that her father had purchased in the 80’s. Since both halves of the whole loved nature, they gave farming a shot. And as serendipity would have it, other farmers in the community stepped up as mentors for the pair. Although they also farm organic herbs and vegetables, organic flowers are the focal point of this urban oasis.

Sustainability is a way of life for the Adams. They don’t just own an organic farm–they implement organic practices in every facet of their life possible. They heat their home with wood, they can and preserve all that they can, and Gretel makes some pretty amazing all-natural soap.

I’ve heard that you don’t remember days, you just remember moments. I think this saying is meant to inspire the cultivation of moments worth treasuring and my walk through Sunny Meadows Flower Farm is a moment I still find myself clinging onto, remembering fondly. A lot of things go into the making of the perfect moment, but a field full of chemical-free flowers sure doesn’t hurt. Imagine yourself surrounded by vivid colors in a moment like this. if you like imagining that, I encourage you to research your nearest organic flower farm and pay the people behind these beautiful scenes a visit. You just might treasure your moments in their field for longer than you’d suspect.

And with that, I’ll leave you with some reasons to visit an organic flower farm straight from one of the Sunny Meadows Flower Farm owners, Gretel Adams.

1. Most flowers that are purchased today come from places around the equator where they can be grown year-round and then are shipped all over the world. Worker’s rights and chemical restrictions in these near-equator countries aren’t always consistent with those of the U.S.A. Additionally, shipping across the globe isn’t good for the environment.

2. If you buy your flowers from a local farm producer, you are not buying into that system, and you are supporting your local economy.

3. If you visit a flower farm that uses organic practices, you will quickly be able to see the growing conditions of your flowers and be able to decide for yourself which methods seem safer and make more sense. Organic is about being proactive in creating the best environment rather than being reactive with chemicals like conventional farmers do.

4. And finally, because food may feed the body, but flowers feed the soul! Coming and seeing an organic flower farm allows people to take a break from their crazy busy lives and “smell the roses” for a minute.

Getting drunk: Twenty cities that don’t know how to handle their liquor

California loves to get wasted! San Diego and San Jose are the top two cities that drink stupidly, according to a survey by Insurance.com. They lead the country in alcohol-related driving violations, a dubious distinction to say the least. So, if you step into the crosswalk in these two spots, take an extra second to look both ways.

The reasons for hitting this list vary and include proximity to colleges and nightlife, and the presence of stringent enforcement may play a key role, the survey finds. If you think a lack of enforcement puts a city at the top of the list, remember that slapping the cuffs on a lot of people increases the instances of drunk driving, which actually pushes it up. Insurance.com explains:

San Diego most likely tops the list because its police departments are aggressive in making DUI arrests, and officers there arrest lots of drunk drivers, says Mark McCullough, a San Diego police department spokesperson specializing in DUI issues.

To pull the list of 20 drunk driving metropolitan areas together, according to Insurance Networking News, Insurance.com analyzed “percentage of its car insurance online quote requests for which users reported alcohol-related driving violations.”

So, who made the top 20? Take a look below:

  1. San Diego, CA
  2. San Jose, CA
  3. Charlotte, NC
  4. Phoenix, AZ
  5. Columbus, OH
  6. Indianapolis, IN
  7. Los Angeles, CA
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Austin, TX
  10. Jacksonville, FL
  11. San Antonio, TX
  12. Dallas, TX
  13. Houston, TX
  14. Fort Worth, TX
  15. Memphis, TN
  16. Philadelphia, PA
  17. New York, NY
  18. Baltimore, MD
  19. Chicago, IL
  20. Detroit, MI

Boston got lucky on this one. It was excluded because of a lack of data – not because the drivers there are absolutely nuts.

Disclosure: I learned how to drive in Boston.

[Via Insurance Networking News, photo by davidsonscott15 via Flickr]

Empty auto dealerships mean new attractions for travelers

Auto dealerships, smacked by the recession, have shut down across the country, but many of those buildings are coming back to life. These large, empty buildings have become restaurants, schools, yoga studios and even art galleries. It’s not just empty dealerships – shuttered businesses of all kinds are giving way to new attractions that can add color to any trip. Just down the road from me, an empty commercial spot on Central Park West became home to a 10-artist exhibition for several weeks. These are the surprises that can turn any vacation into something truly memorable.

The opportunities aren’t just in New York; you can find them around the country. Art students from the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio have taken advantage of an empty local dealership to bring a new energy to an empty space. The school has invested $8.3 million in the space.

If you find yourself needing a yoga fix in Los Angeles, check out the Golden Bridge Yoga Studio, which occupies an empty dealership. You can dine in one at NEO in St. Louis.

[Photo by David Hilowitz via Flickr]