A city is more than a collection of museums, events, hotels, and restaurants, although as a visitor passing through, it can seem that way because we have limited time and we want to hit the “must-sees.”
On my first trip to Columbus, Ohio, I didn’t deliberately choose to avoid highlights like their museum of art or state capitol building or other top things to do in Columbus, but since it was relatively rare personal travel without an agenda, I decided to spend most of the time simply wandering various neighborhoods.
If that sounds appealing to you, a great place to start in Columbus is the German Village district, a bit south of downtown. It’s a spectacular example of a distinctive ethnic enclave that developed and thrived in the 1800’s, took a nosedive from World War One anti-German sentiment and 1920’s Prohibition (which closed down their beer breweries,) and then slid into major disrepair through the 1950’s.
Through the indefatigable efforts of residents and historians, the Village was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places at the end of 1974, and determined preservation efforts created what you can see today….a delightful, walkable 233-acre area full of beautiful but human-scaled homes, brick-paved streets, big trees, and vibrant local businesses.
I started with a late breakfast just a tad outside of the Village boundaries in Schumacher Place, at Skillet Rustic.Urban.Food, a small eatery that uses local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible to make comfort food with a bit of a twist. I dithered over their pimento cheese omelet, but then went with the cheese blintzes you see in the photo at the top of this post, complemented by an excellent smoked cheesy brat (sausage,) coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Skillet is a breakfast and lunch place. I did not partake of their imaginative cocktail menu (although it’s five o’clock somewhere, right?) but WAS tempted by their “Irish Maple” drink:
“What should have been named ‘The Cafe Loco’ is our barrel-aged maple cold brew [coffee,] Jameson’s Black Barrel Irish whiskey, with a splash of Bailey’s Irish Cream served on the rocks. *Insert health advisory here”
After dawdling over my food for quite awhile, a lot of strolling around was in order, to burn off all the yumminess. I started at Schiller Park, which was full of neighborhood people enjoying themselves on a sunny day. The houses all around it were mostly in immaculate condition; I can’t imagine the time and money it must take to keep these grand old ladies all looking so fine.
After checking in at the Village’s Meeting Haus and Visitor Center, where I watched a short documentary video and chatted with a local volunteer, I took her recommendation and walked down nearby Mohawk Street.
Because the houses are built close to the street and also fairly close together, you can sneak plenty of peeks into people’s front yards, porches, and side yards as you stroll down the sidewalk. There are so many clever uses of small spaces; one house had an absolute riot of zinnias growing right next to their wrought-iron fence. When I stopped to admire the colors, I almost missed the bright yellow goldfinch that had alighted nearby.
After ambling up and down Mohawk Street, one of my favorite Village places was a small “pocket park” that started out looking like this, before the City of Columbus acquired it in 1962….
Tiny Frank Fetch Park is named after local preservationist Frank Fetch, who was twice President of the German Village Society. It is based on similar spaces in Munich – the info brochure for the area says that there is a honeybee hive there, but I did not find one.
People wandered in and out while I sat on a bench, like these two women conversing and dog-walking….
When I posted a park photo on my LinkedIn profile, a friend who used to live in German Village said that for years, he watered and weeded in the park every Friday morning as a gardening volunteer. He said that a long-time, now-deceased resident, Jerry Glick, built on what others had started and “made it into the showplace it is today.”
At this point in the afternoon, I wasn’t hungry yet but was ready for some water and another cup of coffee. A lot of my time in Columbus was spent on their Coffee Experience Trail and Made in CBUS [locally-made goods] Trail – here’s what I found on those trails – so I made my way to the Village location of Stauf’s Coffee Roasters.
It is right next to another well-loved Village merchant, the enormous Book Loft independent book store. Stauf’s has tea offerings in addition to coffee; the Ohio Thunder Chai was tempting….
I also went in and admired the beautiful pastries, quiche, and multi-colored macarons at Pistacia Vera, but escaped with only a little stack of lavender shortbread cookies to share with my husband later.
The final stop in German Village was a shop that has featured Ohio- and American-made arts and crafts since 1938 – Helen Winnemore’s. The friendly staff person who greeted me (shop owner Sarah Kellenberger Harpham, it turns out) said that Helen used to travel to visit Appalachian craftspeople and then bring their wares back to Columbus.
Since I’m a die-hard carry-on only traveler, I focus on souvenirs that are light and packable. That often includes note cards, kitchen towels, and jewelry, all of which left the store with me in a pretty green bag.
Although I spent hours and walked for blocks in German Village, I feel as though I’ve only started to discover and experience this special historic district. A resident-led Village walking tour would be wonderful, as would some time in the nearby Brewery District where the craft beer scene has definitely recovered from Prohibition.
Many people only know Columbus as the Ohio state capital, or maybe they know about The Ohio State University….that’s pretty much all I knew before I visited….but there is much more to see and do in the city. What is your favorite neighborhood there, and what makes it special? Let us know in the comments.
(All photos by the author)
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