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Geek Weekend: Columbus, Ohio

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Columbus, OH
Geek Weekend is a continuing travel series about geeky things to do in cities around the world. Want your city featured? Write us at tips@crunchgear.com.

It’s a common opinion — even amongst its residents — that Columbus, Ohio is “Cow Town, USA” with nothing to do. As a life-long resident, I disagree emphatically with that notion. Columbus is the 15th largest city in the United States, and the greater Columbus area has just under two million residents. Columbus is within a half-days drive of over half the U.S. population, making it easy to reach for many people, as well as making it a good layover for a long drive to another destination. Tourism related sales were $7.2 billion USD in 2007, and according to a Longwood’s International Study the central Ohio region had 55.6 million trips in 2007: 44.3 million day trips, and 11.3 million overnight trips (so the answer is “Yes, people do visit Ohio!”). The Ohio State University, which has anchored Columbus for more than 130 years with a rich history, has more than 50,000 students, which brings a wide variety of activities to town, including arts and cultural events, and concerts at the Newport Music Hall and the Schottenstein Stadium. If you can’t find something to do in Columbus, the shortcoming is your own, and not the city’s! Be that as it may, I’d like to share a short list of my own favorite features around Columbus.

Historical

The Ohio Historical Society has a number of permanent and rotating exhibits showcasing various aspects of Ohio history. The Ohio Historical Society also maintains the Newark Earthworks State Memorial, “the largest system of connected geometric earthworks built anywhere in the world”. Constructed 2000 years ago by the Hopewell culture, the Great Circle Earthworks is “nearly 1200 feet in diameter and was used as a vast ceremonial center by its builders.” The mounds are all very cool, and definitely worth a visit.

Orton fossilIf you’re near the OSU campus, I strongly recommend a quick visit to the Orton Geological Museum, in Orton Hall. It’s a single room, and you can literally look at everything on display in about 30 minutes. I think it’s a neat snapshot of Ohio history, with fossils, gemstones, meteorite fragments, and more. And it’s free!

Several famous figures were born in or near Columbus. The Thurber House offers a terrific literary museum dedicated to the author James Thurber. Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, is an Ohio native, and if you don’t mind a short drive, you can visit the Neil Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta, northwest of Columbus. Warren Harding, 29th president of the United States, was born in Ohio, and you can visit the Harding Home to learn more about the man and his life.

On the Scioto River in downtown Columbus is an authentic replica of the Santa Maria, the ship Christopher Columbus used on his search for a trade route to the Indies.

The Chief Leatherlips Monument is a little different, and worth a look if you’re out by Dublin, northwest of Columbus. And the Olentangy Indian Caverns have been delighting kids for decades.

Museums

Columbus Museum of Art
The Columbus Museum of Art is a nice, easy-to-visit museum in downtown Columbus. It’s certainly not the Louvre, but it has a decent selection of artwork in a variety of mediums, and a variety of works produced by Ohio artists. You can easily visit the museum and still have time to do something else in town. Admission is free on Sundays!

cosi pendulum
COSI, the Center of Science and Industry, is a favorite for kids of all ages. With its terrific mix of hands-on activities, there’s a lot to see, do, and learn at COSI. I can easily spend a couple hours here, even without attending any of the Extreme Screen theater presentations. Be sure to check the schedule for the various demonstration exhibitions — they’re a terrific and interactive experience.

The Wexner Center for the Arts, on the OSU campus, has an eclectic mix of exhibitions. Modern art, performance art, film and theater, even comics, have all been showcased at different times. There’s almost always something going on at the Wex, and it makes a great showcase event for any tour of the OSU campus.

Eating

Columbus has a number of world-famous dining establishments, as well as a lot of local favorites.

Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in historic German Village is a favorite spot for many tourists, as is The Spaghetti Warehouse. Both are a little more corporate than I usually prefer, but you’re sure to get a good meal and have a good time at each.

thurman burger

The Thurman Cafe is the place I keep meaning to take all of my out-of-town friends when they visit, and almost always fail to do so. The place sits about 40 people, and has a waiting room that holds at least that many. The waits usually aren’t too long, and they’re definitely worth it. The world-famous Thurman Burger absolutely has to be seen to be believed!

Blue Danube

The Blue Danube, just north of the Ohio State University campus, is another hidden gem. It’s your typical greasy spoon, and has been a mainstay of campus life for several decades. Be sure to check out the ceiling while you’re there: the ceiling tiles may be purchased by patrons to decorate! There are some terrific pieces up there, and it adds a lot of character to an already interesting establishment.

white castle

And of course, Columbus is home to White Castle, where you can get their famous Sliders by the sack. White Castle hamburgers is one of those things that you either love, or hate: I’ve never heard anyone say “Yeah, they’re okay”. Personally, I love Sliders, and always have. I have fond memories of my dad and I holding competitions to see who could eat the most burgers.

Drinking

I’m not much for night life, usually, and Columbus certainly isn’t known for its club scene. That said, there are a number of watering holes I like to haunt with my friends. Bob’s Bar, the Cultural Hub of the Midwest, looks like any other neighborhood bar from the outside. Inside, it still looks like nearly any neighborhood bar, but it offers a tremendous selection of fantastic beers. It also has a terrific jukebox. Bob’s Bar has a special place in my heart because I used to go there over a decade ago, when it was a bland hole-in-the-wall. Roy, the bartender, would offer you a glass of their finest draft beer. It was Stroh’s, which was, in fact, their only draft beer. But at a dollar a glass, one could hardly complain. Back then, they had the world’s bumpiest pool table, but that didn’t matter because they also had the world’s most crooked pool cues. Today the pool tables and cues are in fine shape. Bob’s gets busy on the weekends, and the crowds have always been friendly.

MoJoe Lounge is a groovy venue, though I don’t go there too often. The one downtown is pretty comfortable, with a number of great beers on draft. MoJoe makes a good half-way meeting point for me and a couple of friends, and their free WiFi makes drinking-and-coding extremely easy (albeit somewhat dangerous for the projects on which I’m coding!).

O'Reilly'sO’Reilly’s has always been one of my favorite establishments. It’s your traditional Irish pub: unassuming with a simple menu and a reasonable selection of beers. It was convenient for me that it was literally a hundred feet away from my old house, so you can understand why it was my de facto choice. If you visit them more than two or three times, the bartenders should remember you, as well as your drinking preferences. That’s the kind of personal touch that really sets O’Reilly’s apart from many other places.

The Surly Girl Saloon is my favorite bar with a pirate-cowgirl theme. In fact, it’s the only pirate-cowgirl themed bar I know! The beer selection focuses on women-brewed beers, and is sure to please any palate. The kitchen also offers a great selection of food. They host a variety of interesting events, like an open mic comedy night, and Punk Rock Aerobics.

Shopping

Columbus has an Apple store at Easton Town Center, should you need to get your Steve-fix. We also have a Microcenter, if you’re of the PC persuasion.

The North Market, just north of downtown, is a wonderful place to get all manner of stuff. The market is comprised of a lot of independent shops, each selling different foodstuffs: coffees, popcorn, salsas, fish, beer, pastries, you name it! Plus, events are held there on a fairly regular basis. No trip to Columbus can be considered complete without a stop at the North Market.

The Soldiery

Since this is a “geek weekend”, though, I should steer you away from health food, and toward The Soldiery, a gaming store at which you can purchase and play all manner of role playing games, miniature wargames, collectible card games, and more! I’ve made my fair share of purchases here, though I’ve never stuck around for an actual game. I should remedy that some time. Send me an email if you’re going to play there, and maybe I’ll stop by to join you! Be sure to check their calendar for upcoming game tournaments, if that’s your thing. And literally right around the corner is The Laughing Ogre comic book shop. Pick up all the comics and graphic novels you need!

Coworking

One of the biggest new trends in Columbus is the notion of “co-working”: “the social gathering of a group of people, who are still working independently, but who share values and who are interested in the synergy that can happen from working with talented people in the same space.” (via Wikipedia) A number of co-working joints have sprung up in the last year. If you’re in town for more than a couple days, it might be worth a visit to one of these places to network with local independents:

Events

The area between downtown Columbus and the OSU campus is known as the Short North. It’s filled with a wide variety of bars, art galleries, and shops. The first weekend of every month sees the Gallery Hop, in which all the galleries stay open late and pedestrians wander down High Street into and out of the various galleries. This is a favorite event for many folks in town, and a great way to see some cool stuff.

ComFest is probably one of the better showcase events for Columbus. A weekend of local music, art exhibitions, and community coming together. It’s been going strong for over 35 years, and really is worth attending if you can. Bring a blanket, hang out on the lawn, and listen to great local music. Or walk amongst the hundreds of booths showcasing local artisans and their crafts. Enjoy a variety of delicious food from local establishments. Or just walk around and marvel at the variety of people. Too bad you’ll have to wait until next year, though, since ComFest 2009 is over.

Every year, Columbus hosts the Origins Game Fair. If you’re into games, this is the place to be. You can play role playing games, card games, board games, LARPs, etc. If you can’t wait until June 2010 for the next Origins, check out the Columbus Boardgaming and Pan-Philosophical Debate Society.

Another excellent annual event is the Dublin Irish Festival, which takes place in just a couple weeks. Lots of great live music, traditional Irish dancing, plenty of food, and various crafts fill the weekend. There should be something for everyone here. Alas, Coors is the official beer sponsor, so the closest you’ll get to Irish beer is Killian’s Irish Red. Other than that, it’s a fun weekend!

Miscellaneous

Shadowbox Cabaret can’t be beat for live entertainment. It’s a blend of sketch comedy, rock and roll cover tunes, and live theater. I’ve always had a good time here, and thoroughly recommend it to visitors! Not too far from Shadowbox is the Columbus Funny Bone comedy club. I’ve had a couple good belly laughs here, too.

The Columbus Zoo is a fun way to spend a day. Many people are probably familiar with Jack Hannah, our zoo’s emeritus director, from his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. My personal favorite is the reptile room, but just about everything is worth seeing, as is the case at most zoos.

If sports is your thing, Columbus is home to the Blue Jackets NHL hockey team; the Columbus Crew MLS soccer team; and the Columbus Clippers Triple-A baseball team. Plus, the Ohio State Buckeyes athletics programs have a huge number of collegiate sporting events and competitions every year. I particularly like the women’s ice hockey.

One of the most joked about locations in the Columbus area is the Field of Corn in Dublin. It’s a weird thing to see, and doesn’t make much sense on its own. In fact, it’s an art installation celebrating the development of hybrid corn in the area. See it, take pictures of it, and impress all your friends.

Finally, for the tech-minded, be sure to check out the TechLife Columbus meetup calendar. With almost 1300 members, there’s always something going on! Networking, software development, project management, biosciences, the Central Ohio Linux User Group, and FreeGeek Columbus — the TechLife Columbus calendar is chock full of interesting things.

For more Columbus information, visit the Experience Columbus website!

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