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Discovering Columbus: big city bonuses without squeezing wallets

When greenery and energy spring forth in northern cities, don’t you wish you could enjoy their big-time culture without the crowds, traffic, attitude and prices?

You can — in Columbus, Ohio, which is an easy nonstop flight from almost anywhere!

The capital’s downtown has been luring urbane travelers away from hotshot hot spots with sensational food, drink, arts — and now a stunning riverfront rejuvenation. Its neighborhoods are colorful, super-friendly and easy to explore on foot, bike-share bikes and free buses. And thrill-wise, it’s a powerhouse: Per capita, it has twice as many cultural and recreational venues as New York City.

Fresh tastes, sights and sensations

They’re celebrating spring early this year in Columbus with a bloom of new attractions. A huge green-space project restored the Scioto River to its natural course and added 33 acres of new parkland along its banks. Now you can kayak, paddleboard, bike, enjoy free concerts and stroll around the waterfront, which sparkles by day and glows with New York-style illumination at night.

The Columbus Museum of Art recently opened a new 50,000-square-foot copper-paneled wing that is being praised by architecture critics worldwide. Weekly events that cost a fraction of the price of global-city counterparts (if you even could get tickets) include pairings of artworks with performances by Columbus Symphony Orchestra musicians, demos by masters like glass magician Alexandra Fresch and yoga and meditation drop-ins. Exhibits feature luminaries, visionaries and emerging talents like Graphic Novelist Residency awardee Eleanor Davis.

North Market, one of America’s historic food halls, has added tempting new stalls to its recently renovated quarters. Gallerie Bar & Bistro, tucked in the sunlit atrium of the Hilton Columbus Downtown, debuted a new breakfast buffet that combines favorites with gourmet creations such as Brussels sprouts with brown sugar hash and warm kale and couscous salad.

New stops on Columbus’ simmering coffee trail include Fox in the Snow, doling pastries from a former garage, and the Roosevelt Coffeehouse, which donates some profits to social justice groups. Furnishings in Roosevelt’s double-decker space are made of reclaimed bowling alley wood. Besides coffee, it offers artisan pop-up Sundays and decadent local-crafted Destination Donuts.

Speaking of treats, Lyric Donuts opened this year next to Impero Coffee, creating treats inspired by vintage music (Ozzy’s Bat Head, Velvet Underground). Mid-spring, regional Belgian ale award-winner Rockmill Brewery will debut its downtown tasting room. Says brewer Matthew Barbee, “After winter hibernation, Columbus turns green and beautiful.”

A mini-New York City

“I hit the jackpot,” says Greer Pagano. After globetrotting in search of an inspiring place to live, she took a curator job here at the Pizzuti Collection, a joyful art habitat opened just two years ago. “A crazy number of designers are moving here from both coasts,” she says, “[attracted by] all of the fine craft, culture day and night, regional growers, artisan foods, ethnic cuisines and new green spaces.”

Franklinton, a reclaimed industrial area just a walk or bike ride across the river from downtown, is evolving into an edgy-hip district with anchors like Strongwater Food and Spirits and 400 West Rich art studios. Some evenings in front of 2015 newcomer Land-Grant Brewing Company, the new Aloha Streatery food truck doles out Hawaiian lotus buns. At downtown’s north edge, the Wexner Center for the Arts expanded last year.

Newcomers to the historic Short North include Couture on High (designer originals), Gotcha Gachapon (Japanese pop culture) and The Guild House, an art-filled space pairing craft cocktails and small plates.

Artful, art-filled hotels

Two exquisitely designed hotels double as art museums that you can view without being a guest.

The gleaming Hilton Columbus Downtown, a TripAdvisor award-winner, displays 230 originals by Ohio artists in its lobby, hallways and gorgeous sky-high atrium. Reproductions appear in guest rooms — some mounted above beds to bid you goodnight. Works include Christian Faur’s landscape made of crayons, Curtis Benzle’s surprise-laden porcelain assemblage, and late folk art visionary Aminah Robinson’s textile narratives. You can even walk through one artwork — the glass skyway/light show leading to the convention center. The hotel also offers guests free use of bicycles to explore other downtown attractions.

Opened in 2013 in a restored 1923 neoclassical building, the Pizzuti Collection displays contemporary works collected by local real-estate developer Ron Pizzuti. Having moved here when he was 22, Pizzuti has watched Columbus grow into a cultural powerhouse.“I’m blown away by the quality of art in Columbus,” he says, mentioning talents whose works color walls of The Joseph, a boutique hotel named for his father that opened last year.

Fresh sights at every turn

Street murals range from fantasy creatures to a lounging super-sized Mona Lisa. On a bridge and by the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), one of the world’s top science museums, sculpted deer appear to gaze at the river. A jolly statue of King Gambrinus, patron saint of beer, lords over the Brewery District. Art brightens not only galleries but shops, coffeehouses, salons, bars and Dirty Frank’s hot dog emporium, which infuses vodka with peanuts.

City park eye-catchers include Schiller Park’s “Umbrella Girl,” Goodale Park’s fountain topped with elephant figures and Topiary Park’s trimmed foliage interpretation of Georges Seurat’s 1884 masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” At Scioto Audubon Metro Park, an extreme makeover of an old industrial site, the free-admission 35-foot climbing wall is among the largest of its kind.

But I prefer to get my exercise strolling the freshly paved riverside path and wandering safe streets illuminated by colorful New York-style lights.

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