LGBTQ Travel Guide: Columbus Ohio

Columbus

Courtesy of Experience Columbus

Ohio's capital and largest city—population almost 900,000—is a diverse, innovative, and very progressive, bright blue spot on the map. It's the home of OSU, headquarters for major retail fashion brands including Express, Victoria's Secret, and Abercrombie & Fitch, and, in recent years, a burgeoning population of queer creative coastal expats attracted by its high quality of life, small business friendliness, and ethnically diverse population. Columbus is also one of the Midwest's most welcoming destinations for LGBTQ residents and visitors alike.

Columbus is also home to "RuPaul's Drag Race" star Nina West, a.k.a. Andrew Levitt, a very active philanthropist as well as entertainer; her namesake Nina West Foundation raises funds for a wide variety of LGBTQ and progressive causes.

Columbus's official tourism office, Experience Columbus, maintains an LGBTQ-centric information and resource page on its website and free bi-monthly e-newsletter. You can also browse and download the official "Out in Columbus LGBTQ Guide."

Columbus Pride March, the first edition of which took place in 1981 (with just 200 participants), celebrated its 38th year in 2019. These days, Pride stretches over the whole month and includes a street festival, tea dance, trans march, and Jaeger run along the river.

Columbus Pride
Experience Columbus 

The Best Things To Do

Located on Ohio State University's campus since 1989, contemporary art museum the Wexner Center For The Arts has hosted some of the country's most cutting-edge, queer, and subversive traveling exhibitions, including John Waters's "Indecent Exposure" and a retrospective of late gay photographer Peter Hujar in 2019 and the 2018 Todd Oldham fashion exhibition, "All of Everything." Its store is also a treasure trove of books, apparel, and home goods, including some fun Columbus-centric merchandise. The Columbus Museum of Art (CMOA), meanwhile, features a permanent collection of mostly 19th and early 20th Century American and European work, and hosted the traveling LGBTQ exhibition "Art After Stonewall" in Spring 2020.

Art collectors Ron and Ann Pizzuti opened their world-class, expansive trove of contemporary international work, accrued over a 40-year period, to the public in 2013. In 2018, on its fifth anniversary, the Pizzuti's 18,000-square-foot museum became the Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art.

The Short North Arts District is one of Columbus' most buzzy, hip areas and dense with local-centric businesses, eating, LGBTQ-friendly bars and clubs, and street murals. First Saturdays' Gallery Hop is a lively affair with a map you can download. One of the country's most unique galleries, Short North's Lindsay Gallery, is dedicated to "outsider art" from self-taught and folk creators: one of the most famous names is the reportedly queer hospital janitor, Henry Darger, whose disturbing tableaus of hermaphroditic children became a worldwide sensation after his death, and some of his works currently belong to NYC's MoMA.

Shops worth checking out include the Torso Leather & Fetish and the Columbus-born, progressive (and all-ages friendly!) franchise The Candle Lab, where you can pour your own soy-based scented candles and pick up two candles designed by local drag superstar Nina West. All of the latter's proceeds benefit nonprofit organizations.

Other neighborhoods worth a stomp and window shop include German Village and the Distillery District, and Franklinton, which is percolating with new arts collectives, incubators, and creative spaces including Idea Foundry.

Horticulture lovers should check out the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which also features special exhibitions like Dale Chihuly's nature-inspired glasswork.

Columbus's world-class modern ballet company, BalletMet, is headed up by openly gay Artistic Director (and erstwhile New Yorker) Edwaard Liang. Check their website for the current season's line-up of performances, which take place at venues including the 2,791-seat Ohio Theatre and their own BalletMet Performance Space. And local LGBTQ theater company, Evolution Theatre, mounts a host of queer productions each season.

For a little fitness, take a walk, run or bike along the Scioto River and its Scioto Trail, which also goes through several parks.

Nina West Performs at Axis
Courtesy of Experience Columbus 

The Best LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

A Short North staple since 1996, the multi-level Axis is Columbus' biggest, buzziest LGBTQ club (and 18+, which is good for the OSU crowd). There's a dance floor, lounge areas, and stage for some of Ohio's best drag entertainment: queens who have graced Axis' stage include "RuPaul's Drag Race" superstars Yvie Oddly, Sharon Needles, Willam, Alyssa Edwards, Miss Vanjie, local gal Nina West, and on Saturdays a host of Columbus's finest. If thirsty for entertainment of the untucked variety, catch Friday and Sunday nights' all-male revues.

Although a restaurant serving a wide array of international and American comfort classics by day (with a Saturday drag brunch!), evenings see Axis's sibling business, Union Cafe Bar, turn into a popular cocktail spot.

Celebrating its 26th year in 2020, O'Connors Club 20 caters to all types, with "gender-bending" shows, "Drag Race" viewing parties, and a monthly comedy open mic night. The 33-year-old neighborhood bar, Tremont Lounge, in German Village, keeps things lively with drag, go-go revues, and drink specials.

Boscoe's, in Merion Village, features a dance floor, drag queens, male revues, and more, while Southbend Tavern dubs itself Columbus's "gay 'Cheers.'" The Cavan Irish Pub gives the Irish pub concept a major LGBTQ twist with karaoke and drag, go-go boys (ahem, men).

Slammers, regarded as the "last lesbian bar standing," also is a long-established (27 years!) pizza and drinks spot. And if you're into martinis, show tunes, and karaoke, German Village's aptly named piano bar and entertainment venue Club Diversity will satisfy that itch.

Fox In The Snow
Lawrence Ferber 

The Best Places to Eat

Columbus is a big-time foodie city. Ted Allen, host of The Food Network's "Chopped" and original member of "Queer Eye's" Fab Five, was born here after all, and terms like "locavore" "seasonal," and "slow food" have dictated the city's restaurant scene for well over a decade. Columbus also has a particular fondness for breakfast and morning-time kikis, and affable OSU Department of Theatre lecturer Nick Dekker is affectionately known as "Dr. Breakfast" thanks to his first-meal-of-the-day obsession and an outstanding blog, Breakfast With Nick.

Destination-worthy and very LGBTQ-friendly breakfast and brunch spots include creative American artisan eatery The Guild House, local mini-chain Northstar Cafe (the Short North location is always hopping), cafe and bakery Fox in the Snow (also a mini-chain founded by two former Blue Bottle Coffee employees from NYC, Fox's toothsome, addictive Souffled Egg Sandwich, with swiss cheese, candied bacon and dijon cream sauce, moves about 400 units daily, and their New Orleans coffee is incredible!), and Katalina's Cafe, famed for their several varieties of stuffed Pancake Balls.

Opened in 2018 by food truck veterans Matthew Heaggans and Catie Randazzo, the latter an out-and-proud, talented lesbian chef, the Brewery District's Ambrose and Eve also serves a tasty, inventive brunch on weekends with creations like a Honeycrisp Apple French Toast and Lake Perch Fish and Grits, and "classic dinner party fare with updated ingredients and techniques" from Tuesday to Saturday. Don't miss the Japanese-style Fried Bologna Sandwich on milk bread and signature Fried Chicken dinner for two or four, a portion of its proceeds benefiting a different charity each month.

If you've a sweet tooth and fondness for French macaron, Pistacia Vera (with locations in German Village and North Market) is the spot for perfectly chewy, delicious homemade varieties and other baked goods like a Crème Brûlée Eclair. One of Columbus's sweetest (literally!) national success stories is Jeni's Ice Cream; James Beard Award-winning, OSU-educated founder Jeni Britton Bauer opened her first location at North Market in 2002, and its 10 local scoop shops offer an exclusive line of LGBTQ Pride ice cream creations and merchandise.

Hotel LeVeque
Courtesy of Experience Columbus

Where to Stay

Located in downtown Columbus, The Autograph Collection's 149-room Hotel LeVeque opened its doors in 2017. Occupying six floors in the 47-story, 1920s-built LeVeque Tower (the handiwork of architect Charles Howard Crane) and attached to the restored 2,695-seat Palais de Versailles-inspired Palace Theatre performance venue, the Hotel LevVeque's clean, neutral-toned rooms, with dashes of Art Deco-styled flair, overlook the Scotio Mile riverbank and city skyline.

Opened in early 2015, the Short North Arts District's 135-room Le Meridien Columbus, The Joseph takes an art-centric approach; there are 500 pieces on display throughout the property at any given time, and guests are afforded free entry to the Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art through its "Unlock Art" program (just show your artist-designed room key!). Bonus: a full service spa and spa suites should a pampering be in order.

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