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Kid-Friendly Zones: Columbus, Ohio

by Elaine Labalme

The capital of the Buckeye State, Columbus is full of Midwestern charm and tailor-made for families thanks to its compact, walkable nature and one very iconic attraction. Parents will be especially drawn to a burgeoning food scene and the many high-quality independent retail options.

Kids Rule

The Columbus Zoo has been immortalized by its Director Emeritus, Jack Hanna, an engaging presence who has tortured the likes of David Letterman for years with an endless assortment of cuddly yet crafty animals. At home base, the zoo has been divided into four discrete “lands” with a fifth, the African Savanna, schedule to open in 2014. You can also visit Zoombezi Bay, a rockin' water park, and play eighteen holes of golf, but you'd be wise to cavort with animals ranging from Mexican wolves and North American river otters to Arctic foxes, polar bears and silver langurs, those last ones flying monkeys that revel in their version of a flying trapeze act. The zoo prides itself on helping nearly-extinct species, which is why you'll encounter close to half a dozen Amur tiger cubs and a passel of bald eagle chicks.

The Center of Science and Industry, or CoSi, has been ranked as the #1 science center in the country by Parents magazine. If that isn't enough to get you in the door, consider three massive floors of fun and learning including a gadget zone in which you could spend hours, a KidSpace for wee ones and Big Science Park, an outdoor play space with interactive games and experiences like a “whisper chamber” that transports your secrets across the park and a giant pulley that allows kids to work in teams to lift a 60s-era automobile. While the permanent exhibits would easily fill a day, the science center's traveling exhibits are the ticket and, on a recent visit, “Mindbender Mansion and Amazing Mazes” were just that, an assortment of brain teasers that proved who's top dog: CoSi!

All Kinds of Fun

The Wexner Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ohio State University, is a repository for traveling exhibits including a recent retrospective on the work of photographer Annie Leibovitz. Equally enchanting was “The Clock,” a meditation on time offered in a series of hundreds, if not thousands, of film and television clips that match up with the actual time, right down to the snippet of a clock or wristwatch in a particular clip.

If the kids yearn for something more active, take them to a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game at Nationwide Arena. The home team wears red, white and blue, the atmosphere is electric, and a cannon is fired after every goal. The Arena District has no shortage of restaurants and cafes so you can dissect that game-winning goal to your heart's content. “Whoa, mom, there's so much to do in Columbus!” squealed my 11-year-old son after the Jackets dispatched the Anaheim Ducks in an overtime thriller – and he's absolutely right.

Walk on By

Columbus shines brightest in its city-center neighborhoods including the Short North, an arts district that has received national acclaim as a model for gentrification and adaptive reuse. The action is along High Street just north of downtown, where a collection of shops, restaurants, galleries and cafes make for an easy afternoon of shopping and strolling. Kids will goggle at cheeky murals including one with the Mona Lisa on her side and another with the couple from “American Gothic” justaposed, he up and she down. Looking up again, it's hard not to admire the seventeen iron arches that line High Street in the Short North, replicas of turn-of-the-century arches that marked the neighborhood for generations. Latter-day tweens and teens will swoon in clothing shops including High Street Denim, sole classics and Substance, while all the kids will enjoy Candle Lab, where you can make your own candles. Tigertree and Bungalow are tops in home décor and One Line coffee is the place to refuel. And then there's Le Chocoholique, which puts a French spin on chocolate-covered dreams.

At the other end of High Street is German Village, the largest privately-restored neighborhood in the U.S. Settled by Germans in the early 1800s, the once-thriving district had decayed a century later due to industrialization and prohibition, the latter shuttering many of the local breweries. Thankfully, a denizen of the district named Frank Fetch cared enough to purchase one of the area's many small cottages in 1959 and he formed the German Village Society later that year and which, to this day, is the heart and soul of the neighborhood. The fun here is to stroll streets including Beck, Mohawk and City Park, admiring tidy structures and cobbled streets as you weave in and out of places like the Bookloft, easily one of the best independent bookstores east of the Mississippi, and shops including Caterina and Helen Winnemore, which take crafts to another level. Schiller Park is where everyone gets to run around amid beautiful landscaping.

Where to Stay

The Hilton Columbus Downtown is a gleaming city-center hostelry ideally situated between downtown and the Short North. Opened in the fall of 2012, the hotel boasts a lobby with comfortable seating areas and flat screens and, if thirst strikes, a welcoming bar and lounge are at the top of a spiral staircase fit for a movie star of an earlier era. A pool and gym are part of the mix but the real treat is your room, a modern, minimalist setting traced in silver and brown. White-napped beds are utterly inviting and a trim, elongated couch underscores a large window with views to downtown or the Short North. Choose the latter view and the fun that is Columbus will never be far away.

Where to Eat

While Kent Rigsby has been lauded with a James Beard Award nomination at his eponymous restaurant, he's arguably prouder of putting the Short North on the map when he opened Rigsby's Kitchen in the 1980s. Decades later, he's still the master of inspired Italian fare in a room that sports an exposed brick wall opposite soft-as-butter banquettes, the whole enhanced by colorful canvases. Starters including roasted beets glisten in hues of burgundy, scarlet and apricot while kids devour calamari fritti served alongside a citrus aioli. A risotto flecked with prosciutto and parmigiano will also call to children, and no one will argue with a balsamic-marinated flank steak sitting on a bed of creamy polenta.

Similarly, no one would dare call Gallerie Bistro a hotel restaurant – the eatery is most definitely a restaurant that just happens to be in a hotel, in this case the Hilton Columbus Downtown. The décor is akin to Alice in Wonderland gone glam, what with white, high-backed leather banquettes winking at equally-imposing silver wing chairs and gleaming wood tables. An oversized lamp in one corner casts a warm glow, the better to savor a heaping bowl of mussels in a soothing cream sauce, the requisite frites at hand. Kids will be unable to resist a he-man-sized square of pork belly, the bacon-of-the-moment served atop a parsnip puree. An Amish chicken dish is better than grandma's could ever be, and desserts including a broiche French toast painted with foie gras and a slick of berries and keeping company with a giant torched marshmallow are the grace note to a stellar meal. Bodega in the Short North is brew pub meets bar food, what with dozens of beers on hand and eats including a husky Margherita pizza, the mac and cheese of your dreams, and shrimp and grits that speak to a Southern sensibility smack in the middle of the Midwest. At the Cap City Diner, orange orbs dangle from a crazy-high ceiling in a mod twist juxtaposed against classic diner fare. The meat loaf is the winner, crowned with mashed potatoes and fried onion rings, though a pecan-crusted pork chop with chipotle-cheddar potatoes and braised greens is a worthy table-mate. A plate of wings is an essential starter for families. Longtime favorite Schmidt's in German Village is still run by members of the Schmidt family, three brothers these days although Mrs. Schmidt herself is never far away. Begin with the pretzel bites and, since they won't last long, follow 'em up with sauerkraut balls and potato pancakes with chunky apple sauce. There are sausages galore on the menu but the Hoffbrau Schnitzel is hard to beat.

At the Northstar Cafe, breakfast carries the day and the meal has to start with a “Shooting Star,” a smooth(ie) confection made with organic carrots, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juice, and grated ginger. The sweet potato and turkey hash is a perennial favorite as are the cloud nine pancakes, stuffed with ricotta. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams says it all in the name and owner Jeni Britton Bauer has developed a cult following for good reason. Consider the goat cheese with roasted red cherries or Riesling-poached pear ice creams as likely reasons for her fame.

The pretty-as-a-picture Pistacia Vera in German Village is dessert boutique meets breakfast bakery. Have your cake and eat it, too, with treats like a fist-sized almond croissant or a maple pecan twist. The macaroons come in assorted pastel colors and you'll be hard pressed to choose. A sunny rooster marks the spot at the North Market, a century-old public market beloved by locals thanks to 36 merchants including Sarefino's Pizzeria and The Best of the Wurst that deliver the best in fresh produce, baked goods and prepared foods.

Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and eleven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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