Six museums and six restaurants in the state’s third-largest city
By Hope S. Philbrick
Columbus, Georgia, was the last planned city in the original 13 colonies. Founded in 1828, the former frontier outpost is now the state’s third-largest city, blending history, industry and nature with Southern charm.
The Chattahoochee River has long been its lifeblood: From natives to explorers, war ships to merchant steamboats, people have been coming to its pier for centuries.
Six museums invite visitors to learn the city’s history and get a glimpse at its future.
If you’ve wanted to shake an astronaut or scientist’s hand, the Coca-Cola Space Science Center may well be the place to do it. A venue for special events hosted by such pros, it’s owned and operated by the Columbus State University—and serves as the teaching and research site for all CSU astronomy courses—so on any given day you may, at the very least, meet a future space walker. The goal here is to promote science exploration and discovery, so education comes with a hearty dose of entertainment. Interactive gallery exhibits showcase NASA artifacts ($19 million from the shuttle program), an observatory, full dome planetarium, a library of 12 astronaut training films, and more. A new telescope will debut this summer.
*Odds of Encountering Children: Inevitable. It hosts 12,000 students each year. But if you’re into star gazing or want to experience a simulated space mission, deal.
An exhibit of seven dresses on display at the Columbus Museum manages to convey the history of women’s fashion and underscore women’s shifting roles in society as time marched on—as well as confirm that whoever is making costumes for the actresses on Downton Abbey knows exactly what she’s doing. Room after room of this museum is equally informative and as effectively executed. For 60 years, Georgia’s second-largest art museum (after the High in Atlanta) has showcased art and artifacts with an emphasis on American Art and the history of the Chattahoochee Valley. “Every aspect of the city can be related back to the water,” says Ashley Bice, marketing and media manager. The collection features more than 14,000 pieces of fine and decorative art in permanent and traveling exhibition galleries. The museum’s collection of works on paper is most highly regarded. Free admission.
*Odds of Encountering Children: Possible. For the best odds avoid the hands-on discovery gallery for children.
The National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus showcases artifacts from both Federal and Confederate naval incidents. The Confederate ironclad CSS Jackson is the museum’s crown jewel: The boat was burned and sunk in the Chattahoochee to keep it out of Union hands as the town was being captured. The charred remains of the ram gun boat are more than 150 years old. Much of that time it spent submerged, yet the smell of burned wood still lingers—so, too, some say, do ghosts (ghost tours are especially popular here). The museum also houses the largest collection of Civil War naval artifacts, the largest collection of naval flags and intriguing photos.
*Odds of Encountering Children: High. And yet you may not; there were no kids around during my visit. I didn’t see any ghosts, either.
“The National Infantry Museum honors the army infantry soldier,” says Jim Talley, staff member and Vietnam War veteran. “But in extension it honors all who have served our country. We do not glorify war. We nevertheless honor those who have to go and fight our wars and the sacrifice, valor and courage they’ve shown over the past 237 years.” To create the human forms on display, body casts of select combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars were made, so you’re looking “at the face of a real soldier who’s been on the battlefield defending our country,” says Talley. The first exhibit puts you in the fight for the last 100 yards in battles throughout our nation’s history. From there you’ll tour through artifacts and multimedia exhibits that cover the course of American history. Admission is free.
@21plusTravel Tip: People cry here. Bring Kleenex.
*Odds of Encountering Children: “Children are always in here,” says Talley. But the place is huge so on an average day it would be possible to avoid any annoying individual, of any age.
Oxbow Meadows is an outdoor environmental learning center affiliated with Columbus State University. Located in a hardwood wetland near the Chattahoochee River, the goal here is to explore nature, from oak, hickory, gum trees and other flora to resident songbirds, vultures, eagles, deer, wood ducks and other creatures. Walk two trails between ponds or step on up to the new TreeTop Canopy Trail, which is suspended 35 feet above ground and linked to three platforms for a bird’s-eye view of the area. There’s also a living animal museum on the property filled with reptile and aquatic exhibits.
*Odds of Encountering Children: High. “We hope to do more for adults,” says staffer Jan Forrest Kent, “but right now our focus is families and youngsters.” Still, if you like nature and want to peek inside a bee hive, get a good look at an alligator that’s safely enclosed, or learn about native flora and fauna, it’s worth a stop. General admission is free (unless there’s a special event going on), so worth being tolerant; the 30-minute canopy tour is $5 per person.
There were seven theaters in Columbus prior to the Civil War; none survived. The Springer Opera House was built in 1871 (seven years after the Civil War) and gained a reputation as the nicest theater at that time between New York and New Orleans; surviving reports refer to it as “the most celebrated state in America.” Among the noteworthy performers who’ve graced its stage are Edwin Booth, Buffalo Bill, Ma Rainey, Ethel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Chet Atkins and Garrison Keillor. The European-style opera house was first renovated in 1901 and most recently in 1999. It’s the official state theater of Georgia and one of only seven producing theaters designated as a National Historic Landmark. Stepping inside feels like stepping back in time—though it is one of the nation’s most vibrant professional theatre companies with two stages, an Academy Series featuring some of this region’s most talented student actors, and a regional touring program. It is also the home of the Springer Theatre Academy, which trains 800 children age 5 to 18 each year.
***Odds of Encountering Children: Depends on what you’re doing here and when: Some productions are obviously aimed at children while others certainly are not. “No Shame Theatre” is exclusive to adults (age 18 and older), every Friday evening at 10:30 p.m. in The Saloon ($5 per ticket). The billing: “No censors, no discrimination, no shame!” Like open mike night for performers of all kinds (e.g., improv, music, comedy, poetry, dance and more), there are only three rules: acts must be original, less than five minutes and not break any laws. Be a part of the audience or a part of the show, it’s up to you.
Where To Eat…
Go for a quick bite of casual classic American fare, stay for the beer. Before you settle on a favorite brew, get a sampler and sip the entire lineup—then order a pint of your No. 1 pick and settle back to enjoy it. Sit indoors or out, and pair that cool brew with a burger, wood-fired pizza or hearty salad. If you’re the designated driver—though, seriously, you can walk just about everywhere in Uptown Columbus—have a delicious root beer, which is also made on site.
Country’s on Broadway
No visit to a Southern community would be complete without some barbecue, and this is where to go for a BBQ fix in Columbus. First, snap a photo of yourself in front of the “bus meets building” architecture. Then order a barbecue plate, platter or sandwich. You’re in Georgia where pork rules, but if for some reason you don’t eat pork then try the chicken, beef or turkey. Almost everything on the menu is made from scratch, including the lemonade, French fries and pies. Whether or not your mama’s Southern, she’d approve.
Iron Bank Coffee Co.
From pretty to plain, all the people of Columbus gather here at some point throughout the day for high-quality coffee, fluffy biscuits, creative sandwiches (like spicy sweet potato, turkey and wasabi ginger hummus, buffalo chicken and other mouth-watering temptations), cookies that rock the world, and the chance to mix, mingle and hang in the shabby chic environs. Weekly live musical performances, special events, artwork by local artists, and friendly folks offer enticements beyond the menu. This is just the sort of independent coffee shop that gets the folks of national chains shaking in their green mermaid boots.
This Uptown favorite has been family owned and operated since 1992. Menu items like the goat cheese burger, Thai shrimp tacos, apple walnut salad, and soulful mac n’ cheese inspire love at first bite; some folks get so committed to one menu item they can’t bear not to order that favorite instead of some other delicious temptation. Rated No. 1 on Urbanspoon, this two level restaurant boasts a live music venue upstairs.
Run by a mother sommelier and daughter chef team, Meritage impresses with its elegant atmosphere, exceptional service, thoughtful wine selections, creative cocktails and menu that bursts with sophisticated flavors. The rich crab bisque has legions of fans, as does the rack of lamb, surf n’ turf wellington, caramelized scallops and oven-roasted spaghetti squash with tomato Parmesan sauce. Save room for crème brûlée of the day or steamed lemon pudding cake.
Ruth Ann’s Family Restaurant
Locally owned and operated since 1959, Ruth Ann’s Family Restaurant is a Columbus landmark that serves “down home” country cooking for breakfast, lunch and dessert. This is a fast-casual, laid-back place where everyone is treated like a regular. Are you a fan of those diners in movies where the waitress calls everyone sweetie while pouring coffee and whisking away crumbs? This is the reality that fuels those scenes. Menu items like Capt’n Crunch French toast, red velvet pancakes, country-fried steak, bacon lettuce and fried green tomato sandwiches, and grits confirm that this is the traditional South.
What Else To Do…
The Chattahoochee River along the Riverwalk in Uptown Columbus has been restored to its natural state, providing the longest urban whitewater course in the world!!!! Raft, canoe and kayak down a course that runs about 2.6 miles and boasts class one to five rapids (depending on time of day and flow from Georgia Power Company’s North Highland River Dam upstream).
Note: I will return to Columbus to raft the river. Check back for that story.
Take a driving tour through Midtown for a self-guided discovery of historic buildings representing the Greek Revival, Neoclassical Revival, French Revival, Queen Anne and other architectural styles and eras. Pick up a brochure with map at the CVB.
Riverwalk connects all Columbus has to offer. The 15-mile paved trail meanders through the trees along the curve of the river and attracts walkers, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers plus holds distinction as the world’s first geocaching trail tour. It links the whitewater rapids to all the museums and other attractions the city has to offer. You can literally step out of the river, towel off and take just a few steps to reach restaurants, shopping and more.
The revitalized area of Uptown Columbus along the Chattahoochee serves up shopping, dining, entertainment and public art. It also sometimes serves as a venue for festivals and live musical performances.
How To Save…
Get a Rivercity Passport for $20 for admission to the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus, Coca-Cola Space Science Center, National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center’s Rifle Range & IMAX Theatre. It’s available at the venues and the CVB.
Save $1 off the cost of the Rivercity Passport when you download the app: VisitColumbusGA.com/app
Where To Stay…
Located in the historic district, this hotel is across the street from the CVB and within walking distance of Riverwalk, the Convention Center, restaurants, shopping and more. Amenities include complimentary high-speed Internet, fitness center, pool and more. Clean and comfortable.
@21plusTravel Tip: Request a room that’s not adjacent to the train tracks if you’re a light sleeper.
-Photos courtesy Columbus GA CVB