Cradled by Appalachian foothills, rich in high steeples and cupolas, with a public university that feels like a big liberal arts college and, at times, an aggressively hippie character, Athens, Ohio, is a far corner of the Midwest. At first sight, it bears a stronger resemblance to the crunchier parts of northern New England. But instead of cold Yankee reserve, Athenians operate with plain-spoken Midwestern friendliness. Get them started about why they like their town, and it’s hard to get them to stop.
What to do
Ohio University has its origins in the late 18th century, and Athens was the first college town in what was once the Old Northwest. It’s easy to sense an idealistic, assured young republic taking its first steps west. Red brick Federal-style architecture pervades the city and university. Walk down Court Street and through the arched Alumni Gateway into the College Green, then wander the shaded, wildly picturesque campus. Maya Lin’s Bicentennial Park is a grassy open space studded with raised and depressed concrete rectangles that recall early computer punch cards — she took computer science classes at OU as a high school student.
Envelop yourself in the local culture at the Farmers Market, held year-round in a mall parking lot on Saturday mornings (1-740-593-6763; athensfarmersmarket.org). I munched on Memorial Day strawberries while taking stock of nonperishable goods: ceramics, pawpaw-dyed fabric, jams, pickles, popcorn kernels, carpentry, squeezed-to-order lemonade, fudge and apple cider vinegar.
If you miss her at the market, visit Marti Klinger’s Lavender for Luck on the outskirts of town. When breast cancer forced a hiatus from the horse business, she jump-started plans to grow lavender. Pick your own or visit the cute boutique in her basement for salves, soaps and cosmetics made with her harvests and other crafts (1-740-541-2700; lavenderforluck.co).
Dairy Barn Arts Center is a great exhibition space (1-740-592-4981; dairybarn.org). The spectacular Quilt National ’17 is on display until Labor Day, with work by 85 artists from 10 different countries. The quilts here are abstract and pictorial, made with inventive and eclectic materials. This is quilting’s cutting edge: wildly unique takes on stitching layers together.
While Athens is within an hour of Hocking Hills State Park’s hemlock-fringed sandstone gorge and Zaleski State Forest’s 30 miles of backpacking trails, Strouds Run State Park is adjacent to town (1-740-384-4474; parks.ohiodnr.gov/stroudsrun). The gorgeous 161-acre Dow Lake reservoir is ringed by steep hills and forest, not vacation homes. Fishing requires an Ohio license; canoes, kayaks, pontoons, paddleboats and stand-up paddleboards are available for rent.
Where to eat and drink
For lunch, O’Betty’s Red Hot is decked out in vampy burlesque decor and cabinets full of flea-market knickknacks. Get the Mata Hari, a griddled all-beef dog on a toasted honey bun covered in cocoa-laced Cincinnati-style chili and coleslaw, with hand-cut fries (1-740-589-6111; obettys.com). It’s across the street from the worker-owned Casa Nueva, serving “Mexican-style” cuisine with a full bar and frequent live music. My seasonal burrito had spring greens and blue cheese, topped with shredded carrots and a spicy-sweet strawberry salsa (1-740-592-2016; casanueva.com).
Union Street Diner has homemade pie and cheesecake and never closes. My server assured me with pride that the mashed potatoes were real, not instant. Her favorite is the open-faced roast beef. On Thursdays, you must get the chicken and homemade noodles special — served over potatoes, it’s the quintessence of Lower Midwestern cuisine (1-740-594-6007; unionstreetdiner.com).
Miller’s Chicken started in 1947 as a poultry-processing operation in a barn and started serving battered and fried chicken in the 1960s. It’s still in the family. The meat is succulent, the skin perfectly crisp. Pair it with green beans, made right with onion and ham, and macaroni salad, eggy dressing roused with a yellow mustard zip (1-740-593-6544).
Hilarie Burhans grew up in Ethiopia and Pakistan, and her richly decorated Restaurant Salaam takes cues from “Old World” cuisines. Try the charbroiled lamb rib chops with house-ground and -blended Turkish pepper rub. Their Sunday brunch has a “salomelette,” which was made with garlic scapes and mushrooms (1-740-594-3800; restaurantsalaam.com).
In the century before Prohibition, more wine was produced in Ohio than anywhere else in the country. Ross Corder of Pleasant Hill Vineyards single-handedly convinced me, a snob, that the Midwest can produce dry wines worth drinking. Sandy, his wife, serves reservation-only prix fixe dinners from November through April and grilled steak, salmon or chicken during summer. Watch the sunset from their heartbreakingly beautiful deck (1-740-502-3525; pleasanthillvineyardsllc.com).
The craft-brewing scene is predictably vibrant. Jackie O’s has three locations; at their taproom (1-740-447-9063; jackieos.com), I tried an Off the Beaten Path, a mixed-fermentation saison-style sour brewed with rye malt. During their “Power Hour,” 7 to 8 p.m. every day except Sunday, craft pints are $2! At Little Fish Brewing Co., I got the Woodthrush, a bière de garde aged in Cabernet barrels (1-740-204-6187; littlefishbrewing.com). The West End Cider House, handsome with lots of dark wood, has great cocktails alongside its own cider. My favorite was the one aged in bourbon barrels in which gin had also been aged, imparting both liquors’ sweet, spicy, floral notes (1-740-591-2639; westendciderhouse.com).
The Union (1-740-593-5060; theunionbaroh.com) burned down a few years ago, but they were celebrating the first anniversary of their reopening the night I visited. Bar downstairs, stage upstairs; cover usually $5. As I mingled on the deck, someone told me the core truth of small towns with ample cultural offerings: “You see the same people at the heavy metal shows that you see at the hippie rock shows.”
Lodging and getting around
The Ohio University Inn is the only full-service hotel in Athens — 143 rooms and suites, some with their own balconies and patios (1-866-593-6661; ouinn.com). The Bodhi Tree Guesthouse & Studio has breakfast with produce from the on-site farm and rooms with en suite baths. Their studio, open to non-guests, offers yoga, massage and a float tank (1-740-707-2050; bodhitreeguesthouse.com).
GoBus (1-888-954-6287; ridegobus.com) runs between the Columbus airport and Athens. Take local taxis or rent from Black Diamond Bicycles (1-740-797-0880; blackdiamondbicycles.com), connected to town via the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway rail trail.
Aaron Gettinger is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.