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Columbus Ohio is much more than the state capital and home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. This vibrant capital city leads the Midwest in museums, food and fashion. Read on for fun things to do in Columbus Ohio.
Columbus, Ohio, used to be a somewhat overlooked Midwest city. In fact, in more than 30 years of visiting my in-laws in nearby Cincinnati, I had never been. But due to the gallery walks and breweries in the Short North Arts District and foodie destinations in German Village, Columbus now commands attention.
Not only that, the museum scene continues to grow. The National Veterans Memorial and Museum opened in 2018. COSI, the Center of Science and Industry, has a partnership with the American Museum of Natural History. And art galleries flourish. If you have more time in Ohio, check out the free things to do in Cincinnati.
Update: Due to the covid-19 pandemic, all attractions are currently closed. Check Experience Columbus as things start to reopen.
Fun Things to Do in Columbus Ohio
In a whirlwind couple of days, I explored Columbus and toured the Franklin Park Conservatory and The Columbus Museum of Art. Here are some of the best things to do in Columbus OH.
National Veterans Memorial
At the new National Veterans Memorial and Museum, I found it particularly moving to watch one of John McCain’s last interviews. The museum has videos of veterans and interactive activities like trying on a uniform and lifting a heavy backpack. Word to the wise, the boot camp class you take at a gym is apparently nothing like a military boot camp.
Columbus Museum of Art
The Columbus Museum of Art focuses on late 19th- and early 20th-century American and European art. There are a number of Impressionist paintings and Warhols. On Thursdays evenings and Sunday afternoons, you can hear live music. The museum has a wonderful place for lunch, Schokko Cafe.
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Things to Do with Kids in Columbus OH
Walk across the street to COSI. The Center of Science and Industry museum has a planetarium, interactive exhibits and shows. I saw a special exhibit about poison from the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.
COSI has dinosaur replicas from AMNH in a dinosaur gallery. There is just enough information to whet the appetite for more dinosaurs and a family vacation in New York City.
Franklin Park Conservatory
The Franklin Park Conservatory has a new outdoor children’s garden. The indoor botanical gardens are great for exploring on a cold or wet day. For the holidays, Franklin Park Conservatory has a holiday light show, Conservatory Aglow. There is also a gingerbread competition. The Conservatory has several Dale Chihuly pieces, great for this fan girl.
Columbus Topiary Park
Be sure to carve out time for a stroll through the Columbus Topiary Park. It’s a delightful spot in the downtown Discovery District and one of the cutest things to do in Columbus. The Topiary Garden Park in Old Deaf School Park claims to be the only public park of its kind in the world. The vegetation has been sculpted into a living recreation of Georges Seurat’s famous post-Impressionist painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of LaGrande Jatte. The brainchild of artists James T. and Elaine Mason, the topiary was created in 1989. The Topiary Garden Park is open daily from dawn until dusk, although prime viewing is from April through November, when the flowers are in full bloom. Admission to the park is free.
TravelingMom Tip: Look for the “As He Saw It” marker to see the scene as Seurat saw it when he was painting his famous picture.
Columbus Park of Roses
Stop and smell the roses at the Columbus Park of Roses. The 13-acre garden is one of the largest public rose gardens in the U.S. with more than 12,000 rose specimens and more than one mile of paved walkways with benches. There’s a formal rose garden, a heritage rose garden, a perennial garden, herb garden, backyard garden and an arboretum.
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Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, just north of the city, is the zoo that Jack Hanna built. He is the charismatic zoo leader who became a television favorite with appearances on Good Morning America, the David Letterman Show and his own television shows, Hanna’s Ark, Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures, Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild and Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown.
TravelingMom Tip: If you are a member of your local zoo, you may be able to get in free to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. It’s part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums reciprocity program.
Ohio Statehouse Tour
Tour the historic Ohio Statehouse for free. You can listen to a recorded tour on your cellphone or join a guided tour that leaves each hour on the hour from the Third Street information desk. This magnificent structure, located at Broad and High streets in downtown Columbus, was completed in 1861 at the beginning of America’s Civil War. The Greek Revival Doric building is considered to be one of the most significant architectural accomplishments of the early republic.
TravelingMom Tip: Opt for the cell phone recorded self-tour if you’re visiting with younger kids who might get fidgety before the guided tour ends.
Ohio State University
If you happen to be visiting in the fall during football season, a visit to Ohio State University and The Shoe — the university’s stadium where the revered Ohio State Buckeyes play football — is a must. Even if you can’t get tickets to one of the games or you’re visiting off-season, stroll around and absorb the atmosphere, especially if you’re traveling with teens who are in the market for a college!
Along the Scioto River, the nine parks comprising the Scioto Mile include running, biking and walking paths, public art, performance pavilions, fountains, swinging benches, bird watching, and a climbing wall.
Major League Fun
The minor league baseball team, the Columbus Clippers, play at Huntington Park, in the Arena District in downtown Columbus. If you’re lucky, you can see a player from the Cleveland Indians, the parent club, completing a rehab assignment here. The Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League, play at Nationwide Arena and the Columbus Crew professional soccer club plays at MAPFRE Stadium.
Eating Well in Columbus, Ohio
I ate very well, starting with North Market. North Market, a public market downtown, has international food stands, a spice market, and a branch of Jeni’s Splendid ice cream. You can buy local produce, artisan bread, local cheese, and meat. I found a delicious vegetarian bahn mi at a Vietnamese stand. The 144-year-old market is one of the oldest food markets in the United States.
Farmer’s markets generally operate spring through fall, with food trucks filling your belly while you shop for local Central Ohio produce.
That night, I ate at Service Bar, in the Short North Arts District. The restaurant is attached to a distillery. We had the vegetarian tasting menu. The parade of inventive dishes included a Caesar salad with puffed buckwheat and tahini, fried and pickled broccoli with a caramelized tomato glaze and watermelon radishes, and a healthy (and delicious) take on Taco Bell tacos, with Bengali fry bread and sweet potatoes.
You’ll find boutiques, cafes and bars all along High Street, the main street in Short North. Most stores had water bowls outside for dogs. Columbus is a dog-friendly city and, despite the freezing rain, most people were walking their dogs throughout and bringing them into gift shops, clothing stores and bookstores.
If you head all the way through Short North from downtown Columbus, you run into the Ohio State University campus.
The adorable German Village has a second branch of a local coffee shop, The Fox in the Snow. Across Schiller Park, which has a large playground, is The Book Loft. The Book Loft has 32 rooms of books and enough reading material to see you through any flight delay. I got a heavily discounted paperback copy of Bel Canto.
Top Things to Do in Columbus: Getting Around
From downtown Columbus you can walk to COSI and the Short North Arts District. There is a bike share program and Bird e-scooters. Columbus recently got a huge grant to develop connected cars and an electric vehicle network. A free interactive gallery, Smart Columbus Experience Center, offers test drives in electric vehicles.
Not only that, COTA, the local transit authority, runs a free bus from Brewery District through downtown to the Short North. And a bus from the airport to downtown, stopping at the Convention Center and most downtown hotels, is just $2.75. (The airport is in need of an upgrade, though. Very few food options, especially if you are stuck for hours, like I was, the day after a storm. There isn’t even a Delta lounge.)
Where to Stay in Columbus Ohio
Fans of Beaux Arts architecture should book a room at the Hotel LeVeque. This historic building in downtown Columbus became a boutique hotel and luxury condos recently. Hotel LeVeque, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, has a grand lobby and luxurious touches. My room had a huge modern bathroom with gigantic glass shower, a sitting area, and a comfortable king sized bed.
The room had a plush robe, mini refrigerator, Keurig coffee machine and an umbrella. Turn down service included chocolates.
When I was delayed by bad weather, the super friendly concierge bought me a drink.
Hotel LeVeque has a Starbucks in the lobby, a gym, and a restaurant and bar, The Keep. The Keep showcases local distilleries and breweries. And it has delicious food. I sat at the chef’s table, where I watched cooks prepare my Brussels Sprouts with grapes and Lentils & Legumes. The vegetarian dish had chickpea, smoked mushrooms, tamarind and labneh.