If you’re anything like me circa 2013, Columbus might not be on your radar at all — let alone as a family vacation destination. Most people only think of one thing when it comes to Columbus: that popular collegiate sports team known as The Ohio State University Buckeyes. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, The Buckeyes are a major culture in Columbus, but the friendly locals do welcome anyone and everyone! I was born and raised in Lake County, but life took my family on a three-year stint to Columbus recently, and wow, was it ever an adventure!
Located about five-ish hours from Lake County, Columbus is (surprisingly) the 15th largest city in America, and is bigger than Boston, Nashville, Seattle and Las Vegas, to name a few. The city and metropolitan area are also the headquarters of Nationwide Insurance, American Electric Power, L Brands, Big Lots, Cardinal Health, Wendy’s, Bob Evans, Max & Erma’s and White Castle. Once you know this, it’s easy to see why this vibrant city and its metropolitan area is full of diverse culture, great food, outdoor recreation, amazing art, and a top rated zoo. Join me as I share some of the gems of this unassuming family vacation destination, affectionately known as C-bus.
The Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
4850 West Powell Road, Powell, OH
I’m not a zoo person. However, this zoo made me into one! It has worldwide notoriety because Jack Hanna is the director emeritus (the popular zookeeper featured on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The David Letterman Show over the years), and because it’s a really nice zoo. It’s clean, laid out well, has a waterpark called Zoombezi Bay, an amusement park area, Jungle Jack’s Landing, and an 18-hole golf course called Safari Golf Club.
With over 7,000 species of animals divided into regions, including the Heart of Africa, a wide-open safari area, you can literally spend all day there and never run out of things to do and see! In the past decade, the zoo was ranked number one in the United States by various publications, including USA Travel Guide. Its location north of Columbus, between Dublin and Powell, is convenient and near many other attractions and events.
Dublin, OH: PGA Golf and Art in Public Spaces
Another famous Jack has made his mark in Columbus: Jack Nicklaus. Born and raised in the suburbs of Columbus, he founded and designed Muirfield Village in 1974 in Dublin, OH, a suburb north of Columbus. Muirfield Village is comprised of homes, as well as two golf courses: The Country Club at Muirfield Village and the signature Muirfield Village Golf Club, where the PGA Tour Memorial Tournament is held each spring. If you are a family that loves golf, be sure to make a stop to visit one of these golf clubs (or plan your trip during The Memorial Tournament), and then and get a picture with the larger than life bronze Jack, which is in the middle of Muirfield Drive. Maybe his talent will rub off on you a bit!
While you’re in Dublin, you also have access to some of the most unique and memorable artworks—all for free! The Dublin Arts Council sponsors Art in Public Spaces, which brings the talent of worldwide artists to central Ohio. Your kids will likely never forget the gigantic field of larger than life corn statues, or the stone sculpture of Chief Leatherlips.
To make it even more fun and educational, you can follow a cell phone tour while driving (using Bluetooth of course) and learn about the pieces and the stories behind them. In 2016, a Flat Stanley from Libertyville visited us and we took him to all the cool places!
The Short North/Arena District: Culture, Sports and Food
A quick 25-minute drive south of Dublin lies the “Wrigleyville/Lincoln Park/Bucktown” area of Columbus (near The Ohio State University). Located on and near High Street, the main north to south drag of Columbus, you can literally find anything you’d like to do or see! Check out the Columbus Clippers baseball team, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians who play at Huntington Park.
Interested in professional hockey? Check out the Columbus Blue Jackets, who play at Nationwide Arena in the Arena District. If you’re a soccer family, you have to check out the Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer team that plays at MAPFRE Stadium.
The Short North
If you’d prefer to do some shopping and eat the day or night away, you can’t miss the The Short North district, which is bustling with boutiques, restaurants, local breweries, sweet shops, coffee/tea shops, art galleries, and record stores (and tons more)! And if you plan your visit for the first Saturday of the month, you can take part in the Gallery Hop, an event with special entertainment, street performers, food, and of course, amazing art
There are too many restaurants to list in The Short North! But some of our favorite kid-friendly spots include Marcella’s for Italian (owned and operated by Cameron Mitchell, Columbus’ premier restauranteur), Melt Bar & Grilled for (gigantic) specialty grilled cheese sandwiches in a colorful, super-fun environment, and of course, save some room for Columbus’ very own Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams for a sweet after-meal treat. You can check out all the dining options here!
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
1777 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH
The Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is great place to go for indoor and outdoor nature education. The conservatory showcases exotic plant collections (from bonsai to palms), special exhibits, and art collections. The conservatory is located at Franklin Park, which has nearly 100 acres of outdoor gardens and green space to enjoy. Built in 1895, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. A cool piece of history for us Chicagoans: the grand Victorian glass structure of the conservatory was modeled after the 1893 Chicago World Fair Exposition’s Glass Palace.
Downtown Capitol Square/German Village
Columbus is the capital of Ohio, and the Statehouse and other historical government buildings are located downtown, just a short walk south of The Short North and the Arena District. If you and your children are interested in state government history, the Statehouse is a wonderful stop. You can take tours or just relax on the beautiful surrounding grounds.
Just south of downtown and the Statehouse, German Village is a neighborhood also on the National Register of Historic Places, and was settled in the early-to-mid-19th century by German immigrants. Its cobblestone streets and quaint, well-kept homes, take you back in time. You’d be remiss to skip out on the delicious food options in this neighborhood, including Schmidt’s Sausage Haus and Schmidt’s Fudge Haus, which have been a part of German Village for decades. You can also hit up Katzinger’s Delicatessen for an authentic deli experience, or if you’re in the mood for a burger, stop at Thurman Café, which is home to the Thurmanator, a giant burger that was featured on Man vs. Food. After eating at any of these places, my guess is you may want (or need!) to walk around and burn some calories and see the history of this neighborhood up close!
The Scioto Mile: Riverfront Park System
If a stroll through German Village isn’t enough to work off all the food, visit Columbus’ ultimate park, The Scioto Mile. It consists of multiple parks and green spaces, and connects the Scioto River to downtown. Bicentennial Park is the centrally located park and has giant fountains (15,000 square feet!) perfect for those hot summer days in the city (bring your suits and towels), as well as Milestone 229, a restaurant with an amazing covered terrace. The fountains change color at night, which is a gorgeous sight. There are multiple biking and walking paths, a free climbing wall, and it is home to countless events during the year, from dragon boat races, concerts, Fourth of July fireworks known as Red White & Boom!, and an amazing Arts Festival.
As a resident of the Columbus area for three years, I can say from experience that it’s an amazing city for everyone, but especially families. With so much to do, it was hard for me to narrow it down to these highlights. For more information and ideas on what your family can do and see in Columbus, check out Experience Columbus. I think you’ll be happily surprised at what this city has to offer!
Have you been to Columbus, Ohio? Let us know what your favorite spots to visit are in the comments section below.