What to Do in Columbus, Ohio

Travel Features Columbus
What to Do in Columbus, Ohio

Sorry, Columbus! I didn’t know you were for real. 

When you’re an American kid in an American town your concept of cities revolves entirely around pro sports, which used to put Columbus, Ohio, at a disadvantage. When I was young Cleveland and Cincinnati had the baseball and football teams, and Cleveland had the Cavs, and all Columbus had was a college, which was all 10-year-old me needed to know to know Columbus wasn’t a real city. It was a Tallahassee, a Chapel Hill, an Athens, Ga.—not a Houston or a Miami or an Atlanta. 

How foolish I was! At some point way too late in life I learned that Columbus was actually bigger than both Cleveland and Cincinnati, at least when it came to the city itself (not the metro area), and the people instead of the acreage. (People mean more than miles.) By that point Columbus had landed an NHL team, officially putting it on the radar for ignoramuses like me. It later got an MLS team (which does count, actually) to go along with the Blue Jackets and the Buckeyes, putting the city’s sporting bona fides beyond reproach.

I recently spent a few days in Columbus for the first time in my life, and hey: the days were good. The city made them good, because, yes, the city is good. Good ol’ Columbus. (Not Goodbye, Columbus—what were you thinking, Ol’ Philip Roth?) If you like all the good parts of life—drinking, eating, shopping, looking at animals, science, drinking—Columbus is waiting to wrap its arms around you in a warm, massive, unbreakable hug. It squeezed me tight and I thank Columbus for that from the bottom of my heart. 

Here’s some cool stuff to do in Columbus, Ohio. And I don’t even get to the music here. Just imagine you’re listening to one of Ron House’s many bands while you’re reading this for the full experience.

Where to Go

CoSi by Colin McGuire

When I heard that Columbus had a science museum whose name sounds like “co-sci” I assumed it was short for “Columbus Science Museum.” I’m officially the dumbest moron who’s ever lived, though, because CoSi actually stands for Center of Science and Industry. (Not sure why the “i” is lowercase in the acronym, but just because it’s a science museum doesn’t mean it can’t use a little bit of poetic license.) I’ve been to a lot of children-friendly science museums in the past—every city’s got one—and I feel safe saying that CoSi is among the best of the bunch. The highlight, for me, is Progress—a lifesize reproduction of the same street corner in the 1890s and early 1960s, showing how technology has developed over the decades, and the impact it’s had on our daily lives. Disney-quality design work and attention to detail bring these two very different time periods alive, with interactive exhibits throughout; it’s a bit like The Carousel of Progress, only without the soothing tones of Jean Shepherd. Elsewhere CoSi has a planetarium, a gallery of dinosaur skeletons, a bar for the adults, and all kinds of interactive whosits and whatsises. A permanent exhibit about water even has a massive statue of Poseidon that would fit in perfectly at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. CoSi is a top-notch example of a science museum. The traveling show TITANIC: The Artifact Exhibit is currently running through Labor Day, for all those maritime disaster fans out there.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is a world-class zoo that’s made an outsized imprint on American pop culture thanks to the tireless promotional efforts (and frequent late night talk show appearances) of former head Jack Hanna. (And it’s also an aquarium. Nice.) I visited on the day of the solar eclipse, but it’s worth a trip even when there isn’t a rare cosmic phenomenon going on. In addition to animals from around the world in spacious habitats built to replicate their natural environments, the Zoo is also home to amusement and water parks that are open throughout the summer. For more on the Columbus Zoo, read my report from this past April’s eclipse.  

The Short North Arts District calls itself “the art and soul of Columbus,” which, sure, might be a cheesy bit of marketing, but also seems to be not entirely untrue, from what I noticed during my few days in town. You want galleries, museums and public art? Short North’s got ‘em. You want wine, cocktails, craft beer, or just a comfortably scuzzy old dive? You know where to find ‘em, including a spot or two that I’ll talk about in more detail in a little bit. It also has its fair share of places to stay, if you want to hang out in the middle of the action during your trip to Columbus. I’m usually a little reluctant to just blanket recommend an entire neighborhood, but Short North is worth it because it is full of interesting things to see and do and eat and drink and buy. Just walk around for a bit and you’ll find something that you’re into.  

Speaking of neighborhoods, German Village is what it sounds like, with one crucial difference: yes, it’s a German village, but one that’s in Columbus and not Germany. So don’t get confused if you visit; you’re still in Ohio, in the USA. It got the name because it was built by German immigrants in the 19th century, and their quaint brick buildings give the area a charming architectural unity that makes it feel like nowhere else in Columbus. Just hanging out here is reason enough to visit, but there’s also cool shopping (check out the Book Loft if you like books and/or lofts) and interesting history to explore. This used to be the hub of the city’s brewing operations back in the 1800s (obviously, it’s German Village, for crying out loud), and today it’s still home to a number of bars worth opening a tab at.

Pins Mechanical is a grown-up playground with a slew of pinball machines, duckpin bowling, ping pong, foosball, and an array of craft beers on tap. It’s not unique to Columbus—you’ll find Pins locations in six other cities—but there are more in Columbus than anywhere else, with spots downtown and in Dublin and Easton. Basically if you want to kick back with some quality drinks while also playing games that have a real tactile physicality, and that ding and chime and rattle from real objects bashing into each other and not just synthesized sounds, Pins is the place for you—especially if you’re in Columbus.

Where to Drink

Land-Grant Brewing

Land-Grant Brewing Company, a cornerstone of the historic Franklinton neighborhood, is a veritable playground of a brewery, with a large outdoor seating area, a cozy taproom inside its massive production facility, and a separate field that hosts a variety of events throughout the summer, including sports, concerts, and art festivals. Its regularly changing lineup of beers features a wide range of styles and not just a dozen different types of IPA. If Space-Grant Totality, a black IPA made in honor of the eclipse, is still on tap, definitely order a glass. Since my visit this spring, the new Land-Grant Extension should have opened; located behind the main brewery, this new offshoot focuses on experimental beers, cider, wine, and craft cocktails. It’s right next to Gravity Park, which houses pickleball courts, a 3 on 3 basketball court, and is home to Land-Grant’s various special events. Land-Grant isn’t just a brewery with a taproom; it’s a sprawling event space that has become a part of the fabric of Columbus. And yes, you can get drunk there.

A perfect dive bar in Short North, not far from OSU’s campus, Char Bar is an ideal spot to belly up for watery domestics and cheap (but delicious) cocktails. If you’re remotely familiar with my travel writing here at Paste, you know that the dives are where I’m most comfortable—where I feel most at home. And I immediately felt at home at Char Bar, even if it was unexpectedly slammed with college administrators in town for a convention. That’s one of the best things about going to bars alone in strange cities: getting to meet strangers you know you’ll never talk to again, be they bartenders, regulars, or college registrars from New Hampshire or wherever. I knocked back way more than I should have for way less money than it should have cost, which is why I can whole-heartedly recommend Char Bar to anybody in town for a night or two. Make sure you visit the bathroom while you’re there, which is in the 180 year old building’s basement and features a busted old piano that makes some cool sounds when you strum its exposed strings.

Oddfellows Liquor Bar, another Short North watering hole, is a little classy and a little dumpy at the same time, which is kind of the sweet spot every bar should be targeting. Its huge, ornate bar helps build that dissipated vibe, like something fancy gone a bit to seed. I love it. Its large outdoor area is no doubt packed on weekends when school is in session, not just for the hooch but because of the Mikey’s Late Night Slice truck dishing out Columbus’ iconic pizza ‘til the wee hours of the evening. (More on Mikey’s in a bit.) I don’t see Oddfellows serving as my home base if I lived in Columbus, or anything—that would be whatever dive bar is closest to wherever I lived—but it’d definitely be a part of the rotation.

Where to Eat

North Market

It felt like every single place I went to in Columbus had a Mikey’s Late Night Slice truck or stand. That’s an exaggeration, but the local pizza spot has locations all throughout the city, and it’s not hard to see why: it is really good pizza. Between a food truck at Land-Grant, the stand at Oddfellows, and, uh, a couple of late night DoorDash orders, I had at least one of Mikey’s slices every night I was in Columbus, and they always hit the spot. (If the Mikey’s at the multipurpose concert hall KEMBA Live had been open during my tour, I absolutely would’ve had a slice there, too.) The slices are thin but large, perfect for folding in half and eating like a New Yawker, with toppings that felt fresh no matter how late it was. Everything was always in the right proportion—never too much sauce, cheese, or toppings. I have to imagine the tens of thousands of Ohio State students living in and around Columbus go through millions of these slices a year.  

If you’re looking for something a little more worldly than pizza, but still far from stuffy, Rishi serves up fine sushi and Thai, Japanese, and Korean inspired dishes from its location on 3rd Street. Whether you’re a sushi expert or somebody just dipping their toes into the Japanese art, Rishi is a top spot to grab some nigiri, sashimi, or rolls. And its hefty lineup of appetizers and small plates is helpful when you want to try a little bit of a lot of different dishes instead of just committing to one big entree. If you’re into traditional Asian food or interesting twists with American influences, Rishi has what you’re looking for.

If you don’t know what kind of food you want, or are in a group that just can’t get on the same page, there are two great food markets you might want to hit up: North Market, which has been serving Columbus for almost 150 years, and Budd Dairy Food Hall, a three-year-old market located in a historic milk plant. North Market has more history and more options for both eating and shopping, but Budd Dairy has buzzier, hipper local favorites. They’re close in spirit but different enough in execution (and offerings) that you should try to make time for both during your Columbus getaway. 

No matter what you have for dinner, there’s one way to polish it off in Columbus: with hometown favorite Jeni’s Ice Cream. The smash success in the ice cream world started in Columbus over 20 years ago, and has gone on to pioneer more ingenious new flavors than even the most diehard creamhead could count. With other half a dozen locations around the city, you’ll never be far from Jeni’s delicious, boundary-breaking ice cream—or even its inspired riffs on traditional favorites. 

Where to Stay

Hotel LeVeque

A short walk from CoSi and the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Hotel LeVeque sits in a gorgeous art deco building that houses both the hotel and apartments. As an Autograph Collection hotel it has its own unique flair—in this case, a theme based on constellations and stargazing. Every room has a star projector, so you can beam the galaxy up unto the ceiling and look for constellations while dozing off to sleep. It’s ideally located right downtown, a short walk or rideshare trip to everything the city center has to offer. And if you feel like staying in, its restaurant and bar, The Keep, serves up American classics along with all the beer, wine, and craft cocktails you could handle. (Seriously: take a night to enjoy the bar. It’s a good one.) Hotel LeVeque is a wonderful home base for your Columbus adventure.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

Photo credits:

Main and lead photo courtesy of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

CoSi photo by Colin McGuire, courtesy of CoSi

Land-Grant Brewing Company photo by Fred Bender

North Market photo courtesy of  North Market

Hotel LeVeque photo by Andy Spessard



Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin