I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
July 13, 2017
This post was written in partnership with Experience Columbus.
If you’re looking for the perfect spot for your next family vacation, I can’t think of a better destination than Columbus, Ohio. We spent several days exploring this bustling capital city and fell wholeheartedly in love with Columbus and its charming residents. Here, urban sophistication is tempered by warmth and friendliness. Modern innovation co-exists with historic buildings and time-honored traditions. And unlike so many American cities characterized by urban sprawl, much of what Columbus has to offer is within an easy walk or drive from the city center.
Whether you love inventive cuisine, immersive historical experiences, the outdoors, or educational activities the whole family can enjoy, you won’t believe all this city has to offer. Here are 30 of our favorite things to do with kids in Columbus, Ohio.
Explore COSI, one of the nation’s premiere centers of science.
There’s much to see and do inside this 320,000 square-foot interactive science museum, which includes exhibits devoted to space, the ocean, progress in technology between 1898 and 1962, energy, farm days, gadgets, and more. COSI also has a planetarium and Giant Screen Theater, as well as live shows scheduled throughout the day. You could easily spend an entire day of your vacation here.
Feeling brave? Take a ride through the lobby on COSI’s high-wire unicycle, the only one like it in the world. You’ll travel across an 84-foot cable, 17 feet above the ground. It is truly an exhilarating (not to mention Instagrammable) experience, as my 13-year-old learned for herself!
Sample a deliciously diverse array of foods at the North Market.
Open since 1876, this public market is a must-do on any Columbus vacation. You’ll find a dizzying selection of fresh and prepared foods here, including house-made pastas, freshly baked breads, fresh meats and seafood, a range of ethnic cuisine, delectable macarons from Pistacia Vera bakery, Staufs coffee made in gas-fired roasters, artisan ice cream, and a whole lot more. The only downside of eating here is that it’s almost impossible to decide on what you most want to eat!
Rediscover your inner child at Big Fun.
This eclectic vintage toy store in the Short North really has to be seen to be believed — It’s filled to the rafters with every kind of toy and collectible you can think of, both from this generation and the ones before it. While your kids hunt down fidget spinners and Pops, you’ll have fun spotting toys from your own childhood – My husband was awed by an original edition of the Green Ghost game from the 60s, while I spotted a Weeble Wobble Treehouse I hadn’t laid eyes on since I was in kindergarten. From obscure trading cards to action figures to magic tricks and pranks, it’s all here, jammed into every ounce of available space. “You should see our house,” one of the store’s owners told a customer who was exclaiming over the vast inventory while we were there.
I can only imagine…
This 15,000 square-foot water play area is the centerpiece of Columbus’s Bicentennial Mall and Scioto Mile, which includes 253 acres of idyllic parkland and the nation’s largest free outdoor climbing wall. If your kids are anything like mine, they won’t be satisfied until they’ve spent some serious time playing in these stunning streams of water! Go in the daytime or at night — The Scioto Fountain stays open after dark and features lighting and fog effects when the sun goes down.
Bring your bikes to Columbus or rent a bike with an $8 day pass at a CoGo kiosk (You will need to provide your own helmets) — Central Ohio has more than 180 miles of greenway trails, with many more miles in the works. Trails are designed for recreation and to help make the commute to work and school a little easier on the environment. The Scioto Trail runs through the heart of downtown Columbus and offers a great way to see the city on two wheels. You can find more information on the Central Ohio Greenway and maps of the trails here.
This trendy neighborhood is a must-see when you’re in Columbus. 35 years ago, local artists began transforming the neighborhood’s crumbling buildings into studios and galleries, creating a bohemian enclave that’s continued to flourish over the decades. Today, you’ll still find plenty of galleries here, as well as specialty shops and some of the best bars and restaurants the city has to offer — several of which are listed in this post.
Savor delicious Lebanese cuisine at Brassica.
The Brassica menu is probably like nothing you’ve ever tasted — Trust me when I tell you to give it a chance. The lunch we had at Brassica is one of the best I’ve ever eaten. This quick-service restaurant makes for a perfect lunch while shopping in Short North. Move through the line and choose from falafel, slow roasted chicken shawarma, Harissa rubbed beef brisket, house pickled vegetables, or glazed lamb bacon, placed inside either inside house-made organic pita or atop a bed of organic greens. A range of healthy toppings includes roasted cauliflower, pickled eggplant, hummus, pickled beets, and several different kinds of sauces (We recommend the house sauce). No matter which combination you try, the end result is DIVINE. Be sure and get an order of fries, because they are fabulous as well. We are now Brassica fans for life!
If you have kids, you’ll definitely want to devote a full day (or more) to the unforgettable Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which has been headed up by animal expert Jack Hanna since 1978. We loved seeing polar bear mama Amelia Gray and her twin cubs, Nuniq and Neva. The gorillas were another family favorite, and watching a bonobo (a type of chimpanzee) teach a baby to climb melted our hearts. There are so many animals to see here, from manatees and wolverines to cheetahs, penguins, and lions — but that’s not all that makes this zoo special. You’ll also find a fun 4-D theater, original 1914 grand carousel, and several amusement park rides within the park, including a log flume. Buy a Zoo-It-All wristband and you’ll have unlimited access to all of it.
Just an hour’s drive from Columbus, Hocking Hills State Park has several trails that showcase ancient caves and stunning waterfalls. For families, we recommend the Cedar Falls trail, a short trail that leads down stairs into a chasm filled with hemlock trees and a breathtaking waterfall. Not too far away, you’ll find the Rockhouse trail, where a short walk will lead you up to an incredible tunnel-like cavern that’s 200 feet long. A ‘window’ at the west end of the Rockhouse offers views of another beautiful waterfall. Historians believe that the park’s caves were inhabited by Indians as far back as 7,000 years ago, and some of the plants like the hemlock trees and rhododendron have been here since the Ice Age.
Have lunch like a local at Katzinger’s Delicatessen.
For more than 30 years, this Columbus deli has been serving up mouth-watering deli sandwiches on freshly baked bread. A vast menu means there’s a sandwich for everyone (Katzinger’s even has gluten-free bread!) — We had a Reuben and a garlic and rosemary roast beef and both were phenomenal. My kids enjoyed a simple pastrami on fresh white bread and gave it their seal of approval. There’s a reason this place is always hopping — Consider Katzinger’s a must-do on your Columbus vacation.
The Book Loft may well be my favorite book store of all time. Why, you ask? Check it out for yourself when you head to German Village and you’ll immediately understand why. Located in a pre-Civil War building that once housed a general store, saloon, and nickelodeon cinema, The Book Loft today is a 32-room, multi-floor maze made up almost entirely of books. You can grab a map at the entrance, but I much preferred getting completely lost in the stacks. The shelves seem to extend in every possible direction, and each room features a different theme and often, accompanying music that suits that theme. We loved this place so much, we went not once during our vacation, but twice!
Locals and tourists alike rave about this free living history farm, less than a half-hour from downtown Columbus. Costumed volunteers maintain the 1800s restored farmhouse, gardens and barns and there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to help out as well. You can tour the house and grounds without a reservation, but we recommend signing your kids up ahead of time for morning chores– A guide will help your kids feed farm animals, milk a cow, gather eggs, and herd sheep to a pasture. Older kids will enjoy the Teens on the Farm program, which lets kids ages 13-17 make an 1880s-era snack and test out some of the entertainment options available in the time before video games and Internet.
You’ll probably have to wait for a table at this tiny restaurant in Columbus’ German Village neighborhood, but when you taste the food here, you’ll agree the wait was worth it. The menu is described as ‘seasonal driven, farm to table comfort classics with an urban edge,’ and that’s an apt description for our brunch there. Although the menu seemed fairly simple, quality ingredients turned everything we tried into a standout dish, from the melt-in-your-mouth Brown Sugar Cinnamon Crumb Cake (so delicious my kids had to have two) and Amish Cheddar scones to the crab and avocado omelette and biscuit and gravy- a dish my ten-year-old reluctantly tried, then proceeded to wolf down.
Earn a cool souvenir t-shirt by following one of Columbus’s unique trails.
Columbus’s coffee scene is nationally known — The people here take their coffee seriously (They take their hot chocolate seriously, too, as my kids discovered at One Line Coffee!) If you’re a coffee connoisseur, simply buy a drink at four or more of Columbus’s 17 participating coffee shops, get your card stamped (available at the coffee shops), and redeem it at one of Experience Columbus’s visitor centers for a stylish commemorative t-shirt.
For a Made in CBUS t-shirt, try the Made in CBUS Trail and see some of the best shops Columbus has to offer. Beer lovers won’t want to miss the Ale Trail. Participants receive a free tasting glass for each tier level they complete, and a tray that holds the glasses once they’ve visited all 37 of Columbus’s participating breweries!
Celebrate Columbus’s German heritage with a meal at Schmidt’s.
You can’t visit German Village without a stop at Schmidt’s — This historic Columbus staple is always packed with people, and when you taste the food here, you’ll understand why.
Admission to this living history village just a few miles from downtown Columbus is included in the cost of a ticket to the Ohio History Center. The village includes a town hall, bicycle shop, lodging house, photography shop, and village green. Chat with the villagers and discover what it was like to be an Ohioan at one of the most pivotal times in American history.
Shop from exquisitely made arts and crafts at Helen Winnemore’s.
The perfect way to walk off a lunch at Schmidt’s is by taking a stroll down to Helen Winnemore’s, an incredibly charming shop that opened in Columbus back in 1938 and has been going strong ever since. Featuring the work of artisans from across the country, Helen Winnemore’s is basically what you’d want Etsy to look like if it were an actual store.
From carefully curated jewelry and elaborate, hand-carved nativity scenes to an abundance of art and an entire floor of children’s toys (I couldn’t tear my kids away!), this was definitely one of our favorite shops in Columbus.
Taste the best ice cream you’ll ever put in your mouth at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
We’re lucky to have several Jeni’s ice cream shops in Nashville, so there was no way we could visit Columbus without making a pilgrimage to the original Jeni’s in North Market. Made with whole ingredients and dairy from grass-fed cows, the difference in Jeni’s artisan ice cream is clear — I’ve never tasted anything that even comes close. Be sure and hit up one of the ten Jeni’s locations in Columbus when you visit. We highly recommend you try a scoop of Brambleberry Crisp and Brown Butter Almond Brittle. Yummmm.
Immerse yourself in art at the newly renovated Columbus Museum of Art.
In addition to important works of art from Ohio and around the world, this museum also includes the Wonder Room, a one-of-a-kind woodland gallery for families including costumes, games, storytelling, a treehouse, and interactive art projects. Be sure and check the CMA’s upcoming special events before your trip to Columbus — In July, for example, visitors can sign up for a Family Adventure Tour offered each Sunday afternoon.
Have a big night out at The Pearl.
In a city of fabulous restaurants, it’s hard to stand out — but The Pearl manages to do just that. This stylish gastropub in Short North features a menu with made-from-scratch ingredients, classic cocktails, and an impressive beer list, as well as delicious pies that are baked fresh daily. Don’t miss the Jalapeño Corn Spoon Bread or the Deviled Eggs appetizers. The Pub Burger, topped with Cambozola cheese and tomato jam, is to die for. A meal at The Pearl is a memorable meal, indeed!
Sculptor George Mason dreamed up this amazing topiary garden, which is a tribute to Georges Seurat’s famous painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte. Today you can visit the garden and take a self-guided tour or call ahead and schedule a docent-led tour. However you opt to see the park, it will certainly be an experience your children won’t forget!
Learn the fascinating history of comic strips at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
Located on the OSU campus, this library and museum is home to the largest comic strip collection in the world. It includes 300,000 original cartoons and 2.5 million comic strip clippings and newspaper pages, as well as fan letters and other related memorabilia. Seeing original cartoons like Family Circus and Peanuts is especially fun for those of us who grew up reading the ‘funny papers’ every Sunday morning, and I loved the exhibit featuring angry letters and sympathy cards from fans to cartoonist Lynn Johnston after the family dog died in the long-running comic strip, ‘For Better or For Worse.’ I think our favorite find, though, was this original Wonder Woman cover by Trina Robbins, the first woman to draw her.
Enjoy tasty burgers and cold beer at The Thurman Cafe in German Village.
Open since 1942, this dive-y burger joint was featured on an episode of Man vs. Food for its massive, juicy burgers. You can opt for the Thurmanator, a gigantic 12-oz burger featured on the show, or you can opt for a ‘normal’-sized version – It’ll still probably be larger than any other hamburger you’ve ever eaten! We loved this place for its diverse, locals-only crowd, its friendly servers, its truly tasty burgers, and its Game of Thrones pinball machine.
We spent a very satisfying hour trying our hand at duckpin bowling – one of several games offered at downtown Columbus hotspot Pins. In fact, I’ve decided duckpin bowling is far more fun than the traditional version of the sport; the balls, pins, and lanes are smaller and no special shoes are required. In addition to bowling, Pins has foosball, pinball, ping pong, and shuffleboard, as well as an impressive array of draft beers and ciders. By day, this place is entirely family-friendly– The place becomes 21 & up after 8 and quickly fills with young revelers.
No need to head to Africa for a safari tour — You can do it at The Wilds, a Jack Hanna-operated conservation center an hour and change from downtown Columbus. Board an open-air safari bus for a ride through open-range animal areas, where you’ll see rhinos, giraffes, and plenty of other endangered animals. Tours start at $30 per person and last more than two hours.
Visitors rave about the Franklin Park Conservatory, just two miles from downtown Columbus, and it’s a perfect place to go for beautiful family photos of your Columbus vacation. Inside, you’ll find tropical plants from around the world. Outside are hardier gardens that include ornamental grasses, edibles, daylilies and more, as well as the only permanent collection in the world of glass artwork by Dale Chihuly.
Discover an underground world at Olentangy Indian Caverns.
A guide will lead you and your family through this cave system filled with underground rooms and natural passages, believed to have once been used by the Wyandotte Indians seeking shelter and an escape from their enemies. Learn how the Indians used the cave rooms long ago and view some of the artifacts that have been found there in the cavern museum. The Olentangy Indian Caverns are located just a few minutes away from the Columbus Zoo. Tours are fairly short, which makes them perfect for short attention spans.
Capture gorgeous photos of downtown Columbus on the iconic Main Street Bridge.
This award-winning arched bridge is the only one like it in the U.S. It includes a separate pedestrian walkway with sweeping views of the Columbus skyline, and is not to be missed. Check it out before the kids play in the Scioto Fountain — It’s right beside the bridge.
Got more great ideas on things to do in Columbus, Ohio with kids? I’d love to hear them. Leave them in the comments of this post!