When you think of centers of creativity, innovation, and “hip”-ness, Ohio probably isn’t the first state to come to mind.
To an outsider, Ohio has connotations of cornfields and, well, more cornfields. But cornfields don’t explain Columbus. With a blossoming art scene, a slew of craft breweries and an annual Caffeine Crawl weaving through local shops, the capital city is the quiet secret of the Midwest.
But more people are discovering Columbus, and it’s well-deserved. Columbus is surprisingly affordable, with a cost of living 5 percent below the national average. Forbes ranked it as No. 11 in its list of Best Places for Business and Careers, and after New York and Los Angeles, Columbus has more fashion designers than any other U.S. city.
Why should you visit Columbus? Well, with its flourishing music industry, a growing hub of makers and artisans and the friendly atmosphere of a smaller town, the “Biggest Small Town in America” should be on your list of future vacation spots. We’ve grouped the city’s main attractions below — the art, museums, parks, shops and restaurants — so you can start planning your visit and see for yourself what makes Columbus so beloved.
1. Arts and Crafts
Columbus is home to a thriving community of artists and art enthusiasts alike, and this undercurrent of creativity hums through the city.
The Pizzuti Collection
The Pizzuti Collection is one of the latest additions to Columbus’ cultural landscape. Ron and Ann Pizzuti opened the nonprofit in 2013, desiring to share their impressive collection of contemporary art with the greater Columbus community. Since then, the collection has grown, and now features rotating exhibits as well as a permanent sculpture garden.
The Columbus Museum of Art
For even more art immersion, spend a day wandering the labyrinth that is the Columbus Museum of Art. The museum recently invested $38 million in a new modernist wing, and emphasizes engagement with the exhibits and their artists.
Columbus Idea Foundry
Columbus resonates with makers. For proof, look no further than the Columbus Idea Foundry. A creative’s paradise, the Idea Foundry has everything a tinkerer could ever need. State-of-the-art tools and bustling, productive workspaces attract a wide variety of artisans, ranging from robot manufacturers to woodcutters. The Foundry is open to visitors, so stop by to witness Columbus’ churning innovation firsthand.
2. Learn and Engage
If art isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Columbus has other nationally acclaimed attractions to fill an afternoon.
The Center of Science and Industry (COSI)
Who said museums had to be boring? At COSI, you can drive a Mars rover in a simulated space environment, dive underwater inside a submarine or try riding a unicycle across an 84-foot-long high wire. Locals and visitors alike love COSI, and it has more than earned its place as one of Columbus’ top attractions.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Always wanted to see the largest Asian elephant in North America? Be sure to visit Hank at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The zoo is an internationally recognized leader in conservation and zoological design, and was ranked No. 5 in USA Today’s “10 Best Zoos” list. With beautiful landscaping and thousands of animals, the zoo’s high rank is well-deserved.
3. Parks and Gardens
The city’s beautiful, well-planned outdoor areas are one of the top reasons to visit Columbus. Green spaces thread through the metropolis, offering an escape from the breakneck pace of urban life.
One of the most-loved leisure spots in Columbus is the Scioto Mile, a riverfront space connecting parks to boulevards with bike and pedestrian paths. From the Scioto Mile, you can explore a variety of parks and wildlife centers. Wander into Bicentennial Park and marvel at the incredible, 15,000-square-foot interactive fountain that shoots water 75 feet into the air. Keep walking to scramble up the nation’s largest free outdoor climbing wall, or explore the 120-acre Scioto Audubon center to see how many birds you can identify on the property.
Inniswood Metro Gardens
Columbus has its fair share of gardens, too. The Inniswood Metro Gardens is an enchanting break from the city skyline. A mixture of cultivated gardens and quiet woodlands, the 123-acre park houses more than 2,000 species of plants and several themed spaces. Besides picturesque gazebos and fountains, several trails wind through the forest and alongside Spring Run Creek.
4. Shops and Stalls
Curiosity shops, bright markets and a 32-room bookstore make Columbus the perfect place to find a souvenir for anyone. When you visit, make sure to look around these top-rated local destinations.
Easton Town Center
Easton Town Center has been exceptional since its opening in 1999. In 2011, the trade publication Inside Retail named it among the top five most innovative malls in the world. The designers of the Center were early adopters of the idea that enclosed malls were losing their charm. In the Center, shopping has a festive, open-market feeling, supplemented by beautiful landscaping and lighting. More than 25 million people visit Easton Town Center annually, stopping by designer boutiques as well as consumer favorites.
The Book Loft
When people talk about getting “lost” in a bookstore, they usually mean spending hours browsing the titles and losing track of time. At The Book Loft, however, the threat of getting lost is much more literal. With 32 distinct rooms and a quarter of a million books, The Book Loft is one of the nation’s largest independent booksellers, and has a book for everyone — all you need to do is grab a map from the front desk and find it.
If you can think of an iconic Ohio sports moment, Homage has probably commemorated it. Ryan Vesler started the vintage apparel store in his parents’ basement, but in the decade that’s followed, Homage has grown into a Columbus establishment. You can’t go into football season without seeing one of their “Ohio” shirts or hoodies in the crowd. Homage wants to create products centered on shared memories, which has led to both meaningful products and a devoted customer following.
In 1938, Helen Winnemore opened a storefront near downtown Columbus to sell her collection of local art. Eighty years later, Helen Winnemore’s still offers a wide variety of American-made art and goods. Think of something, and they probably have it — their selection includes clocks, jewelry, wooden puzzles, greeting cards, ceramics, textiles and leather goods, to name a few. Annually, the two-story shop features more than 200 artists. For a truly one-of-a-kind, American-made gift, try your luck browsing Helen Winnemore’s tables.
5. Casks and Caffeine
Columbus couldn’t be a hip city without craft breweries and artisan coffee shops. Fortunately, it has plenty of both.
Barley’s Brewing Company
Armed with a slogan of “Firkin’ Good Ale,” Barley’s Brewing Company set out to become one of the nation’s few producers of cask-conditioned ale, and it has wildly succeeded. Barley’s takes pride in their product, and the city has rallied around them. Since its opening in 1991, Barley’s Brewing Company has become a Columbus staple — the mayor has tapped the annual Christmas ale three years in a row. If you like some substance with your barley, try one of their crowd-pleasing burgers — such as the pizza burger, which is exactly what it sounds like.
For a slightly swankier pint, grab a drink from Rockmill Tavern. The rustic, wood-saturated interiors add to the charm, as do the 15 craft beers on tap. Start with a generous charcuterie board, then move on to their seasonal mains like deviled duck egg or black truffle grilled cheese.
Fox in the Snow
Rustic-style baked goods and hand-poured coffee have made Fox in the Snow a recent Columbus success story. Based out of a renovated Mason garage in the Italian Village neighborhood, the bare-bones coffeeshop doesn’t provide gluten-free options or Wi-Fi. Instead, they offer some of the best coffee and baked goods in town, like the cinnamon-sugar cobblestone muffin.
Stauf’s Coffee Roasters
According to Columbus Underground, Stauf’s Coffee Roasters is the city’s best coffee shop. It’s not hard to see why — the industrial, light-filled shop was Columbus’ first micro-roaster, and they’re dedicated to good coffee. Passionate about their craft, the crew at Stauf’s offers a variety of traditional roasts along with flavored blends like Almond Joyful and Buckeye. Their roasts are limited runs, so grab them while you can.
6. Sit-Down Diners and Grills
Why visit Columbus? Well, if you love food, you’re in luck — every street in Ohio’s capital city has some kind of beloved burger joint or artisan eatery. Below are the top-rated “sit-down” places where you can sit back and take your time enjoying an exceptional meal.
The Thurman Cafe
While the “best” burger in Columbus is a topic of debate, no one argues about the biggest — that award goes to The Thurman Cafe, without question. The third-generation, family-owned restaurant is in an unassuming section of German Village, but don’t let the location fool you — wait times can be two hours long. While Thurman’s offers a variety of burgers, the most famous is the Thurmanator, which restaurant chefs invented for competitive bodybuilders in the ’80s. The monstrosity requires 24 ounces of ground beef to make, and it takes a fork and knife to eat.
The Top Steak House
Not many restaurants still offer the experience of a 1950s supper club. The Top Steak House is a rare exception — when you enter the Top, you enter a space suspended in 1955. Step inside the dimly lit, wood-paneled restaurant and slide into a leather booth or take a stool at the gleaming copper bar. Order a lobster tail or gin martini and settle back as you listen to the nightly live music. If you’re lucky, 90-year-old Sonia will be playing the piano — she’s been a Top institution for decades.
The Northstar Café
For a high-quality meal with a positive global impact, grab dinner at Northstar. The café selects locally grown and organic foods to support producers, protect the environment and serve the best-tasting food available. While they strive to be as sustainable as possible, Northstar also donates part of their proceeds to environmental organizations. Enjoy a fresh, unique salad like the citrus crunch, or try the spicy harvest pizza or classic cheeseburger.
7. Grab-and-Go Grub
For those days when you need something fast and delicious, try these local restaurants that cater to the on-the-go traveler.
Although the North Market is not technically a restaurant, the main attraction of this quirky collection of shops and stalls is the food. Butchers, bakers, fishmongers, greengrocers and candy makers sit behind their stalls, ready to offer samples and tell you about their crafts. Local favorites include Black Radish Creamery and Destination Donuts. North Market has roots reaching back to 1876, and while the main shops are permanent residents, a seasonal farmers’ market sets up tents in outdoor stalls.
Dirty Frank’s Hotdog Palace
Sometimes, you need a quick and cheap meal, perfect for taking with you as you explore. For a cheap, portable and delicious lunch, look no further than Dirty Frank’s Hotdog Palace. A local favorite, Dirty Frank’s offers sausages made from classic Vienna beef, or vegan and vegetarian alternatives. For a cold beer and creative ‘dog, head to Dirty Frank’s — just make sure to pick up plenty of napkins.
Both an award-winning food truck and a television-featured restaurant, Schmidt’s has been a beloved Columbus institution since 1886. Nestled in the German Village neighborhood, Schmidt’s is the go-to spot for authentic German fare. While they serve a variety of German dishes like sauerkraut-bratwurst balls, curry wurst and schnitzel, Schmidt’s has earned fame for its sausages. Try one of their old-world sausage samplers for a wide range of meats or go with the Columbus staple: the Bahama Mama sausage, which had a starring role in Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food in 2008.
8. Pastries and Cream
After your meal, head to one of these legendary Columbus dessert shops for a sweet finish.
For a taste of Paris in the middle of Ohio, stop by Pistacia Vera. Besides quality coffee, the patisserie is well-known for its delicate, creatively flavored macarons. Run by siblings Spencer Budros and Anne Fletcher, Pistacia Vera prides itself on professional technique and a sense of artistry. With macaron options like honey lavender and cinnamon oat, there’s always a new exciting flavor to try.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
No one does ice cream quite like Jeni’s. Homemade taste and handcrafted excellence are marks of the Columbus-born creamery. They practice what they call “the fellowship model,” and buy ingredients directly from farmers whenever possible. Grab a waffle cone of brandied banana brûlée or ricotta toast with red berry geranium jam, and taste the heat of summer melt away.
Chicago Pizza in the Heart of the Midwest
Columbus has something new every visit. But sometimes, you need something reliable, something you know is going to be excellent every time. At Giordano’s, we know quality pizza. You may even say we invented it — or at least, the stuffed, Chicago-style, “Italian Easter Pie” pizza.
Chicago may be far away, but Chicago pizza isn’t — stop by our Columbus location for the best pizza in town!