A Visitor's Guide to Exploring Downtown Columbus, Ohio

Written by Anietra Hamper
Updated Dec 22, 2023
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If business, a convention, an event, or travel brings you to Columbus, there are so many ways to supplement your itinerary during your visit to explore the best in the downtown area. Want to find the best attractions, events, shopping, or free things to do for a quick excursion? No problem. They are right outside your hotel door.

Columbus skyline
Columbus skyline | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

As Ohio's capital city, Columbus has a number of great social gathering spots, trails for exercising, and green space for relaxing. It also has a growing sports scene, with professional ice hockey and soccer teams and a minor-league baseball team, and it is the home of The Ohio State University, which keeps fans entertained with collegiate games throughout the year.

Whether you want to walk; bike; or explore on a Segway, scooter, or by bus, there are multiple ways to get around. And, if you are looking for things to do for couples, with the family, or maybe you are riding solo, you can use this guide to find activities and attractions to fit your time and interests.

Where is Columbus, Ohio?

First things first: Where is Columbus, Ohio? Columbus sits in the center of the state. It is within a one-day drive of 60 percent of the United States and at the crossroads of the major highways going north-to-south and east-to-west in the country. That makes Columbus easily accessible and it is why so many events and conventions take place in the city, introducing visitors to an exciting town in the heart of Ohio.

Things to Do in Downtown Columbus

Ohio Statehouse
Ohio Statehouse

You might want to start your time in Columbus by visiting some of the major tourist attractions in the downtown area. The heart of the city intersects at Broad Street and High Street at the Ohio Statehouse, where you can take a free tour or just stroll the grounds of Capital Square.

Walk across the street to grab a snack from the Peanut Shoppe, which has remained a downtown staple for more than 83 years. The shop serves up hot roasted nuts each day from an original peanut roaster to the patrons who shout "what's hot" when they walk in the door.

Make your way to the bridge that spans the Scioto River and take in the city skyline as you head towards the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, where you can spend a few hours looking at the personal perspectives of military servicemen and women. As one of the newest attractions in Columbus, the museum honors all branches of the military with narrative exhibits inside and the reflective 2.5-acre Memorial Grove on the outside.

Across the street is the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), which is a fun visit for families and a way for kids to get a hands-on education in science and technology. If your visit covers a weekend, the downtown riverfront will likely have a festival happening that you can attend, especially during the spring and summer months.

For something truly unique during your visit, you can go to the Green Lawn Cemetery, which is one of the oldest cemeteries in Ohio. It is a popular destination for photographers, historians, and birders to capture a glimpse of rare species that stop to rest in the trees along a major migration path.

Take a stroll along some of the 27 miles of narrow paths in the cemetery to appreciate the memorials for the prominent Ohioans buried here, including James Thurber; Eddie Rickenbacker; and Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton.

Getting around Downtown Columbus

CoGo Bikeshare bikes
CoGo Bikeshare bikes | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

Columbus is a bike-friendly city, so one of the best ways to explore the downtown area is with CoGo Bike Share. There are more than 40 CoGo bicycle rental stations throughout downtown available 24 hours a day. You can rent a bike at one, and return it to the closest CoGo Bike Share station wherever you finish.

You can get to all the downtown destinations easily and affordably with a bike rental. Some downtown Columbus hotels also provide bike rentals. If you are looking for exercise versus transportation, you can ride along the Scioto Mile path along the riverfront.

Another way to get around downtown Columbus is to take a guided tour with Columbus City Adventures to capture the highlights by shuttle and learn about the city's history and major points of interest.

Main Street Bridge in Columbus at dusk
Main Street Bridge in Columbus at dusk

Catching a ride on a COTA bus is an option if you want to ride around downtown and beyond. This is a nice option if you are staying in the downtown area and want to make a day trip to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium or the Easton or Polaris shopping areas and do not plan to rent a car.

You can also hop on a Lime Scooter and zip your way through downtown. All you need to do is download the app, pay about $1 to unlock the scooter, and approximately $0.15 per minute to use it.

Where to Stay in Downtown Columbus

Columbus skyline and hotels
Columbus skyline and hotels | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

Hotels in downtown Columbus run the gamut, from boutique to budget. Convention Center hotels are the most prominent if you want to stay close to the Arena District or the Short North Arts District. Columbus has hotels that feature art collections, pet-friendly hotels where your dog gets as much pampering as you do, and boutique hotels that are ideal for special occasions.

Luxury Hotels:

  • You cannot get a more luxurious hotel experience than the Hotel LeVeque, Autograph Collection, which is located inside the historic LeVeque Tower, the most iconic building in the Columbus skyline. The hotel suites have marble bathroom floors and the best riverfront view in downtown. This hotel is the ultimate for a romantic weekend in the city.
  • If you want to stay in the vibrant Short North Arts District, Le Meridien Columbus, The Joseph is a high-end hotel with all the perks, including spa suites and bicycles for rent.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Some mid-range hotel options in downtown include the Hilton Columbus Downtown, which keeps you close to the Convention Center, Arena District, and the North Market. The hotel showcases a collection of artworks by local artists.
  • Another option is the Hampton Inn and Suites Downtown, which offers two-room suites and is centrally located in downtown for quick access to anything you want to see.

Budget Hotels:

  • If you are looking for cheap hotels in Columbus, it is best to go beyond the central downtown area and stay near the airport or the University District, where you will find more budget-friendly options like the Red Roof PLUS+ Columbus. Staying in one of these areas just outside the city center will be more affordable, and you only have a few minutes' drive into downtown.

Arts & Culture in Downtown Columbus

Topiary Park
Topiary Park

Columbus is a city that thrives on and supports the arts and cultural aspects of the city. It is worth the time to take a tour of one of the cultural institutions, like the Kelton House, which was used in the Underground Railroad, and the Thurber House, which showcases one of literature's most prominent cartoonists.

A day at the Ohio History Center is an interactive way to understand Columbus and Ohio, from prehistoric times through the present day. Outside of the center is the popular Ohio Village, which is a living history museum and replica of an 1880s village. Catch a 19th-century baseball game when the Ohio Muffins are here to play or learn how to play a vintage lawn sport like hop and stick.

Learn about the African American culture in Columbus from a historical perspective at the Kings Arts Complex. The center showcases the contributions of prominent African Americans in the Columbus community through the decades, including local artists Elijah Pierce and Aminah Robinson.

Art connoisseurs will enjoy the Columbus Museum of Art, which always has events, workshops, and immersive experiences happening. Plan your visit to the museum so that you can stay to enjoy an outdoor lunch at the Schokko Café, which creates unique and artistic wraps and entrées.

You can also get your art fix at the Franklin Park Conservatory, which features plants and flowers from every region of the world. Glass artwork from renowned artist Dale Chihuly is incorporated throughout the greenhouses.

If you are looking for more interactive art activities, take a walk through the Topiary Park behind the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Enjoy a picnic as you sit among the 54 life-size topiaries depicting the famous painting by post-Impressionist George Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Then, stop by the Idea Foundry, where you might just get inspired to turn your creative ideas into an actual product, or you can fuel your creative inspiration with a workshop at Phoenix Rising Printmaking Cooperative to create your own book or printmaking project.

Neighborhoods in Downtown Columbus

The German Village area of Columbus
The German Village area of Columbus

Branching off the downtown streets are several neighborhoods that are worth exploring, each with unique characteristics. The Short North Arts District is one of the most exciting neighborhoods in Columbus. Stroll through the boutique shops, independent art galleries, and dozens of restaurants along High Street.

If you are visiting during the first Saturday of the month, you can take part in the evening Gallery Hop. This is one of the best social gatherings in the city, when art galleries stay open late, and local musicians entertain people as they stroll along the sidewalks.

The King-Lincoln District was historically the commercial center for African Americans in Columbus. The revived neighborhood still reflects the culture of a place where musicians and artists gathered in the early years of Columbus as a city. Today, the King-Lincoln District is home to cafés; shops; and the King Arts Complex, which has educational, cultural, and arts programs throughout the year.

Another favorite neighborhood just south of downtown is German Village, one of the oldest sections of the city. Walk the brick streets and grab a coffee at an outdoor café, or spend an afternoon at The Book Loft, one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States with 32 rooms to peruse.

Two of the growing neighborhoods near downtown Columbus that can add a historical context to your visit are the Brewery District, which was settled by Germans in the 1800s and features much of the original architecture, and the revived Franklinton neighborhood, which is growing with apartments and restaurants.

Entertainment in Downtown Columbus

Columbus Commons entertainment area
Columbus Commons entertainment area | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

Columbus entertainment spreads from sports and music to classic art performances. One of the most exciting places to enjoy entertainment downtown is at the Columbus Commons. The space is used for a variety of entertainment, from festivals and weekend yoga classes to outdoor concerts under the stars. Many events at Columbus Commons are free.

Sports fans can have their pick of exciting live games to watch, including the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in the Arena District; the Columbus Clippers Minor League Baseball team at Huntington Park; the Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer team; and of course, the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Ohio Stadium during the fall football season.

Columbus has a long history of turning out bands that become national and international acts, so the music scene is alive in venues like the Newport Music Hall and Skully's Music-Diner, which feature up-and-coming bands. If a live cabaret show is more your style, the Shadowbox Live is the largest resident theater company in the United States and one of the top places to visit for evening entertainment.

If classical entertainment fits your mood, you cannot beat a Broadway or Columbus Symphony performance at the restored Ohio Theatre or Palace Theatre. If time permits, you might want to attend a performance at the smaller historic Lincoln Theatre or Southern Theatre.

There are always events happening in Columbus, especially during the summer, when there are many festivals along the downtown riverfront. Look to see what events are on the calendar during your visit, as they are a fun way to enjoy the city.

Top seasonal events in Columbus include the Columbus Arts Festival in late spring; Red, White, and Boom Fourth of July city celebration in the summer; The Ohio State Fair in late summer; Oktoberfest in the fall; and First Night Columbus, a family-friendly citywide New Year's Eve celebration in the winter.

Shopping in Downtown Columbus

Easton Town Center
Easton Town Center | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

The shops around downtown Columbus are boutique and specialty shops, where you can find unique gifts. Stroll the boutique stores in the Short North and German Village. For Ohio-made gifts check out the vendor stalls at the North Market and the gift shop inside the Ohio Statehouse.

If time permits, you can hit the mainstream shopping complexes of Easton Town Center in east Columbus or Polaris Fashion Place in north Columbus. Both are approximately a 20-minute drive from downtown.

Getting Outdoors and Active in Columbus

Scioto Mile
Scioto Mile | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

Columbus has an active population, so you will have no problem finding ways to get some exercise outside or just find a nice way to relax in the fresh air. One of the best outdoor options in downtown is the Scioto Mile along the riverfront. You can rent a bike from a CoGo bike station and ride along the river, or connect to one of the networks of paths that extend into nearby neighborhoods.

For a stroll in the park try spending an afternoon at Schiller Park, North Bank Park, or Goodale Park, where you will find locals walking their dogs and enjoying a picnic on a park bench.

Avid outdoor visitors will enjoy the opportunity to kayak on the Scioto River, with rentals available seasonally, or climb a rock wall at Scioto Audubon Metro Park. Another way to enjoy the outdoors and learn about Columbus is on a SegAway Tour, which takes you on a trip around downtown on the two-wheeled Segway.

Dining in Downtown Columbus

A restaurant in the German Village
A restaurant in the German Village

If there is one certainty about a visit to Columbus it is that you will not go home hungry. Columbus has such a diverse food scene that you might have to pre-plan how to fit in all of the options.

When it comes to dining, the best views are at the Boat House Restaurant on the riverfront, with unobstructed views of the skyline. The Milestone 229 restaurant is also on the riverfront with stunning sunset views of the Scioto River and Bicentennial Park.

A fun dining concept is the Budd Dairy Food Hall, a renovated dairy production house, which has a rotating roster of chefs cooking up diverse food options, from Filipino street food and pizza to Southern fare and tacos.

Your best bets for an elegant or celebratory dinner are Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse near the Arena District, and Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse located on the Short North Cap.

Dining in Columbus is not complete without at least trying one of the iconic food venues in the city. Pick from dozens of cuisine options from vendors in the North Market, head to German Village for a classic Schmidt's cream puff, or take on the Thurmanator Challenge at Thurman Café.

The ethnic food scene in Columbus continues to expand, with restaurants around the city that represent more than 40 ethnicities. You can take a food tour to sample a variety, or plan a night or two for something different and try Nigerian, Mexican, or Somalian specialties.

Be sure to cap off any dinner with a scoop of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, available in several locations downtown. The hometown favorite ice-cream shop got its humble start in the North Market and rose to international fame with its unique flavors and farm-sourced ingredients.

For some food off the beaten path, why not track down one of the 200 food trucks rolling throughout the city and try something new, like gourmet mac and cheese, soul food, or a cool twist on comfort food.

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More on Columbus: If you haven't found exactly what you are looking for here, see our article on the Best Parks in Columbus, the Top Things to Do in Columbus, or the Best Museums in Columbus. Families traveling through the area will definitely want to have a look at our article on Top Things to Do with Kids in Columbus.

If you really want to know the ins and outs and hidden gems in Columbus, pick up a copy of Secret Columbus: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, by our contributing author, Anietra Hamper.