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Columbus Skyline
Credit: DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

Big things are underway in Ohio's capital city. Columbus, once an important manufacturing hub for buggy carriages, is witnessing unprecedented growth — specifically, the transformation of the Scioto Riverfront: a handsomely redesigned 175-acre parcel with parks, bikeways, and a pedestrian path.

What's more, it's become sought-after by vacation goers. The 20-year beautification project, which required an investment of $214 million, has significantly opened up views of the Columbus skyline, adding fountains for kids to splash around in, and generally increasing the number of fun things to do in the city.

Columbus isn't a chore to get around, either: there's a free bus that circulates downtown, and Air Connect offers a seamless link between the airport and most hotels. Plus, its walkability, and the diversity of its neighborhoods, are part of what make Columbus so special.

Where is Columbus, Ohio?

Positioned right in the center of the state, Columbus is roughly two hours from Lake Erie, where visitors can access another important Ohio metropolis, Cleveland. Downtown Columbus marks the confluence of the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers, providing multiple points for a scenic stroll or picnic when you visit Columbus. By car, it's eight hours from New York, and only three hours from Detroit.

Columbus' Top Attractions

What many think of as Ohio's hard-working business center is in fact a charming, energetic city, bursting with an array of attractions. With designer shops, an internationally acclaimed zoo, and several top-rated museums and galleries, travelers have their pick of what to do in Columbus. What's more, the city's recent revitalization has spawned additional points of interest worth investigating.

Start with a visit to the Columbus Museum of Art — a striking collection that brings visitors up close to works by American contemporary painters and photographers, as well as classics by Chagall and Monet.

Meanwhile, at COSI (a science center with more than 300 interactive exhibits), there are astronaut simulations, a planetarium, and a brand new Dinosaur Gallery.

Over two million people visit the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium each year to see the zoo's star residents, including Western Lowland gorillas, Maasai giraffes, and Burmese pythons. There's even an underground viewing chamber for watching polar bears swim.

The rehabilitation of the Scioto Mile has turned downtown Columbus into a center for cultural activity, with a 15,000-square-foot fountain, a free outdoor climbing wall, and the Bicentennial Park stage, which hosts dance, music, and theater performances throughout the year. Several days could be spent just exploring the various hiking trails that skirt the Scioto River. Birdwatchers, in particular, have found plenty to get inspired about inside the 120-acre Scioto Audubon.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Credit: Courtesy of The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Major Events and Festivals in Columbus

Late June marks the start of Columbus Pride, one of the largest Pride events in the Midwest. With three stages built in the heart of Bicentennial and Genoa Park and picturesque river views, it's no wonder over half a million people turn up each year to strut their stuff on the Scioto Mile.

Another riverfront festival that attracts extra visitors to the capital in June is the Columbus Arts Fest. Artists from all over the country jostle for a prime spot along the festival's packed corridor — 300 of them to be exact. There are also live concerts and film screenings, and hands-on workshops to spark travelers' creativity.

Columbus certainly doesn't like to hold back when it comes to national holidays (case in point: HighBall Halloween), but it's July 4 when the city really lets loose. Since 1981, Red, White and BOOM! has signaled a fireworks display of truly epic proportions. With the festivities taking place all along the Scioto River — and nearly 50,000 pounds of fireworks used in the production — you won't have a hard time finding a good viewing point.

Columbus Ohio skyline with fireworks
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Shopping in Columbus, Ohio

Shoppers will want to plan their time in Columbus carefully, as there are several distinct cultural districts that qualify as must-see souvenir stops. For example, Short North Arts District is an artsy downtown enclave with a reputation as a gallery hub (there's an art walk every first Saturday), but there are important retail stops to be made here, too: Grandview Mercantile, Samson Mens Emporium, Surprise!, and Chunky Armadillo are all sure to yield some memorable trinkets.

Looking for something more old-fashioned? You can't get more historic than German Village, a picturesque residential quarter with brick houses dating back to the 1800s. Stop in at Book Loft for a good airplane read, or at Helen Winnemore, a gift shop that's been in business since 1938. If you're feeling peckish, try a macaron at the famous Pistacia Vera, a delicious French-style bakery owned by two Columbus natives.

Shot North area in Columbus Ohio
Credit: Ron Buskirk / Alamy Stock Photo

Columbus' Best Restaurants

With Columbus' star on the rise, it follows that the food scene here has begun to unfold in dramatic ways. For starters, the ethnic food in Columbus is unmissable. Bethia Woolf, who founded Columbus Food Adventures in 2010, told Travel + Leisure that, “It's a real surprise for people. Most Americans think of the Midwest as white bread and meat and potatoes, but Columbus has 40 different nationalities represented. You just have to get out of downtown.”

(There are excellent Nepalese dumplings to be found at Momo Ghar, for example, while Columbus' taco truck army are wonderful places to eat, and can rival those in Austin or Portland.)

Most romantic restaurant: Basi Italia

Best cheap eats: El Camino

Best hot dogs: Dirty Frank's

Best burger pub: The Walrus

Best Latin restaurant: Katalina's Cafe

Best pizza spot: Harvest

Best French restaurant: Refectory

Taco truck in Columbus
Credit: Courtesy of Columbus Tourism Board 

Best Bars in Columbus

You can't get very far in this town without running into evidence of Columbus' original German population, who (like other Bavarian settlers in the Midwest) happened to have a penchant for beer making. The Columbus Ale Trail showcases 37 of the city's best taprooms and most enjoyable rooftop patios.

If you're seeking somewhere swanky for a date night or after-dinner cocktail, Curio has been making waves. The staff has won awards for their craft cocktails, and bartender Annie Williams Pierce was recently named winner of the most imaginative bartender competition by the U.S. Bartender's Guild. And at Brothers Drake, it's mead, not cocktails that serves as the libation of choice.

Nightlife in Columbus Ohio
Credit: © Laura Watilo Blake

Where to Stay in Columbus, Ohio

Columbus' creative vein has spread into its lodging. The city has a steadily expanding arsenal of charismatic places to stay, based around the twinkling riverfront. From high-end designer hotels to affordable resting stops, the range of quality hotels downtown makes it easy to spend a night (or several) in Columbus.

Boutique Hotels

Hotel LeVeque, Columbus' most attractive boutique hotel, is also one of its oldest. The building first went up in 1927, and reopened this May as a high-design hideout complete with marble bathrooms and gold-accented furnishings.

There's even a 50-room, beer-themed hotel, The DogHouse, planned for September 2018. Amenities will include access to limited edition brews from the nextdoor brewery; a beer-stocked mini bar; and an IPA-filled hot tub in the suite.

Luxury Hotels

At The Joseph — an art-focused luxury hotel in the Short North Arts District — stylish surroundings and top-notch service make guests feel like visitors at a palace. The hotel has an impressive contemporary art collection, a nod to the neighborhood's imaginative spirit, and there's a full-service spa for winding down at the end of the day.

Affordable Hotels

Meanwhile, finding a no-frills place to stay in Columbus is relatively painless, as there are multiple comfortable lodging options all within reach of Scioto Mile. Try Holiday Inn Columbus Downtown Capitol Square or Sheraton Columbus Hotel for basic amenities (pool, fitness center, cocktail lounge) and rates under $130 per night.

Vacation Rentals in Columbus, Ohio

If you're looking for something with more personality, apartment rentals downtown can be found on sites like Airbnb and Homeaway. (Think: an updated two-bedroom home in historic German Village; a contemporary carriage house near North Market.)