As the 15th most populous city in the United States, Columbus, Ohio, offers plenty of attractions, whether you visit for business or pleasure. Even if you’re in town for a company conference or other work event, save at least one day for sightseeing in this incredible city. You’ll thank yourself for exploring what some call The Biggest Small Town in America.

Early Morning: Sip Coffee While You People-Watch

If your Columbus hotel doesn’t offer free coffee and a continental breakfast, head to Crimson Cup Coffee Shop on North High Street. It opens at 6 a.m. every day and serves coffee, tea, danishes, scones, and other light breakfast fare. Plus, you can sit in front of the large front windows to watch passersby. If you’re visiting between early spring and late fall, take a seat on the patio instead. There’s also a drive-thru lane if you’re in the mood to start sightseeing right away.

Other breakfast destinations in Columbus include Katalina’s, which serves the local college crowd, and Skillet, which has developed a reputation for some of the best omelets in the city. However, if you want to save money on the most important meal of the day, consider booking a hotel that offers free breakfast or an eat-in kitchen. You’ll find plenty of affordable supermarkets in this city.

German Village
The German Village in Columbus.

Midmorning: Tour the German Village

Located east of the Brewery District, the German Village serves as one of Columbus’s most famous destinations. Over the years, it’s evolved into a thriving tourist destination, but the locals like to visit as well. The German Village Society offers several tour options, which range in price from $10 to $18 per person, depending on the tour’s features. You can also explore the area on your own if you don’t want to feel caged in by a tour schedule.

You’ll see 19th-century German architecture and perfectly preserved business structures. People still live and work in this neighborhood, and some of the businesses have existed since the 1890s, some of which have passed from one generation to the next in the same family.

In addition to the buildings and other structures, community gardens dot the German Village. Take time to appreciate some of the local flora during your stay.

Just keep in mind that street parking is the only option if you drive to German Village. It’s just a few blocks from downtown, so you can always find a pay lot and walk the rest of the way if you’re worried about leaving your vehicle on the curb. Alternatively, take a car service or taxi from your hotel to the Village, so you don’t have to deal with parking at all.

Noon: Fill Your Stomach With an Al Fresco Lunch at Milestone 229

Nicknamed The Jewel of the Mile, Milestone 229 is a gorgeous restaurant that overlooks downtown and features a huge patio that offers 180-degree views of the surrounding area. It’s ideal for large groups because the restaurant offers vegetarian, gluten-free, and vegan dishes, as well as a full children’s menu, so nobody will leave hungry. Everything gets made from scratch in the on-site kitchen, and you might want to check out the craft beer selection if you’re in the mood for a drink.

It’s a busy restaurant, though, so consider making a reservation before you arrive. Even at lunch, you might wait an hour or more for a table, so call as soon as you arrive in Columbus.

If you’re abandoning the diet during your vacation, order the 229 Cheeseburger. It’s made of a special grind that includes sirloin and chuck, and it’s topped with vegetables and the restaurant’s secret sauce. Alternatively, keep your meal light with the Faroe Island Salmon, Quartered Wedge Salad, or Roasted Chicken. End your meal on a sweet note with a plate of banana pudding or pineapple cake.

If Milestone 229 doesn’t sound like your type of eatery, you have plenty of other options. Grab a burger and fries at The Thurman Cafe, enjoy a plate of your favorite pasta and garlic bread at Marcella’s, or get cozy and comfortable at Mozart’s with seafood wraps or wiener schnitzel. The low-key atmosphere at Mozart’s makes it ideal for lounging with a cup of coffee, listening to the house pianist.

Columbus Zoo
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus.

Early Afternoon: Check Out the Wildlife

After you fill up on lunch, walk off those calories at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. This two-in-one venue offers some of the most exciting animals in the world, from polar bears and elephants to Amur tigers and alligators and snakes. There’s also a herd of Dama gazelle, several species of bats, and a cownose stingray pool where kids and adults can touch the animals as they coast by the rim.

If that’s not enough, consider taking a behind-the-scenes tour. Learn how the zookeepers and other venue employees protect, feed, and house the animals. You might even get to feed a few wild animals yourself. Depending on the time of year, you can choose between the giraffe barn, manatee coast, or discovery reef. There are also before- and after-hours tours.

Meanwhile, the aquarium is full of undersea and land creatures that crave the coast. You can touch a sea star, watch manatees play in their exhibit, listen to a penguin keeper talk, and see the Aldabra tortoise. Both the zoo and the aquarium are in the same park, so you don’t have to worry about moving the car or paying double admission. There’s also a nearby water park if you’re visiting in the summer. Let the kids coast down the slides while you lounge in the lazy river or tide pool.

Cosi
COSI in Columbus.

Late Afternoon: Stimulate Your Brain at COSI Columbus

If you only have time for one tourist adventure in Columbus, make it COSI. This science museum offers seemingly endless exhibits that challenge your mind and your sense of adventure. Start in the Planetarium, which is perfect for kids and adults who love to stargaze and want to know more about planets other than our own. The big machines exhibit appeals to current and future construction professionals, while the Farm Days section shows you what it’s like to live on a working farm and cultivate your own crops.

There are several live shows and demonstrations that deepen your experience at COSI. Rat basketball is particularly entertaining and completely self-explanatory. Two people pick a rat and cheer it on to victory. The chemistry live demonstration proves that kids will, indeed, use their science skills beyond the classroom, and the Electrostatic Generator Show is always a big hit with the kids.

When you’re tired of pounding the pavement, take a break at the CityView Patio, which offers stunning views of downtown from the COSI center. Order a beer or a glass of wine, then munch on appetizers as you watch the Scioto River below. Once you have your energy back, head to the Big Science Park. It’s the perfect place to cap off your day at COSI and offers numerous life-size exhibits that kids and adults will appreciate, from the POD home and native prairie to the car-lift exhibit.

Some COSI exhibits are outside, so you might not get to see them during inclement weather. However, there are enough indoor exhibits to occupy an entire family for a full day, so you’ll always get your money’s worth. Tickets cost $20 per person for the general public, with discounts for children under age 15, seniors, and military veterans.

Dinner: Indulge Your Palate at Refectory Restaurant & Bistro

You deserve an evening of refinement after your long day in Columbus. Head to the Refectory Restaurant & Bistro, which is one of the most upscale restaurants in the city. Chef Richard Blondin prepares fresh French cuisine with a bistro-style menu, and the restaurant is housed in a former church that was built in the early 1800s. The Refectory has been Animal Welfare Approved, which is a designation that doesn’t belong to any other central Ohio restaurant.

The wine cellar boasts more than 700 selections, so get ready to taste a bottle that you won’t forget. After you select your wine, choose a cold or hot hors d’oeuvre — or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try one of each. Some of the more delicious options include the Chilled Maine Lobster “Court Bouillon,” Chilled White Asparagus & Smoked Salmon, and Duck Saucisson & Potato Tarte.

The entrees include options for both vegetarians and meat lovers. Try the Roasted New Zealand Baby Rack of Lamb, which is served with a seaweed crust, or the Texas Bison Strip Loin. For dessert, indulge in some delicious vanilla ice cream, then top off your meal with a cup of gourmet dark roast coffee.

You don’t have to engage in a formal sit-down dinner at the Refectory if you’re short on time or prefer more casual fare. Head to the Lounge, which is housed in the attached old schoolhouse, which offers an immense appetizer selection, or the Bistro, which features lighter fare in a less formal setting. Both the Lounge and the Bistro are located in the same place, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding them.

After Dark: Dance Till You Drop

Believe it or not, you don’t have to travel to New York or Los Angeles to enjoy a thriving nightclub scene. Columbus offers several clubs, bars, and other venues where you can dance, drink, and meet locals.

At Big Bang, watch as dueling piano players take requests from the crowd and wow the audience with their skill on the ivories. This Columbus favorite also features several signature cocktails and a slew of beer on tap, as well as a full menu if you decided to skip dinner and head straight to the party.

Alternatively, try the 16-Bit Bar & Arcade, which is a favorite amongst gamers and geeks. The venue features arcade games both new and old as well as beer, wine, cocktails, and shots. Try your skills against other patrons or challenge your fellow travelers to a match. Or, if you’re looking for a more upscale experience, try The Avalon. This ultra-chic nightclub features table service, unique appetizers, and a thriving dance floor, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes.

Those who prefer a sports bar or pub atmosphere might like The Main Bar, O’Connor’s Club 20, or Bar Louie. All offer wide selections of pub grub as well as bar games and craft beers.

If dancing and drinking aren’t your thing, Columbus still has you covered after the sun goes down. Visit the increasingly popular Trapped Columbus Escape Room. It’s a fantastic performance art venue that unites actors with visitors in unique themed rooms. You’re trapped in the room you select until you solve the puzzles and riddles that lead to the exit. It’s more fun than scary, though, and each event lasts 60 minutes.

Arts District
Arts District in Columbus

Where to Stay in Columbus, Ohio

You have numerous private rental and hotel options in Columbus. If you want to stick close to the airport, choose one of the many Columbus airport hotels. Rooms at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Columbus Airport, for instance, start at just $157 per night. There’s an indoor pool, fitness center, and business center, and you’re within walking distance of the Convention Center. Plus, if you’re visiting during the off season, you might get to check in early, which can give you more sightseeing time in this city.

The Staybridge Suites Columbus-Airport offers even more affordable rates, starting at $140 per night. It doesn’t have as many amenities as the Fairfield, but you’ll like the clean, modern rooms and the friendly hotel staff. There are on-site washers and dryers for guest use as well as free breakfast and wireless high-speed internet.

When you want to indulge during your visit to Columbus, consider more upscale hotels in the downtown district. Start with Le M̩eridien Columbus, The Joseph. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from the North Market, and it offers paid Wi-Fi, laundry service, and an on-site bar and restaurant. The rooms here are larger than those you find in other Columbus hotels, so feel free to spread out. Plus, although the hotel is decorated luxuriously, the staff and accommodations won’t make you feel out of place.

If you don’t enjoy hotel stays, consider booking a private rental. Most of the options in Columbus consist of apartments and condos, but you can also find detached-home rentals for reasonable prices, especially if you’re willing to stay on the outskirts of town.

Alternatively, budget-friendly travelers might want to book a night or two at The Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel. You’ll love the rustic accommodations, friendly owners, plain dorm-style rooms with private baths, and bicycle rentals. You get free breakfast every morning to start your day as well as access to an outdoor hot tub.

How to Get to Columbus

You’ll likely arrive in Columbus via the John Glenn Columbus International Airport. It’s a beautiful facility that lies just 6 miles from downtown Columbus, so you won’t have to travel far to begin your adventure. You’ll find several shops and restaurants both in the pre-security area and on Concourses A, B, and C. Stop at the SouthNorth Marketplace to pick up a few last-minute souvenirs for the folks back home or visit Dr. Shine to give your shoes the royal treatment.

There are fast food as well as sit-down restaurants, and many offer charging stations for your devices. Plus, there’s a Starbucks on every concourse, so you’ll never have to do without your favorite beverage. If you stay in an airport hotel, you can often catch a free shuttle to and from the airport. Alternatively, you can pick up and turn in your rental car on the airport grounds, or snag a taxi or bus from outside baggage claim. Available rental car services include Enterprise, Avis, Hertz, Alamo, and Thrifty.

For visitors who intend to stick to the downtown district, keep in mind that Columbus has remained very walkable despite its vast population increases and new construction. You don’t necessarily have to rent a car if you plan to stick to cultural destinations near your Columbus hotel. Bike-sharing programs and public transportation can fill in any gaps if you decide to venture farther than you originally planned.

The COTA buses charge fares as low as $2 for one-way tickets, and the CBUS circles downtown every 15 minutes. Use either service for fast transportation to nearby destinations. You can also take advantage of the many rideshare programs that operate in Columbus, including Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, and Yellow Cab of Columbus. Uber and Lyft tend to charge less than the other services. Consider downloading the app for the service you wish to use; you’ll often get an attractive coupon just for signing up.

If you’ve never visited the heart of Ohio before, now’s your chance. This city might seem like a small town, but it’s actually a booming metropolis with a small-time feel. Follow the itinerary above to ensure that you don’t waste any minute of your time in The Biggest Small Town in America.