Top Attractions for First-Time Visitors
Columbus has a diverse array of museums, parks, neighborhoods, and landmarks to explore. Here are some of the top spots to check out on your first trip to Columbus:
Short North Arts District
The Short North Arts District is located just north of downtown Columbus. This vibrant neighborhood is known for its art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and public art murals. It’s a great area to stroll around, do some shopping, grab a bite to eat, and experience Columbus’ arts scene. Some landmarks in the Short North include the Gateway Film Center, North Market, and Goodale Park. The Gateway Film Center is an indie/art house movie theater showing documentaries, independent films, and foreign cinema. Grab some popcorn and catch a unique film you won’t find at mainstream theaters. The North Market is a historic public market with dozens of food merchants and shops selling produce, meats, baked goods, flowers, and more. It’s a great place to sample authentic international cuisine, pick up locally made artisan products, or enjoy a casual lunch. Goodale Park is a popular green space home to a 120-foot Pride monument, a playground, spray fountains, and walking paths. Relax on the grass, walk through the gardens, or observe the nineteenth-century gazebo. In addition to its landmarks, the Short North is filled with public art murals by local artists. The ARTchitecture program has created over 100 murals, many of which contain thought-provoking social commentary and reflect the district’s diversity.
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Franklin Park Conservatory is a beautiful botanical garden located on the east side of Columbus. Visitors can explore exotic plant collections in biomes like the rainforest and desert, see art installations made from plants, and enjoy events like light shows and flower shows. The conservatory and gardens make for a relaxing outdoor excursion. The signature attraction is the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children’s Garden, an immersive area where kids can play music on oversized instruments, control model boats in a water feature, and learn about plants. Other highlights include the Pacific Island Water Garden with a 40-foot waterfall and the Blooms & Butterflies exhibition. Seasonal flower shows like the Spring Blooms Show and the Holiday Blooms Show transform the conservatory’s biomes using specialized horticulture techniques and thousands of blooms. At night, the gardens come alive during events like Light Up the Night, featuring creative light installations and music.
The Ohio Statehouse is the home of Ohio’s state government. Schedule a guided tour to see the historic Senate Chamber and House Chamber and learn about the building’s Greek Revival-style architecture. The Statehouse grounds also feature statues of famous Ohioans like Abraham Lincoln. Construction of the Ohio Statehouse began in 1839 and was completed in 1861. It was built from local limestone and incorporates elements of the Doric order like prominent columns and pediments. The Statehouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places both for its significance and architectural style. Guided tours provide insights into the structure, artwork, and history of the Statehouse. Visitors are able to access the Senate Chamber viewing gallery and House Chamber for a glimpse into legislative activity. Tour guides share facts about the building’s neoclassical design and symbolic adornments. The Statehouse lawn contains several monuments honoring notable politicians and soldiers. A towering statue of President William McKinley stands out, along with the Christopher Columbus Discovery Monument and a Spanish-American War memorial.
Nationwide Arena is home to the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. Catch an exciting hockey game at this popular downtown venue. Concerts, NCAA basketball, and other sporting events are also held here. Guided tours of the arena are available if there’s no event during your visit. The 19,500-seat arena first opened in 2000 and regularly sells out for hockey games and big concerts. Home to the Blue Jackets since the franchise’s inception, Nationwide Arena exudes team spirit with its cannon and giant Hockey Gods statues out front. During intermission don’t miss out on local food offerings like Schmidt’s sausage and Jeni’s ice cream. Upgrade to a premium suite for all-inclusive amenities like catered food and your own lounge. Concert performers who have rocked the Nationwide stage include Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Beyoncé. Behind-the-scenes 75-minute guided tours are offered select Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for $10 per person. Guests are able to visit the FOX Sports Ohio Zamboni shop, media rooms, locker rooms, and event level suites. It’s a special experience for big sports fans.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Consistently ranked as one of the best zoos in the country, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is a must for animal lovers. Get up close to more than 10,000 animals representing over 600 species. The zoo has several themed regions like the Congo Expedition, Shores, and Polar Frontier. Jack Hanna, the zoo’s director emeritus, also filmed his TV show at the zoo. Popular exhibits include the 4-D Theater with multisensory films, the butterfly aviary with hundreds of colorful butterflies, and the giraffe encounter, where you can hand-feed and pet the zoo’s Masai giraffes. Heart of Africa highlights the Congo Basin through realistic habitats for gorillas, elephants, okapi, meerkats, and other African fauna. At Shores, observe playful sea lions, feed stingrays, and explore a mangrove forest filled with crocodiles and tropical birds. Polar Frontier is home to polar bears, seals, sea otters, and walruses. Zoo events include celebrations for holidays like Boo at the Zoo and Wildlights, overnight programs where kids can camp at the zoo, and conservation fundraising efforts like the annual Run Whild 5K race.
Center of Science and Industry (COSI)
COSI Columbus is a massive 300,000 square foot science museum great for visitors of all ages. It has hundreds of interactive STEM exhibits covering topics like physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, technology, and more. Some of the most popular exhibits include the Planetarium, the Ocean Explorer, and Progress – an exhibit on Ohio innovations and inventors. At the Planetarium, visitors can explore stars, planets, galaxies, and astronomy discoveries across the universe on an immersive 55-foot dome screen. Multiple films play daily taking viewers on journeys through space. Guests can also control high-powered telescopes for real-time viewing. Ocean Explorer is a 13,000 gallon saltwater tank home to sharks, stingrays, turtles, and other marine life. Get up close through underwater viewing tunnels and observe feedings and training sessions with aquatic animals. Progress tells the stories of Ohioans who have impacted our everyday lives with their innovative inventions and discoveries. Artifacts on display include the first airplane, cash register, and traffic light. Interactive components let you try inventing your own creation.
Ohio History Center
Learn about Ohio’s past at the Ohio History Center, operated by the Ohio History Connection. The museum houses a variety of exhibits exploring Ohio’s landscape, people, events, and innovations through artifacts and interactive displays. Popular permanent exhibits include “Ohio: An American Story,” providing an overview of Ohio’s growth since the Ice Age up to today. Visitors can walk through a recreated underground mine, learn about Ohio’s canals and railroads, and see the sit-in counter from the 1958 Katz Drug Store protests. Another exhibit highlights Ohio’s role in the Civil War through personal artifacts from soldiers and battle flags from regiments. A 1920s-style diner and garage lets guests explore inventions and culture from that era. Temporary exhibits also rotate frequently, covering topics like fashion, music, and holidays. The Ohio Village time period village lets visitors experience what life was like in Ohio from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Costumed interpreters inhabit the village occupying trades like blacksmith, physician, and photographer. Special event days bring the village alive through reenactments and activities. Researchers can access the museum’s extensive archives and special collections spanning manuscripts, photographs, publications, art, and artifacts. Genealogy resources are also available to aid in tracing family roots.
Kelton House Museum and Garden
Built in 1852, Kelton House Museum and Garden is a historic Greek Revival-style home located in downtown Columbus’ Town Street district. Tour the historic home decorated with period furniture to get a glimpse into daily life for affluent Columbus residents in the mid-19th century. The Kelton House also features a scenic outdoor garden and museum exhibits with archaeology artifacts and folk art. Special activities like tea with Mrs. Kelton bring guests back in time. Guided tours provide fascinating stories and history about early Columbus.
Santa Maria Replica & Museum
Learn about Columbus’ history and its namesake explorer at the Santa Maria Museum located on the Scioto River. The outdoor museum features a full-sized replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria that visitors can board and explore. Climb aboard the 65-foot ship built by local craftsmen using methods similar to those from the 1400s. Below deck, exhibits showcase nautical artifacts and provide information about Columbus’ famous 1492 voyage. Costumed interpreters provide additional insights during your self-guided tour.
How to Get Around Columbus
Columbus offers several convenient transportation options for getting to the city’s top attractions and navigating during your trip.
The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) operates public buses throughout Columbus and to nearby suburbs. COTA buses serve popular destinations like downtown Columbus, Ohio State University, the airport, and shopping centers. Day passes can be purchased for unlimited rides. COTA’s bus rapid transit line CMAX is a convenient way to reach attractions like the Franklin Park Conservatory, Nationwide Arena, the Short North, and Downtown. It departs every 10 minutes and has designated lanes. COTA also operates CBUS, a free circulator bus that connects downtown hotspots. The CBUS includes stops along High Street through the Short North and connects the Brewery District with the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Taxis and Rideshares
Taxis and rideshares like Uber and Lyft are readily available in Columbus. These are especially convenient options for getting to and from the airport, which is located about 10 miles northeast of downtown. Fares from John Glenn Columbus International Airport to downtown Columbus average around $25-35 via Uber and Lyft. Traditional taxi companies like Yellow Cab operate around the clock and also provide transportation around town. Rideshares and taxis can also provide affordable transportation between your hotel, attractions, and restaurants if you prefer not to rent a car. Prices are reasonable for shorter point-to-point trips.
Rental cars allow maximum flexibility for exploring Columbus at your own pace. Major rental companies are available at John Glenn Columbus International Airport including Alamo, Enterprise, Hertz, and Budget. Driving gives you easy access to attractions around the metro area like the Columbus Zoo, shopping centers, and surrounding towns. Be sure to account for parking costs at your various stops. Rental prices average around $50 per day. Keep in mind that downtown Columbus and OSU campus area traffic and parking can frustrate drivers unused to navigating busy urban areas. Consider using public transportation or rideshares to reach some destinations.
Pedal Wagon Tours
For a fun and unique way to experience Columbus, book a pedal wagon tour. Multiple companies like Double Tap Tours and Columbus Pedal Wagon operate these 15-person pedaling vehicles for pub crawls, tours, and private events in neighborhoods like Short North, Arena District, and Brewery District. Guests pedal while a certified guide steers the giant wagon, allowing everyone to kick back and enjoy the ride. Columbus’ flat terrain and condensed downtown makes it ideal for touring by pedal wagon. Most tour options include stopping at breweries, bars, and city attractions.
CoGo Bike Share is Columbus’ bike share system with over 300 stations around the city. Day passes can be purchased for unlimited 30 minute rides on the bright green bikes. One-way trips are convenient for reaching destinations like German Village, downtown, and campus. Over 30 miles of bike lanes and 80 miles of trails allow safe cycling around Columbus. Popular paved trails include the Olentangy and Alum Creek Trails. Biking is a nice way to experience Columbus neighborhoods at a relaxed pace.
For group trips and events, renting a charter bus is an excellent transportation choice. Charter buses provide door-to-door service from your Columbus location of choice to destinations around the city and beyond. They’re ideal for events, conferences, and moving large groups together while keeping everyone comfortable and on-schedule. Many buses have amenities like WiFi, TVs, power outlets, and restrooms. Experienced team knows the best routes. Charter buses are perfect for airport transfers, taking a group sightseeing, shuttling wedding guests, or simplifying business conventions and corporate outings. Available bus sizes range from mini coaches to luxury full-size buses holding over 50 passengers. Quotes are customized to your group’s exact needs.
Ready to Get Started?
Columbus Party Bus Company offers something for all interests and travel styles. With an array of exciting attractions, a robust public transportation network, and charter bus options for group travel, it’s easy to get around and experience the best of Columbus. Use this first timer’s guide to start planning your Columbus vacation today!