Our Fave Family-Friendly Things to Do in Columbus

Fun in Columbus that's sized just right for families (and still fun for adults).
Passengers on boats encounter dinosaurs at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Photo by Tim Trudell
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (Photo: Tim Trudell)

Sitting along the Scioto River, Ohio’s capital city seems more cosmopolitan than Midwestern. For families especially, it’s a great mix of dinosaurs, art, living kaleidoscopes, zoo wildlife, and plenty of other fun attractions. It’s also home to Ohio State (and its classical campus architecture and outstanding sports teams). Here are my picks for fun and family friendly things to do in Columbus.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

A Mandrill mother and baby cuddle at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
A Mandrill mother and baby cuddle at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (Photo: Tim Trudell)

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is among the largest zoos in the United States, home to 7,000 animals from about 800 species. The zoo clusters animals by continents, which gives visitors the chance to travel the world while wandering the paths of the zoo.

You’ll feel like you’re on the savanna in the heart of Africa as you see giraffes, zebras, and other animals roaming freely. The primate section of the zoo offers hours of entertainment as gorillas, orangutans, and mandrills frolic.

MAKE MEMORIES: 25 Best Family Vacation Spots in the U.S. for All Ages

The zoo also has attractions like the Dinosaur Island Ride, a lazy river ride good for families where you’ll see animatronic prehistoric creatures along the way. You can also explore the zoo aboard the North American train. With carnival rides, including a Ferris wheel, and 4-D theater, the Columbus Zoo is easily a daylong adventure.

Columbus Museum of Art

Whether you’re a fan of the classics or prefer contemporary art, you’ll find your jam at the Columbus Museum of Art, which is home to more than a dozen collections. It has galleries on broad themes (European art, for example) as well as highly focused exhibits like one celebrating women artists.

TAKE FLIGHT: 17 Best Flight Booking Sites for Cheap Airfares

The Museum of Art also presents special exhibits, often first-time exhibits by young artists. To help encourage youth to learn about and embrace art, kids are encouraged to create their own masterpieces in the interactive and fun Wonder Room. The museum offers free admission on Sunday.

Center of Science and Industry

Feathered dinosaur recreations at COSI help tell the evolution toward birds. Photo by Tim Trudell
Feathered dinosaurs help tell the evolution toward birds (Photo: Tim Trudell)

With more than 300 interactive exhibits, the Center of Science and Industry—known locally as COSI—makes leaning fun. From lifting an automobile with one hand at the Big Science Park to delivering news at a Columbus television studio, kids can hop from one fun activity to the next .

Children get hands-on experiences in areas covering life sciences, ocean exploration, as well as alternative energy and recycling. And after they learn about science and industrial progress, the Museum of Natural History takes them back millions of years, when dinosaurs roamed the Scioto Mile.

Visitors can climb a full-size model of an Oviraptor, a dinosaur which resembled a bird, complete with feathers. Exploring the Dinosaur Gallery showcases the progression from prehistoric creature to modern birds and raptors. Located in the former Central High School building, a small exhibit pays homage to the classic school. Don’t forget to check out the deer statue behind the building, where you can enjoy a view of the city’s skyline.

German Village

Yes, you’ll still be in Columbus, but you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time and been transported to Europe in the neighborhood of German Village. Wander among brick homes built more than a century ago by German immigrants to feel transported to a small village in Bavaria or along the Rhein River. While exploring the quaint area, grab a delicious baked treat at Pistacia Vera and a hot beverage from Stauf’s Coffee, then enjoy a stroll through historic Schiller Park. With something for everyone—including pickleball courts, a children’s play area, and a scenic pond with ducks and geese—the tree-lined park feels like an oasis in the city.

No visit to German Village is complete without a stop at The Book Loft. Proudly waving the Deutsch flag alongside its American counterpart, The Book Loft features 32 rooms (yes, closets count as rooms here) in a renovated house, Each room is packed with hundreds of books covering every genre, from children’s and Young Adults to biographies and hard-to-find cookbooks.


Otherworld features immersive art in more than 40 rooms in a science fiction/fantasy story.
Photo by Tim Trudell
Otherworld is an immersive experience imagined and created by artists (Photo: Tim Trudell)

An immersive art installation, Otherworld is a combination of fantasy and science fiction, the sort of place you’ve maybe only ever experienced in your dreams. Beginning in the control room, things appear to go awry, sending you on an adventure exploring more than 40 rooms of bizarre, creative stories that appeal to kids of all ages.

BEST TRIP EVER: 50 Best Family Vacation Ideas for All Ages

Crawling through caves, navigating mirrored rooms, even a church of freakish clowns, the colorful, strangely decorated sets provide hours of hands-on fun. Watch out for the giant narwhal lurking in one of the rooms.

Short North Art District

Home to dozens of murals and sculptures, the historic Short North Art District is the place to go in Columbus for public art. Anchored by the Graduate Hotel’s 11-floor-tall mural called Journey—celebrating the stories of Columbus’ new immigrants—Short North is a vibrant neighborhood of murals highlighting the city’s history and pop culture.

FIND A DEAL: 12 Best Hotel Booking Sites for Cheap Prices

Sculptures feature the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won his first Mr. World bodybuilding championship in Columbus. You can also ponder the meaning of the upside-down version of the classic painting American Gothic and then enjoy a scoop of delicious ice cream at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a Columbus original. Short North’s eclectic neighborhood includes other independent shops such as On Paper and Prologue Bookshop.

National Veterans Memorial and Museum

View of exhibitions at the  National Veterans Memorial and Museum, which is dedicated to veterans of the five military
services and Merchant Marine. Photo by Tim Trudell
The National Veterans Memorial and Museum is dedicated to veterans of the five military services and Merchant Marine (Photo: Tim Trudell)

Sharing stories of real people who have served the country in each of the five military services and Merchant Marine is the mission of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum.

The personal stories—along with artifacts such as meal rations, weapons, and personal letters—tug at the heart and offer a look into why people volunteer to serve the country. Each exhibit features wall-sized photographs, and the second floor’s windows are decorated with the colors of each ribbon issued for military campaigns.

A short walk from the museum, the veterans memorial is located in a serene setting of trees, plants and a waterfall.

Take in a Game

A Columbus Clippers baseball game at Huntington Park. Photo by Tim Trudell
A Columbus Clippers baseball game at Huntington Park (Photo: Tim Trudell)

Professional and college sports take center stage in Ohio’s capital. Among your options: The Ohio State University ranks among the nation’s best in college football. Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew packs fans in the 27,000-seat Lower.com Field, the nation’s first soccer-specific stadium. The Columbus Blue Jackets participate against National Hockey League’s finest at downtown’s Nationwide Arena. And Cleveland Guardians’ top baseball prospects take the field with the Columbus Clippers at Huntington Park.

Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Garden

Peacock topiary: Bushes resemble animals at the Franklin Park children’s garden. Photo by Tim Trudell
Plants that look like animals are part of the fun at the Franklin Park children’s garden (Photo: Tim Trudell)

Art and nature combine to create a scenic landscape in the middle of a city at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Garden. With the country’s largest collection of Dale Chihuly blown-glass art in a botanical garden, plus large sculptures and an outdoor train collection, the 40-acre setting features plenty of beautiful surprises.

TEEN-FRIENDLY TRIPS: 10 Best Vacation Ideas for Families with Teenagers

The botanical garden’s children’s garden is home to manicured bushes resembling animals, and here youngsters can learn about nature through themed projects at the garden’s learning center. Later, head to the outdoor play area or splash around in a water play area.

Where to Stay

Columbus has some independent hotels, but the big hotel brands rule here, especially downtown and around OSU. Here are some particularly good Columbus hotel options for families:

  • For a downtown home base that’s close to COSI and a good playground at Goodale Park, Hilton Columbus Downtown is a great bet for families.
  • For plenty of room near Ohio State, Residence Inn Columbus OSU has one- and two-bedroom suites (with kitchens) that give families plenty of room to spread out. The hotel also has an indoor heated pool and a free daily breakfast buffet.
  • If you’re looking for a more local experience, VRBO has a ton of apartments (and even a few houses) sized for families.

More from FamilyVacationist:

Tim Trudell
Tim Trudell is a freelance writer based in Omaha, Nebraska, and an enrolled member of the Santee Dakota Nation. A US Air Force veteran, he has written for outlets such as The Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska Life, FamilyVacationist, Flatwater Free Press, Next Avenue, TravelAwaits.com, Extended Weekend Getaways, and Living Here Midwest.