Family Road Trip Guide: Columbus, Ohio

As a destination or a point of interest on a longer getaway, Columbus offers a ton of family things to do and a walkable downtown, perfect for four-season fun.

I have a book-loving kid. That means when he was growing up, we wouldn’t travel for sports or robotics competitions like many of his peers. Instead, we’d seek out the nearest author reading or book signing. 

So, when he suggested we travel to Columbus, Ohio, to hear Celeste Ng (author of Little Fires Everywhere and two other novels) talk with poet Maggie Smith on stage at the Columbus College of Art & Design, I was on board. We get to do something we love as a family — and visit a new place, too.

Does Columbus, Ohio, make a great destination for a weekend road trip with the kids? Maybe. Does it make the perfect stopping point when you’re visiting family or friends nearby or when you’re headed to points further south and want a great layover location? Absolutely.

Next time you’re looking for a not-too-distant destination with some really family-friendly experiences to offer, think Columbus.

Getting to Columbus, Ohio

From Detroit, Columbus is just over 200 miles away and easy to get to on I-75 south and US-23 south. The roads in this segment of Ohio are well-maintained and finding your way is an easy task, especially when you use Ford’s SYNC 4 Technology.

What families love about Columbus, Ohio

Once we realized the walkable nature of Columbus’ downtown, we grabbed a map and set out to enjoy the afternoon before the book event. There’s plenty of wayfinding and Columbus seems to have a robust public transportation system. 

Our first stop was the Topiary Garden Park, a 7-acre space that’s perfect for wandering. Situated on what used to be the early-19th century Old Deaf School Park, this space is pretty unique. Called “the only public park of its kind, not only in Ohio, but in the world as well,” by the City of Columbus site, this is a garden that recreates — in shaped hedges — A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the famous impressionist painting by Georges Seurat that visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago may well be familiar with.

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This Topiary Garden depicts a famous Seurat painting. Photo by Claire Charlton.

You can spend as much time as you like in this free garden, viewing the topiaries from every angle as you put together the painting in your own head, though little ones may just enjoy running around in the green space. We even saw a turtle at the edge of the pond that represents Paris’ River Seine and contains topiaries depicting a team of rowers on the water.

Directly across from the Topiary Garden Park is the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, which could easily be mistaken for an art museum for its grand size and imposing facade. Linger in the outdoor Kaufman Plaza when the weather is nice, then head inside and prepare to be amazed. My future librarian son was impressed with the clever way the books were arranged — just like a favorite bookstore, with multiple copies stacked and topped by the featured book. In all, there are three levels to explore.

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The Columbus Metropolitan Library has an expansive children’s section. Photo by Claire Charlton.

Young children will love to enter the children’s library through the kid-sized portal, then wander through the areas that are dedicated to what kids love best: Lego, trains, dinos and a lot more. When we visited, there was a dinosaur exhibit, an interactive fossil dig area and a miniature Island of Sodor where Thomas and a friend travel in circles. 

Columbus is full of parks! Visit Columbus Commons, a 6-acre green space that celebrates downtown with great views and seasonal events. For great skyline views, visit Scioto Mile, a nine-park area with a promenade that connects Battelle Riverfront Park and Bicentennial Park — where there’s an interactive fountain with a nighttime light show. The promenade also features benches, swings and a place to play card games, chess or checkers. It’s covered, too, so it makes a great retreat when it’s raining or snowing.

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Bicentennial Park is one highlight of the Scioto Mile promenade. Views of the city is another. Photo by Claire Charlton

Across the Scioto River from Bicentennial Park is the Center of Science and Industry (COSI). This place makes science, tech, space, dinosaur and natural history lovers of all ages giddy. Most families have a kid (or adult!) who will go crazy over COSI, and this museum itself is worth the trip to Columbus. Check ahead to see what special exhibits you can see when you visit. 

We also walked through Washington Gladden Social Justice Park, named for the Columbus community leader and father of the Social Gospel Movement. We loved looking at the park’s sculpture, Our Single Garment of Destiny, which looks different from different angles, even nearly disappearing from one perspective. This is a great destination to stimulate family conversations about what social justice actually is and the many individuals, groups and organizations that have impacted history through the social justice movement.

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Washington Gladden Social Justice Park. Photo by Claire Charlton

Where to stay in Columbus, Ohio

There are plenty of hotels in Columbus that are easily accessible from US-23. 

We landed at the Home2 Suites by Hilton, right on Main Street downtown. It was affordable, the room adequate, and in a good location for exploring. The hotel itself had a family-friendly vibe, with an expansive “living room” area with toys and games that are just right for little kids. The breakfast was plentiful and there was a right-sized area where children could select their own dishes and flatware.

We noticed that at this hotel — and in Columbus, in general — dogs are welcome pretty much everywhere. 

What to eat in Columbus, Ohio

It’s fun and convenient when an eatery’s name is also its location. 4th and State is a family-owned local diner that serves plant-based diner fare in a friendly atmosphere. It’s the perfect place to land when you crave breakfast at any time of the day.

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Cinnabun pancake bites at 4th and State, Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Claire Charlton

The kids menu has standard fare, and the standard menu is overwhelming in a good way. We started with the cinnabun pancake bites, which were sweet and gooey and just the right size for sharing. Teens will love the Vrunchwrap, which our server compared to “a plant-based version of the Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme,” an appropriate comparison. She also said that this particular dish has won citywide competitions. Add a side of roasted Brussels sprouts with balsamic glaze to make this dish extra special.

In addition to pancakes, French toast and patty melts, the menu features burgers (try the Big Brunchy for a bit of everything), sandwiches, salads and pizza. You won’t have room for dessert.

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Award-winning Vrunchwrap at 4th and State. Photo by Claire Charlton

German Village and nearby Brewery District are hotspots for dining and shopping, too. German Village, in particular, is a unique find, with cobbled streets and loads of historic charm. Visit Stauf’s Coffee Roasters for an independently-owned coffeehouse vibe and plenty of space to sit, inside and out. 

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German Village oozes historic charm. Photo by Claire Charlton

While you’re there, stop in the Book Loft, a nearly indescribable collection of books and bookstore merch spread over 32 rooms. For us, a visit to this unique bookstore capped off our weekend visit to Columbus perfectly.

Content sponsored by Southeast Michigan Ford Dealers. Visit buyfordnow.com.

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