With all the expected urban pleasures—museums, great restaurants, and thriving neighborhoods—Columbus, Ohio, might surprise visitors with its wealth of green spaces, parks, and recreation areas. Below are a few highlights, most centrally located and easily accessible from downtown.
Columbus and Franklin County’s Metro Parks system maintains 20 locations spanning more than 28,000 acres in 7 Central Ohio counties. More than 12 million guests a year visit to hike its more than 230 miles of trails and participate in other free recreational and educational events.
Once America’s largest limestone quarry, the Marble Cliff Quarry supplied stone for the 1861 Greek Revival Ohio Statehouse about 6 miles east of Metro Parks’ newest location.
That same stone clusters here along the park’s lakes and forms the 25-foot cliff over which a waterfall cascades.
Quarry Trails’ 200 acres make for many a serene walk, but adventure seekers also have abundant choices. There’s a rigorous mountain biking trail and, opening later this year, a horizontal climbing structure known as a via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”). Columbus will have the first urban version of this trendy activity that’s popular in Europe and America’s national parks and ski resorts.
This 120-acre downtown park, transformed from a derelict brownfield, includes a more traditional 35-foot rock-climbing wall. Bring your own equipment to take on one of the country’s largest free outdoor challenges.
This park, part of the Scioto Mile, offers great views of both the winding Scioto River and the downtown skyline. It includes an obstacle course and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, which presents educational exhibits and programs about regional birds and their conservation. A greenway along the river leads from here to downtown.
This respite with a glass-enclosed restaurant is a choice gathering spot for performances and festivals. Greenways flanking the river connect downtown with attractions on the west bank such as the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, COSI (Center of Science and Industry), and the edgy but emerging Franklinton neighborhood (think breweries and galleries).
Architecture buffs revel in the sights of this large, nationally registered preservation district. German immigrants built the pretty blocks of red-brick homes during the early to mid-19th century.
The 23-acre Civil War–era Schiller Park is oriented around a statue of the park’s namesake, German philosopher and poet Friedrich von Schiller. Several other sculptures, including a triptych of 2 women watching a rower in the pond, are scattered throughout.
The park operates as a kind of community center for residents, with picnic benches, softball fields, and basketball and tennis courts, as well as a kids’ playground and an outdoor stage for the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus.
Avid readers must make a pilgrimage to the 32 rooms that sprawl through The Book Loft of German Village, one of the country’s largest independent bookstores. When you’ve had your fill of browsing and buying, head back to the park. Sit a spell on a bench with your new reads, perhaps with a hot drink and a palmier from European-style bakery Pistachia Vera.
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
This must-see botanical garden and conservatory showcases 18 works by trailblazing glass artist Dale Chihuly. The fantastically formed and vividly hued pieces are vaguely reminiscent of flowers and grasses. Tucked amid verdant vignettes representing a Himalayan mountain, a tropical rainforest, and other biomes, the glass adds an extra layer of sensory delight.
After dark, Light Raiment II, an installation of some 7,000 computer-controlled LEDs by renowned light artist James Turrell, magically illuminates the 1895 greenhouse and its attendant fountains, iron gazebos, and spiral staircases.
The grounds also feature a palm house, a children’s garden, and an ever-changing display of bulbs, ornamental annuals and perennials, native plantings, and flowering trees from spring through fall. Adults, $23.
Topiary Garden at Deaf School Park, behind the Columbus Metropolitan Library, is where local sculptor James T. Mason used shears and shrubs in 1989 to re-create Georges Seurat’s iconic painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884.
Smaller gardens are nearby at the Columbus Museum of Art and across from the Thurber House, where humorist James Thurber lived while a student at Ohio State University. He later used it as a setting for some of his best-loved short stories; it’s now a museum and literary center.
The city’s tourism bureau, along with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, offers the Columbus Outdoors Trails Pass. It’s downloadable to your phone and those who sign up are entered into a monthly $100 gift card drawing to local businesses.
Where to eat
During your floral fix, stop for lunch at the East Market, which opened in April 2022 within historic red-brick buildings that serviced the city’s trolley system until the 1960s. Varied offerings from local eateries include Creole 2 Geaux, Yellow Brick Pizza, and Winston’s Coffee & Waffles. It’s a contemporary take on the city’s original grand market, the North Market in the Short North neighborhood across from the convention center.
You’ll find the city’s hottest new restaurant in a Hilton attached to the convention center. Fyr’s chef-driven live-fire menu—from appetizers like the wood-oven roasted tomato to grilled entrées such as skirt steak with arugula, Grana Padano cheese, and lime dressing—lives up to the hype.
On the other end of the dining spectrum is the plant-forward Comune at the edge of German Village. This local favorite promises to leave fans of heartier fare neither disappointed nor hungry. Standouts include confit carrot cassoulet and desserts such as blood orange sorbet drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted pine nuts.
Where to stay
In the Short North, Graduate Columbus offers complimentary bikes and, true to the brand’s ethos, a great sense of place. Look for subtle appearances by local icons such as Thurber and astronaut John Glenn, as well as nods to the motifs and colors of nearby OSU. Rates start at $149.
Downtown, the AAA Four Diamond Hotel LeVeque unveiled a major renovation a few years ago that brought renewed sparkle to its art deco interior along with contemporary upgrades. The Keep, a speakeasy-like cocktail bar on the mezzanine level, is a lovely after-theater rendezvous spot. Rates start at $260.
Based in Philadelphia, JoAnn Greco frequently writes about urban destinations.
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