12 Top Free Things to Do in Columbus

Columbus, Ohio
Cody Ellis / Flickr

Part of the charm of Columbus, Ohio, is its affordability. There are activities and events for every budget and every resident. The city spans more than 200 square miles—it is the second largest city in the Midwest (after Chicago).

Annual festivities in Columbus include the Ohio State Fair, which is held late July until early August. It is one of the largest state fairs in the country, and though it's not free, you can find discounts for admission under $10 if you buy your tickets online. Otherwise, there are plenty of free things to do like "shop hops," nature hikes, tours, and free festivals throughout the year.

01 of 12

Attend Cultural Events at Ohio Libraries

Entrance to the Columbus Metropolitan Library
Niagara66/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Ohio's libraries are consistently ranked among the top library systems in the country. The Columbus Metropolitan Library has served the residents of Franklin County, Ohio since 1873.

The local libraries offer much more than just books. Storytime activities and family day events draw big crowds. Other draws include special summer concerts, impressive art collections, and stellar research resources for businesses, genealogy, and electronics. Not only is the book selection extensive, the libraries in the area have robust e-books selections and e-reader programs for residents.

02 of 12

Take a Hike in Nature

Glacial grooves from Pleistocene glaciation on Columbus Limestone (Middle Devonian) (Glacial Grooves State Park, northwestern Kelleys Island, far-northern Ohio, western Lake Erie, USA)
James St. John/Flickr

Take in the magnificent outdoor scenery by hiking the thousands of trails in Central Ohio with trained guides or with a map and trusty compass as your guide. Some hikes are designed with fitness in mind, while others are designed to show off nature. Columbus' Metro Parks also offers programs for children, homeschoolers, bird lovers, mostly at no cost.

Open to the public since 1867, Schiller Park has amenities like walking paths, gazebos, tennis courts, and bronze statues. The park has an outdoor amphitheater that often hosts community plays and concerts.

One of Columbus’ relatively newer parks, the 71-acre Scioto Audubon, which opened in 2009, is located on the banks of Scioto River at the center of the city. The park is also home to sand volleyball courts, fishing spots, and a climbing wall. 

A scenic park with walking trails, a pond with elephant fountains, and picturesque landscaping, Goodale Park is home to a variety of festivals and other special events.

03 of 12

Tour the Statehouse

Ohio State Capitol Building
William Manning / Getty Images
1 Capitol Square, Columbus, OH 43215, USA
Phone +1 614-752-9777

Take a free guided tour of the state capital building, which is offered weekdays on the hour from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 3 p.m. Tours depart from the map room, which is accessible from the Third Street entrance, and are approximately 45 minutes in length.

04 of 12

Go to a Fun Festival

Chinese Lion Dance or Dragon Dance
Pascal Deloche/Getty Images

For great food, activities, and entertainment, consider one of the many festivals held in Columbus. In the spring you can check out the Asian Festival with traditional Chinese dragon boat races. The mid-June Pride Festival celebrates the LBGT diversity of Columbus. Summertime brings with it the Jazz and Ribs Fest; Ohio's largest festival highlighting Latin American culture, Festival Latino; and the Columbus Greek Festival, which serves authentic Greek food and offers an artist's showcase of paintings, photography, sculptures, and more. Fall is the time to celebrate the harvest with the Circleville Pumpkin Show, 25 miles south of Columbus, and the Fall Harvest Fair in Columbus Commons. 

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05 of 12

Shop the District

Downtown Columbus at Night

Artem Vorobiev/Getty Images

For those who love to go window shopping and people watching, you can visit local art galleries and stores in the market districts of Columbus.

The Grandview Hop is a half-mile stretch of Grandview Avenue from 1st to 5th avenues buzzing with live music, shopping, art, and activity the last Saturdays from May through September. Check out unexpected wares like hand-crafted clothing and jewelry, handmade paper and leather goods, savory foods, funky accessories, home decor, and art galore. 

On Gallery Hop Saturday, thousands of visitors converge on High Street in the Short North Arts District. Visitors celebrate art with gallery exhibitions, street performers, special events, food, and drinks throughout the district on the first Saturday of each month. With dozens of galleries and non-traditional exhibit spaces, it’s Columbus’ favorite night of the month to celebrate art.

06 of 12

Explore North Market

Columbus North Market Taste Belgium
Marcia Frost
59 Spruce St, Columbus, OH 43215-1622, USA
Phone +1 614-463-9664

Browse through 30 merchants stands selling everything from pasta and sauces, produce, flowers, Indian groceries, gift baskets, cookware, and coffee. You can try fresh seafood from The Fish Guys or a sandwich from the deli and enjoy your meal on nearby picnic tables. Grab something sweet from one of several bakers, or try an ice cream or bubble tea as a special treat.

07 of 12

Stroll Through Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

franklin park conservatory ohio
Richard Cummins / Getty Images
1777 E Broad St, Columbus, OH 43203, USA
Phone +1 614-715-8000

One of Columbus' top attractions is the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens located three miles outside the city center, which first opened to the public in 1895. There is a general admission fee, but the conservatory offers free admission on the first Sunday of the month if you are in a financial assistance qualifying program.

There are more than 400 plant species divided by the world's biomes, from the rainforest to the desert. The conservatory boasts an orchid collection, a bonsai garden, and 100 butterfly species as well as artwork and sculptures by international artists throughout the gardens.

08 of 12

Tour the Thurber House

James Thurber House

 Nyttend/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

77 Jefferson Ave, Columbus, OH 43215, USA
Phone +1 614-464-1032

The James Thurber House was once the home of the famed American author, humorist, and New Yorker cartoonist. Take a self-guided tour of the house that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and that features a sculpture garden, a rotating schedule of art and literary events monthly, and a book-related art gallery. Admission is free of charge on weekdays. For a small fee, you can get a guided tour.

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09 of 12

Smell the Roses at the Topiary Garden

Topiary Garden


Holger Jaschke / EyeEm / Getty Images

480 E Town St, Columbus, OH 43215-4708, USA
Phone +1 614-645-0197

The Topiary Park is the living embodiment of nature mimicking art that is mimicking a scene from nature. James T. Mason, sculptor and creator made a topiary park from his interpretation of George Seurat’s famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte."

According to Mason, "The topiary garden is both a work of art and a work of nature. It plays upon the relationships between nature, art, and life.”

The wheelchair-accessible park also features an array of expertly landscaped gardens complete with picnic tables, benches, and sprawling walkways. Admission is free.

10 of 12

Watch Performance Art

Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University

Juliana Gray

77 S High St # B-1, Columbus, OH 43215-6108, USA
Phone +1 614-644-5250

Established on March 17, 1989, the Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery showcases the work of Ohio's artists and the collections of the state's museums and galleries. The free gallery is located in the Vern Riffe Center for Government and the Arts, across from the Statehouse. Exhibits can include shows of photography, fashion, sculpture, and quilts. 

Part of Ohio State University, the Wexner Center for the Arts galleries play host to a diverse and changing roster of work from an international array of contemporary artists, emerging filmmakers, and documentary producers. Performing arts troupes include dancers and musicians. All visitors are admitted to the exhibitions for free on Thursdays after 4 p.m. and on the first Sunday of each month.

11 of 12

Shop at Powell Street Market

Twice a year, more than 100 local vendors organize the Powell Street Market across the streets of downtown Powell. In 2019, they will set up shop on Sunday, May 5 and September 8 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Here, locals browse for handmade crafts, snacks, antiques, and more.

12 of 12

Listen to Bands at Live Polaris

Polaris Fashion Place

Kevin Payravi/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 

Every Thursday night in the summer, there are live bands and musicians playing at Polaris Fashion Place. The concert series starts June 13 to August 22, 2019, from 6:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. (There will be no concert on Thursday, July 4.) Shoppers and passersby can enjoy the live entertainment for free; arrive early to get a front-row spot and bring lawn chairs and blankets and make a picnic evening out of it. Although you're not allowed to bring coolers or alcohol, drinks available for purchase and proceeds go to local charities.

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12 Top Free Things to Do in Columbus