The 12 Top Free Things to Do in Columbus

Columbus, Ohio
Cody Ellis / Flickr

Part of the charm of Columbus, Ohio, is its affordability and how there are activities and events perfect for every budget. The city itself spans more than 200 square miles, making it the second largest in the Midwest after Chicago and leaving plenty of room for free and affordable activities. The Ohio State Fair, for instance, typically held from late July until early August, is one of the largest state fairs in the country, and though it's not free, you can still find discounts for admission under $10 if you buy your tickets online. Otherwise, there are plenty of free things to do like neighborhood "shop hops," nature hikes, self-guided tours, and free festivals held throughout the year.

01 of 12

Check Out Dinosaur Bones at the Orton Geological Museum

Dinosaur bones at Orton Geological Museum in Columbus, Ohio

Orton Geological Museum

155 S Oval Mall, Columbus, OH 43210, USA
Phone +1 614-292-6896

If you happen to be visiting Columbus Monday to Friday, stop by the Orton Geological Museum, located in Orton Hall on the southern side of The Oval at The Ohio State University. Besides being able to see the 24-foot skeleton of Cryolophosauraus ellioti, a dinosaur that was discovered in Antarctica by Ohio State University Professor David Elliott, there are tons of other dinosaur bones and teeth to check out (including some hailing from a Mammoth and a Mastodon), as well as a full-size replica of a T–Rex skull, a giant sloth skeleton, fluorescent minerals, a meteorite that landed in Ohio, crystals, and other fossils.

02 of 12

Visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio

Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

1813 N High St, Columbus, OH 43210, USA
Phone +1 614-292-0538

Celebrate the life and creations of one of Ohio's most famous cartoon illustrators at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, located on the northern side of Sullivant Hall on The Ohio State University campus. Born in nearby Chillicothe in 1880, Ireland spent much of his life drawing prolific political cartoons and caricatures in his weekly column, "The Passing Show," for the Columbus Dispatch. Permanent collections include highlights from his career, while visiting exhibits focus on similar artists and themes.

03 of 12

Day Trip to Hopewell Culture National Historic Park

Hopewell Culture National Historic Park

Hopewell Culture National Historic Park

16062 OH-104, Chillicothe, OH 45601, USA
Phone +1 740-774-1125

Located about 45 minutes from Downtown Columbus, Hopewell Culture National Historic Park is a wonderful place to get away from the hustle and bustle. Spend some time reflecting on the past in nature among dozens of 2,000-year-old Native American ceremonial mounds, most of which date back to between 200 B.C. and 500 B.C.

Stop by the Mound City Group Visitor Center for more information about what makes this park so special, then head out to explore the sacred mounds in five different areas surrounding the city of Chillicothe—the Mound City Group, Hopewell Mound Group, Seip Earthworks, Spruce Hill Earthworks, and Hopetown Earthworks.

04 of 12

Listen to Live Music at Polaris Fashion Place

Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus, Ohio

Kevin Payravi / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 

1500 Polaris Pkwy, Columbus, OH 43240, USA
Phone +1 614-846-1500

Every Thursday night during the summer from mid-June to late-August, you'll find live bands and musicians playing at Polaris Fashion Place. Shoppers and passersby can enjoy the live entertainment for free; arrive early to get a front-row spot, bring lawn chairs and blankets, and plan to make an evening of it. Although you're not allowed to bring coolers or alcohol in, drinks are available for purchase and the proceeds go toward local charities.

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05 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
1069 Jaeger St, Columbus, OH 43206-2678, USA
Phone +1 614-645-3156

Get a new appreciation for the area's magnificent outdoor scenery by hiking Central Ohio's many trails with a trained guide or by yourself with a map and trusty compass at your side. Some hikes are designed with fitness in mind, while others are designed to really show off the natural scenes around you. Columbus' Metro Parks also offer programs for children, homeschoolers, and bird lovers, mostly at little to no cost.

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

Near the city center, 71-acre Scioto Audubon Metro Park is located on the banks of the Scioto River. The park is also home to amenities like sand volleyball courts, fishing spots, and a climbing wall. 

Another scenic park with walking trails, a pond featuring elephant fountains, and picturesque landscaping, Goodale Park hosts a variety of festivals and events throughout the year.

06 of 12

Tour the Ohio Statehouse

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

You can take a free guided tour of the state capital building, the Ohio Statehouse, weekdays on the hour from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 3 p.m. The tours are approximately 45 minutes long and depart from the map room, which is accessible from the Third Street entrance.

07 of 12

Attend a Festival

Chinese Lion Dance or Dragon Dance

Pascal Deloche / Getty Images

1777 E Broad St, Columbus, OH 43205, USA

For great food, activities, and entertainment, consider attending one of Columbus' many free festivals, like the Asian Festival, typically held each spring—a major highlight is the traditional Chinese dragon boat race. In June, don't miss the Pride Festival, which celebrates the LBGTQ+ community and 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 features Greek food and offers an artist's showcase of paintings, photography, and sculptures. In autumn, celebrate the harvest 25 miles south of Columbus at the Circleville Pumpkin Show

08 of 12

"Shop Hop" Your Way Through the Districts

Downtown Columbus at Night

Artem Vorobiev / Getty Images

Grandview Ave, Columbus, OH, USA

Those who love window shopping and people watching should "shop hop" local art galleries and stores throughout Columbus' market districts.

The Grandview Hop happens along a half-mile stretch of Grandview Avenue from 1st to 5th avenues, an area that buzzes with live music, shopping, art, and activity on the last Saturday of the month May through September. Sample savory foods as you admire or shop for hand-crafted clothing and jewelry, handmade paper and leather goods, funky accessories, arts and crafts, and home decor items.

On Gallery Hop Saturday, visitors converge on High Street in the Short North Arts District to attend gallery exhibitions, see acts by street performers, and take part in special events 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.

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09 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 stands selling everything from pasta, sauces, produce, flowers, and Indian groceries to gift baskets, cookware, and coffee at North Market. Pick up a sandwich from the deli, enjoy your meal at the nearby picnic tables, grab something sweet from one of several bakers, or treat yourself to an ice cream or bubble tea as you roam the stalls.

10 of 12

Stop and Smell the Roses at the Topiary Garden

Topiary Garden


Holger Jaschke / EyeEm / Getty Images

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

Topiary Garden is the living embodiment of nature mimicking art that is mimicking a scene from nature. Sculptor James T. Mason and his wife, Elaine, created the topiary park based on 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, picnic tables, benches, and sprawling walkways. Best of all, admission is free.

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

12 of 12

Admire the Work of Local Artists

Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University

Juliana Gray

77 S High St, Columbus, OH 43215-6108, USA
Phone +1 614-644-9624

Established on March 17, 1989, the Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery showcases the work of the state's artists and the collections of its museums and galleries. The free gallery is located in the Vern Riffe Center for Government and the Arts, across from the Ohio Statehouse. Exhibits and displays typically include photography, fashion, sculpture, and a selection of artistic 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 receive free admission every Sunday and on Thursdays after 4 p.m., though you'll need to pay a fee to enter at other times.

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The 12 Top Free Things to Do in Columbus