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Columbus Budget Travel Guide

I’m a transplant to Columbus.  And to be honest, it took me a while to warm to the city.  But a year ago I decided to get to know Columbus better with a 30 Day City Challenge - doing 30 new things in Columbus in 30 days.  After all, I had lived there for 4 years and had barely seen the city.  And what a change in perspective it offered me.

Since then I’ve become a huge fan.  Most people think of Ohio as a fly-over state.  But Columbus is a college town that attracts intelligent and cultured people who like to eat diverse food and do smart and cultured things.  And it’s a family town that has a ton of fun and enriching stuff for families to do.  With all of the sports, food, arts, parks, museums, community events and entertainment in the city, it’s a great place to visit whether you have kids in tow or not.

This travel guide offers advice and suggestions on how to experience the best Columbus has to offer.  And maybe, just maybe, it will convince you that it’s a place that should be stopped-in to not flown over.

Planes, No Trains, and Definitely Automobiles

Columbus is easily accessible by several interstate highways and an airport that serves all major airlines, including Southwest and Frontier.  There are no passenger rails lines, but buses are also an option with Greyhound and Mega Bus serving the city.

When traveling throughout Columbus, you’ll need a car.  While there is a good and reliable bus system, the honest truth is that to get to the top attractions you’ll have to drive.  This means you’ll need to budget for gas and parking.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that if you optimize your trips you can help reduce time spent in the car.  The best advice is to plan your daily activities around specific areas.  Downtown Columbus is a small and compact city that is very walkable.  Once you get outside of the city proper, you’ll need your car more frequently.  And even in rush hour, navigating the city is very quick and easy.  You can get from a northern suburb to the southern edge of the city in about 20 minutes.

Metered street parking is available in the Downtown, German Village, Short North, and Grandview neighborhoods, as well as parking lots or garages.  German Village has the most limited parking availability, although most of it is free.  Bring quarters if you plan to park at metered spaces (the city is quickly converting meters to accept credit cards).  Attractions outside of downtown will have their own lots - a few where you’ll have to pay, but most that are free.

Comfortable Lodging Without Breaking The Bank

Your best bet for inexpensive lodging is to go with an economy hotel chain.  All of the major chains have properties throughout Columbus.  Most will be in the $70-125 per night range, although there are several higher-end chains and local inns charging $125+ per night.  (If it’s a football game weekend or a convention is in town, rates may be higher.) 

Be mindful of location when choosing a hotel.  While budget motels and hotels do exist in the city, they may be in less desirable neighborhoods.  In general, the southwest (below I-70 and west of S-315) and eastern sides (the area east of I-71 and west of I-270) of the city should be avoided - with the exception of Easton and the airport.

If you’re comfortable renting a room or apartment throughout your stay, there are lots of affordable options in nice and central neighborhoods on and  Daily rates are usually between $45-80 per night.

Local Foods Are A Delicious Discovery

You’re going to be shocked.  There is so much to talk about when it comes to the Columbus food scene - especially when you’re talking locally sourced foods.  Sure, there are plenty of chain restaurants that serve chain quality food.  This is Ohio.  But being in the heart of agriculture sure has its advantages, among which is access to high-quality, local food.  And the local food movement is in full swing in Columbus from restaurants, to ice cream shops, to distilleries, to entrepreneurial food trucks.

Have you heard of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams?  Yeah, she’s from Columbus.  Her business is booming for it’s focus on unique artisanal ice cream that is crafted from ingredients sourced at a local creamery and fruit farms.  You must make your way to one of 7 local shops when you visit.

Two years ago, the food truck scene in Columbus barely existed.  Today food trucks and pop-up eateries are everywhere serving any type of food you could want: tacos, barbecue, Italian, Korean, vegan, southern, Polish and more.  Many serve just great food at extremely reasonable prices (because you can when your overhead is a box truck), like Los Gauchos Taqueria.  Others have embraced the local foods movement and sourced seasonal local ingredients for their menus, like Darista Cafe and That Food Truck

Dinin’ Hall is a unique concept that serves as a food truck hub where trucks have a regular location to serve lunch.  Visit them at for the truck schedule.  There are also a couple of other resources to help you find Columbus mobile eateries that pretty much capture the breadth of food available at hundreds of trucks throughout the city.  If you want great and cheap food, these are your go-to resources:

Family Fun In The Heart of Buckeye Nation

Columbus is a great place for families - to live and to visit.  With some of the country’s best family attractions, a calendar full of festivals, a large and accessible park system, and a bunch of professional sports teams (not to mention Big 10 Ohio State athletics) there is more than enough to hold a family’s attention any time of year.

Let’s start with the big ones: COSI (rated the #1 science museum in the country) and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (top-5 zoo in the US).  Both of these attractions can easily occupy your time for a day - maybe 2 if you want to visit Zoombezi Bay at the zoo.  Both require admission - which can add up for families.  But often, you can buy a family pass to save a few dollars on admission and get extra perks like special access and discounts.  Buying tickets online will also help you avoid waiting in ticket lines that can often be long, especially on weekends.  Visit their websites for more information:

For some great and free outdoor family fun, the Columbus Metro Parks system has almost 20 area parks to hike, jog, bike, fish, boat, canoe, picnic, sled, cross-country ski, ride horses, and even rock climb all within 40 minutes of Downtown Columbus.  Slate Run Park has a working historical farm with events and activities year-round. And the park system also offers numerous nature programs throughout the season. 

My favorite park is the 120-acre Scioto Audobon Park nestled on the edge of Downtown Columbus.  The reclaimed wetlands are a magnet for for bird activity and are the perfect spot for bird watching.  The Grange Insurance Audobon Center is a nature center in the park where you can learn about bird life, wetlands, and conservation.  Biking and jogging trails, as well as a dog park, are found in the park.  But the highlight for me (and my nephews) is the largest free outdoor climbing wall in the country.

So make sure to bring your bike, boots, climbing gear or whatever else you need to take full advantage of this great park system.

Connect With The Community At Local Festivals

Attending a festival is a great way to get a flavor for the Columbus community and meet people.  Just by walking around, talking with local vendors, sitting next to other families at food tents, and listening to local bands you’ll be able to get a great taste for the heart and soul of Columbus and central Ohio.  Plus people in Columbus are friendly and love their state.  I mean they really, really love Ohio - especially Buckeye football.  Start any conversation with a mention of Ohio State football and you’ll be golden.

There is literally a festival or event going on every weekend - even in the winter.  The Columbus Community is pretty diverse (again, surprising I know) and you’ll see music, Asian, Italian, Irish, Greek, jazz, film, farm, art, flowers, beer, local food, sports, alternative festivals and more.  Among the most popular are:

The Arnold Sports Festival - Yes, we’re talking The Terminator.  It’s the largest multi-sport event in the country welcoming more than 18,000 athletes who compete in 45+ events. (March)

Comfest - A 3-day local music love-fest that brings out the hippie in everyone.  (June)

Jazz and Rib Fest - Dozens of food vendors serving up a lot of smoked meat.  Oh yeah, and there’s a great lineup of jazz musicians too.  (July)

Dublin Irish Festival - A weekend festival celebrating Irish heritage, music, art, and dance.  (August)

Short North Gallery Hop - A monthly celebration of art where galleries along High Street open up late to showcase their collections. Artists will also perform on the street or in unconventional art spaces. (First Saturday of every month)

My favorites also include the CAPA Summer Movie Series held every June through August, the Whetstone Park Rose Festival each June, and Local Foods Week sponsored by the grass-roots organization Local Matters in August.

Visit the Experience Columbus events calendar or Columbus Underground for upcoming festivals and community activities when you’re planning your trip.

OK, Stop Talking About The Food

Seriously, did I mention how surprisingly good the Columbus food scene is?  Oh yeah I did.  But it’s worth repeating over and over.  When you visit, avoid chains as much as possible.  I know they’re easy and cheap.  But there are so many local and independent easy and cheap options everywhere in the city that it is really a shame to miss out on them.  I’ve broken down some of my favorites in to price tiers.  If you’re looking for other independent restaurant recommendations visit these great blogs:


Less than $10

Buckeye Pho

Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace

DK Diner

Los Gauchos Taqueria

Anything in North Market



Harvest Pizzeria

Knead Modern Diner

Northstar Cafe (3 locations)

Worthington Inn (Happy Hour in the bar)



Basi Italia

Black Creek Bistro

Third & Hollywood



This itinerary will be featured at Budget Travel Adventures.  Stop over there to see the other great itineraries available.

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