A picturesque German Village. A gorgeous winding trail along a calm river. A market full of delicious and unique eats. You could argue that Ohio’s scenic capital is the ideal American city, blending Midwestern grace with a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Here you can check out the boutique shops and trendy restaurants in the Short North neighborhood and in the same day stroll around an authentic 19th-century German Village. Columbus feels at once big but homey, and there are plenty of amazing things to do in Columbus, Ohio!
Germans and Italians settled much of the city in the early 20th century, and in recent decades, Ohio State University and a thriving white-collar economy have attracted transplants from every corner of the globe. Indigenous history also runs deep in Columbus, with the Shrum Mound, a series of earthen hillocks built by pre-Columbian civilizations over 2,000 years ago, just a short car ride away. The Ohio History Center, near downtown Columbus, offers thoughtful and educational exhibits on the Adena, the people responsible for the Shrum Mounds, as well as other Indigenous groups of the Eastern Plains.
Foodies can look forward to Midwestern mainstays like smashburgers and chili dogs, but also creative fine dining, swank speakeasies, and the delightful smorgasbord that is North Market. For hop heads, Columbus punches well above its weight for fantastic breweries, including nationally recognized standouts like Land Grant. Finally, the city buzzes with intellectual energy: not only is there Ohio State University, a world-renowned research university, but also a bevy of destination-worthy museums like the COSI and Columbus Museum of Art.
Below, find everything you need to know about exploring the Buckeye State’s capital!
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When Should I Visit Columbus, Ohio?
April through June, and September and October, months with crisp weather and all the verve of football season, are the best months to visit Columbus. The fall, a time of sweaters, pumpkins, and autumn hues, is particularly lovely here. The autumn also means football and tailgating season—a very big deal in the Buckeye State. Note that Columbus can get snowy and cold in the winter, so if you’re not a chilly weather person, you should avoid planning a trip in January or February.
A succession of large festivals and cultural events enliven Columbus throughout the year. For a strong dose of Midwestern nostalgia, maybe chased with a deep-fried Twinkie, come for the Ohio State Fair, each year from early July to early August. As you would expect in a city with deep German roots, Columbus celebrates Oktoberfest with aplomb, particularly in German Village. The Ohio Black Expo in May showcases the contributions of African Americans to Columbus’s food, music, and art.
How do I get around Columbus, Ohio?
Driving to Columbus from Cleveland takes just a touch over two hours, with the route running through Ohio’s fascinating Amish country. Pittsburg and Louisville are also within striking distance, about 3 hours, and 5 hours from Chicago.
Lyft and Uber (or your own car) are probably the best way to explore Columbus, and fares rarely exceed $20. From The Junto, my hotel in the Franklinton neighborhood, rides averaged around $15.
If you like to hoof it, neighborhoods like German Village, Short North, and Downtown are compact and eminently walkable. Columbus has a well-integrated bike– and scooter-share program, with well-paved paths and convenient docking ports throughout the city.
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Things to do in Columbus, Ohio
Whether your idea of a glorious afternoon looks like a sunny patio bar, a captivating museum, or a medley of culinary delights, Columbus has got you covered.
For educational travelers, the Ohio State House, Shrum Mounds, and the Columbus Museum of Art promise ample food for thought. For the itinerant epicure, an entire trip could be planned around North Market, nationally renowned breweries, and the hip restaurants and cocktails lounges of Short North and Downtown. Family travelers will find hours of delight at the COSI (Center of Science & Industry), one of the nation’s best science museums.
Get Lost in Otherworld
Otherworld is a 32,000-square-foot immersive art installation that’s like falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. It’s overstimulating, fascinating, and artistic all at once. There is so much to see and do, it’s hard to figure out where to start!
Even entering Otherworld gives you choices, whether you’re going down a red-velvet-lined hall and peeling off into different rooms, or entering through a totally normal (?) janitor’s closet. Once inside there are over 40 scenes to explore, filled with large-scale art, like an enormous tree, a flying-horned-rabbit-beast, and a giant bull.
Many of the rooms feature puzzles and games, and if you solve them, reward you with an auditory/visual experience, like the bedroom with a wall you can paint and a sepia-tone room that comes to life in color. There are also secret passageways to explore, some you can only crawl through, that take you to hidden little areas.
Otherworld also hosts a slew of events, many featuring DJs and dancing, so you can actually party to thumping music as you explore the fantasy and storytelling that is Otherworld!
Step Back in Time at the Kelton House Museum and Garden
The Kelton House Museum and Garden is a historic home in Columbus that tells the story of three generations of the Kelton family. Over 80% of the original artifacts of the Kelton family exist, meaning that you can really step back in time in this museum as far as 1760.
The museum focuses on the Underground Railroad, local history and decorative arts. The Kelton’s were staunchly antislavery back during the Civil War, and harbored fugitive slaves Martha and Pearl Hartway. Martha was ill when she arrived, so she stayed at the Kelton home and was raised there.
Grace Kelton, the last owner of the Kelton home who passed in 1975, was a prominent interior decorator, who worked with Jacqueline Kennedy to restore the White House. You can see these design elements in the house, from gorgeous wallpaper, to Victorian hair wreaths, to a large collection of her design books.
Tours are an hour long and happen on the hour, and are an excellent way to learn more about not only the family but Columbus itself!
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Stroll Down The Short North Arts District
Near Downtown Columbus, the Short North Neighborhood is Ohio’s answer to Bushwick in Brooklyn or Silver Lake in LA – an urban enclave oozing with Bohemian flair and choc-full of hipster coffee shops, dive bars, and creative restaurants. Stroll along High Street, a thoroughfare lined with public houses, record stores, and consignment shops, to get a good feel for the neighborhood.
A few gems in Short North:
- Smartypants Vintage – If you’re in the market for vintage band t-shirts, rare sneakers, or lightly used flannels, make a detour to this buzzing thrift store on High Street. It’s a great place to get a new outfit for a night on the town!
- Spoonful Records – Vinyl-heads and fans of the cult-classics of rock, blues, and rap will have to set aside at least an hour to peruse the impressive selection at Spoonful Records, a record store that attracts music lovers from far and wide.
- Happy Go Lucky Home & Her – This happy, colorful store pops with trendy clothing with bold prints, and fun gifts for adults and children like puzzles, plants, and candles. You’ll seriously struggle between choosing a gorgeous piece of jewelry, a new handbag, or a two-tone jumpsuit. I say get them all!
- Short North Pint House – After scooping up some rare treasures from the record or clothing racks, get your drink on at Short North Pint House, a vivacious pub with a choice selection of suds from around Ohio. Grab a seat at the well-worn bar among patrons ranging from L Brands and NationWide executives to local artists and musicians.
Grab a Bite To Eat
Columbus gifted the world both Wendy’s and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, two iconic brands that embody the twin faces of the city’s culinary culture. Like Jeni’s wildly creative flavors, Columbus chefs are known for innovation and experimentation. Take Agni, a beloved Indian-fusion restaurant: Chef Avishar Barua fuses Bengali classics with the flavors of Korea and South America—and, like a pint of Everything Bagel ice cream, it works surprisingly well.
On the other hand, Columbus is a town that relishes classic American comfort food, like Wendy’s simple but scrumptious burgers coveted the world over. From chili fries and corn dogs to hearty German-American plates and rich malted milkshakes, Columbus does tried-n-true heartland fare with unrivaled pizzazz.
Martini Modern Italian
Located in the trendy Short North neighborhood, Martini Modern Italian is a sleek and stylish restaurant with plenty of rich and delicious Italian offerings.
The atmosphere is dark and romantic, with chandeliers and red and black accents throughout. It’s perfect for a date night, and the service is just as lovely as the interior!
As far as food, definitely try the Arancini to start which has gorgonzola, marinara, and parmigiano reggiano, and even though they are fried they feel light with a savory punch. For your main, try the sweet and savory Butternut Squash Tortellini with parmesan cream, Brussel leaves, and Marcona almonds which give it a nice crunch, or the Tenderloin, a melt-in-your-mouth Filet Mignon with fresh pasta, Cambozola butter, and a Chianti wine reduction.
You can spy Ritzy’s from afar by the enormous plastic cheeseburger near the entrance. Ritzy’s serves what could be described as the Platonic ideal of a Midwest smashburger: a sesame-seed bun; two thin patties, charred perfectly; American cheese; crisp lettuce; crunchy pickles; bacon; and a tangy house sauce.
Bring a heroic appetite to Ritzy’s: besides the burger, you’ll need to try a chili dog, milkshake, fries, and maybe even their PB&J. Afterwards, once you can stand again, order a scoop of their homemade ice cream—it’s as rich and satisfying as the ice cream you dreamed about during childhood summers.
Fun fact: Ritzy’s founder was once business partners with Dave Thomas, the progenitor of Wendy’s (but Wendy’s is to Ritzy’s what Cup Noodles are to a good bowl of ramen in Tokyo).
Chef Avishar Barua is like the Jimi Hendrix of Indian cuisine, riffing on South Asian staples like panipuri and chapati with the flavors of Indonesia, Peru, and Korea. As a child, Chef Avishar learned to cook Bengali soul food in his mother’s kitchen, and as a young adult, found himself as a Top Chef contender.
In Agni’s sleek dining room, patrons enjoy a six-course tasting menu, with plates ranging from house-smoked BBQ with masala spices to chai-infused ice cream decorated with cardamom and jalebi. The cocktail program matches the creativity and eclecticism of the kitchen—try the mango lassi spiked with pisco or the garam masala-infused libations.
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Brass Eye, The Junto’s gorgeous rooftop sanctuary, takes its name from a term in Ben Franklin’s Drinker’s Dictionary for someone with a prodigious ability to hold their liquor.
In addition to stiff cocktails and an impressive wine list, Brass Eye serves up a curated selection of Ohio craft beer. The menu leans into nostalgic Midwestern comfort food—think fried chicken sandwiches, smashburgers, and fries—but with chefly flourishes like duck-fat fries and house-made pickles. You can also find more sea-based food, like the gorgeous tuna tartar.
The views of Columbus’s skyline from the Brass Eye are among the best in the city, and there is plenty of cozy outdoor seating to watch a gorgeous sunset.
Schmidt’s Sausage Haus
Founded in 1886, Schmidt’s Sausage Haus has long been a German Village mainstay. Like Milwaukee’s old-school beer halls, here is a restaurant more German than any place in Germany – waiters decked out in Lederhosen and feathered caps, walls festooned with ornate wood carvings, and plates heaped high with knockwurst, sauerkraut, and seemingly infinite variations of potatoes.
While the decor is a bit kitschy, the German-American comfort food is legit. In fact, around lunch, expect to wait up to an hour before snagging a table and tucking into scrumptious schnitzel sandwiches and frosty pints of Weihenstephaner.
High Bank Distillery
Ohio shares a border with Kentucky, and the Buckeye State holds its own in terms of fine bourbon. High Bank Distillery was named after the era when Ohio Prohibitionists and bootleggers settled their disagreements on the streets. Whisky War Barrel Proof, Highbank’s flagship offering, has won first place for Best Blended Whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for five years running.
Try their rye whiskey as well for comparison with their traditional bourbon. At the bar, a long counter crowded with Ohio State students and visiting whiskey aficionados, you can sample flights of whiskey or delectable whiskey-based cocktails.
In addition to excellent spirits, Highbank serves solid food, mostly classic pub grub with a gourmet flair. The Philly cheesesteak spiked with Korean gochujang and the buffalo wings, available in a score of flavors, are standouts.
Check out the North Market
In former centuries, Columbus boasted several elegant markets houses where farmers and artisans from across Ohio came to sell their wares. Today, only the North Market, established in 1876, remains intact. Just a quick walk from Short North, the North Market hums daily with restaurants, bars, and vendors ranging from Amish cheese-mongers to kimchi vendors to Polish grocers. This is a veritable fairyland for foodies, but architecture enthusiasts will find the North Market, a red brick Georgian masterpiece, equally compelling.
- Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams – This ice cream has taken the country by storm in just a few years. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the local bodega goes through more pints of Jeni’s than even vacuum-sealed slices of Junior’s cheesecake. While Jeni’s now has ice cream parlors all over Columbus, the original location is in the North Market, where patrons can enjoy traditional flavors like Honey Lavender or experimental takes like Everything Bagel.
- The Barrel and Bottle – Ohio, a state with deep Eastern European and German roots, is high in the running for best beer states in the U.S.—up there with Michigan, Colorado, and Oregon. To sample a selection of Ohio suds, snag a bar stool at The Barrel and Bottle, an open-air shop right next to Jeni’s. The rotating taps highlight beloved Columbus breweries like Land Grant and Endeavor Brewing as well as some choice beers from Cleveland, Cincinnati, and other parts of the Buckeye State. You can even take your drinks and wander around the market!
- Momo Ghar – Here you can have the rare opportunity to try some Himalayan dumplings called momos, which are savory and well-seasoned in delectable bite-sized pieces. Momo Ghar is super well revered in Columbus, even having Guy Fieri himself visit the establishment. Try the Jhol Momo, a Kathmandu-style steamed chicken dumpling or the Tibetan Momo, a steamed pork dumpling.
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Step into a Secret Speakeasy
Dive into the depths of Columbus by exploring one of the many speakeasies, where you can drink specialty cocktails in a dark and mysterious venue. Here are the speakeasies in Columbus (that we know of), but who knows, maybe there are even more secret ones?
- Sacred Palm – Step into a walk-in cooler of a local pizza place and you’ll find yourself transported to a colorful Tiki cocktail lounge filled with fake plants, neon lights, and of course, rum-filled creations. So grab a drink like the Missionary’s Downfall with rum, peach, lime, pineapple, agave, and mint and enjoy the sweet, secret tropical vibes.
- Sotto Terra – Located in the basement of a 130+ year-old church, Sotto Terra (Italian for “underground”) serves up drinks in a Speak-easy style bar and cabaret club. They have plenty of events all the time, from trivia nights, to live performances, to drag shows, and much more!
- Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce – Nothing says “speakeasy” like mixing amazing cocktails in a dark room with live burlesque, and luckily Forty Duce has just that. You’ll find this highly revered burlesque show on Fridays and Saturdays by entering through the Forty Deuce Cafe’s swinging kitchen doors and inside the walk-in refrigerator…
- Switch – Switch is a speakeasy that needs a password, which you’ll find on the receipt after ordering a drink at The Railhouse in the East Market. Once you’re a little liquored up, you’ll enter through a secret door to find top-shelf bourbon in this cozy, brick-lined basement speakeasy.
Venture Through the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
As an avid fan of Dale Chihuly, the world-renowned American glass artist, I placed the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens high on my list of places to see in Columbus. The visit exceeded my expectations and proved to be a highlight of my trip through Ohio. In addition to an array of delicate Chihuly flowers, the gardens boast Amazonian orchids, a lawn of technicolored tulips, and botanic wonders endemic to the Midwest.
An intricate model train set whirrs through one room of the indoor gardens, and the Children’s Garden, outside the greenhouse, offers a serene refuge to both kids and grown-ups alike. If you’re the type of museum visitor who likes to linger, reading placards and perusing exhibits slowly, set aside at least two hours for this tour.
Step Back in Time in the picturesque German Village
In the mid-19th Century, about one-third of the population of Columbus was German. In German Village, a picturesque corner of the city just south of Downtown, immigrants constructed a hamlet mirroring those of their native Bavaria. Today, German Village is one of Columbus’s most upscale neighborhoods, replete with elegant parks, quirky boutiques, and fantastic restaurants, including a few century-old German-American gems like Schmidt’s Sausage Haus and Valter’s at the Maennerchor.
Bibliophiles should set aside at least an hour (and a few shekels) for The Book Loft, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Encompassing several stories of winding, book-lined corridors, the Book Loft feels like the library at Hogwarts. In addition to books, visitors can find all kinds of quirky souvenirs like magnets, mugs, and cheeky greeting cards. If you need a caffeine pick-me-up after perusing all those literary treasures, stroll over to Stauf’s, a lively coffeehouse in German Village.
In homage to Friedrich Schiller, the great Teutonic poet and polymath, German immigrants in the 19th century constructed Schiller Park, a massive green space in the heart of German Village. Criss-crossed by streams and riveted with majestic trees, Schiller Park makes for blissful strolling. Statues throughout the park honor Columbus’s most renowned sons and daughters, and a bronze casting of Schiller himself gazes out on the park from a marble pedestal.
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Explore Italian Village
Adjacent to Short North, Italian Village was one of Columbus’s first suburbs, and the enclave’s broad, tree-lined streets and handsome brick homes belie its urban surroundings. In decades past, Italian Village attracted not only immigrants from the Bel Paese, but also from other Catholic nations like Ireland and Poland.
Less touristic than German Village, Italian Village is another fantastic neighborhood to soak up history, culture, and maybe a few glasses of chianti. Borgata Pizza Cafe does an admirable New York-style slice; and Paulie Gee’s, a Brooklyn institution, has an outpost not far from Italian Village.
Wander through A Museum
Columbus is home to a litany of superb museums, both public and private. From the ornate Ohio Statehouse, open to the public most weekdays, to modern art galleries and the Museum of Catholic Art and History, Columbus punches above its weight for cultural clout. Below, are a few of my favorite C-Bus museums.
The Columbus Center of Science and Industry (COSI) is one of the nation’s premier science museums, in the same echelon as the Museum of Science in Boston or the American Natural History Museum in New York. Doubling as a wildly popular museum and world-renowned research institute, COSI houses marvels like dinosaur skeletons, replicas of the solar system, and interactive exhibits for learning about scientific principles.
You could spend days exploring COSI’s exhibits, but if you’re pressed for time, consider hitting the Space and Gadgets exhibits. The former houses a replica of the spacecraft piloted by John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the Earth and an Ohio native. The Gadgets exhibits offer a fascinating tour through the history of machinery and engineering—an intellectual treat even for those, like this author, with no mechanical leanings whatsoever.
Make sure to check COSI’s website for updates on rotating exhibits.
Columbus Museum of Art
Bask in the glory of the Renaissance masters and famous Midwestern painters at the Columbus Museum of Art.
With its stunning Neo-Classical façade, the Columbus Museum of Art has rooms dedicated to the immortal Dutch, Italian, and French art as well as exhibitions featuring American artists like Edward Hopper and Kehinde Wiley.
George Bellows, the realist painter best known for gritty depictions of New York City, hailed from Columbus, and the museum houses several of his works, including the famous Polo at Lakewood.
The cafe, right by the entrance, is excellent as well, complete with a well-trained barista and a well-stocked fridge full of Columbus craft beer.
Stroll the Scioto Mile riverfront
The Scioto Mile riverfront is a serpentine public park tracing the Scioto River, with over 175 acres of lush parkland. The park offers wonderful views of Columbus’s skyline and the futuristic-looking suspension bridges spawning the Scioto River, as well as a collection of sculptures and art.
The Scioto Mile is also home to many events throughout the year, from art festivals, to live music, to holiday celebrations. It really feels like the heart of Columbus, and residents of Columbus use it as their metaphorical living room.
If you’re up for some exercise or fresh air, pick up a bike at a CoGo Bike Share docking station, located conveniently throughout Columbus, and hit the trails next to the riverside promenade.
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Columbus Ale Trail
Midwesterners take beer as seriously as New Yorkers take pizza and bagels. And with over fifty thousand college students, Columbus is a town that, well, likes to drink. The storied Columbus Ale Trail encompasses many of the city’s finest taphouses.
Land Grant, within walking distance of The Junto, is a local favorite, with a patio often bumping with live music. Gemut Biergarten, as you might infer from the name, specializes in traditional German beers.
With long tables and a sausage-laden menu, this taproom could have been transported directly from Munich. If you want to sample a litany of Columbus beers in one place, hit The Barrel and Bottle in North Market.
Ponder Ancient History at Shrum Mound
Located about 12 minutes outside of downtown, the Shrum Mound is an unassuming grassy hill that is steeped in ancient history.
The Shrum Mound stands in Campbell Memorial Park, and is an ancient burial mound of the Adena Native Americans. The mound itself measures 20′ in height and about 100′ in diameter and stands on a high bluff on the west side of the Scioto River, and has a trail to the top, as well as an interpretive sign and a bench.
The Adena People are some of Ohio’s first known settlers, existing in the area from roughly 1000 BC to 100 AD. They hunted, gathered, traded, and farmed, as well as carved effigy figures and made pottery. They also built houses and burial grounds, and it’s pretty incredible that this mound still stands to this day.
The mound consists of soil, stone, the bodies of those who died, and special burial items, and were generally constructed close to waterways, like the Scioto River where this one stands.
This is a great place to come pay tribute to our past ancestors, or just contemplate time and life!
Explore Ohio State’s Campus
Ohio State is one of the nation’s largest university systems and is practically a city within the city.
The campus is worth exploring, especially the beautiful quadrangle by the library. Stroll around the Chadwick Arboretum & Learning Gardens where you can explore different trial gardens, plazas, and even a labyrinth. In the spirit of Midwestern friendliness, students and professors will give you directions if you ask.
Tour the Ohio Theater
Founded in 1928, the Ohio Theatre, with its colorful marquee and neon lights, has long been a symbol of Columbus. Decorated as intricately as a jewelry box, the Ohio Theatre is a glamorous exemplar of Spanish-Baroque architecture.
Over the course of nearly a century, the stage has seen the likes of Judy Garland, Alice Cooper, Ginger Rogers, and countless other stars. The theatre was almost razed to make room for office buildings, but thankfully, a group of activists saved this stately belle from the wrecking ball.
You can catch performances at the Ohio Theatre as well as arrange free tours through the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. If you don’t have time to tour the theatre’s interior, take a walk by the entrance after dark, when the façade is illuminated with a veritable galaxy of neon lights.
Explore the Columbus Arts Festival
Early June heralds in the Columbus Arts Festival, where 250 local and national artists sell their wares along the gorgeous Scioto Mile. While strolling along bridges that cross the winding Whittier Peninsula below, you can peruse artist’s works including woodworking, paintings, and unique ceramics among many other mediums.
Musicians are also a part of the festival and you can listen to sets as you take in the gorgeous city skyline behind. In years past, they have also had a jumbo screen playing cartoons (like Looney Tunes) which you can sit on the lawn and enjoy.
A festival wouldn’t be complete without food and drinks as well, so expect to see food trucks and plenty of alcohol around. Nothing like nachos, burgers, or a bucket of cookies…
Even if you’re strapped for cash until next payday, you should definitely still attend. The event is free and so is basking in all the creativity, but unfortunately is not pet friendly.
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WHERE TO STAY IN COLUMBUS, OHIO?
For hotels within striking distance of most attractions mentioned above, Franklinton, a neighborhood right next to the COSI, is a great bet. Nocturnal revelers would be wise to book accommodations near Short North, a neighborhood thumping with energy until the wee hours. For a quieter time, you can stay a bit outside the city for a little R&R retreat!
- The Junto – The recently opened Junto is one of the most sumptuous hotels in the Midwest. Located in Franklinton, The Junto is replete with an Olympic-quality gym, an inviting lobby bar, sport equipment garage (you can borrow a kayak!) and several exquisite restaurants, including Brass Eye. Named after Ben Franklin’s famous salon, in which the Philadelphia sage convened intellectuals from diverse backgrounds, The Junto boasts plush leather couches, a central fireplace, and a beautiful library in the lobby. The bar stays open late, so you can cozy up by the fire with a book and glass of scotch before hitting the feathers. And, yes, the beds, as with all the accommodations, are delectably comfortable.
- The Graduate Columbus – Situated within a stone’s throw of both the Short North and Ohio State’s campus, the decor takes inspiration from college nostalgia, and, as you might expect, the staff are avid Buckeye fans. If you’re looking to indulge in Columbus’s nightlife, The Graduate is within a quick Uber ride of a slew of buzzy bars near Ohio State’s campus and Short North.
- The DogHouse Columbus Hotel – This hotel celebrates two of life’s most steadfast joys: canines and craft beer. Completely dog-friendly, the DogHouse invites you to bring your pup along for the stay, pampering your furry friend with treat stations and an outdoor dog park. And, in what has to be one of the most quirkiest hotel amenities anywhere, the DogHouse offers beer taps in the showers—so go ahead and enjoy a glass of cold suds while lathering up with soap suds.
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About Our Guest Poster: Johnny Motley is a Brooklyn-based educator and writer-photographer with bylines on The Daily Beast, Wine Enthusiast, Forbes and others. Research and curiosity have taken him to Papua New Guinea, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Silk Road, while Japan and the Himalayas are next on his dream travel list.
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