Columbus, OH, dishes out a youthful vibe and plenty of exciting attractions, including one of the best zoos in America. But Ohio’s capital and largest city also makes an excellent home base for exploring more of the Buckeye State. From cavernous state parks to historic towns & cities, embarking on some of the best day trips from Columbus, OH, is a fail-proof formula for the perfect holiday.
Within a two-hour drive of Columbus in any which direction, you’ll find more buzzing urbanscapes like Newark, classic American cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati, as well as laid-back tourist towns like Millersburg. Or, if you’d rather spend time exploring outdoor activities, venture to top-notch natural destinations like Hocking Hill State Park and Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Looking for some new destinations to add to your Ohio vacation bucket list? Amp up your itinerary with this list of the top-rated Columbus side trips!
Top-rated Columbus side trips
Hocking Hills State Park, OH
Avid backpackers are always looking for an escape from the city, even if it’s a city as incredible as Columbus. Well, not to fear, fellow hikers: Hocking Hills State Park is one of the best natural areas around, and it’ll only take you an hour by car to reach this top-notch outdoor destination from Columbus.
Hocking Hills State Park is divided into seven different hiking areas to explore, most of which are beginner-friendly and feature several cliffs and caves. Whether you want to crawl through the rockface like a true explorer or find a hidden waterfall where you can relax in solace for the afternoon, one of these routes is sure to inspire you to get outdoors.
Camping is definitely one of the most popular ways to enjoy Hocking Hills State Park, but even those who prefer a “glamping” approach can enjoy an extended overnight stay.
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You can book one of six different cottages and cabins in the woods, one of which is an exclusive treehouse getaway with a hot tub for soaking under the stars.
Prefer to go city-hopping? Cleveland is a global city on the shores of Lake Erie that presents the ultimate urban road trip opportunity. The journey takes about two hours and 10 minutes from Columbus if you have a car rental. You can also take a bus for under $50.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a bucket-list attraction for music lovers and one of the best places to visit in Cleveland. At this world-famous museum, you’ll play your way through interactive exhibits and memorabilia from musical legends.
Seeking out the most popular exhibit at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Head to The Garage, where you pick up an instrument and record a family jam sesh, then design your own band logo.
After your brief taste of fame & fortune, stop at the historic West Side Market for your daily dose of coffee or to grab some cheese and charcuterie to bring back to Columbus.
One of Cleveland’s more niche points of interest, wandering through the Christmas Story House is sure to fill your heart with nostalgia and awaken your inner fangirl. This real home, once used in the popular holiday movie, is now a beloved museum filled with set props like the family car and the iconic leg lamp.
Though the Christmas Story House is a wonderful attraction to visit during the Christmas season, it’s also a fun little itinerary addition all year-’round.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
Looking for more outdoor bliss within reach of Ohio’s capital city? Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located just a little under two hours from Columbus. And let’s say that America should definitely consider this beautiful park a national treasure!
Depending on your activity level, there are several different ways to enjoy the Cuyahoga Valley National Park landscape. Hiking and biking trails are always open, and Brandywine Falls is a must-see. If you’d rather hang back and relax, you can also have a picnic by the riverside.
Not in the mood for a great outdoor adventure but still want to take in the natural beauty? The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is your ideal solution. The over-21 crowd can even board a wine-tasting or themed murder mystery ride.
You can also combine the two exploration options by hiking the Towpath Trail in one direction and then taking the train back. Sit back in your executive class seat and watch the forest roll by; it’s the perfect way to reward yourself after an afternoon of vigorous exercise!
Cincinnati might as well be dubbed the official city for museum lovers because—whoa!—this city sure does have a lot of amazing ones. If spending the day perusing halls of ancient artifacts and specialized collections sounds like your idea of fun, you simply must make the journey to “The Queen City.” The one-and-a-half-hour drive from Columbus to Cincinnati is quick and well worth it.
With a museum offering a deep dive into almost every subject, you’re sure to find a gallery that piques your interest when perusing the top tourist attractions in Cincinnati. From the natural history exhibits of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the 19th-century paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum to a more quirky collection like the American Sign Museum, you can learn about it all here.
When you’re not browsing the halls of the city’s best museums, grab some tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game at the Great American Ballpark. Sports entertainment is great from the vinyl seat of a brewpub, but it’s so much better live and in person.
Between chowing down on stadium snacks and the thrill of cheering on the home team with the raucous crowd, you’re guaranteed a good time here!
Welcome to Amish Country! Exuding small-town, rural vibes, Millersburg is the perfect destination for a slow-tourism-style escape. The road trip to Millsburgh will take you an hour and 45 minutes each way. But once you arrive, you’ll feel as if time slows down, and you’ll have all the time in the world to enjoy your new surroundings.
A trip to Hershberger’s Farm and Bakery is (literally) as sweet as pie. After you treat yourself to some of Millerburg’s finest Amish home cooking (yes, we’re talking homemade pies!), the whole family can go pumpkin picking, make new friends at the petting zoo, or hop on board a wagon ride.
A little bit of retail therapy never hurt anybody, and the specialty shops in Millersburg fill some niches you won’t readily find elsewhere. From markets filled with jams and preserve to boutiques of handcrafted quilts, everything here is filled with a whole lot of heart and soul.
Now, what places do you need to target? Antiquing is quite popular here, and you should search out the Villiage Antique Emporium if that’s your thing. The local cheeses are also a delicacy you need to try. Check out the Guggisberg Cheese Factory for a taste of some of Millerburg’s finest.
Wayne National Forest, OH
Deep in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains lies the Wayne National Forest, which might well become your new favorite Midwest destination for outdoor tourism. The forest is located about one hour and 10 minutes from the heart of Columbus, leaving you plenty of time for adventuring after you step out of the car.
The most popular way to explore the Wayne National Forest is on foot. The preserve has over 20 trailheads and networks of footpaths. After you lace up those sturdy boots and douse yourself with bug spray, you’ll have your pick of routes.
Both Balancing Rock Trailhead and Hanging Rock Trailhead are popular choices, notable for their diverse range of scenery. Along the way, you’ll stumble upon waterfalls, cliffs, and lush old-growth woodlots.
If you’d like to explore differently, you’ll have a few options. The Lake Vesuvius Recreation Area presents the opportunity to navigate the park’s waterways with activities like boating, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing.
Of course, if you don’t want to get out of your car at all, you can check out the famous Covered Bridge Scenic Byway, where you can discover 35 miles of epic landscapes and local landmarks from the comfort of your passenger seat.
Known as the “home of many inventions” and the “birthplace of aviation,” Dayton is a destination with a rich history and a creative spirit. Embarking on this one-hour and 10-minute road trip from Columbus, OH, promises you arts, museums, and an overarching industrial vibe.
If you find yourself fascinated by things that move, Dayton has two different museums that’ll really rev your engine. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is home to over 350 planes, earning it the title of the world’s largest (and oldest) aviation museum.
On the other hand, America’s Packard Museum – The Citizens Motorcar Co. is an original dealership that has been converted into a showroom for the brand’s beautiful collection of classics. Don’t be surprised if you leave with a hankering to restore a car back home.
Who doesn’t love the theatre? Immerse yourself in the narrative of the show at the impressive Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center or the quaint hall of the historic Victoria Theater. After all, the play’s the thing!
Mohican State Park, OH
Another magical nature reserve within driving distance from Columbus, Mohican State Park offers tourists a year-round hub for outdoor recreation. Just one hour and ten minutes away is this natural playground, full of fun no matter the weather.
During your Mohican State Park adventure, be sure to plan a stop at the site’s most popular natural landmarks, Clear Fork Gorge and Lyon’s Falls. On a hot summer day, water tubing down the Mohican State Scenic River is one of the most popular things for locals to do—and tourists almost always join in. Of course, fishing, swimming, and canoeing are also possible here.
Traveling through in winter? No need to skip over this road trip destination: There’s plenty to do at this Ohio state park, even when the temperature drops and white powder covers the ground. Popular winter activities at Mohican State Park include snowshoeing the trails or taking a snowmobiling tour with a local outfitter.
Yellow Springs, OH
Known locally as the “Hippie Town of Ohio,” Yellow Springs is the destination for free spirits looking for a laid-back road trip to fill their itinerary. Just 50 minutes from Columbus, this town has an artsy undertone, tons of indie boutiques, and an emphasis on reconnecting with nature.
Yellow Springs has lots to do in town, but it’s truly a marvelous place to get out and explore nature as well. If you want to see the renowned Yellow Springs, the town’s namesake, be sure to stop at the Glen Helen Nature Preserve. This park spans over 1,000 acres, with hiking trails of varied difficulty and a raptor center with the cutest family of owls you’ve ever seen.
Don’t have too much time? The Clifton Gorge State Nature Reserve is perfect for a short scenic walk. You’ll be delighted by the rush of the water as you meander your way through the forests and back to town.
One of the keys to a good road trip is to find a way to refresh and reward yourself before piling back into the car for the drive home. In Yellow Springs, you’ll have a couple of good local-approved options.
Stopping at Young’s Jersey Dairy Farm for homemade ice cream (and a family photo in front of the vibrant sunflower fields) is a right of passage in these parts. But stopping at Yellow Springs Brewery for a cold pint made with care also comes highly recommended. (Just be sure to drink responsibly and choose a DD before you arrive.)
Newark is another great city full of shopping, dining, and nightlife, and it’s only 40 minutes from the heart of Columbus. If you have a shorter amount of time to dedicate to your road trip escapades, or you’d prefer to have more time to spend wandering around your destination, Newark is a wonderful choice.
If you enjoy a more traditional approach to tourism when choosing road trip destinations, Newark has plenty of museums and attractions to keep you busy. For a step into the city’s history, the Licking County Historic Jail is a popular destination. The Dawes Arboretum, on the other hand, offers you a chance to (literally!) stop and smell the roses. This park has 2,000 acres of gardens and forest; you could spend all afternoon there with a picnic if you wanted to.
Of course, if you’d prefer to take in the weird and the wonderful, Newark has lots of wacky attractions to keep you and your crew enchanted. First, make a pit stop to take a photo with the World’s Largest Basket. Then, head to the Works Museum, where you can design something on a 3D printer, play with robots and make your own glass.
Nicknamed the “City of Sculpture,” a road trip to Hamilton is a no-brainer for the artsy, forward-thinking traveler. The drive from Columbus takes about one hour and 45 minutes each way, so it’s up to you whether or not you’d like to make the roundtrip in a single day or split it up with an overnight stay.
Art lovers must make time for a walk through Hamilton’s Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum. From avant-garde metalwork to cultural wood carvings, a stroll through this 200-acre greenspace is both thought-provoking and relaxing. There’s also an indoor museum gallery if you need to step out of the sun to cool off—or to keep you inspired on rainy days.
Want to take a retro-inspired road trip? Start your afternoon at the Pinball Garage. This bar and arcade will not only indulge your inner child, but it also has some of the most mouth-watering BBQ in town.
After the sun sets, head to the Holiday Auto Theatre for a good old-fashioned drive-in experience. Cuddle up in the back of the truck for a romantic double-feature or put the kids in their jammies, ply them with popcorn and candy, and listen to them giggle as they experience movie-going like they never have before.