The Heart of It All, The Buckeye State, Round on the ends and HI in the middle… no matter what you call it, Ohio is quite possibly the most quintessential middle-America state. (Look, I know it’s not technically anywhere near the actual middle of America so don’t tweet me about it, just roll with the metaphor here). And smack dab in the center of this vast state is Columbus, the capital and my home.
I’m Val Geisler, Ohio girl, former theatre kid (and theatre kid at heart), writer, and digital strategist for creative business owners. When Sarah started her Cheapskate City Guide Series, I knew I had to share the best of Columbus, my home and pride of joy.
While I moved away like any Ohio kid does after college, I’ve found myself right back where I came from, running my business and raising my family in this fair city. As it turns out, you CAN come home. And since I’ve been back I have invited everyone I know to come visit the town the Ohio State Buckeyes built.
Fall in the Midwest is amazing. The leaves on the trees are changing, the air is chilly enough for a cozy sweater and a warm apple cider, and football reigns supreme on Saturday afternoons.
And while you can certainly spend a pretty penny coming to Columbus for a Buckeye game and an evening at the new Le Meridian hotel, The Joseph, I give my friends (ahem, that’s YOU) the “local roots” tour and we do the city on the cheap.
Want to come to Columbus for less than $100 per day (including where you stay overnight)? Here’s your guide to making it happen.
Cheap Lodging in Columbus
Camping season in Ohio ends with the close of October so many campgrounds will give you off-season (read: cheap) rates once November hits if you want to risk the weather. Alum Creek State Park is just 13 miles from the center of the city and tent camping is open year round.
For something a bit more “indoorsy”, Airbnb has the best deals in the city. This is going to be the majority of your daily budget here in the most active areas of Columbus but getting a tiny house all to yourself or sharing the included breakfast(!) with your host or even hitting up the campus area youth hostel for their private rooms and hot tub makes it all worth it.
If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!
Cheap Things To Do In Columbus
Columbus Museum of Art – free on Sundays
Recently renovated so it’s fresh fresh fresh, this art museum is world-class and completely free on Sundays.
Short North Gallery Hop – 1st Saturday of every month and free
Apart from the cost of any artwork you may or may not be purchasing, Gallery Hop is completely free for anyone who wants to stroll in and out of the ever-growing number of art galleries in the famous Short North District. Nearby bars and restaurants typically offer specials for the crowds and you’re bound to find a food truck or two along the way.
Ohio State University – free (umm, unless you’re paying tuition)
An architecturally stunning campus, OSU gives any tourist a place to roam for hours. Mirror Lake, The Wexner Center for the Arts, and the famous Oval are just a few of the favorites most locals will point you toward. If you’re a sports fan, don’t forget to stop by Ohio Stadium for a peek at that center field. The views from the bleachers are legendary.
Topiary Park – free
Ever wondered what a horse would look like if it were carved out of a bush? What about an entire scene plucked out of the famous French Impressionist Georges Seurat’s paintings? You can find out at Topiary Park where you can wander freely among animals, people, and buildings all made of greens. If you want to stop inside the Visitor’s Center for more details and to warm up a bit, make sure you’re there early since they close at 4pm daily.
North Market Farmer’s Market – free (until you purchase something and then it’s all the dollars)
Columbus’ only indoor year-round market is completely free to walk into but bring your wallet for everything you’ll find inside. Taste (as much as you want of) Jeni’s Ice Cream, grab a warm pretzel from Brezel, sniff a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from Market Blooms, or head upstairs to share a park bench with strangers at Hot Chicken Takeover.
Goodale Park – free
After a trip to the North Market, stroll on over to Goodale Park to burn some of those ice cream calories. You have your choice of walking paths, green spaces (typically complete with dogs playing frisbee), playgrounds, or tennis courts to play on. Goodale Park is often home to festivals throughout the summer (like the hippie-loving Community Festival) and the gazebo hosts events year-round.
Cinemark Carriage Place – $3
Yup. $3 gets you into any movie, anytime, no special matinee pricing here. Carriage Place is a bit off the beaten path and you’ll need to grab an Uber or Car2Go (which there are plenty of) if you don’t have your own wheels to get there. Oh, and Carriage Place shows movies at the same time as all of the other theatres – no second-run movies here, friend.
16-Bit Bar & Arcade – most games are free
Re-live your glory days with a round of Frogger, Galactica, Asteroids, or, my personal favorite, Burger Time. The majority of the games are free so 16-Bit gets crowded fast, you’ll want to get there early if you intend to have some serious gaming time.
Olentangy Trail – free
Walk, skate, jog, stroll, or bike down the 20 miles that make up the Olentangy Trail. Following the path of the river with the same name, this trail is Columbus’ favorite way to get sweaty outside. Whatever you do, be sure to follow the signs on the trail and keep an eye out for those bikers who think they are training for the Tour de France (aka – please don’t get run over).
Cheap Things To Eat In Columbus
Full disclosure: I’m typically an eat-at-home kinda gal and now that I’m cooking for a toddler and my husband, eating out is getting tricky (and expensive). I consulted with my buddy Nick Dekker, local food celebrity (foodlebrity?) and founder of Breakfast With Nick and he clued me in to some of his favorite spots in the 614. Turns out, my top eats are Nick’s too. Kinda makes me feel like I know a thing or two about food in this town outside of my own kitchen after all.
Build your own sushi – WHAT?! Yes, indeed. Fusian makes sushi incredibly accessible, even for folks who don’t know/like sushi. Bonus points to this spot for their wealth of veggie options.
Dirty Franks – the most expensive thing on the menu is $7 so….
Dime A Dog night only happens a few times a year at the ballpark so when it’s not baseball season and I’m craving a hot dog, it’s off to Dirty Franks for the best in town. They have a tiny hole-in-the-wall place downtown (my favorite) and a new Westgate location that is bigger and less crowded (better for groups). So, yes, Dirty Franks is known for their hot dogs but it’s the tater tots – TOTS, YOU GUYS – that I really go for.
Huong Vietnamese – $6-$8 for most entrees
Hands down the best pho in town. Also, Nick tells me I have to try this savory crepe thing call the banh xeo but every time I go I fill up on banh mi and pho gah. Next time, Huong. Next time.
Da Levee – a large gumbo is $7, a po boy is $9
You know when you’re traveling with that person who gets super hungry and can basically eat everything around them and they won’t be satisfied with a tiny entree with no sides for $30? Yeah, that’s me. Trust me on this when I say that you should just stop what you’re doing and take them to Da Levee for the most Cajun/Creole food you can get on a plate in one sitting.
Kolache Republic – sweets are $2, savories are $4
Satisfy both your sweet and savory cravings alike with tiny Czech pastries called Kolaches. They make awesome sandwiches out of them at Kolache Republic and the owners are constantly dreaming up new menu items for their little bakery.
Los Guachos – $1.50 tacos
The first time I stepped inside this north-side spot, I was transported back to the taco huts I frequented on my honeymoon in Tulum. But it’s not just the giant carved wooden chairs and Mexican music that captivate me each time I go, Los Gauchos was voted #3 tacos in America by Food Network and their al pastor tacos are the real deal! There are several other items on the menu and it’s consistently packed at lunch time. Be sure to load your choices up with the green cilantro sauce and get ready to crave this taqueria for months to come.
Columbus-lovers: I KNOW I missed/didn’t include roughly 432 other places to eat/sleep/visit on the cheap in our city. Please tell me your favorites in the comments so we can all plan our next trip together.