family road trip near Pittsburgh

Family road trip on just 1 tank of gas: Check out Columbus, Ohio!

Flying with kids right now can be rough, given the frequent flight cancellations and delays. But at the same time, gas prices are crazy-high. So if a long family road trip means filling the gas tank multiple times, that long-haul driving vacation can be almost as expensive as one involving flights.

Luckily, Pittsburgh is located near a whole bunch of amazing destinations. Over the next few months, join Kidsburgh as we take you on a tour of four great spots that you can get to on just one tank of gas.

Our first stop: Columbus, Ohio!

A Columbus road trip takes only three hours of easy highway driving from Pittsburgh. And it’s a perfect summer destination for families with kids of any age, because this midwestern city offers much more than you might expect. From top restaurants to water sports and museums, there is something to pique everyone’s interest.

columbus road trip
Zoombezi Bay photo courtesy of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

What will you find on your Columbus road trip?

Things to Do

The Columbus Zoo, run for decades by now-retired conservationist Jack Hanna, is the largest zoo in America. Not only do they boast manatees and koalas, but the zoo also has an attached water park, Zoombezi Bay. To see and do everything, you’ll likely need two days. Thankfully, the zoo has a ticket special that allows you to do just that. It’s worth it: The water park boasts a lazy river with a wave machine (OK, maybe not so lazy), plus two separate kids’ areas, a massive wave pool and a slew of wild water slides. With an upgraded pass, which works through a loaner Apple watch, you can schedule slide times and skip the lines — think Disney World’s Genie+ pass.

COSI photo by Colin McGuire.

Your Columbus road trip can include a memorable visit to COSI, the Center of Science and Industry. This massive science center is full of hands-on exhibits. It also has a spray park and playground on the front lawn, so prepare to get wet if you’re bringing little ones on a warm, sunny day. COSI has been voted the best science center in America by USA Today for the past three years, and it’s easy to see why. The center does a terrific job of interspersing larger immersive exhibits with smaller hands-on activities scattered throughout the expansive space. So whether your kids want to shoot water cannons at a statue of Poseidon in the oceans exhibit or find a quiet corner to explore a wood lathe, they can find their STEM-focused bliss.

Bonus money-saver for Pittsburghers: COSI has a reciprocal program with Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, so be sure to bring your local pass for a discount.

Franklin Park Conservatory

Does your family like the amazing displays at Phipp’s Conservatory? Columbus has a similar venue at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens – with an added bonus. In this expansive green space, amazing flower gardens are accompanied by an outdoor area that will make most Pittsburgh locals consider relocating. You’ll find several water features for splashing, a treehouse with a giant bird’s nest, and a bee hotel dubbed “The Air Bee & Bee.” This will entertain most kids 10 and under for hours. And the cultural content and artistry of the main space will keep bigger tweens and teens occupied, as well.

Want more? Just a short drive out of the city is Easton Town Center – a hub of shopping, dining, and experiences. The LEGOLAND Discovery Center features two levels of rides, interactive exhibits and Lego models. Bring a minifigure with you, because staff will trade any of the minifigures on their name tags with any child who asks. The LEGOLAND Discovery experience takes about two hours. And there’s more to do at Easton Town Center: If your kids have an American Girl doll, bring it along for the trip – dolls can get some new outfits or even a salon experience at the American Girl store. Also, you’ll find fountains for cooling off, an outdoor model train, and a variety of fun photo ops throughout the sprawling complex.


While Columbus doesn’t put fries on their salads for some strange reason, the food scene is top-notch nonetheless. And the ketchup on most of the tables is still Heinz. To start mornings off right, they have a coffee trail that highlights the city’s best roasters. If you’re staying near Easton, Just Another Broken Egg Cafe is the perfect place for brunch. Try their specially made sausage blend or their sugar-coated beignets with marmalade.

Curried cauliflower at Milestone 229. Photo courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.

For a quick lunch on your Columbus road trip, Katzinger’s Delicatessen in German Village has dozens of sandwich options, including vegan and vegetarian choices. Brassica’s also has several locations across the city, with a build-your-own sandwich and salad model. Don’t miss their special sauce or tahini to top your creation.

A huge hit with families is Budd Dairy Food Hall in the city’s vibrant Italian Village. Ten restaurant stalls mean nobody has to pout over dinner choices – from Korean street food to tacos to basic tenders and fries, there is something for bland and adventurous eaters. Three floors of seating in the historic dairy factory provide plenty of space to spread out, and the second floor is a perfect family space with stacks of board games, foosball, and ski ball. Skip the lines and order everyone’s meals from the QR code on your table. They’ll text you when it’s ready!

Situated along the Scioto River at the spray park is Milestone 229. The glass-fronted curved building mirrors the bends of the river, and every bite – from the classic kids’ meals to the coconut curry cauliflower – is delicious. Start the meal with their German pretzel bread. (Toddlers are likely to make the pretzels their entire meal, of course.)

Quick Stops

Clearly, the Columbus area has a lot of big-ticket attractions to fill your days. But there’s also a slew of smaller shorter stops that are great for filling a few free hours or decompressing. Big Fun Columbus is a toy store that you won’t be able to leave without a purchase (plan this for your souvenir stop). The Book Loft is a 32-room book store with surprises in every nook and cranny.

Columbus Commons has a carousel, frequent food trucks, and no shortage of family events perfect for an entire evening or a quick stop.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream is a sweet way to cool off after you’ve seen it all on your Columbus road trip. They’ve got plenty of quirky, fun flavor combinations. And if you fall in love with their shops, don’t worry – one is set to open in Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square soon.

Columbus roadtrip
The fourth-floor rooftop pool at the Renaissance Columbus hotel. Photo courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.

Where to Stay

Columbus has the expected variety of quality chain hotels. If you choose to stay on the outskirts of the city or near the zoo, you’ll have your pick of familiar lodging options.

It’s easy to stay right downtown, though, and enjoy being within walking distance from entertainment and the Scioto Mile riverwalk – a rolling park on the banks of the Scioto River that includes porch swings, splash pads, festivals, and food. (Walking distance means you won’t use extra gas driving everywhere!)

The Renaissance Columbus Downtown is a perfect family choice. The rooftop pool on the fourth floor wows kids, and the first floor has games spread throughout several different gathering spaces, if your family needs a bit more room to spread out beyond your room. A buffet breakfast is available for purchase, or you can fill a to-go container to take back to your room.

Columbus road trip
The author’s kids hanging out in the Renaissance hotel pool on a recent visit. Photo courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.

The Holiday Inn Express Columbus Downtown features free breakfast and a pool (which is why this chain is always a hit with families), and the Drury Inn at the convention center features a pool, free breakfast, and a daily happy hour with free munchies as well. The city also has a ton of great private properties for rent through host-sharing websites like AirBnb.

For more information on planning your Columbus long weekend, reach out to Experience Columbus with questions on events, lodging, accessibility, and more.