Aerial view of Topiary Park in downtown Columbus (photo courtesy of Columbus Recreation and Parks Department)
Travel | Cities

8 Free Things to Do in Columbus this Summer

Summer in our capital city means access to many free-to-visit destinations and events, from music and movies to art museums to a wealth of public parks.

Art & Museums

Experiencing Columbus’ art scene can be done without spending a dime. The Wexner Center for the Arts, for example, has galleries and public programs that are free to visit year-round. From June 1 through Aug. 21, visitors can see artist Jonas N.T. Becker’s “A Hole is not a Void.” The exhibition includes prints, photographs, sculptures and two short films that explore issues of land, labor and environmental injustice in Appalachia.

Also on view, from June 1 to Aug. 21, is Tanya Lukin Linklater’s “Inner blades of grass.” Fusing visual and performing arts, the exhibition is inspired by Linklater’s Indigenous heritage and features sculpture, prints and improvisational open dance rehearsals.

“The cool thing about the Wex is that there’s always something new on view,” says Emily Haidet, curator of public programs. “You may have been here a few months ago when there was one exhibition, and then you decide to come a couple months from now and it looks completely different because we’re highlighting new artists, we’re featuring new work — it’s always changing.”

The Wex also hosts a variety of free programs and film screenings, so keep an eye on the museum’s website for updates. Staffers at parking services will even provide a discounted, $2 parking validation; just stop by their desk on your way into the museum.

The free museum experiences in our capital city go beyond The Wex. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, also on the campus of Ohio State University, has exhibitions curated from the largest collection of cartoon and comic-related materials in the world. The Ohio Craft Museum opens its doors for travelers to view its permanent collection of works organized by medium, from clay to glass to fiber. And don’t forget about the Columbus Museum of Art, which features free admission to its permanent-collection galleries on Sundays.

People watching movie at John F. Wolfe Columbus Commons (photo by Robb McCormick Photography)
Music & Movies

Columbus boasts an impressive lineup of free movie nights and concerts. Returning this year to the John F. Wolfe Columbus Commons is a free, family-friendly movie series that features animated favorites such as “The Secret Life of Pets” (June 21), “Ratatouille” (July 12) and “Coco” (Sept. 7). All movies also include free popcorn while supplies last, and attendees are welcome to bring blankets and chairs. For grown-ups, they also host a new free series called Sunset Cinema, in partnership with CAPA, which takes place every Thursday in September and includes a happy hour prior to the film screening.

“It’s a great place to watch a movie under the stars, with the downtown skyline surrounding you,” says Ashley Myers, director of Columbus Commons. She also notes the abundant parking near the location.

Free movie nights will also take place at Topiary Park this summer, with monthly showings from May to October including “Rent” (June 28), “National Treasure” (July 26) and “Barbie” (Aug. 23). Movies begin at 9 p.m. or sunset, and those who arrive an hour early can enjoy trivia, games and food trucks.

For fans of live music, Columbus Commons also hosts concerts, including the Local + Live series. The five themed performances are free to attend and take place on Thursday evenings throughout August. The series kicks off with a Throwback Thursday tribute to The Beatles and a special performance by the East High School Marching Band on Aug. 1.

Grandview Heights Public Library’s summer concert also returns this summer. The 38th annual Music on the Lawn series kicks off in July and runs through August on the library’s new outdoor stage.

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Man playing saxophone at Columbus Jazz and Rib Fest (photo by Randall L. Schieber)
Free Festivals
Plan your visit around these events happening this summer.  

Columbus Arts Festival June 7–9
This annual event featuring over 250 visual artists and four stages of entertainment returns to the downtown riverfront along the Scioto Mile. The festival features artist tents, caricaturists, face painters and local food vendors. columbusartsfestival.org

Columbus Book Festival July 13 & 14
Calling all bookworms, this two-day festival brings over 200 authors to downtown’s historic main library for panels, author talks and book signings. When attendees are done inside, they can head outside where vendors and entertainment await. columbusbookfestival.org

Jazz and Rib Fest July 19–21 
Savor great music and food galore during this festival at Bicentennial and West Bank parks that features 17 barbecue vendors as well as jazz acts such as Chris Botti, Stephanie Mills, Norman Brown and The Soul Rebels. hotribscooljazz.org

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Whetstone Park of Roses in Columbus (photo by Randall L. Schieber)
Parks & Nature

Those searching for a slice of nature can also find it in our capital city, from an extensive roster of Metro Parks to one of the largest public rose gardens in the country.

With five themed gardens spread across 13 acres, the Columbus Park of Roses is a beautiful place to spend a summer day. True to its name, the park contains a Formal Rose Garden with 8,000 rosebushes and 350 varieties of flowers, as well as a Heritage Rose Garden brimming with garden rose varieties that were commonly grown prior to 1867. The rose gardens are joined by the Perennial Garden, Herb Garden and Backyard Garden, the latter of which contains a variety of common plants to inspire visitors to cultivate their own gardens.

Nancy Walsh, development officer for the Columbus Park of Roses Foundation, emphasizes that it “is a garden for all seasons,” from the first fragrant blooms of the Heritage Rose Garden in mid-June to the Formal Rose Garden’s second bloom in September.

“One section of the garden might be more beautiful one month, and then the next month, the beauty is more in the next garden,” she says. “But to me, the whole thing is [always beautiful].”

The Park of Roses is located within Whetstone Park, which also has a playground, fishing pond, picnic tables and more to make an afternoon out of the trip.

In the heart of downtown, visitors can admire a living re-creation of artist Georges Seurat’s 1884 painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” at the Topiary Park. Local artist James Mason created the garden in 1989 at what was formerly known as Deaf School Park.

Nearby at Scioto Audubon Metro Park, adventurers can tackle the climbing wall, walk along the Scioto River and learn about local birds at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. Visitors to Quarry Trails Metro Park can participate in free kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard programs (check website for dates), ride the mountain bike course and check out the park’s waterfall.  

Man at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio (photo courtesy of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum)
When You Go
For more information about these and other destinations in Columbus, visit experiencecolumbus.com.

Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
library.osu.edu/biclm

Columbus Commons
columbuscommons.org

Columbus Museum of Art
columbusmuseum.org

Ohio Craft Museum
ohiocraft.org

Quarry Trails Metro Park
metroparks.net

Scioto Audubon Metro Park
metroparks.net

Topiary Park
columbus.gov

Wexner Center for the Arts
wexarts.org