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Things to do in Columbus, Indiana: architecture tour and more

Things to do in Columbus Indiana - Columbus Indiana street

Ever heard of Columbus, Indiana? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. Even after growing up in neighboring Illinois, I wasn’t familiar with it until one day last year when I saw it listed as one of the U.S.’ best destinations for architecture. Always down for an architecture road trip, I immediately mapped it from Chicago and texted one of my best friends, who’s an architect. It wasn’t long before we had planned an adventure to go see firsthand why it should be at the top of every architecture-lover’s bucket list!

Not to be confused with Columbus, Ohio, Columbus, Indiana—a city of just 47,143 residents—ranks sixth in the U.S. for architectural innovation and design, according to the American Institute of Architects. That means that for architecture, this tiny city beats out nearly everywhere else in the entire country, with the exception of just Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The best part is, because of Columbus’ small size, its architectural highlights are close together, and it’s easy to see them all in just one to two days. 

Ready to learn what makes this city such a gem—and what to do on your own trip there? Read on!

Things to do in Columbus Indiana - bridge over the river

THINGS TO DO IN COLUMBUS INDIANA

COLUMBUS INDIANA ARCHITECTURE TOUR

If you’re in Columbus from out of town, chances are, you came for the architecture. And if you’re going to see it, I highly recommend seeing it on the “Architecture Highlights” bus tour run through the visitors’ center. 

The tour lasts about two hours, but it’s enough time to give you a really good introduction to the city, its history and its architectural treasures. It kicks off with a brief run-through of how Columbus became a mid-century modern mecca. The short version? Finish-American architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, groundbreaking in its day, helped inspire an executive at local Cummins Engine Company to start the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program. The foundation covered architects’ fees for new public buildings, provided that architects came off a shortlist of renowned masters. 

The result was a city full of world-class bank, school and church buildings, along with a wealth of art and sculpture from designers such as I.M. Pei (whose work includes the Louvre pyramid and Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art).  

The tour begins with a stop inside Saarinen’s mid-century, minimalist First Christian Church, which looks nothing like most of the churches you’ve seen before. 

First Christian Church exterior
First Christian Church interior
First Christian Church pews
First Christian Church plants

It then takes you past a host of other places of interest, with another stop at North Christian Church, a building from Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero Saarinen. The younger Saarinen also designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Washington Dulles International Airport, and if you’ve ever left baggage claim there to grab a taxi, you’ll immediately notice the interior similarities!

Saarinen church exterior

white structure in a garden
sculpture and trees
reflection of a church
Columbus Indiana school

COLUMBUS INDIANA ARCHITECTURE TOUR SPECIFICS

I learned so much on this tour and I really think it’s the right move if you want to be able to fully appreciate how Columbus became what it is (and why its works are so significant). It costs $25, ($20 for students) and usually runs twice per day on weekends. Be sure to buy tickets in advance⁠—tours sell out⁠—and check the times before planning your trip. We didn’t allow enough time in town to catch both the architecture tour and the Miller House tour (see below!) and wished we could have done both. 

The tour starts and ends at the visitors’ center (don’t miss the Chihuly glass works while you’re there), and from there it’s easy to walk around and revisit sights you want a better look at. You’ll also be right near plenty of dining and drinking options that I’ll outline later in this post! One other option for after your tour: Visit the grounds of the Inn at Irwin Gardens.

white staircase
garden

MILLER HOUSE

The other major thing to do in Columbus is a tour of Miller House, a Modernist masterpiece and National Historic Landmark designed by Eero Saarinen. It currently belongs to Newfields, Indianapolis’ art museum, and tours are available through the Columbus Visitors’ Center. 

As I mentioned, we didn’t get to tour Miller House because the tour overlapped with our city architecture tour on the only full day we were there. But I’d love to go back to see its bright colors, fun patterns, Eames furniture and gorgeous gardens!

The 90-minute tour costs $25. 

modern building

WHERE TO STAY IN COLUMBUS INDIANA

If you’re looking to stay overnight in Columbus (1.5 to 2 days plus one night is perfect for seeing the city!), the good news is you have some options—and some options you can book with points, too! For those wanting to stay downtown and keep with the art and architecture theme, Hotel Indigo is the obvious choice. It’s right in the middle of it all location-wise, and it has its own gallery that showcases the work of regional artists. Bonus: It’s dog-friendly!

Hotel Indigo is a brand under the IHG umbrella, meaning you can book it with IHG points. If you don’t have those, you can always use a purchase eraser card such as Capital One Venture to wipe the charge from your statement or book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

If you drove to Columbus or are okay with doing some Ubering back and forth, you’ll find a pair of Marriott properties—the Residence Inn Columbus and Courtyard Columbus Tipton Lakes—about 6 to 8 minutes minutes away from downtown and two Hilton properties—the Hilton Garden Inn Columbus Edinburgh and Hampton Inn Columbus/Taylorsville/Edinburgh—slightly farther, at about 13 minutes away. All are bookable on points, and very few points at that!

PAYING IN CASH

That said, they’re also cheap in cash, which is what I opted to use for my stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Columbus Edinburgh. The rate was just $131.32 for the night, or $147.08, and I earned double base points thanks to an ongoing summer promotion. On top of that, my base points doubled again thanks to my Diamond status, which I have through the Hilton Honors Aspire. And that’s not to mention the 14x multiple I earned for paying for the stay on the card itself!

To learn more about earning and using points and miles to travel for free, visit the 52 Cities free resource library or register to join me on an upcoming masterclass

hotel lobby
hotel lobby

WHERE TO EAT IN COLUMBUS

Foodies, fear not: Columbus may not have the list of fancy dining options you’ll find in bigger cities, but it does have Henry Social Club, which will meet your high standards. From cocktails to the cheese plate and olives to the salad to the main courses, everything was spot-on in terms of execution, and the interior space is beautiful to boot. Take a peek at the menu here to get a sense of what the restaurant serves. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

We also visited the laid-back Columbus Pump House on the way out of town, and while it doesn’t quite go in the same category as Henry Social Club, I’d definitely recommend this place as well. The restaurant has a large menu of typical (but well-done) brewpub fare including sandwiches, nachos, pizzas and more, as well as salads and a solid beer list. And the building itself is a sight to see, too: It’s a historical structure dating back to 1903 that, in its present-day form, shows off its architectural details. The Pump House also has a large patio where you can sit outside next to the White River and enjoy views of the Robert Stewart Bridge.

And last but not least: ice cream. Zaharakos is a traditional ice cream parlor that’s been operating since 1900, and visiting the historic building is part of the fun. Service can be slow on busy summer days, but there’s plenty of history to read about and artifacts to see while you wait. 

brick restaurant interior
ice cream sundae

WHERE TO DRINK IN COLUMBUS

If you’re looking for coffee, Lucabe Coffee Co. is the place to get it. The bright and airy shop is located right downtown, an easy walk from most other stops you may be making.

If you’re into breweries, Columbus has those too; we visited 450 North, which sits on a family farm about a 20-minute drive from downtown. They have flights so you can sample multiple beers, but as always, bring a designated driver with you if you want to do one! 450 North has wine and cider available as well for non-beer drinkers. ZwanzigZ Pizza & Brewing is another microbrewery option (and it won the distinction of Best Small Brewpub brewer at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival in Denver!).

Dive bar lovers, meanwhile, should head straight to Columbus Bar. Recommended to us by our server at dinner, it’s a place where you’re much more likely to find young locals than other tourists. And since it’s the Midwest, people are friendly and happy to regale you with stories and tips for the rest of your trip. 

Columbus Indiana baristas
flight of beer

Hope this guide gives you some ideas for things to do in Columbus Indiana (and inspires you to take an architecture tour!) Would you go? Let me know in the comments! >>

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