Turn College Tours into a Family Vacation in Ohio

Home to eight U.S. presidents and the esteemed inventor Thomas Edison, Ohio is a smart state where higher education opportunities abound. With more than 130 colleges and universities — not to mention a growing culinary scene, thriving arts institutions and diverse natural wonders — the Buckeye State makes it easy to turn a standard college-visit trip into a fun-filled family vacation.

For your Ohio getaway, fly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport or Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and use these ideas for family vacations with teenagers to sample the sights, sounds and tastes of this Midwestern state while making your way from campus to campus.

The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, about 70 miles southwest of Kent State, was the fictional prison featured in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Explore Andy Dufresne’s escape tunnels and other filming locations on the Shawshank Trail driving tour. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.


Stop 1: Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Drive about 50 miles southeast of the Cleveland airport to reach Kent State, home to more than 340 undergraduate programs and one of the top fashion and merchandising schools in the U.S. Between classroom visits and dorm room tours, make time to catch a show at The Kent Stage, a former silent movie and vaudeville theater and current 642-seat music venue that has hosted acts ranging from bluegrass-rock band The Avett Brothers to reggae groups like Bob Marley’s The Wailers.

After a long day at “school,” hit the road with an appetite and a sense of adventure to satisfy your freshman cravings. Interstate 71 — the road to Columbus — will take you to Grandpa’s Cheese Barn and Sweeties Jumbo Chocolates, a must-stop roadside attraction that has been selling hundreds of varieties of cheeses, crackers, dips and sweets since the 1970s. After you’ve eaten your fill, consider a tour of The Ohio State Reformatory, where “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed. The Reformatory is open daily and offers “ghost tours” and more traditional looks at the prison’s historic architecture. Then get back on I-71 and make your way to Columbus, the state capital and home to one of the country’s biggest universities.

Fun fact: In 2016, Kent State became home to the first gluten-free dining hall on a U.S. college campus.

Before touring Ohio State’s campus, cross the award-winning Rich Street Bridge over the Scioto River. The riverfront green space along the Scioto Mile offers walking and cycling trails, food and music festivals, and great views of the downtown Columbus skyline.


Stop 2: The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Don’t be surprised if you hear calls of “O-H!” answered with an enthusiastic “I-O!” around Columbus, especially on a Saturday during football season. Buckeye football is an institution here, but the city is growing in ways that don’t include a gridiron.

Build in a trip to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, a 20-minute drive north of campus, where you can feed giraffes, ride camels and brush goats — and, if you’re lucky, watch a cheetah play and lounge with a Labrador retriever. Your family can also learn about conservation around the world: The zoo’s biologists and zoologists are working to restore coral reefs, increase southern white rhino populations and rehabilitate injured manatees. Later, venture downtown for a walk through the North Market, a vibrant, open space where you can grab a meal or a snack. Don’t leave without getting a scoop or two at the original Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams location. Tip: With any purchase at the market, you can have your parking validated for a discounted rate.

Drive a couple of miles south to German Village, a historic part of Columbus that is also home to The Book Loft, one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States. With 32 rooms connected by staircases that sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere, the store offers something for all ages. Then, load up the car and head southeast on U.S. Route 33, toward Ohio University.

Fun fact: Ohio State’s traditions run deep, and not just for graduates—professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, comedian Bob Hope and heavyweight boxing champ James “Buster” Douglas all have “dotted the i” during an Ohio State marching band performance of “Script Ohio.” During this choreographed halftime routine that dates to 1936, band members spell out “Ohio” in cursive script. Except in rare instances, the honor of dotting the “i” is fulfilled by a band member, usually a fourth- or fifth-year sousaphone player.

Scenes and sounds like the Upper Falls make the Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills a relaxing afternoon retreat.


Stop 3: Ohio University, Athens, Ohio

The highway from Columbus to Athens goes right through the Hocking Hills, a peaceful part of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains where your family can explore sandstone caves and cascading waterfalls and walk past beech, hickory, poplar and maple trees. Starting at the Old Man’s Cave parking lot, create a 6.1-mile loop out of the Buckeye and Gorge Overlook trails for a moderate hike through the woods to Rose Lake and Cedar Falls. Alternatively, stop in the area at night to stargaze at John Glenn Astronomy Park, which offers free programs on Friday and Saturday nights with clear skies during the warmer months. Book in advance because parking is limited.

Next on your Ohio trip, head about 40 miles southeast to Athens, a charming town with an even more charming campus tucked into those rolling foothills. In uptown Athens, don’t miss Passion Works Studio, a funky, brightly-colored space that showcases the artwork of people with developmental disabilities. Then begin driving west across the southern stretch of the state toward your last stop: the University of Cincinnati. On the way, pull over for one more quick hike at the Arc of Appalachia, a sprawling nature preserve covering a region where prehistoric glaciers met mountains and stopped. Today, it’s one of the most biodiverse spots in Ohio. Park across from the Highlands Nature Sanctuary’s Forest Museum and venture on the 1.2-mile Etawah Woods Trail, which begins at the museum and winds through Rocky Fork Gorge.

Fun fact: Established in 1804, Ohio University is the oldest public institution of higher education in Ohio and the first in the Northwest Territory.

Open 365 days a year, the Newport Aquarium’s address may be in Kentucky, but it's located less than two miles from downtown Cincinnati. Photo by Jeff Kubina, Flickr.


Stop 4: University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio

The University of Cincinnati campus is located in the heart of one of Ohio’s most vibrant cities. Stop at the Newport Aquarium: Walk (carefully!) across a rope bridge that hangs over a shark-infested tank; touch starfish, sea anemones and horseshoe crabs; and marvel at the giant Pacific octopus, which can change color to blend in with its surroundings. Visit Findlay Market, a place where farmers, artists and chefs have come together — in the same building since 1855 — to celebrate fresh food.

If you’re lucky enough to plan your Ohio vacation during baseball season, don’t miss a game at the Great American Ballpark, where the Ohio River flows just beyond right field and the Cincinnati Reds — baseball’s first professional franchise — play.

Fun fact: NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, taught at the University of Cincinnati for nearly 10 years.

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About the Author

Laura Arenschield is a writer and editor based in Columbus. Her work and her love of travel have led her on dozens of trips through four continents, but, as an Ohio native, the Buckeye State is where she most likes to explore.