Ohio may not be at the top of many people's U.S. travel plans. In fact, I know it probably isn’t. We don't have the mountains of the West, the food of the South, or the beaches of the East Coast. But you know what? Ohio still has a lot to offer.
I've lived in Ohio my whole life, and, while I feel like it's easy to poke fun at the place you call home, it really is a pretty great state. We've got a handful of large cities, acres of picturesque farm land, lots of cool parks, a thriving Amish population, and some interesting history. Not to mention the Lake Erie shoreline, museums like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Football Hall of Fame, and some great amusement parks.
Ohio's not sounding so bad now, is it?
But if you only have one weekend in Ohio, which aspect of the state should you focus on? The Northeast, where you can hang out in Cleveland and visit the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame? The Southwest, where you can watch a Cincinnati Reds game and take a riverboat ride on the Ohio River? Or how about the center, where you can explore the state capital?
All of these are good options for Ohio weekends. But my suggestion would be a bit different — I'd tell you to head up to Lake Erie, where Sandusky and the surrounding Northwest area have a lot on offer.
Here's my ideal Ohio itinerary for a summer weekend:
A summer weekend in and around Sandusky, Ohio
Drive to Sandusky, a city of about 26,000 that sits right on the edge of Lake Erie. Sandusky has been around since before the United States was the United States (having been settled in 1744), and has served many purposes over the years, including being a key stop on the Underground Railroad prior to the abolition of slavery.
If you get in before 5 p.m., consider a visit to the Merry-Go-Round Museum. This museum is a unique one, and a $6 tour will introduce you to the different styles of carousel animals. You'll see about three dozen rare carousel carvings, and may even have the chance to see some carvers at work. If you’ve brought the kids along (or if you're just a big kid yourself), they’ll get to have a go on a speedy carousel (built in 1939) at the end of the tour.
Evening: Food and drink
For dinner, check out the French-inspired Zinc Brasserie on Water Street in downtown Sandusky, which also serves up delicious wood-fired pizza. Or, grab a table at the New Sandusky Fish Company to try the perch or walleye the area is famous for. Afterwards, head over to Volstead Bar, Sandusky's only speakeasy, for some craft cocktails. (If all their seats are full, Crush Wine Bar on Columbus Ave. is also quite good.)
All day: Cedar Point
Even though it will undoubtedly be crowded on a Saturday in the summer months, you cannot visit northern Ohio without spending at least one day at Cedar Point. This 364-acre amusement park is why people come to Northwest Ohio — it holds the largest collection of roller coasters in the world (there are 17 of them), as well as many former and current record holders.
Often voted the best amusement park on the planet, Cedar Point has something to offer the entire family — whether it's thrill rides, children's rides, live shows, or water activities you're after, it's all here.
You'll probably have to pick and choose the rides you tackle, but I highly recommend the Top Thrill Dragster (the world’s first “strata coaster,” which shoots riders 420 feet up into the air at 120 mph), Millennium Force (the 310-foot steel giant that broke 10 world records when it opened in 2000), the Raptor (where your feet dangle as you flip upside down 6 times), and the Maverick (with a first hill that dips down at more than 90 degrees).
Be sure to get a map of the park and have a plan of attack when it comes to the rides you want to experience. The park is large, and you'll want to make the most of your time there! (Cedar Point also sells Fast Lane passes, which will help you skip long lines and get more rides in.)
Even though I know you’ll be nursing sore feet, get up bright and early and make the 20-minute drive to Marblehead, which sits on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie, separating the lake from Sandusky Bay. Here there's a very pretty lighthouse that's great for photos.
Late morning: Kelleys Island
Continue on to the boat docks near the Marblehead lighthouse, where you can hop a ferry over to Kelleys Island, the largest island on Lake Erie. With a permanent population hovering around only 400, this island is primarily a vacation destination and sees thousands of visitors each summer.
While the popular Put-in-Bay is also nearby, Kelleys Island is a less-well-known alternative that is more family-friendly. The Kelleys Island Ferry runs from Marblehead every half hour in the summer, and costs $20 for adults and $12.50 for kids for a roundtrip ticket. Parking near the docks is $10.
Once on the island, rent a bike or golf cart to explore — it’s much more fun than driving your car around. The island is small (only about 5 miles wide), so don't worry about rushing to see everything. You can also sign up for a fishing charter, or rent a kayak to explore the island’s 17 miles of shoreline if you’re looking for alternate ways to enjoy the area.
Afternoon: Kelleys Island
If you’re planning to stick to dry land, check out Kelleys Island State Park, where you can spend some time swimming at Sandy Beach. Or you can (and should) visit the Glacial Grooves on the north side of the island. The Glacial Grooves are the footprint a glacier carved out 18,000 years ago as it moved its way across North America. The grooves on Kelleys Island are the largest and most easily accessible such grooves in the whole world.
You can also stop in to the Kelleys Island Wine Company, which was at one time one of the largest wineries in the United States. Established in 1872, the original winery shut down after two major fires destroyed its facility during prohibition. But the winery was re-established in 1982, and it operates today as a winery and tourist attraction.
Evening: Back to Marblehead
Catch the ferry back to Marblehead. If you're lucky, you might get to spot one a stunning summer sunset over Lake Erie, like the ones pictured earlier in this post!
Where to stay in Sandusky
For this trip, I would make your base Sandusky. Yes, there are cheap motels around Cedar Point to stay in, but why choose one of those when you can stay at a cool boutique hotel in downtown Sandusky?
Check out Hotel Kilbourne, a new boutique hotel with a rooftop bar and lake views of Lake Erie. The rooms here are modern and comfortable, and the hotel is within walking distance of lots of cool restaurants and bars. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here!)
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Have you ever been to this part of Ohio?