Known locally as The Gem City, Dayton is the fourth-largest city in Ohio and best known for churning out some of the most innovative minds whose creations still influence our way of life in the 21st Century. Whilst it’s notorious as Aviation’s birthplace, Dayton also considers itself an invention powerhouse with the first motorized aircraft, the cash register, the electric starter motor, the US Navy Bombe deciphering machine, the Hydraulic Jump, and leaded petrol all being granted patents in the city. As a city with a population of over 140,000 and able to count Nancy Cartwright, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Martin Sheen, Roger Clemens, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Phil Donahue as some of Dayton’s most successful talent, we’ve narrowed down the sites of the city to showcase why it really is the showcase gem of the Buckeye State.
Interactive Map of 25 Things to Do in Dayton (OH)
1. National Museum of the US Air Force
Averaging over one million visitors every year, the National Museum of the US Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is consistently ranked as one of Ohio’s top tourist attractions. With museum origins since 1923 and opened to the public in its current form in 1971, the museum collection of 360 aircraft and missiles has expanded significantly over the years, requiring the movement to the current location and the construction of additional hangars, the latest of which was built in 2016. It proudly holds the record for the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world.
Key highlights of the museum include a replica of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle, and the Bockscar – B-29 Superfortress that dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki in WWII. Visitors can also view Apollo 15 Command Module Endeavour that orbited the moon 74 times in 1971 and several variants of Air Force One – including the modified Boeing 707 that carried the Kennedys and Lyndon B Johnson to Dallas, and subsequently from Dallas to Washington after the Dealey Plaza Assassination of John F. Kennedy.
2. Carillon Historical Park
With Dayton’s history as a breeding ground for inventions and the industrious, it’s no wonder that Carillon Historical Park is one of the city’s most popular sites. Founded by Colonel Edward Deeds and his wife Edith in 1940 after a trip to Belgium sparked a fascination for campanology, the 65-acre park was launched to commemorate the technological and transportation advances some of Colonel Deeds friends and colleagues had achieved that put Dayton on the world map.
Featuring artifacts and buildings spanning from 1796 to the present, must-see exhibits include the 1905 Wright Flyer III, the 1835 John Quincy Adams steam locomotive, an early Frigidaire refrigerator, the Corliss Engine, and a 1912 Cadillac fitted with the Delco electric system.
3. Boonshoft Museum of Discovery
What began in 1893 as the Dayton Public Library and Museum has now grown into the city’s premier educational facility focusing on science and natural history. Now incorporating a science center, a natural history museum, a children’s museum, and a zoo featuring animals native to Ohio, in 1991 they added a planetarium and observatory to provide an immersive educational experience to young Daytonians.
Key exhibits include “Science on a Sphere” – an outer-space view of the Earth projecting visualizations of the atmosphere, oceans, and land. Oscar Boonshaft Science Central features a water table area, a climbing tower and slide, and a rubber band manipulation area. Explorers Crossing enables kids to try out their dream careers as veterinarians, mechanic, or pizza chefs. With events regularly held throughout the year, such as summer camps, astronomy programs, and zoo tours, there are plenty of opportunities to learn something new.
4. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
Opened in 1992 after Jerry Sharkey’s nationwide campaign for the preservation of sites that shaped Dayton’s Aviation history, the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park incorporates six sites that in their own right earns recognition as National Historical Landmarks, which include the Wright Cycle Company Building, Hoover Block, Huffman Prairie Flying Field, the Wright Brothers Aviation Center, Hawthorn Hill, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar House.
We suggest that the first port of call for your visit should be the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, where you can learn about the Wright Brothers and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. There’s an auditorium playing the film Wright Brothers On Great White Wings and the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum, which celebrates another Dayton creation – the free-fall parachute, invented just after WWI at McCook Field.
5. America’s Packard Museum
Founded in 1992 by long-time car collector and lawyer Robert Signom II, America’s Packard Museum celebrates one of the nation’s most revered luxury vehicles. Whilst the Packard Motor Car Company may now be defunct today, the brand was so popular during the early 1950’s it even sparked a dealership war with Chrysler and Ford. When Signom purchased his first 1928 Packard Convertible Coupe – which during its history had actually been owned and subsequently lost by his father, his passion for the classic cars grew. Once the site of the Dayton Art Deco-styled dealership was being sold in 1991 he set out on a mission to build a tribute to his favorite car.
The 50-car Packard collection spans an age ranging from 1903 to 1952 and features the 1930 Town Cabriolet Model 740, a 1928 Jesse Vincent Speedster prototype, a 1942 Clipper with US Army livery and previously driven by General Douglas MacArthur, a 1933 Super Eight Touring, and of course the green Signom family 1928 Convertible Coupe.
6. SunWatch Indian Village
Operated by the Boonshaft Museum of Discovery, the SunWatch Indian Village is an open-air museum that opened in 1988 featuring a reconstructed Fort Ancient culture village. Discovered by chance by amateur archaeologists John Allman and Charles Smith in the 1960s and at odds with a planned conversion into a sewerage treatment area, the site underwent a massive excavation operation that lasted 17 years. The 3-acre site was found to provide researchers detailed information regarding the dwellings, social organization, diets, burial practices, and the reliance on hunting and farming of the indigenous tribes of the 12th century.
Designated a National Historical Landmark in 1990, the site offers visitors a chance to view artifacts within the indoor exhibit space and provides educational talks through their lecture series and walking tours. Previous events held on the site include tool forging demonstrations, flute circle meetings, and pottery demonstrations.
7. Wright Cycle Company Shop
Before they cemented themselves in history books for their aeronautical achievements, the Wright brothers were operating as a duo of cycling moguls – at one point operating 6 branches of their stores within Dayton. Originally named the Wright Cycle Exchange, the brothers launched the business in 1892 whilst they continued to operate a print shop and blessed with a mind for mechanics, they used the profits from both the print store and the cycle store to fund their journey into Aeronautics.
The shop location on 22 South William Street was actually their fourth branch – it was built in 1886 in the Victorian architectural style by the Nicholas Brothers. However, when their interest in Aviation grew and following the Wright Flyer’s success – which cost less than $1000 to make – they decided to close the business in 1909 to focus solely on their inventions. This included constructing a 6ft wind tunnel on the 2nd floor of their 1127 West Third Street store, where they were able to test over 200 shapes of scale model wings and develop early prototypes of an airfoil and warped wing systems. With other inventions on display and featuring tools reminiscent of the late 19th century, the Wright Cycle Company Shop is a vital stop on the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
8. Paul Lawrence Dunbar House
His iconic line “I know why the caged bird sings” from the poem Sympathy was an apt line as to the influence of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, widely considered the first internationally acclaimed African American novelist, poet, and playwright. Second only to the Wright Brothers (they even collaborated on print media) as Dayton’s famous exports, Dunbar originally purchased the property in 1904 for this mother and lived there until his passing in 1906 from Tuberculosis at the age of 33.
Among some of the artifacts on display in the 8-room house includes the desk and chair where we completed most of his 400 works, a bicycle given to him from the Wright Brothers, and a ceremonial sword awarded to him by President Theodore Roosevelt. In Ohio State ownership since 1934, it marked the first monument in the state dedicated to African American history and was listed as a National Historical Landmark in 1962.
9. Dayton Grotto Gardens
Believe it or not, the Dayton Grotto Gardens were once one of the nation’s leading tourist attractions in the early 20th century. Having been established after President Lincoln signed a bill in 1865 ordering that 3 venues be built as a refuge for those who were maimed in the American Civil War, the Grotto Gardens saw about 7000 veterans residing on the grounds during its peak who referred to the gardens as the Mother Home.
Located at the Dayton VA Medical Center, the gardens once reached visitor numbers of 600,000 annually, aided by the landscaping skills of Charles Beck and the gardening prowess of Frank Mundt, who started the curation in 1868. Having undergone a much-needed renovation in 2012, visitors and residents of Dayton can now enjoy the gardens in their former glory and enjoy a picnic, stroll, memorial walking tour, or a sneaky peer through the limestone grottos.
10. Patterson Homestead
Located on the 9.8-acre Rubicon Farm, Patterson Homestead was built in the popular Federal Architecture style in 1816 by Colonel Robert Patterson. Patterson, who founded the cities of both Lexington, KY and Cincinnati OH, was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and built the homestead after he, his wife Elizabeth, and their eleven children had been subject to living in a log cabin since their move to Dayton in 1804 – one year after Ohio was made a state. Taking advantage of the extra space, Rubicon farm was used to raise sheep, hogs, and cattle; the Patterson’s also grew corn, wheat, oats, and tobacco and even cultivated their own apple orchard.
Current visitors can enjoy touring through the 6-room homestead and view Patterson family heirlooms and early 19th century artifacts. There are often tours and events hosted by volunteers dressed in period costumes, and kids will love the miniature train rides on offer. As a destination listed in the National Registry of Historical Places in 1976, the site is often host to many functions and Victorian afternoon teas – we hear their scones are some of the best in Dayton!
11. Carriage Hill MetroPark
Priding themselves on promoting the Miami Valley area’s agricultural history, Carriage Hill MetroPark features historical farming grounds recreated from the 1880s with the costuming, machinery, and methods to match. Regular demonstrations of volunteers in period costumes provide visitors a chance to witness popular skills such as quilting, blacksmithing, woodworking, cooking, ice harvesting, meat smoking, and canning in action. Generations of Daytonians have come to enjoy visits to the farm, particularly with feedings of on-site farm animals such as Cows, Pigs, Donkeys, and the rare historical breed of Draft Horses.
To really take advantage of your day at Carriage Hill, a whole host of activities are on offer, including hiking (look for the Yellow trail) and the Riding center, offering more than 7 miles of bridle trails. Cedar Lake has also proven popular for amateur fishers, with panfish such as crappies and sunfish in abundance, whilst photography enthusiasts will love the Prairie fields on the farmland, which have proven popular as a destination for wedding and engagement photos.
12. The Dayton Art Institute
The Dayton Art Institute contains an enormous 27000 pieces in its collection, spanning almost 5000 years of artistic history. Beginning as the Dayton Museum of Arts in 1919 and having resided in its current building since 1930, it has become one of the stalwarts of Dayton’s tourism industry. This is despite the fact that even with 2 levels to accommodate their works, it usually only has 1000 artifacts on display at any one time – allowing ticket holders to discover something different with each repeat visit.
Featuring Asian, Native American, African, and Oceanic Art, the Museum also has a dedicated collection of Glassworks, Photography, and Outdoor Sculpture. Featuring artworks from Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet, and Peter Paul Rubens and glass artworks from Lalique and Dale Chihuly, it’s no wonder the Dayton Art Institute manages to pull in over 300,000 tourists annually.
13. John Bryan State Park
Named after John Bryan, a businessman who owned land in the Clifton area of the park, the John Bryan State Park is located in nearby Yellow Springs, 22.5 miles from Dayton. The sprawling 752-acre park features seven hiking trails, four of which are at a beginner level, ranging from 1.1 miles to 5.2 miles and elevations from 990 feet to 1050 feet above sea level.
Whilst visitors can enjoy the use of the camping and rock-climbing facilities, as well as a playground, frisbee golf course, and mountain bike trails, the true jewel of the park is the limestone Clifton Gorge cradling Little Miami River – the beauty of which earnt the park and gorge recognition as a National Natural Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior.
14. Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway
Opened in 2014, Hollywood Gaming bills itself more as a “Racino” than the traditional casino. Covering a whopping 190,000 square feet of gaming floor space, the venue offers brave patrons the capacity to wager on live harness racing and simulcast horse races. Additionally, they can try out their luck on over 1000 Video lottery Terminals on the venue floor.
Whether you’re looking for your tried-and-true classic VT or the hottest new game, offerings at Hollywood Gaming include Lightning Link, Price is Right, The Vault, Smoking Hot Stuff Wicked Wheel, Dancing Drums, and Wild Wild Gems – some of which allow wagers from a penny to 25 dollars. If you end up having a lucky night with your Quinella, why not treat yourself to a Surf and Turf Rib Eye meal at the Skybox Sports Bar?
15. RiverScape MetroPark
Despite being established recently in 2001, the RiverScape MetroPark grounds have quickly grown to become Dayton’s favorite destination for family gatherings and festivals. Nestled along the Great Miami River, the park’s showcase is the Five Rivers Fountain of Lights that cover 395,000 square feet across an 800 ft diameter – making it one of the largest fountains in the world. Visitors can expect summer concerts in the Pavilion and an ice-skating rink in the winter, with food trucks parked depending on the weather and event.
A popular destination for many to get their daily run or ride in, the park features the River Run Mural designed by artist Amy Deal. There are also bike hire facilities, a splash park, and a dedicated section for kayaking and paddleboarding. For those who want a casual stroll, the Dayton Inventors River Walk is a great way to spend the afternoon, with seven oversized sculptures dedicated to the cities most notorious innovators.
16. The Secret Chamber House of Oddities and Artwork
Whilst describing itself as a consignment store, the treasures found inside the Secret Chamber House of Oddities and Artwork are miles beyond the standard Goodwill. Horror enthusiast Cherish Harrell Brooks opened up the store in 2017 and has since made her mark on Dayton with her collections of curios and artifacts. If you’re at all fascinated by witchcraft, the occult, or goth culture, this store will be your dream destination in Dayton, and even if you aren’t, you’re bound to walk away with easily the most unique souvenir you can imagine.
On display they have wet specimens, bones, taxidermy, fan memorabilia, entomology shadow boxes, shrines, new age paraphernalia, and allegedly haunted items. They also regularly ask local Dayton and Fairborn artists to collaborate and sell their creations in the store, so even if you can only budget a 10 dollar note for a visit, you can easily walk away with a conversational art piece, clown earrings, or a Freddie Kruger head bath bomb.
17. Ghostlight Coffee
Established in 2011, Ghostlight Coffee has been Dayton’s preferred destination for coffee since it’s launch – it was voted Dayton’s favorite coffee house 3 years in a row by Dayton Magazine and Dayton.com. Aside from their quality cup of Joe, they pride themselves on offering up plant-based milk alternatives, offering baked goods that accommodate intolerances, and are passionate about their zero waste policy – even stocking reusable cups and stainless steel straws and brushes for sale.
What we love about Ghostlight the most are their collaborations, some of which result in some incredibly unique seasonal beverages. With Jo Snow Syrups they’ve had on their menu the Lumberjack Latte and the Balsamic Black Walnut Latte – worth trying to fight the monotony of the morning Cappucino. We also love their Onyx Lab Roaster collaborations and the Deeper Roots Guatemalan Gesha Beans; however, if you can’t buy out the whole café then at least browse the stunning ceramic mugs for sale by artist Crazy Cat Lady – their unique renderings of Barack Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg will soon become your favorite mug.
18. Dayton International Peace Museum
Honoring the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnian conflict, the Dayton International Peace Museum aims to promote non-violent solutions to conflict and to highlight individuals who promote pacifism in society. Housed within Isaac Pollack House – a Nationally Listed 3-story Victorian mansion built in 1876 – the museum was established in 2004 by several members from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
As the second peace museum established in the nation, the museum’s facilities include a library and children’s’ room, as well as a gathering space fit for hosting events such as book discussions and story slams. The museum also takes its message out to the community, regularly hosting diversity picnics, run/walk/yoga weekends, interfaith community gatherings, and the downtown Dayton Peace Heroes Walk.
19. Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum
Established in 1842 – making it one of the oldest 5 cemeteries in the United States – by John Van Cleave, Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum has been, in the most beautiful of ways, at the forefront of Dayton History and culture. The 200-acre site hosts the final resting places of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Loren M. Barry, Erna Bombeck, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Charles Kettering, and James Ritty, in addition to some structures listed on the National Historical Register such as the Romanesque gateway, the Chapel (featuring original Tiffany glass windows) and the office.
Nature lovers must ensure they visit the Arboretum. Featuring 3000 trees, of which 165 are native specimens, the curation of the gardens has enabled the grounds to be one of the most photographed destinations in Dayton; as the highest point in the city, you’re treated to a sprawling view of downtown and the Miami River. Peppered throughout with sculptures by Karl Bitter and Robert Koepnick, this is certainly an attraction that will leave any visitor with a sense of tranquility and inner peace.
20. Warped Wing Brewery
Established in 2014 within a former foundry, the Warped Wing Brewery borrows its name from a key Wright Brothers aviation invention allowing the lateral roll control of a fixed-wing aircraft – a rendering of which features in the company logo. Located in the middle of downtown and walking distance from Wiley’s Comedy Club, Dayton Convention Center, and the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, this is a key stop on many Daytonian’s nights out.
Quality choices from their menu include the sharable Tater Kegs, Asparagus Fries, and their famous Smoked Warped Wings. As far as froths go, we’re keen on their Gamma Bomb IPA, their Belgian-style Ermal’s Cream Ale and the 10 Ton Oatmeal Stout. Should their tasting paddles pique your curiosity for something stronger, they also run the Warped Wing Barrel Room and Smokery about 20 min drive away in nearby Springboro – totally worth the trek.
21. Miami Valley Military History Museum
Featuring items from the American Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Miami Valley Military History Museum aims to “perpetuate and preserve the memory of veterans from the armed forces.” Boasting an incredible 10000 artifacts, only half of which have made it on display to the public, these items have been donated by family members who know how important it is to have their stories told and what sacrifices such veterans have made to shape the history of America.
Whilst key artifacts worth seeing include a preserved piece of the battleship USS Arizona that was sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as a section of burnt steel from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, the most interesting artifacts come from events with less notoriety. There’s a photo featuring the moment Larry S. Trusty climbs a Vietnamese mountain (and through the signature jungle terrain) to hoist a 12ft wooden cross. Also featured is Richard Albricht’s carved replica of a Colt 1911 he used for a planned escape attempt in WWII. For those who wish to interact with items that aren’t behind Plexiglass, the museum even has a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet for visitors to test the weight.
22. The Contemporary Dayton
Founded in 1991 by Daytonian artists and professionals in the visual arts realm, The Contemporary seeks to provide a facility that would promote both community awareness and an increase in interaction between the region’s public and artists. Nicknamed The Con, the Downtown venue provides exhibits and gallery talks as well as developmental workshops for those who wish to tap into their artistic interpretation of the environment and society.
Hosting a well-curated 12 to 18 exhibits a year, what we enjoy most about The Con are two events it has become synonymous for. The Annual Art Auction allows two local charities to ultimately benefit from the talent of the Ohioan arts scene and provides an opportunity for locals to get their hands on a showstopping investment piece. The Holiday Gift Gallery allows Daytonians to view the full spectrum of their favorite artist’s talent and to purchase items that suit most budgets, with everything from Limited Edition Prints, Christmas ornaments, sculptures, clothing, and jewelry available for purchase and the funds forwarded straight into the pockets of artists.
23. Land of Illusions Adventure Park
Located 30 minutes’ drive away in nearby Middletown, the Land of Illusions Adventure Park has been the family vacation choice of Ohioans for over 20 years. Operating as a water park during the day and a haunted scream park in the evening, there’s something to suit all ages and discerning tastes – plus as the host venue for seasonal events such as the Zombie 5K Run and the Christmas Glow light show, this is a great option to spend some of your valuable time in Dayton.
The most popular attractions at the scream park are the Killer Klown House, Middletown Haunted Trail, and Dr. Psycho’s Haunted Estate; whist the water park’s clear highlight is the Wibit Adventure Zone – a massive inflatable obstacle course that will have you re-enacting your favorite episode of Wipeout. Additionally, the Park also features the Oakley Pavilion – often the chosen venue for music artists such as Everclear and Chris Lane to perform in, so be sure to check out the Events Calendar to see who’ll be the soundtrack to your day out.
24. 2nd Street Market
Formerly a historical freight house, the 2nd Street Market provides visitors with the most convenient and varied access to the best of Dayton’s small business community. Conveniently located in the Downtown area, the market features over 50 vendors highlighting the finest produce and pantry staples for your cooking needs and without the carbon footprint of other supermarkets.
A great location for shopping with vendors who pride themselves on products that are ethically sourced, we particularly love the cooked-on-site Chicken Patties from Tea Hills Farms, the personalized Hand-stamped Jewellery from Hedy Riegle Studios, and the Blissful Sleep Bath Bombs from Fox in Socks Soapery – souvenirs which will put the generic Dayton fridge magnet to shame.
25. Wheat Penny Oven and Bar
Located in the Oregon district, Wheat Penny Oven and Bar has been making waves in the Dayton dining scene since their grand opening in 2013, particularly for their Cali-style pizza. Standing out amongst other flagship pizza joints such as Marion’s Piazza and Cassano’s, owner Elizabeth Wiley uses her passion for Italian cuisine and her training at Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza to cultivate a menu that has elevated Wheat Penny and their sister restaurant Meadowlark to the top of Daytonian’s places to dine and celebrate.
Whilst their extensive menu may seem overwhelming to the first-time visitor, we recommend starting with their Eggplant Fries and their Arugula and Shaved Cauliflower Salad, whilst for mains, the Wheat Penny Burger, Crispy Brick Chicken Thighs and the Cauliflower T-Bone are all worth a gamble. For those who are eager to try their famous chewy-yet-crispy pizza, you cannot go wrong with the Angry Sal pizza, the Taylor Street pizza, or the meat-free Tommaso pizza. Accompanied with either the Lavender Limoncello or the Kentucky 75 cocktail and your stomach will thank you.