SANDUSKY, Ohio — Of course you’re going to Cedar Point.
The amusement park, known as the roller-coaster capital of the world, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Big water parks in the Sandusky area also pull in a ton of thrill-seekers.
But discerning travelers who set aside a day for the city itself will find their time well spent.
I’ve loved downtown Sandusky since I was a kid, driving through with my family on the way to Cedar Point. I was mesmerized by the massive and beautiful stone churches and Carnegie library, the floral clock and the fountain in front of the Erie County Courthouse.
My family never stopped, but now downtown Sandusky is my favorite part of any trip to the region.
The beautiful stone buildings, clock and fountain are all still there. And central Sandusky has experienced a bit of a rebirth in recent years, with several tourist-friendly businesses opening in lovely historic commercial buildings dating to the late 19th century. Visitors will find many good restaurants, taverns and shops and a new boutique hotel between the lake and the beautiful Art Deco courthouse.
One must-see destination is the Merry-Go-Round Museum, located in a building with a semi-circular, pillared portico.
The building, which resembles the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., looks as if it were designed to house a carousel, but it is actually the former Sandusky Post Office, built in 1927.
The Merry-Go-Round Museum has called the building home since 1990. Inside, visitors will find a profusion of brightly painted, historical merry-go-round figures, each one a work of art salvaged from an old ride.
Exhibits show the different styles and purposes of the figures and celebrate great merry-go-rounds and their builders. The museum also has a team of artisans who use and demonstrate historically accurate restoration techniques to save old figures and even carve new pieces.
At the center of the museum is, of course, a merry-go-round. The museum’s working 1930s carousel, built by the Allan Herschell Co., came without figures, but it has been repopulated with some of the finest animals from the museum’s collection, including lead horse Stargazer, which was originally carved in 1915. (I like the rideable ostrich and the pig.) Every visit to the museum includes a ride on the merry-go-round.
Sandusky’s lake-side heritage is celebrated at the Maritime Museum of Sandusky. It features a collection of historic boats, plus exhibits about shipwrecks, commercial fishing, ice harvesting, recreational boating and many other maritime themes.
Visitors who want to dip into more of the minutiae of local history also can stop at the Follett House Museum, a magnificent 1827 Greek revival-style mansion with four floors of exhibits about life and commerce in the city and on the lake. The museum also has a Civil War collection that includes letters, photographs and drawings from the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp that was on nearby Johnson Island.
Visitors will find plenty of chain and local motels and hotels in and around Sandusky. I enjoyed a night at the Hotel Kilbourne, a new boutique hotel in a historic building in the heart of town. The hotel has a rooftop bar with beautiful lake views.
There are plenty of other places downtown for a meal or drink, including the large and friendly Irish-style Daly’s Pub and the Small City Taphouse, which has an amazing collection of draft brews and really good sushi — an unusual and welcome combination.
For dessert or just a sweet treat, be sure to check out Toft Dairy, a new discovery for me on the western edge of town near Firelands Winery, another great stop and one of my old, old favorites.
I’m not sure how I had missed Toft, which claims to be the oldest dairy in the state. But when I tasted its delicious, creamy ice cream — served in crazily sized portions (“one scoop” was almost the size of my head) — I was glad I found it.
Here’s a pro tip: Visit the winery before the dairy — tasting dry wine after finishing a massive, sweet portion of ice cream does neither the wine, nor your taste buds, any favors.
But my best Sandusky tip: Whatever you do, don’t just drive through.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.