If you find yourself saying, “My soldier is graduating from a military school at Fort Benning and I don’t know what to do when I visit,” then keep reading. Lots of families travel from near and far every week to attend a Fort Benning graduation. Whether it’s Ranger School, Airborne, Armor/Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) or Basic Training (to name a few), you’ll likely have between 24-48 hours where your soldier is free to unfasten her/his seatbelt and move about the cabin.
To avoid wasting the first hour or so asking, “What do you want to do with your free time?” here is a list of options that range from the adventurous to the relaxing. All of these suggestions take place in Columbus, which is right outside Fort Benning and require little to no preparation.
For the Adventurous…
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If I didn’t mention whitewater rafting and zip-lining up front, I’d be doing the city an injustice. If you have a full day to spend with your Soldier and they aren’t totally worn out from whatever course they’re completing, you have a unique opportunity on your hands along the Chattahoochee. This section of the river boasts the longest urban whitewater rafting in the world! You may regret not taking advantage of this bucket list opportunity. Don’t worry, you won’t be the guys in that picture… Or will you?
You can also zip line from one state to another (across the Chattahoochee) for an equally thrilling, but perhaps less chilling, activity. Both activities take place in Uptown Columbus and are about a 10-15 minute drive from Fort Benning. Aside from rafting and zip-lining, other river activities include fishing, kayaking and paddling.
Right and Up Tip: During peak rafting months, it would be wise to book these activities at least a week out, but during some slower months it is possible to do same-day or day-prior reservations. Bring a change of clothes so you can grab a bite to eat in Uptown when you’re done. Or don’t. I hear wet clothes are the new dry clothes. Dare to be different.
For the Foodies…
I’m really going to struggle keeping this list short ’cause, you guessed it, I’m a foodie. Chances are that even if you’re not a foodie, your soldier is going to insist on you being one when you come. And not because the chow hall food is bad—it’s just not what I dream about after spending weeks or months in a rigorous training environment. I bet you $45 the first thing your soldier asks for is good food. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of it in Columbus. Let’s play out a few scenarios for which I’ll give a recommendation.
Your Soldier is starving and needs to eat, like, yesterday
Right outside the Fort Benning gate (where the Infantry Museum is) there are a few close and tasty options, but my personal favorite is Normita’s Latin American Restaurant. If it looks like a hole in the wall, it’s because it is. But the food and service are great and you can eat at their all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for a very reasonable price. Yes, I said buffet. I know, buffets are typically the urban watering holes for sweaty-fingered kids and heat lamps, but Normita’s is super clean and fresh. Trust me.
Your Soldier is craving something greasy and filling
Let the record show that as I’m typing this I’m taking short breaks to rub my hands together and maniacally cackle muahahaha. If you plan on exploring Uptown or the riverwalk afterward, I’d recommend trying one of the following locations on Broadway: Nonic Bar or Flip Side Burgers and Tacos. Nonic is home to the donut burger, which will give you diabetes just by looking at it. I actually began sweating as I ate it. But it’s glorious. The donuts—baked and picked up locally from Golden Donut (another favorite!)—replace the burger bun. Flip Side is just down the street and has lots of creative burgers on its menu. My personal favorite is the Elvis Burger (pictured below), which has peanut butter and jalapeno jelly. Dude.
If you’re planning on heading to Northern Columbus, consider stopping by Ready Steak GO! This great mom and pop shop is located inside a gas station off Exit 12 and serves up some of the best grease-packed burgers and sandwiches ever! Try your luck with the patty melt or classic cheeseburger and find somewhere comfy to eat it, as you’ll slip into a much-deserved food coma immediately afterward.
Your Soldier is a food snob (like me!) and wants to get classy
There’s quite a few upscale options in Columbus. One of the best is Trevioli Italian Kitchen in Northern Columbus. It recently moved to a new location with a large dining area and outdoor patio. This place has the best homemade pasta I’ve ever had in my life. Its got upscale dishes for reasonable prices and it’s a great place to celebrate a graduation.
Other great options include Epic, Mabella’s and River & Rail in Uptown. Mabella’s has upscale food with a nice, laid-back atmosphere. River & Rail is a shwanky place that just opened in 2017 and specializes in farm to table recipes. Epic is one of my favorite restaurants and is a great place to celebrate a graduation, but I can really only afford to go there once in a blue moon. I mean, I go more often than that, but I have to eat Instant Ramen until pay day. Totally worth it!
For the curious…
If you’re lucky enough to have a graduation on the same day/weekend as a local festival, go check it out! There’s always something happening in Uptown or on Fort Benning (Beer & Wine Festival, Food Truck Festival, Farmers Markets, Oktoberfest, concerts, etc). Additionally, I highly recommend taking a Columbus Eats Food Tour. Buy your ticket from its website and then head to Uptown to be whisked away on a walking tour of the city. You’ll patronize local food establishments where you’ll sample their cuisine and learn some Columbus history. Along with food tours, Columbus Eats also does Happy Hour Tours! It’s not a drinking problem…it’s a drinking solution.
If you’re not a people person, or are just looking into other options, consider taking a stroll on the riverwalk or checking out some of the great antique and thrift shops in Columbus. Also, if you have a few days off with your soldier, you should check out some of the local wineries and distilleries.
For the history buffs…
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You can’t come all the way to Columbus and Fort Benning without checking out at least one of the great museums or historical landmarks in the area. If your Soldier isn’t starving (we’re always starving, but I mean actually starving), then immediately following the graduation you should hit up the National Infantry Museum. Your Soldier’s graduation may actually take place at the NIM, so you basically have no excuse. And it’s free! Plus, it was voted the No. 1 Best Free Museum in the USA.
Another great museum includes the National Civil War Naval Museum just down the road from the NIM on Victory Drive, which houses rebuilt portions of several Confederate and Union gun boats. You can also drive around Columbus to read about its history to include the Battle of Columbus, which is considered the last major battle of the Civil War.
There are so many things to do in Columbus, and I certainly did not list them all. Additionally, talk with your Soldier about what restrictions they may have during their time off with you. If they are going straight from one course to another, it’s possible they might have to stay in uniform while off-post and this will restrict certain options (i.e. whitewater rafting). Whatever you do, make sure it’s drill sergeant approved!