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Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, Marietta, Ohio beckons as the ideal location for a memorable getaway. With its warm hospitality, rich history and charming downtown, the oldest city in the state has proven every bit as relevant today as it was in 1788.
I have visited the area many times over the years, beginning with my very first visit to the Ohio Sternwheel Festival as a small child. It’s crazy because when I think of that first visit, I thought the sternwheelers were on land. That’s how young I was. I can assure you the sternwheelers at the festival are indeed boats and they are operational.
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit during the festival which pays homage to the region’s rich riverboat heritage. This time I took a girlfriend along to explore with me to see if I loved the festival as much now as I did then. Let’s just say, it did not disappoint.
If you’ve never been to Marietta, close your eyes and picture tree-lined streets and brick-paved roads with historic homes and churches of varied architectural styles that span two centuries. You’ll even have the opportunity to see buildings that date back to the year Marietta was founded, making this small city a perfect destination for romantics or history buffs.
If you’ve never been to Marietta, close your eyes and picture tree-lined streets and brick-paved roads with historic homes and churches of varied architectural styles that span two centuries.
You’ll even have the opportunity to see buildings that date back to the year Marietta was founded, making this small city a perfect destination for romantics or history buffs.
I’ll share more about all the things you can do in Marietta, but first things first, let’s chat about the Ohio Sternwheel Festival.
Embrace Riverfront Magic at the Sternwheel Festival
The Ohio Sternwheel Festival is an annual event that is held each year on the weekend after Labor Day. The festival transforms Marietta’s riverfront into a hub of activities ranging from live music to Sternwheel races to the highly anticipated fireworks that are the best I have ever seen.
This popular event has become a cherished tradition for families. In 2024 it will celebrate 48 years!
Like any other festival that you visit, you can expect to find a variety of festival and fair foods as well as vendors selling anything from candles to windchimes to stuffed animals, t-shirts, hats and more. This varies by year based on current trends.
You’ll also find top-notch entertainment and local bands on the official festival stage located on the Ohio River Levee and throughout town as well. We found several street performers while we explored the shops on Front Street.
People’s Bank Theatre and the Adelphia Music Hall often have performers too so check their schedule to see who’s playing.
From what I can tell, you can expect moderate crowds both Friday evening and Sunday afternoon with the bulk of the crowds showing up for the much-anticipated fireworks display that is held on Saturday night.
To say the fireworks are phenomenal is an understatement. I truly believe they offer the highest caliber fireworks I’ve ever seen but you won’t believe me until you see them for yourself, so plan to visit next year and you’ll understand.
In addition to the performers, bands and fireworks, other popular events are the car show and Sternwheel races.
The races were a complete mystery to me due to the slower pace of Sternwheel boats. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly they moved when the race began. And while the boats don’t reach the speed you’ll find at a NASCAR race, they were surprisingly fun to watch as the spectators began to cheer for the leading boat or as the underdog began to take the lead.
There are also events and activities for families and children, including the Little Miss and Mr. Sternwheel and the coveted Miss Genevieve scholarship pageant that is held in the ballroom of the historic Lafayette Hotel.
The Lafayette is a charming riverboat-era hotel located at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers and a convenient spot to stay during the festival. As you can imagine, this stately hotel is in high demand during the festival so if you want to stay you may want to check alternative dates.
Here are a few tips that you’ll want to keep in mind when attending the Ohio Sternwheel Festival:
1. Be sure to check the official website or Facebook page of the festival for up-to-date information on events, schedules and important information about things like parking.
2. Book your hotel early if you plan to spend the weekend and ask if they provide a shuttle. We stayed at the Hampton Inn on Pike Street and they offered a free shuttle. I found it just as easy to drive and park but if the traffic makes you nervous, the shuttle is the way to go.
3. Arrive early for the fireworks or other entertainment so you can secure a prime spot along the riverfront to ensure you don’t miss any of the action. For the bands and fireworks, a spot on the levee was great. I actually found a spot in the grass near the gazebo to be a great spot for watching the Sternwheel races. And if you have mobility issues, are wheelchair-bound or using a stroller, you’ll want to check out a spot along the paved and smooth River Trail.
4. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes as you’ll find yourself strolling along the riverbank and historic downtown taking in the sights and sounds of the festival. I made the mistake of wearing a new pair of sandals that were super cute but left me with battle scars. Don’t ask what I was thinking.
5. Credit Cards are fine for most of the vendors and food stalls but paying with cash may help you avoid some fees.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned festival-goer, the Sternwheel Festival in Marietta promises to be an unforgettable weekend.
Now that I shared a quick overview of the festival, allow me to share a few other things you can do in Marietta.
Exploring Marietta’s Historic Downtown
Marietta’s downtown is full of unique boutiques, galleries and specialty shops.
It’s hard to mention the few shops that I had time to pop in on this visit because I don’t want you to think those are the only shops to check out. I can’t mention all of them by name because there are two streets of shopping that cover two full blocks waiting to be explored! That’s a lot of shopping and perfect for a girlfriend getaway!
You could easily spend the entire afternoon or a full day shopping.
Here are a few shops that we visited on this recent trip:
Green Acres 128 Front Street | website
This antique store also sells specialty items and reclaimed items and is so fun to explore. You’ll want to look around and then look around some more because it’s not possible to see everything during one visit.
Schafer Leather Store 140 Front Street | website
Schafer Leather is not only the oldest leather store in the state of Ohio but the entire Northwest Territory. I popped in and met the current owner Rob Schafer who is proud of his family business and history in the community. I loved meeting Rob because the love of his business and people makes every customer who walks through the door feel welcomed.
Wit n Whimsy 152 Front Street | website
I’ve always said this is my favorite store in downtown Marietta because I love the eclectic and fun mix of items. If you’re looking for something unusual and quirky, you’ll find it at Whit n Whimsy and the adjoining Clutch Collective which features local and regional artists. If you’re looking for souvenirs like Ohio, WV or Marietta stickers, pins, patches and t-shirts, you’ll find tons of unique items.
Threadz 178 Front Street | website
Those who know me, know that I love clothes so when I saw Threadz, I knew I needed to stop. Inside the store, I found a great selection of clothes for women in a range of sizes, including those for curvy gals.
Dad’s Primitive Workbench 268 Front Street | website
This shop specializes in primitive and seasonal home decor and women’s clothing in sizes S-3X. The shop smells delicious and is a one-stop shop for all things fall.
These shops are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find shops for every interest. From wine, food, cooking, toys, retro clothes, art, and more.
Discover Marietta’s Rich Heritage
You can learn about Marietta’s significance in American History at the Campus Martius Museum and Ohio River Museum, the latter is currently closed but you can stop by, and read the various historical markers that are located at the site (which are made in Marietta) and tour the W. P. Snyder Jr. steamboat during the summer and early fall.
The Campus Martius Museum is on the site of the original Campus Martius fort that was built in 1788. You’ll find three floors of exhibits that share Ohio’s history and the role Marietta played in the new Northwest Territory.
We enjoyed the guided tour of the Putnam House, home of General Rufus Putnam, one of the founders of Marietta. This building is all the remains of the fort and is the oldest building in the state of Ohio.
The tour is interactive and allows you to hold lead dinnerware (if you wish) and flax cloth and see some original furnishings of the home.
The Castle is a Gothic revival-style home located in the historic district that was once home to some of Marietta’s most prominent and influential citizens.
You’ll find some small exhibits in the Carriage House where you purchase your tickets and a guided tour continues into the home that is decorated with the furnishings of the five previous owners.
As a lover of all things unique, I was excited to explore this museum and it exceeded my expectations. I was stunned by the breadth of the collection. This museum is sure to transport you to your childhood. You’ll find Cabbage Patch dolls, Barbies, toys from around the world, giant over-the-top doll houses and so much more on display. Allow a minimum of one hour to explore, but I have a feeling that you’ll stay much longer.
Culinary Adventures in Ohio’s First City
Marietta has a diverse culinary scene with iconic eateries offering local and international cuisine.
Busy Bee 226 Gilman Ave. | website
This busy restaurant in historic Harmar Village serves up tasty farm-to-table dishes that use locally sourced meat and eggs in their scratch kitchen. You can’t go wrong with their breakfast or lunch selections. From the first bite, you’ll understand exactly why this restaurant is a favorite among locals and visitors. And if you stayed out too late after the Sternwheel Festival, you could wake up with a boozy brew.
Jeremiah’s 175 Front Street | website
This cute downtown coffee shop prepares fresh baked goods, I’m told serves an amazing chicken salad for lunch, and has their own signature blend of coffee that includes hints of chocolate. It was a happening place when we stopped.
Austyn’s 130 Front Street | website
Offering upscale dining and a “different-than-the-norm” menu, Austyn’s specializes in hand-cut steaks and international cuisine. If you enjoy a cocktail at dinner, you’ll appreciate the wide selection of wine, beers, and cocktails. We were impressed with the food, service, and atmosphere.
Spagna’s 301 Gilman Ave | website
Located in the West Side’s oldest building, Spagna’s prepares family recipes of Northern Italian cuisine and offers indoor or outdoor dining options. The Eggplant Parmesan was incredible.
Levee House Bistro 101 Front Street | website
The menu and location of the Levee House made it our favorite place to enjoy a meal during our visit to Marietta. We enjoyed brunch, people-watched and watched the sternwheels get in position for the races from this location. The food and service were excellent.
Other Notable Things to Do in Marietta, Ohio
While our focus was on the festival, you’ll find many other things to do in Marietta when you visit. Here are a couple more that you shouldn’t miss.
Walk the River Trail 241 Front Street | website
This 4.3-mile paved walking/biking trail runs along the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. Along the way, you’ll see historical markers, murals, tree carvings and the famous Sacra Via mounds.
The Valley Gem 601 Front Street | website
No summer/early fall trip to Marietta is complete without taking a sightseeing cruise on the Valley Gem Sternwheeler. While sternwheels from all over the region make the trip to Marietta for the festival, the Valley Gem is the only one to offer rides on the river.
Celebrating its 50th year, this relaxing river cruise provides upper and lower deck seating and 30-40 minutes of narration sharing the history of Marietta and the Valley Gem. You’re free to get up, grab a bite to eat or drink a glass of wine and take in the scenic views before the boat takes you back to dock at the conclusion of the 90-minute ride.
A word of advice; plan to arrive a minimum of 15 minutes early, even if you purchased tickets in advance. The line was already long by the time we arrived.
Trolley Tour 241 Front Street (The Armory) | website
The Trolley Tour is a great way to begin your visit to Marietta. Sit back and relax as you embark on a 90-minute narrated introduction to the beauty, charm, and history of the area. You’ll learn about Marietta’s museums, architecture, stunning churches, Native American and river history.
Tip: The Armory is where you’ll find restrooms and the local Visitor Center as well. Make sure you stop during your visit to find out about other things to do in the area, including a self-guided Covered Bridge Tour, Ghost Tours through Hidden Marietta and more.
The Mound Cemetery | website
The Mound Cemetery is a historic cemetery located at the base of a prehistoric mound. The cemetery has a large concentration of Revolutionary War soldiers buried here and is also the final resting place of many notable Marietta citizens, including Rufus Putnam.
The shopping, food, and live music venues make this a great spot for a girlfriend getaway, while the laid-back environment and scenic river view make the town an ideal location for a romantic getaway as well. Whether you opt to visit for a day trip, weekend getaway or during a popular event like the Ohio Sternwheel Festival, you’ll find plenty of options and ways to spend your time as you immerse yourself in Marietta’s unique charm.
Take time to plan your trip by visiting the Marietta-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau online today.
What are you most looking forward to experiencing?