The arts are driving many good things happening in South Carolina’s Capital city. Downtown museums and theatres, live performance venues, a rush back to urban living in the middle of all the action, and a strong emphasis on sustainable, healthy lifestyles that include walking trails, farmers’ markets, bike rides and pocket parks.
Columbia isn’t experiencing the choking hyper growth of some major southern cities, and that’s a good thing. Careful, thoughtful planning is the order of the day. Along the way, visitors will find a million reasons to visit the Midlands for entertainment fun, recreation, education, shopping and farm to fork dining.
Check out these unique districts – Main Street, Five Points, the Vista and Harbison. So much to do. So many ways to enjoy this state capital where culture, learning, history, and entertainment prevail!
Where to Stay
First, find a good hotel in the middle of things. The Hilton Columbia Center is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Columbia’s festive Congaree Vista entertainment district, within walking distance to the University vibrant Main Street. You will find the Ruth Chris hotel bar hoppin' and their chef specialties worthy of celebration.
Chesnut Cottage is the Inn for history enthusiasts. The home of Mary Boykin Chesnut, who wrote A Diary from Dixie, detailing her life during the Civil War. The house is considered one of the most historically significant homes in the Southeast and yes, you can stay there.
1425 Inn is a beautiful residence in downtown Columbia. Enjoy the rocking chairs on the porch, as well as other great amenities. You will appreciate this walkable location.
The Inn at Claussen’s is just a step away from the historic (and lively) Five Points area of Columbia. Another great plus is Mr. Friendly’s restaurant with its deep wine list and inventive southern cuisine.
The Inn at USC Wyndham Garden can be found in the heart of the historic University of South Carolina campus. A boutique hotel, this beauty has history with all the conveniences.
There are a number of great hotels throughout the city and into the outskirts, including the Columbia Marriott, which is in the middle of the Main Street corridor.
Now comes decision time.
Columbia offers Districts, each with its own distinctive flavor. Let’s begin our discovery with a stroll down Main Street, starting at the Steps of the State House. You’ll want to wander around these grounds, taking note of the stars planted in the side of the river side of the building. They show where General Sherman’s cannonballs hit during the attack on Columbia during the Civil War. There are monuments and pretty benches in shaded areas that let you stop and ponder the history here.
Start on the right side of Main Street and step into Blue Flour Bakery. If it’s time for breakfast their egg, cheddar, bacon biscuit is a winner. For a treat, try the lemon honey ginger cookie. Blue Flour is also great for lunch. Admire their signature, whimsically decorated sugar cookies.
Farther down Main, you’ll begin to notice the architecture of the buildings, hanging flower baskets and cute shops. As you pass the Marriott, pop into Miss Cocky’s boutique, where you’ll find memorabilia, clothes, jewelry and more, celebrating the Gamecocks and the University of South Carolina. Keep strolling and you’ll discover great retail shops. If it’s close to happy hour, head up to the Rooftop Bar at the Sheraton and watch the sun set over the city.
Take a stroll through the eclectic artsi-ness of the Tapp’s Art Center, where creativity shines throughout. Go a bit farther, and return down the other side of the street. You’ll see Lula Drake Wine Parlour (more about that later), and Sweet Cream Company, their ice cream is creative and yummy. Ask which ingredients are local. The selection changes, but we tasted salt and pepper roast strawberry, maple walnut, sweet onion fig rosemary (my fav), and coconut lime honey – it’s all good.
Go ahead and hop into Mast General Store for an amazing selection of quirky, wearable and just-plain-fun merchandise. Even if you don’t buy any of the old-fashioned candy, it’s a walk down memory lane.
You’ll see The Nickelodeon theatre (more info below in this article), where movies are matched by ambiance. And if the Columbia Museum of Art Store is open, check out their merchandise – pretty, pretty.
Back at the State House, you’ll want to tackle more ways to have fun here, starting with Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, one of the top zoos in the country. The animals have real habitats, and you will love Sea Lion Landing! The Ndoki Forest shelters elephants, gorillas and meerkats to the delight of the visitors. And, if you have little ones, don’t miss Waterfall Junction, a three-acre interactive children’s garden. Creative good times, for sure.
Museums? Explore the South Carolina State Museum, housed in a huge old mill by the Congaree River. You’ll discover all about the state’s storied past and learn about some of its stars, including a remarkable ironwork gate by Philip Simmons, an African-American artist, born in 1912 who lived and worked in Charleston. The museum is fun for all ages, and just next door to EdVenture, the South’s largest children’s museum. It delights kids of all ages, and your little ones will marvel at the supersized Eddie, a multi-story 35,000 lb. figure who invites children to play inside his humongous body.
Downtown, the Columbia Museum of Art is filled with wonderful exhibits. The custom Dale Chihuly art acquisition chandelier masterpiece in glass hangs in the atrium. You see it all here, including the abstract sculpture fountain you pass at the entrance, and a stellar collection of classics.
The Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction enjoys the dual distinction of being the nation’s only museum dedicated to Reconstruction and South Carolina’s only remaining presidential site. This award-winning museum explores the racial, social and political landscape of Columbia and Richland County during the Reconstruction period from 1865 through 1877. These stories are told through exhibit galleries, hands-on interactive displays, and audio and video components. After your visit, be sure to check out Historic Columbia’s other historic houses Robert Mills House & Gardens, Hampton-Preston Mansion & Gardens and the Mann-Simons Site. Tickets can be purchased at the Gift Shop at Robert Mills.
You can spend all day in these four museums (and enjoy their gift shops, as well). For those with a bent toward the military, the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is a must-visit. Located adjacent to the SC State Museum, it is the state’s oldest museum, filled with artifacts that will amaze and remind of the sacrifices made by the military and their families.
Of course, Fort Jackson is in Columbia, too, and is the largest and most active Initial Entry Training Center in the U.S. Army, training 50 percent of all Soldiers and 80 percent of the women entering the Army each year. Check the Website for special events and requirements to visit.
Lunchtime is an opportunity to rest and regroup, while sampling one of the Midlands excellent restaurants. Too many to mention here, we offer a small sampling, but be sure to note which ones are open for lunch, dinner or both Casual or Elegant Dining in Restaurants, Bistros and Cafes
The Blue Marlin serves lunch and dinner daily. It’s a downtown Vista destination, great variety and worth a trip for their stone-ground grits and collards – really!
DiPrato’s Delicatessen is a lunchtime hideaway near Five Points and USC. You can find fresh salads, Turkey Reubens, and wonderful specials. (Their mimosas are legend.)
Gervais and Vine serves dinner only, in the Vista, a great area in Downtown Columbia. You’ll love the super variety of wines by the glass, and the delicious tapas to share with friends.
Hampton Street Vineyard features dinner just off Main Street. You’ll notice the quiet elegance and intimate setting. A great wine list paired with excellent cuisine.
Motor Supply Company Bistro offers lunch and dinner daily. Go early in your visit – you may want to return for the menu that changes daily, and the cocktails that have been masterfully created by head barman Josh Streetman. Covered patio and always vegetarian options.
We mentioned Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café, next to the Inn at Claussen’s in the Five Points area. Fab seafood and salad combinations and a bit of everything you’d love to try in this casual, award-winning atmosphere.
Rosso Trattoria Italia is open for dinner. Elegantly casual, this local favorite is conveniently nestled in Trenholm Plaza. Expect wood-fired, farm to table specialties including home-grown mushrooms and first-class bar.
Solstice Kitchen & Wine Bar is a dinner destination in the Lake Carolina area of north Columbia. New American cuisine, extensive wine list, superb food (with vegetarian options) and so much more.
Terra offers dinner, just across the Gervais Street Bridge and downtown. You’ll find locally grown, seasonal, sustainable, delicious cuisine, plus a killer wood-fired pizza or two, if that’s on your mind. Mike Davis is a great chef and Terra, a superb destination.
Alodia’s Cucina Italiana is open for lunch and dinner and can be found in the Lake Murray area. These are authentic Italian family recipes that are sure to please the most discerning Italophile.
Bourbon, for dinner, specializes in bourbon, whiskey, craft cocktails and flavors from the Louisiana bayou. With the largest whiskey list in South Carolina, aficionados will fall in love.
Tombo Grille can be found in the heart of Forest Acres and is a favorite locals’ dinner destination. The food is incredibly creative comfort cuisine, with top-notch wine and beer selections.
Pawleys Front Porch is a Five Points favorite for lunch and dinner, made even more so by Guy Fieri’s accolades when he dropped by while filming Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Their burger makes best-of lists all over town.
Lula Drake Wine Parlour has been called the closest thing to Europe you’ll find in Columbia. Owner and wine sommelier Tim Gardner knows his stuff. You will not be disappointed. (The food is excellent, too.)
This list is not inclusive – many more favorites to be found in cola town. But it’s a start.
Don’t forget local shopping, too.
Favorite Local Shops, Boutiques and other Specialty Shopping
Generally speaking, Columbia has neighborhoods with their own unique shopping flair. These include shops on Devine St. and in the Vista, as well as downtown, and in the outlying areas of the city. Here are a few worth a visit:
Portfolio Art Gallery has brought handmade American crafts to Columbia for more than 30 years. Really interesting and diverse, ranging from the perfect piece to hang over your fireplace, to a thank-you gift for a special friend.
Since 1973, Bohemian Home on Devine Street has offered an eclectic mix of dazzling home furnishings and art. Unique, well-made and very attractive.
The Gourmet Shop. A Five Points café, which lives up to its name – gourmet food and kitchen items. Deep cheese and wine selections and melt-in-your-mouth chocolates.
Hand Picked has affordable, distinctive jewelry and gifts. Pretty things for yourself and those you love.
One Eared Cow Glass showcases amazing one-of-a-kinds glass-blown works of art. Vases you will treasure. Platters you will covet.
CityArt is in the Vista, and features many different artists reflecting every taste. Well-organized and fun to visit.
Soda City Market is an outdoor market that runs along Main Street near the State House every Saturday morning year round, rain or shine. You can grab breakfast, hear a bit of music, shop for your BFF and see lots of happy dogs out for a morning.
The museum and zoo gift shops. When you visit Edventure, Columbia Museum of Art, SC State Museum, Woodrow Wilson House Museum and Riverbanks Zoo, don’t forget their gift shops. Treasures galore!
The Outdoor Life & Much More
OK. You’re all shopped out, and you’d like to get outside. No better place than nearby Lake Murray, with its 600+ miles of shoreline and many islands (including Bomb Island, which was used for target practice by Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders, and now serves as a sanctuary for almost a million Purple Martins who spend their summers here.
Lake Murray and its surrounding rivers offer miles of watery pleasure for all types of boaters. Whether you enjoy canoeing or kayaking in calm waters or rapids, navigating your sails through cutting winds or leisurely cruising, Capital City/Lake Murray Country is the place for you. For pontoon, jet-ski, canoe, kayak or vacation home rentals call 1-866- SC JEWEL or 803.781.5940. Welcome Center is at 2184 N. Lake Drive in Irmo.
No interest in boating? No problem. Find Dreher Island State Park and seek out a peaceful waterfront corner for a picnic and an afternoon’s swim – bring the sunscreen.
To get there, just take Exit 91 off I-26 near Chapin in Newberry County. Open daily. Phone: 803.364.4152
To the East of Columbia lies Congaree National Park with its amazing, old growth bottomland hardwood forest. These beauties must be seen in person to be appreciated. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers bring nutrients into the floodplain, supporting the growth of these champion trees. The boardwalk is just a touch above the ground, and makes a lovely walk, especially with little ones. Also available here? Hiking, fishing and camping.
Eventually, you’ll be ready to find the nightlife and it’s plentiful. Enjoy a before dinner libation down in the Congaree Vista District, where the professional crowd mingles with politicians, students and visitors. Just wander this fun 600-acres – you’ll find watering holes for every taste.
A night on the town? After dinner get tickets to Trustus Theater in the heart of the Vista. Professional productions are edgy, fun, eclectic, casual and amazing. Enjoy the bar and the popcorn’s free! And then there’s venerable Town Theatre with traditional offerings by local talent.
The Nick, as locals affectionately call The Nickelodeon, shows foreign and independent films plus the Indie Grits festivals, right on Main Street. Check with the Koger Center, Colonial Center, Township Auditorium, and Harbison Theatre to catch a Broadway production or perhaps a performance by your favorite super star.
When there’s a USC football, baseball or baseball event, Columbia swells by thousands to cheer on their beloved Gamecocks. Things also get festive when the Columbia FireFlies (NY Mets Farm Club) are in town at their new Spirit Communications Baseball Stadium.
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For more information, visit the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Website or, for personal assistance, stop in the Vista District Visitors Center at 1010 Lincoln Street.
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