Are you visiting Columbia, SC for the first time? Below is a list of “Insider Tips” for things to see and do in Cola, aka Soda City.
The first place a lot of visitors want to see is recently renovated, award-winning Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, which is home to a number of local, authentic experiences. On the National Register of Historic Places, the River Trail takes you between the zoo and the botanical garden and contains relics from the textile industry and Civil War era. As stewards of local flora, Riverbanks is home to many native plant species. The zoo’s restaurant, Tuskers, is a 3-star certified green restaurant and the zoo hosted their first Farm to Fork Dinner this past August, which featured locally-grown ingredients and vegetables right from Riverbanks’ on-site garden.
Good news! Columbia is a manageable, walkable, up-and-coming city without large crowds. That said, it doesn’t take long to get from the middle of town to what seems like the middle of nowhere. Escape the city and get lost in your thoughts amidst fresh air, cool waters of three rivers and the old growth hardwood forest of Congaree National Park in next to no time flat.
If this is a romantic trip, journey to the base of the Gervias Street Bridge for kissing with a view of the Congaree River, the downtown skyline and an incredible sunset loom large.
Walk your dog at the West Columbia Riverwalk. Part of the Three Rivers Greenway, the Riverwalk follows along the Congaree River and takes you beneath the Gervais Street Bridge. Picnic tables, an amphitheater and easy access to the water of the river doesn’t hurt either.
Many museums offer family-friendly components, including EdVenture for children kindergarten age and under and the South Carolina State Museum for slightly older kids kindergarten age and up. Insider tip – the two share a parking lot, so families with kids in both age ranges can get the best of both with ease.
Columbia Southern Food:
If you are looking to get your hands on typical Columbia Southern cuisine, make a pit stop at Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café or try Bourbon on Main Street. Dig in to Doc’s Barbeque and be sure to try the signature, tangy mustard-based barbecue sauce. Save room for The War Mouth for a throwback to old Southern recipes that have been passed down. Columbia is also home to citizens from 200 different countries who speak 90 different languages. The vibrant multi-cultural culinary scene is a vital part of Columbia’s identity.
If you’re looking to get the best coffee & a breakfast treat, The Wired Goat Café lives up to the hype. Order up the Canadian Bacon, Nutella or Oak Smoked Honey & Sea Salt lattes. More than just a place for coffee, Wired Goat also has an in-house bakery that churns out sweet treats like donuts, cakes and pastries, as well as fresh-baked bread. The breakfast menu is chockablock with homegrown ingredients that will keep you satisfied for hours. Cozy up on one of the couches downstairs and enjoy. For breakfast where the locals go, try Cafe Strudel. The yogurt with granola was healthy and good, but it’s the creamy grits from Adluh that make this a Southern special.
Looking for affordable options in Columbia? Go to Cantina 76 (either on Devine Street or Main Street) for a la cart gourmet tacos or No Name Deli for a local’s favorite lunch (pro tip – this joint is cash-only, so come prepared!).
Locals and savvy travelers alike know that below the Columbia streets lies The Whig – the spot for late night dining. For something a bit more upscale, go to Motor Supply Co. Bistro or The Oak Table. If you’re visiting Tues. – Sat., pay a visit to Terra or Tallulah.
Seeing a lot of roosters around town? Around here, they call them Gamecocks as Columbia is best known for being home to the University of South Carolina. As I have recently visited Aiken and Camden, South Carolina, it has been brought to my attention the significant role horses play in this part of the country; from hunt seat, to horse racing, steeplechase, polo and pleasure riding. If you have a chance, take a drive to One Wood Farm in Blythewood to watch the South Carolina Equestrian Team.
Snap a pic in front of one of the local murals. The patio of the Aloft hotel is home to a black and white sketch of the downtown area and right outside the hotel, you’ll find the Lincoln Street Art Tunnel, which boasts several colorful murals you can take your pick from. In Five Points, you’ll immediately notice a new mural featuring the name of the district in bold letters that are filled in with iconic locations and offerings of the historic neighborhood. Even a few of the parking garages have been jazzed up with some paint! Turn to the Taylor Street Garage for The Milagros Collective mural that was birthed from the 2017 Indie Grits Festival, Visiones. The Cannon Garage is splashed with a vibrant mural bearing the state motto, “Dum Spiro Spero,” which is Latin for, “While I breath, I hope.” Other imagery associated with the state, such as crescent moons and yellow jasmine flowers, are also front and center.
The Rooftop Lounge at the Sheraton Hotel is considered by many to be the best vantage point in town. Take in miles of the city around you with a cocktail in hand. But if you are serious about your cocktails, stop for a drink at Bourbon. Chef Frank Bradley will tempt you with his Cajun-Creole influenced family recipes and the restaurant is just steps from the State Capitol Building. (I had my first frog legs here and warm pimento cheese dip!) Another local favorite is Lula Drake Wine Parlour on Main Street. I guarantee you’ll find a wine to your liking at this wine bar.
Take in the views of foliage, the boardwalk and Cedar Creek at Congaree National Park. For a couple weeks each spring, the park is also one of just a few places in the world to experience the rare natural phenomenon of firefly synchronization.
Whittle away a few hours at Harbison State Forest. Hike, bike or walk the trails that have varying degrees of difficulty.
Looking for a little exercise? Stroll along the dam at Lake Murray for scenic views or the Cayce Riverwalk, where a local artist has carved woodland creatures into fallen trees along the path.
After a day of adventure, turn to Pura Spa for a massage or “body ritual.” Try the Pumpkin & Chocolate Souffle Ritual or the Black Baltic & Hot Stone Body Ritual.
Museum lovers would be remiss in not checking out the Columbia Museum of Art, the 2016 recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for museums that serve their communities. Additionally, Richland County Public Library is the 2017 recipient of that same honor. The library is home to a 46 ft. mural and two free-standing scenes from Where the Wild Things Are, making it the only location in the world where author Maurice Sendak has allowed his artwork to be used as public art. The library will soon be the hottest lunch spot in town when Chef Sarah Simmons of New York and Columbia fame opens up a new café in the facility.
Looking for exciting night life? Pearlz Upstairz and Main Street Public House are hubs for jazz, as well as other types of bands. And Music Farm is a hip concert venue located right in the downtown Vista district.
The Go Columbia section of The State newspaper will keep you posted on what’s happening in Columbia. Want to know what the city’s movers and shakers do in their spare time? Check out their weekly “How I Go Columbia” section.
Follow the locals to Soda City Market each Saturday. Regional vendors line three blocks of Main Street with all kinds of cuisine, produce and handmade items to offer. Soak up the unique Columbia culture as the energy and people come together as the perfect Columbia-in-a-nutshell experience.
In the spring, attend the Indie Grits Festival, hosted by the Nickelodeon Theatre. In the summer, celebrate the season’s harvest and attend the Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival at City Roots. Eat your fill, bob for tomatoes, listen to live music and even cool off with a tomato beer.
“In the South, a college football game is practically a formal event. Everyone, especially the ladies, gets all dolled up. But SC takes it to a whole new level. That football crowd is like something you would see in Vogue magazine.”
As Columbia is well-known for the University of South Carolina, plan a visit in the fall for football games! The tailgating scene is the social highlight of the season. White tablecloths are laden with fare such as pimento cheese and fried chicken. Then there’s the fashion. As ESPN GameDay once announced, “If SC isn’t the essence of Southern hospitality, I don’t know what is. Those women sure know how to dress. Of course, in the South, a college football game is practically a formal event. Everyone, especially the ladies, gets all dolled up. But SC takes it to a whole new level. That football crowd is like something you would see in Vogue magazine.”
Come in the winter for Main Street Ice. The annual outdoor ice skating rink is set up outside the Columbia Museum of Art from Thanksgiving weekend through January. Due to Columbia’s temperate climate, however, it’s not uncommon for temps to reach the seventies or eighties in winter. You may not think that ice skating and a short-sleeved t-shirt go together, but get used to surprises.
Just outside of Columbia, pop over to Lake Murray for a day of swimming, fishing and boating. Then, pull your boat right up to the dock and have lunch at Liberty on the Lake.
Insider Tip: Check out the often over-looked Mann-Simons Site and Woodrow Wilson Family Home properties. I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Mann-Simons site was previously owned by a family of freed slaves who laid down a legacy for future generations to pursue business and social undertakings. The house remained within the same family for more than 100 years. Five “ghost structures” on the property outline frames of buildings that once stood there, such as a lunch counter, grocery store, outhouse and additional residences. Each year, the Mann-Simons Site is the location for Historic Columbia’s annual Jubilee: Festival of Black History & Culture. Additionally, you might not have known that Woodrow Wilson spent time in Columbia as a teenager. The house is the first and only museum dedicated to Reconstruction, as well as the only presidential site in the state of South Carolina. For additional insider tips follow Nancy D. Brown on Instagram and Twitter @Nancydbrown and follow @columbiasc on Twitter & Instagram to do Columbia SC like a local.
Article, photography and YouTube video by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. I was a guest of Experience ColumbiaSC, however all opinions are my own.