The US is known for its often quirky and unique state capitols, and Columbia is certainly no exception. The capital of South Carolina, Columbia is home to well-preserved historic districts, trendy industrial areas and beautiful scenery. Spending five days here will give you a chance to explore everything this great city has to offer, from excellent museums to great food to even wildlife-watching. Here are my suggestions on spending a week in Columbia.
Start your visit in the heart of the city. The Columbia Museum of Art has been a beloved local institution since 1950, and also happens to house a world-class collection featuring a wide range of works. Shortly after opening, the museum received a generous donation of Old Masters paintings, featuring works by Botticelli, Canaletto & Rosa. There’s also paintings by Monet, and modern works by Warhol and Lichtenstein, in addition to an extensive Asian art collection. There’s truly something for everybody here.
After your visit to the museum, stick around the area to see the majestic State House, just down the road. There are several tours offered every day, so you can explore the beautiful dome and interior, as well as the peaceful grounds surrounding the State House. The Main Street area also has plenty of restaurant options, for a taste of Columbia’s renowned food scene. Go for classic Southern fare at my personal favorite - Drake’s Duck-In, or go vegan at the Good Life Café, or if you can’t decide, book a tour with Columbia Food Tours. After dinner, grab a drink at Lula Drake or Bourbon, or opt for some ice cream at Sweet Cream Company.
On your second day, explore a different side of the city. The Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park is a favorite among residents, for it’s lovely scenery and historic significance. The walking trail runs four miles over the old Columbia Canal, with beautiful views of the river and its unique bridges. The trail is flat, so it’s perfect for all ages and activity levels. Also nearby is the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. The zoo houses over 2,000 animals, with everything from lions and giraffes, to Komodo dragons and sea lions. There are other unique exhibits with kangaroos and Siberian tigers, just to name a few. The zoo is also home to a 70-acre botanical garden, with a large trail system to continue your day in nature.
Back on the other side of the river, enjoy the South Carolina State Museum. The museum ties together works and artifacts from four different areas: art, cultural history, science, and natural history. You’ll find everything from a life-size Columbian mammoth (which would have called South Carolina home back in the Ice Age) to Revolutionary War relics to a dome planetarium. Another place perfect for families, the State Museum offers plenty of interesting and engaging exhibits for all ages.
For dinner, head to the Congaree Vista. Formerly a warehouse district, the Vista is now home to dozens of shops and restaurants, making it one of Columbia’s nightlife hotspots. Staples like Cola’s Restaurant and Crabby’s Cajun offer Southern cuisine, while Carolina Ale House and Kaminsky’s Dessert Café offer unique and quintessentially South Carolinian dining experiences.
Your third day in Columbia is perfect for a day trip. Just a 30 minute drive from downtown is Congaree National Park, one of the country’s most unique national parks. The park contains a large expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest, and with it, unique plants and wildlife. The park’s maze of boardwalks gives up-close-and-personal access to the surrounding nature. The Boardwalk Trail is great for all skill levels, and there are also backcountry adventures available for more experienced hikers. Kayaking and canoeing are also great pastimes here. Explore on your own via the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, or book with one of several tour companies that can take you across the floodplain. Congaree also offers great camping opportunities, but be sure to check with a ranger before you embark on any adventure.
Take this day to explore some of Columbia’s historic side. The Waverly Historic District was one of the first suburbs of Columbia, until it became part of the city proper in 1913. During the Jim Crow era, Waverly became a center of African-American life in Columbia, and was home to several civil rights activists. Wander past beautiful historic homes and churches, and learn the fascinating history behind this neighborhood. Historic Columbia offers a self-guided walking tour online that will take you to some of the most notable spots in the neighborhood, like Allen University and the Visanska-Starks House.
In the evening, take in a performance at the Columbia City Ballet, one of the city’s premier cultural institutions. The ballet typically puts on several full-length ballets every season, and features 25 world-class dancers. Before the show, grab a bite at Columbia’s oldest Italian restaurant, Villa Tronco. The restaurant has been offering pizza, pasta and other classic Italian fare, as well as local seafood since 1940, and has remained a local staple for over 75 years.
On your final day in Columbia, explore more of the city’s historic mansions and homes. The Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens is one of the oldest intact buildings in Columbia. Built in 1818 by merchant Ainsley Hall, the mansion was known as one of Columbia’s finest estates. It was later owned by plantation-owner Wade Hampton I, and it later passed hands as a convent, the Governor’s Mansion, and even the Union Army headquarters. Today, it serves as a museum covering the house’s golden age, along with exhibits on slavery at the time. The mansion is also known for its exquisite gardens, one of the best in the region. Historic Columbia also maintains other historic homes in Columbia, including Woodrow Wilson’s Family Home. If you’d like to see multiple sites, you can book a multi-site tour.
Close out your visit to Columbia with yet another great restaurant. Mr. Friendly’s is known as a “New Southern Café,” offering updated takes on the Southern classics. Located in the Five Points neighborhood, the restaurant prides itself on its local ingredients and unique meals, as well as its world-class wine list.
This is only a short list of a few things to do in the Capital City. I love this city and I trust that you will too. The perfect 'little big city' with everything you need. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have anything you would like to add to the next guide!