When we headed down to Columbia SC, our main goal was to spend time in Congaree National Park. But after a few days in town, we fell in love with its charm, food scene, and felt right at home with its Southern hospitality.
Columbia is the Capital of South Carolina. It was named after Christopher Columbus and is famed as the first planned cities in America.
A big thank you to Experience Columbia SC for hosting our trip and sponsoring this post. All opinions are always our own. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Local Adventurer possible. This post may contain affiliate links, where we receive a small commission on sales of the products that are linked at no additional cost to you. Read our full disclosure for more info.
First Published: Aug 1, 2018
15 Fun Things to Do in Columbia SC That You Can't Miss
1. Columbia SC Zoo - Zipline and Feed Giraffes at Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden
500 Wildlife Pkwy + 1300 Botanical Pkwy, map
We went to the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden for the zip line but stuck around for the animals. The 170-acre zoo has won awards for excellence as an attraction and its conservation efforts, but what makes this place unique is that it offers so many different activities and fun things to do with kids in Columbia SC. You can feed giraffes, stroll through the botanical garden, and a zip line that goes over the Saluda River.
Pro Tip: In effort to continue its conservation efforts, they have gotten rid of straws. If you really need one for your beverages, pick up your own stainless steel straws. We were drinking icees with a spoon.
2. Columbia Museum of Art
1515 Main St, map
We got to preview the newly renovated museum and I really love how they’re changing up how art museums display their art. Rather than presenting their galleries by time periods or art types, the Columbia Museum of Art will be showcasing their collection thematically. That way you can compare art about a certain topic and how different time periods and cultures interpret it. It really earns its place as one of the must-see Columbia SC attractions, and we loved how involved they are in the community.
Plus, they have some notable pieces like Monet’s View of the Seine.
Local Tip: Keep an eye out for their other events, like block parties, concerts, art classes, and more.
Free Things to Do in Columbia SC
100 National Park Rd, Hopkins, map
Obviously, we love the National Parks, so Congaree National Park was high priority when we visited Columbia. You can hike the boardwalk, kayak down the river, or stop by at night to see the fireflies light up the sky.
Pro Tip: If you’re scared of bugs like me, just know there are A LOT of them. Don’t forget to spray yourself down with mosquito repellent before you enter the park, so you don’t disrupt the fireflies. If you can, plan your trip around the synchronous fireflies. It’s a rare phenomenon and we have more details on our Congaree National Park post.
4. Add Your Love Locks on Lake Murray Dam
1836 N Lake Dr, map
If you’re looking for romantic activities and creative date ideas in Columbia SC, this one’s a perfect way to create a memory you can come back to and reminicse. You can leave your very own love locks on Lake Murray Dam. Don’t worry, the love locks are allowed and encouraged here.
Local Tip: Map to the ‘Dreher Shoals Dam Parking Lot’ to get right next to the love locks.
Stroll along and the 1.7 mile pedestrian walkway, watch the sunset, and if you want to spend the whole day in the area, Lake Murray has 650 miles of shoreline. The area is great for camping, paddle boarding, kayaking, you can rent a boat and more.
5. Art Walk in Downtown Columbia SC - Murals + Instagram Spots
1219 Taylor Street, map
Another one of our favorite things to do in a new city is to check out the street art. It’s a great way to explore downtown on foot, and there are some great photo ops too.
They even have a organization that helps to curate the street art, and they’ve even put together an online directory of all the art and murals in Columbia SC.
- Middle of Nowhere (the one picture below) by Osamu Kobayashi
- Tunnel Vision Mural (popular)
- World’s Largest Fire Hydrant
Local Tip: Use #muralsofcolumbia on Instagram to find even more spots.
6. South Carolina State Farmer's Market
3483 Charleston Hwy, map
At South Carolina State Farmer’s Market, you can find fresh produce, delicious baked goods, and gardening supplies. If you’re looking for specific types of produce, check out their harvest calendar.
Local Tip: Get food at Judy’s at the Market for some spectacular southern dishes.
7. Soda City Market in Downtown Columba SC (Saturdays Only)
Main Street, map
Fun Fact: In case you’re wondering why Columbia is called Soda City, locals shorten Columbia to Cola, which eventually included Soda. We didn’t get a chance to stay for Soda City but everyone we met talked about it. Every Saturday morning, they shut down Main Street and all the locals come hang out and shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, browse the local art, and watch the street performers. It’s a local favorite and something visitors should see too.
Pro Tip: There is free parking throughout Columbia on the weekends (no matter what you see on signs and stickers).
photo: Sean Rayford
8. Mast General Store
1601 Main St, map
If an REI had a baby with a candy store and this would be it. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs and but also has a huge selection of outdoor gear. We dropped in to escape the midday heat and found ourselves looking around the store a lot longer than we expected.
9. Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park / Riverwalk
312 Laurel St, map
Whether you’re on the east or west side of the river, there are paved walkways that you can walk along to enjoy the views of the river. If you’re looking for something more active, it’s a popular trail for runners, cyclist, and joggers, and there are even companies that will take you tubing down the river.
Local Tip: The park is the site of the original Columbia waterworks, which was the first textile mill in the world that was operated by electricity. Take time to walk through the old mills and read about the history.
10. Harbison State Forest - An Environmental Education Forest
5600 Broad River Rd, map
This is a great spot to head if you love the outdoors. There are 18 miles of hiking trails, a canoe landing, and picnic shelters, and it’s only nine miles from the center of town. Portions of the forest are also used to demonstrate modern forestry practices.
1100 Gervais St, map
Since Columbia is the Capital of South Carolina, stop by the South Carolina State House. We started at the gift shop to pick up complimentary maps that tell you more about the interior and exterior gardens. They also offer free tours taking your through the inner corridors. The schedule is dependent on if legislature is in session.
Local Tip: Look for the five stars along the building’s exterior where Union cannonballs struck the building during the Civil War.
12. Tours of Historic Homes: Robert Mills House, Hampton Preston Mansion & Woodrow Wilson Family Home
1601 Richland St, map
For those of you who are history buffs or just like taking photos on swings, head to the Historic Homes & Garden District. All of the gardens are open to the public, and you can schedule tours for the houses. Here are some of the notable homes to help you get started:
- Hampton Preston Mansion & Gardens – One of Columbia’s oldest remaining structures that was built in 1818. It’s been a private home, the site of four different colleges, and even partitioned for commerical use.
- Robert Mills House & Gardens – One of five National Historic Landmarks in Columbia, this is a popular spot for weddings because of its beautiful grounds.
- Mann-Simons Site – Historically a collection of commercial and domestic spaces owned and operated by the same African American family from 1843 – 1970.
- Woodrow Wilson Family Home – South Carolina’s only remaining presidential site, this was the home to 14-year-old “Tommy” Woodrow Wilson.
Local Tip: Check this website for the latest schedule of Historic Home tours.
Things to Do with Kids in Columbia SC
301 Gervais St, map
This is the largest museum in the state and has four floors of permanent and temporary exhibits, an observatory, a planetarium, and a 4D theater. Learn about South Carolina art, history, natural history, technology, and science. It really is an all-in-one museum that has something for everyone.
photo: South Carolina State Museum Columbia SC
211 Gervais St, map
If you’re visiting Columbia with kids, you need to visit the EdVenture. It’s the largest children’s museum in the Southeast. One of the coolest exhibits is Eddie. This 40 foot tall plastic kid greets you as you enter, and kids can climb all over him, including his insides. The exhibit allows children to explore his organs to learn more about anatomy.
In addition to that, there is an exhibit that teaches kids about caring for their four-legged friends, an inventor’s lab where they can build projects, and they can even climb on a real fire engine. It’s easy to see why this is one of the top things to do with kids in Columbia SC.
Things to Do in Columbia SC Map
Where to Eat - Restaurants in Columbia SC
- Bodhi Thai Dining (126 E Main St, map) – This was easily the best meal we had during our trip. The food was so good that we even made it a point to compliment the chef. Photos are below. Look how pretty the dumplings are!
- Cinnamon Roll Deli (2617 Devine St, map) – Maybe I’m just not that into cinnamon rolls, but I didn’t get the hype of them here. The bagel sandwiches on the other hand… I don’t ever like to say the word “best” but when I bit into it, I told Jacob it was the best bagel sandwich I’ve had (and we’re bagel snobs here in NYC I can’t believe it came out of my mouth.).
- Drip Coffee (1441 Main St, map) – Coffee + Easy grab and go breakfast. The Honey Vanilla Latte is a legend here. I ended up ordering the Jalapeno Honey Latte which sounds like such a risky choice, but it ended up being really good!
- Motor Supply Co Bistro (920 Gervais St, map) – The menu changes daily based on what they can source from local spots. We loved the shrimp and grits.
- The War Mouth (1209 Franklin St, map) – This is a local favorite and reminds us of restaurants in Portland. It has a trendy vibe with equally creative dishes. If you’re into pickles like me, you won’t be disappointed by the pickle plate.
- Sweet Cream Company (1627 Main St, map) – A perfect stop for a hot day with unique ice cream flavors.
- Cantina 76 (1301 Main St, map) – Stop by for tacos and the Tres Hombres sampler
More Columbia SC Restaurants
These all came highly recommended by the locals we talked to, but we didn’t get try in the short time frame we were in here.
- The Whig (1200 Main St, map) – Local fave.
- Blue Flour Bakery (1210 Main St, map) – Sad we didn’t get to try the cookies.
- River Rat Brewery (1231 Shop Rd, map)
- Bourbon (1214 Main St, map) – Try the jalapeno hushpuppies & the grilled lamb burger.
- Henry’s Restaurant & Bar (2108 State St, map)
- Duke Pad Thai (904 Knox Abbott Dr, map)
- Jake’s Bar & Grill (2112 Devine St, map) – Great for dog owners.
More Columbia SC Attractions + Activities
- Governor’s Mansion (800 Richland St, map)
- Nickelodeon Theatre (1607 Main St, map)
- Finlay Park (930 Laurel St, map)
- Tapp’s Arts Center (1644 Main St, map)
- South Carolina Military Museum (1 National Guard Rd, map)
- South Carolina Confederate Relic Room (301 Gervais St, map)
- The Columbia City Ballet (1545 Main St, map)
- Columbia City Fireflies Baseball Game (1640 Freed Dr, map)
- Owens Fields Skate Park (1351 Jim Hamilton Blvd, map)
- The Comedy House (2768 Decker Blvd, map)
- Golf at The Caddy Shak or the Riverside Golf Course
- Drive-In Movie at The Big Mo (5822 Columbia Hwy N, map)
- Carriage Rides with Columbia Carriage Works (105 Burmaster Dr, map)
- Dreher Island State Park (3677 State Park Rd, map)
- Sesquicentennial State Park (9564 Two Notch Rd, map)
- McKissack Museum (816 Bull St, map)
Seasonal / Festivals
- Restaurant Week (January)
- Deckle Edge Literary Festival (February)
- Run Hard Columbia Marathon (March)
- St. Pat’s in Five Points (March)
- Soda City Suds Week (March)
- Artista Vista (April)
- Columbia International Festival (April)
- Love, Peace & Hip-Hop Festival (April)
- Indie Grits Festival (April)
- Rosewood Crawfish Festival (May)
- Governor’s Cup (May)
- Columbia Shrimp and Grits Fest (June)
- Lexington County Peach Festival (July)
- Lake Murray Fireworks Celebration (July)
- Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival (August)
- Main Street Latin Festival (August)
- Irmo Okra Strut (September)
- Jubilee: Festival of Black History & Culture (September)
- Congaree Swamp Fest (October)
- Famously Hot SC Pride Festival (October)
- Jam Room Music Festival (October)
- Devine Night Out (November)
- Holiday Lights on the River (November)
- Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden (November)
- Vista Lights (November)
- Crafty Feast (December)
- Famously Hot New Year (December)
Where to Stay in Columbia SC
During our trip to Columbia, we stayed at the Hotel Trundle. We can’t say enough good things about this place.
First off, when we arrived the staff greeted us like old friends. During check in, you get a choice of a glass of wine or beer. Since we got in late, we took our beers to our room. The room was spacious and comfortable. We loved all the details and really wanted to move in to the space. The common space was decorated well too, and it was a great place to work or hangout.
On top of that, the location is right in the heart of downtown. You can walk to all the main street attractions and everything else is a short drive away.
More Places to Stay in Columbia SC
All accommodations listed below plus Hotel Trundle have Tripadvisor’s Certificate of Excellence and at least 4 stars on both Tripadvisor and Yelp. I didn’t find many luxury and budget options that had great reviews.
Have you visited Columbia SC? What were your favorite things to do?
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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust