Famed as the first city in America, and named after the world-famous explorer Christopher Columbus, the capital city of South Carolina is an American historical center brimming with sunshine and southern charm. Columbia’s zoo, artwork, gardens, national park and several city parks offer ample opportunities for recreation and relaxation, and there’s an impressive range of museums too. Offering quirky venues and unique sites as well as archaic architecture, Columbia is a place worth exploring. The following is Culture Trip’s list of the 10 best things to do and see in the city.
With an exotic array of animals from every continent of the world, the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden is a top spot when in Columbia. A fun and educational day out, the zoo is home to a wealth of creatures including giraffes, koalas, zebras and lions. The wellbeing of the animals is paramount here, and the zoo operates in accordance with animal enrichment programmes encouraging a maintenance of natural behaviours learned in the wild. The Riverbanks Botanical Garden attached to the zoo is another splendid site to visit here. It stretches over 70 acres of land and was voted by Horticulture Magazine as one of ‘The 10 Gardens That Inspire Us’. Featuring a number of themed spaces such as the serene Asian garden and pretty rose nursery, visitors can spend hours strolling through the colorful scenery.
Watch out for: The Australian animals wing where guests can view koalas, lorikeets and red kangaroos.
Established in 1950, The Columbia Museum of Art is a nonprofit organisation and pillar of the local community. It remains earnestly committed to showcasing the work of young local artists, and strongly supports art education in the city. There is something for every art lover here, with work encompassing older Renaissance and Baroque paintings, ancient Asian sculptures, and contemporary canvases by artists such as Tatara Fire. As well as its sizeable permanent collection, the museum hosts a number of regularly changing topical exhibitions, so visitors can be sure to catch something exciting here during their time in Columbia.
Watch out for: The collection of American paintings, including works from Charles Willson Peale and Thomas Sully.
Founded in 1961, the Columbia City Ballet originally performed twice every year to the local community. Since these humble beginnings the company has flourished dramatically, becoming one of the best professional ballet companies in the southeast. It employs a number of highly accomplished dancers and exhibits over 80 shows annually, the most popular of which have included Dracula, The Nutcracker and Peter Pan. The ballet has also developed a successful educational outreach programme, a syllabus designed to teach a wide-ranging programme of workshops to both children and adults in South Carolina. Art history, stagecraft and music classes are taught, and the programme supports the production of child-focused performances at local schools.
As the oldest restaurant in Columbia and one of the oldest in South Carolina, Villa Tronco boasts 75 years of experience in serving hearty and delicious Italian fare. With its rustic exterior and warm, homely atmosphere, Villa Tronco combines an intimate dining experience with a taste of Columbia’s migrant history. The substantial portions of traditional Italian dishes ensure that guests do not leave empty-stomached, and diners are highly recommended to try the delicious Pollo Parmigiana. An excellent selection of fine wines, beers and prosecco perfectly compliment the tasty, home-cooked classics.
Watch out for: Owner Carmella’s famous cheesecake, said to be the best in town
Historic Columbia is a non-profit organisation aiming to protect the city’s rich cultural and social past, which it does by preserving a number of historical buildings and landmarks around the city. The Historic House Museum is one of these buildings, a site consisting of four different properties, all with fascinating and intriguing backstories. The Woodrow Wilson Family Home here, for example, was once the home of the USA’s 25th president, who lived in the mansion in 1871. Visitors can wander around the landscaped gardens, read the period vignettes describing Wilson’s life and achievements, and marvel at the wonderfully restored features of this handsome southern property. Keep up to date with the Historic Columbia website for dates and times of Historic House Museum tours.
The Congaree National Park is a lush, idyllic wooded area just outside of Columbia which contains the largest area of old growth hardwood forest left in the United States. With its rich biodiversity, walking trails, lakes, pretty clearings and hilled areas, this national park is a haven for nature lovers and those seeking a fun day of activities. The natural beauty of the surroundings make Congaree a great spot for a number of outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, canoeing , kayaking and picnicking.
This cocktail, cigar and jazz parlor has been a staple of Columbia’s thriving nightlife for over 10 years, and remains an exciting venue where guests can enjoy an expertly prepared drink in a unique and unusual setting. Echoing the speakeasies of the prohibition era, Delaney’s Speakeasy has smartly-dressed staff, charming décor and a classic cocktail menu oozing with 1920s sophistication. This is a bar and music venue which adds a touch of glamor and class to your night out in Columbia, and with over 40 scotch whiskeys and 200 different types of beer, there is something for drinkers of all tastes on offer.
Watch out for: Monday nights, where Delaney’s showcases a 17 piece big band jazz show.
This unusual piece of artwork stands today as the world’s largest fire hydrant. Made of 675,000 pounds of steel, it is over 40 feet tall and is recognised for its artistic value all over the world. Designed by South Carolina artist Blue Sky, whose other public artworks include the ‘Levitating Dumpster’ and the ‘Portable Parking Space’ mural, the working hydrant was commisioned in 1999 and was constructed by 75 professional architects, city planners and engineers. As one of South Carolina’s most well known sculptures and artworks, Busted Plug Plaza is definitely worth a visit whilst in Columbia.
History and architecture lovers will enjoy a visit to the South Carolina State House, a refined 19th century building established in 1851, and a structure which took over half a century to construct. Today it houses the state government of South Carolina, and until 1971 it was home to the Supreme Court of the USA. Originally designed by architect P. H. Hammarskold in a Greek Revival style, the building maintains an air of dignity and grace and is a monumental landmark in the city. Visitors can stroll around the grounds and view its numerous monuments, or take a tour inside the building to learn more about South Carolina’s legislation and history.
One of the only organic, vegan restaurants in South Carolina, Good Life Café is a truly unique and original spot in which to grab a quick bite in Columbia. Serving an assortment of cleansing, anti-ageing fresh fruit juices, as well as an extensive and exciting menu of vegan burritos, sandwiches, burgers and pizzas, this restaurant has something for all tastes. With the food being both healthy and flavorsome, diners are free to browse the substantial list of beers, wines and proseccos without feeling too guilty.
Watch out for: The spinach and avocado dip starter.