12 Things to Do and See in Columbia, South Carolina

Visitors to Columbia, South Carolina's capital city, will find plenty to do there
Visitors to Columbia, South Carolina's capital city, will find plenty to do there | © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Megan O'Hara
21 September 2020

Named after the explorer Christopher Columbus, the capital city of South Carolina is an American historical center brimming with sunshine and southern charm. Offering cool venues and cultural attractions such as the Columbia Museum of Art, the Columbia City Ballet and the world’s largest fire hydrant, Columbia is well worth exploring.

The Columbia Museum of Art

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Columbia Museum of Art
© Columbia Museum of Art
Established in 1950, the Columbia Museum of Art is a non-profit organization and a 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 Renaissance paintings, ancient Asian sculptures and contemporary canvases by artists such as Tatara Fire. As well as its sizable permanent collection, the museum hosts a number of regularly changing topical exhibitions.

Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden

Botanical Garden, Zoo
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With an exotic array of animals from every continent of the world, the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden is a top spot to head to 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 Riverbanks Botanical Garden attached to the zoo is another splendid site to visit. It stretches over 70 acres (28ha) of land and features a number of themed spaces, such as the serene Asian Garden and the pretty Rose Garden. Visitors can spend hours strolling through the colorful scenery.

The Columbia City Ballet

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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 delivers 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 program for both children and adults in South Carolina.

Congaree National Park

Forest, Park
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A tree hangs over Cedar Creek, Congaree National Park near Columbia South Carolina
© Jason O. Watson / Alamy Stock Photo
The Congaree National Park is a lush, idyllic wooded area just outside of Columbia containing the largest area of old-growth hardwood forest left in the Southeastern United States. Blessed with 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 its surroundings makes Congaree a great spot for a number of outdoor activities including hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking and picnicking.

Villa Tronco

Restaurant, Italian, $$$
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As the oldest Italian restaurant in Columbia and one of the oldest in South Carolina, Villa Tronco boasts 75 years of experience in serving hearty and flavorful 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 on an empty stomach, and diners are highly encouraged to try the delicious chicken parmigiana and owner Carmella’s famous cheesecake, said to be the best in town.

Historic House Museum

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Historic Columbia is a non-profit organization aiming to protect the city’s extensive 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 28th president, who lived in the mansion in 1871. Visitors can wander around the landscaped gardens and marvel at the wonderfully restored features of this handsome southern property.

Busted Plug Plaza

Architectural Landmark
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Fire Plug Columbia South Carolina USA. Image shot 2016. Exact date unknown.
© Bob Pardue - SC / Alamy Stock Photo
This unusual piece of artwork stands today as the world’s largest fire hydrant. Made of 675,000lb (306,175kg) of steel, it is over 40ft (12m) tall and is recognized for its artistic value all over the world. It was 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 commissioned 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 while in Columbia.

South Carolina State House

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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 that 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 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.

Good Life Cafe

Cafe, Restaurant, Authentic, $$$
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One of the only organic, vegan restaurants in South Carolina, Good Life Cafe is a truly unique and original spot in which to grab a quick bite in Columbia. Serving an assortment of fresh fruit juices and an exciting menu of burritos, sandwiches, burgers and salads, this restaurant has something for all tastes. With the food being both healthy and flavorsome, diners are free to browse the substantial list of cold-pressed cocktails without feeling too guilty.

Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park

Park, Natural Feature
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Columbia Riverfront Park Historic Canal Columbia South Carolina USA
© Richard Cummins / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’re craving nature but can’t decide between waterfront or green grass, the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park will deliver. With miles of paved paths, it’s perfect for running, hiking, skateboarding, biking and even just walking. It’s also wheelchair-friendly. Those looking to get a workout in should head to the outdoor gym, which has seven pieces of free-to-use equipment including a vertical press, rower, leg press and elliptical machines. There are also picnic tables, restrooms and plenty of river views.

Waverly Historic District

Architectural Landmark
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Waverley is Columbia’s first suburb. It’s known as a diverse place that encourages activism, crafts and artistry from people of all sizes and backgrounds. It’s also home to two historical colleges, Benedict College and Allen University, which provided higher education during segregation in the South. You can take a walking tour of the area, highlights of which include Bishop’s Memorial AME Church – built in 1885 and on the National Register of Historic Places – the Waverly Five & Dime and the Carver Theatre.

EdVenture Children's Museum

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The ultimate children’s museum, this place is a dream for both big and small. You can climb through Eddie – the world’s largest child, standing at 40ft (12m) and weighing 17.5 tons (16 tonnes) – before starting to interact with the many hands-on exhibits. Make sure to stop by Wags and Whiskers, where kids can learn to take care of our four-legged friends in a simulated way. Young inventors should try out Maker Works, where you can create your own project out of Lego, blocks and other tools.

Additional reporting by Alice Johnston

These recommendations were updated on September 21, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.