Photo by Forrest Clonts
Photo by Forrest Clonts
Many flock to Charleston, but they shouldn't sleep on nearby Columbia.
Come hungry and ready for some fun on the rivers.
There was a time when Columbia’s prime asset was seemingly its proximity to the coast and the mountains. Now, though, a spate of restaurant openings, public art installations, and welcoming outdoor spaces have reinvigorated the city center. Add a flourishing craft brewery scene—coffee lager anyone?—and a greenway system of parks, boardwalks, watercraft launches, and trails providing easy access to a trio of rivers, and the place has become a fully formed destination unto itself. Here’s how to spend a perfect weekend in Columbia.
Book now: from $165/night, expedia.com
After filling the walls of Hotel Trundle with works from local artists, owners Rita Patel and Marcus Munse enlisted Columbia-area makers to craft everything from the bedding and in-room coffee to the free local brew offered at check-in. Each of the 41 rooms is unique; some include cool architectural features like reading alcoves crafted from old elevator shafts.
Book now: from $98/night, expedia.com
Don’t be surprised if you drive right past this 119-room hotel, which occupies a 1910 mansion and has minimal signage. Instead, enjoy the drive around the leafy downtown neighborhood and keep your eyes peeled for the gigantic blue rocking chair that decorates the property’s front yard. Inside, a collection of magenta chickens roosting in the fireplace, NCAA-football-inspired art, and whimsical headboards are among the assortment of art and collectibles that pay witty homage to the University of South Carolina’s gamecock mascot.
Among the range of diversions on offer: Hike, chase rapids, visit a museum, or hang out at a craft brewery—all without leaving the city.
Columbia’s three rivers, the Broad, the Saluda, and the Congaree, set the stage for surprisingly varied experiences. The Saluda’s Class II rapids flow right through Columbia; book a tour via Palmetto Outdoor and you can take them on in a kayak or, during the warmer months, inner tubes. Beginners and kids will prefer the more serene flow of the Broad and Congaree Rivers; either way, you’ll float through veils of Spanish moss as you pass by 19th-century canal walls and dramatic rock formations.
The Three Rivers Greenway is a network of boardwalks, bridges, and mostly paved walking trails that weaves for more than 12 miles through city parks, quiet woods, and uninhabited isles. Along the way, discover the remains of Fort Congaree, which was first built in 1718; earthworks from an 1865 Civil War battle; old transportation canals; and a historic water plant. Listen for lions and monkeys as you stroll along the Saluda Riverwalk section; it passes behind Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo on its way to Boyd Island Sanctuary and its resident river otters.
Anchored by the South Carolina State House, Columbia’s Main Street will keep you happily occupied for hours. Start your Saturday at Soda City Market, an outdoor extravaganza of food, music, art, and produce that runs for several blocks. There’s also a historic movie theater, fun bars (including Transmission Arcade, where you can play pinball, Skee-Ball, and vintage video games), and restaurants—such as Hall’s, a swanky steakhouse, and New Orleans–themed Bourbon and Hendrix, home to Columbia’s buzziest rooftop.
The Reconstructed Trail shares the story of post–Civil War Reconstruction in Columbia. Start your journey at the Museum of the Reconstruction Era, the nation’s first museum dedicated to interpreting this challenging 12-year period that followed the Civil War. (Pick up a brochure at the gift shop at Robert Mills nearby before you start). Stops range from Benedict College, a Historically Black College that was founded in 1870, just five years after the Civil War ended, to the South Carolina State House, which elected its first Black-majority legislature in 1868.
Open since September 2021, the Anne Frank Center is the only North American outpost of Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House. Filled with original artifacts and photographs, the center also brings to life connections between violence against Black Americans and persecution faced by Jews during the Holocaust.
You won’t go hungry in Columbia. Start with a beer or two and then forage for food at a number of top restaurants.
Columbia’s first micro-brewery, Hunter-Gatherer, opened in 1995 after owner Kevin Varner learned to make the English ales he’d discovered during a semester abroad. In 2018 he opened a second location in a historic airplane hangar. Steel Hands, in nearby city Cayce, takes its name from the foundry located across the street from the brewery. Sip coffee lager, made from locally roasted Loveland coffee, while you check out forged steel sculptures that decorate the beer garden.
Beer lovers aren’t the only ones who will find happiness with Savage Craft’s offerings: Beyond a wide range of brews, you’ll find 74 allocated bourbons, a handful of hard-to-find tequilas, and food that goes well beyond pub grub. Dogs and children are welcome at Columbia’s outdoor beer gardens. You’ll find all manner of munchies, too.
Frequent trips to Italy—as well as a Sicilian grandmother’s red sauce—inspired George and Monica Kessler to open Il Giorgione in 2012. House-made pastas, pizzas topped with house-made mozzarella, and a nightly special are rooted in traditional recipes and paired with the local wines that would accompany them in Italy.
For more than 30 years, Motor Supply Company Bistro has been showcasing the work of local farmers at this art-filled former auto parts store. Though the offerings change every day (old menus are cut into squares and used as coasters), be on the lookout for chef Wesley Fulmer’s version of shrimp and grits, which subs out gravy for a remarkably flavorful broth. If you can, dine at the atmospheric bar or in the brick courtyard out back. Mexican restaurants abound in Columbia, but Coa stands out as much for its elegant decor, inspired by agave’s route from plant to glass, as it does for its food, a soul-satisfying mix of street tacos, moles, and specialty dishes like grilled octopus. There’s a full vegan menu as well.
Although this creamy blend of cheddar, mayo, pimento peppers, and seasonings is eaten throughout the South, Columbia is said to be home to one of the oldest known recipes, and the city’s inventive chefs are doing interesting things with it.
Head to the Rockaway Athletic Club for its classic pimento cheeseburger, a perfect triumvirate of griddled meat, creamy cheese, and soft bun, or Terra, where James Beard–honored chef Mike Davis took the idea a step further and created the pimento cheeseburger pizza. It emerges hot and bubbling from the restaurant’s wood-burning oven.
Another must: the pulled brisket sandwich at Spotted Salamander, which arrives slathered with pimento cheese. Fries are a natural partner for pimento cheese; at the Whig, a dose of sliced jalapeños adds just enough fire. Midwood Smokehouse, meanwhile, ups the ante with a smoky crown of chopped pork barbecue.
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