Looking for a weekend city getaway filled with southern charm, good food and plenty of outdoor activities? Then consider heading to Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital and home to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. It’s the perfect mix of college town and vibrant city along with innovative restaurants serving up southern style favorites and classic restaurant fare. We recently spent the weekend in Columbia, and packed in tons of walking, eating and exploring around town. So if you are wondering how to spend a weekend in downtown Columbia, consider these 7 things to do.
1. Stroll the Soda City Market. Every Saturday morning, the popular Soda City Market takes over several blocks in downtown Columbia. The streets are lined with colorful vendors selling a mix of food, unique art, jewelry, and other hand-crafted items. We were happily surprised to see that the market was very dog-friendly, with dozens of well-behaved dogs in all shapes and sizes out for a morning walk with their owners. Come hungry, as there are plenty of yummy choices for food, including items like fresh doughnuts both large and mini sized, avocado toast made to order, Spanish and Mexican specialities and locally-grown vegetables. The market runs every Saturday morning from 9-1, rain or shine.
2. Visit the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. Who doesn’t love going to the zoo, and the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia doesn’t disappoint. From the engaging sea lion demonstration that happens twice a day to watching the cute koalas sleeping in trees, the zoo is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. The exhibits were well laid out, with fun garden elements in between. The parking lot was almost full when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon but the zoo never felt over-crowded. For an additional fee, the Zoo offers several backstage encounters that visitors can reserved in advance. The 70 acre Botanical Garden has a separate entrance, or you can walk or ride the tram from the Zoo. We didn’t have time to wander the garden on our visit, but definitely plan to come back.
3. Eat in the Vista. With Columbia being a college town, visitors will find an excellent mix of college-style bars, casual eateries, and upscale restaurants. The Vista area, sitting on the banks of the Congaree River, has quite the collection of restaurants to choose from, making for a tough decision as to where to eat. We stopped in for dinner at Grill Marks, known for their burgers, but truthfully, ordering a FREAKshake was our main goal (we ended up sharing the Cookies & Cream Dirt). Expect to wait at most restaurants in the Vista on weekend nights, but if you check online some offer call ahead options. The Blue Marlin, Motor Supply Co. Bistro, the Twisted Spur, Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom and Publico (in nearby Five Points) are other highly recommended spots. Outside of the Vista, we've also enjoyed California Dreaming and Pawleys Front Porch (famous for their burgers highlighted on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives).
4. Go Searching for Street Art. Looking for colorful murals in a new city is part treasure hunt, part exploration, but almost always results in finding something unique. Downtown Columbia, like other major cities, has its share of street art, including one of my favorites, Tunnelvision. About a year ago, we stumbled upon Tunnelvision while searching for the nearby 40 foot tall fire hydrant (formally named Busted Plug Plaza). So on our recent trip, I knew I had to re-visit, and my daughter snapped my photo while I was “walking into the tunnel.” Both pieces are from artist and South Carolina native, Blue Sky. Other street art from different artists can be found scattered around the city.
5. Hit the Trail. Cities across the country are working hard to make it easy for residents and visitors alike to connect with nature, and Columbia is no exception. Head over the Gervais Street Bridge, and hop on the trail at Riverwalk Park, part of the 12 mile Three Rivers Greenway. The path is wheelchair, stroller and pet-friendly, and there is a Three Rivers Tour app that uses GPS to provide commentary for the entire length of the trail. We haven’t tried the app yet, but hope to in the near future.
6. Have Sunday Brunch at DiPrato’s. Don’t leave Columbia without Sunday brunch at DiPrato’s. The large selection of brunch items includes classics like banana pecan and chocolate chip pancakes, along with breakfast paninis and homemade pastries. Try the Eggs Charleston, a southern version of eggs benedict with crab cakes and poached eggs, along with a side of Adluh grits (Adluh is a historic local flour mill that has been in operation since 1900). Of course, since you are in the south, it's a good idea to grab a pimento cheese sandwich for later! DiPrato’s serves brunch from 10-2 on Saturday and Sunday and it’s well worth the wait.
7. Take a Walk on the University of South Carolina Campus. Walking around the beautiful USC campus is the perfect way to burn off calories after eating all that food, especially in spring when the trees are blooming! The Horseshoe is home to a number of buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Stop by the clapping circle near Thomas Cooper Library (anyone on campus can point it out). Just stand in the center of the circle and clap and see what happens! If it’s fall, enjoy the excitement of an SEC football game at Williams Brice Stadium with up to 80,000 of your closest friends!
Wondering where to stay in Columbia? Like any city, there are a variety of excellent hotels to choose from, including the the highly rated Hampton Inn Columbia - Downtown Historic District and the Aloft Columbia Downtown, both in the Vista. Just book well in advance if you visit during fall football season!
What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.
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