So you’re taking a trip to Columbia and want to know what to do? Or, perhaps, you’re simply a local who is looking for a refresher on things to do, or something you may have overlooked in your many years living here.
Whatever the case, this three-day itinerary should have you covered.
Columbia is a city that is so much more than its initial impression. It lacks the publicity and seeming signature city neighborhood of other high-profile Southern cities like Charleston have. Yet, once experienced and one gets acquainted with it, Columbia shines with a vibrance that’s distinct and distinctly lived-in.
The city features an emerging and eclectic dining scene that caters to many palates and a strong assortment of activities that can appease anybody’s preferences. I’ve compiled this list for three days, imagining a weekend trip for business or pleasure.
This is also, in part, a learning exercise for me as well. I’ve only lived here for a year and a half. The majority of that time has been under pandemic conditions, so much of the city remains unexplored to me. So I enlisted the help of several folks in the local food scene to share their own picks for restaurants and other things to do around town.
If you're looking for bars, breweries and other alcohol-centered fill-ins to this list, check out Free Times' listings at free-times.com/bites_and_sights.
An obvious caveat to all of this is the still lingering COVID-19 pandemic. For as much progress as there is on the vaccination front, there is still concern around the spread of variants and cases rising overall. So do keep that in mind when planning your own adventures through Soda City.
Day One, Friday
Morning: Breakfast at Devine Street Cinnamon Roll Deli — to go
Start your day off with an incredible value for your wallet and stomach. If you nab a breakfast sandwich — perhaps The Big Pig, which includes cheddar, smoked sausage, baked ham and whole grain mustard on three eggs — it’ll be paired with a mini cinnamon roll. While the sandwich is good, the sweet roll is a showstopper with its sticky, soft and buttery flavors. Get it to go and head on out to your next stop, a short drive away.
Midmorning: Congaree National Park
Look, I know you just got to town, but it’ll be worth the drive when you arrive at Congaree National Park. Kristian Niemi, owner of local spots Black Rooster and Bourbon, recommended the park, saying it’s “absolutely stunning.”
"It’s so much different than what most people would think of a national park," he enthused. "It's a swamp. … It just shows the beauty of nature and all of its guises.”
Niemi is right. It is a swamp, but in the grandest way possible. The park has a number of different types of camping, hikes and activities to experience it. Check out the website and plan your trek.
Lunch: Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering
So you’re swamped out and ready for some grub. Shigeharu Kobayashi, general manager of downtown sushi destination Camon (which won't let you down if you get a dinner-time hankering), recommends Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering.
“It’s an amazing spot for food that is really good and also very emblematic of Southern things,” Kobayashi said.
In my mind, it’s one of the better places in town to experience some local cuisine, particularly given its relatively low price point and high quality. I once wrote of chef-owner Jessica Shillato’s food that it was, “darn good, local fare that brings you a sense of home.” Being a transplant in town, there’s been few places that have gotten me up to speed faster on the area’s food than hers.
Midday activity: Columbia Museum of Art
Here’s another recommendation from Kobayashi: Head to the Columbia Museum of Art.
“Art museums are really interesting because they’re a collection of something that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he told me. Kobayashi also nodded to the area’s famous heat in the summers and noted that the museum is indoors, providing a cooling respite from the notorious temperatures.
But the museum offers more than just a cool-down session. It’s genuinely extraordinary with its stable of rotating art exhibits, and its permanent offerings can wow even the most seasoned of art museum goers. Right now, the museum has a selection of work from famed mind-bender M.C. Escher. Check out the website regularly for updates on its offerings.
Steve Cook, president of the Five Point’s Association, pointed to the across-the-river fine dining joint Terra as a dinner recommendation. It’s telling that Terra made Cook’s picks (alongside with the recently reopened Di Vino Rosso), as he runs his own fine dining spot, Five Points neighborhood institution Saluda's.
He told me it’s “hard not to go there” when he and his wife decide to eat out. Cook’s point would likely be echoed by many, as Terra is frequently included on lists of the best restaurants in the area and, for those in the industry, held in high regard as well.
Chef-owner Mike Davis’s eatery is decidedly Southern, and almost exclusively uses local produce and goods to craft his high-end menu. The restaurant also offers wood-fired pizzas, if you’re not looking to splurge too much — which is certainly possible at a restaurant of this caliber.
Day Two, Saturday
Breakfast (and more): Soda City Market
Let’s call it a two-for-one deal. It’s possible that the most iconic Columbia activity could very well be this Saturday street market. Soda City was mentioned by almost everyone I talked with for this piece, and for good reason. It takes up a hefty part of Main Street every week, and its offerings range from delicious food to artisanal goods.
It’s not a farmers market in the traditional sense — the produce and meat offerings are sparse, though what's there is definitely good. But it has a little bit of everything. It’s an easy way to get lost in yourself as you peruse table after table and munch on any little thing that catches your eye. And the reliably large assembly of food trucks means you can breakfast on anything from waffle sandwiches to barbecue to tacos or arepas.
After you've gotten your food fix, take a stroll just up the street to the Statehouse grounds and the University of South Carolina campus. Both areas have lovely sights for architecture nerds and tons of pretty landscaping.
Lunch: Rawtopian Bliss
Folami Geter owns the popular vegan spot A Peace of Soul Vegan Kitchen (if you want to get wowed by mimic meat, try the burger or chicken sandwich). So it makes sense that she would point to another vegan restaurant for her pick. She touted it as “good fresh food” and “convenient.”
“I’ve known (the owner) for years. I trust her food and it’s delicious,” Geter elaborated.
Rawtopian Bliss’ menu is filled with vegan goodness. There’s hummus rolls, tempeh burgers and 90 percent raw personal pizzas, among numerous others.
Midday activity: Botanical Gardens
The second midday activity comes by way of Geter as well. She recommended visitors should check out the Botanical Gardens at the Riverbanks Zoo.
I recently took some time to check out the gardens, too, and it's certainly worth the time. The various garden types — from Asian gardens to a rose garden — showcase plant diversity in often striking ways. It’s not often you see such vibrant colors on display.
As it's attached to Columbia's popular local zoo, you can take some time to check that out, too. It’s currently open for tickets by the hour, in an effort to keep things socially distanced, though it was still relatively busy on my recent trip.
Dinner: Black Rooster
Do you enjoy good food? Do you enjoy good cocktails? Do you enjoy consuming both on a swank rooftop with a stellar view of a downtown skyline? Then head on over to Black Rooster in West Columbia. It’s owned by Niemi, who contributed some picks to this list, and it’s part of his legacy of standout local restaurants.
With Black Rooster, he debuted his “French-ish” bistro he had long wanted to open. Upon its debut in 2019, it was an almost instant hit. Recently, Niemi promoted chef Alex Strickland to lead the kitchen and it’s taken on a Vietnamese-French twist ever since. Check it out and enjoy the sights.
Day Three, Sunday
Brunch: The War Mouth
In a pre-pandemic world, a friend of mine visited Columbia and we spent a late morning eating brunch at The War Mouth. It’s become one of my most cherished memories of the city. He sipped on a Harvey Wallbanger, essentially a fancy screwdriver, and I drank a cocktail I can’t recall anymore. For food, I ate the Cottontown eatery’s french toast. It was delectable.
The War Mouth has an interior unlike any other in the city, where almost everything speaks to its South Carolina or Southern roots. The staff is friendly and quickly recognizes you if you begin to frequent it. The food is consistently strong, adventurous and deeply rooted in Midlands tradition.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, restaurants like The War Mouth have taken the brunt of the damage. But the local favorite has persevered and is still open for brunch on Sundays.
Midmorning activity: Check out local art
Depending on what time you arrived at The War Mouth, this may trend closer to an early afternoon activity, but it will fit essentially any time of day. Another pick from Kobayashi, he recommended visitors seek out the numerous public art installations and murals around the city. He specifically pointed to murals done by Ija Charles, a local artist who has taken on increased prominence for the powerful work she debuted during police brutality protests last summer. One of Charles’ murals is on display on the downtown branch of the Richland Library, alongside one by local artist Dogon Krigga.
There’s plenty more public art to check out, too, from robots to chains between buildings. Luckily, One Columbia has put together a directory, so you can find it all.
Lunch: Rosewood Dairy Bar
As mentioned, it gets hot here, so why not battle that with a traditional soft serve cone?
Jon Sears, the owner of several bars in Five Points (the quintessential college neighborhood in Columbia) and Main Street’s Hendrix, pointed to the Rosewood Dairy Bar for a snack that comes with a side of nostalgia. Sears prefers a mixed cone dipped in chocolate.
The dairy bar has been around since the ‘40s and sells burgers, fries, ice cream and plenty more.
Midday activity: Walk the river walks
A popular, yet somehow underrated activity in Columbia is to take a stroll down the river walks in the area. There’s the ever-popular walk along the canal in Columbia's Riverfront Park, but the surrounding cities offer their own as well.
For my pick, I’d recommend the Cayce Riverwalk, just a short 10 minute drive out of downtown. It’s quieter and seems to be more nature-oriented than the more-developed Columbia one. Whichever you pick, though, it’s hard to go wrong.
Dinner: JJ's Tea House
For your final meal, we come into a smaller selection of options, due it being Sunday. Like most cities, Columbia's dining scene goes into hibernation on Sunday and Monday, but that doesn't mean there isn't great picks.
Free Times contributor Bach Pham took me here when I first moved to town, and I was pleasantly surprised. JJ's offers Taiwanese and American-Asian favorites throughout its menu, all at an approachable price. I frequently grab the bao buns, one of the many rice plate options and a stir-fried noodle dish. It's currently to-go only, but the food travels well, so have no fear.