Columbia is a culturally centered city in the heart of the Palmetto State. It’s the capital and second largest metropolis, and acts as a mecca for art, history, cuisine, and, of course, that classic Southern charm. It’s affectionately called Soda City, a nickname derived from the colonial founder Christopher Columbus. If you find yourself in the capital, rest assured that there are plenty of things to do in Columbia, SC.
The Congaree River is a merging of other majestic waterways right in the middle of the city, creating some wonderful wilderness to explore. This bustling borough is also known for being famously hot.
With temperatures rising high in the summer months, you can find plenty of cool things to do around town. Here are some of our favorite fun things to do in Columbia, South Carolina.
The Best Things To Do In Columbia SC
Tour Historic Homes
Columbia is a city with a rich local history. One of the easiest and most architecturally interesting ways to explore this heritage is through the many restored and preserved old homes around town.
The Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens is an impressive estate that was built in 1818. The walls here have plenty of stories to tell; it has functioned as Union Army Headquarters, the State Governor’s Mansion, and several different colleges.
Woodrow Wilson Family Home is the boyhood abode of the 28th president, the only site of its kind in the state. Built in an Italianate Villa style, it offers exhibits and artifacts to provide an early narrative of this great historical figure.
The Robert Mills House and Gardens dates back to 1825. The exterior showcases the classic revival style and the interior offers period pieces and decorative furnishings of Mr Mills, who was responsible for designing the Washington Monument.
- Address: 1615 Blanding St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
- Hours: Wednesday – Saturday -12: 00 pm -4:00 pm and Sunday at 1:30 pm – 4:00 pm
Columbia Museum of Art
The Columbia Museum of Art is a modern art museum also acts as a community hub for artistic engagement. They host block parties, concerts, lectures, workshops, classes, and tours as a prominent site of social activity for the city.
There are 25 galleries and their permanent collections are some of the most impressive anywhere. The Renaissance and Baroque art on display, in addition to its extensive European exhibitions, create a unique globally encompassing experience.
- Address: 1515 Main St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
- Hours: Tuesday- Sunday : 10:00 am- 5:00 pm, Closed: Monday
Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park
This park is an urban oasis running alongside the Columbia Canal and Saluda River. It’s 14 acres of accessible scenery set right in downtown. Miles of maintained paths offer stunning views of the skyline and sparkling waterways. Perfect for strolls, jogging, and cycling in an idyllic space, it’s a great place to pack a picnic or use the exercise equipment at the outdoor gym.
It’s also the site of the first textile mill in the world operated by the oldest hydroelectric plant in the state. Roam this relic of historical significance or simply relax to take in the local lush landscape. They host several annual festivals here as well, such as Greekfest and Riverfest.
- Address: 312 Laurel St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
- Hours: Monday – Sunday : 7:00 am – 9:00 pm
South Carolina State Museum
If you love going to museums, heading here is one of the best things to do in South Carolina. Set in a renovated 19th-century mill, the South Carolina State Museum is an expansive space offers diverse displays about the heritage of South Carolina.
It provides a balance between personal collections and historical exhibits. It uses culture, technology, nature, and art to explore the past through different mediums. The 4D theater on-site is particularly interactive.
You can see other large scale and hands-on displays, such as America’s first steam locomotive, an old school submarine, and a functioning observatory. It’s the largest museum in the entire state, and as such is incredibly comprehensive. Get to know this great state in a whole new light.
- Address: 301 Gervais St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
- Hours: Tuesday – Saturday : 10:00 am -5:00 pm, Sunday : 12:00 noon- 5:00 pm
- Cost of Admission: ( General Admission ) -Adult $8.95 , Senior (Ages 62 +) $7.95, Children (ages 3-12) $6.95
Melton Memorial Observatory
This simple yet spectacular spot lets you gaze at the starry skies above. Find out just how many celestial bodies you can see on a clear night in Columbia. It’s located on the USC Columbia Campus, and houses a 16 inch Cassegrain telescope, for all the astronomy aficionados out there.
You can take a night tour to learn more about the planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies that can be viewed from this domed gateway to the cosmos. It’s also open to the public for a self-guided experience, and even features a screen on the lower level so you can watch along as others search the great beyond.
- Address: 1429 Greene St, Columbia, SC 29208 ( GPS )
- Hours: Mondays : 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm
- Cost of Admission: Free
Dine in the fantastic Restaurants
The culinary scene in Columbia is full of both classic and creative cuisines. Mr. Friendly’s is a favorite among locals. An institution since the 1980s, it serves up new Southern fares in a hip and relaxed atmosphere. The dishes are modern and inventive takes on home-cooked country favorites. The meatloaf is an especially mouthwatering meal.
Motor Supply Company Bistro is a quirky eatery set in a renovated engine supply building from the 1800s. They offer farm-to-table fares in the vein of the slow food movement. The menu is eclectic and seasonal, and every plate is as fresh, local, and as thoughtful as possible.
The War Mouth cooks up traditional Southern seafood dishes in the trendy setting of an old auto repair shop. There are all the favorites you might find at a family dinner after someone’s just gone fishing. The craft beer selection is stellar as well. You could also try the Country Captain to get a taste of the real Columbia.
Harbison State Forest
This natural wonderland is over 2,000 acres of dense forest and lush flora, with the beautiful Broad River running along its border. There are 30 miles of trails to hike or bike, with a trek for every skill level. It’s a scenic setting for an outdoor adventure.
It’s designed to offer environmental education as well. As such, you can find a few displays dotted around on certain paths about important modern forestry practices, like planned burning and harvesting. It’s a great place to bust out your paddling skills, as you can find a few canoe landings throughout the grounds.
Saluda Shoals Park
Set only a few miles outside of downtown, this park is a serene slice of paradise. Probably the most peaceful place in the whole city, this riverfront offers plenty of fun recreation to partake in. Try your hand at paddleboarding, kayaking or horseback riding here.
If you’re feeling less adventurous, simply pack a picnic or have a stroll along the tranquil and verdant banks of the Saluda River. It’s also home to the Environmental Education Center, which provides informational exhibits on the ecology of the area.
- Address : 5605 Bush River Rd, Columbia, SC 29212 ( GPS )
- Hours : Monday – Sunday: 7:30 am- 8:30 pm
This intimate vintage cinema is a beloved institution of Soda City. The Nickelodeon is a completely nonprofit movie theater that has been around since 1978. It holds less than 100 people per screening and it shows only three a day. It serves to create educational and critical cultural dialogue around diversity and community through film.
Each movie shown here is a first-run independent film, curated series or special community screening. They also host the occasional festival, like the annual Indie Grits Film Festival, which features the best of Southern DIY cinema and culture. The space itself retains much of its original retro charm, and offers gourmet snacks along with craft beer and wine.
- Address: 1607 Main St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
Blue Sky Installations
Blue Sky is a famous and native street artist who has created many amazing pieces within the cityscape of Columbia. These installations are often large scale optical illusions, and always engaging and unique. Tunnelvision is a whimsical masterpiece apparently inspired by a dream. On the side of a downtown parking lot you’ll find a painted portal into another world.
The Never Bust Chain is located between two unassuming office buildings. This industrial and imposing piece hangs over an alley ten feet off the ground. The welding required 2,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure to fix onto the existing structures, one of which appears to be leaning slightly if you can catch it from the correct angle.
Busted Plug Plaza is technically the world’s largest fire hydrant. Made of steel and concrete, this sculpture weighs over 600,000 pounds and stands roughly 40 feet tall. The bottom even features a fountain, in order to create the impression that the giant hydrant is broken.
- Address: Busted Plug Plaza- 354 Heatherstone Rd, Columbia, SC 29212, United States ( GPS )
Have a Drink at the Breweries
The craft beer scene in Columbia is a thriving one, with a diverse array of drafts that reflect the vibrant spirit of the city. Swamp Cabbage Brewery has more to offer than just its fun and funky name. Here you will find a full range of brews from crisp to hoppy to full-bodied. There is a creative pint to please every palate, and to enjoy in their gorgeous garden.
River Rat Brewery prides itself on using top quality ingredients to create refined and balanced flavors that are still fun and complex. Their taproom and outdoor deck, affectionately deemed the Rat Cave, always promises a good time with great beers.
For the best brewery tours and live music every weekend, try Steel Hands Brewing. It’s fun for the whole family, including those four-legged furry kids. Beer inspired by the hardworking backbone of South Carolina, they advocate for consistent quality and often provide community support.
Lake Murray Dam
The Lake Murray Dam is the most romantic spot in all of Soda City. Lovers from around have traveled here to immortalize their relationships together. Buy a lock and inscribe it with a special message. Fix it onto the gate of the dam, where it will stay forever along with hundreds of others already there symbolizing infinite love.
The scenery is lovely as well, set along an expansive stretch of shoreline of Lake Murray. The wooden walkway is just under two miles long, and ideal for a scenic stroll and a sunset. You can also venture out onto the shimmering waters via boat, kayak, or paddleboard. It’s the perfect date day, for a memory (and lock) that will last a lifetime.
- Address: 2101 N Lake Dr, Columbia, SC 29212 ( GPS )
- Hours: Monday – Friday : 11:00 am- 8:00 pm, Saturday & Sunday : 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
Shop at the Markets
Soda City Market happens every Saturday, and is a popular event among natives and visitors alike. The bustling Main Street is closed off and decked out with independent sellers offering local art, fresh produce, tasty bites, and street performances. It’s a blast and an amazing way to browse the local scene.
South Carolina State Farmers Market has a vast selection of fresh, local, and handmade goodies. It’s a fun way to shop directly from vendors, and get everything you may need under one roof. Find fruits, vegetables, gardening supplies, baked treats, and so much more. You can even check their harvest calendar online before you go, so you know what seasonal offerings will be best to buy given the current climate.
- Address: Soda Market -1300-1600 Main St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
- Hours: Saturday : 9:00 am – 1:00 pm
Ra Obelisk Sculpture
If you come across the Ra Obelisk in your adventures around Columbia, you may have a lot of questions. Allows us to provide a bit of intriguing context. It was originally built in 1989 as part of an old railway trestle. When it was demolished, this one piece of wall proved no match for the wrecking ball and was left standing.
A local artist was inspired by its shape, reminding them of ancient Egypt. As such, it was painted with the image of the ancient sun god Ra, along with some hieroglyphics and symbols. For an added bit of mystery they do spell something out, so see if you can decode it yourself. Just one of the many unique attractions that await you in Columbia.
- Address: 900 Heyward St, Columbia, SC 29201 ( GPS )
South Carolina State House
This is one of the most popular destinations in all of Soda City. Its impressive architecture is a perfect example of the Greek Revival style. Construction began in 1851 and was only partially completed before the war, and had to be continued afterwards.
Take a thorough tour of the interior, including the chambers and hall, to learn more about its history and function. See if you can spot the five stars on the exterior of the building, marking where union cannonballs once hit the structure.
The iconic towers of the facade reach 180 feet, ending in an elegant copper dome. The grounds are covered in touching tributes, such as the American-Mexican War Monument, the Revolutionary War Generals’ Monument, and African American History Monument. Surrounded by the state tree, Palmettos, it’s become quite a significant symbol for the capital city and all of South Carolina.
- Address: 1100 Gervais St, Columbia, SC 29208 ( GPS )
- Hours: Monday – Friday : 9: 00- 5: 00 pm, Saturday: 10: 00- 4:00 pm