AFTER LITERALLY RISING FROM THE ASHES, COLUMBIA BUILDS UPON THE SCARS OF HISTORY TO CREATE AN EVER-EVOLVING STAGE FOR CREATIVITY AND ADVENTURE WITH AN ECLECTIC OLD SOUL ALL ITS OWN.
After growing up just an hour south of Columbia, I now cannot help but think of the city from my childhood viewpoint: Columbia was a destination. With my chin resting on my fists, I remember staring at the cheap round clock hanging above the doorway of our home as my sister and I fidgeted in anticipation of our departure. Once on the road, we passed by what seemed like an eternity of open pastures on S.C. Highway 3 before, suddenly, a misty cluster of glassy towers appeared in the distance. We were almost there, and the excitement was electric. Even after going on to experience Columbia as a college student and now as an adult, I still feel a little flutter when I approach our capital city.
As a capital, it takes on quite the responsibility. It is the center of our universe politically and stands as a symbol of everything our South Carolina is about. The weight of its status is almost palpable. And, like all good ones do, as a capital city, Columbia has evolved through the years by taking its foundation of significance and building upon it with layers of experiences through history, the arts, food, and fun. Here are a few of our favorites.
As people started to settle more inland from the port city of Charleston, it was decided by the powers that were that a new centrally located capital city was unavoidable. A bill was introduced to construct the capital at a 650-acre spot near an important ferry system on the Congaree River. It stipulated that the streets should be no less than sixty feet wide to prevent the spread of fire and accommodate future growth. By 1786, it was official, and Columbia became one of the first planned cities in America. The name itself was a nod to Christopher Columbus, beating out “Washington” by an 11-7 vote in the state Senate. General Washington had to settle for two street names instead: Washington Street for himself and Lady Street to honor his wife, Martha.
Columbia continued to grow as an important trade, agricultural, and political powerhouse. In 1860, the Secession Convention met in Columbia at the First Baptist Church on Hampton Street to declare their intention to withdraw from the Union. Fast forward five years later, when about a third of Columbia’s structures were burned by Sherman’s troops.
This pivotal event in history is very much present in the fabric of this place. It’s lurking in the street names and monuments and can be explored in museums, historic buildings and, perhaps most obviously, at The State House itself. The current capital building was in the midst of being built when Sherman arrived. The interior was severely damaged from his attack, but the outward structure was salvageable even after being struck with a total of ten shells from cannon fire. Reeling from financial devastation, the state was unable to fully repair the building until 1903. The structure is completely fireproof and still bears brass markers to indicate the shell damage in the blue granite, South Carolina’s official state stone. Guided tours of the State House are offered Monday-Saturday, with hours depending on when legislature is in session.
Located in the heart of downtown, The Columbia Museum of Art offers more than 25 galleries for visitors’ roaming pleasure, showcasing artwork from all over the world. The museum’s collection has been cumulating since 1950 and now boasts significant pieces from the likes of Botticelli and Monet, among others. The museum also has a menu of extras like adult art classes, tours, lectures, and children’s programs, along with national rotating exhibits. Open seven days a week, you can explore on your own or take part in docent-led tours.
Not far from the museum, The Nickelodeon moved to the former Fox Theatre location in 2012. Growing from a volunteer-run place for film lovers in an old converted bank building, it now resides at the cultural center on Main Street. An innate passion for film has been ingrained here from the start and is evident in their impressive array of independent films, series, and one-off screenings. The Nickelodeon avidly encourages support of filmmakers as the presenter of the annual Indie Grits Festival. Also making its very natural home at The Nick is the Helen Hill Education Center, which focuses on building critical viewing and production skills for members.
The highlight of my childhood trips to Columbia usually involved Riverbanks Zoo. Thanks to their ever-growing list of options for visitors, that is still the case today for folks from all over the southeast. Along with providing habitat for over 2,000 animals and being a leader in conservation efforts, Riverbanks also has an extensive botanical garden, zip-lines, animal demonstrations, behind-the-scenes programs, rock wall, ropes challenges, and more. Riverbanks also takes on the unlikely role as a safe keeper of several historic landmarks, including the remains of a covered bridge burned in the Civil War and the ruins of a 1800s-era mill. The 170 acres of the zoo is actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now showcases the land’s unique history at the Saluda Factory Interpretive Center and along a half-mile river trail.
After exploring the zoo, round out the all-American summer experience with a baseball game at Spirit Communications Park. The Columbia Fireflies started their first ever Class A South Atlantic League season here just last year and ended it with the honor of “Ballpark of the Year” by Ballpark Digest. The stadium is the anchor for the redevelopment of the old state mental health campus and will soon add shopping, restaurants, and retail to the visitor experience.
For a family adventure that is truly once-in-a-lifetime, head to Columbia for the forthcoming solar eclipse in August. Columbia is set to be on the short list of best viewing areas for the 2 minutes and 26 seconds of total eclipse, the first transcontinental total eclipse in 99 years. Thankfully, Columbia has compiled all of the special events for their Total Eclipse Weekend, including planetarium shows at the SC State Museum, hotel deals, and more.
If you find yourself in Columbia on a Saturday, make sure to put the Soda City Market on your itinerary. The market on Main Street emphasizes products for your brain, body, and belly and covers everything from fresh produce to soaps and crafts. The market gets especially festive with special events like Oktoberfest every fall. Soda City Market is open every Saturday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. rain or shine, and parking is free throughout the city on weekends.
EAT & DRINK
For an eclectic local favorite, pick the Motor Supply Company Bistro. The menu blends American, Italian, French, and Asian dishes built with ingredients from local farms or their house-made items such as sauces and smoked meats. Motor Supply opened in 1989 as one of the first restaurants in the historic Congaree Vista area of town and is located in a charmingly repurposed 1800s engine supply building. The menu changes daily, but you can’t go wrong with anything listing Adluh dirty grits and South Carolina-caught shrimp. The bistro is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and both brunch and dinner on Sundays.
Columbia is also contributing to the emerging craft beer and locally distilled spirit scene in South Carolina with places like Copper Horse Distilling and River Rat Brewery. Copper Horse is a micro-distillery in the Vista that specializes in small-batch handcrafted products made exclusively from locally-milled grains including Old Mill Vodka, a special edition whiskey series, bourbon, rum, and gin. Tastings and tours of the distillery are free, but reservations are required. Don’t forget to sample unique products like the pecan praline whiskey cream liqueur and the Copper Horse Hot, vodka flavored with a natural infusion of ghost peppers and Carolina Reapers.
River Rat Brewery pays homage to the three rivers that run through Columbia through both their name and their products. The brews here are refreshing, strong, and simple in their local ingredients yet somehow intricate in flavor. Featured products include a Winter Warm Ale, Oktoberfest, Twisted Lemon Wheat Ale, Metal Man Pale Ale, Lost Port Porter, and Moncks Corner Abbey Ale. Combined with a covered deck, beer garden, and specials for Taco Tuesday and Trivia Thursday, River Rat is one of our new favorite watering holes.
Edging on the University of South Carolina campus, you’ll find Five Points, a historic shopping and commercial district that has been in business for over 100 years. This is the place to go for unique finds from French candles at The Swept Yard to designer labels at Revente and espresso at Drip Columbia.
Circling back closer to Main Street, you’ll notice the historic Brennan Building, which dates to around 1870 and is a stone’s throw away from The State House. Keeping along the same path as the building’s past lives as a saloon, billiard hall, and restaurant, you’ll find Bourbon here now. We recommend indulging in the Cajun-Creole menu with a classic gumbo or the Bavette Steak and pimento cheese. With 300 whiskeys on the menu and Bourbon as a name, it goes without saying that the craft cocktails here are not to be missed. Bourbon is open Monday through Friday for dinner and both brunch and dinner on the weekends.
Also in the Brennan Building you’ll find Blue Flour Bakery. Quality, technique, community, and customer service are their self-imposed values and these sentiments are indeed expressed in every tasty morsel. There are the usual suspects like chocolate chip and chocolate chunk mixed in with fun twists like mini sizes, dessert bars, custom sugar cookies, and seasonally inspired goodness. Blue Flour also has an Irmo location and an online shop.
For even more information on special events, places to eat, stay, and play in Columbia, including the Total Eclipse Weekend, be sure to check out www.columbiacvb.com.
By Grace Nelson