Soul Food, Brews, Baseball and History: Experience Columbia, South Carolina, in 3 DaysBy Sucheta Rawal
Sitting at the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers, scenic Columbia, South Carolina, is marked by waterfront landscapes, historic buildings and revitalized neighborhoods. Not only can you browse the capital’s morning markets, savor fresh Carolina seafood and enrich yourself on Civil Rights trails, but you can also experience outdoor adventures in a splendid national park.
Once the center of important moments in history, including events in the fight for Civil Rights, the city is rich with history. A great way to explore this Southern city is through its iconic buildings, uncovering fascinating stories as you look beyond their curb appeal and into their past. Here’s a three-day guide to seeing it all.
As always, check for travel guidelines and closures before planning your trip.
Friday: A Dose of History, Soul Food and Brews
Start your day with a hearty Southern-style breakfast of cinnamon pancakes or shrimp and grits at the art-filled Cafe Strudel (the West Columbia location).
Once you’re ready to take on the day, visit the Reconstruction Era Trail, which will take you to eight historic mansions, cemeteries and colleges. You can navigate the trail yourself or use this digital brochure, which has information about the sites you’ll be visiting. The exhibits at each of the locations detail racial and class inequalities and provide new perspectives on how African Americans living in Columbia shaped the United States.
If you opt for this route, you’ll visit Benedict College, which was founded in 1870 as a school for recently freed, formerly enslaved people. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the school helped Black Americans achieve access to higher education. For a deeper (guided) history lesson, the nonprofit Historic Columbia offers a number of tours, including one at the Museum of the Reconstruction Era.
For lunch, grab rotating flavors of deviled eggs, freshly made pecan-chicken-salad sandwiches and more at Jessica Shillato’s Spotted Salamander (Shillato is a James Beard “Best Chef Southeast” semifinalist).
Continue absorbing more state history at the South Carolina State House and the African American History Monument on its grounds. The ornate building, surrounded by sculptures and gardens, is worth a visit just to snap a photo or two (especially during sunset), but don’t pass up the guided tour, offered every hour. The guides reveal fascinating facts and stories — like how the brass stars peppering the dome of the house indicate where the structure suffered canon damage during the Civil War.
For a casual soul-food dinner, hop in a car for a 15-minute ride to Kiki’s in Dentsville. Join locals, celebrities and politicians — Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton have eaten here — over classic tender fried chicken and famous red velvet waffles. To wrap up your first day, a cold drink is in order, and the Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse in the historic Curtiss-Wright Hangar is an excellent choice thanks to its selection of craft-brewed lagers, ales and sours.
Saturday: Check Out Main Street’s Vibrant Culture
Visit the pedestrian-friendly Soda City Market on a Saturday morning to enjoy the early weekend vibes, a coffee and a snack. Indah Coffee is a good choice, but you’ve got something special coming for lunch, so leave room. Shop for wares from more than 150 vendors selling products they grew or made, like fresh produce, olive oil and cheese, and sample international foods like Brazilian cassava bread and Thai curries. You can easily spend hours in this market, so take your time visiting shops like Nana (handmade bags), Hippy Do Da (one-of-a-kind jewelry), Vintage Valley Thrift Co. (consignment) and Seminole Candle Company.
Dig in to another side of Columbia’s culinary offerings for lunch: pimento cheese, aka “Carolina caviar” or “Southern pâté.” And at the well-regarded DiPrato’s, you’ll have your choice of three pimento-cheese options (one with smoked Gouda and bacon) as a side order to a custom-built sandwich.
Spend the afternoon exploring the collections at the Columbia Museum of Art, which features art from the Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as women and other artists of color. Works from the permanent collection range from old masters to regional artists, but there’s also an impressive calendar of special exhibitions, jazz performances, workshops, literary programs and more.
For dinner, taste seasonal South Carolina oysters on the half shell and shrimp remoulade with fried green tomatoes at Terra, a chef-driven neighborhood bistro. For a nightcap, head to local gathering spot Lula Drake Wine Parlour, named after a 1920s female trailblazer who owned a hat shop in a then-male-dominated Columbia. The wine bar is full of old-school decor (the interiors are seriously moody) and is committed to supporting small-scale sustainable producers.
Sunday: Explore One of the Coolest National Parks
Grab a cup of specialty coffee or tea and some baked goods or a breakfast burrito at the women-powered Azalea Coffee Bar on Devine Street. Each signature drink at this charming coffee shop is named after a different groundbreaking woman — Stacey Abrams, Beyoncé, Dolly Parton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama, to name a few — and the shop’s mission is to empower minority-owned businesses.
Check out some of the boutiques and antiques stores along the same street. Then pack a cooler with the fuel you’ll need for an afternoon of outdoor adventure from Rambo’s Fat Cat Biscuits. Named for the owner’s rescued cat, Rambo’s is famous for its biscuit sandwiches with fried green tomatoes, smoked brisket and jalapeño-cured bacon, among other toppings.
Once lunch is packed up, a 25-minute drive brings you to Congaree National Park. Delight in spectacular views of one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world, surrounded by marshes and wildlife. Fill your afternoon hiking around the old-growth bottomland hardwood forests (river swamps) or walk along the wooden boardwalk, and find a peaceful spot overlooking the Congaree River to enjoy your picnic. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a haven for great horned owls, belted kingfishers and hairy woodpeckers, as well as thousands of fireflies flashing their mating calls, which you can catch if you’re lucky enough to be visiting between May and June.
After a picnic lunch, it’s time for a tubing or kayaking tour on the Saluda River with Palmetto Outdoor. Beginners, fear not: No prior experience is necessary to battle the Class I or Class II rapids along the scenic river. Even better? All the proceeds go to providing outdoor recreational opportunities to disadvantaged children across South Carolina.
For dinner, head to one of the city’s favorite farm-to-table spots, Motor Supply Company Bistro, for a seasonal menu that offers seafood like scallops and mussels, fresh salads and far-from-boring vegetarian mains (think pan-roasted cauliflower with radicchio, butter beans and tomato jam).
There’s one last stop on your fun-filled Columbia weekend, and it’s a playful one: Check out Transmission Arcade, a retro place with classic games (hello, Ms. Pac-Man) and pinball machines, open until midnight (and to the under-18 crowd, until 8 p.m.)