When I told some friends I was visiting South Carolina recently, they immediately assumed I was heading to the beach. Charleston, maybe? Myrtle Beach? Any of the many other quaint beach towns the state is known for?
All good guesses, and all great places to visit. But I was actually on my way to Columbia. “And it will actually be my third visit,” I added.
You could see some surprise momentarily cross the faces of these friends. And I get it, a few years ago the extent of my knowledge of Columbia, South Carolina came from memorizing the state capitals in elementary school. But as I’ve gotten to know the city, I’ve discovered that it’s so much more than another dot in the middle of a map. It’s a vibrant and underrated destination with tons of outdoor activities nearby.
Three trips in, it’s safe to say I have a soft spot for this city — here is my guide.
PART I — Where to Eat
I lived in the south for five years after graduate school, and I still jump at any opportunity to go back for one big reason: the food. Nowhere else in the United States can quite compare to a Southern meal. But not just for the traditional biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits – it’s all good. And Columbia didn’t disappoint. I found myself exclaiming at each meal that it was “the best meal I have ever had” and not hyperbolically.
Meals are events in South Carolina and I was happy to indulge.
I walked to dinner at Black Rooster on my first night in town. A “Frenchish” restaurant in West Columbia, Black Rooster combines French preparation and techniques with local and international cuisines. I started with a cheese plate and some bubbles while enjoying the ambiance and view. I followed with the nightly special – a soft shell crab on a bed of Moroccan rice. It was one of the most interesting and tasty dishes I’ve had on the road in a long time.
Another memorable dining experience is just a short 15-mile drive outside of town in Lexington SC. Bodhi Thai is an elegant and innovative Modern Thai restaurant with impeccable service and atmosphere. I started with a fresh roll that lived up to its name, followed by the pan-seared scallops on a parsnip puree and was truly overwhelmed – in a great way – with the sophisticated and interesting flavors and presentation.
It can really only be described as *an experience.* And one I definitely recommend.
PART II — Where to Drink
Columbia is home to the University of South Carolina, which adds to the vibrancy and trendy feel of this decidedly southern locale. Nicknamed the Cola City, there is no shortage of watering holes in and outside the city limits.
Before dinner my first night in town I visited Savage Craft Ale Works for a rooftop drink and a sunset view. I was not disappointed – in the atmosphere or the beer. I’m not an IPA gal, but had a glass of Galaxy Banger Hazy IPA that came recommended and found myself reconsidering my entire beer history and preferences. It was tropical and refreshing – the perfect pour to relax outside on a warm summer night.
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I was also pleasantly surprised to find some wineries in the region. While the spots I visited were quick to note that the soil and climate is not necessarily ideal for a wine region – it has only led to innovation and unique winemaking. I loved spending an afternoon at Mercer House Winery in Lexington – one of the most unique wineries I have ever visited (and I have visited many).
The winding road to Mercer House Winery was beautiful, although residential and unassuming. But after you walk past the gate things take a turn – literally. The property is gorgeous and eclectic, with wine tastings at a bar in a barn (making all my southern dreams come true).
I was the only person there for my first eight or so wine tastings. Yes, I said first eight – because there are 18 wines in a tasting – plus some you can add on to that if you dare. It’s definitely a place to sit and stay a while. The flavors were unlike any other wines I’ve tasted – lemon blueberry, honey lemon tea, and even a chocolate mango pinot grigio.
It’s, obviously, not an uptight place. I recommend trying at least one of the jalapeno “bumper juices” while you’re there and then spending some time sobering up while walking the gorgeous grounds.
My favorite spot to grab a glass of champagne in Columbia itself ended up being Kaminsky’s Dessert Cafe, an outpost of the Charleston favorite with decadent desserts and a lively bar. Located right downtown and near my hotel, I was able to walk over, find a seat at the bar, and enjoy my book and drink with a side of chocolate cake. I can’t think of anything better.
PART III — Where to Sleep
On my last trip to Columbia I stayed in a great location downtown at Aloft Downtown. It was centrally located to everything I wanted to do in the downtown area and an easy drive to anything outside of town.
There are also many quaint short-term rentals in Columbia that are extremely budget-friendly and Instagrammable. I really love this quaint tiny house near campus and this incredibly stylish treehouse with the perfect outdoor seating areas and hot tub.
PART IV — Where to Explore
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The food might bring me to the south, but I keep coming back for outdoor recreation. Congaree National Park – one of the least visited and, in my opinion, underrated parks is less than 20 miles from downtown. Here you can hike, fish, camp, and canoe while marveling at expansive biodiversity and old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.
I’ve visited 57 of the 63 major US National Parks and have chosen to come back to Congaree not once but twice after my initial visit. It doesn’t have the towering granite or wide-open spaces of the western parks, but there’s something special about the forest canopy. The crowds are lighter and the landscape more delicate.
You have to pay attention at a place like this, and it’s the perfect place to take some deep breaths and truly forest bathe. I recommend going when the trees are green in the spring or early summer. And if you’re lucky you might catch the synchronous fireflies that blanket the park between mid-May and mid-June.
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Another favorite in the area is Poinsett State Park – which is a bit further out of town, but the beautiful drive makes it more than worth it. Nicknamed the “Mountains of the Midlands”, I spent a low-key afternoon here kayaking and hiking. I’d love to go back and rent a cabin to spend more time exploring.
If you are looking for water, don’t be fooled by Colombia’s landlocked location in the middle of the state – it has plenty. Lake Murray is just outside Columbia, and at 41 miles long and 14 miles wide as its widest point – there is room for just about anything from boating, to paddleboarding, swimming, birdwatching to camping, and hiking (I recommend Dreher Island State Park).
It’s also home to one of the most fascinating natural wonders I’ve encountered while traveling – the Purple Martin Phenomenon. Every summer from late June to August around a million Purple Martins take a migration pit stop on Bomb Island on Lake Murray. I took a boat tour and the captain told me that they’ve been roosting on the island every year but one since at least the ’80s. No one seems to know exactly why – or why they stayed away that one summer – but the phenomenon is just the kind of magic I look for on these trips. Estimated to be the largest purple martin roost on the continent, you can book a boat tour to see for yourself.