Exploring South Carolina? Don’t miss out on visiting the state capital of Columbia. Although overshadowed by other travel destinations in South Carolina, the best things to do in Columbia, SC, are the perfect addition to any itinerary through The Palmetto State.
Rich in cultural history, Columbia boasts heritage-filled neighborhoods, world-class museums, beautiful parks, and plentiful outdoor activities. As you wander through this southern town with a contemporary twist, the abundance of magnolia, oak, and pecan trees give will give you a taste of its rural flavor. In Downtown Columbia, you’ll experience the city’s urban appeal. With its easily navigable streets, trendy shops, bars, cafes, and rich cuisine, you’re sure to have a great time wandering around South Carolina’s historic capital city.
Ready to discover what to do in Columbia? Get started with this guide to some of the best places to visit in Columbia, SC!
Must-see places to visit in Columbia, SC
Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden
Looking for a fun outdoor activity to enjoy in Columbia? The Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden are a must-visit. The Riverbanks Zoo is home to over 2,000 magnificent and exotic animals and is the largest mid-sized zoo in the United States.
One of the prettiest zoos in the Southeast, Riverbanks Zoo is a trip that the entire family can enjoy. Wandering around the zoo, you’ll even find several rare and endangered wildlife species.
After checking out the animal habitats, be sure to take a walk around the lush 170-acre botanical garden. Home to various plants and animals, the landscaped gardens are nestled next to the Saluda River, offering visitors some spectacular scenery.
Congaree National Park
Outdoor adventure enthusiasts touring South Carolina will love visiting Congaree National Park. One of the top points of interest in Columbia, SC, this lovely park is a must for any trip to the state’s capital city.
Within Congaree National Park, fifteen thousand acres of land are designated as a wilderness area, with the Congaree River and Wateree River flowing into its midst. Miles of hiking trails and biking trails await adventurous travelers. You’ll also find opportunities to kayak or canoe through the park along Cedar Creek.
The park’s forests hide many unique species of trees. Large animals such as bobcats, deer, and feral pigs can often be seen roaming around its lush surroundings. For more active outdoor adventures, this popular day trip from Columbia is a great place for fishing, hiking, biking, camping, and boating, too.
Congaree National Park also has a rich cultural heritage. It was used by African-American slaves as a place to find refuge while seeking liberty.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Columbia, SC, Lake Murray spans 50,000 acres and offers 650 miles of shoreline. The lake was once used as a reservoir to produce hydroelectric power for the state of South Carolina via the Lake Murray Dam. Lake Murray receives its water inflow from the Saluda River that flows through upstate South Carolina.
If you enjoy walking or jogging outdoors, Lake Murray is a must-visit. It offers spectacular views of the beautiful natural surroundings and the Downtown Columbia skyline, 11 miles away.
During your visit to Lake Murray, you can also participate in fun recreational activities like boating, scuba diving, paddle boarding, and swimming.
South Carolina State Museum
To see some of the state’s most unique collections, pencil in a visit to the South Carolina State Museum. As one of the top Columbia attractions, this museum is located by the banks of the Congaree River, in the heart of the city center.
Occupying a former 19th-century textile mill, the South Carolina State Museum offers four exhibit areas spread over four floors. The museum represents several disciplines, namely history, natural history, art, culture, and science & technology.
You’ll find several interactive exhibits at the museum, including a digital dome planetarium and observatory. Be sure to save time to visit the 4-D interactive theater. With its vibrating seats, leg ticklers, and immersive sound, it’s a surreal experience you and the kids will remember for a long time to come!
Columbia Canal & Riverfront Park
When exploring Columbia, carve out some time for the Columbia Canal & Riverfront Park. The historic canal is one of the only surviving canals in South Carolina. Built in 1824 between the Congaree River and Broad River, the canal is the focal point of the Columbia Riverfront Park.
If you thrive on physical activity, the 167-acre-long Riverfront Park is sure to catch your attention. Offering a two-and-a-half-mile trail popular for walking and jogging, the park is the perfect place for an active day out in Columbia’s city center.
Saluda Shoals Park
Looking for fun, family-friendly outdoor activities? Beeline for Saluda Shoals Park. Located just less than 10 minutes from the Lake Murray Dam, the park is one of the best places to go in Columbia, SC, for outdoor enthusiasts.
This 480-acre riverfront park is a natural, environmentally friendly park, offering a heap of fun outdoor activities for adventure lovers. The ten-mile-long multi-use trails can be used for walking, hiking, and fishing. You can also go on guided canoe trips and rent kayaks and bikes.
On a hot summer’s day, Saluda Splash is a haven to cool down in. The interactive zero-depth water playground is also a great place for children to let loose and have fun.
Perfect for dog owners, Saluda Shoals Park also has an off-leash area called the Barking Lot Dog Park. It’s a great place for you to take your cute canine along for some social interaction.
EdVenture Children’s Museum
Visiting Columbia with kids? Slot the EdVenture Children’s Museum into your trip itinerary. This award-winning children’s museum is one of the largest museums in the region. It’s loaded with a multitude of interactive exhibits and hands-on educational activities for kids aged ten or younger.
One of the most exciting activities at EdVenture is crawling through the 40-foot-tall EDDIE sculpture. Weighing 35,000 pounds, EDDIE is a sculpture of the world’s largest child. It’s almost half the size of an adult humpback whale!
EdVenture Children’s Museum also has some of the world’s coolest galleries to entertain art lovers. These include Autoworks, FLIGHT, The Great Outdoors, World of Work, and Wags and Whiskers, among others.
Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens
When deciding on places to see in Columbia, SC, don’t forget to include the historic Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens in your list. One of Columbia’s oldest estates, this acclaimed property features three acres of pretty gardens with an exquisite collection of native and exotic plant species. The home’s exterior shows off remarkable Greek Revival architecture, updated from the home’s original American Federal style.
Originally owned by the Hampton and Preston families, the mansion has served different purposes over the years. Hampton-Preston Mansion was used as a private residence, governor’s mansion, convent, and Union army headquarters.
History lovers will love exploring the mansion’s period rooms. You’ll also find tons of information about the house’s history from the 1810s to the 1910s and see its assortment of family belongings and furniture.
Sesquicentennial State Park
The perfect location for family reunions and group gatherings, Sesquicentennial State Park has all the facilities to enjoy South Carolina’s nature to its fullest. Located in the Sandhills region, the state park stretches out over 1400 acres, about 12 miles from downtown Columbia.
Originally built by the civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Sesquicentennial State Park was given to the city of Columbia to mark 150 years. It offers a retreat center with a kitchen, dormitory-style accommodation, and tent camping sites that you can book if you’re staying overnight. Picnic shelters and pads are also available for reservation.
Nature lovers can indulge in plenty of outdoor activities, such as renting fishing boats, pedal boats, kayaks, and canoes. You can also go fishing along the 30-acre park lake.
The Sesquicentennial State Park also has a membership-only dog park where your dog can run off-leash. Dogs can also play around in the splash pad to cool down on hot summer days.
South Carolina State House
For travelers and history buffs alike, the South Carolina State House is one of Columbia’s most interesting points of interest. Housing the Governor’s Office as well as the House and Senate Chambers, the building was completed in 1907 and renovated from 1995 to 1998. It features a stunning Neoclassical exterior topped by a 180-foot-high copper dome.
The South Carolina State House serves as one of the main centers of state government. Its last architect, Charles C. Wilson from Columbia, called the South Carolina State House “one of the most notable buildings in the world.” The powers that be seemed to agree, designating the building as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
Book yourself onto one of the self-guided tours to get the full low-down on the building’s rich history.
Got a little thirsty from your tour? Venture a couple of blocks south on Main Street to the Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse. One of the city’s most popular hangout spots, the brewery offers a wide array of locally-made craft beer and high-concept pub food. Grab a pint (or two!) to “hydrate” for an afternoon of exploration.
Columbia Museum of Art
Art enthusiasts on a tour of Columbia need to squeeze in a visit to the Columbia Museum of Art. Located in the heart of Downtown Columbia, the museum harbors an extraordinary collection of Asian, European, American modern, and decorative art.
Receiving 150,000 visitors annually, the Columbia Museum of Art is one of the premium places to go in Columbia, SC. Italian Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces form a large part of the artwork collection, alongside numerous modern and contemporary art pieces.
Exhibitions at the museum are organized year-round. The museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits are both in-house and borrowed from other museums.
The Columbia Museum of Art also offers several educational programs for both adults and kids. Spice up your trip with art classes, from painting to glasswork, or attend its regular lectures or live performances. (You can check the events schedule here.)
If you’re visiting the Columbia Museum of Art on a Saturday, be sure to check out the nearby Soda City Market. Featuring over 150 vendors, the weekly market is a fantastic place for everyone to wander about. Grab a snack at one of the food trucks or browse the stalls at Soda City Market for some unique local art pieces.
Dreher Island State Park
Located on Lake Murray, Dreher Island State Park comprises three islands linked to the mainland through two bridges and a causeway. A superb recreational outdoor park, the island offers picturesque views of the lake. The twelve miles of shoreline offer fishing, hiking, and camping opportunities for travelers who revere the outdoors.
Spanning 348 acres, Dreher Island State Park offers a lovely nature trail through a thick pine and hardwood forest. Don’t worry about getting lost: Stick to the path and follow the easy-to-read signs along the way.
Dreher Island State Park also allows pets. If you’re traveling to Columbia with your pups, bring them along to burn off a little energy.
Oyster Bar Columbia
What’s not to love about great food and a delightful view of the Congaree Vista district of Downtown Columbia? Whether you’re in Columbia for one day or longer, visit the Oyster Bar Columbia for an exceptional local seafood experience.
Oyster Bar Columbia serves fresh, sustainable seafood that’s sure to tantalize your taste buds. Tuck into favorites like raw oysters, scallops, and shrimp & grits. With its casual dining atmosphere, it’s a popular bar to stop by with friends after a long day of touring and shopping. Make your evening memorable with a delicious meal, an ice-cold drink, and some great company.
Not into seafood? Not to worry: Plenty of other restaurants and bars await in the neighborhood. Enjoy upscale American farm-to-table at the nearby Motor Supply Company Bistro, or indulge in delicious Creole and Cajun food and cocktails a few blocks away at Bourbon.
Robert Mills House & Gardens
Basking in rich cultural history, Columbia boasts some significant structures steeped in historical value. Built in 1823, the Robert Mills House and Gardens is one of the five main historic landmarks in Columbia.
Named after designer Robert Mills, the mansion was previously known as Ainsley Hall House. It was intended to be a townhome for Ainsley Hall and Sarah Hall. Circumstances, however, let this property be used as a campus for several religious schools.
Today, the Robert Mills House is a historic museum frequented by tourists and academics alike. The museum features period rooms and galleries with decorative arts and artifacts from the mid-eighteenth to nineteenth centuries.
Museum of the Reconstruction Era at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home
Located a block south of the Robert Mills House, visitors will also find one of Columbia’s other famous historic homes: The Woodrow Wilson Family Family Home. Once the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. President, the property now houses the Museum of the Reconstruction Era. The collection is the only museum in the United States dedicated to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.
Through a multitude of exhibits, travelers will walk through Columbia in the 1870s, exploring the social and economic challenges of the post-Civil War period. Much of the focus at the museum is on the African-American experience of the era, highlighting leaders like Charles M. Wilder and Richard Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard University.
Mast General Store
Operated by members of the Mast family in the early 1970s, the Mast General Store is the perfect embodiment of a classic old country general store. The historic shop warmly welcomes visitors to experience an atmosphere of bygone centuries.
In the Mast General Store, you’ll find everything from small wildcraft to practical products like outdoor equipment and casual clothes.
Even if you’re not interested in shopping, one of the best things to do in Columbia, SC, is to relax in a small corner, warmed by an old stove, and enjoy a tasty cup of coffee.
If you love Italian cuisine, Villa Tronco needs to find a spot in your Columbia itinerary. This inviting restaurant is located in a 19th-century firehouse. Opened by Mama Tronco 80 years ago, Villa Tronco is the oldest Italian restaurant in all of South Carolina.
The restaurant’s legacy has been carried through four generations and is known for its aromatic recipes and warm Italian hospitality. Villa Tronco first introduced pizza to Columbia. Other popular dishes on the menu include delectable pasta, paninis, Pollo & Vitello, and Dolci dishes.
Guests will also enjoy an aura of entertainment at Villa Tronco. Open Nights and Broadway Nights are scheduled on different days of the month.
Nested in Downtown Columbia, Segra Park is a vibrant destination where you can enjoy a modern, family-oriented experience. This park is home to the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team, an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
The multi-use sports and entertainment park is designed for baseball, soccer, and football games, as well as concerts and other activities. Segra Park contains 7,501 seats and holds around 10,000 people for sporting events.
If you’ve got extra time on your Columbia trip, Segra Park is the perfect place to catch a ball game or attend a concert with your pals and create some great memories.
Street art lovers spending time in Columbia need to seek out Tunnelvision. Painted onto a brick wall in a nondescript parking lot in Downtown, this trompe-l’œil street art mural is bound to catch your eye.
The famed optical illusion, painted by famed South Carolina artist Blue Sky, depicts a surreal road tunnel winding towards a sunset in the distance. With its incredible artistic technique, Tunnelvision is near the top of the list of what to see in Columbia, SC.
While checking out Tunnelvision, you’ll also get to catch a glimpse of one of Blue Sky’s other famous works: The Busted Plug. At 40 feet high, the concrete, steel, and aluminum fire hydrant sculpture is the world’s largest of its kind and another must-see.
South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum
If you’re a military history buff, don’t miss a chance to visit the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum. Opened in 1896, this top Columbia, SC, attraction is the oldest history museum in South Carolina and a must-see for anyone with a passing interest in U.S. military history.
The permanent collection at South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum covers the state’s involvement in all the major U.S. conflicts, including the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World Wars I & II. The museum also features several temporary exhibits, ensuring that each visit is unique from the last.
The South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum is located within the South Carolina State Museum. It’s open between Tuesday and Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and the first Sunday of the month from 1 pm to 5 pm.
West Columbia Riverwalk Park
Forming part of the Three Rivers Greenway, the West Columbia Riverwalk Park is one of the city’s finest escapes for nature lovers. The 4.5-acre park sits on the west banks of the Congaree River, just five minutes from downtown via the Gervais Street Bridge.
The West Columbia Riverwalk Park teems with outdoor activities. Take a stroll on its walking trails, go for a leisurely bike ride on the river trail, or cast out a line and try your luck at fishing.
If you’re looking for a more exciting adventure on the water, book yourself onto a tubing or kayaking adventure with Palmetto Outdoor. The outfitter is located just outside of the park.
Waverly Historic District
Searching for the soul of historic Columbia? Trot over to the Waverly Historic District. Established around the end of the Civil War, the twelve-block neighborhood was the city’s first suburb, extending from the nearby plantation of the same name.
By the early 20th century, the Waverly Historic District had become one of the city’s most important black communities. In its wake, the area became instrumental in the fight for civil rights, producing some of Columbia’s most influential African-American leaders, including Modjeska Monteith Simkins, John Henry McCray, and George Elmore.
Thanks to its major contributions to the Black social and political movements of the era, the Waverly Historic District became a National Historic District in 1989. In 2021, the neighborhood also became part of the African American Civil Rights Network.
Recommended places to stay in Columbia, SC, for sightseeing
To enjoy Columbia sightseeing without breaking the bank, look no further than the Holiday Inn Columbia Downtown. Rooms are bright and modern, with plenty of space for the price. Amenities include a fitness center, free WiFi, and a restaurant & bar.
Sitting in the heart of the city, this mid-range hotel is the perfect spot for couples and families traveling through South Carolina. Besides the colorful guest rooms, you’ll enjoy extra amenities like free WiFi and an outdoor pool.
Located 5 minutes from the State House, the Hilton Columbia Center is a superb choice for hitting up the city’s top historical attractions. In-room amenities include iPod docking stations and coffee makers. Plunge into the outdoor swimming pool to cool down in the hot Southern sun.