Columbia and Ellicott City are two adjoining communities in Maryland that are quite different in character, offering area visitors abundant attractions for all ages. They are set about 22 miles southwest of Baltimore and 35 miles northeast of Washington, D.C.
For starters, neither is a town in the proper sense—both are unincorporated communities, though Columbia has a quasi-governmental body consisting of residents and business owners. Ellicott City dates to the Revolutionary War days and is hallmarked by historic attractions. Columbia is a planned community that was first developed in the late 1960s. Its founder was James Rouse, whose later fortunes came from the re-development of blighted sections of cities into entertainment-and-shopping complexes.
First designed as a stand-alone city, Columbia has since become an uber-suburb of Baltimore, with almost 100,000 residents. Visitors to Columbia will find an extensive array of chain restaurants and stores, many inhabiting the enormous Mall at Columbia, whose attractions include five department store anchors. Retailers such as Sears and Nordstrom co-exist with more than 200 specialty stores.
Ellicott City is smaller in population—65,000 people live here—and boasts a distinctly more urban vibe. Visitors to Ellicott City can explore its authentic downtown, which dates back to the early 1800s. The downtown district is chock full of antique shops, restaurants, funky boutiques and coffee bars.
Among the most popular daytime attractions in Ellicott City is the B&O Railroad Museum, which provides a look at the history of the American railroad industry and the Baltimore and Ohio line, in particular. The museum contains a restored depot, rail-travel memorabilia, maps and historical artifacts. Of note, this rail line is still functional: the B&O still hauls freight.
There are outdoor attractions in Ellicott City as well. Patapsco Valley State Park is actually a network of six distinctly themed park areas. One of the most popular parts of the park focuses on the river’s beautiful cascades and features a thrilling “swinging bridge” made from cables. Find more natural attractions in Columbia's Robinson Nature Center, a striking cedar-and-glass building. Inside are the two-story Life of the Forest exhibit, a hands-on Discovery Room, and a digital planetarium and theater.
Many of the best attractions of Columbia/Ellicott City are seen at night. Downtown Ellicott City visitors can enjoy the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theater and two popular after-dark tours. At Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City, guides in period dress relate a spirited—if not truly spiritual—history of some of the town’s unsavory deaths and ghost sightings. The Literary Pub Tour provides a roving encounter of popular Ellicott City drinking establishments, conducted by a guide reading passages from literary greats like H. L. Mencken and Washington Irving..
Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion, which first opened in the late 1960s, is a magnificent outdoor amphitheater offering big-name rock, folk, county, classical and jazz performances. Catch a show and enjoy the scents and presence of the surrounding 40-acre forest—and you will understand why this is one of the biggest attractions of Columbia/Ellicott City.