Vibrant Columbia, South Carolina—the capital of the Palmetto State—offers plenty of nightlife and lively shopping, but the city's relaxed pace, Southern hospitality and historic charm set a gracious tone that visitors will long remember. Wide boulevards, 19th-century architecture and rambling parks encourage travelers to slow down and revel in the area’s natural beauty.
To get a sense of the city's distinctive history, start your Columbia sightseeing downtown at the State House, located at Main and Gervais Streets. The capitol's granite columns and landscaped grounds impart a feeling of calm, stately grandeur, but things were not always so. Begun in 1855, the building remained half-finished until after the Civil War, during which it sustained considerable damage. Today, bronze stars on the west and south walls mark scars where artillery shells hit during Sherman's infamous march through South Carolina.
Architecture and history indeed intertwine in “Paradise City.” Just a mile northeast of the capitol, the Historic Columbia Foundation offers tour maps of the city's many historic homes. Standouts include the Hampton-Preston Mansion, with its large collection of antebellum furnishings and memorabilia, and the Mann-Simons Cottage, the former residence of an African-American slave who bought her freedom.
Continue Columbia sightseeing with a leisurely turn through Congaree National Park, a verdant expanse of old-growth hardwood forest and waterways that shelter Virginia dayflowers and dragonflies, just 20 miles from Downtown Columbia. The biodiversity of this quiet wilderness is showcased in its nearly 27,000 acres, which visitors can traverse by canoe or on foot. Adventurous types can even camp in the backcountry or along the park's bluffs at campsites that are open all year. Hikers enjoy over 25 miles of trails and free guided tours in this unique sanctuary.
After taking in the historic sights and natural wonders of the surrounding area, visitors can continue their exploration with a laid-back hike through the city's shops and galleries. Visit Five Points, a popular shopping and entertainment district near the University of South Carolina campus, has supported locally owned businesses for over 75 years. Peruse art at the Blue Sky Gallery or pick up a few outfits at bohemian--"bo" to locals--a women's clothing store that blends handmade accessories with trendy designer items.
Just east of Five Points is the Congaree Vista, a district once made up of textile mills and railroad yards that now bustles with distinctive dining spots and a vibrant arts community. Linger over a microbrew at Liberty Tap Room or indulge a sweet tooth at the Cupcake bakery. A popular destination for art lovers is One Eared Cow Glass, a studio specializing in hand-blown glass creations. The district's latest addition is the Vista Greenway, a biking path that wends its way through a 100-year-old railroad bed and connects to other parts of Columbia.
Whether searching for some artsy gifts or soaking in the area's rich history and gorgeous natural views, visitors to Columbia will appreciate the gentle, what's-your-hurry pace. The story here is simple: There is plenty to see and do, and plenty of time to enjoy it all.