Columbia, SC: A Capital City
Boasts Palmettos, Charm & Contemporary Flair
Susan J. Young
Nowhere in my southern travels have I experienced as much a sense of place as in Columbia, SC, South Carolina’s capital city.
Here the first southern state legislature voted to secede from the union in 1861.
Here Sherman marched through town in 1865, burning much of the city, but sparing the yet-unfinished state capitol building as too beautiful to burn. (The capitol's lovely columns are shown at right *)
But while history oozes from every corner, Columbia is also increasingly a cosmopolitan enclave of southern art, culture and entertainment.
From the natural side, Columbia is a convenient gateway to Congaree National Park and many other SC eco-sites (including the Broad River, a prime "crew" site, as shown at left*).
In addition, the city is home to the University of South Carolina, with a robust student population that infuses the city with youthful culture and active pursuits.
It's also the site of the annual South Carolina State Fair!
A Capitol Story
Visitors, though, likely will begin exploring Columbia with a walk through history on the 18-acre capitol grounds and within the halls of the South Carolina State House.
Pick up a guide to the grounds at the Columbia Visitor’s Center at 1101 Lincoln St.
And while it's tempting to head directly for a capitol tour, take a bit of time to peruse the ecology of the well-manicured grounds.
Palmetto trees dot the capitol grounds’ landscape, appropriate given South Carolina’s moniker of “The Palmetto State.”
Other flora you'll view on the grounds include crepe myrtles, willow and laurel oaks, American elms, lovely southern magnolias and even Cedars of Lebanon.
The capitol site also boasts unique monuments and statues. These range from a Confederate Monument to a Spanish-American War Monument, from an African-American History Monument to a Revolutionary War Generals Monument.
Adorning the front of the capitol in a prime position is the stately George Washington statue (shown in the photo at left*).
You’ll even discover a Strom Thurmond Monument on the SC capitol's grounds.
As the longest serving U.S. Senator with 48 years of service, Thurmond died in 2003. He was 97 and proudly present at the monument's dedication.
The grounds also are home to such artifacts as a gun from the Battleship Maine, sunk in Havana, Cuba.
The most unique and artistic monument is the African-American History Monument. Dedicated in 2001, it focuses on the rich history and historic struggle of African Americans as well as their vital contributions to South Carolina.
Sculptor Ed Dwight of Denver, CO, modeled the monument after an African village built in the round. The center obelisk represents spirituality.
At its base is a nine-foot-bronzed ship icon depicting 336 enslaved Africans chained together for the transatlantic journey.
A map of the continent of Africa shows where these people originated, and at the base of the stone, visitors are encouraged to touch the four rubbing stones from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana and the Congo, where most of the slaves were captured.
Panels within the monument cover everything from the ocean journey to slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement and progress.
Inside SC's State House
Construction began on the current capitol building in 1856, just before the Civil War.
The building wasn't yet completed -- in fact it had no roof -- when the war began.
After the war, capitol construction was completed. During the past 150 years, it was refurbished several times. (First floor columns are shown at right.*)
Visitors might read online to learn about the State House's history before visiting.
Modern day visitors enter on the first floor, which has lovely architectural features.
These include white Georgian marble walls; pink and white marble floors (shown at left*); granite columns; and an arched ceiling.
The floor’s pink marble was brought from Tennessee while the walls’ white marble came from Georgia.
The east wing of the first floor is home to the Lieutenant Governor's Office. The west wing houses the Office of the Governor.
Twin staircases lead to the Main Lobby on the second floor.
In this lobby, visitors will discover carvings, stained glass windows and a terrific view of the inside of the capitol dome (as shown at right*).
House and Senate chambers open off the lobby area.(The House is shown in the photo below.*)
The capitol's stained glass windows were constructed by a friend of John R. Niernsee, the architect of the State House.
When the legislature is in session, the Library may be off limits to visitors.
Hopefully, not though, as it's one of the highlights of a capitol visit.
(One capitol interior shot is shown at right*)
The twin spiral cast iron staircases and columns were originally installed in 1889.
A huge chandelier was formerly gas lit and is the only remaining original State House chandelier.
Take time to peruse the Tennessee pediment door, the rose-colored mosaic glass windows and the original mahogany doors.
Historic Home Tours
If you wish to “live” history, you might visit four of the city’s most historic homes operated by the Historic Columbia Foundation.
The Robert Mills House and Garden encompasses a stately mansion designed by the architect who created the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
The Hampton-Preston Home (shown above*) has a history tied to two of Columbia’s most notable planter-class families of the Civil War era.
Mann-Simons Cottage also has a unique background; it was home to a free Black midwife during antebellum days.
The Woodrow-Wilson Family Home (shown at left*) was the spot where President Wilson spent part of his youth.
Editor’s Note: This home is temporary closed for renovations, but exhibit panels show information about the house.
Tours of the homes are offered every day except Monday. Tickets are needed to visit all home; they may be secured at the gift shop at the Robert Mills House and Park between Blanding and Taylor Streets.
Culture, History and Science
(Shown above, the South Carolina State Museum is housed in a former textile mill.*)
If you want to learn everything about South Carolina from an archaeological, ecological, scientific, arts, historical, technology or cultural perspective, definitely make plans to visit the South Carolina State Museum on 301 Gervais St.
Housed in a former 1893 textile mill, the museum gives an excellent snapshot of the South Carolina experience through history on four floors of exhibits.
From outer space exploration to a quiet mountain cove, the museum has dioramas, exhibits, artifacts and mock-ups that provide an authentic look at the Palmetto state’s history and culture. (For example, the prehistoric era is portrayed above.*)
You might view displays (such as in the photo above*) showing the debut of the "horseless carriage."
Or, you might get up close to an ancient, 40-foot shark or stroll through a Charleston courtyard.
(An old-fashioned store is depicted in the vignette at left.*)
In addition to the regular collection, there are visiting exhibitions and special events.
Check the Web site for a calendar of events and programs before you visit.
If you’re interested in Civil War history, visit the museum's fourth floor; here you'll discover Civil War swords, guns, artifacts and a full-size replica of the CSS Hunley.
(Examples of SC military artifacts are shown at right*)
On the entry level of the museum building is the Cotton Mill Exchange, a gift shop that’s a cut above if you’re looking for gifts, South Carolina fare and souvenirs of your stay.
Wheelchairs and assisted listening devices are available for complimentary use on a first-come, first-served basis.
SC Relic Room
Civil War buffs should head for the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
Its entry is adjacent to the South Carolina State Museum's entrance lobby; a separate admission is charged.
Founded in 1896, the Relic Room is the oldest museum in Charleston. It focuses on artifacts and education from Revolutionary War times to the modern era.
You’ll find a plethora of Confederate battle flags, uniforms and weapons (such as the artifacts shown at left*).
The Relic Room also has visiting exhibits, such as a World War I exhibit on our visit last fall.
Many visitors will want to view the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion and Gardens.
Built in 1855 as a residence for officers of the Arsenal Military Academy, the building was spared from burning in the Civil War. The mansion became the official residence for the governor in 1868.
The nine-acre site encompasses gardens, fountains and the residence; the Web site listed in the previous paragraph fields a 360 degree virtual look at the Governor's Mansion.
Elsewhere in the city and, in particular, at the University of South Carolina campus, visitors will "ooh" and "ah" in the fall when leaves are turning color, or in spring when azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom. (One lovely spring floral display that was photographed in Columbia, SC, is shown above.*)
Reservations should be made in advance for guided campus tours that depart from the university's Visitors Center. Self-guided tour information is available for use year-round. Or, you might take an armchair virtual tour or download an MP3 tour.
Founded in 1801, the university’s “Horseshoe” features 10 pre-Civil War campus buildings. During the Civil War, its facilities were leased to the Confederate government as a hospital.
The buildings were also used by Union General Sherman for the same purpose on his march through Columbia.
Incidentally, the university’s South Carolinian Library includes a surrender note sent to General Sherman by Columbia Mayor Thomas Goodwyn and the original diaries of Mary Chestnut.
One fun option for visitors who love street art? Pick up an official visitors' guide from the Columbia Metropolitan CVB; the guide feature a map and details about Columbia’s Public Art Walking Tour.
Among the unusual city art is "Never Bust" (2000) by famous local artist Blue Sky; it’s essentially a welded link chain that’s 25 feet long and five feet wide.
Several impressive sculptures on the tour also grace the Boyd Plaza at The Columbia Museum of Art (shown in the photo at left*).
While there, you might peruse the museum's collection of European and American fine and decorative arts.
From ancient Rome and Greece to Renaissance Italy, from Claude Monet to Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Columbia Museum of Art has an eclectic collection of more than 7,000 artworks.
EdVenture Child's Play
One of the most delightful spots for the little ones in Columbia is the EdVenture Children’s Museum (shown in the photo above*)
In doing my research for readers, I expected to be in and out of this museum in a flash as I didn't have kids in tow.
But, in reality, I couldn't get enough of this museum!
As you enter, you can’t help but marvel at Eddie (shown at right*), a 17.5-ton sculpture that’s officially the world’s largest child at 40 feet tall.
Eddie graces the core of the facility with fun activity corridors running off either side.
Kids learn how to shop for groceries, drive a fire truck or pretend their African tribe members playing the drums.
They may also participate in pseudo doctor’s and dentist office visits (as shown at left*) , and enjoy more than 345 other real-life activities, all in a fun and safe facility.
Frankly, we loved watching the little ones have so much fun that we lost track of time.
If the natural world entices you, Columbia has a number of draws. First, the Congaree, Broad and Saluda Rivers flow through the downtown area.
So, visitors may tour a museum or the state capitol building in the morning and commune with nature -- by kayaking on the river in the afternoon.
Visitors might rent kayaks or canoes at Saluda Shoals Park, 5605 Bush River Rd. That park also has miles of hiking trails that meander along the river’s shoreline.
Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is a superb spot for both flora and fauna.
Kids of all ages will marvel at the 20-foot-tall giraffes, waddling penguins and the slow-moving Galapagos tortoises.
The zoo is home to 2,000-plus animals representing 350 species.
Kids will enjoy the programs that allow them to participate in mystery animal hunts, diving expeditions, safaris and overnight camps.
A favorite recreation spot for the locals is the 80-acre Lake Murray, just west of Columbia’s city center. While most of the shoreline is rocky, you might head for Sandy Beach, one of the most popular spots for families.
Visitors may rent a boat at the lake’s marina and even beach it right on shore and avoid anchoring. Best time for a dip in the lake’s water is between March and November when the water is the warmest.
In addition to 650 miles of shoreline, the sandy beach, and myriad secluded coves and inlets, you’ll discover tiny islands within the lake.
One of the most unique is Goat Island, where, yes, you’ll discover goats meandering around. It’s quirky but fun for photographers.
Visitors might also rent a lakeside vacation rental property if they plan to stay in the area and want non-city accommodations.
The Dreher Island State Recreation Area is comprised of three islands within Lake Murray; each is linked by a bridge.
This is a good spot for visitors who don’t wish to indulge in the water activities, but rather focus on hiking, camping, fishing and picnicking.
Just a 30-mile drive southeast of Columbia, visitors might head into Congaree National Park. It’s pristine and free to visitors. (One of its walkways through the southern forest is shown above.*)
Of the park’s 24,000 acres, 11,000 acres make up old-growth bottomland hardwood forest; the park boasts the largest remaining tract of such natural land in North America.
Locals and tourists alike come here for serenity and to commune with nature. A 2.5 mile elevated boardwalk offers a fascinating path into the forest lands with their towering trees. Pick up a free self-guided tour brochure at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center
Favored by birders, kayakers and canoeists, the park is named for the Congaree River, which runs through it. The area floods eight to 10 times per year when the river overflows its banks – usually between December and April. It’s nature’s way of refreshing things.
For a local agriculture experience, head for the Columbia State Farmers Market, opening in June 2010, to peruse the area's fruits and veggies.
Nighttime cultural pursuits in Columbia might include a Shakespearean performance, a philharmonic concert, or a trip to view the Columbia City Ballet, the city’s largest performing arts venue.
The ballet puts on five full-length presentations annually at the Koger Center for the Performing Arts. A local favorite, Dracula: Ballet with a Bite, is performed during the fall Halloween season.
To just get out with friends for a great meal and libations, several entertainment districts, including one along Gervais Street (shown in the photo at right*), are home to boutiques, eateries and nightclubs.
Staying in Columbia
During our visit to Columbia, we overnighted at the Hilton Columbia Center, 924 Senate St., a full-service hotel located in the Congaree Vista District.
This full-service hotel is just a few blocks from the capitol building.
We enjoyed a good night's sleep with Hilton's Serenity Bed, featuring a Serta Sweet Dream mattress, duvet, pillows and 250-thread count linens. (The comfortable bedding is shown in the photo at right*)
Rooms have complimentary WiFi and wired high-speed Internet Access, two dual line phones with voicemail, a coffeemaker, iron/ironing board, hair dryers, make-up mirror and high-definition 32” flat-screen LCD television.
The Hilton has a welcoming lobby area with comfortable furniture (shown at left*).
The Hilton also offers guests an outdoor pool, business center and fitness center with Precor equipment.
One interesting feature of the Columbia Hilton is that its on-site restaurant is Ruth’s Chris Steak House, known nationally for its sizzling cuts of high-quality beef. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In fact, it’s the only Ruth’s Chris in the nation to serve breakfast – giving the Hilton guests an early morning dining option. You may order off the breakfast menu or enjoy a savory breakfast buffet.
While our time in Columbia was tight, visitors will discover plenty of dining options with a choice of 450 restaurants.
One evening we grabbed a burger and fries at Five Guys across from the Hilton. I'll vouch for the "cut-above" fast food there.
One perk of staying at the Hilton is that it's adjacent to the convention center and the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Office is just a block away.
So visitors may take a brief stroll and talk with destination experts at the CVB office to map out a personalized plan for touring Columbia.
Also on the hospitality front, the Sheraton Columbia Downtown Hotel has been refurbished and is a unique draw.
Formerly a bank, this hotel at 400 Main St. boasts a vault that’s now a hip martini bar.
We very much enjoyed our brief stay in Columbia. As capital cities go, it delivers many savory visitor experiences.
* Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of either Susan J. Young or the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau and multiple photographers working for that organization. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.