Every town has the places that all visitors know about. In Columbia’s case, these well-known treasures; like the Riverbanks Zoo and the State House, are certainly worth visiting. But there are other, lesser-known, treasures that often only the locals know about; ones that give Columbia its wildly friendly, charmingly Southern, down-to-earth feel. Discover these hidden gems that make Columbia sparkle.
Governor’s Mansion Garden
The South Carolina State House sits proudly at the intersection of Main and Gervais streets, right in the heart of downtown. Drive by on any given day and you'll see the grounds swarming with visiting school children and people soaking in the sunshine on the wide lawns and sprawling steps. The Governor’s Mansion and its deep, leafy gardens however, are off the beaten path and usually quiet and sleepy; with no one disturbing the soft, green air. They are certainly worth seeking out and visiting. The gardens are always open to visitors during daylight hours, and tours are available of the mansion itself.
Congaree National Park
It might seem unlikely that a national park could be undiscovered in any way, and yet Congaree National Park just outside of Columbia is certainly a hidden gem. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, yet for the adventurous souls who make the short trip out to Hopkins to visit, it is full of amazing discoveries. Turtles as big as a coffee table. Spiders the size of your hand. Trees that are, literally, the biggest of their kind in the world. That’s right — Congaree National Park has “champion trees” hiding in its blackwater swamp— trees that are the biggest of their species ever found. And it doesn’t have one or two. It has more than a dozen, standing tall in the silent shimmering blackwater. It’s an astonishing place.
Top of Carolina
South Carolina barbecue is delicious, and the Midlands version — shredded pork with a yellow, tangy, mustard-based sauce, is something unusual and rare in the barbecue world; and worth eating anywhere in Columbia. Now imagine eating your mustard barbecue as you slowly, slowly, slowly spin in a circle atop of a high-rise building, watching the vistas of the capital city and midlands float by your picture window. Sounds entirely too kooky to be true, right? Wrong! Columbia has a rotating barbecue restaurant atop a residence hall on the University of South Carolina campus. The Top of Carolina, run by USC and located on the Capstone House’s 18th floor, is open on Fridays for lunch and Sundays for brunch during the school year. Check the website for reservations.
Can a hidden gem be a person? If so, then surely one of Columbia’s is beloved folk artist Ernest Lee. Locally known as the “Chicken Man” after one of his favorite subjects, Lee creates colorful and vibrant paintings on pieces of plywood. He sells his art out of a trailer, usually parked along Gervais Street near Millwood Avenue. Look for a little camping trailer parked in a lot along the side of the road with dozens of colorful chickens, palm trees and a few portraits of local heroes decorating the outside and you’ll know you’ve found the "Chicken Man". Lee himself is just as charming as his artwork, and well worth chatting with for a little while. Bring cash for one of the most iconic of all Columbia souvenirs.
DiPrato’s Pimento Cheese
If a hidden gem can be a person, why not a food too? Pimento cheese, a delicious spreadable blend of cheeses and red peppers, pops up on menus all over South Carolina. But it’s DiPrato Delicatessen’s pimento cheese and fresh, still warm pita chips that elevates this classic southern food to new heights. DiPrato’s is off the beaten path near the USC campus. And once you try the cheese and chips, you'll wonder how the rest of the world doesn’t know about this place.