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Columbia Cool: Family Fun in the Heart of South Carolina

Family Vacations / Midlands / 4+ Days

Columbia is a city that effortlessly marries urban vibrancy with the allure of the great outdoors, making it a perfect destination for a family-friendly getaway. Imagine historic buildings transformed into trendy restaurants and breweries and quiet, tree-lined streets winding through welcoming neighborhoods. But that's just the beginning. With a variety of attractions like zoos, gardens, museums and even a national park, Columbia offers something for everyone to enjoy.

aerial view of downtown columbia sc
Columbia effortlessly combines vibrant city life with the allure of the great outdoors.

Embrace the Weekend—Starting on Thursday

Sometimes, all you can get away for is a long weekend. While this itinerary assumes your arrival on a Thursday, feel free to adjust it to fit your schedule and interests.

To experience all Columbia has to offer, it's important to find the right accommodations. Situated in the heart of the city, the Sheraton offers a rooftop bar that's a hotspot for post-dinner outings. It's ideally located among the vibrant shops and restaurants of Main Street, ensuring that you're in the middle of all the city has to offer.

For those looking for a more budget-friendly option that doesn't compromise on convenience, Embassy Suites by Hilton Columbia Greystone is an excellent choice. The hotel offers a courtesy shuttle to and from the airport, and their spacious rooms have a microwave, refrigerator and coffeemaker to help you feel at home. Located just minutes away from downtown Columbia, the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens and many other exciting attractions, this hotel is an ideal home base for your family's explorations.

After settling in, it's time to venture out for dinner. If you're in the mood for classics, Villa Tronco, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in South Carolina, is a must-visit. Their traditional Italian dishes, like eggplant parmigiana, will transport you to the heart of Italy. And for the little ones, their simple pizza or pasta marinara options are sure to satisfy even the pickiest eaters.

Another great option is Lizard's Thicket. This family-owned chain is known for their fried chicken and meat-and-three option (meat of your choice and three sides). Their home-cooking-inspired menu is filled with comfort foods like mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and chicken and rice soup.

Travel Tip
Travel Tip:

Vacation getting rained out? Columbia has plenty of museums and heritage attractions, including the South Carolina State House, to keep you busy and entertained.


A Wild Adventure

Fuel up for an action-packed day at the Riverbanks Zoo with breakfast at the Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli. Nestled in the posh Devine Street neighborhood, this charming deli has been serving up rich, buttery cinnamon rolls in a variety of flavors since 2016. While you can never go wrong with a classic, their unique options like bourbon caramel and strawberry cheesecake are a treat you won’t forget. Don’t worry—they also offer a selection of breakfast sandwiches (all served with a mini cinnamon roll, of course).

Every city needs a great bagel shop, and Columbia has Carolina Cafe. Choose from a selection of 10 bagel flavors topped with your choice of cream cheese, butter, jam or peanut butter. Whether you want to spice things up with a jalapeno bagel or stick to a tried-and-true egg and cheese on a plain bagel, Carolina Caf will make your bagel dreams a reality. Their signature sandwiches have classics like salmon and cream cheese (The Lake Murray) and a BLT (The Charlotte) to unique combinations like The Charleston, made with dolphin-safe tuna splashed with fresh lemon, a wave of celery, mayo and leaf lettuce and the Spartanburg, a hearty Swiss cheese and roast beef sandwich topped with a house-made creamy horseradish sauce.

After breakfast, prepare to embark on a wild adventure at the Riverbanks Zoo. Home to more than 3,000 animals that represent over 400 species around the world, Riverbanks Zoo offers an array of captivating experiences. Get up close and personal with some of your favorite animals as you watch otters at play, spot koalas munching on eucalyptus and learn how you can help protect gorillas in the wild by recycling your old electronic devices. Stop at the Birdhouse to see Caribbean flamingos, king penguins and coconut lorikeets.

Take a stroll to the West Campus Garden and go on a dino dig, explore the treehouses and wander among colorful arrays of roses, larkspur and hibiscus. For adventure seekers, the Sky-High Safari ropes course offers a thrilling experience, challenging both kids and adults to test their courage and balance while navigating high above the zoo.

Spend some time at the newly opened Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center, a state-of-the-art facility that spans 20,000 square feet and immerses guests in a journey from land to sea. Enjoy floor-to-ceiling views of a tropical rainforest, a desert biome and the sights and sounds of the sea at the aquarium.

Travel Tip
Travel Tip:

Outdoor food isn’t allowed at The Riverbanks Zoo, but to keep you fueled all day long they offer a variety of dining options, from ice cream and pizza to artisan sandwiches and made-to-order salads.

a gorilla sits and eats; a family checks out seals in an aquarium; lorikeets land on a boy
Get up close and personal with some of your favorite animals at the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens.

A Day of Exploration and Cultural Delights

Saturday in Columbia kicks off with a burst of culture and creativity at the Soda City Market. Inspired by traditional European street markets, Soda City Market transforms Main Street into a vibrant hub of activity. Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., regardless of the weather, this event showcases a captivating array of handcrafted and locally produced products. What sets this market apart is that vendors must make or grow every product they sell, ensuring a unique and authentic shopping experience.

Following your market adventures, head back to The Gourmet Shop in Five Points. This specialty food market is the perfect spot to pick up freshly baked bread, locally sourced preserves, honey and to-go containers of their famous chicken salad and pimento cheese. Pack these culinary delights for a delightful afternoon picnic in Sesquicentennial State Park.

Affectionately known as "Sesqui" to locals, Sesquicentennial State Park is a natural oasis just minutes from downtown Columbia. This 1,419-acre park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, offers a wide range of activities for everyone in the family. You can hike along the 1.9-mile Sandhills Trail, which features wetland boardwalks, a bridge crossing Jackson Creek and scenic lake views. Cool off at the splash pad, or let the kids play on two playgrounds.

Sesqui boasts 6 miles of mountain bike trails that are perfect for those seeking an adrenaline rush. The park also provides picnic shelters, a dog park for furry friends and camping options, making it an ideal destination for the whole family to unwind and enjoy the great outdoors.

In the evening, return to the vibrant heart of Columbia: the Congaree Vista. This arts, dining and entertainment district, housed in renovated warehouses, boasts over 45 restaurants and bars, 60 artists' galleries, specialty shops and a diverse mix of businesses. The Vista's energetic and eclectic atmosphere is a magnet for both locals and visitors, making it a perfect place to conclude your day with a delightful dinner and perhaps some cultural exploration.

Travel Tip
Travel Tip:

If you're interested in getting out on the water, take advantage of the available non-motorized fishing boats, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats for rent.

a family rides bikes under the sweeping branches of a live oak tree
Stretch your legs on 12 miles of hiking and biking trails at Sesqui State Park.

Brunch, Baseball and Beer

Begin your Sunday in Columbia with a delightful brunch just across the Gervais Street Bridge in West Columbia. Cafe Strudel, a cozy local favorite, is celebrated for its delectable offerings and laid-back atmosphere. Treat yourself to their indulgent Hawaiian pineapple bread French Toast, a specialty that's sure to leave your taste buds dancing.

Prepare for an exciting afternoon at Segra Park, home to the Columbia Fireflies, as they take to the field for a thrilling baseball game. A Sensory Inclusive Ballfield, all staff at Segra Field have been specially trained to recognize and assist fans with sensory needs. Sensory bags, equipped with noise-canceling headphones (provided by Puro Sound Labs), fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads are available to all who may feel overwhelmed by the environment, ensuring an inclusive and comfortable experience for all.

Conclude your day with a relaxing evening at Savage Craft Ale Works, a premier craft beer destination in West Columbia. This family-friendly alehouse is the ideal place to unwind and savor a variety of craft brews. Soak in the views from the rooftop or grab some food and head outside to the beer garden, where you can sit by the fire pit and enjoy live music while the kids play a round of cornhole.

Travel Tip
Travel Tip:

Need to burn some more energy? Go bananas at Frankie’s Fun Park. They’ve got an arcade, mini golf, go-carts and more to keep everyone entertained.

family watching a baseball game; wide view of a baseball field with players; a father enjoys a pint at a local brewery
Spend an afternoon catching a Fireflies game at Segra Park, a Sensory Inclusive Ballfield, before heading to Savage Craft Ale Works for some local craft brews.

Saluda Tubing Adventure

Kickstart your Monday morning with a delightful and hearty breakfast at Eggs Up Grill. They offer a “pick 3” option that ensures the kiddos will get exactly what they want. We recommend ordering an extra plate of caramel apple pancakes to share; these delicacies are not only giant in size but also incredibly fluffy, making them perfect for splitting before you embark on your next adventure—tubing down the Saluda River.

The duration and distance of tubing trips are influenced by factors like river levels, the weather and the size of your group. Generally, trips last approximately 3 to 3.5 hours and cover about 2.5 miles. The river temperature is warmest from May through August, when it averages 65 degrees.

For lunch, head to Rosewood Dairy Bar, an old-fashioned burger joint that believes in keeping things fresh, simple and tasty. Treat yourself to a dipped cone, banana split or a sundae topped with whipped cream. It's the perfect way to cool off after an exciting morning on the river.

Spend your last night strolling Devine Street, Columbia's premier shopping district, where you can discover unique gifts and souvenirs.

Travel Tip
Travel Tip:

You are welcome to bring coolers on your tubing adventure, provided that they are not made of Styrofoam. Please note that glass containers are prohibited.

kids carry their tubes along the riverbank; mom and daughter tubing
Enjoy Columbia’s natural beauty as you relax on a leisurely tubing trip down the Saluda River.

Looking for more ideas for your trip to Columbia? Plan a fun fall adventure around the South Carolina State Fair in October.

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