A Tourist in Your Own City: Showcasing Columbia's Hidden Gems


Columbia is not what you would call huge. 

Yes, with a total land area of 132 square miles it eclipses that little strip of urban chaos known as Manhattan by over 100 square miles, but with a population of just over 130,000, Columbia is very much an intimate city. The tight-knit nature and concise city center aid in the visibility of Columbia’s restaurants and attractions, but that tight-knit nature also breeds a type of underground scene. There are shops, eateries and other establishments that might escape your sight without a little exploration, so this list will serve as a kickstarter to helping you find Columbia’s less explored places.

The Whig

Despite its prime location on Gervais and Main, The Whig has always been a bit of a covert gem. The staircase to the underground bar is situated directly beside the WIS studio on Gervais, and if it weren’t for the black-and-white sign, the place might go completely undiscovered. The descent into the long entryway lets you know you’re somewhere only the locals go. The vibe inside is warm and intimate, as everything is cast in a soft, yellow glow. The bartenders are easy-going enough, just make sure you know your way around a drink menu beforehand, The Whig isn’t for novices. Ask any patron and they will tell you Tuesday is the night to go. Taco Tuesdays at The Whig are a low-key Columbia staple. Good, affordable food and well-crafted drinks: What could be better?

Rise Gourmet Goods and Bakeshop

The newest addition to the Five Points array of purveyors is Rise Bakeshop. The newly opened, self-proclaimed Southern boulangerie has much to offer within its tiny space. From freshly baked breads and sweets to generously sized sandwiches and salads, the endearing bakery — located on Harden Street across from Food Lion — is sure to be a hit once word spreads.

El Burrito

I’ve lived in Columbia for 20 years and I’m still amazed at the amount of people who haven’t heard of El Burrito. Standing next to the aforementioned Rise Bakeshop on Harden Street, the baby blue building is home to some of the freshest, tastiest Mexican fare in the city. The menu isn’t an arduous affair. Burritos, tacos and salads along with your typical chips and dips are available, all in various guises. Inside it’s a bit cramped but thankfully there’s an outdoor patio if things get too tight.

The Nick

With a prime location right on Main St., it never ceases to amaze me how many people are unaware of The Nickelodeon theater. Founded in 1979 by two USC students, The Nickelodeon has always been about showcasing the latest and/or greatest in independent film. Explosive action plots and endearing rom-coms don’t grace the screen frequently. The Nick is about bringing together lovers of cinema, and they do it all in a cozy, two-screen theater. You’ll find more than popcorn and candy on the concessions menu; coffee, wine and beer are offered to make your experience just a bit more special. What’s even more special is the price: shows range from $8 to $10 a ticket, so you won’t have to declare bankruptcy after the showing.

Southern Squeezed

The cold press juice movement has inspired a nationwide health-kick, one that has finally reached the capital city. Southern Squeezed opened this past summer — silently we might add — on Lady Street, just a few yards down from Cantina 76. Trees that almost shroud the glass doors and the lack of a prominent sign make it easy for the juice bar to slip out of sight, which is a shame considering the quality of the operation going on within. The interior is decorated in a contemporary-meets-rustic style, with a live wall made of succulents adjacent to the counter. Three refrigerators house freshly pressed juices and nut-milks. The menu ranges from their “Classic Greens” juice with kale, spinach, romaine, celery, cucumber, apple, parsley and lemon, to their simple “Citrus Mint,” with grapefruit and mint. If you’re not keen on the veggies, they offer a variety of fresh-pressed almond milks.

Art Bar

Art Bar is another instance of a Columbia highlight hiding in plain sight. Situated right off Gervais on Park Street in the Vista, you would be forgiven for being distracted by the smattering of bars that make their presence more obvious. Once you’re on Park Street, though, it’s hard to miss, with an abundance of lights and neon covering the facade and arcing over the outdoor seating. The addition of pink lawn flamingos and neon signs has upped the curb appeal. With over 50 beers on tap and a variety of drink specials offered daily, there are more than enough libations to appeal to the lot.

City Roots

Columbia is made up of an interesting mix of landscapes. Travel down Main Street towards Shop Road and you’ll find yourself moving from concrete and glass leviathans to sprawling suburbs and industrial parks. Rosewood, one of Columbia’s most popular neighborhoods, is a great example of this varied scenery. Less than 10 minutes from the heart of the city, it’s a tight-knit community, and one that shrouds the unexpected City Roots farm. Tucked away near Owens Field airport, it is Columbia’s only sustainable farm. They grow a wide array of greens that are used by over 20 restaurants in the downtown area. Stop by for a tour or, if your green thumb is absolutely killing you, sign up to volunteer.

The Cayce Riverwalk

The Garnet Riverwalk is perhaps the most well-known, off-campus recreation area, and rightfully so. Located just off the Gervais Street bridge, it offers picturesque views, but there is one pathway along the Congaree River that doesn’t get the notoriety it deserves. Just over the Blossom Street bridge, the Cayce Riverwalk offers a more secluded walk along the banks of the river. Park in the lot located near the Cayce Cove apartment complex and pick your path. There’s less foot traffic and road noise than the Garnet Riverwalk, and the abundance of trees and snaking footpaths make for a more secluded walk, run or bike ride.

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