City Meets Nature

One of the best things about Columbia is the juxtaposition of city and nature. Unlike many larger cities, we’re lucky to have plenty of tranquil natural beauty in and around our dynamic urban center. 

The ideal way to experience this “best of both worlds” phenomenon is to hit the city at night for dinner, drinks, and culture after enjoying the fresh air and natural splendor during the day. 

If you happen to be visiting in early summer, don’t miss the synchronized fireflies at Congaree National Park, which is a picturesque 30-minute drive from Columbia. For about two weeks in May or June, visitors can experience a truly unique natural spectacle where thousands of fireflies dance to synchronized flashing in an annual mating ritual. 

Because Columbia sits atop three rivers that converge, our city is a hot spot for river sports enthusiasts. For a gentle river experience, try canoeing down Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park. The lush trees growing in its floodplain forest are some of the tallest in the Eastern United States, forming an otherworldly canopy far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. You can spot bobcats, deer, owls, and wild boar along the shore; playful river otters will share the water with you. The park also contains over 25 miles of hiking trails, many of which are dog-friendly if you want to bring Fido. 

Another great way to relax in the river is tubing. If you’ve never been tubing before, it’s exactly what it sounds like: you get into a giant innertube and float downstream! If you’re up for a little more of an adrenaline rush, there’s a big rapid on the Lower Saluda that attracts whitewater enthusiasts from around the world. Saluda Shoals Park offers tubes for rent seven days a week for just $10 per tube, including a shuttle upstream back to your car when you’re done. 

Interested in a hike and a picnic? Check out Harbison Forest, with 18 miles of trails that weave through the pine and hardwood forest, crossing wandering streams and descending through leafy glades to the Broad River. With over 2,000 acres of forestland only nine miles from downtown Columbia, its unique urban location makes Harbison one of the largest public greenspaces inside the city limits of a metropolitan area in the eastern United States. After your hike, take advantage of the nearby shopping and dining on Harbison Boulevard—we recommend you try the authentic fish and chips at the British Bulldog Pub.

Visitors with an appreciation for natural beauty shouldn’t miss Riverbanks Botanical Garden. Declared by HGTV as one of the top 20 public gardens in America, the 70-acre property features both native and exotic plants. The magnificent maze of seasonal and themed gardens will inspire you, whether or not you have a green thumb. While you’re in the area, check out the antique shopping in West Columbia at the Old Mill Antique Mall and the Marketplace on Meeting Street and have lunch at Café Strudel, a local favorite for delicious soups and sandwiches.

If you’re staying downtown, swing by the historic Robert Mills House for a stroll through their gardens—they’re free and open to the public. The Founder’s Garden is designed to mimic 1820’s-inspired English gardens, and depending on the season, visitors may see common vegetables planted at 19th century homes, heirloom flowers, or old garden roses. Right across the street, you’ll find the Township Auditorium, a great venue for concerts and live comedy, or head over to Spirit Communications Park to catch a baseball game. 

In the evening, when our city really comes to life, enjoy a stroll down the recently revitalized Main Street and have dinner at Bourbon, a unique spot for Cajun-inspired food. After dinner, enjoy a drink at the rooftop bar overlooking the city lights, and remember that you’re never far from nature in this haven of ours.