Columbia with Kids: 25 Best Things to Do in Columbia, SC
Though Columbia, SC may not get the publicity of neighboring cities like Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina's capital city has plenty for families to love. Located in the center of the state, "Soda City" boasts top-notch museums, attractions for animal lovers, delicious restaurants, and beautiful hotels. It's a somewhat small city with wide streets, a walkable downtown area, and a youthful vibe (it's home to the University of South Carolina). Columbia, SC is also full of the southern charm and hospitality you'd expect from a city in the South. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever encountered such polite folks!
Here are our 25 favorite things to do in Columbia, SC with kids, including great family-friendly restaurants and hotels in Columbia, SC. Check out our Southern States Vacation Guide for more places to visit in the sunny South.
See toucans and over 2,000 other animals at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden.
Top Attractions in Columbia, SC for Families
1. Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
Who knew that one of the largest zoos in America was located in Columbia, SC? Spanning 170 acres, the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is home to over 2,000 animals including lions, seals, sloths, flamingos, and Komodo dragons. A highlight for us was the kangaroo walkabout, where we got to stand inches away from these adorable marsupials (the experience is included with admission). Kids can go for a spin on the zoo's carousel, pet animals in the farmyard, and conquer a sky-high ropes course. And don't forget the adjacent botanical garden! It has a splash pad and a giant tree house, as well as lush greenery.
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2. South Carolina State House
Squeeze some civic education out of your visit to Columbia, SC by touring the state's capitol building. The 180-foot-tall structure is very impressive, with a large copper dome and marble hallways. My family loved walking into the legislative chambers and imagining all of the big decisions made inside those walls. If you visit while the legislature is in session, you may even see politicians at work! Free and somewhat casual, I highly recommend seeing the capitol, especially if you have elementary-aged kids like I do.
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Meet—and play on—Eddie, the world's largest child statue, at EdVenture.
3. EdVenture Children's Museum
Get to know "Eddie," the world's largest child statue, at this multi-story children's museum. Standing 40 feet tall, Eddie doubles as a playground, so kids can climb through his brain and slide out of his intestines! Visitors can also test their piloting skills on a flight simulator and see what a classic Boeing 757 cockpit looks like. Got a kid who's into pretend play? The museum has a mini grocery store, TV newsroom, and fire station among its many hands-on exhibits.
4. South Carolina State Museum
So much more than a history museum, this place kept my family entertained all day long. Spanning four floors and located just across from EdVenture, the SCSM has a 4D theater and a planetarium, as well as exhibits exploring art, animals, technology, geology, sound, and space. My daughters loved seeing the vintage kitchen appliances on display and taking in some classic short films, some of them almost 100 years old. And if you thought "Eddie" was impressive, you'll want to meet "Finn," the museum's giant megalodon shark replica.
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The interactive kids' room is a highlight of the Columbia Museum of Art.
5. Columbia Museum of Art
There is plenty of amazing artwork on display at this downtown museum, including recognizable pieces by Andy Warhol and Claude Monet. A major highlight for families, though, is the interactive kids' room, where children can make stop-motion short films, design block buildings, and color their own postcards, among other activities. My kids and I spent over an hour in this area alone. Be sure to check the calendar before visiting, as the museum hosts regular events for families.
6. Congaree National Park
Explore the swampy wilderness at Congaree National Park, located about 30 minutes outside downtown Columbia, SC. Families love the stroller-accessible Boardwalk Loop Trail, an easy 2.6-mile hike that passes by towering loblolly pines, cool tree stalagmites, and the Congaree River. Bobcats, otters, and wild turkeys have all been spotted inside the park. Don't feel like hiking? Visitors can also kayak and canoe the waterways.
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Explore Three Rivers Greenway's miles of trails and rivers. Photo courtesy Three Rivers Greenway
Outdoor Fun for Families in Columbia, SC
7. Three Rivers Greenway
Get some fresh air while walking, biking, blading, or skateboarding this 15-mile trail system that winds along the Broad, Saluda, and Congaree rivers. Most trails are paved and dog-friendly. A highlight of the Greenway is the 12,000 Year History Trail, where visitors can see ancient Native American artifacts as well as exhibits focusing on the American Revolution and the Civil War. Other trails feature artwork, scenic boardwalks, and facts about the local wildlife.
8. South Carolina Governors Mansion Gardens
While you can book a tour of the regal mansion, home to more than 30 governors over the years, this site's nine acres of gardens are the real local gem. The gardens are free and open to the public every weekday year-round, unless there is a special event or holiday. Be awed by giant magnolia trees, beautiful fountains, historic statues, and fragrant blooms. The whole vibe is a bit magical!
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Sesquicentennial State Park has an amazing splash pad. Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks
9. Sesquicentennial State Park
Less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbia, SC is this lush state park that offers a break from the urban sprawl. Go hiking, camping, and canoeing on the 1,400-acre grounds, or visit the splash pad, a favorite with local families. Boats are also available for rent. Admission at 'Sesqui' is reasonable, too, and children 5 and under are free!
10. The Horseshoe at the University of South Carolina
Get into the collegiate feel by visiting the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. Named after its U shape, the Horseshoe features historic buildings that were part of the college's original campus. It's a lovely area to have a picnic with your kids, ride bikes, or just take in the beauty of the outdoors, especially the colorful trees in the fall. Visiting the campus is free.
11. Frankie's Fun Park
Play mini golf, hit the batting cages, and go for a spin around the go-kart tracks at this 14-acre amusement center that also has an arcade, a laser tag arena, and several rides. We especially love soaking each other on the bumper boats! There's plenty to do at Frankie's Fun Park to to keep your family entertained for several hours.
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See a family-friendly show at the beloved Columbia Marionette Theatre. Photo courtesy of the theatre
More Things To Do in Columbia, SC with Kids
12. Columbia Marionette Theatre
Performances come with strings attached at this beloved puppet theater. (Sorry, couldn't help myself!) A favorite among locals since 1988, the Columbia Marionette Theatre features puppets from a few inches tall to over five feet tall, appearing on a 30-foot stage. Tickets are reasonably priced, too!
13. Columbia Children's Theatre
Be entertained by professional actors at a theater made for kids. The Columbia Children's Theatre brings classic and modern tales to life on its main stage, from Pinkaliciousto A Christmas Carol. A youth stage also showcases child performers in grades 1-12. Audience participation is built into every performance, so have your camera ready.
14. Columbia Fire Department Museum
Though small, this free museum interests kids with its antique fire truck, firefighting equipment, and photos dating back to the 1800s. It also has plenty of interactive safety information on display. Plus, the museum is located at the fire department headquarters downtown, so you may even see a fire truck taking off for an emergency during your visit.
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Jump to new heights at Altitude Trampoline Park.
15. Trampoline and Adventure Parks
Burn off some energy with the kiddos at one of Columbia, SC's trampoline and adventure parks. My family was impressed with the cleanliness at Altitude Trampoline Park, where we played wipeout and practiced flips on the gymnastics tumble track. Surge Adventure Park offers up a ninja course, a zip line, and a great soft-play area for younger kids. And at Summit Adventure Park in Cayce, kids can play soccer and basketball and bounce around in an inflatable jellyfish jump.
16. Mini Golf Courses
Practice your short game at a local mini golf course. Take in beautiful views of downtown Columbia, SC at the Par Tee Golf Center, which has a spacious and scenic 18-hole course featuring waterfalls and streams. Or, bring the game indoors to Glow Dragon Mini Golf in Elgin. Along with its black-light mini golf course and cool dragon motif, this spot offers axe throwing, a pool-table room, and an arcade.
17. Bowling Alleys
Got some "spare" time? There are plenty of bowling alleys in and around Columbia, SC. Stars and Strikes in Irmo may be known for its bowling, but really it's a full entertainment center with laser tag, bumper cars, and an arcade. Meanwhile, Bowlero in Cayce has 60 lanes and a sleek interior design. Be sure to check the website for weekday deals and to make a reservation.
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Enjoy southern favorites at River Rat Brewery. Photo courtesy of the brewery
Family-Friendly Restaurants, Columbia, SC
18. River Rat Brewery
If chowing down on burgers while sipping a cold beer and watching the kids run around on the lawn appeals to you, then this is the spot to go. Located around the corner from the Williams Brice Stadium (where the Gamecocks play), the River Rat Brewery is a perfect spot for a sunny, summery day. Try some local brews and nosh on nachos and wings. FYI: The restaurant is dog-friendly as well.
19. Bang Back Pinball Lounge
While this spot would also make the list as a fun family attraction, it's worth mentioning that the food here is also very good. Locals love the low-country egg rolls, bao buns, and fried green tomatoes. Gamers love the eclectic pinball offerings including Hot Wheels, Batman, and a limited-edition Willy Wonka machine.
20. Boca Grande Burritos
As a California native, I have a high standard for burritos—and this Forest Acres eatery blew my socks off. The ingredients are so fresh, and there are plenty of options for vegetarians. I love the minimalist menu—burritos and tacos only, with a few appetizer exceptions. The restaurant's interior is cute, too, with colorful skeleton decor.
21. Cantina 76
Prices are very reasonable at this Mexican-inspired restaurant with locations on Devine Street and on Main Street in downtown Columbia, SC. My daughters and I love the soft tacos and quesadillas here, plus the young staff is very friendly and patient. Note: The nighttime happy hour crowd here is significant, so we prefer coming in for lunch rather than dinner.
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Dig into a calzone at Za's on Devine.
22. Za's on Devine
Make it a pizza night at Za's on Devine, known for its savory brick-oven pizza (though the calzones are also awesome). The atmosphere inside is bustling and casual, so you won't feel out of place with a crew of young, hungry mouths. Go early if possible; the restaurant gets packed later in the evening and doesn't take reservations.
Family-Friendly Hotels in Columbia, SC
23. Hilton Columbia Center
Located within walking distance of several downtown restaurants and the South Carolina State House, this hotel has a lovely, grand lobby and an outdoor pool. Plus, there's an in-house Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, if you're looking for a convenient, upscale meal.
24. The Graduate Columbia
This hotel chain is known for its collegiate decor, and the Columbia, SC installment is no exception. Rooms are uniquely designed (some even have Gamecock-inspired headboards!) and the location is steps away from the University of South Carolina. Pet owners: The Graduate also welcomes dogs.
25. Hotel Trundle
Housed inside three historic Main Street buildings, this boutique hotel has just 41 rooms, but tons of charm. Amenities include a glass of wine or beer upon check-in, custom-made mattresses and walnut beds, plus coffee in the mornings. Guests also note the exceptional hotel staff.
Unless noted, photos by the author