My first visit to Columbia, Missouri, was a real shocker. While I knew the town had a big-name college (we are an SEC family), I had not prepared myself for its cool neighborhoods and big city feel. There is a great buzz around Columbia that generates a desire to be there and see and do it all. While my visit was short, I still managed to uncover some wonderful cultural gems in this city of around 125,000. Here are a dozen great things to do in Columbia, MO, (or near) that really wowed me.
1. Tour the Campus in Columbia, MO
Columbia is home to the University of Missouri, more commonly known as Mizzou. Founded in 1839, this 1262-acre campus (and botanical garden) offers 300 degrees and is a great place to further education. The Columns (Francis Quadrangle) are among the most famous things to see, also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Don’t miss the statue of Thomas Jefferson and his original tombstone (an obelisk which he designed) in front of the Chancellor’s Residence.
2. Attend the True/False Festival
The True/False Film Fest nods to “forward-thinking filmmakers” and a celebration of the arts, selling around 60,000 tickets for the annual event. Happening in yours truly, Columbia, this four-day festival explores documentary films in an easy-to-follow fashion, with live music events playing before and after the movies. You’ll also be privy to a host of art installments and special touches like the food truck scene and even a city-wide parade. It is fascinating that a festival of this magnitude and reach settled in this vibrant Midwest town…a real asset for the community.
Columbia’s only art-house movie theatre is the headquarters for the True/False Fest. Ragtag Cinema shows international, independent, and documentary films year-round and hosts filmmakers to discussions with the film’s audience.
If you are hungry for more festivals, I’ve heard rave reviews about the Roots N Blues Festival in late September, early October. This event focuses on 30 artists covering music through folk, rock, bluegrass, blues, and many other genres. It takes place at Stephens Lake Park, and rest assured, plenty of BBQ is on the menu.
3. Eat Where the Locals Eat in Columbia
Or drink. Harpo’s Restaurant & Sundeck is one of the holy grail’s of Mizzou students and a great place to have a meal or cold beer. Since 1971, this family-friendly eatery has been the #1 bar & grill for Mizzou for 50 years. The white cheddar cheese curds were spot on, and whatever entree you choose, I recommend the smoked Mac and cheese for your side dish. Nom!
Get your Mexican on at Las Margaritas, known for excellent margaritas and delicious food. There are three locations. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a warm baked cookie from Hot Box Cookies or a yummy pastry from Uprise Bakery.
After learning how long Ernie’s has been in business, I had to go there. I’m so glad I did. Ernie’s Cafe is Columbia’s oldest full-service restaurant, pumping out tasty dishes for over 80 years. The restaurant decor is adorable, retro and Art Deco, while the breakfast dishes are satisfying—like the French toast and omelets.
Be on the lookout for Columbia’s well-known food trucks. A few popular ones are The Big Cheese (homey concoctions with oozing cheese), Big Daddy’s BBQ (the city’s most beloved barbecue meats), Ozark Mountain Biscuit Company (Southern biscuit sandwiches for lunch…why not?), and VooDoo Sno (New Orleans style sno-balls).
4. Wander The District
The District is a 50-square-block area set between three colleges in downtown Columbia. It is a neighborhood with colorful murals, shops, restaurants, art galleries, and residential dwellings. I enjoyed strolling through The District, soaking up the art, energy, and locally-owned businesses. Watch for the impressive public art trail, too, with over 30 accessible art sculptures scattered around the city. My favorite pieces were The Suspended Globe (Landmark Bank) and the most eye-catching one of all, Keys to the City, at the Columbia City Hall.
Businesses I encourage you to check out are Poppy, Sager Braudis (art gallery), and My Sister’s Circus, as in they were chock full of cool stuff. As with any city, I like to go straight to the local bookstore and Skylark Bookshop did not disappoint.
5. Admire Classic Cars
Stroll through dazzling sets to enhance the classic automobile experience at Auto World Museum in nearby Fulton, Calloway County. From the 1800s to the 1980s, the private collection includes 80+ rare cars in excellent condition and arranged in very cool displays. Amongst them, expect to find a 1982 DeLorean Coupe, 1907 REO Touring, 1915 Studebaker Touring, 1931 Rolls Royce Phantom II, and lots more.
6. Go Four Wheeling
Okay, I’ll admit I was a bit out of my element when I showed up at Finger Lakes State Park for the UTV experience, but I hopped on a four-wheeler, and off we went to explore the trails. It ended up being one of the great things to do in Columbia, MO, despite my hesitation and apprehension.
Admission to the state park is free, but those wanting to do some off-loading will need a $5 Off Road Vehicle permit for the day. Riders must have age-appropriate vehicles with them. There are 71 miles of off-road ATV trails for hiking and riding. Campsites (tent and RV camping, with a shower house) are also available for a minimal fee.
Finger Lakes State Park features include a pump track, motocross track, fishing holes, playground, and kayak and canoe rentals from mid-March to mid-November.
7. Have Drinks
The Roof at The Broadway (Hilton Doubletree property) has one of Columbia’s most vibrant bar scenes. You can enjoy music, handcrafted cocktails, and the gorgeous panoramic views of town from this intimate setting that is complete with outdoor fire pits.
Another excellent place for drinks is Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, Columbia’s original brewpub since 1994. The award-winning craft beers are plentiful and draft root beer, cream soda, and ginger ale, all made at the pub. Flat Branch has top-rated food, as well, including these darned tasty Queso and Pico Toasted (beef) Ravioli with spinach con queso, pico de Gallo, sour cream, and guac. You are in Missouri; toasted ravioli is a must!
8. Browse Local Museums
Housed in a University of Missouri building are the enthralling Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Art & Archaeology, both absolutely free museums. At the Anthropology portion, see both permanent and special exhibits featuring the Grayson Archery Collection, collection of Depression glass, and Eichenberger Cast Collection (of some of the world’s most famous pieces).
On the other side is the Art & Archaeology Museum, with art and artifacts from six continents. I loved seeing paintings and sculptures ranging from Warhol to George Romney. This museum runs the gamut from modern to Renaissance and everything in between.
Side Note: This was my favorite attraction (or I could say attractions since they are separate museums) in Columbia.
9. Enjoy the Gardens
A lovely free place to wander through vibrant blooms and a serene landscape is Shelter Gardens, sponsored by Shelter Insurance, at 1817 W Broadway. These award-winning gardens (including sensory for the visually impaired) are spread throughout a five-acre plot with 300 kinds of trees and more than 15,000 flowers. I loved the one-room schoolhouse on the property, which made for Instagram-worthy photos. There is also a remarkable memorial tribute to the Vietnam Veterans, a waterfall, giant sundial, stream, plus a well-labeled rose garden.
Fun Fact: Mizzou is also a designated botanic garden with themed gardens dotted around campus.
10. Peruse Crane’s County Store
In nearby Williamsburg, tour Missouri’s biggest outfitter and one of the most extraordinary country stores in the USA at Crane’s Country Store. Known for its slogan “boots, bullets, and bologna,” this family-owned company has been selling wares and outdoor needs since 1899. You could seriously browse for hours between the cool camping gear, name-brand clothing collection, gun accessories, footwear, and gourmet food products. There is also a small deli serving $1 bologna sandwiches and other tasty offerings.
Next door, you can visit an antiques and eclectics museum and have a diner-style meal at Marlene’s. I recommend the cheeseburger (perfect, in every way) and fruit cobbler. Both businesses are definitely worth the stop.
11. Hit the Katy Trail
The sheer number of outdoor experiences in Columbia, Missouri, is mind-boggling. You honestly have to see it to believe it. You can jump on the MKT to the 240-mile Katy Trail, spanning Clinton to Machens with 26 trailheads.
I recommend hopping on the Katy trailhead in nearby Rocheport, a darling little town with bike rentals, great local shopping, and an excellent restaurant. The 9-mile stretch from Rocheport to Hindman Junction and Columbia’s MKT spur has a cool tunnel, views of the Missouri River, and other great scenic spots almost as soon as you get on the path. Take advantage of the multiple benches to “stop and smell the roses” along the way.
Meriwether Cafe and Bike Shop is a perfect place for breakfast or lunch before hitting the trail. I loved the Smoked Gouda Grilled Cheese and Tomato Bisque combo. I cannot imagine anything coming out of this kitchen would be anything less than exceptional. You can rent Marin bikes, kids’ bikes, and tandems, too, at the same facility. Helmets are included.
12. Explore Fulton
Fulton is another gem about twenty minutes away. Here, you will find the jaw-dropping, unique National Churchill Museum and the most extensive Churchill collection in the country. This is where Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, predicting the Cold War years before it occurred.
There is also St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury; an 18th-century redesigned Christopher Wren Church relocated from London and restored, piece by piece, in Fulton. As I drove into town, I immediately thought of Harry Potter from the glow of the chandeliers in the hand-cut glass windows. Before you leave, don’t miss the eight segments of the Berlin Wall arranged for a beautiful photo opportunity.
Fun Fact: Fulton was voted one of America’s Coolest Small Towns by Budget Travel. Both Presidents and Prime Ministers have visited there.
For more information on the fun things to see and do in Fulton, head to www.VisitFulton.com.
The Drury Plaza Hotel Columbia East is an ideal home-away-from-home space for your overnights. Serving a complimentary hot breakfast, food and beverages late afternoon, free Wifi, and parking, the Drury Plaza Hotel make your travel days happy days. Rooms feature microwaves and refrigerators in every room, and the property boasts an indoor and outdoor pool.
For more information on the fun things to see and do in Columbia, head to www.VisitColumbiaMo.com.
Thanks to the Columbia CVB and Fulton/Callaway County Tourism for hosting our trip. Accommodations, tickets, and some meals were provided. As always, reviews and opinions are 100% mine and unbiased.
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