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Columbia is the capital city of South Carolina and home of the University of South Carolina. This charming, southern city is both a family and budget friendly destination. Families can stay downtown and enjoy easy walkability to many local attractions. Outside of the city center, Riverbanks Zoo and other neighborhoods are a just short drive away. Kids won’t get restless going from place to place! Check out these things to do with kids in Columbia, South Carolina.

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Can’t Miss Family Attractions

Columbia is home to family friendly museums and the award winning Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. Save on admission to the zoo, the South Carolina State Museum and Edventure Children’s Museum with  a money-saving CoolPASS, available online. The CoolPASS is also included in some hotel vacation packages.

Riverbanks Zoo & Garden has been rated the number one attraction in the State of South Carolina and fourth best zoo in the nation. With wide walkways, places to sit in the shade, expansive observation areas at each exhibit and animal interaction, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. A zip line adventure, train ride, high ropes course and animal encounters add to the zoo’s fun. The botanical garden, which is included with zoo admission, has many gorgeous, themed gardens, whimsical play gardens and Waterfall Junction, a kids’ water playground with splash pads and fountains, offering a great escape from southern summer heat.

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The South Carolina State Museum includes four floors of exhibits, including a digital dome planetarium, 4D theater and observatory. Permanent exhibits introduce dinosaurs and pre-historic fossils, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, African-American history and more. Interactive features inspire kids to explore as they enjoy this engaging center. 

EdVenture Children’s Museum, located at 211 Gervais Street, is the largest children’s museum in the South. More than 300 exhibits encourage children to learn through play. Kids can try their hand at being a newscaster, veterinarian, fire chief, biomedical researcher and much more. After visiting, families can expand on kids’ learning through at home activities included on the website.

Outdoor Fun for Active Families

Families who enjoy outdoor activities will find lots to do in the Columbia area. Three rivers, the Saluda, the Broad and the Congaree, run through the Columbia area, and regional parks make it easy to enjoy the outdoors. Three not to miss are Congaree National Park, Saluda Shoals Park and Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park.

Congaree National Park, about 30 minutes east of the city, is the only national park in South Carolina. Congaree is home to the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States — think the east coast version of California’s famed redwoods. Visitors to Congaree can hike the backcountry trails or enjoy a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk, take guided kayak tours through the forest, or camp in the woods. A small museum shares the history of the park, its ecological importance and other information.

Saluda Shoals Park, about 20 minutes northwest of Downtown Columbia, has more than ten miles of trails along the Saluda River, great for biking or walking. There are also two boat landings and a canoe and kayak launch, with rentals available. This park is especially suited to younger families, offering some paved paths that are stroller friendly and a splash pad (admission fee required) where young kids can cool off on hot summer afternoons. 

Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park is located near the city’s central business district and the University of South Carolina. Old pump houses share the history of the Columbia Canal and Water Works. The park also has paved biking trails, benches and picnic tables, and incredible views of the canal. If staying in a downtown hotel, this is a great place to let the kids run and play.

Downtown Fun for Families

The city of Columbia has a fairly small footprint, making it easy to explore on foot. Whether spending a day in the city or venturing out for dinner in the evening, there’s a lot to see in the city center.

Quirky outdoor art pieces like the Neverburst Chain (near 1500 Main Street) and the World’s Largest Fire Hydrant (1400 Taylor Street) are fun to search for when exploring the city on foot.

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The Columbia Museum of Art recently underwent a major renovation. Instead of showcasing pieces by when they were made or by style of art, museum exhibits are arranged thematically. Explore topics through art from different time periods and cultures to see the world in new ways. Outdoor spaces also have art installments to enjoy.

President Woodrow Wilson spent some of his childhood in Columbia. His family’s home is now a museum dedicated to the story of the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, when Wilson lived there with his parents. It is the only remaining presidential site in the state. Exhibits in the home tell the story of this difficult time in our nation’s history. The gardens, including formal front gardens and working back gardens, were designed under the watchful eye of Wilson’s mother. Many of the trees and plants on the grounds would have been here when Wilson was growing up.

Locals have long shortened the name of Columbia to “Cola”. At some point, people started calling it Soda. So today, Columbia is “Soda City”. A fun-loving city like this is a great place to take the kids!

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Article written by Karen Dawkins of Family Travels on a Budget.

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