Get out your garnet and black and head to the state capital of sweet tea, Columbia, South Carolina. Named one of Kiplinger’s Top 10 Best Places to Live in 2013, Columbia is home to the University of South Carolina, where Gamecocks rule the roost, Steve Spurrier is king, and most Saturdays in the fall are spent eating fried chicken at the State Fairgrounds.
Just an hour and a half drive from Greenville and two hours from Charleston, Columbia, South Carolina is most likely not on your must-see list of places to travel. Unless you have reason to come here, either for a degree, a football game, or military training at Fort Jackson, this “famously hot” city could easily be overlooked. Yet, we love Columbia and make it a point to travel here at least once a year. Okay, so maybe we are a little partial since one of us is a former Gamecock, but we have reason to believe Columbia is transforming and you should keep your eye on it.
Paul, the former Gamecock, got to know Columbia from the years of 1981-1985. “Some of the best years of my life were spent here,” he proclaims as he walks around campus with his camera in hand. Of course, both the campus and the city have changed significantly since Paul’s college days, but certain academic buildings and residence halls are still hanging on some 30 years later.
Like most college kids, Paul’s memories of eating out consist mostly of fast food, with Long John Silvers, Dominos, and Bojangles being all he could afford at the time. Of course, there was the occasional trip to Yesterday’s for nachos, but even that was deemed a special occasion. Paul doesn’t remember Columbia as a big star on the culinary map. He looks around now and feels a tiny pang of jealousy when he sees what today’s college students have to choose from.
Where to Stay
The Inn at USC is one of our favorite places to stay. In the past few years it has added the Wyndham name to its title, but its southern charm and hospitality remains the same. Be sure to stay here at least once and get up early enough to enjoy their breakfast. It’s fantastic. If you don’t believe a hotel breakfast can be exceptional, be sure to read the post Biscuits and Gravy from my very first visit to the Inn at USC.
While staying on campus has its own kind of tranquility, downtown Columbia is growing, and its important to be within walking distance of all the action. While the Five Points area has historically attracted college students for years, visitors now flock to The Congaree Vista for a plethora of dining options. In addition to the Vista, we see some great things happening on Main Street, and because of its convenient location, always make it a point to stay at the Sheraton Columbia Downtown.
If it’s warm out, be sure to check out Columbia from the rooftop bar. If it’s cold out, take the opportunity to unwind downstairs in the Vault. Originally a bank vault, the lobby hotel bar gives guests a unique place to sip on a martini and relax before retiring to their room.
Where to Eat
DiPratos! DiPratos! DiPratos! Don’t miss DiPratos! New York deli meets the southern classics at this gem of a restaurant. We’ve only had the pleasure of eating at DiPratos for brunch, feasting on mouth-watering breakfast paninis composed of homemade onion sausage, scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, and American cheese on a multigrain ciabatta roll. With a variety of sandwiches available for lunch, we’ll be sure to make this our first stop on our next trip to Columbia.
If you are looking for a great place for a drink and a bite to eat, we highly recommend Flying Saucer, a fun establishment with quality food located in the Congaree Vista. When sticking to our mostly vegetarian diet (which obviously we chose not to do at DiPratos), we come here for the Hippie Hollow and the Hippie Burger. Their homemade jalapeño vinaigrette is delicious. This is the kind of place you can go to and fill up on appetizers. Their soft pretzels are some of the best we’ve ever had and you just can’t miss the Rocket-tots.
For a fancy evening out, go straight to Bourbon. While this restaurant may be located in the shadow of the South Carolina State Capitol building, its DRINK sign will catch your eye and its Creole/Cajun menu will capture your appetite.
We were lucky to catch a special dish: mahi-mahi from North Carolina presented with local Tuscan kale and homemade sausage in a delicious and flavorful sauce. Looking back, I wish I wrote down all of the ingredients of this excellently prepared dish. The atmosphere is dark and romantic, the staff is welcoming and pleasant, and the whiskey flows regularly. It’s a lovely addition to the ever growing Columbia restaurant scene.
After a late night out, you’ll need to refuel the next morning at Le Peep. Le Peep, also located in the Vista, is a small breakfast and lunch cafe serving up crowds of Gamecocks before every home game. While you’ll probably find yourself waiting for a table on the weekends, you won’t be the only one here sporting your Carolina gear in preparation for game day. The hostess will greet you with a smile, the service will be great, and the biscuits and gravy are just what you need before heading to Williams Brice.
How We Get There
There’s something about Southwest that makes us so very happy to fly. Their service, their flight attendants, their constant concern for their passengers, I could go on and on. While Columbia does have an airport, very few airlines fly from New Jersey to Columbia, and those who do, don’t fly direct. For us to get to Columbia, we usually have to drive down to Baltimore-Washington International and hop a Southwest flight to Charlotte, North Carolina or Greenville, Spartanburg. From there, we pick up a rental car and drive the hour and a half distance to Columbia. When you have a Southwest love like ours, you do whatever it takes.
We cross our fingers for the day Southwest starts flying into Columbia. We don’t know if that’s even possible, but as each year passes, we see more and more Gamecock gear making its way up north. It goes without saying, it’s good to be a Gamecock, and it would be even better if Gamecocks’ bags could fly free on an airline with a whole lot of heart.
We’ll Keep You Updated
Even though we make it a point to travel to Columbia once a year, there are still so many restaurants we still need to try and so many things we still need to do. Will we ever get to tailgate in a Cock-a-boose? We can only hope. Will we see Main Street become a thriving downtown destination? We expect to. Will we meet Steve Spurrier someday? Not likely, but we’d love to.
So in between our journeys to Europe and our trips into New York, we’ll keep you updated on Columbia, South Carolina, one of our favorite little weekend getaways.