Ah, Columbia! The Capital city of South Carolina had always intrigued me, not only for its Southern charm but also for its reputation as a city where history, art, and modernity coalesce. Having traversed extensively through Europe and Asia, I was really interested to explore the American South, a region so vastly different from the waterways and cobblestone streets of my native Netherlands. I wondered, could Columbia give me a taste of the real America beyond the glitter of New York or the glitz of Los Angeles?
As someone who takes the road less traveled, I wasn’t just lured by Columbia’s historical landmarks. I was equally intrigued by the lesser-known aspects of its culture—the local art scenes, the under-the-radar eateries, and the very essence of Southern hospitality. Naturally, I was apprehensive; would the city stand up to my unorthodox appetite for discovery?
Where I Stayed
Contrary to my usual preference for budget-friendly Airbnbs, I decided to indulge in a medium-budget experience this time and chose to stay at the Hotel Trundle. Nestled in downtown Columbia, this boutique hotel was an absolute gem. Its art deco flair captured my aesthetic sensibilities right away—something I’d liken to the creative yet minimalist interiors I often encounter in the Netherlands. The staff, embodying Southern hospitality, were the proverbial cherry on top, ensuring my stay was as comfortable as possible. Aesthetically pleasing and ethically conscious, they even had vegan-friendly toiletries—a rare delight for someone like me.
What I Saw & Did
My days in Columbia were filled with an eclectic blend of experiences. From strolling around the South Carolina Statehouse, marveling at its grandeur and the intricacies of its architecture, to getting lost in the charm of Five Points, where every nook seemed to offer something uniquely intriguing—be it a vintage bookstore or an art studio with a façade that would fit perfectly in Amsterdam’s hipster districts.
I was particularly captivated by the Columbia Museum of Art. While it didn’t possess the Renaissance grandiosity that European museums often hold as their cornerstone, it had a heartfelt, almost intimate collection that spoke volumes. Here, modernity and antiquity lived side by side, much like the city itself.
No trip would be complete without meandering through the less commercialized spaces. So I spent a sunny afternoon at the Congaree National Park, which served as a majestic testament to Mother Nature’s timeless artistry. The sight of towering bald cypress trees reflected in the floodplain’s mirror-like water brought about a peaceful solitude that’s so often elusive in my nomadic life.
Another compelling experience was my visit to Soda City Market, Columbia’s bustling street fair that springs to life every Saturday morning. At first glance, it appeared like any other farmers’ market, but it was so much more. There were stalls that transported me back to my Dutch roots—vendors selling handcrafted goods reminiscent of those in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district, but with a Southern twist. One particular stand caught my eye—a local artist repurposing reclaimed wood into exquisite pieces of art.
I couldn’t resist the allure of the historic homes that adorned the streets of the Shandon neighborhood. Each house was unique, yet they all exuded a genteel dignity, a silent testimony to the city’s rich history. As I walked by, I envisioned how these grand homes would compare to the more minimalist, functional designs prevalent in the Netherlands. Here, the beauty lay in the intricate details—the ornate eaves, the grandiose staircases, the lush gardens surrounding them. I felt as though I were strolling through a page out of a Southern Gothic novel, each home whispering stories of generations past.
In my continuous quest for off-the-beaten-path experiences, I was drawn to the lesser-known Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. I generally hold mixed feelings about zoos, mindful of the ethical conundrums they often present. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the zoo’s commitment to conservation and education. The garden itself was an ode to botanic splendor, making me ponder upon the Southern equivalent of tulip fields that bedeck my home country every spring. Though I found myself missing the neatly arranged flora of Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, the sprawling tapestry of colors in the botanical garden added a touch of unrestrained beauty to my Columbia narrative.
A Day at Lake Murray: Finding Serenity Close to Columbia
Adding to my Columbia sojourn, I spent a day exploring the picturesque Lake Murray. Just a 30-minute drive from the heart of the city, this expansive lake provided a refreshing escape from urban life. As someone who cherishes bodies of water—being from a country crisscrossed by canals and rivers—I felt an immediate connection.
Lake Murray offered a host of activities, but I opted for a tranquil kayaking experience. As I glided through the calm waters, the sun dancing on the ripples, I felt miles away from any city’s hustle and bustle. It wasn’t quite the same as rowing through the canals of Utrecht, yet it carried a serene charm that was distinctively its own.
Ending the day, I found a secluded spot near the Dreher Island State Park portion of the lake to watch the sunset. As hues of orange, pink, and purple painted the sky, I was reminded of the stunning sunsets I’ve seen over the North Sea. Though Lake Murray’s freshwater expanse couldn’t replicate the salt-laden air of the Dutch coastline, it offered a unique serenity that made me appreciate South Carolina’s natural beauty even more.
During my explorations, the noticeable lack of bike lanes gave me pause. As someone hailing from the Netherlands—a utopia for cyclists—it was hard to reconcile with Columbia’s car-centric lifestyle. While it wasn’t a deal-breaker, it did make me appreciate the eco-friendly conveniences I often took for granted back home.
Where I Ate
Ah, the part where I must tread carefully. Being a vegan, Southern cuisine presented quite a challenge. I stumbled upon Good Life Café in Main Street District, an oasis offering vegan and raw food. While the southern-fried faux chicken didn’t quite nail the flavors I had been told to expect from authentic Southern fried chicken, it was a delightful gastronomic experience in its own right.
The Not-So-Perfect Moments
Not every part of my Columbia adventure was ripe with awe-inspiring discoveries. As a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, I was somewhat disheartened to witness the scarce representation of LGBTQ+ culture. The lack was glaring and made me wonder about the daily lives of queer individuals in Columbia, drawing unflattering comparisons to the vibrant LGBTQ+ communities back home in the Netherlands.
Columbia turned out to be a tapestry of paradoxes—historic yet modern, grandiose yet intimate, universally American yet distinctly Southern. While it missed a few beats here and there, the melody was undeniably captivating. Its essence was somewhat like an abstract painting—open to interpretation but profoundly impactful if you’re willing to dig deeper.
An Ode to Columbia
In Southern lands where rivers bend,
A city lies—a newfound friend.
With cypress tall and histories grand,
Yet gaps remain, like grains of sand.
Modern hues and tales so old,
In Columbia’s arms, I found pure gold.
And so, I bid adieu to Columbia, a city that both charmed and challenged me. I left with a bittersweet emotion—a concoction of awe, wonder, and a sprinkle of constructive critique. This has been a journey of discovery, of confronting expectations with reality, and as always, reality penned a story far richer than I could have ever imagined.
Danny Devegan, signing off from Columbia, South Carolina. Until the next adventure, wherever that may be.