Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Columbia, MO

  • Published 2023/01/12

Columbia, Boone County’s capital city, is known for its booming population and steady progress.

This bustling city of over 126,254 as of 2020 is home to Missouri’s esteemed university, inspiring scholars from all across the country to study here.

The landscape of Columbia includes lush grasslands and forests bordering the Ozark Mountains.

When it was first established in 1819, it was a small settlement called Smithton, located west of the Boone County Courthouse.

It was later determined, however, that the city needed to be farther from the water supply to allow it to grow and expand properly, so they moved it eastward across Flat Branch Creek.

The settlement was then given a new name—”Columbia”—on April 7th, 1821; it was formally incorporated four years later in November 1826.

From this point on, Columbia quickly grew into its current size of 59 square miles and became the vibrant community we know today.

Here are free things to do in Columbia, Missouri:

Go Birdwatching at the Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

People at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

Zack Frank /

Rock Bridge Memorial State Park on South Highway 163 is ideal for experienced birdwatchers and newbies.

Over 202 species were spotted during birdwatching, including the Gadwall, Mallard, Cedar Waxwing, and Carolina Wren.

The Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is also more than a place to observe birds; it’s a 2,273-acre public leisure area dedicated to both recreation and geological preservation.

It features 12 caves for visitors to explore and miles of hiking trails throughout Gans Creek Wild Area.

Boardwalk at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

Zack Frank /

Those hoping to take a deeper dive into the underground environment housed by the park can arrange a visit to Devil’s Icebox or Connor’s Cave.

Moreover, the park is one of the only habitats where visitors can find the rare pink planarian.

This charming destination is ideal for those seeking a nature-filled retreat and will leave birdwatchers amazed by its stunning avian specimens.

Find Solace in the Idyllic Retreat of the Shelter Gardens

Nestled behind Shelter Insurance in Columbia is the five-acre award-winning botanical garden Shelter Gardens.

Known for its captivating beauty and thousands of species of flora, Shelter Gardens has something to offer everyone.

In addition to over 300 species of trees, this immense park offers a sensory garden that caters to blind people.

It also features a Vietnam Veterans memorial and a fascinating model of an old one-room school.

Shelter Gardens also has a creek, stone garden, huge sundial, pergola, and waterfall with a reflection pool.

Local photographers visit Shelter Gardens to capture the various blooms in its wildflower garden and rose garden.

At the same time, scientists and students spend time studying the diverse seedlings and perennials found within.

Moreover, this idyllic spot also hosts free concerts throughout the year, making it an ultimate destination for all visitors.

Marvel at the Sculpture in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at Battle Garden

Nestled in Battle Garden on Stadium Boulevard, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is an ode to the civil rights activist and his legacy.

A sculpture by Barbara Grygutis serves as its centerpiece, with eight triangle pillars featuring Dr. King’s quotes surrounding it.

This sculpture resembles a miniature amphitheater, making the memorial a popular spot for family picnics or cultural entertainment events.

The park also features a drinking fountain, access to the MKT Trail, and walking paths, allowing visitors to marvel at the sculpture while also engaging in recreational activities like running and biking.

Those looking for some tranquility can take advantage of this peaceful park’s shelter to rest and reflect on Dr. King’s inspiring legacy.

The Battle Garden is also where locals and visitors alike can soak up culture through artful performances or find respite from their busy lives.

Take an Excursion to the Captivating Stephens Lake Park

A festival at Stephens Lake Park

LanaG /

Stephens Lake Park is a majestic 116-acre park with a diverse range of activities.

Fish in the 11-acre lake, explore old-growth trees, have fun at playgrounds or beaches, cool off under spraygrounds, or take a refreshing stroll on one of its walking trails.

In 2020 the park received Level II Arboretum Accreditation due to its extensive tree collection, including red bud and nut trees.

It’s also known for its many cultural festivals and outdoor concert series held annually, as well as winter sports.

The Hindman Memorial Garden and Children’s Grove are definite must-sees within Stephens Lake Park which will amaze young and old visitors alike.

Discover Columbia’s History at the Walters Boone County Historical Museum

The Walters-Boone County History Museum showcases a comprehensive collection of artifacts and archives that tell the stories of Columbia’s history.

Established by the Boone County Historical Society in 1990, this 5,500-square-foot exhibit space houses two main show halls and various exhibition rooms.

Walters-Boone County History Museum boasts climate-controlled vaults and storage areas totaling 10,000 square feet.

The museum rotates through one to three permanent exhibitions and four seasonal shows annually.

Moreover, the Walters-Boone County History Museum houses the Montminy Art Gallery, a 2,800-square-foot space featuring works of local artists.

By exploring these fascinating exhibits at this impressive institution on Ponderosa Street, visitors can gain an appreciation for Columbia’s rich cultural heritage and critical historical events.

Discover the Beauty of the Francis Quadrangle

Night scene at Francis Quadrangle

Sean Pavone /

Francis Quadrangle has been synonymous with Mizzou pride and tradition for many years.

It is home to 17 National Register of Historic Places structures, including the Residence where university presidents and chancellors have lived since 1867.

Francis Quadrangle honors David R. Francis, the Missouri governor who played a significant role in rebuilding it after a fire destroyed the Academic Hall in 1892.

Columns at Francis Quadrangle

VoyagerMU, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, visitors will find an array of beautiful shrubs, trees, flowers, and herbaceous plants spread around the quad.

Besides breathtaking flora, there are also memorials and specialty gardens within the area, such as The Jefferson Memorial and The Rothwell Family Gardens.

Whether you’re a visitor or part of the Mizzou community, this stunning site on South Providence Road is worth exploring.

Delve into the Art World at Art in the Park

Art in the Park is a unique event that has been bringing together creative minds in the city.

A vibrant group of visual artists has convened in central Missouri for over six decades to celebrate the fine arts.

An eclectic group of more than 100 painters, sketchers, photographers, ceramists, and jewelers from across the nation gather to exhibit their unique works made with various mediums, from oils on canvas to intricate beadwork.

Visitors are invited to explore the art world, culture, and more while indulging in music and interactive activities suitable for everyone.

The exhibition takes place in Stephens Lake Park, which provides an inspiring setting with beautiful parkland and lakefront views.

The event is family-friendly, with plenty of interactive activities and musical performances.

Don’t miss out on Art in the Park every first weekend of June, and marvel at this creative spectacle!

Capture the Beauty of Nature while Exploring Grindstone Nature Area

Discover the wonders of nature as you embark on an adventure at Grindstone Nature Area on Old 63 S, where beauty and serenity collide.

Lose yourself in this natural paradise and be mesmerized by its captivating sights, as it features native grasses, rugged limestone cliffs, and a plethora of wildlife.

You can take your pup for an adventure on over five miles of leash-free trails and see wildflowers that gracefully bloom throughout its grassland regions.

Discover various plants and animals while admiring towering limestone cliffs along this 199-acre singletrack gravel path.

Also calling home the Grindstone Nature Area are Gordon Tract and Hinkson Creek, which has been listed in the National Register Of Historic Places –

Watch a Sunset at the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

Sunset at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

LanaG /

With its lush landscapes, abundant wildlife, and dynamic bird population, the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is a popular destination for outdoor adventurers.

Spanning 4,286 acres of varying habitats such as farmlands, marshes, rainforests, and meadows, the area borders the Katy Trail State Park and is known for its 100 acres of marshland.

Explorers will also find 17 wetland pools which can be inundated with water during certain parts of the year, creating an amazing habitat for wildlife.

In addition to offering diverse flora and fauna that make it a prime spot for wildlife viewing, these wetlands create an ideal environment for birds such as migrating species.

A bird at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

LanaG /

As the sun sets over the horizon, visitors can take in the stunning views while watching flocks of birds come in to roost after a long day in flight.

The gorgeous Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area boasts a breathtaking landscape enhanced by the colorful fall foliage of its limestone cliffs.

Its accessibility through the foot trail and Katy Trail State Park has made it a popular destination, with visitors flocking to take advantage of the spectacular overlook from the Warren School Road parking lot.

Observation deck at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

LaughingOutLoudICON, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Explore the Columbia Cosmopolitan Recreation Area

The Columbia Cosmopolitan Recreation Area or the Cosmo Park is the perfect destination for outdoor lovers looking for various activities.

Occupying more than 533 acres, Columbia Cosmopolitan Recreation Area is the largest park in Columbia and one of two regional parks in the city’s system.

It features some of the best fields and courts for ball games, golf courses, paved trails for mountain biking and skating, playgrounds, bocce ball courts, horseshoe pits, shelters with grills, and picnic tables.

The Show-Me State Games are also held annually at the park.

From the Steinberg Playground, touted as one of the largest playgrounds within Columbia’s park system, to LA Nickell Golf Course and Bear Creek Trail’s trailhead, there is something here to keep both young residents and adults entertained.

With so much to do at this venue, this recreation area on Business Loop 70 W is an attractive hub for locals and visitors looking to get out in nature.

Enjoy the Beauty of Nature at Finger Lakes State Park

A day at Finger Lakes State Park can be a unique experience as you unlock a world of beauty, adventure, and relaxation.

Once the site of an old coal mining company, it has been transformed into a leisure hotspot with more than 70 miles of off-road courses for motorbikes and ATVs.

Nature lovers will find peace amid the beautiful scenery, plus exciting activities suited to all levels.

Spend the day lounging on breathtaking beaches with sand between your toes, or explore a lush forest.

Get out on the lake to paddle, fish, and swim or snorkel along 1.5 miles of gorgeous water views.

Finger Lakes State Park is on Peabody Road.

Visit the University of Missouri

Jesse hall at the University of Missouri

APN Photography /

A visit to the University of Missouri is sure to satisfy those looking to get a taste of college life and gain an appreciation for the history and culture of Missouri.

Established in 1839, the University of Missouri is the first public university on the western part of the Mississippi River; it is the state’s largest public research university.

It boasts a significant land-grant institution that combines both elements.

Fountain and sculpture at the University of Missouri

Ken Wolter /

On-campus beauties include the iconic Francis Quadrangle and Jefferson Memorial Garden, Rothwell Family Gardens, and Botanical Garden.

There are ideal places to explore, learn more about the university, and appreciate nature’s splendor at its best.

The university also features a wide variety of museums and galleries, including the Museum of Art and Archeology.

Faurot field at the University of Missouri

Ken Wolter /

Appreciate the Artworks at the George Caleb Bingham Gallery

A haven of modern artwork, the George Caleb Bingham Gallery promises an exceptional experience.

Located within the Department of Art’s Fine Arts Building, this contemporary art venue offers art displays, activities, and even touring artists to give Columbia’s population a more enriched artistic experience.

The Gallery Committee plans stellar installations, interweaving multiple disciplines for academic value.

Not only is entry free for all, but undergraduate and graduate students in the art program contribute to a big portion of the annual exhibitions with their prepared artwork.

For the students, it’s not just an opportunity to display artwork—it’s part of their studies as aspiring creatives, giving them valuable exposure while they prepare and mount their displays.

Whether it is for educational or pleasurable fulfillment, the George Caleb Bingham Gallery is a haven for art lovers.

Bring Your Furry Friends to the Twin Lakes Recreation Area

Are you a pet parent visiting the Twin Lakes Recreation Area this season?

If so, you don’t need to worry about finding activities that your furry companion can enjoy.

At the 73-acre neighborhood park, there are plenty of dog-friendly attractions to ensure your pooch will have an exciting time too.

The Lakeside Dog Park is open from spring through fall and is suitable for dogs of all sizes.

The Paw Ponds Dog Park provides various activities but has a maximum shoulder height requirement of 18 inches for smaller fur babies.

Within this walled-off area lies a tiny pond that allows dogs to relax in the sun.

Even in the winter months, your pup’s safety is taken into consideration with the Off-Season Dog Park, designed to stop any dogs from slipping through onto the frozen lake surface.

Step Back in Time at the J.W. Blind Boone Home

Exterior of the J.W. Blind Boone Home

HornColumbia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The J.W. Blind Boone Home on 4th Street is a hidden gem with a rich historical significance.

Step back in time and explore the residence of the renowned African-American music artist and leader John William Boone and his wife Eugenia, an icon of accomplishment for African-Americans.

The J.W. Blind Boone Home is a storied building with a wealth of history and culture for curious visitors to experience firsthand, making it well worth a trip if you’re in the city.

Columbia visitors can take a journey through history by visiting one of the sculptures honoring Blind Boone inside his home.

Facade of the J.W. Blind Boone Home

User:Grey Wanderer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While exploring this iconic tribute, guests can marvel at the piano used by Boone and then move on to check out an original 1880s fireplace nearby with its accompanying concert poster featuring multiple talents, such as Boone himself.

As an essential stop on Columbia’s African-American Heritage Trail, the Blind Boone Home provides visitors with rare insights into the city’s culture, especially when visiting sites like Second Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1893.

Visiting this site is a perfect way to gain historical perspective while learning about one of its leading figures, John William Boone.

Final Thoughts

Columbia has many entertainment options that won’t cost you money.

These include relaxing in the city’s numerous state parks to exploring the museums and galleries.

Explore the city without breaking the bank with these free things to do in Columbia, Missouri.

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