17 Free Things to Do in Columbia, SC

Free Things to Do in Columbia, SC

Grab your walking shoes and join me as we explore some of the free things to do in Columbia, South Carolina.

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the following individuals for their invaluable contributions to this article: Jeanne Born, Daryl Woody, Nalani Meadows, Thomas Bentley, Christina Berry, Lynn Nelson and Clotilde Perez.

Have a Morning Stroll at the Scenic Saluda Riverwalk

Views from Saluda Riverwalk
C Dash / Shutterstock.com

There's something profoundly calming about the early morning dew, the chirping of birds, and the tranquil sound of the river flowing.

One of my favorite places to experience this serene start to the day is the Saluda Riverwalk.

The walking trails are well-maintained, the bridges aesthetically pleasing, and the sitting areas strategically placed, offering the perfect vantage point to enjoy the surrounding beauty.

Not only is the trail easily accessible for people with disabilities but it's also patrolled by diligent park rangers, ensuring everyone's safety.

This makes the Riverwalk not just a peaceful escape but also a secure and welcoming environment.

And for those who love water activities, the river is a hub of fun-filled adventures.

From tubing and kayaking to paddle boarding and boating, there's a thrill waiting around every corner.

A couple of miles may not sound much, but every step along this scenic Riverwalk unveils a new facet of the park's charm.

The historical markers sprinkled along the path add an educational dimension to your stroll, telling tales of William Sherman, the old mill, and the many bridges that have seen the passage of time.

And for those seeking a quiet retreat, you can always find a hive rock to sit on and get lost in the soothing rhythm of the river.

It's a wonderful place just to be, to absorb the peace and tranquility the Saluda Riverwalk has to offer.

Families, pets, everybody's welcome here!

Dive into History at the Mann-Simons Site

I've always loved history, and being lucky enough to live down the street from the Mann-Simons Site, I get to walk through history virtually every day.

This 19th-century Columbia Cottage was once home to a prominent African-American family, offering a unique glimpse into the past.

Recently, I was thrilled when the guided tours inside the Historic Columbia houses, including the Mann-Simons house, were resumed.

Armed with my curiosity, I went on a tour led by a jovial volunteer guide.

As we strolled through the various rooms, the story of this truly industrious family unfolded in front of my eyes.

There were signs, videos, and artifacts, each narrating a unique chapter from the lives of the Mann-Simons family.

What really fascinated me was the massive family tree and a rag rug in the front room, each thread seemingly woven with anecdotes from the past.

The actual house is just a part of the whole site.

There are markers or "ghost buildings," indicating where other structures once stood on this piece of land.

It's quite something to imagine how this bustling family compound once looked.

You can feel the hustle and hard work of the family members, almost urging you to roll up your sleeves and get to work yourself.

Although there's parking available both on the street and behind the house, remember that all guided tours start at the Robert Mills gift shop, which is several blocks away.

So, you might have to follow your guide by car, as I did.

Trust me, it's worth every bit of the effort for this enriching journey into a monumental 125-year history.

After all, it's not every day that you can step into the past and experience the challenges and triumphs of an amazing family that reflects the broader narrative of Black Americans.

Take Family Photos at The Horseshoe

They say home is where the heart is, and in the heart of South Carolina's University campus, you'll find The Horseshoe.

This place, steeped in history, is more than just a patch of green.

It's where countless memories are made and cherished, be it throwing a baseball with friends or hosting a family photoshoot.

Throughout my years here, I've watched the seasons change across the Horseshoe, each bringing a different experience.

From the vibrant colors of autumn that paint its trees to the blanket of snow in winter that transforms it into a wonderland.

Every return visit makes me feel like I've stepped back in time, back to those nostalgic college days.

The Horseshoe is not just a place, it's an experience.

It's a place where you can relax, grab a book, and enjoy a peaceful afternoon.

It's where families gather for an impromptu picnic, students find their inspiration, and the community comes together to celebrate the Gamecock spirit.

I remember getting our family pictures taken right here at The Horseshoe.

Join the Festivities at Edisto Discovery Park

I'm lucky to call a place so special my home.

Edisto Discovery Park is not just a park; it's a part of the fabric that makes up our city.

It was just last night that this very park was teeming with life and vibrancy.

Music echoed through the air, lights twinkled in the night sky, and the sounds of laughter and chatter filled the atmosphere.

Yes, it was a special night indeed, one that attracted individuals from all over the sandhills, plains, and swamplands of our subtropical state.

In the midst of the festivities, I found myself in a surreal state of mind. It was as though I was in a dream, one filled with sound, light, and the presence of extraordinary people.

To ground myself, I sought the comfort of a large Zesto's 'mix' in a cone.

The sweet treat served as a reminder that I was not in a dream but in a beautiful reality, that is the Edisto Discovery Park.

The park is also a place where friends from the past can suddenly become part of the present.

Just last night, I caught up with some old friends from the neighborhood in front of the old UMC on Twelfth.

The past was intertwined with the present, and nostalgia filled the air.

Immerse in Culture and History at the McKissick Museum

Exterior of the McKissick Museum
Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

A morning stroll across the University of South Carolina campus often leads me to this charming little oasis of culture and history, the McKissick Museum.

It's a compelling narrative of the American South, captured brilliantly under one roof.

Getting there is a bit of an adventure on its own. I usually park at the corner of Bull and Pendleton.

There's a small parking lot there and usually plenty of room on the street.

Getting into the museum takes a bit of intuition, though.

McKissick Museum is spread across four floors, the entrance being on the lowest level.

Once inside, the labyrinth of exhibits begins on the second floor. A portion of it feels like a leap back into childhood, with displays of toys and games that will surely stir a sense of nostalgia in any visitors.

On the other side of the floor, an impressive collection of folk art, dominated by a gallery of beautifully crafted quilts, waits to be admired.

Ascend another level, and you're transported to a different time, where a chain of rooms showcases some of the museum's oldest items - fossils, animals, and cases of glittering minerals.

Back on the main floor, there's a miscellany of the museum's collection, including the school mace.

Further down the hall, there's a mock dorm room and orientation rooms, which give a peek into student life.

It's a modest collection compared to some of the bigger museums, but for a free museum, it's impressive.

And the walk around the historic horseshoe campus is a bonus.

It's not every day you find a place where you can escape the heat, soak up some cool AC, and take an unexpected journey into the past.

Learn the Tales of Heroism at the South Carolina Military Museum

I've always had a soft spot for history, and last weekend, I decided to spend my day learning about our nation's military past at the South Carolina Military Museum.

This place is brimming with tales from the War of 1812 right up to the contemporary era, and let me tell you, it is a treasure chest of knowledge.

As you make your way through South Carolina Military Museum, the collection of vehicles, restored to their former glory, leaves you in awe.

It's an immersive experience, seeing the antique firearms, all in outstanding condition, and the exhibits of military equipment.

One could spend hours just examining the tanks alone!

But what I found most fascinating were the more unusual items on display.

These unique artifacts tell stories that you wouldn't usually find in your typical war history book.

They add an all-new perspective, giving you a chance to explore the lesser-known aspects of our military past.

To top it all off, the museum staff are an absolute delight.

Discover the Rich Biodiversity of Harbison State Forest

I could feel the stress melt away as I made my way through the lush greenery of Harbison State Forest.

I've always found that immersing myself in nature is the best therapy, and this sprawling forest, just a short drive from my home, is my sanctuary.

With 18 miles of hiking trails, it offers the perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life. 

Paying a small $5 parking fee, I packed my essentials, laced up my boots, and away I went.

The trails are always in impeccable condition, a testament to the dedicated volunteers who maintain them.

They offer a variety of routes depending on how adventurous I'm feeling that day.

I'd recommend downloading the AllTrails app—it's free and ensures you don't veer off track.

The trails aren't just for hikers; Harbison State Forest is also a popular spot for mountain biking.

I've seen bikers whizzing past, filled with exhilaration.

But even with the occasional mountain biker, the forest remains tranquil and peaceful.

One of my favorite spots in the forest is the canoe landing.

In the early morning light, it's a sight to behold.

I packed a picnic lunch one time and found a sheltered spot where I could enjoy my meal while basking in the serene beauty of the forest.

The forest isn't just a place for recreation—it's also a place for learning.

Tucked away in the forest is an education center where Park Rangers share fascinating insights about the rich biodiversity of the area.

Cycle through the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park

View of a bridge from Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park
Joseph Creamer / Shutterstock.com

When it comes to peace and tranquility, nothing compares to the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park.

This gem, nestled in the heart of Columbia, is my personal sanctuary.

Every morning, I lace up my walking shoes and head out for an invigorating 5-mile round trip along the canal.

The trails are always clean, and the people are friendly.

What's more, the park offers generous parking spots, so you never have to worry about where to leave your car.

Summers here can get quite hot, so I usually prefer to venture out in the mornings before the heat is in full swing.

Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park is a haven for wildlife.

On any given day, you might spot a gator basking in the sun or a group of turtles paddling in the canal.

The sight of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is a sight to behold.

But it's not just about hiking or wildlife watching.

The park is also a great spot for families and outdoors enthusiasts.

There's a fantastic walking trail that's handicap accessible in some areas.

The canal area might be a bit tricky to navigate, especially near the turtles, but the views are worth the effort.

One of my favorite spots is midway through the canal walk, where you can enjoy telescopic views of the surrounding area.

If you're into biking, the trail is perfect. It can get busy on Saturdays, but Sunday evenings are usually quieter, making it an ideal time for a bike ride.

After your ride, you can set up a hammock or sit by the river in the lush grassy area.

Roll in the Grass at Elmwood/Roy Lynch Park

There's something incredibly serene about spending a sunny afternoon in Elmwood/Roy Lynch Park.

You wouldn't believe the joyous laughter of children playing and the gentle humming of insects in the butterfly garden coexist in a small piece of heaven right here in our city.

The best part is that it's just a few steps from my front door.

The park is always well-maintained and immaculately clean, a true testament to the hard work of our local community.

The landscaping is simply delightful, making it feel like you're stepping into a charming little oasis away from the urban hustle and bustle.

I often take my two daughters there.

My youngest is always thrilled to climb on the imaginative play structures, while my oldest can't get enough of the zip-line.

They alternate between the swings and the spinny seats, their laughter filling the air.

And when the summer heat becomes too much, they cool down at the splash pad near the entrance – although it's only operational during the summer months, starting Memorial Day weekend.

Elmwood/Roy Lynch Park also boasts a spacious grassy area in the middle and a beautiful butterfly garden.

It's a joy to watch the kids run around or sit quietly, observing the delicate creatures flit about.

And while there are no restroom facilities on site, there is a handy water bottle refill station, a small but valuable addition.

From birthday celebrations to just a simple day out, Elmwood/Roy Lynch Park has become our favorite go-to spot for family outings.

We always leave with a sense of contentment, our hearts full and spirits rejuvenated.

Practice Your Wheels at Owens Field Skate Park

Just another day in my beautiful city of Columbia, South Carolina, and I find myself at one of my favorite spots, the Owens Field Skate Park.

The park is a place of adventure and fun where you can be as active as your heart desires.

The skate park here is one of a kind, with a pump track that's given me hours of exhilarating fun.

My first time on it was an absolute blast. I revisited that same joy today as I smoothly navigated the track, weaving in and out like an excited kid.

The park is always clean and calm, which makes it a perfect retreat for some peace and quiet.

The late evening hours are especially serene, especially on a weekday when the hustle and bustle of life seems to slow down a bit.

It's almost like you're in your own serene world, with the skate park all to yourself.

Just be mindful of a few puddles here and there if it has rained like it did today!

Don't forget to bring some water to stay hydrated as you enjoy the park!

Not only is there an excellent skate park, but it also has a great playground for kids of all ages.

I often see them having a wonderful time, trying out different tricks on their bikes, scooters, and skateboards.

There's a soccer field and a baseball field as well, catering to the diverse interests of our community.

If you ask me, it's the perfect place to let your children stretch their legs and enjoy some fresh air.

For the adults, there's a walking trail where you can enjoy a peaceful stroll.

I like to take a folding camp chair, a good book, or simply tune into a podcast.

What's more, it's a safe place, which is always a comforting thought.

I often see my neighbors' grandchildren, who love to spend hours at this park.

Honestly, I can't blame them; it's a brilliant place to be.

Owens Field Skate Park, with its abundant amenities and peaceful atmosphere, truly embodies the spirit of Columbia.

It's a place where you can relax, have fun, and enjoy the magic of outdoor play.

It's one of the many reasons why I love calling this city my home.

Stroll through Memorial Park

Every now and then, I take an hour's break to wander in Memorial Park.

There's something soothing about the monuments that stand tall in the park.

They're a sight to behold, each one with a story to tell - a history lesson for anyone who's interested.

This place, although it could do with a bit of maintenance, offers an interesting and educational escape for the family.

Memorial Park is laden with some of the best veterans' memorials I've witnessed in the country.

It's great to see so many different wars and people honored in one place.

The War Dog statue? Absolutely top-notch!

It's quite the sight and a memorable one at that.

The park is also dog-friendly, so I never forget to bring my pup along for the stroll.

However, don't forget to bring clean water for your furry one, as the park lacks this provision.

Relax at the Sound of Water at Five Points Fountain

The waters of Five Points Fountain
Thomas Stroud / Shutterstock.com

I must admit, there's nothing quite like settling down on a shaded bench at the Five Points Fountain after a long day.

It's a quaint little nook tucked away in the hustle and bustle of the city.

You can't miss the beautiful sight of the water cascading down, the sound of it creating a soothing backdrop.

The Five Points Fountain has this unique charm that always draws me in.

Finding a comfortable spot is never an issue.

The area is dotted with plenty of benches, and it's common for me to spend time here just taking in the calm ambiance.

Often, I would bring along a book or plug in my headphones and let the world fade away.

And yes, there's an actual plug point, perfect for when my phone battery decides to play truant.

Around the fountain, there's never a shortage of activity.

You'll find local shops and markets where people come in and out, making it an ideal spot for people-watching.

I often find myself lost in the stories of the people passing by.

The laughter from children running around, the spirited conversation of friends catching up over coffee, the intense haggling at the nearby market - it's a slice of everyday life that never fails to fascinate me.

Feeling peckish isn't a worry, either.

The fountain is surrounded by businesses that serve a variety of food and drinks.

I usually grab a quick bite from one of them and find a spot to enjoy my meal by the fountain.

It's a simple pleasure but one that I look forward to on most days.

Step back in Time at Historic Columbia

Every time I approach Historic Columbia, it feels like I'm about to embark on another journey through time.

I've lived in this city for years, and this place has become a meaningful part of my routine.

I make it a point to visit regularly, each time discovering something new and intriguing about my city’s history.

On one such visit, I toured the Hampton-Preston Mansion.

I was particularly impressed by how Historic Columbia is committed to telling the stories of the enslaved workers who built and ran these properties.

This inclusion adds a depth of perspective that's rare to find.

Historic Columbia is not just a place to learn about history but also a gateway to the broader cultural experience of the city.

The dedication of this hardworking group is evident in the historic buildings they’ve preserved for us to enjoy.

They’ve stepped up to protect our iconic landmarks when they were at risk, ensuring that the rich history of Columbia is never forgotten.

As a resident, I'm grateful to have Historic Columbia as a guardian of our city’s heritage.

Exploring Tranquility at Granby Park

The beauty of Granby Park, tucked away near the Congaree River, is something I often take for granted.

Within its unspoiled landscapes, I can escape the noise of the city and truly feel at home with nature.

From the moment I enter its grounds, I am transported into a world of tranquility.

The park is a natural retreat with hiking, biking, and horse trails. I am a frequent visitor, and each visit offers a unique experience.

There's a paved trail that runs parallel to the river, offering stunning views.

On hot summer afternoons, the scattered dirt trails under the shade of the trees are my favorite.

They provide a much-needed respite from the scorching sun.

The park's elevated paths, a few feet above the river banks, offer no real entry to the river.

Nevertheless, they provide an excellent vantage point to admire the river and its surroundings.

A bridge that once connected two parts of the park is currently out of commission, and I often find myself wondering when it will be fixed.

A detour path through the woods makes up for the missing bridge, adding a bit of adventure to the walks.

Though Granby Park is part of the Three Rivers Greenway system, it's the one that sees the least traffic.

It's not extensive enough for a lengthy walk, but it's perfect for picnicking or a leisurely stroll with my dog.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Discover Exotic Plants at Riverbanks Botanical Garden

The grounds of Riverbanks Botanical Garden
Joanne Dale / Shutterstock.com

I've found my own slice of paradise in the heart of the city, and it's none other than the Riverbanks Botanical Garden.

What makes it even more enjoyable is its location, right at the Riverbanks Zoo, a place that never fails to surprise with its array of native and exotic animals.

The botanical gardens, simply put, are a sight for sore eyes.

Each themed area comes alive with a burst of colors from the native and exotic plants, making each visit a new experience.

I remember one particular day when I was welcomed by a century plant that had bloomed right in the parking lot.

It was a sight to behold, a grand welcome that set the tone for the rest of my day.

A day in the gardens is not just about plants and flowers.

The kids' splash zone is a favorite for my little ones, especially during the summer.

It provides a great way to cool down while allowing them to interact with other kids.

And as a bonus, the Riverbanks Zoo is just a tram ride away.

We often pack a picnic and spend the entire day exploring nature and wildlife.

But one of the best parts about Riverbanks Botanical Garden is its brand-new Aquarium.

It's like diving into an underwater world right in the middle of the city.

The variety of marine life, the colors, and the tranquility it offers is something that has to be experienced.

Go Tubing at West Columbia Riverwalk Park and Amphitheater

I can't help but share my experiences at the West Columbia Riverwalk Park and Amphitheater.

Nestled on the banks of the Congaree River, this park is a unique place to unwind, blending natural beauty with facilities for fitness and culture.

The park's biodiversity offers ample opportunities for nature lovers.

Whether you're interested in discovering different types of fungi or observing the persistence of the invasive English ivy, the riverwalk won't disappoint you.

The park's recent addition of bodyweight exercise machines is a bonus!

These machines are an excellent way to turn a leisurely stroll into a more challenging workout.

If you're an adventure enthusiast, the park also offers the perfect atmosphere for tubing.

The mini rapids add just enough thrill to the experience, making it both fun and safe for everyone.

Get Inspired by West Columbia Interactive Art Park

Walking through the West Columbia Interactive Art Park, you're greeted by an awe-inspiring display of creativity.

The vivid, engaging artwork skilfully peppered amidst urban architecture immediately activates your senses.

It's hard to miss the dazzling butterfly piece that's become something of a local celebrity.

Despite its relatively small size, the park is a feast for the eyes.

Yes, you might not be able to spend an entire day there but trust me, every minute you do spend is a minute well spent.

It's a haven for art enthusiasts and casual visitors alike.

Though some of the installations could use a little maintenance (a dash of WD-40 here and there), the overall experience remains delightful.

A few of the interactive exhibits are perfect for kids to play with, while others seem more suitable for adults.

After spending some time interacting with the art pieces, you'll find ample spots around the park for some rest and relaxation.

What's more, there are a couple of splendid eateries close by.

Unwind with a meal, and make it the perfect end to an art-filled evening.

The West Columbia Interactive Art Park is more than just a place to pass through; it is a place that captures your imagination, teases your senses, and leaves you eager to return.

It's no wonder it's considered a go-to spot for a cozy date night.

Final Thoughts

Columbia, South Carolina is a city that's teeming with free and exciting activities.

Over the years, I've found much joy in exploring the rich history of the Mann-Simons Site and the Horseshoe, as well as immersing myself in the lush tranquility of the Harbison State Forest.

With each passing season, I find myself falling more in love with Columbia, a city that effortlessly blends nature, history, culture, and recreation.

Spotted a mistake, have some feedback, or just want to chat with our editorial team? Click here to get in touch.
Find out more about Travel Lens and read our editorial guidelines here.