Nestled in mid-Missouri, the Columbia area is flourishing with activity and a young vibe. There is so much to see and do – they have something for everyone. However, just because you don’t happen to be a college student or young professional doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy coming to the area.
I enjoyed so many new and exciting things on a recent trip, and it was hard to choose! Below is my list of highly recommended activities when you decide to visit. They refer to themselves as the “cool neighborhood in the big city,” and in my opinion, you will agree. The community is warm, friendly, and exciting and offers a great deal.
Visiting other destinations in Missouri? Check out our other delicious guides:
- 8 Best Columbia MO Restaurants
- 9 Best Lake Of The Ozarks Restaurants
- 8 Must-Try Restaurants in Springfield Missouri
- 5 Must-Try Fulton Restaurants
- The 5 Best Things To Do In Columbia MO
- Get Outdoors – Visit Rock Bridge Memorial State Park
- Explore a Vibrant Downtown
- Enjoy the Gardens
- Experience Biking Along The Missouri River And A Lavender Farm
- Experience Classic Cars, History, and Creative Craftmanship
- Which of these best things to do in Columbia MO do you want to do first? Let us know in the comments section below!
The 5 Best Things To Do In Columbia MO
Get Outdoors – Visit Rock Bridge Memorial State Park
5901 S. Highway 63 / 573-449-7402
Missouri has a great state park system, and Rock Bridge does not disappoint. While hiking through the park, there are so many examples of the diversity of nature. From forests and streams to natural bridges and caves, it is fascinating.
I had the pleasure of having a young guide named Ethan take me through a part of the park. He is a park naturalist and a student at the University of Missouri. He explained the topography known as karst, which consists of many sinkholes, caves, springs, and underground springs. The tour was at least 90 minutes (about 1 and a half hours) long and was riveting.
We hiked up and down the trails, making our way to the Natural Rock Bridge. The stunning force of nature can be seen throughout the park, especially near the rock bridge. The stream and rock formations are fascinating.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Devil’s Icebox Cave? It is a wild cave with a mapped passage of 6.5 miles. Unfortunately, tours are suspended to protect endangered gray bats due to a known fungus that affects the bats that live in the cave. However, you can hike to the mouth of the cave and see the opening of the vast cavern. Another inhabitant of Devil’s Icebox is a species of flatworm – it is the only known habitat in the world for this creature.
Connor’s cave is another wild cave that I was able to explore. Thankfully, Ethan supplied helmets and flashlights, as there are places in this 166 ft. long cave where bumping of one’s head is almost inevitable, and natural light does not exist. I can assure you an eerie feeling comes over you when you are at the end of the cave and turn off the flashlights for a minute or two. The vast darkness you experience will have you in awe.
Once you emerge from the cave back onto the trail, you have a great appreciation for the true force of nature.
Explore a Vibrant Downtown
Columbia’s downtown is referred to as “The District.” It is surrounded by three college campuses and encompasses 50 blocks. Within this area are five distinct areas: the Sharp End, the Government District, the North Village Arts District, the Stollway, and Flat Branch.
This area has over 5000 residents and over 600 businesses, which will explain the dynamic atmosphere of the downtown area. You will find multitudes of things to do within the region, only dependent upon your interest level. While the colleges account for a lot of the activity, many government offices, medical facilities, and other local shops, restaurants, and bars add their touch to the city’s engaging atmosphere.
One of the things I enjoyed most on my visit was strolling along 9th Street. Here you will find the Mizzou Campus, all manner of shops and galleries, as well as great restaurants. Prominent places such as Shakespeare’s Pizza, where the food was divine, and Booches, the oldest restaurant in Columbia. The street was humming with activity, and the architecture of the buildings as you’re walking around is stunning.
If you love all things artistic, you’ll want to be sure to visit the North Village Arts District. Here is the creative center of downtown. Here you can explore art galleries, dance studios, unique shops, film companies, and many other small businesses – some housed in renovated and refurbished buildings highlighting even further the creative nature of the neighborhood. It is truly fascinating to see the gifted nature of the people and the area in which they work and live.
Enjoy the Gardens
Mizzou Botanic Garden / 573-882-4240
Shelter Gardens / 800-743-5837
For those of us who enjoy the ability of beautiful gardens to soothe whatever might be on our minds, these two places in Columbia are a must-see.
Mizzou Botanic Garden is found on the University of Missouri campus downtown. The entire campus is designated a botanic garden and has several different themed parks and unique collection gardens. All are open and free to the public to enjoy. Self-guided trail maps are available at Alumni Hall, or you can wander about enjoying the serenity.
With my penchant for history, one of my favorite areas was the area west of the Francis Quadrangle, near the Chancellor’s Residence.
Here you will find an array of flowers once found in Thomas Jefferson’s Garden. Ones such as Virginia Bluebells and Columbine. You will also find a bronze statue of Jefferson and his original tombstone.
Shelter Gardens is another example of a public garden in the middle of a thriving city. Located on the corporate office grounds of Shelter Insurance, this garden is an escape into a lovely area filled with over 15,000 perennials and annuals, as well as over 300 varieties of trees and shrubs.
There is a rock garden, a pond with fish and a whispering waterfall, a replica 19th-century one-room schoolhouse, a lovely gazebo, and a Vietnam Vets Memorial, to name a few items of interest.
Shelter Gardens is the perfect place for a stroll, a picnic, or just a quiet time enjoying the beauty that surrounds you.
Experience Biking Along The Missouri River And A Lavender Farm
Katy Trail State Park / 573-449-7402
The Lookout Farm / 573-821-6699
Just a short 15-minute jaunt from the bustling city of Columbia, you will find the quaint, charming area of Rocheport. It is well worth the short drive to experience yet another Missouri State Park and some great history, as well as a tremendous learning experience at a lavender farm.
The Katy Trail is the longest developed rail-trail in the country. It is 240 miles long and runs along the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railway and parts are along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail corridor. One of the trailheads (26 of them along the route) is in Rocheport. My companions and I biked for a few miles along this route.
The trail runs along the beautiful Missouri River. There are benches along the path where you can stop to rest and enjoy the sheer beauty – the river on one side and the limestone bluffs on the other. This area also houses the only stone tunnel on the Katy Trail. The tunnel is charmingly arched and is 243 ft. long, made of brick, stone, mortar, and earth. It is a pleasant way to enjoy both nature and history.
The Lookout Farm was a pleasant surprise. As I had never been to a lavender farm, I was excited to be shown about this unique family business and learn the story of how they started, with a dream and a lot of hard work. I was unaware that lavender could be grown in Missouri but was stunned looking out over their fields. I regret that the lavender was not in bloom when I visited.
They have a small shop on the property where visitors can buy many handmade items, from soaps and sprays to lotions and oils, right down to the aroma of dried lavender bundles. You can even get dried culinary and craft lavender. It is a fascinating place to visit.
Experience Classic Cars, History, and Creative Craftmanship
Auto World Museum / 573-544-4500
America’s National Churchill Museum / 573-592-5369
Green Meadow Barn Company / 573-592-0331
Fulton is sometimes referred to as Columbia’s little sister. It is a short drive east of Columbia, and I would be remiss not to mention these delightful things to do while in the area. They are unique in their way, and I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing them while in the Columbia area.
Auto World Museum is an impressive classic car museum. It houses vehicles from the late 1800s up to the 1980s. Walking through the building is like taking steps back in time.
Each area is arranged with cars of that era, and as you progress, you are drawn through some of the most fabulous classic vehicles you can imagine. The one car you can sit in is one of the DeLorean Coupe vehicles used in the movie Back to the Future, flux capacitor and all.
America’s National Churchill Museum is, in a word, compelling. Not only is it full of history on Winston Churchill’s life and legacy, but it is housed within St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury Church. The church is 900 years old and was partially destroyed in the bombing of London. The church was redesigned and reconstructed stone by stone at its present location – a fantastic feat. Nearby is Westminster College, where Mr. Churchill’s famed Iron Curtain speech took place. In addition, the largest intact section of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany is at the museum, known as the Breakthrough sculpture. For the history buff, you will be enthralled with a visit here.
Green Meadow Barn Company is creative artistry at its finest. Here you will find the magic of exclusive, hand-crafted furniture pieces made only with reclaimed and repurposed wood from old barns.
Since she was a teenager, Carolyn has been creating unique furniture – true works of art. She is delightful to converse with while she explains the history and the work that goes into her furniture. A person that receives an item crafted by Carolyn will always know. The history, date, and origin of the wood used are always written somewhere on the item. Her creations are the true definition of one of a kind.
The area in and around Columbia, Missouri, is full of activities and things for people of varied interests. Its bustling and welcoming atmosphere will change your thinking of mid-Missouri. I look forward to returning and experiencing even more of what it has to offer.
Which of these best things to do in Columbia MO do you want to do first? Let us know in the comments section below!
Lisa Evans is a freelance travel writer and photographer. She has always enjoyed the outdoors and nature and often includes them in her writing and photography. History is another passion. Every place has a story to tell if only you find it.