Welcome to Columbia, Missouri
A classic college town midway between Missouri’s two largest cities—St. Louis and Kansas City—Columbia is a small city with a lot going on. Home to the University of Missouri (aka Mizzou), this 110,000-person mini-metropolis has coffeehouses, dive bars, bookstores, record shops, poetry readings, and everything else needed to sustain a thriving, vibrant life. From all-night diners to wacky traditions, CoMo—as the city’s been nicknamed—lacks for nothing. To give you an insider’s look at the city, we asked the locals what to do when you visit. Here are a few favorites.
Columbia Art League got its start as a group of a half-dozen or so Mizzou professors who dabbled in art. Nearly 60 years later, the fine arts gallery offers public art classes most nights of the week in subjects like basket-weaving and oil painting. It also organizes the city’s Art in the Park Festival, held annually in June, which draws artists from around the country for a free two-day arts extravaganza. Columbians come for the art installations, but also for the wandering magicians, children’s art tent, live music and tempting array of food trucks. For a laid-back, family-friendly celebration of the city’s arts scene, the North Village Arts District hosts a monthly First Friday art crawl through the artsy North Village neighborhood.
Rack 'Em Up
A hangout dating to when the American flag only had 38 stars (that’s 1884 for you trivia fans), Booches Billiard Hall is too old for a website. But ask any local and they’ll tell you where to find it. This restaurant, bar, and pool hall has hamburgers that are distinctive, charmingly compact and rightfully famous. They’re served on small squares of wax paper, rather than plates, and at $2.50 each, you may be tempted to eat more than one. Live a little!
In Columbia, Shakespeare's Pizza is the go-to pizza joint for grabbing a beer with friends and filling up for an evening’s revelry. Shakespeare’s casual, fun-loving vibe makes it as much a hangout spot as a restaurant. Locals recommend the Masterpiece Pizza—“over a pound of meat, half a pound of cheese...I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.” Order Shakespeare’s iconic “Stag and pickle,” a pint of the historic St. Louis beer, Stag, with a dill pickle spear plunked into it—part stirrer, part snack! For a 3am meal, head to Broadway Diner. Nothing sustains an all-night study session (or cures a hangover) like a huge helping of classic American diner food. Locals go for the classic Stretch, which is a plate of crispy, satisfying hash browns, topped with scrambled eggs, chili, cheddar cheese, green peppers and onions. But if you want the true Broadway experience, get the “Matt’s Dilemma,” a variation on the classic Stretch that adds sausage gravy, sausage or bacon, and three eggs—and still sets you back less than $10.
Take the Stage
No college-town experience is complete without stopping by an open mic, where you’ll find everyone from slam poets to folk musicians, regulars and visitors, sauntering up to the microphone to show the crowd what they’ve got. Locals like the casual and welcoming open mic at Fretboard Coffee, where there’s a good mix of performers and house-roasted coffee. Over at Eastside Tavern, open mic night is often live music, but stand-up comedians and poets are encouraged to join in as well and there are often $1 specials on cans of Stag beer. If you’re more into listening than performing in public, Columbians recommend Hitt Records, which is independent, locally owned, and has a huge selection of hard-to-find albums, for getting your vinyl fix.
Get Out of Town
Leave CoMo’s city limits and you’re surrounded by “acres upon acres of land, farms upon farms.” For a taste of Missouri history, locals recommend a day trip to nearby Washington, a small German village on the banks of the Missouri River that has over 40 buildings on the national registry of historic places and is the birthplace of the iconic American corncob pipe. Or, head to Rock Bridge State Park for some gorgeous hiking trails and an impressive cave system that includes the rock bridge for which the park was named, as well as underground streams, sinkholes, and the so-called Devil’s Icebox, a mysterious complex of caves and rock formations connected by wooden walkways. If exploring bat-filled caves sounds too spooky, the 2,200-acre park is also a favorite of local birders, picnicking families, and people out for a peaceful stroll. For an urban-rural path that starts in Columbia and leads into nearby countryside, the MKT Trail is a nine-mile rail trail built on the bed of the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad. Rent a bike at Columbia’s Cyclex bike shop and ride the (former) rails!