Columbia Missouri: Endless charm meets shops and restaurants
On a sunny street, tucked in between two shops, a locked wrought iron gate beckons to the inquisitive. On closer inspection, the brick path behind the gate leads to a splash of color, a floral scent and something hidden that whispers in the wind. The allure of a secret is intriguing and just beyond the gate lays a secret garden in Columbia, Missouri's charming town center.
Columbia, Missouri, is located in the middle of the state half way between Kansas City and St. Louis. This vibrant town features three colleges consisting of the University of Missouri (with the oldest journalism department in the U.S.,) Stephens College and Columbia College. With the culmination of students from all three colleges and local residents, Columbia has indeed many requirements to fill, such as lots of restaurants, cafes, outdoor activities, theaters, entertainment, parks, shops and places to hang out and study. It was with these requirements and a growing population that Columbia's downtown underwent a revival about 10 years ago. The oldest historical buildings date from 1882 and the town needed to incorporate its historic charm with modern utility. The result is a fabulous place to live, study, work play and visit for all ages.
Exploring 9th StreetTo explore Columbia's downtown area, stroll along Broadway and 9th Street to find a bevy of excellent shops, restaurants and entertainment. It is on 9th Street you will find the wrought-iron gates that look into the secret garden; however, the entrance to this magical florist and gift shop is actually located on Broadway Street and is named My Secret Garden. The shop is filled with beautiful home accents, unique gifts and gorgeous flower arrangements including fresh and silk. Once you have perused the shop's goodies, head toward the back of the store and go up the steps that lead to their splendid secret garden. Take a few minutes to enjoy and relax in this small but peaceful haven. The famous Blue Note, located on 9th Street, is a cool music venue featuring performers, such as the Dave Mathews Band, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg to name a few. The venue was built in 1927 and was originally a vaudeville theater. In 1980, Richard King purchased the building, restored it and turned it into a perfect 800-plus seat venue for musical performances. The venue still has the Deco appeal with graduated seating, a bar for drinks and a great atmosphere to catch a concert. King also owns a smaller 200-seat venue, Mojo's on Park Ave., for local bands as well. Unique shops abound in downtown Columbia and a must-visit for the aroma enthusiast is Makes Scents, located on 9th Street. This sublime haven of scents will inspire a floral epiphany with fresh-scented and nourishing hair mists that smell like the perfect summer day; and customized perfume oils so you can create your own intoxicating fragrance combinations. The shop also carries body and hair care, lovely soaps, as well as massage oils and much more; they ship too. Stop by and ask to try the Cherry Blossom Hair Mist; you won't want to leave without it.
Downtown ColumbiaPerhaps one of the nicest features of Columbia's downtown, in addition to the friendly people, the excellent shops and mellow atmosphere are the wonderful art galleries and publicly accessible art. The city even offers a pamphlet with a self-guided walking tour to peruse these works of art sculptures. Do you remember the cartoon Beetle Baily by Mort Walker from the funnies section of the paper? Walker was a Mizzou student (University of Missouri). Stroll down to the University of Missouri campus to see this life-size bronze statue and sit by Beetle while your friends take your photo. Moreover, even the city's utility boxes have incredible artworks painted on them (taggers respect the art and won't spray paint them). The artworks are a great way to learn about the city and Columbia's history. Independent film festivals have grown in popularity and Columbia presents their popular True and False festival that takes places in March; it is an outgrowth of the independent film cinema. If you aren't able to make it in march, visit the Ragtag Cinema, located on 10 Hitt Street. The non-profit community-supported theater features independent films, a well as other media arts to enrich and inspire viewers. The theater's seating ranges from couches to chairs and is very comfortable. This art house theater shows excellent films and proffers a variety each day. No visit to Columbia or self-respecting college town would be complete without exploring the delectable cuisine. Although Columbia's downtown has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to top restaurants and cafes, you absolutely must try two while in town, as they are destinations in their own right.
Two Great RestaurantsFor the best vegetarian restaurant, hands-down is the Main Squeeze, located on 9th Street. Owner and operator Leigh Lockhart has created a cafe that features locally sourced organic foods for the vast majority of the menu. This personable and friendly entrepreneur originally started out at a small coffee shop down the street with her line of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies. The drinks were such a hit that she was able to expand into a larger space and add vegetarian fare to the lineup. The Main Squeeze's menu items run from amazing tofu tacos (you'd never know it wasn't meat), to a large array of farm-fresh sandwiches, salads and artisan cheeses from local small farms that are exceptional. If smoothies tempt you, try the cafe's list of whimsical but amusing named drinks, such as Give Peach A Chance and Strawberry Manilow. If you have a sweet tooth, try Lockhart's vegan peppermint chocolate cupcakes or the decadent chocolate haystacks. No matter what you deiced to order, you will love the happy and artsy atmosphere, vibrant colors and most importantly, Lockhart's genuine dedication to providing the tastiest and healthiest fare available. For a gastronomic experience worth visiting Columbia for, go to Bleu Restaurant and Wine Bar, located on 8th Street. The restaurant has lovely decor and is chic but comfortable, yet isn't pretentious. Moreover, Bleu takes contemporary American cuisine and gives it a new and meaningful designation. Chef Ben Parks has created breakfast dishes that will tempt you so equally that you'll despair if you don't order them all. The Brioche French Toast in vanilla custard with orange bourbon butter and maple syrup with applewood smoked bacon is divine. If you prefer a meatier dish, the Duck Hash is a gourmet duck confit, in a bed of seasoned potatoes with red peppers and caramelized onions, complimented by poached eggs and harissa (a Tunisian hot chili sauce). Then, of course, what morning menu would be posh without a sumptuous Benedict? The Smoked Salmon Benedict is just too amazing to pass by, with toasted rye bread and house-smoked salmon with poached eggs to perfection and a savory hollandaise to smother it. To top all of this off, you must try the mouthwatering Buttermilk Pancakes with Limoncello Chantilly cream, blueberry compote and maple syrup. Yes, it does border on cruel to describe this scintillating cuisine, but the lunch and dinner menus will be withheld so that you might take a break before you eagerly peruse the menu online.
The Katy TrailOutdoor activities abound in Columbia, with over 50 parks comprised of rolling green hills and hiking trails (explore the Bear Creek Trail), to the Katy Trail that is part of the Rails to Trails bike path that runs across the state of Missouri and is the largest rails to trails in the U.S. The Katy Trail is accessible by the MKT Trail in Flat Branch Park, located at 4th and Cherry Street in downtown Columbia; it is about a nine-mile ride to the Katy Trail. Alternatively, drive west from Columbia city center to the tiny but quaint town of Rocheport, where you can take your bike or rent a perfect trail bike at the Trailside Cafe, or pick up some biking accessories and grab a hamburger. This section of the Katy Trail is beautiful and meanders through lush forested areas, limestone bluffs and the Missouri River. If you are a major bike enthusiast and wish to ride for several days, you may want to stay at one of the lovely bed and breakfasts that are located adjacent to the Katy Trail throughout the state. If you wish to learn more about the trail and biking community, visit Pednet, a coalition dedicated to creating and promoting the use of a pedestrian and pedaling network throughout Columbia. Either way, the Katy Trail is a level (no steep hills, flat) and great ride for couples, families, individuals and older folks to enjoy Missouri's scenic lands. And, the trail routes close to several of the states excellent wineries, such as the Les Bourgeois Vineyards, where visitors can stop by for a wine tasting and sample their fabulous Norton wine (Norton Grape grown in Missouri). Or, visit their Blufftop restaurant and listen to music in their large wine garden, while sipping wine and savoring their luscious fare. For additional information on the Katy Trail, Trailside Cafe, Pednet and Les Bourgeois Winery.
If you go
Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular guest on Travel radio talk shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Photos courtesy of Patrice Raplee.