Between its progressive politics, low cost of living and three universities, Columbia places time and again at the top of college town rankings, including being named the “Quintessential College Town” by the U.S. News and World Report. Located midway between St. Louis and Kansas City and along the edge of the Ozarks, Columbia lives at the intersection of culture and nature. Bustling downtown Columbia is ringed by the city’s three prominent colleges. The largest is the 1,200-acre University of Missouri campus, aka Mizzou, just south of downtown. To the north is Columbia College, a liberal arts and sciences school, and to the east lies Stephens College, the second-oldest women’s school in the country. Between the three campuses, that means nearly 40,000 college students on the streets of Columbia.
With the huge influx of students seeking apartments in Columbia, start searching for your apartment at least a month or two before your proposed move-in date. If you wait too long, you run the risk of ending up far from campus or lacking key amenities. And sometimes a pool is just not negotiable.
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In Columbia, location is everything, and that’s especially true for apartments. All three campuses are located minutes from Columbia’s historic downtown, making it a hotspot for apartment rentals. Scattered throughout downtown Columbia, you’ll find shopping, restaurants, music venues and a thriving local art scene. But if you find yourself craving big-city entertainment, both St. Louis and Kansas City are just two hours away.
You can get just about anywhere on Columbia’s bus system. And with the COMO Connect app, you can track your bus in real time so you don’t rush out of your apartment and wind up waiting. The Yellow, Black and Red lines all run between Mizzou and downtown areas (with discounted student passes), plus the free campus shuttle can cart you to downtown or shopping areas. Driving in the city of 100,000 is an easy undertaking, but if you’re hoping to hop on your bike, many apartments offer convenient access to bike trails.
With all of the nature surrounding Columbia, just about any park or trail will be a prime place to play. Head to the Albert Oakland Park for disc golfing, sand volleyball, tennis courts or a dip in the pool. Word to the wise: Don’t leave Columbia without stopping by Lazer Lanes for bowling, a 40-game arcade and — that’s right — laser tag.
It’s no surprise that there’s a lot to see in this hub of the Show-Me State, and some of the best landmarks in Columbia are right on Mizzou grounds. The campus itself is a botanic garden with 11 themed plots — even a stroll between classes is a scenic saunter. The Museum of Art and Archaeology, State Historical Society and Museum of Anthropology are also right on campus. Columbia and the surrounding area are full of parks and trails, including the nearby MKT Nature and Fitness Trail and Rock Bridge State Park, which draws outdoors enthusiasts from around the state. Take a short trip outside the city for a celebrity sighting: A few Budweiser Clydesdales are stabled at Warm Springs Ranch just 20 minutes west of Columbia.
Stick to your budget by checking out some campus-adjacent favorites such as Shakespeare’s Pizza, Booche’s — a repeat winner for Columbia’s best burger — El Rancho and the Sub Shop. The Broadway Diner is open late for students recovering from a long night of… studying. And if it’s date night or your parents are paying your apartment a visit, try downtown’s Sycamore Restaurant for classy New American dishes complemented with cocktails, or Broadway Brewery for a more laid-back atmosphere and plenty of house brews.
For your new favorite campus bar, look no further than Harpo’s, only one-half mile from Mizzou and named one of the country’s best college bars by Business Insider. Come game day, instead of watching on the 20-inch TV in your apartment, join the massive crowd of sports fans flocking around the 20-foot-tall media walls at Harpo’s. Through an alternate entrance, also find the 10 Below Nightclub for DJs and dancing. Another hotspot for students is The Heidelberg, known as well for its happy hour as for its delicious wings. Grab a pitcher and head out to the ‘Berg’s year-round patio. For best beer in Columbia, locals love Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, in a refurbished brick warehouse that also boasts the city’s longest bar. In the middle of the Missouri summer, however, nothing beats the view of Columbia’s cityscape from atop The Roof, atop the Broadway Columbia, with two fire pit areas and outdoor TVs.
Aside from the University of Missouri’s on-campus museums — such as the popular Museum of Art and Archaeology, which includes artworks dating back to the 15th century — downtown Columbia is your best bet to steep in the local culture. Ragtag Cinema is where you can catch the biggest indie and foreign films, plus an annual four-day documentary festival and other special screenings throughout the year. The Missouri Theatre, on the other hand, is where to go for upscale plays and musical performances. But don’t overlook Columbia’s live music scene. The Blue Note, with historic touches like a ‘20s-era marquee and balcony seating, pulls in big names and eclectic acts. Rose Music Hall and The Bridge, both downtown, also book solid lineups of local and regional acts.
Head downtown for nearly all of the must-see Columbia events. Every June, Art in the Park pulls more than 100 artists and viewers from around the state to the shores of Stephens Lake for one of the area’s largest art fairs. (And it’s a great way to give your apartment some local artsy flair.) The Blue Note, one of Columbia’s best music venues, organizes an annual Summerfest, bringing in huge names and blocking off a section of downtown for festgoers to freely roam. For more outdoor concerts, watch for the Roots N Blues N BBQ festival in September, a summer concert series in Stephens Lake Park and year-round performances through the University of Missouri at Columbia.
For a shopping experience unique to Columbia, visit The District in the heart of downtown. Here, you’ll find a slew of designer boutiques and independent shops stocked with everything from clothing and candles to candies and comics. The District is also your go-to if you’re in the market for local art, restaurants, bars and quaint coffee shops to turn a shopping trip into a day out. The Columbia Mall — anchored by J.C. Penney, Dillard’s, Sears and Target — on the city’s northwest side holds the big brand-name stores.
When you say sports in Columbia, you might as well be saying “Tigers.” When either the men’s or women’s Missouri Tigers teams play, community turnout is huge — the football stadium was just recently expanded to hold more than 75,000 gamegoers. The Tigers are a Division I team that competes in the SEC, an extremely accomplished and competitive conference, though for many years the Tigers were part of the Big 12. Every good team needs a strong rivalry, and the Tigers find that with the neighbouring University of Arkansas (The Battle Line Rivalry) and the University of South Carolina (The Battle for Columbia). Fun fact: The Tigers’ name is rooted in national history. During the Civil War, groups of marauding soldiers would often raid small, vulnerable cities. When word spread that Columbia was next, the town pulled together a group of defenders known as the Columbia Tigers.
On those days you just need to get out of your apartment, you’ll find what you’re looking for in a Columbia park. Stephens Lake Park has playground, a beautiful lake backdrop and amphitheater that hosts a summer concert series. Shelter Gardens and the Mizzou Botanic Garden also make for peaceful greenery getaways. For an easy walking, biking or jogging excursion, head out on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail that traverses Columbia. Built on the old MKT railbed and paved with limestone, this wide 9-mile trail offers even terrain and views of the Hinkson Creek. If you’re looking for a little more, take the MKT west to the Katy Trail, which extends another 230 miles and follows Lewis and Clark’s path up the Missouri River before detouring out into farmland. If you’re looking to get out of the city, find the Rock Bridge Memorial State Park just south of Columbia, with scenic trails and a cave system that leads to a double sinkhole known as the Devil’s Icebox. The 4,200-acre Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is the perfect place to spot wildlife — like otters, blue herons, beavers and eagles — and Finger Lakes State Park offers a picturesque kayaking adventure.