Affordable Adventures Await in the Diverse and Dynamic College Town of Columbia, Missouri

Affordable Adventures Await In The College Town Of Columbia Mo

In a Nutshell: No matter the stage of life you’re in, Columbia, Missouri, is the kind of town that makes you feel like you’re coming home. With a mix of the familiar and distinctive, Columbia delivers big-city adventures and amenities without the expense and hassle commonly associated with travel. It has the youthful vigor and diversity of a vibrant college town, a sophisticated arts and culture scene, and dining, shopping, and entertainment options sure to engage. Highlights include the annual True/False Film Fest that celebrates the best of international nonfiction filmmaking in late February.

A modest college town in the heart of Missouri. Sounds amazing, right? But you’ll be surprised when you visit Columbia, the centrally located seat of Missouri’s flagship university. There’s far more to the city than you might think, and you’ll come away impressed not only by the experiences you have but also by how much money’s left in your pocket when you leave.

To use a boxing analogy, Columbia is a travel destination that punches above its weight.

Columnbia Logo

Megan McConachie, CTA, Communications and Outreach Supervisor at the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, told us Columbia is like a cool neighborhood in a big city: You get all the quality you deserve out of your visit without the headaches (and expense) associated with navigating large urban areas. If you want to experience a youthful vibe, an active buzz, and an engaged community, put Columbia on your list.

“People who have visited other college towns, or other towns our size, find we’re more than they expected,” Megan said.

That’s because CoMo residents are proud of what they have to offer and are happy to show it off. The city often ranks among the best places to live and raise a family. It’s home to nearly 100 city parks and trails and three higher education institutions besides the University of Missouri. Columbia boasts world-class dining, live music, and cultural events, including an internationally renowned documentary film festival, the True/False Film Fest.

“We always say if there’s something you like to do recreationally, we usually have a place for you to do it,” Megan said. “Many students who graduate stay and establish their families here, and they like to make others feel as welcome as they were when they arrived.”

A Global Crossroads with a Small-Town Feel

Those resident transplants come from all over. That’s typical of a flagship university town, and it makes Columbia unusually diverse and cosmopolitan for a city its size. The university also attracts visitors during football season and other sporting and educational events.

In other words, folks come and go constantly. Megan and the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau team have a mission to tell them how much Columbia offers beyond what brought them there.

“We know how important the university is, and the university does a great job of understanding how important the community is to the university,” Megan said. “Visitors say our arts and culture scene is more sophisticated and that we have the amenities of a bigger city, but with a smaller town welcoming feel.”

Yellow Dog Bookshop
The Yellow Dog Bookshop exemplifies the funky intellectualism found in The District, Columbia’s affordable downtown area.

Whatever your reason for coming, start your stay in The District, Columbia’s downtown, which blends seamlessly into campus for a unique synergy. The District is an all-in-one source of affordable adventures with something for everyone.

The area is home to bookstores, including the Yellow Dog, a quintessential college-town mom-and-pop definitely worth a stop. Many places in The District sell local handmade goods and offer space to local artists. For visitors interested in the outdoors, a local outfitter offers wares. Other businesses in The District, such as the antique stores, wine shops, food markets, bike shops, vintage stores, and boutiques, are run by locals who love where they live.

As a whole, The District includes three college campuses and encompasses 50 square blocks, including more than 300 individual properties, 5,000+ residents, and more than 600 businesses, nonprofits, and government entities.

“There’s a local feel to what you can shop for downtown,” Megan said. “You can spend the whole day in The District walking around, shopping, viewing art, dining — all that and more.”

Arts Scene Draws International Attention

Unsurprisingly, arts and culture are highlights in Columbia. On the cultural front, the Missouri State Historical Society recently opened a new facility in Columbia. An exceptional museum inside is free, and the building is an architectural wonder.

The Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology, which were both on campus for a time, are soon moving back on campus and into the university library. They are also free to browse and enjoy.

“I’m a townie, so I grew up going to the Art and Archaeology museum every year, and I still love to go because their collections are exceptional,” Megan said.

True/False Brass Band
The internationally renowned True/False Film Fest generates citywide celebrations of art and music. Photo by Rachel Grant.

Art galleries, museums, and historic sites abound elsewhere in Columbia and its environs. With the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau website as your guide, there’s plenty to see and experience while spending very little.

Performing arts is also a low-cost highlight. Whether through the university concert series, the city’s local jazz series, or the famous concert venue Blue Note, visitors can experience up-and-coming and world-famous artists for a reasonable price.

“There’s a concert somewhere every night of the week, whether at the Blue Note or Cooper’s Landing, one of my favorite places on the river nearby,” Megan said.

Beyond all that, the highlight in Columbia is undoubtedly the True/False Film Fest, which attracts an international audience interested in exploring the world’s best nonfiction filmmaking. It’s a four-day celebration of film enthusiasts hanging out with each other and promoting the art form they love.

“Downtown Columbia completely transforms for that entire weekend, with a parade, music showcases, and art all over the place,” Megan said. “It is Columbia at its best — a phenomenal weekend.”

An Engaged Community Welcoming Visitors Year-Round

Another feature setting True/False apart from similar events is local participation. Megan said highly engaged locals look forward to True/False as much as guests.

“When cities have film festivals, everyone leaves because all these people come, and they don’t want them there,” she said. “But everyone in our community goes to True/False — you see them talking to visitors, engaging with new ideas and people.”

True/False takes place annually around the end of February and early March, the coldest time of year in Columbia. But visitors can enjoy the city year-round, with its many parks and trails, nearby state parks, and other accessible attractions.

Kindness mural in Columbia
Columbia is a town populated by people who love where they live and want to show it to visitors.

When it’s time for dinner, Megan recommends Flyover, which serves cozy small plates. She said it’s a great place to go with a group without spending an arm and a leg. Across the street is Murry’s, a decades-old Columbia classic that offers live jazz performances a couple of nights a week.

The city also has a wide assortment of international cuisine, including restaurants started by former international students turned permanent Columbia residents. Columbia also has its share of breweries and brew pubs, including Logboat, which recently expanded its tasting room, outdoor space, and brewing and distribution space in response to demand.

Transportation is readily available, including a bus system and rideshare services in Columbia. Parking is plentiful as well, however. The city boasts a regional airport that opened a new terminal about a year ago. Many destined for Columbia fly into the international airport in nearby St. Louis.

Hotels run the gamut in scale and budget. More than 30 hotel properties offer various amenities to fit travelers’ preferences. Welcoming visitors and supporting tourism is essential to the work Megan and the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau team perform, but it goes beyond that, said Megan.

“It’s the nature of Columbia residents to be curious and friendly and to show off their talent,” Megan said. “People live here because they love it, and they want others to love it as much as they do.”