10 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Columbia, MO

Written by Brad Lane
Jun 8, 2020

Thirty minutes north of Jefferson City, near the center of Missouri, Columbia is a university city that delivers on sights, scenery, and a welcoming community.

A sizeable city of over 120,000 residents, Columbia offers the perfect balance, with a plethora of fun things to do and a small-town feel. Add in the youthful and academic culture at the University of Missouri, and Columbia is a top spot in Missouri to live and visit.

The culture of Columbia resonates deeply at the Francis Quadrangle of the University of Missouri. The beautiful campus spans out from the Quadrangle and offers several collegiate and cultural offerings for all members of the public.

Outside the academic attractions, a defining characteristic of Columbia is the surrounding natural space that begs to be explored. From underground caves to Shelter Gardens, the outdoors in Columbia is easy to find.

To find the best places to visit, see our list of the top things to do in Columbia, Missouri.

1. David R. Francis Quadrangle, University of Missouri

David R. Francis Quadrangle, University of Missouri
David R. Francis Quadrangle, University of Missouri | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located at the heart of the University of Missouri (Mizzou) campus, the David R. Francis Quadrangle is a culturally significant centerpiece of the university. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Francis Quadrangle continues today to be a common gathering spot for students and community members alike.

Surrounded by red-brick buildings and the architecturally eye-pleasing Jesse Hall, the Quad delivers on scholarly appeal, and the history it was built upon speaks for itself. The most iconic monuments of the Francis Quadrangle include the six towering columns in the middle of the grassy space. These eye-catching relics stand as the last remaining structures of the original Academic Hall that burned down in 1892.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of the columns, the quadrangle also lends access to other significant landmarks. During any visit to the Francis Quadrangle, it's always worth checking out Thomas Jefferson's original tombstone on the east side of the lawn. The entire surrounding campus is a community treasure trove of academic interest and extracurricular activity, including Mizzou football and basketball games.

Address: 205 Jesse Hall, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: http://concertseries.missouri.edu/concert/index.php/venue/jesse-auditorium

2. Stephens Lake Park

Stephens Lake Park
Stephens Lake Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Just east of downtown, Stephens Lake Park offers yet another fresh air option to explore in Columbia. The namesake Stephens Lake is the centerpiece of the park and provides 11 acres of water. The park features a seasonal swimming beach, fishing opportunities, and non-motorized boating access.

Other popular things to do at Stephens Lake Park include using the paved trail that circles the water. Numerous landscapes and scenic waterfalls are installed alongside the path.

Stephens Lake Park also features picnic table shelters, an indoor pavilion, and outdoor amphitheater.

Stephens Lake is also popular in the winter for its perfect sledding hill and opportunities to ice skate.

Address: 2001 E Broadway, Columbia, Missouri

3. Museum of Art and Archaeology

Museum of Art and Archaeology
Museum of Art and Archaeology | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Museum of Art and Archaeology is operated by the University of Missouri and features a wide range of art forms spanning thousands of years. The museum is on campus and north of Columbia's downtown district.

Admission is free to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, and visitors will be surprised by the large number of exhibits found around each corner. The collection at the Museum of Art and Archaeology ranges from ancient works of art to rotating regional exhibitions. The museum offers docent-led tours, which offer more insight into the artwork.

Weekly events occur at the museum, including speaker series, workshops, and an Ad Hoc Film Series.

Address: 115 Business Loop 70 W, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: https://maa.missouri.edu/

4. Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

Devil's Icebox Trail
Devil's Icebox Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Five miles south of downtown Columbia, Rock Bridge Memorial State park is a great natural getaway and prime example of a lush Missouri environment. Rock Bridge is defined by forest and restored grasslands on the surface, and dramatic karst features under the ground. With both sides to explore, this state park delivers adventure in multiple ways.

Hikers can enjoy the trails on the Gans Creek Wild Area Trail System, which spans over eight miles through a remote area of the park. Rock Bridge Memorial State Park also has a permanent orienteering course, where individuals and groups can practice their map and compass skills.

Underneath the abundant trail systems, a favorite attraction at Rock Bridge Memorial is the Devil's Icebox and Natural Rock Bridge. Along the half-mile Devil's Icebox Trail, visitors can travel through the 63-foot-high natural rock bridge before accessing the double-sinkhole entrance of the Devil's Icebox.

Two cave systems are accessible from the Devil's Icebox. One of the caves is the complex Devil's Icebox Cave, which contains at least seven miles of mapped passageways and can only be toured with park staff. Across the underground opening from Devil's Icebox Cave, Connor's Cave comes in at 150 feet, with no wrong turns to be made, and can be explored by mindful visitors throughout the year.

Address: 5901 South Highway 163, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: https://mostateparks.com/park/rock-bridge-memorial-state-park

5. The Blue Note

The Blue Note
The Blue Note | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

To absorb some of the collegiate and cultural vibe of Columbia, the first place to visit is the Blue Note. Located close to campus, this longstanding establishment serves as one of the state's top music venues. The Blue Note features a wide range of names on its marquee, including big-name bands, emerging regional acts, and a variety of alternative events.

The Blue Note is housed in a 1920s vaudeville theater. The ambience and acoustics are half of what makes the Blue Note fun to visit. The other half is the enthusiastic crowd of Mizzou students and Columbia community members that surround the stage.

For a more intimate show, the Blue Note also hosts regional and local acts just down the street at the Rose Music Hall, a local favorite to catch some live music. Tickets to both venues are available online.

Address: 17 N 9th Street, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: http://thebluenote.com/

6. Shelter Gardens

Shelter Gardens
Shelter Gardens | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Adjacent to the Shelter Insurance Corporate Office on the west side of the city, Shelter Gardens provides a bountiful botanical display. This public space is complete with waterfalls, rock gardens, and a replica one-room schoolhouse. The gardens also include over 300 varieties of trees and thousands of flowers.

Popular with anyone who enjoys the relaxing pace of garden gazing, Shelter Gardens has no admission fee and is open to the public every day of the year (except Christmas). Some of the most social times at Shelter Gardens occur on Sundays throughout June and July, when the Shelter Gardens Concert Series is in full swing.

Each season adds a different shade to Shelter Gardens. Arguably the best times of year to visit are the spring and summer, when the garden reaches its full bloom.

Address: 1817 W. Broadway, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: https://www.shelterinsurance.com/aboutshelter/sheltergardens/

7. Columbia Art League

Columbia Art League
Columbia Art League | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

At the center of downtown, the Columbia Art League, also known as CAL, is a thriving pulse of the Columbia culture and art scene. The exhibits at CAL rotate between the seasons and are often tied to local and regional artists. Admission to the CAL gallery is free, and school groups and interested visitors are encouraged to call ahead for a guided tour.

The Columbia Art League offers adult workshops and kids' summer camps. The facility also oversees a Community Exhibit Program that places local art into local businesses. Adding even more art to the streets, CAL also hosts an Art in the Park celebration each June at Stephens Lake Park.

Address: 207 S 9th Street, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: https://columbiaartleague.org/

8. Grindstone Nature Area

Grindstone Nature Area
Grindstone Nature Area | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Minutes from the University of Missouri campus and downtown Columbia, Grindstone Nature Area provides the perfect natural respite from the city. Grindstone is an extremely popular spot for residents to bring their canine companions. Operating as one of two leash-free areas of Columbia, all 199 acres of Grindstone Nature Area are open for dogs and owners to explore.

The only area in the Grindstone Nature Area where dogs are required to be on a leash is on the paved Hinkson Creek Trail that is popular with bikers. Other than that, everyone can run wild. Dog or no dog, Grindstone Nature Area provides a picturesque environment to take a step back and appreciate the seasons in Columbia.

Address: 2011 Old 63 S, Columbia, Missouri

9. Finger Lakes State Park

Motocross rider
Motocross rider

Located just over 10 miles north of downtown, Finger Lakes State Park hosts a wide variety of outdoor activities that you can't find in many other places in the state.

Before Finger Lakes was a recreation destination, it had been a strip mine for the Peabody Coal Company. After mining operations discontinued, in conjunction with the mining company and state and federal representatives, the Mark Twain Mine was reclaimed and repurposed into what is now Finger Lakes State Park.

Thanks to these efforts, visitors to Finger Lakes can enjoy all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trails, lake sports, and a place to get away into nature.

As one of two state parks in Missouri that accommodate off-road riders, Finger Lakes State Park has more than 70 miles of trails to explore via motorcycle, four-wheelers, and ATVs.

In addition to the plentiful off-road trails and motocross track, Finger Lakes provides numerous namesake water outlets to enjoy swimming, fishing, non-motorized boating, and scuba diving. Kayak and canoe rentals are available through the state park, and plenty of fishing holes can be found throughout the sprawling area.

To extend your stay within Finger Lakes, the state park also offers basic and electric campsites complete with modern restroom facilities.

Address: 1505 E Peabody Road, Columbia, Missouri

Official site: https://mostateparks.com/park/finger-lakes-state-park

10. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

Wetlands at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area
Wetlands at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

On the southwest edge of the city, this sprawling conservation area is a great place to get away and spot some wildlife. Encompassing over 4,000 acres of bluff-lined landscape, Eagle Bluffs provides vital wetlands along the Missouri River and Perche Creek. While each season is spectacular to visit, the fall foliage at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is simply dazzling.

The longest developed rail-trail in the country, Katy Trail State Park, passes through portions of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. This provides the main thoroughfare for visitors to explore the park. The park is also popular for squirrel, deer, and rabbit hunters during corresponding seasons.

Official site: https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places/eagle-bluffs-ca

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imageOther Cities in Missouri: If you feel the appeal of Columbia, you might also enjoy our article on the top-rated attractions & things to do in Springfield. In the country-themed city of Branson, the top attractions include live performances, water parks, and fun-filled family museums. For bigger cities in Missouri, check out our guides to the best things to do in Kansas City or St. Louis.

imageMore to Explore in Missouri: The many top attractions of Missouri are spread throughout the state. For some Missouri postcard inspiration, check out our Missouri in Pictures: Beautiful Places to Photograph article. If Lake of the Ozarks is your next Missouri vacation destination, be sure to check out our guide to the best things to do at Lake of the Ozarks.

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