Travel Guide to Christmas in Columbia, SC

Exciting events, photos with Santa, beautiful light displays, and great local shopping make Christmas in Columbia a family tradition in the making.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

November 9, 2019

Christmas in Columbia is like a compromise between the Grinch and Cindy-Lou Who: it’s not too cold or crowded, but there are amazing Christmas lights and events everywhere. I spent a week in Columbia discovering what the holiday brought to the city with exciting events, light displays, local shopping, and dining. Here is a complete travel guide to Christmas in Columbia so you can discover it for yourself.

Christmas Destination

Based on an old family tradition, each year I spend a week in December discovering Christmas at different destinations. I then create a travel guide to help visitors discover that Christmas destination on their own.

Click to enlarge.

Horse drawn carriage tours, Christmas tree displays, and roasting marshmallows are some of the exciting Christmas events in Columbia.

Christmas Events in Columbia

This is far from a comprehensive list of all the Christmas events in Columbia, but these are some of the best and most exciting. Visit the Experience Columbia website for a complete, searchable list of all Christmas events.

READ MORE: 15 Fantastic Christmas Events You Don’t Want to Miss in Columbia, SC

Vista Lights

Nov 21

The one-night Vista Lights event is an excellent opportunity to explore the shops and restaurants of The Vista, one of the distinctive neighborhoods of Columbia. Live entertainment fills the cool night air as visitors mingle throughout the nearly sixty locally owned shops. Admission to the event is free, but you’ll have to pay for your own food, wine, and gifts.

Festival of Trees

Nov 22-24

Each year the South Carolina State Museum hosts the Festival of Trees. The three-day event includes a silent auction, photos with Santa, and dozens of beautifully decorated Christmas trees in the lobby of the museum. While visiting the museum be sure to catch a showing of The Polar Express 4-D Experience, a fascinating 30-minute program featuring the best clips from the classic Christmas movie complete with frigid air and snowflakes! Admission is $125 per person for the Auction Preview and $5 per person for the general festival.

Historic Holiday Tours

Select Days Nov 22 – Dec 31

Each year Historic Columbia offers Historic Holiday Tours, a series of guided tours of the gorgeous Robert Mills House and Hampton-Preston Mansion. The Robert Mills House is decorated as homes would have been in the 1820s before indoor Christmas trees became popular. Across the street the Hampton-Preston Mansion depicts Christmas in the 1860s. Guided tours are offered a few times each day Tuesday – Sunday. Admission is $15 per adult and $10 per youth.

Lights Before Christmas

Select Days Nov 23 – Dec 30

One of the biggest Christmas light displays in Columbia is found at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. The annual Lights Before Christmas includes thousands of lights and displays around the enclosures and sidewalks of the zoo. Firepits for roasting s’mores, photos with Santa, and a craft workshop make this one of the best family events for Christmas in Columbia. Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for children.

READ MORE: An Awesome Evening at the Riverbanks Zoo’s Lights Before Christmas in Columbia, SC

Annual Governor’s Carolighting

Nov 24

The official start of South Carolina’s yuletide season begins with the lighting of the State Christmas Tree during the annual Governor’s Carolighting. Carolers and special performances ring through the air as kids have a chance to catch a photo with Santa and enjoy hot chocolate. The event, held at the State House in downtown, is free to attend.

Sleigh Bell Stroll

Nov 25

One of the hallmarks and most exciting family Christmas events in Columbia is the Holiday Lights on the River at Saluda Shoals Park. The dazzling display of Christmas lights, from static displays to animated wonderlands, lines the paved road through the park so visitors can admire the displays from the comfort of their car.

But before the cars hit the road you have exactly one chance to walk the route on foot and enjoy the beautiful displays in peace and quiet. The Sleigh Bell Stroll is just $5 per person and you have two hours to walk the short route.

Holiday Lights on the River

Nov 29 – Dec 31

The annual Holiday Lights on the River is one of the most fantastic family Christmas events because you can enjoy most of it from the comfort of your car! The heart of the event is an enormous, animated Christmas lights display along a self-driving tour through Saluda Shoals Park. At the activity center near the end of the driving route visitors can roast marshmallows, grab some hot chocolate, join a holiday craft workshop, and capture photos with Santa. Admission is $20 per car.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday Lights on the River in Columbia, SC

Holiday Market

Dec 5-8

Each year the Junior League of Columbia organizes the Holiday Market as their biggest fundraiser of the year. Almost two hundred vendors come out with baked goods, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, and all kinds of fantastic Christmas gift ideas for the four-day event. Special events include the Preview Party, Ladies Night out, and Sundaes with Santa. General admission to the market is $8 per person (covers all four days).

Carolina Carillon Holiday Parade

Dec 7

The Christmas holiday is not complete without a parade! The Carolina Carillon Holiday Parade begins at 9:45 a.m. on Sumter Street and continues down Gervais to Senate Street, giving visitors plenty of room to snag a viewing spot. The parade includes hundreds of participants from high school and college marching bands to cloggers and performers.

Santa’s Market Craft Show

Dec 7

The one-day Santa’s Market Craft Show is hosted by the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission each year. The event features dozens of vendors with unique Christmas gift items like clothing, arts and crafts, jewelry, and Christmas décor. General admission to the event is free.

Holly Jolly Hollywood

Select Days Dec 8-24

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life in a movie theater (I also own a DVD version to watch it at home a couple times each season). Fortunately, in Columbia there is The Nickelodeon. This locally owned arthouse pulls out the film reels a few times throughout December for their Holly Jolly Hollywood event with titles like White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Home Alone. Admission is $11 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.

A Starry Night

Dec 13

Five Points is one of the distinctive neighborhoods of Columbia and they put on quite the Christmas event. During A Starry Night you’ll find live music, photos with Santa, and arts and crafts for kids. All the local merchants stay open late with special Black Friday-esque sales. It’s a great time to visit Five Points to find some great Christmas gifts from local merchants!

Candlelight Tours & Carriage Rides

Dec 14

One of the more exciting one-night Christmas events is the Candlelight Tours & Carriage Rides hosted by Historic Columbia. It’s the only time visitors can tour the Robert Mills House and Hampton-Preston Mansion by candlelight with the beautiful, period-specific Christmas decor. Hop on a horse drawn carriage ride for a 15-minute ride around the block, explore the grounds of the property lit by torches, and grab some hot chocolate from a street vendor. Candlelight tours are $5 for adults and free for youth, and a combination of candlelight tour and carriage ride is $15 for adults and $8 for children.

The Nutcracker

Select Days Dec 14-22

Another annual event every Christmas needs is a performance of The Nutcracker. The Columbia City Ballet puts on six performances and four matinees during the week leading up to Christmas. The Nutcracker Tea before each of the matinees is a great opportunity to bring the kids along for cake, cookies, and refreshments before the performance. Admission is $30 per person.

Christmas Wonderland

Dec 17-18

Not to be outdone by the ballet, Broadway in Columbia puts on the Christmas Wonderland Holiday Spectacular each year. The two-night event includes spectacular sets, costumes, singing, and performances sure to entertain the entire family. Admission ranges from $39-$69 depending on seating preference.

This gorgeous tree was one of hundreds decorated at the Riverbanks Zoo for the Lights Before Christmas.

Christmas Lights in Columbia

I feel like Columbia makes up for a total lack of snow on Christmas with spectacular lights. The light displays around the city and at special events will certainly give you something to admire. Here are some of the best Christmas light displays in Columbia.

READ MORE: Five Places to Find Beautiful Christmas Lights in Columbia, SC

Lights Before Christmas

Select Days Nov 23 – Dec 30

One of the biggest Christmas light displays in Columbia is found at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. The annual Lights Before Christmas includes thousands of lights and displays around the enclosures and sidewalks of the zoo. Firepits for roasting s’mores, photos with Santa, and a craft workshop make this one of the best family events for Christmas in Columbia. Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for children.

READ MORE: An Awesome Evening at the Riverbanks Zoo’s Lights Before Christmas in Columbia, SC

Downtown Columbia

Nov 25- Dec 31

The State Christmas Tree is located in front of the State House at the intersection of Main Street and Gervais Street. This is a great place to begin a leisurely walk along Main Street to see the Christmas décor put up by the city and various businesses.

Holiday Lights on the River

Nov 29 – Dec 31

The annual Holiday Lights on the River is one of the most fantastic family Christmas events because you can enjoy most of it from the comfort of your car! The heart of the event is an enormous, animated Christmas lights display along a self-driving tour through Saluda Shoals Park. At the activity center near the end of the driving route visitors can roast marshmallows, grab some hot chocolate, join a holiday craft workshop, and capture photos with Santa. Admission is $20 per car.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday Lights on the River in Columbia, SC

Santa Claus waiting and mostly eager for the next group of photos at the Lights Before Christmas.

Where to Find Santa Claus in Columbia

One of the hallmarks of Christmas for children is getting that chance to sit on Santa’s lap, divulge your entire wish list, and capture a photo treasure. Here are some of the best, and most interesting, places to find Santa Claus during Christmas in Columbia.

Columbiana Centre

Nov 9 – Dec 24

Belk Court in Columbiana Centre is the stereotypical Santa in a shopping mall location, but it’s also a pretty awesome location. “Santa” is on duty seven days a week throughout much of November and December leading up to Christmas. Photography packages range from $34.99 – $44.99.

Lights Before Christmas

Nov 23 – Dec 30

Go to the Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden for the amazing display of Christmas lights, but also be sure to get a photo with Santa! Ole Saint Nick is set up in a covered pavilion near the middle of the zoo ready and waiting for children to hop into his lap for a photo. Admission to the Lights Before Christmas event is $12 for adults and $10 for children, but photos with Santa are free (because you have to bring your own camera).

Breakfast with Santa at Dave & Buster’s

Dec 7 & 14

I’m not quite sure if this event is more for the children or the adults because it is hosted at a Dave & Buster’s. Just in case you’ve never been to a D&B’s, it is basically a giant arcade for adults with a full-service restaurant and bar. During Breakfast with Santa visitors can have their photo taken with Santa (using their own camera), enjoy the arts and crafts table, and write a letter to Santa. A buffet breakfast is included with the $24 per person admission.

Sundaes with Santa

Dec 8

Sundaes with Santa is a one-day event on the last day of the annual Holiday Market by the Junior League of Columbia. The Junior League encourages families to dress in their Sunday best for photos with Santa and then enjoy the ice cream sundae bar. Admission is $8 per person.

Historic Columbia’s Breakfast with Santa

Dec 14

One of the more interesting events with Saint Nick is Breakfast with Santa. Hosted by Historic Columbia there are three times to have breakfast with Santa on Saturday, December 14 (no wonder he’s so big). After breakfast visitors are encouraged to snap a photo with Santa, make holiday crafts, and explore the Hampton-Preston Mansion. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for children, and space is limited.

Holiday Lights on the River

Dec 14-23

While the Holiday Lights on the River includes the spectacular display of lights along a self-driving route through the park, from December 14-23 visitors will also find Santa waiting for them at the activity center. Visitors can roast marshmallows, grab a hot chocolate, and visit Santa’s Workshop while also capturing a photo with Santa. Admission is $20 per car with additional fees for photos with Santa.

Visitors browse for Christmas gifts like the decor items from craftsman George Downs (bottom-left) and enjoy hot chocolate from Allie (bottom-right).

Where to Find Local Shopping

You won’t have to look hard to find some great local shopping throughout Columbia. Several events are geared around local artisans but beyond that there are a few specific areas to find great retail shops. Here is a small breakdown of what you’ll find during Christmas in Columbia.

Soda City Market

Each Saturday

The Soda City Market is downtown Columbia’s farmers market. The market sets up camp along three blocks of Main Street in the middle of downtown each Saturday. Throughout December visitors will find artisans with handmade crafts, Christmas décor, hot chocolate, and baked goods.

Holiday Market

Dec 5-8

Each year the Junior League of Columbia organizes the Holiday Market as their biggest fundraiser of the year. Almost two hundred vendors come out with baked goods, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, and all kinds of fantastic Christmas gift ideas for the four-day event. Special events include the Preview Party, Ladies Night out, and Sundaes with Santa. General admission to the market is $8 per person (covers all four days).

Santa’s Market Craft Show

Dec 7

The one-day Santa’s Market Craft Show is hosted by the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission each year. The event features dozens of vendors with unique Christmas gift items like clothing, arts and crafts, jewelry, and Christmas décor. General admission to the event is free.

A Starry Night in Five Points

Dec 13

Five Points is one of the distinctive neighborhoods of Columbia and they put on quite the Christmas event. During A Starry Night you’ll find live music, photos with Santa, and arts and crafts for kids. All the local merchants stay open late with special Black Friday-esque sales. It’s a great time to visit Five Points to find some great Christmas gifts from local merchants!

Downtown Columbia

Take a stroll along Main Street between Gervais and Blanding to find some pretty amazing local shopping opportunities. Start with Uptown Gifts where you can create custom gift baskets and pick out personalized items. The Shoppes on Main is a great place to find home décor items and small gift ideas. The Mast General Store is a must-visit for any outdoorsy Christmas shopping list with outdoors clothing, equipment, and small gift ideas in their massive two-story location.

Five Points

The Five Points neighborhood is one of the most popular shopping, dining, and entertainment districts in Columbia. The name comes from the five streets that intersect at the Five Points Fountain, making it easy to find and get around the area. 2G’s Clothing, Dakotas Boutique, and Gentleman’s Closet are a couple of places to find trendy men’s and women’s clothing. Papa Jazz Record Shoppe is more than just a place to find vintage records; they also have a huge collection of DVDs, Blurays, and just about anything else every recorded onto a round disc. Another interesting place to visit is Sunrise Artisan Bath and Body where you’ll find a large collection of locally made soap, bath bombs, and deodorant.

The Gourmet Shop is the most interesting place to shop at Five Points. The massive store is centered around the kitchen with countertop appliances and gadgets. They also have one of the largest assortments of wine from around the world I’ve ever seen in one place. Along with small gift ideas and unique cooking items this is a great place for the chef (a.k.a. mom) of the family.

The Vista

The Vista is another of Columbia’s distinctive neighborhoods right next to downtown. Take a stroll along Gervais or Lady Street between Assembly and Huger to find some neat places to shop. Carol Saunders Gallery is a nice local art shop to browse. City Art is a great place to find art supplies to support the artist in the family during Christmas.

One of the more interesting places to find great gift ideas is The Cotton Mill Exchange, the 4,000 square foot gift shop at the South Carolina State Museum. The gift shop has a bevy of clothing, books, and dinnerware with a South Carolina theme, along with educational books and toys for children.

These Hangover Hashbrowns were delicious to the last bite at Cafe Strudel.

Where to Eat & Drink

There are so, so many amazing locally owned places to eat and drink in Columbia. During my week for Christmas in Columbia I discovered quite a few. Here is a list of what I found to help you enjoy some great food and drinks during Christmas in Columbia.

READ MORE: 5 Sensational Places for Brunch in Columbia, SC

Café Strudel I’m not a morning person by any means but I would get up at sunrise every day of the week if I could have breakfast at Cafe Strudel. They have two locations with the same menu, but I recommend the West Columbia location. Everything on the menu is delicious but I recommend either the Hangover Hashbrowns (hashbrowns, onions, banana peppers, cheddar cheese, topped with 2 eggs) or the Sunrise Burrito (scrambled egg, cheddar cheese, house-made salsa, and black beans).

The Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli Remember when momma used to tell us to stop eating dessert and save room for dinner? At The Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli on Divine Street you can eat both at the same time! Along with ginormous cinnamon rolls baked fresh every day they have a large menu of bagels, sandwiches, and soups.

The Gourmet Shop Café This little café in The Gourmet Shop offers brunch and lunch seven days a week. It can get a bit hectic with shoppers moving in and out but soon enough you’ll be focused on the delicious food. The Breakfast Panini (panini filled egg, Parrano cheese, red peppers, and turkey sausage) is a great start. You can also try their famous Chicken Salad or create your own sandwich.

Spotted Salamander This is one of the coolest locally owned restaurants in the city. The owners at Spotted Salamander began with a catering business but when that business grew in leaps and bounds they set up a restaurant in a cute house. They serve lunch five days a week with daily specials, salads, and sandwiches.

Bone-In Barbeque When Segra Park, home of the minor league baseball Columbia Fireflies, opened in 2016 Chef Scott Hall wasn’t far behind. He traded his very successful food truck for a small but cozy location for Bone-In Barbeque in the retail center beside the stadium. Scott believes bread is the most important part of a great sandwich and it’s all baked fresh in-house every day. Be sure to try their White Christmas holiday special mixed drink and the Charcuterie Board with absolutely mouthwatering bone marrow butter.

Za’s on Devine Officially called Za’s Brick Oven Pizza this is the best pizza you’ll find you Columbia. The modern and comfortable dining space is the perfect place to check out their long menu of specialty pizzas or build your own from scratch. Along with pastas, wood-fired appetizers, and a full-service bar, this is a great place to get lunch or dinner during a day of exploring the city.

Grill Marks Sometimes all you want is a good burger and Grill Marks has one of the best in the city. In fact, their entire menu is based on burgers stacked so high you’ll need to unhinge your jaw (or I guess you could also just cut it up with the knife and fork they give you). As an added bonus you simply must try one of their Freakshakes. Oh and they’re not much for decorating for Christmas but they did have the leg lamp from A Christmas Movie sitting on the bar!

Bourbon This locally owned restaurant is one of the hottest joints in the city right now. Seating at Bourbon is comfortable but limited, and they don’t take reservations. Grab a seat at the bourbon bar to enjoy fantastic mixed drinks or slide into a booth to try their Cajun-Creole inspired menu. Located on Main Street downtown it’s a great place for dinner at the end of an exciting day exploring and shopping.

Hunter Gatherer Brewery at Curtiss Wright HangarI have yet to visit Hunter-Gatherer’s first location on Main Street and I just might never go after my amazing evening at the Curtiss Wright Hangar location. The owners have converted the old airplane hangar into a brewery and restaurant. They typically have live music playing in the corner with plenty of booths and seats at the bar. The menu here is limited to “bar food” like pretzels, dips, and pizzas (but really good pretzels, dips, and pizzas) and they have their full line of craft beer on tap.

River Rat Brewery The most interesting evening I had during Christmas in Columbia was spent at the River Rat Brewery. They held a special event pairing locally made Christmas cookies with their craft beer. It was interesting to see and delicious to taste. Along with live music, plenty of seating, and a huge crowd it was a great place to make new friends.

The lobby of the Hyatt Place hotel was decked out for Christmas.

Where to Stay

Columbia is a big city and has plenty of options for lodging (I’m pretty sure the city has one of every type of hotel chain). Although a hotel is a hotel, some hotels are better and others are in better locations. Here are some options in three specific areas I think would make a great place to stay during Christmas in Columbia.

Downtown

Main Street and the State House are walking distance to these hotels. That puts shopping and dining within distance of not having to drive. All other Christmas events are within a 15-minute drive.

Hyatt Place This is where I stayed during my week of discovering Christmas in Columbia. It was a super comfortable and convenient location for exploring downtown, The Vista, and Five Points during all the Christmas events. A full-service bar and restaurant in the lobby offered a chance to get a meal without having to dress up and go out.

Aloft This is a relatively new chain of modern hotel to sweep the country and they’re pretty comfortable for a stay. Located across the street from Hyatt Place it is within walking distance of Main Street so you won’t have to worry about finding parking or driving back after dining at Bourbon.

Home2 Suites This hotel features suites with fold-out couches and large California king beds, making it the perfect place to spend a few nights with the family. Located on Gervais Street it’s four blocks from Main Street so you might need to drive, but it’s centrally located for all the Christmas events in the city.

I-26 & Highway 378

The area surrounding Exit 110 is a great place just outside downtown for good hotels with cheaper nightly rates. Downtown is less than five minutes away and all other Christmas events are no more than fifteen minutes away.

Holiday Inn & Suites The Holiday Inn chain has always been top notch and this is no different. All the rooms have been renovated with modern furniture and décor to provide a comfortable visit to the city. Connecting rooms allow families a little more privacy (and separation from the ones who snore).

Hampton Inn This hotel is in a great location beside the interstate to quickly access all the Christmas events in the city. They feature several rooms with a sleeper sofa so you can bring the entire family. The breakfast spread in the morning is pretty impressive and will get your day started off right.

I-77 & Highway 378

This area surrounding Exit 9 can get a little busy with large shopping centers, but it’s still a great place to stay. Five Points is just minutes away with downtown just beyond that and all other Christmas events are less than 15 minutes away.

Microtel Inn & Suites The Microtel chain is barebones but all you need for a comfortable sleep. They have a few connecting rooms, rooms with two beds, and a studio suite with a sleeper sofa so you can bring the family. The location near I-77 is on the outskirts of the city but still a great location for getting to all the Christmas events.

Holiday Inn Express With an indoor swimming pool you might be tempted to spend a night hanging around this hotel. They have rooms with two beds and a King Suite with a sleeper sofa for the families. The location is excellent for getting to Five Points, Downtown, and all of the Christmas events.

La Quinta Inn This hotel is one of the most affordable in the city (and one day I might tell you about how I stayed here when my camper van broke down). They have connecting rooms and a Deluxe Suite with a sleeper sofa for the families. The breakfast is typical of a hotel chain in the morning, but it’s still not a bad start to the day.

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