Located near the center of the state, 120 mi/190 km northwest of Charleston, Columbia became South Carolina's capital when the seat of government moved there from Charleston in 1786. The State House is where the governor's office is and the General Assembly meets. It is one of the more unusual state capitol buildings in the U.S.—its design is based on the architecture of the Italian Renaissance, but it was constructed from locally quarried blue granite. Sherman shelled it during the Civil War—look for the bronze stars that mark the hits. In the neighborhood called Arsenal Hill, you'll find the Governor's Mansion, lots of historic homes and City Hall.

The Historic Columbia District is another area chock-full of grand old buildings, including the Robert Mills Historic House, a Greek Revival house designed by the man who drew up the original plans for the Washington Monument. Another interesting historic home is the sumptuously furnished Hampton-Preston Mansion. A nun who had known Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman saved it from destruction during the Civil War. She asked the general to replace a convent that had burned, and he obliged by giving her the choice of any house in the city. To get a good look at some of the historic homes, take one of the tours offered by the Historic Columbia Foundation.

The South Carolina State Museum, housed in a former textile mill, has four floors of art, history, natural history, science and technology. The Columbia Museum of Art is worth a visit for its superior collection of Renaissance and baroque paintings. Take young ones to the museum's children's gallery, and check to see if there are any weekend programs at the connecting Gibbes Planetarium. The Mann-Simons Cottage Museum of African-American Culture preserves the home of Celia Mann, a slave who purchased her freedom in the mid-1800s and then walked from Charleston to Columbia to start her new life.

The University of South Carolina is also located in Columbia, and there are two museums on the campus: The McKissick Museum of the University of South Carolina, which has a fine collection of gemstones and antique silver, and the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Museum, which contains military artifacts from the Civil War and other periods. For a look at after-class student life, head to the cafes and lounges in the Five Points area near campus.

One of Columbia's biggest attractions is Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, which contains more than 2,000 animals in simulated natural habitats and an Aquarium Reptile Complex. The metropolitan area also encompasses Lake Murray, which is formed by the Saluda dam, and Fort Jackson—the largest initial training center for the Army in the U.S.

Interesting annual events on Columbia's calendar include Autumnfest (arts and crafts, performing arts, food fair, historic home tour—September); Jubilee: Festival of Heritage (African-American heritage festival with storytelling, music and dance, historic exhibits, arts and crafts—August); and the South Carolina State Fair (October).

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