Columbia, Missouri is a Cool College Town | My Family Travels

We have long been fans of cool college towns and recently visited Columbia, Missouri, a university community with three schools to tour.

We know teens and students typically value college towns for their rich cultural life and youthful energy. Just consider Northampton, Massachusetts; Berkeley, California; and Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Columbia, known as COMO, there’s also plenty of the cheap food and shopping outlets that families love.

Public artwork like this traffic signal is featured all over the District in Columbia, Missouri.
Painted traffic signals, murals and other public artwork decorate the streets of COMO’s District.

This small, walkable town that doesn’t disappoint in any regard. Go to discover a fun and safe place to plan college visits during the pandemic era while discovering common ground with your teens.

COMO The District

The town of Columbia, Missouri has student bulletin boards with event notices around the town and each campus.
Bulletin boards full of student notices and event posters dot the District and each of the campuses in Columbia.

COMO is a good place to explore different kinds of colleges because of its three schools — the University of Missouri, Stephens College and Columbia College. Capacity is limited so reserve campus tours in advance. In one or two days, you can see the three campuses which all surround the downtown area called the District.

Take time to walk the District and explore some of its 43 square-blocks. Alley A and other streets of the District are skillfully muraled. Within their confines is a wide array of independent shops featuring handcrafts, artisanal goods and more. Papa’s Cat Café is one example; you’ll have to reserve your spot ahead to stay socially distanced while drinking coffee and playing with the cats at this café inspired by Papa Ernest Hemingway.

Mask up to sample the neighborhood’s ethnic restaurants, welcoming bars and interesting shops that have remained safely open during this pandemic year. Look for high quality ethnic food, healthy dining, vintage clothes, boutiques, art galleries and music clubs. Venture out to the Artlandish Gallery in the North Village Arts District to see the catacombs.

Cool Columbia Missouri College Visits — 3 Schools in 1

Student in face mask works at study carrel in front of a mural at the University of Missouri student union.
Only people wearing face coverings can use the study carrels, food court and social facilities at the University of Missouri student union.

The University of Missouri (fondly called Mizzou) is the largest of the three schools by far, with about 30,000 students. (Most students are screaming Tigers fans so it’s easy to spot them.) Mizzou is currently offering both in-person and virtual visits and we found the tour very interesting.

Opened in 1839 as a land grant school, the university’s sprawling, lush green campus full of beautiful old trees is a designated botanical garden. It’s considered one of the most prestigious state schools and dominates some aspects of the adjacent District.

Don’t miss the original student union, built to commemorate a student who lost his life in the Spanish American War. The much more modern Student Union not far away has even larger facilities, more food choices and is central to a lot of the classroom buildings.

Mizzou has a celebrated graduate school of journalism. Thanks to its noted documentary film program, the school hosts the True/False film festival (now 17 years-old) each February or March, which in 2018 sold 20,000 tickets. In May 2021, plans call for all screenings to be held in outdoor venues.

From Mega University to Private College

The Stephens College administration building in Columbia, Missouri.
Stephens College is a small, tidy campus with classic red brick buildings.

Not far from Mizzou — but quite a contrast — Stephens is an elite private, all-girls college. Whether you visit in person or virtually, you’ll note that its small, well landscaped campus is more welcoming to students interested in a small, liberal arts college.

Theater and the arts are top disciplines. Fun facts: Stephens has the largest theatrical costume collection in the U.S. Stephens is ranked by U.S. News and World Report in the top third of all U.S. colleges. Stephens’ theater program is specifically ranked 11th in the country by the Princeton Review.

Stephens is also the usual site of the Unbound Book Festival held each spring. For 2021, Missouri’s bicentennial, festival now called Housebound will be virtual. It will feature free programs including authors, poets and readings from the state from January through April of 2021.

Versatile Educational Offerings at Columbia College

Positivity message on pathway at Columbia College, Columbia, Missouri
A positivity message inspires Columbia College students on the way to their dorms in Columbia, Missouri.

Further from the District, but less than a mile away, is Columbia College. Columbia College was named the “best Midwestern college” by the Princeton Review. The main campus is HQ for 30 other campuses in the U.S. and Cuba and is open to visitors and students.

Columbia was once the Christian Female College for women only and became co-ed in 1970. The COMO campus offers a solid liberal arts curriculum by day, plus evening and online classes, from a historic hilltop location. The impressive educational options include associate and bachelor’s degrees, as well as master’s degrees at the main campus, selected venues and online.

Get Outdoors Around Columbia, Missouri

Two bike riders pause to read about the Lewis & Clark encampment along the Katy Trail on the Missouri River.
The Katy Trail outside Columbia runs along the Missouri River and follows the path that the Lewis & Clark Expedition took.

Outside of town, the countryside offers some very special experiences. About 10 miles west, bicyclists can join a world-class bike path that runs on a former K.D. Railroad track bed. Known as the Katy or KD (Kenosha Division of the Kenosha-Rockford Line), the Katy Trail State Park runs 240 miles across the state. Part of the trail is right beside the wide Missouri River, following the westward passage of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark.

In the tiny town of Rocheport, about 15 miles from Columbia, you can join the trail at the Meriwether Café and Bike Shop. Rent bikes there and enjoy a tasty lunch before or after your journey down the Trail. This trail is so well built that slim city bike tires weather the gravel surface without problem.

Even closer to town, recreate with your teens at Rock Bridge Memorial Park. It’s a beautiful setting and good home to hiking and biking trails, as well as a large cave system. The Devil’s Icebox Hike leads to a spot where you can feel the temperature drop as you walk down the stairs. Yes, there are many springs and even a rock bridge.

Getting Around the Cool College Town of Columbia, Missouri

While summer, when temps get to a high of 88F degrees, is one of the most popular times to visit, the weather is not as bad as visitors expect from Missouri. The wintertime low temperature averages 21F degrees, with an average snowfall of 16 inches per year. Properly dressed, it’s easy to tour campuses on foot even in February.

The rest of the year pick up a rental bicycle (local bike shops here) and enjoy touring the town on two wheels. Look for the GetAbout Columbia map or download the Columbia Trails app to see which routes are Green (little trafficked routes or those with bike paths that are safe and comfortable for all ages), Yellow (bike paths adjacent to heavily traffic lanes which require good steering skills) or Red (streets where experienced bicyclists must navigate through traffic.)

What most impressed us about COMO is the range of multi-use paths that are off the streets, the many pedestrian routes and quiet neighborhood lanes.

Getting Settled in COMO

Ernie's outdoor cafe in Columbia, Missouri.
Ernie’s is a famous breakfast spot that’s serving at an outdoor cafe.

Our comfortable, convenient base in COMO was The Broadway Columbia – a Doubletree by Hilton Hotel in the District. The stylish rooftop bar, busy on weekends, makes it a popular place to stay when families of college students come to visit.

There are lots of food choices. We especially liked Ernie’s, a classic small-town café offering big portions of a very fine breakfast menu. At night, Sycamore Restaurant has a more refined menu and a very pleasant outdoor café in warmer weather.

For more surprises in this college town, introduce your college-bound teens to the Flat Branch Pub, Dogmaster Distillery, the celebrated micro-breweries or les Bourgeois Vineyards, considered by many the best winery in the state.

Additional reporting by Kyle McCarthy.

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