120 miles NW of Charleston; 131 miles W of Myrtle Beach

Columbia, unlike many of America's older cities, has the orderly look of a planned community, with streets laid out like an almost-unbroken checkerboard and wide boulevards, giving it a graceful beauty. The city was created in 1786 as a compromise capital, located just 3 miles from the exact geographical center of the state, to satisfy both Low Country and Upstate factions. George Washington paid a visit to Columbia in 1791, just a year after the first General Assembly convened in the brand-new city.

It was here that a convention, held in the First Baptist Church, passed the first Ordinance of Secession in the Southern states on December 17, 1860. (Because of a local smallpox epidemic, however, it was actually signed in Charleston.) Columbia itself was little touched by battle until General Sherman arrived with his Union troops on February 17, 1865, and virtually wiped out the town by fire: An 84-block area and some 1,386 buildings were left in ashes. Although recovery during Reconstruction was slow, the city that emerged from almost-complete devastation is one of stately homes and public buildings, with government and education (seven colleges are located here) playing leading roles in its economy. Fort Jackson, a U.S. Army basic-training post on the southeastern edge of town, adds another element to the economic mix.

Long a well-patronized shopping village, Five Points contains restaurants, bars, galleries, specialty shops, and other establishments lying next to the University of South Carolina (USC). The increasingly hip part of town is Congaree Vista, which is giving the Five Points area competition as the place to hang out and patronize restaurants, bars, and galleries. The old warehouses around the Adluh Flour Mill have been turned into clubs and restaurants, and offices, condos, and private homes are springing up here.