For a relatively small city in the conservative state of South Carolina, Columbia has a surprisingly fervent gay nightlife scene. A couple of the town's most popular LGBTQ bars are within view of the stately capitol building, and a few more mixed but gay-friendly bars and hangouts are in the Five Points retail and entertainment neighborhood, not far from the University of South Carolina. While Columbia isn't a gay mecca, it does rank among the more welcoming destinations in the state, and the city hosts the annual South Carolina Gay Pride celebration. Visitors can enjoy some gay-friendly places to drink, dine, and catch live music in this friendly city and hub of South Carolina politics and education. Taking road trips to other nearby cities also adds enjoyment and additional LGBTQ-friendly options to any journey.
Exploring Columbia during the day is mostly safe, but for a smooth trip, take the usual precautions as you would in any city—especially at night—as the capital's crime rate could be better. Avoid dangerous areas and side streets, try not to be out very late at night, and travel in groups when possible.
Bars and Clubs
While there aren't many fully-gay bars or clubs in Columbia, there are some lively ones full of karaoke, dancing, drag shows, and drink specials, among other fun activities. Visitors and locals will also find some welcoming mixed-crowd destinations.
- The Capital Club: One of the longest-running gay bars in the Southeast, and the oldest in Columbia, the laid-back and private Capital Club is a block from the capitol building downtown. It's along a stretch of Gervais with several restaurants and mixed bars. Mingle at the friendly bar (check out their daily happy hours) or watch drag shows every Friday and Saturday night.
- PT's 1109: In the shadows of the capitol building, PT's 1109 is arguably the most popular gay bar and nightclub in Columbia, with a good-size dance floor and drink specials. The venue has drag shows, karaoke, and a variety of parties, plus events supporting Gay Pride and other community organizations.
- Art Bar: An inviting, carnivalesque space that includes giant robots, string lights, and other kitschy paraphernalia, Art Bar is packed on Friday nights when queer folk age 21 and up hit the dance floor. The rest of the week, the venue draws a mixed crowd to its live shows, karaoke (on Wednesdays), Trivia Nights, and other festivities. It's near Capital Club and PT's 1109, so definitely worth a stop any night of the week.
Restaurants and Cafes
Some of the best, most innovative food in the city can be found a short walk from both the Capitol and the city's gay bars.
Motor Supply Co. Bistro has been serving contemporary American, Asian, French, and Italian cuisine since 1989. The diverse menu varies daily, based on the availability of fresh ingredients from local farms or made in-house. You'll find an award-winning comprehensive wine list at this establishment in the historic Congaree Vista that's a favorite for a date night or special occasion.
Takosushi next to PT's 1109 is a nice stop, including a variety of sushi rolls and other Japanese food, plus some unique Western options like Portobello and goat cheese quesadillas or stuffed jalapeños.
Located in the heart of the bustling Five Points district, boho-funky Drip Coffee is a good place to mingle with friends, sip honey-vanilla lattes, and enjoy light cafe fare, such as pancetta breakfast sandwiches—the kitchen sources as much as possible from local farmers. In addition to coffee, Drip carries a nice selection of craft beers and wines. The downtown location is not open as late and isn't quite as much fun for people-watching, but it's handy if you just need to fuel up on caffeine.
Events, Activities, and Live Music
The must-do event is the South Carolina Gay Pride celebration which has taken place in Columbia since 1989 and is one of the state's main events. The festival has grown greatly in attendance from 2,000 people the first year to 80,000 in 2018. Pride Week includes everything from the all-day Famously Hot SC Pride Festival with live entertainment on Main Street in downtown to LGBTQ stories and films to a Trans Takeover and a Friday night Parade and Street Party.
Columbia, SC Prime Timers is a group of older gay or bisexual men (plus younger men 21 and up) that holds many activities: Check out their potlucks, picnics, movies, plays, local and out of town trips, and more.
Tips for Going Out in Columbia
- The Harriet Hancock Center is a good resource for South Carolina’s LGBT community and its allies. The center is volunteer-run; ask about their directory of LGBT-friendly businesses.
- The South Carolina Pride Movement lists additional local groups and helpful community resources.
- For those out on the town, one public transportation option is The COMET, which includes the free Soda Cap Connector buses going to some of Columbia's top attractions. COMET at Night partners with rideshare app companies on certain routes, and The COMET will pay part of your car ride. You can also take a Lyft or Uber.