Sean Rayford

The creative hub in the heart of the state makes for an ideal getaway.

Stephanie Burt

Later this week, Columbia, S.C. will host a puppet slam. As part of the Indie Grits Festival (April 14 - 17), the event is touted as "the nexus of vaudeville, burlesque, and performance art through the intersection of experimental theater, art, music, and dance as a viable alternative to the culturally homogeneous digital mass media." Wait, where are we again?

Columbia, in the heart of the South Carolina midlands, is known for being oppressively hot and humid in the summer, full of college football mania in the fall, and the home of statehouse politics that can be its own circus at times. But lately, a combination of award-winning chefs, entrepreneurs, and cutting-edge cultural events have all eyes looking at this town as something new: our country's next creative getaway. Here's the scoop.

A Quick Look Back

"When we started in 2007, we had a vague sense of what new Southern culture was looking like, but it felt very much outside of the mainstream here in Columbia," says Andy Smith, Indie Grits founder and executive director of the Nickelodeon Theatre.

The Confederate flag was still flying at the Capitol, and had prompted a long-standing call by the NAACP to boycott South Carolina. Still, within the city, a small group of committed "artist types" were starting to imagine their home as full of creative promise, and Indie Grits provided a platform for expression, connection, and networking that soon began to spill into the rest of the year.

Smith, currently the co-director of the festival, can see the shift. "Now, in the festival's tenth year, Indie Grits is firmly established within Columbia's cultural calendar, getting support from broad swaths of the community," he says. Last summer, the controversial flag came down at the capitol, fueled in part from the efforts of many of the same people.

Event-full

Indie Grits started as a film festival, and so screenings of independent films and documentaries are still at the heart of the event. But at this year's iteration, whose theme is "Waterlines" in reference to the flooding the city experienced in October 2015, there is music (Big Freedia is headlining), visual art, activities for children—and new this time, a barbecue for 300 hosted by chef Mike Davis of Terra, who has been a part of the festival for years. Admission for all events is free in celebration of the festival's decennial, though there will be charges for food and beverages depending on the venue.

This isn't the city's only annual cultural event. Come late fall, Crafty Feast, a handmade, juried, independent craft fair takes over the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. It grew out of a partnership with Indie Grits in its early years and currently hosts some 100 regional vendors in a one-day, festival-eque event. New Year's Eve, too, has become the city's Famously Hot New Year; for 2016, Lauryn Hill headlined the event.

Coming Into Its Own

The creative heartbeat of Columbia (affectionately shortened to "Cola" by many) might be louder during special celebrations, but the day-to-day life of many residents is rich with outlets. Traci Broome, who has been an integral part of all the aforementioned events with her business partner Debi Schadel, grew up in the area. She spent many years away living and writing in San Francisco, but moved back to Columbia in 2009 for one main reason.

"Whereas San Francisco was rife with kinetic energy, I had the feeling that I would never be able to sustain a full life there," she says. "Columbia, on the other hand—full of potential energy—is incredibly affordable, physically beautiful, and logistically convenient, and yet we have at least one of everything that you'd find in a major city."

On every Saturday morning of the year, Main Street fills with vendors for Soda City Market, which offers pottery and popsicles alongside the many farm foodstuffs, including Cola urban farm pioneer City Roots. The Columbia Museum of Art hosts high-profile shows, from Rockwell to Warhol, and has vibrant and active membership support. The shopping and dining areas of Five Points, Devine Street, and The Vista support local businesses, and you'll find interior design to high-end consignment stores as well as bakeries in the mix.

Finally, Columbia is beginning to embrace a food identity of its own. Slow Food powerhouse Anson Mills has been at the forefront of reviving Southern heirloom crops like grits. Chefs such as Wes Fulmer of Motor Supply Company and Terra's Mike Davis are exploring the idea of a Midlands cuisine specific to the region. Restaurants including Bourbon and Oak Table showcase more and more local product. And chefs are relocating to the area to put down roots, including NYC's Sarah Simmons, of City Grit and Birds & Bubbles, who opened Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop in Cola last year.

Maybe it's time to toast to Columbia's dynamic new spirit with a locally brewed River Rat Hazelnut Brown or a craft cocktail from The Whig—this low-profile destination won't stay that way for long.

Where to Stay

Lodgings here remain quite traditional. Here are three favorites, all in the heart of things.

The Sheraton Columbia Downtown was the city's first high rise when it was built in 1913, but its classic exterior belie the best modern accommodations around within. Clean, sleek rooms, hardwood floors, glass showers, and those trademarked Sheraton beds create an elegant oasis.

It might feel a little odd staying at a hotel on a college campus, but the Inn at USC is located close to good bars and restaurants, and once you are inside, it's easy to forget you are on college grounds—unless it's football season, of course.

For a change of pace and some quaint charm, you might consider the Chestnut Cottage Bed and Breakfast. Situated in a neighborhood filled with old homes and old-growth trees, there's a hearty breakfast, requisite antiques, and plenty of homey touches for a dose of Southern hospitality.

Stephanie Burt lives in Charleston, S.C. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @beehivesteph.

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