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My Gamecock husband never persuaded me of the charms of Columbia. However, after my best friend moved there, I learned to like Soda City, as our state capital is nicknamed. While many people simply think of the University of South Carolina and the neighborhood of Five Points when they envision Columbia, our capital is home to much more worth exploring.

After visiting a proper downtown near the Columbia Museum of Art, my children have now been exposed to well-known artists like Salvador Dali and Henri Matisse through traveling exhibits. On our last trip, we added EdVenture, which was a fun change from the Children’s Museum of the Upstate here in Greenville.

Although we stayed the night, a high-energy family could do both in the same day. Just make note that EdVenture opens first at 9 a.m., while Columbia Museum of Art opens at 10 a.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday. Because half of the Columbia Museum of Art is closed for renovation, we were able to see it in a couple of hours. That also means we enjoyed discounted admission.

If not for my friend, I’d have no idea what kind of great art exhibits reach the Columbia Museum of Art. I haven’t noticed any advertising around Greenville, which is a shame. Art-lovers should join the mailing list or check their website regularly.

At Columbia Museum of Art, I was impressed with activities for children, as well as interactive opportunities for adults. At the Dali exhibit, we saw a little-known animated film Dali started but never finished. It was a Disney project, similar to “Fantasia,” including some of the artist’s recognizable work with new elements. My children were positively mesmerized by the short film and watched it over and over. During the Matisse exhibit, visitors were encouraged to draw a Matisse-inspired piece of art and hang it in a group collection.

While both Dali and Matisse were traveling exhibits, anytime you visit, you’ll be greeted with a massive orange Chihuly chandelier, very unlike the outdoor Chihuly sculpture in Greenville — both created by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. One of the great observations on our last visit was that glass pieces look like squash. My daughter was right – they were bulbous with a curly neck, a lot like a squash! A Claude Monet painting is also a permanent part of the European exhibit, but that piece, along with the rest of the permanent collection, is in storage during renovation.

However, the upside to the renovation is half-price admission during this time. Rates are $6 per adult instead of $11, and students are $2.50 instead of $5. Children 6 and younger and college students are free. Seniors and the military get $1 off admission. Renovation is continued to run to the fall of 2018. Free admission on the second Sunday of the month is offered courtesy of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. More details are available on columbiamuseum.org.

One cool interactive feature at the Columbia Museum of Art are backpacks for the kids. Little artists can scribble their own inspirations with the provided sketchbooks and crayons. We also had a scavenger hunt card, and my 4-year-old diligently found every shape on the card on an art piece (although my 9-year-old helped find the last few tricky ones). Many visitors didn’t seem to realize backpacks were available to the kids, so we found enough for my three children easily despite the fact there were tons of kids.

Now that the Matisse exhibit has packed up, photographs by Imogene Cunningham are on display through April. Also, “Soul Culture” by Renee Cox is featured through April. The next big names coming in the fall are Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock in November.

One of the first rooms in the museum has a Secret Garden theme. While we were there on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, supplies were available to make crown crafts there, and both adults and kids participated. There’s also a play room. When visiting for Matisse, visitors were encouraged to write a poem and create an accompanying drawing in the children’s area. Dozens of contributors’ art pieces stuffed the display. The gift shop had no shortage of fun toys – both for kids and for adults.

After our museum visit, we stopped by Drip on Main Street for a snack. The kids were supposed to eat their huge chocolate chip cookie, but they decided my hummingbird cake was too irresistible not to “help” me eat. Guess I didn’t need those extra calories anyway. At least I didn’t have to share my excellent coffee.

When entering EdVenture, we immediately met Eddie, a massive climbing structure in the shape of a 10-year-old boy. You can walk up the stairs to enter the human model and end up at the top floor. On our visit, he was holding a huge snowflake several feet wide, if that gives you the sense of how big he is. The items in Eddie’s hand change with the seasons. Children see vertebrae and hear a flashing red heart beating. They see all kinds of super-sized body parts while climbing up platforms, crawling through tubes, and slipping down slides. Word of warning: my 4-year-old was terrified inside Eddie’s head. The interior is lit up like a huge Halloween skull. I found it a bit creepy too, but my 7- and 9-year-olds didn’t mind.

One of the highlights of our visit is a new permanent exhibit called Flight, which opened last summer, through a grant from NASA and corporate sponsorships. The body of a decommissioned plane is the centerpiece of the exhibit, featuring a cabin with rows of seats and a cockpit with dials and gadgets on all sides. The flight simulators were the coolest part for two of my kids. They crashed and burned over and over, despite dad’s help. My 7-year-old, however, spent most of her time “engineering” the designs of different paper planes. All three kids enjoyed testing their plane in the netted flying zone. Babies and toddlers seemed to get a kick out of the wind tunnel.

Like Greenville, there is a farm area, but it’s for all ages, not just babies and preschoolers like TCMU. Picking peaches is the central theme. The baby and toddler area is set up like a forest with cool treehouses.

A life-size fire truck was another highlight, and my 7-year-old donned a hat to sit behind the driver’s wheel. A safety movie also caught their attention.

My 9-year-old was fascinated with the weird blue blocks in one of the two building areas. I think she could’ve stayed there all day. I got sucked into creating a tower with the Kapla blocks in the other building zone. They’re only flat planks, and the fact that they’re skinny makes them tricky to stack. I wasn’t the only one – I saw more adults “playing” here than any other part of the museum. Maybe the appeal is that Kapla blocks were so different from what we had as kids. Maybe it’s the elaborate diagrams on the wall showing the amazing, possible configurations. Who knows? But I definitely lost track of time there.

Another unique feature at EdVenture is a huge pile of tires for “risky play.” Yes, a pile of tires, as in from automobiles. It might sound strange, but I’ve read about this concept, and it was really cool to see it put into practice. The exhibit description reads, “Risk taking play: Children extend their abilities through ‘risky’ play and learn to master challenging environments. They generally know how fast they can go without hurting themselves and need chances to practice risk assessment and setting their own boundaries.” The concept was illustrated as my oldest easily leapt the top of the pile, and my middle child reached the summit slowly with concentration. Meanwhile, my youngest did pretty well, but she couldn’t quite make the pinnacle. (Big sister offered a hand.)

The new traveling exhibit, “Timbuktu,” had not yet been unveiled on our visit. The concept is a hands-on, educational journey through Africa, traveling through different geographical regions, like a bridge through the treetops of the rainforest. Kids absorb culture, like dressing up and learning some moves in the dance exhibit. A green screen allows the children to see themselves dancing alongside African people. Other features include a fiberglass kneeling camel and sand table with moldable sand. The kids progress through coastal cities to the mountain rainforests to the Savanna grasslands. Finally, visitors reach the ancient city of Timbuktu, where the Sahara Desert meets the Niger River. A wood and iron gate that symbolize the architecture of the ancient city, and through the gates “the, tall pyramidal structure of the University of Timbuktu awaits exploration,” said Tae Moreland-Nickens, special events coordinator of EdVenture.

The Timbuktu exhibit will run at least into April, Moreland-Nickens said. Go to edventure.org for details.

My friend tells me spring and summer are a fun time to see the butterfly exhibit which runs May to September.

Admission prices at EdVenture are similar to TCMU, but adults with Bank of America or Merrill Lynch debit or credit cards get free admission on the first full weekend of the month. I also thought it was a great program for low-income families, that those on SNAP only have to pay $1. Membership at EdVenture is a bit less than TCMU, however, and will now be applicable to the Myrtle Beach location. If you’re planning a week or two near the Grand Strand this year, your family might find a membership worthwhile. Check the website for details.

One fun fact you may not find online: EdVenture admission drops during the last hour of the day. So if you’re pressed for cash or time, you can go at 4 p.m. for $4. Just keep in mind that there’s no way you’ll be able to experience all the exhibits.

Also worth visiting

  • Riverbanks Zoo and Garden: Home to nearly 2,000 animals that represent more than 350 species from around the world, the zoo also connects to nearly 70 acres of public gardens. Visit www.riverbanks.org.
  • South Carolina State House: Free guided and self-guided tours of the State House are available Mondays through Fridays. Visitors may enter the State House through the public entrance, located on the Sumter Street side of the building. Visit https://southcarolinaparks.com/education-and-history/state-house for details.
  • Finlay Park: This 14-acre park is located in downtown Columbia and features a scenic waterfall along with cascading mountain type stream falling into the park’s lake. There are picnic tables, two playground areas and a cafe.

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