A College Town Worth a Visit: Columbia, Mo.
Where rooting for the home team involves multiple choice
Columbia recently made headlines when revelations surfaced that a Wal-Mart heiress and the intended namesake of the University of Missouri-Columbia's new basketball arena had paid her University of Southern California roommate to do her course work (her parents, Columbia residents, are major donors to MU). The scandal has been the talk of this 90,000-person town, and beyond. But there are more worthy matters to discuss here. The downtown, particularly along tree-lined Ninth Street, has an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and music venues that gives the area a remarkably progressive vibe for the middle of the Midwest. It's just one of the reasons alums from one of the three four-year colleges (MU, Columbia College, Stephens College) stick around long after their undergrad glory days are over.
Where to eat
Procrastinating at the Heidelberg Restaurant is a student rite of passage. Entirely rebuilt after a fire last year, the Heidelberg now has downtown's best rooftop patio-made all the more enjoyable after a couple of pitchers of a Kansas City-based microbrewery's Boulevard Wheat. Another local institution that's next to impossible to get into on home-game Saturdays, especially after Mizzou beats rival Kansas: Shakespeare's Pizza (lunchtime slices $2). Sparky's Homemade Ice Cream does its share of helping freshmen put on those 15 pounds. It's a funky ice cream parlor with a liquor license, and the chocolate-cake-batter flavor is an undergrad favorite.
What to see
Befitting a town of 27,000 students (two of whom were Sheryl Crow and Brad Pitt), Columbia attracts national music acts to its affordable, cozy venues. The most interesting lineups can be found at Mojo's, a roadhouse-style bar where recently you could hear buzzed-about bands the Arcade Fire or the Mosquitos for as little as $6. Last spring, two former deejays from the Mizzou station KCOU opened Apop Records, cramming thousands of alternative albums into a space the size of a large dorm room. The decidedly un-multiplex Ragtag Cinemacafé screens quality movies in a mini theater with threadbare couches and worn armchairs; Ragtag's annual True/False documentary film fest, held every February, drew directors Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) and Sarah Price (The Yes Men) in 2004. This year's dates: February 25 to 27.
What to do
After all that pizza, beer, and ice cream, locals like to run or bike the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, starting downtown and heading south to intersect the Katy Trail State Park, a rails-to-trails conversion that stretches 225 miles under beautiful tree canopies along the Missouri River. It's about a 15-mile ride from Columbia to Cooper's Landing, but the trail is perfectly flat. For a reward at the end, Chim's Thai Kitchen at the boat launch serves pad thai and cold beer from the back of a riverside trailer. Seven miles south of town, there's also Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, 2,000-plus acres that are home to more than 15 miles of hiking and bicycling trails and a series of limestone caves and sinkholes, part of which you can explore without a guide. Bring a flashlight.
Where to stay
Sandwiched between two competing campus forces--a fraternity (Alpha Gamma Rho) and a Christian student organization--is the Gathering Place B&B. The turn-of-the-century rooms come with white-noise machines, which are especially handy during the frat's raucous parties.