Columbia is a planned city in Central Maryland. It differs strongly from most notions of what constitutes a "city," as the planner divided the densely populated, but decidedly suburban in character, city into ten "villages," each of which are divided into several neighborhoods, leaving the city with a less obvious center.
While many of the shops and restaurants in Columbia are corporate stores that can be found in any suburb across America, digging a little will find you at least a great few local places.
Columbia is easily accessible off the main I-95 north-south interstate. From I-95, take either Route 32 West, Route 175 West, or Route 100 West into the heart of Columbia (Route 175, which changes its name in Columbia to Little Patuxent Parkway, will lead you to the city center and the Mall in Columbia -- the primary shopping/activity area).
Coming from the West (i.e. Frederick, MD), take I-70 East to US-29 South. US-29 cuts through the heart of the city and will have the same exits as I-95, namely Route 100, Route 175, and Route 32.
Columbia is known as a working suburb of both Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and therefore there are relatively close stations near the city that connect to the Amtrak network (into D.C.'s Union Station and through Baltimore) and Baltimore's light-rail network. BWI Rail Station is the closest Amtrak station, a stop for express trains on the Northeast Corridor route. Catch the light-rail at BWI.
Howard Transit offers hourly bus service on its Silver route from the Mall in Columbia (Town Center) to BWI and the rail station. At the airport, catch the Silver route bus outside Pier E, the International Terminal, on the lower level.
Columbia is not convenient to the Washington, D.C. Metro system, with the closest stop being Greenbelt in Prince George's County. MTA Maryland commuter bus routes connect Columbia to Washington and Baltimore, but these services are intended for transporting workers to jobs, and run only on weekdays early in the morning and late in the evening.
Columbia is served by BWI - Baltimore Washington International - Airport. The airport is a major hub for budget carrier Southwest Airlines, and as such has a large network of connecting flights to almost every major U.S. city, in addition to its own international terminal and connecting flights to larger international hubs such as New York's JFK and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Travel within Columbia is largely by auto, although the city was originally planned as a pedestrian and bicycle friendly group of villages. Streets are winding and hilly; cyclists should bring their eighteen-speeds. Howard Transit operates a number of bus routes which circulate through the villages and connect to some adjacent communities. Most bus routes are hourly, with limited service on weekends. A well-kept network of walking paths winds through Columbia, mostly in wooded natural areas.
For those interested in town planning and intentional communities, Columbia's layout and village centers preserve a good deal of James Rouse's 1960s-era vision of a diverse and harmonious setting open to residents of all backgrounds. Harper's Choice Village Center and Wilde Lake Village Center (which was the first to be built) have interesting small shops and public spaces. The Maryland Museum of African Art is located downtown off Route 175, and the Columbia Art Center (gallery) is located in Long Reach.
Second Edition Books & Music (410-730-0050) is a nifty little used book store in the same shopping center as the MVA Express. You'll find books, CDs, DVDs, and Vinyl.
The Mall in Columbia off of Little Patuxent Parkway is one of the largest malls in the area and sports several higher-end department stores such as Nordstroms and Lord & Taylor. Great for fine gifts and luxery items. Also attached to a movie theatre and several restaurants.
Maiwand Kabob has hands-down the best kabobs in the state.
Sushi King (410-997-1269) and Sushi Sono (410-997-6131), owned by the same family, were voted best sushi restaurants in the area in 2010 and have absolutely delicious specialty rolls.
Columbia's Best Deli (410-884-3504) is true to it's name. Great for vegetarians too!
Azul 17 (410.309.2749) is a tequila bar and restaurant located off of Snowden River Parkway featuring more traditional Mexican cuisine than the usual TexMex. The drinks are original, the desserts decadent, and the guacamole is to die for!