For a fairly new community, having existed only since 1967, Columbia has developed quite the reputation. Known best for its streets, which are named after the works of famous writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien, the area is increasingly becoming known for its unique design that incorporates 10 independent village centers.

Columbia is located southwest of Baltimore City in the central region of Howard County. Bordered by Baltimore, Carroll, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, Columbia lies conveniently between the Baltimore and Washington Metropolitan areas. In addition to its accessible location, Columbia's schools and high property values have made it one of the most desirable places to live in Maryland.

In an effort to improve the quality of life for the area's residents, the Rouse Company developed the concept of village centers in the early 1960s. The idea was to bring people of different races, religions and income levels together in a community, and to use as its focal point a convenient village center that provided residents with every basic amenity at their fingertips.

James Rouse, founder of the Rouse Co., wanted to develop a city that achieved four main goals: meet the basic needs of its residents, respect and have a relationship with nature, contribute to the growth of mankind and make a profit. Columbia, it seems, was Rouse's utopian dream.

Columbia's more than 80 miles of pathways serve as a way for residents to experience nature. (Photo by Rachel Hinson, special to

Rouse's vision of acceptance and integration -- a community that embraces human values -- is evident in Columbia's five interfaith centers. Churches are housed at the center of these establishments, while each religious community is allotted its own space. A wide range of religions, from Christian to Islam and even Unitarian Universalist, are represented in the interfaith centers.

Several decades after its conception, Columbia has done much more than just fulfill the vision of the Rouse Co. New developments including housing, shopping and recreational facilities have helped to bring Columbia together to function as a cohesive unit, not just a collection of independent villages.

A strong community connection holds great value in Columbia, but a connection with nature is deemed equally important. The Columbia Association (CA), a private, non-profit community service organization, is dedicated to making life in Columbia enjoyable and enriching. More than 3,100 acres of open space are owned and maintained by CA including lakes, parks, tot lots and more than 80 miles of pathways. On any given day, rain or shine, it is no surprise to see a handful of residents out walking.

The Columbia Association is also responsible for many of the recreational facilities in Columbia. Three fitness centers, more than 20 swimming pools, an ice rink and a SportsPark/SkatePark, which offers skate ramps, miniature golf and batting cages, are just a few of the many facilities that CA provides to its residents.

Merriweather Post Pavilion, built in 1967, has served not only the community, but all of Maryland. In its original form, as a unique outdoor concert venue, Merriweather has featured acts such as the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin and Sarah McLachlan, and hosted festivals like the Lilith Fair and the Capital Jazz Fest.

General Growth Properties, Inc. bought out The Rouse Co., developer of Columbia, in August 2004. (Photo by Rachel Hinson, special to

Since General Growth Properties, Inc. purchased the Rouse Co. in 2004, the future of Merriweather has been uncertain. The company is attempting to convert the outdoor concert space into a completely enclosed venue. The county is currently deciding whether to buy Merriweather to ensure its future in Columbia -- a plan favored by residents -- but it is on the market for private buyers, as well. General Growth would also like to plan retail and parking facilities on the land surrounding the venue, called Symphony Woods, putting in jeopardy the area that hosts events and festivals such as the Symphony of Lights and Wine in the Woods.

Aside from its many community-related facilities, Columbia is home to countless retail centers, which attract shoppers from both the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas.

Due to Columbia's convenient layout, each village center is a shopping center for that area. The village centers all contain different types of stores ranging from gifts to groceries, so if your village center doesn't have the store you're looking for, surely the neighboring one will.

There are 10 villages in Columbia -- River Hill, Owen Brown, Harper's Choice, Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Hickory Ridge, Dorsey's Search, King's Contrivance, Long Reach and the Town Center. Just like the street names, the villages and the communities within them were named after the works of esteemed writers.

In addition to its village centers, Columbia has several shopping centers containing popular superstores like Target and Wal-Mart. On Route 175, you'll find Columbia Crossing, which provides stores like Dick's Clothing and Sporting Goods, Borders Books and Music, Expo Design Center and the ever-popular Old Navy.

Snowden Square, located in East Columbia, is also a shopping hotspot. This particular shopping center offers BJ's Wholesale Club, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond and Best Buy, just to name a few. Snowden also provides its patrons with the United Artists Snowden Square 14 movie theater with stadium-style seating and several chain restaurants to fill you up after a long day of shopping.

The Mall in Columbia has become a favorite shopping destination for residents and non-residents, with more than 200 retail stores, including both Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom. With all different types of stores, like Build-A-Bear and Restoration Hardware, there's something to suit everyone's fancy.

There is also a nice food court with the standard sustenance you'd expect in a mall, as well as several more interesting places to curb your hunger. Aromi d'Italia, which features gelato made with ingredients imported from Italy, is a great place to stop and get a treat. If you are looking for more of a meal, Panera Bread offers bakery treats, sandwiches and soup.

AMC 14 Columbia is the area's newest movie theater, located at The Mall in Columbia. (Photo by Rachel Hinson, special to

In addition, the restaurant area next to Sears gives shoppers an opportunity to have a relaxing meal at Uno Chicago Grill, Champp's Restaurant and Bar or the delicious P.F. Chang's China Bistro. After your meal, you can head over to the AMC 14 Movie Theatre located just a short walk from the dining spots.

Parking in this area can be a problem. If there is an event going on at Merriweather, you're probably out of luck. The Columbia mall parking lot is known to be packed on normal days, and parking is nearly impossible when Merriweather is holding an event. However, valet parking is available near the movie theater and restaurants to alleviate the situation.

As for dining outside of the mall area, there are several choices no matter your craving. Nichi Bei Kai, Columbia's premier Japanese Steakhouse, offers sushi as well as a Japanese menu with choices such as hibachi shrimp, steak or chicken, plus the excitement of watching the hibachi chefs dazzle you with their amazing cooking bravado.

The Melting Pot is also a great pick. If you've got the money and you're looking for something different, this fondue restaurant can certainly satisfy. Featuring signature entrees like twin lobster tails and shrimp and sirloin coupled with countless dipping sauces, you'll be ready to eat as soon as you walk in the door. If that wasn't enough to draw you in, you'll have to try the dessert featuring chocolate dipping sauces with marshmallows, pound cake, brownies and fruit.

East Columbia also has a Restaurant Park, which is conveniently located off the 175 exit on I-95 or near the intersection of 175 and 108. The restaurants included are T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's, Bob Evans and the Olive Garden.

The Lakefront at Lake Kittamaqundi is probably Columbia's most popular dining spot simply because it hosts the area's most talked about restaurant -- Clyde's. Providing a comfortable atmosphere and delicious, affordable food, Clyde's has become a familiar spot for Columbia residents. In addition to the great food, Clyde's (along with the Howard County Striders) hosts the Clyde's American 10K Race every April, featuring Clyde's famous post-race brunch. Runners and non-runners alike come out for the race, the brunch and the camaraderie.

Also at the Lakefront is Copeland's of New Orleans, Sushi Sono, , Tomato Palace and the Waterside Restaurant located in the Sheraton Hotel. All of these restaurants offer a beautiful view of the lake.

Lakefront, the area surrounding Lake Kittamaqundi, is home to many festivals, activities and events throughout the year. (Photo by Rachel Hinson, special to

The idea of a "downtown" in the suburbs is quite uncommon, but follows suit with the other unusual aspects of Columbia. Surprisingly, the downtown area, or the Town Center, actually has the look and feel of a city. It has served Columbia well as the meeting area for all its residents, hosting the mall, Lakefront, Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Housing in this area has increased greatly, as the convenience of being downtown has drawn many to live in the bustling area.

Although Columbia is a relatively new town, it offers all kinds of cultural experiences -- theater, museums, music and more. Toby's Dinner Theatre has been an important part of Columbia's downtown area since 1980 and has provided fun musicals including the award-winning "Ragtime, The Musical," along with a buffet dinner.

Columbia's theater and acting opportunities helped Columbia native and now-esteemed actor Edward Norton find his calling. This native son is also the grandson of James Rouse, whose dream was the basis for Columbia. Rouse and his grandson had a close relationship, but Norton never felt overly privileged or even abnormal growing up in a town developed by his grandfather, according to a March 2001 issue of GQ magazine.

For a more interactive cultural experience, try visiting The Columbia Art Center. The center holds lectures, offers classes on subjects like painting, drawing, photography and ceramics, and has exhibits and gallery sales. Columbia is also home to the Maryland Museum of African Art and several art- and music-related festivals held throughout the year.

The Columbia Festival of the Arts is an annual festival held in June in the downtown area of Columbia. Providing its viewers with a wonderful mix of dance, music, theater and family fun, this is not to be missed. The festival has hosted musical acts such as Harry Connick Jr., Emmylou Harris, BeauSoleil and the Indigo Girls, as well as performances by the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company and Forbidden Broadway.

Like many cities, visitors to Columbia have found that navigating throughout the town is quite a task. With unusual street names, large residential areas, several roundabouts and similarly named streets, getting around without someone who knows the area can be frustrating. When navigating, just remember to keep the route numbers straight. If you confuse route 29 with 32 or route 100 with 175, you will definitely get lost.

The continuing development of Columbia is a clear sign that it is still on the rise and has not settled yet. The community, including all of the village centers, has served as a driving force for Columbia and has helped to make possible the vision of the Rouse Company. Columbia is proof that a planned community founded on an unusual concept can flourish and continue its founder's dream to make life easier for its many residents. Finally, it seems that Columbia has made a name for itself other than "that place with the weird street names."