Aiken is the small southern town you’ve never heard of and definitely need to visit! It is by no means a sleepy little town and is bustling with life and activity. The area is rich in art and history and their charming little downtown is complete with antiques, boutiques, and great restaurants. Here are a few reasons to add Aiken to your list of places to see.
Horses are the heart of Aiken, South Carolina. The town is the quintessential equestrian community with world-class facilities, picturesque farms, and some of the most stunning working barns you’ve ever seen. Do yourself a favor and drive around town to witness some of the beautiful properties, especially in the historic district.
If you’re looking for some excitement, consider planning your stay around Aiken’s biggest events, Aiken Steeplechases! Steeplechases are horseraces that include jumping over obstacles as opposed to flat horseracing. Official steeplechase races have been running in Aiken since 1930. They host two a year, the Imperial Cup in March and the Holiday Cup in October.
I’ll cut straight to the chase, the best part about the Alley is that you can walk from place to place with a drink in your hand! That’s right, you can take your beer or cocktail to-go! (Just has to be in a plastic cup). This makes spring and summer nights feel like a block party with everyone mingling while playing cornhole or checkers out on the stone walkway. You can pour yourself a drink and make yourself at home at the Taproom. They have a wide variety of beer and wine to enjoy while you play shuffleboard or a board game, and kids are always welcome!
There are also some great restaurant options. The sushi joint has a large selection of rolls, sashimi, and entrees. For the picky eaters in the party, I recommend Mello Mushroom. Although they are known for their pizza, they have a rather extensive menu (more like a book!) so you are sure to find something for everyone at this local favorite. Plus, they have comfy couch seating outside on the alley that allows you to watch the kids play and get their wiggles out while waiting for their food. If you’re looking for a more upscale dining experience, I recommend checking out Whiskey Alley. For the beer lovers, there’s Aiken Brewing Company just around the corner from the alley which is a hot spot on Saturday night for locals since it has a full bar on both levels.
Shops and Art
Aiken has quite a variety of little shops. Everything from clothing to kitchen to home decor. If window shopping is a pastime of yours, you can easily spend an entire afternoon moseying in and out of all the stores.
A personal favorite was the Artisan Market & Decor. The owner (shout out to a fellow Californian!) creates some beautiful refurnished pieces and features local artist in her shop. She even offers her space for workshops, so pop in and see what she might have on the schedule! Another must-see is The Gallery at Aiken Center for the Arts which features local artists. I was blown away by the talent in the area. They are truly gifted individuals and it was wonderful to see them being celebrated in their hometown.
Although I didn’t get the opportunity to experience the museums myself, it’s at the top of my list for my next visit. The Aiken County Historical Museum, the Train Museum, and the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum are all very close to the heart of downtown.
The Aiken County Historical Museum is set in a lovely Aiken Winter Colonial mansion which has everchanging exhibits related to the county. The grounds also have an 1808 log cabin and 1890’s schoolhouse.
The Train Museum is located in the rebuilt Aiken Railroad Depot from 1890. It hosts two restored vintage dining cars along with several artifacts from all over the country.
The Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum pays tribute to the forty champions of flat races and steeplechase races that have been trained at Aiken Training Track. Also on the grounds are the beautiful Hopelands Gardens.
I hope you enjoyed the highlights of Aiken, my new favorite southern small town. Let me know in the comments: what’s your favorite small town in the U.S.?