A few years ago, Southern Living magazine dubbed Aiken its “Best Small Town of the South.” That’s heady praise, but this vibrant and friendly spot measures up to those accolades.
Founded in 1835, the community was named for South Carolina Railroad President William Aiken—a fitting choice since, for decades starting in the late 19th century, railroads brought vacationing Northerners to the town to spend winters in its mild climate. The Highland Park Hotel, long ago destroyed by fire, and its eponymous golf course (now Aiken Golf Club), were leisure destinations for some of America’s most famous and notable families, among them the Astors, Vanderbilts, Pinkertons and Graces, who headed Bethlehem Steel.
Today, Aiken lures a more varied selection of visitors with its eclectic blend of history, recreation, shopping and dining, plus a tourist-friendly vibe. Its signature thoroughbred, polo and steeplechase racing community still attracts aficionados of that pursuit.
Aiken’s equestrian history is chronicled in several museums, notably the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. Also for the horsey set, the Aiken Steeplechase Association, founded in 1930, hosts the Imperial Cup each March and the Holiday Cup in October—National Steeplechase Association-sanctioned races drawing more than 30,000 spectators annually.
Well worth a visit for a taste of the past are the Aiken County Historical Museum, also known as “Banksia” after the banksia rose; the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, with nine dioramas depicting the town's railroad history; and Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, recounting the lives of slaves and owners in the pre-Civil War era.
Fans of the arts and entertainment will want to check out Aiken Center for the Arts and Aiken Community Theater.
If you love the outdoors, there are few more picturesque sites than Hitchcock Woods, one of America’s largest urban forests. It features miles of trails for hiking, running and, of course, equestrian adventures. Hopelands Gardens, with its floral and natural beauty, is also a must-see. At night, the Dupont Planetarium at the University of South Carolina-Aiken is the place to experience a whole other world of visual splendor.
Downtown Aiken is its own contemporary attraction, offering dozens of restaurants and shopping possibilities. The Aiken Downtown Development Association maintains a full calendar of events, including late-night summer shopping at Finally Friday (with specials in numerous stores) and trolley tours each Wednesday and Saturday starting at The Alley, the place to be in downtown. Fans of craft beer will want to check out The Alley Downtown Taproom or Aiken Brewing Company.
Recreation options run the gamut from golf courses to city and county parks. There’s also the year-round Aiken County Farmers Market for those with a passion for fresh produce.
Getting around town is easy in Aiken. You can rent bikes from Pedego or use the Freeloader, downtown’s “no tab cab,” operating from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 4 to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Simply text “freeload” to 555-888.
Aiken wants visitors to experience its many attractions and goes out of its way to make people welcome. It's no wonder it was named Best Small Town of the South.