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.
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.
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.
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.