Historically, Spartanburg was an old mill town in a South Carolina Upstate full of them, its traditional nickname “Sparkle City” almost an inside joke. Not anymore. Over the past decade, Spartanburg has revitalized itself with walking-friendly street-scaping and a wide array of downtown eating, drinking and touring locations that make it perfect for a weekend visit.
Once best known for Wofford College, which boasts average SAT scores higher than its enrollment, and The Beacon, a burger-fries-onion rings institution that claims to sell more iced tea than anyone, period, Spartanburg is now much more. The city boasts its own brewery and distillery Motte & Sons Bootlegging Company, dining ranging from farm to table establishments to burger joints, and sites to appeal to cultural, historical, technology, recreation and entertainment seekers.
Downtown is a strollers’ paradise, and nearby communities offer attractions within easy driving distances. Three days really isn’t enough to appreciate Spartanburg – but it’s a good start.
For pedestrian access to the bricked walkways and statuary downtown, the Spartanburg Marriott is ideally located on North Church Street. For fans of smaller accommodations/bed and breakfasts, choose from The Inn on Main or Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens. Start with a late lunch at Farmer’s Table, which offers a huge menu of exotic sandwiches, entrees and breakfast items all day – or, if you’re in a burger mood,The Nu-Way, Spartanburg’s oldest bar (1938), offers a Redneck Cheeseburger that Food Network magazine calls South Carolina’s best burger.
Walk off lunch by visiting the Hub City Railroad Museum (Spartanburg was once an Upstate rail hub, hence the nickname), or if you want more vigorous activity, Tyger River Park in Reidville has softball and baseball plus a cult favorite, disc golf. An August tradition is the NFL’s Carolina Panthers summer camp, which draws large crowds to Wofford’s Gibbs Stadium and adjacent facilities. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is a Terriers alum and former NFL wide receiver.
Combine sightseeing and happy hour with a visit to RJ Rockers, Spartanburg’s first microbrewery. Founded in 1997 by owner/brewmaster Mark Johnsen, the brewery moved to its current West Main location in 2009 and offers a variety of brews including its Bell Ringer strong ale, Good Boy Stout (named for Johnsen’s black lab) and perhaps its best-known offering, Son of a Peach. “We’re a destination, like the (Chapman) Cultural Center,” Johnsen says, especially for Thursday-Friday-Saturday tastings. Not a beer person? Carriage House Wines is a couple of doors up, where owner Tony Forest, a wine expert for 28 years, is pouring for tastings or to accompany light meals.
Dinner is as close as next door to RJ Rockers at Cribbs Kitchen on Main, with sandwiches, salads and entrees such as CK Fried Chicken, shrimp and grits and its Son of a Peach Brined Pork Tenderloin: Son of a Peach gastrique, Adluh Farms stone ground grits, crispy sweet potato and grilled asparagus. And yes, RJ Rocker beers are on tap. A block further away is Renato’s in Centro, with its extensive Italian menu. For steaks and the like, City Range is in its 10th year in Spartanburg.
Yannick (John) Bellefontaine, son of an American father and French mother who spoke French before he did English, opened his first Baguette & Co. in the tiny Spartanburg County town of Cowpens before moving downtown to Wall Street, a bricked, pedestrian-only connection between East Main and City Hall on West Broad Street. There he serves up an eclectic breakfast and lunch menu of crepes, quiches and French pastries along with vibrant Lavazza coffee. For a lighter, different breakfast, this is the place. Excellent light meal options include his neighbors Bobby Beauvais’ Hub Diggity (try the lobster roll) and Health In Hand Juice & Smoothie Bar, with its smoothies and yogurt and granola dishes.
Thus fortified, it’s an easy stroll across E. Main to Hub City Bookshop, with the adjoining Little River Coffee Bar and Cakehead Bakeshop, and where the Hub City Writers Project is housed. This group of local writers churns out all types of reading matter, including contributions to “The Underground Guide to Spartanburg,” a slim volume edited by Joe Mullinax and a must-have for visitors.
By lunch hour, it’s time to venture upcountry to Landrum, a quaint village near the final South Carolina exit on Interstate 26. Before exploring the busy downtown, grab a quick bite at Southside Smokehouse and Grill, where owner Robbie McClure and daughter Sarah serve up great bar food and a selection of beers and spirits. Other options include the Hare and Hound Pub – try a draft Guinness with your Chicken Pot Pie, or Rick’s Ribs at dinner – and Stone Soup, where the Asian Shrimp Salad and Spring Pea Ravioli are favorites.
No trip to Spartanburg is complete – especially for lovers of fine automobiles – without a visit to BMW’s Zentrum (auto museum) and BMW’s Performance Center. Tours of the museum are free. Participating in the Driving Experience, where drivers maneuver the latest vehicles over an obstacle course or around a test track – involves a fee, but speed junkies will not utter a peep of protest. Both will open anew in 2016 after extensive renovations.
Afterward, make your way up SC 11 to Chesnee and Strawberry Hill USA., where owner James Cooley and daughter Bethani Cooley oversee a produce/peach shed with seasonal veggies, within walking distance of their Strawberry Hill USA Café, where a cone or cup of homemade ice cream (strawberry or peach) is the perfect end of a day.
If lunch and ice cream have left you full, an alternative to dinner is drinking and grazing at either of two craft-beer pubs. The Growler Haus is a cozy nook offering 24-plus beers daily (including state brews) downstairs and Papi’s Tacos upstairs – not quite a meal, but more than a snack.Hub City Tap House, according to co-owners Kolby Garrison and Michael Wilcox, boasts the first brewery, cidery (Ciclops Cyderi) and winery all on one site in the US, and has charcuterie or hummus trays to enjoy with your favorite quaff. If you’re still hungry, there’s pizza – Venus Pie or Wild Ace Pizza and Pub– Asian (Miyako Sushi Group, aka MSG, or Monsoon Noodle House), Greek (Cuzina Grill) and even Cuban (A Caribbean Sweetness).
Load up for the day with breakfast at Papa’s Breakfast Nook, a locals’ favorite featuring Southern comfort food at its best. Or for a lighter start, Broadway Bagels. Want to work some lethargy off? Find one of the five locations for BCycle, which rents out bicycles for local touring.
If you’re feeling like indoor, educational and cultural activity, head to the Chapman Cultural Center at 200 E. Saint John St., across from Hub City Tap House. The compact campus is home to – among others – the Spartanburg Philharmonic, Spartanburg Art Museum, Spartanburg Regional History Museum, Spartanburg Science Center, Spartanburg Little Theatre and Ballet Spartanburg. “We’re the only cultural center in the US to house visual and performing arts and science and history” under one roof, says spokesman Cody Owens. The center also stages live music each Sunday, 2-4 p.m., outdoors on the Zimmerli Plaza.
For a more rigorous afternoon, drive southeast of downtown to Croft State Park, a 7,000-acre site with rolling, wooded terrain with 12 miles of biking/hiking trails, playgrounds, fishing and boating/kayaking rentals, and even horseback riding. A bit less taxing – and fun for all ages – is Hollywild Animal Park in Wellford, home to animals that have appeared on TV or in movies, including “Last of the Mohicans” and “Prince of Tides.” And, if you aren’t quite edified yet, take a digital, self-driving tour exploring Spartanburg’s textile roots and Revolutionary War history. There’s also the cell phone-directed walking tour of the city’s musical history: think Elvis’ electric guitarist, “Dueling Banjos” and Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like A Rock” – and, of course, the homegrown Marshall Tucker Band.
Want one last meal before heading home? The Skillet offers diner food and endless coffee, and McClellan’s Urban Eatery bills itself as “Southern cuisine with a French twist” with its 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday brunch. Still, this being Spartanburg, it’s never too late to hit The Beacon, open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday and a local institution since 1936.
Do you really want to leave Spartanburg saying you didn’t go? You do not.