A Southern icon of equestrian excellence, Aiken is known for raising thoroughbred horses that compete in both steeplechase and flat racing. Walking the charming streets of Downtown Aiken, you’ll quickly see just how connected this town is to its equestrian roots, from horse-inspired artistry at local galleries to colorful horse statues standing on the sidewalks.
Aiken's history is so completely tied to horses, whether they be quarter horses, polo ponies or steeplechase jumpers, it only makes sense to plan your visit to coincide with one of the many equestrian events in South Carolina. Even if you don't have your own steed, you can enjoy watching others jump and race.
A Taste of Elegance and Local Flavors in Aiken
For an ideal equestrian-themed weekend in Aiken, start by arriving on a Thursday evening and plan to stay in one of the elegant hotels that harken back to Aiken's days as a Winter Colony retreat. The Willcox or Rose Hill Estate are the perfect stopping points, each offering all the charm and ambiance of the 1920s.
For a taste of local flavor, have dinner at Whiskey Alley, a warm and inviting eatery offering small plates, entrees, salads and burgers along with whiskey and local beers. Chef Chad Jajczyk and his wife Chef Katie prepare a special menu every day, featuring an array of appetizing entrees with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Be sure to save room for their made-from-scratch sweet treats. Or sample some of South Carolina's premier barbecue at Duke's Bar-B-Que. The buffet includes barbecue pork (add your own sauce), hash and rice, ribs, fried or barbecue chicken, a host of Southern veggies and, of course, banana pudding for dessert. If you're going to Duke's, get there early because they stop serving around 8:30 p.m.
This is true horse country: Polo, Steeplechase, Fox Hunting and Thoroughbred Racing are enthusiastically enjoyed in winter and spring, with the Aiken Triple Crown taking place here in March.
Exploring Aiken’s Equestrian Heritage
Start your Friday right with breakfast at your hotel or hop over to What's Cookin' Downtown. Not only is the home-cooked breakfast fare fantastic, you'll also enjoy the restaurant's homey vibe with its handmade tables crafted from reclaimed wood and local artwork decorating the walls. If you want to fuel yourself for the busy day ahead, order The Troy, a savory breakfast sandwich featuring scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese on wheat toast.
After breakfast, it's just a short drive to Hopelands Gardens. Located on the former winter estate of Hope Goddard Iselin and her industrialist husband, C.O. Iselin, the gardens are home to koi, turtles, wood ducks and some of the most interestingly shaped live oaks you will ever see. Hopelands is also home to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. You can learn all about the horsemen and women who made the city famous and the stables that still train some of the best racehorses and steeplechase jumpers you will find. It's all free, so come and go as you please.
For lunch, head back to town for a variety of dining options. What’s Cookin’ Downtown serves a selection of hot (burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, etc.) and cold (deli subs, PB&J) sandwiches and salads until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. If you’re looking to try something new, head to Whiskey Alley and try some of their small plates (whipped feta, anyone?) and a charcuterie board and go all-in on a serving of triple cheese baked spaghetti or ropa vieja tacos.
You also can get an outside table at The Pizza Joint, which offers some of the best pizza south of New York City. Everything from their dough to their marinara sauce is made fresh daily. Either spot is great for lunch because you will be right near all the downtown shopping, especially on Laurens Street, where an old-school hardware store sits among fine dress shops, antique stores and plenty of Southern gift shops.
For dinner, try The Willcox, which offers a selection of small plates that include tuna poke, fresh oysters and beef tartare, and full entrees that range from The Willcox Burger to Spanish Octopus.
Feel like mixing it up a bit? Malia's delivers with its culturally diverse cuisine. While the two owner-chefs source their ingredients locally whenever possible, it's not unusual to find lamb from New Zealand, salmon from Maine, or duck from Maple Leaf Farms in Indiana on their ever-evolving menu.
If you still have some energy after dinner, you can amuse yourself with a game at City Billiards. If you're staying at The Willcox, head back for a nightcap at the Lobby Bar.
With more than 2,000 acres of natural beauty and quiet solitude, nearby Hitchcock Woods is perfect for long walks or horseback riding.
A Day at the Races
Saturday and Sunday are all about the horses in Aiken. Hit the polo fields or racetracks and spend the day at one of South Carolina's largest outdoor cocktail parties.
The first event of the world-famous Aiken Triple Crown events, the Aiken Trials have become a time-honored tradition drawing upwards of 10,000 spectators every year. Enjoy a day of family fun that includes six races, assorted vendors and tailgating. A highly anticipated tradition, tailgating is one of the main attractions of the Triple Crown events. These elaborate setups include themed tablescapes and decor, cocktails, charcuterie platters, and an assortment of delicious bites that range from crab cakes and pimento cheese to cucumber salad and smoked trout dip.
The second event of the Aiken Triple Crown is the Aiken Steeplechase. Featuring six races, gates open to the public at 8 a.m. The first race of the day doesn’t start until 1 p.m., leaving plenty of time for tailgating.
Pacers and Polo is the last event in the Aiken Triple Crown and kicks off the spring polo season. Typically held on a Saturday in late March, the event is a fundraiser for the University of South Carolina Aiken athletics.
For dinner on Saturday, go casual at Betty's Round the Corner. This nostalgic little cafe offers classic dishes like hamburger steak, fettuccine Alfredo with grilled chicken or a Reuben sandwich -- all made in-house from scratch.
If you're doing polo on Sunday, try that other famous activity on Saturday: golf. (Or go to the races on Saturday, and play golf or get outdoors on Sunday.)
Polo Matches, Golf and Outdoor Adventures in Aiken
Start your Sunday at The Willcox and its famous Sunday Brunch. You can go decadent with Belgian waffles or healthy with The Willcox's "super food" dish with quinoa, roasted butternut squash, kale and poached eggs.
Held on historic Whitney Field, the Aiken Polo Club has matches open to the public every Sunday starting at 2 p.m. in the spring and fall. These matches are held on historic Whitney Field in Aiken’s horse district. You can spring for a pass to the VIP tent or just grab a nosh from one of the food vendors. The games usually last an hour and a half to two hours.
If you’ve had enough of equestrian events, head to The Aiken Golf Club which has been around since the Winter Colony days and is open for public play. Another great choice is the course at nearby Hickory Knob State Resort Park.
If you want to swing a different kind of stick, you can paddle on South Carolina's famed Edisto River as it meanders through the Aiken State Natural Area or at the lake at Hickory Knob. Both parks also offer miles of hiking or biking trails. After you've worked up an appetite, check out the restaurant at Hickory Knob.
The Willcox will pack you a picnic to take to polo matches. They also offer polo packages that give you access to the pavilion where food and beverages are served as guests enjoy Sunday Polo on Whitney Field.
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