The low country is known for its hot summers and mild winter weather. Those wishing to escape harsher winters discovered Aiken, South Carolina, in the early 1900s. Today this community in the western part of the state still oozes southern charm and gentility. It offers visitors a look back at luxurious living at the turn of the century while presenting the vibrant activities craved by current guests.
About Aiken, South Carolina
Voted “the best small town in the South” by Southern Living Magazine in 2018, Aiken, South Carolina, is an appealing community just 20 miles from Augusta, Georgia. The settlement of more than 30,000 dates back to 1835, when the railroad came to town, connecting Charleston with the Savannah River. The community grew quickly, and soon Northerners discovered the secrets of wintering in a mild climate. The wealthy came in droves, building second homes and investing in their newfound winter hometown.
What Is Aiken, S.C., Famous For?
Best known as a historic wintering site for the wealthy, Aiken still retains many of its expensive tastes. From horse racing and polo to lush botanical gardens, the town has much to offer those fleeing the cold winter winds. Some of those first visitors created The Aiken Winter Colony. They built “cottages” with at least 22 rooms in a section of the city that has now become a historic district.
9 Things to Do in Aiken, South Carolina
There’s plenty to see in Aiken, but we’ve narrowed down the field to nine of the best activities you can find in this quaint southern community.
1. Visit Hopelands Gardens
This 14-acre site is full of rare floral species, trees, and water features created by wealthy socialite Hope Goddard Iselin. Boardwalks allow visitors to see wetland pond botanicals and the Arboretum Trail gives garden enthusiasts time to meander through the grounds, enjoying a wide variety of flora and fauna. Hopelands is the perfect venue for evening concerts, and the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum is also on the property.
2. Check Out the Carolina Bay Nature Preserve
Although this nature preserve is not really a typical “bay,” it sits right in the middle of Aiken, South Carolina. It’s a depression in the earth that has collected water. The wind has eroded this bay into an elliptical shape. It provides a habitat for numerous animals, especially amphibians. Carolina Bay Nature Preserve is a great place to hike and observe animals indigenous to the region.
3. Visit the Local Shops
With specialty stores, farmers’ markets, clothing, and gift shops, Aiken offers a variety of shopping venues. Don’t miss the art galleries, vintage stores, wine shops, and equestrian-themed clothing boutiques. You can purchase home decor, sporting equipment, and antiques, and when the shopping stops, there are some great restaurants to check out too. You can find most retail outlets in the downtown shopping district.
4. Grab a Beer at Aiken Brewing Company
Located right in the heart of downtown, the Aiken Brewing Company has a wide variety of brews on tap, including their own signature beer. They also offer a full menu for lunch and dinner, with the flavor of a neighborhood pub. Choose from indoor or outdoor seating.
5. Horseback Riding in Hitchcock Woods
Offering 2,100 acres of forested land, Hitchcock Woods is one of the largest urban forests in the nation. Seventy miles of trails offer outdoor exercise for horseback riding, hiking, and dog walking. The Sand River runs through these woods, but only after a big rain. That’s when visitors should watch out for quicksand.
6. Learn at the Aiken Historical Museum
Two historic homes have been joined together in The Winter Colony to create the Aiken Historical Museum. This living museum’s exhibits are constantly changing and display the past and present-day life in the lowlands of South Carolina. The home housing the museum was originally built in 1860. It even served as the original site of the University of South Carolina Aiken for a time.
7. Stop at the Aiken Train Museum and Visitor Center
Built in the reconstructed Aiken Depot, the Train Museum and Visitor Center has numerous dioramas exhibiting the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company stations along its route. The Visitor Center provides information about all of Aiken’s attractions and popular destinations. You can also learn from interactive displays.
8. Marvel at the Dupont Planetarium
Housing a Meade Telescope with a 16-inch main mirror, the Dupont Planetarium hosts Saturday evening programs. After each program, visitors can view the night skies through this telescope. It’s called the Bechtel Telescope as a tribute to the Bechtel Foundation, which donated toward the purchase of the telescope. The planetarium is located on the campus of the University of South Carolina Aiken.
9. Learn About Horse Racing at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame Museum
Using the carriage house on the grounds of Hopeland Gardens, the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates the part Aiken has played in horse racing history. To date, forty champions have trained at the Aiken Training Track. You can learn all about these horses and their owners at this museum.
It seems the Winter Colonizers knew all along that Aiken, South Carolina, was a gem hiding in the lowlands of the Southeast. With mild winter temperatures, the town lured wealthy Northerners to its borders in the early 1900s. And with today’s discovery of Aiken’s resources, history, and natural beauty, more travelers will be flocking to “the best small town in the South.” What would you do during a day in Aiken?