The South’s Best Small Town 2018: Aiken, South Carolina
Just about 20 miles from Augusta, Georgia, Aiken is the genuine article: It’s not a gimmicky horse-themed tourist attraction but an authentic South Carolina equestrian community rich in historic charm and tradition. This town is a picture postcard waiting to happen, from the iconic archway of live oaks along South Boundary Avenue and serene Hopelands Gardens to the strong Thoroughbreds you might see warming up in the early-morning light.
Because of its world-class training facilities and appealing climate, Aiken hosts equestrian events almost year-round, and the town is especially attractive to Thoroughbred owners from up North, all coming here to escape the chilly months back home.
Take a walk in Hitchcock Woods, Aiken’s 2,100-acre urban forest, and you will likely see riders on horseback, exploring 70 miles of trails. (Your group can book a ride with Sea Horse Aiken and saddle up to ramble the woods.) Hitchcock is also home to the venerable Aiken Horse Show, celebrating its 102nd anniversary this year.
Even if you never intend to ride, you’ll still enjoy a weekend here. Downtown Aiken, especially Laurens Street, is loaded with a variety of eclectic eateries, galleries, and shops, often tucked behind storefronts that have preserved their character. Just off Laurens Street, you’ll find the Alley, a popular gathering spot with a cluster of not-to-bemissed restaurants.
Among our top dining picks in town are Malia’s, The Bradley, Trio Bar & Kitchen, The Red Pepper, and the Aiken Brewing Company. For retail therapy—including a few spots with an equestrian twist—visit Equine Divine; Epona; Aiken Center for the Arts; Fox & Lady; Aiken Dry Goods; Threads; Lionel Smith, Ltd.; and Re-fresh.
Aiken has interesting lodging choices that are guaranteed to get you into the spirit of the town. They also attract plenty of golfers who come to nearby Augusta, Georgia, each year for the Masters.
The Inn at Rose Hill is located in a historic mansion anchoring an estate that occupies an entire block. The property’s original horse stable has been converted into The Stables Restaurant, a terrific dining experience. The Willcox is a grande dame of a hotel that once hosted well-heeled guests who wintered here. Now, those of us who “weekend” rather than winter can still come to enjoy the elegant rooms, serene pool, cozy public spaces, and sociable lobby, where half the town seems to gather on live-music nights.
Spend a weekend in this horse-country town, and you’ll see what makes it so special. One word of caution: Some of Aiken’s visitors have been known to come for the weekend and never leave, so you shouldn’t pack light.