A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Horses have been part of the fabric of Aiken since the 1890s, when well-heeled Yankees started traveling to the Southern town to escape harsh winters and discovered that the climate

Madison County Championship Rodeo

Horses have been part of the fabric of Aiken since the 1890s, when well-heeled Yankees started traveling to the Southern town to escape harsh winters and discovered that the climate

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Horses have been part of the fabric of Aiken since the 1890s, when well-heeled Yankees started traveling to the Southern town to escape harsh winters and discovered that the climate

A Summer Stay in Aiken, South Carolina

Horses have been part of the fabric of Aiken since the 1890s, when well-heeled Yankees started traveling to the Southern town to escape harsh winters and discovered that the climate was perfect for raising (and riding) horses. The so-called “Winter Colony” of horse enthusiasts began building mansions, stables and training facilities, transforming Aiken into a world-class equestrian destination — a transition it’s retained for more than a century.

Thoroughbred owners from all parts of the United States still raise horses in Aiken and the town hosts equestrian events from fox hunts to polo matches — and horse races, of course — all year long. But you don’t need to saddle up to appreciate the quaint South Carolina town. Aiken has a walkable downtown filled with shops, galleries and restaurants; lush urban parks where horses share trails with hikers; and historic homes that harken back to a different era.

Explore full steam ahead

The Aiken Railroad Depot dates back to 1899. It was rebuilt but still retains its ties to the historic South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company line, the first steam-powered commercial railroad in the country. The second floor of the historic passenger depot houses the Aiken Train Museum. The dioramas of the towns located along the original railroad line (created to resemble how the towns looked in 1916) are the highlight.

Tip: The main floor of the railroad depot houses the visitors center. Start your visit here; pick up maps and brochures or ask the staff for recommendations for things to see and do in Aiken.

Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum
(803) 293-7846


Saddle up

Horses are a common sight in Hitchcock Woods. Local riders saddle up to explore 70 miles of trails winding through the 2,100-acre urban forest (and will often stop to talk to hikers and birdwatchers who want to nuzzle the horses). Thanks to its natural beauty, Hitchcock Woods was designated a South Carolina Heritage Trust site. Explore the sandy trails, including the spectacular Cathedral Aisle Trail, once part of an historic railway line, on foot or reserve a horseback tour.

Tip: Be on the lookout for the red-cockaded woodpecker. The species was added to the federal Endangered Species list in the 1970s but careful conservation efforts have restored populations in Hitchcock Woods.

Hitchcock Woods
(803) 642-0528

On a hike in Hitchcock Woods, you may stumble across a fox hunt. photograph by Larry Gleason/Visit Aiken SC


Take a bite out of history

Thanks to a temperate climate, the farmers in Aiken enjoy a long growing season, which means the market is open all year long and stocked with the freshest seasonal produce and extras like pastured meats, baked goods, eggs, cheese, honey, and fresh flowers. The market is on the site of the former Aiken Cotton Platform and Scale, where bales of cotton were once weighed and sold. Farmers started selling produce at the site in the 1920s, making it the oldest market in continuous operation in the state.

Tip: The market is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from sunrise to noon. Stock up on all of the ingredients for the perfect picnic; spread a blanket in Citizens Park and enjoy the local flavor.

Aiken County Farmer’s Market
(803) 293-2214


Go for a ride

Hop aboard for a trip back in time. Aiken Trolley Tours offer a two-hour adventure aboard a streetcar with stops at some of the most popular sights in town. Ride past historic homes and churches, equestrian sites, and the towering (and beautiful) live oak canopy on South Boundary Street while a narrator shares entertaining and educational tidbits about Aiken. Hop off at Hopelands Gardens for a walking tour that includes the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum.

Tip: Trolley tours only run Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon, and depart from the Visitors Center and Train Museum; reserve in advance to guarantee a seat. Tours are $15 per person.

Aiken Trolley Tours
(803) 644-1907

Take an Aiken Trolley tour for a bit of history and sightseeing. photograph by Visit Aiken SC


Practice arts appreciation

The Aiken Center for the Arts showcases the works of local, regional, and international artists. Browse current exhibitions before stopping into Gallery Shop to search for unique items like paintings, baskets, and jewelry to take home.

Tip: Looking for performing arts events? Check out the Aiken Community Theatre around the corner.

Aiken Center for the Arts
(803) 641-9094


Say cheers

Aiken Brewing Company was brewing stouts, lagers, IPAs, and pilsners long before “craft beer” became part of the national lexicon. The brewery was founded in 1997 and has become one of the most popular spots in town to order a pint and nosh on pub favorites like fried pickles, pretzel bites, and wings. Order a flight to sample several brews, snag a seat on the patio, and decide which is your favorite.

Tip: The brewery hosts live music on select evenings. Call ahead to find out if an event is scheduled.

Chow down on some delicious bites at Aiken Brewing Company. Best served with a cold craft beer, of course. photograph by Visit Aiken SC


Wrangle a new wardrobe

Whether you ride horses or just love equestrian style, Aiken Dry Goods stocks a selection of boots, denim, and accessories (hello, belt buckles) that will make you look like rodeo royalty. The downtown shop is also an excellent spot to shop for horse-themed gifts like saddle sore bath soak (perfect after a long ride), Western decor items, and kitschy T-shirts.

Tip: Make sure to stop and say hello to Baxter, the furry, four-legged, bandana-wearing shop mascot, before checking out.

Aiken Dry Goods
(803) 226-0100


Explore the outdoors

The African-American detachment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works program, built Aiken State Park during the Great Depression. Look for interpretive signs throughout the park to learn more about their work. Almost 100 years later, the 1,067-acre park remains pristine. The park boasts multiple trails, including the three-mile Jungle Trail that loops through wetlands and pine forests; and a canoe and kayak “trail” that follows the south fork of the Edisto River.

Tip: Admission is $2 for adults; $1.25 for seniors; children under 15 are free.

Aiken State Park
(803) 649-2857


Catch a match

Aiken may be small, but it has long been a big deal on the polo circuit. The sport has been played in the South Carolina city since 1882, and Whitney Field at the Aiken Polo Club is the oldest polo field in continuous use in the U.S. The spring season of this fast-paced event runs from April to June and the fall season runs from September to November.

Tip: Weekday matches are free and open to the public; admission to Sunday afternoon matches is $5.

Aiken Polo Club
(803) 643-3611

Attend a polo match where you can sit on the sidelines, sip some wine, and enjoy at your leisure. photograph by Visit Aiken SC

This story was published on May 21, 2019

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.