If you ask most people what small town in the South is their favorite, you’re likely to get answers like Dahlonega, Georgia, Natchez, Mississippi, and Beaufort, South Carolina. But you’ll rarely hear Aiken, South Carolina… unless you are in the equestrian world. And if you haven’t visited Aiken, there’s a lot more than just horses.
Just 20 miles from Augusta, Georgia, the small town of Aiken is a treasure trove of history, outdoor fun, equestrian history, and sports. The Augusta Regional Airport offers the closest commercial airport, serviced by American and Delta airlines.
Pack your bags and explore Aiken County with me! Aiken is a great choice for a perfect weekend getaway, whether you are a history buff, nature buff, or just looking for a weekend to relax, shop, and soak in the local culture.
History Of Aiken
Aiken was formed in 1820, drawing the wealthy living on the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. That year, Captain William W. Williams — a Charleston, South Carolina, cotton merchant — settled in downtown Aiken. When Williams settled in Aiken, he had no way of transporting his cotton from Aiken to Charleston. So, he built a railroad that was within 100 yards of his home.
During the 1800s, malaria and yellow fever were prevalent diseases in most of the coastal cities in the South, including South Carolina and Georgia. The wealthy inhabitants fled coastal cities to the interior, and Aiken was one of the areas that became popular with those seeking refuge from disease. Aiken was also a winter escape for many of the northeast’s elite families, who would relocate their entire households, including their horses, to Aiken’s mild winter climate.
Today, Aiken is a destination draw for the equestrian set. Polo is one of Aiken’s most popular things to do, so book a trip and catch a polo match.
Pro Tip: Plan your visit around polo season. Whether you are an equestrian lover or not, attending a polo match is a thing not to miss on any visit to Aiken. Polo season runs from April to June and September to November.
Things To Do In Aiken
Visitor Center/Train Museum
Though the Train Depot has been rebuilt, it still retains the same architectural features now as when it was originally built in 1899. The Aiken depot served travelers heading to Charleston or North Augusta, South Carolina, and the thousands of colonists who spent their winters in Aiken. Today, the depot houses some fascinating railroad memorabilia, including recording train sounds, railroad lanterns, and several dioramas.
The depot is also home to the Aiken Visitor Center. Stop in to the train depot, head through the Train Museum, and then stop in the visitors center to pick up information on what to do, where to eat, and local polo information.
Thoroughbred Racing Hall Of Fame
For equestrian enthusiasts, the city of Aiken is the mecca. The Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame is ground zero. It’s here that the tradition of horse racing is celebrated, and with it, Aiken’s vital role, long love, and connection with all equestrian sports.
Forty champion thoroughbreds that have trained at the training track are celebrated in the Hall of Fame. The museum itself features photos, trophies, and more that highlight and celebrate these acclaimed racehorses.
The permanent exhibits include the Courtyard of Champions featuring the racing silks of the owners of the 40 champions featured in the Hall of Fame. The Cragwood Stable Trophy collection features a large gathering of American Racing trophies that Cragwood Stable horses won from 1962–1976. The Aiken Training Track, modeled after Lexington Kentucky’s Keeneland Track, opened in November 1941.
Aiken County Historical Museum
To dig into the area’s history, a visit to the Aiken County Historical Museum is a must. Housed in “Banksia,” a winter colony mansion built in the 1930s, you’ll discover a one-room schoolhouse from the 1890s and a log cabin from 1808.
Plan an adventure in nearby Sally, part of Aiken County. The Eudora Farms Safari Park was created with four pillars in mind: education, preservation, conservation, and protection of the environment. The drive-thru safari experience allows visitors to view and feed over 200 exotic animals who call Eudora Farms home. The safari park is 3 miles long and is a perfect experience to build memories for a lifetime. After the drive-thru safari, stop by the petting zoo and the Parakeet Adventure.
Rose Hill Estate
Rose Hill is one of the winter colony estates and is preserved as close as possible to its original condition. Rose Hill Estate spans an entire city block, yet it is cozy and intimate.
Built in 1898 by Colonel and Mrs. Sheffield Phelps as their winter estate, Rose Hill has four homes and eight outbuildings. The main house is designed in the Dutch Colonial Shingle Style architecture and is nearly 10,000 square feet.
The gardens were Mrs. Phelp’s pride and joy. Late in life, following the death of her husband, Mrs. Phelps became an avid gardener. Along with her daughter Claudia Lea, a new variety of camellia was developed — the Rose Hill Red. A visit to the gardens of Rose Hill is a must when visiting Aiken.
Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site
Once the home of James Henry Hammond, Redcliffe is one of many South Carolina historic southern plantations open to the public. Hammond was a cotton baron, congressman, governor, and senator. Today, Redcliffe serves as a site to educate visitors about life on the plantation, its history, and all who lived and worked there. The South Carolina African American Heritage Commission has listed Redcliffe Plantation as one of its “Top Ten Sites to Visit in South Carolina.”
Silver Bluff Audubon Society & Sanctuary
Encompassing 3,400 acres of natural habitat and overlooking the Savannah River, you’ll find walking trails, over 50 acres of lakes and ponds, grasslands, and a plethora of birds and other wildlife in Silver Bluff. It is the ideal place to go for a hike and is a photographer’s dream! There is no entrance fee unless you want a private guided tour.
Thomas Hitchcock and William Whitney purchased a large tract of land in the 1890s. The Hitchcock Woods Foundation was formed in the 1930s to preserve the land for future generations to enjoy. Today, you can stroll through Hitchcock Woods, ride a horse, or even walk your pets.
The town of Aiken was renowned as a health resort and winter residence for many wealthy families from the North to enjoy some southern living. The famous residents included the Vanderbilts, Goodyears, Astors, and Pinkertons. They flocked to Aiken because of its mild climate and built winter mansions for their families. Each winter, they would arrive by private railcar, bringing their dogs, horses, and staff with them.
They spent the season playing tennis, golfing, and bird hunting in addition to fox hunting and polo. In the late 1890s, the Aiken Hunt started with the goal of hunting live quarry and using beagles on 8,000 acres that Hitchcock and Whitney owned. Louise Hitchcock hosted the first annual Aiken Horse Show here in 1916, and today, the tradition continues.
Aiken State Park
The South Edisto River runs along the edge of Aiken State Park. The park is a nature lover’s paradise with fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Paddlers love to come to Aiken State Park and paddle the 1.7-mile canoe and kayak trail.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the state park. Today, there are a few remaining original buildings.
Pro Tip: Outdoor lovers will also enjoy a walk through Hopeland Gardens, where the paths are lined with 100-year-old live oaks.
The Dupont Planetarium is open to the public and has 57 seats, offering different events throughout the year. For the budding astronomer and those who love astronomy, a visit to the planetarium is a must!
Best Restaurants In Aiken
Aiken is emerging as a foodie destination with some fantastic dining options. A few of our favorites include Whiskey Alley, Aiken Brewing, The Whitney, Sheffields, and Fuse. Each of these has one thread connecting them: they have exciting food and sipping selections, perfect for food lovers!
For sips, our hands-down favorite is Whiskey Alley. It has a selection of whiskey that even a discerning connoisseur will appreciate.
The Wilcox Restaurant
For the best dining experience, The Willcox Restaurant offers a relaxed yet upscale atmosphere that invites you to linger over your meal. After your meal, sit in the bar area by the fireplace and enjoy an after-dinner cocktail, glass of wine, or aperitif.
Take a stroll down Laurens Street, where you’ll find unique restaurants, shops, and galleries. Maybe you’ll stumble on just the right gift for that special person.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the alley, tucked away just off Laurens Street. Here you’ll find a cluster of some of the jewels of Aiken’s food scene.
Best Hotels In Aiken
The Wilcox Hotel
Aiken has a selection of nice hotels and barbecues, but the Willcox Hotel, Restaurant, & Spa is at the top of our list of places to stay. Built in the late 1800s for the well-heeled northerners who wanted to winter down south, the Willcox held dances in its ballroom. Legend has it that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would take his private rail car to the back door of the Willcox, where he was wheeled into the elevator and taken to his suite, where he was met by his mistress, who lived a few blocks from the Willcox.
The hotel is filled with dark, rich wood, nice-sized rooms with high ceilings, comfortable beds, and luxurious bedding, and many of the rooms have fireplaces. The property includes an onsite spa, as well as a restaurant and bar. The bar area is a great place to settle in with a delicious cocktail or glass of wine and people watch — you never know who you might spot! Polo reigns in Aiken, and people flock from across the globe to watch matches during the season.
Stable View Farm
For those looking for a unique experience, a stay at Stable View Farm is a must! Stable View is known as the “gathering place.” This gorgeous property was once a quail hunting lodge on 1,000 acres with longleaf pine forests and rolling hills. Today it has been transformed into a world-class equestrian training center with several lodging types.
For families traveling together, there are three-bedroom bungalows and two-bedroom apartments. For single travelers or couples, check out its single-bedroom Hunt Boxes.
Rose Hill Estate
Rose Hill Estate also offers lodging. All guestrooms and suites are located in the historic main house or cottage situated in the gardens at Rose Hill. All the rooms boast king beds, luxurious bedding, and more.
The downtown area of Aiken is a spiderweb of one-way streets, interspersed with squares and circles. Though it makes the downtown beautifully fascinating, it is a challenge for visitors when driving. Just remember when in Aiken, “Circles go, squares no,” and you’ll be navigating like a local.
Aiken is still one of the South’s top small towns. You’ll find superb cuisine, great shopping, and of course, lots of Southern hospitality!
South Carolina has a lot of interesting sights and cities for travelers: