I have to admit, Aiken surprised me. I expected a pretty Southern town, but this lively community also has a lot going on I didn’t anticipate, including tons of free things to do. In Aiken SC everything is an easy walk or within a five minute drive of downtown. Chef driven restaurants, live music, historic hotels, interesting museums, gardens, hiking trails and lots, and lots of horses.
Here are some of the things my husband and I found on our trip to Aiken, as well as a few on my bucket list for next time, because I’m already excited to return.
See a Polo Match
Aiken is known as the America’s Polo Capital, so it only makes sense that you prioritize a match during your visit, trust me, you won’t be sorry. I had no idea what to expect, but loved catching a match at the Aiken Polo Club on historic Whitney Field. Sponsors set up their white tents around the field to tailgate. For those without a parking spot, you can pay a five dollar general admission or for a larger investment sit in the grandstand where the party includes food and drinks. Had we not been heading back to Atlanta right afterward, the grandstand would definitely have been the way to go.
I was a little worried about being under dressed as we had just come from a hike, but there were women in Lilly shifts, as well as men in shorts and t-shirts. Not only seeing but hearing the horses thundering down the field at top speed was exciting!
Pro Tips: Looking for a more relaxed polo experience? Visit New Bridge Polo & Country Club.
More Horse Things to Do
Aiken SC in known for thoroughbred racing in addition to polo. Not up to speed on this sport? Visit the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum for a quick history lesson and to learn more about the horses, the jockeys and the families. Kids will have fun meeting Hitch, who may look like a toy horse, but was actually used to rehabilitate injured jockeys.
Now that you know a little about the business, head over to the Aiken Training Track to see the horses practice in real life. Or in season visit The McGhees’ Mile for Standardbred Races, aka harness racing.
Get Lost in the Woods
In the late 1800’s Aiken became the winter colony for elite families from the Northeast. It all started when Thomas Hitchcock and Thomas Whitney convinced friends to join them in the mild climate. The avid sportsman owned 8,000 acres where they put on fox hunts. Today 2,100 acres of that land, about three times the size of Central Park in New York, has been put aside to preserve the forest. There are 70 miles of sandy trails in Hitchcock Woods and in addition to hikers and dog walkers, it is not unusual to see people riding horses along the trails.
Pro Tips: Wear sunscreen and bring water. Aiken is surprisingly hilly and the pine forest is very open. They aren’t kidding about the sandy trails, in places it is like walking on the beach, so expect to get a little sand in your shoes.
Get a map or take a picture with your phone. Not only will it help you navigate the trails, but there are several ‘attractions’ in the forest like the Ridge Mile Track which was built by Thomas Hitchcock in the heart of the Woods to train his race horses in the 20’s and 30s.
And did we mention, this gem is truly only a five minute drive from Main Street Aiken.
Spend Time in the Garden
The wealthy colonists brought their love of gardens and green space to Aiken and that legacy manifests itself in formal gardens like Hopelands Gardens, the estate of a bad ass heiress Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin who was quite a sportswoman and had no qualms about beating the men in her world on the field, or in a poker game. Her 14 acre estate is now a tranquil public garden with children’s story time, a performance stage where free concerts are held and is a stop on the Aiken Arboretum Trail, a free phone tour of Aiken’s diverse trees.
Nightlife in Downtown Aiken
Nightlife in Aiken centers around the Alley Downtown. Grab a drink at Whiskey Alley or any of the restaurants or bars and take a stroll around to see the murals or play a little corn hole. On the evening we visited there was live music. After a year plus of COVID lockdown, it was fabulous to see musicians performing, people dancing, kids running around and dogs wrestling. Amp the Alley brings bands on Thursday evenings. Even on Sunday, when the downtown shops are closed, this place was lively.
Shop on Main Street
Between the residents, tourists and visitors still in riding pants from nearby horse events, Main Street Aiken was bustling with shoppers visiting the locally owned stores. Two must visits are Equine Divine for as you may have guessed, equine themed gifts and Plum Pudding for the cooking enthusiast. The Aiken Center for the Arts is half art gallery, half shop and definitely worth seeking out to view and purchase the work of local artists.
Romantic Things to do in Aiken SC
If you are looking for romantic things to do in Aiken SC with your sweetie, Malia’s Restaurant is likely on your list. Chef Jason Tufts is the executive chef and a 2020-2021 South Carolina Chef Ambassador. He’s also a local boy from Aiken who learned to love cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen. He honed his chef skills at the prestigious Johnson & Wales culinary school.
All well and good, but the proof is in the food, which revolves around locally sourced ingredients. Of course their main dishes are delicious, but it’s the little things that put it over the top. I could have had an endless bowl of the fresh seasonal salad, SC Vertical Roots baby lettuces and spinach, fresh strawberries, poppyseed dressing, chèvre, and toasted walnuts. Yum!
Prior to dinner, we stopped for a glass of wine and walked through the gardens of the nearby Rose Hill.
Hit the Links
A lot of people use Aiken as a base during the Master’s Golf Tournament in nearby Augusta, Ga. But the town is a great getaway even when there isn’t a tournament around. Aiken Golf Club is a historic course just a half mile from downtown Aiken SC making it extremely convenient.
I’m not a golfer, so my husband played the course, noting it is not long so it can be a lot of fun for all ages and abilities. Read his course tips, as well as a list of the other golf courses near Aiken.
Four Don’t Miss Restaurants in Aiken
Downtown Aiken is teeming with a variety of restaurants. In addition to the white tablecloth Malia’s Restaurant, you don’t want to miss Betsy’s Round the Corner. Sit at the counter, find a booth or dine al fresco on the sidewalk. The menu has lots of southern favorites like pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes, as well as weekly blue plate specials, in addition to standard burgers, salads and sandwiches. For dessert there are cakes piled three layers high and an extensive ice cream menu! That alone is worth a visit.
Other recommendations from our local friends include: Aiken Brewing Company and Tako-Sushi. Go a little off the beaten path for breakfast at the Track Kitchen and eat beside jockeys and owners of Kentucky Derby winners.
Where to Stay in Aiken SC
I’m sure there are plenty of chain hotels in Aiken, but to get the full experience, stay downtown at one of three gorgeous historic hotels, The Willcox (take the Trolley Tour for a great story on how they originally screened guests), Rose Hill or The Carriage House.
We explored the restaurant/bars at the Willcox and Rose Hill, but we stayed at The Carriage House, which is located at the edge of Downtown – so walking everywhere is easy. The Carriage House has a gorgeous porch for evening cocktails with an outdoor fireplace for chilly nights. Breakfast is included and in addition to continental items has a few hot selections made to order.
Next Visit to Aiken SC
Our short weekend wasn’t nearly enough time to explore all that Aiken has to offer. Next time I want to visit Aiken State Park and take a kayak tour of the Edisto. And speaking of tours, I have a haunted Aiken tour by Tailored Tours on my list. Owner Marty Bailey was my trolley tour guide and left me wanting to know more. So tell me, what else did we miss?
Looking for more small town fun in South Carolina? Check out our posts on Beaufort and Greenville. Ready to travel a little farther south? We recommend these small towns in Georgia, or these hidden gems in Florida.