This smallish city in South Carolina is right out of central casting.
No wonder Aiken received the National Civic League’s All-America City award back in 1997. Twenty-four years later, the cityscape is still a postcard-perfect scene.
With South Carolina fully open, downtown felt as normal as possible during my visit earlier this month. Not only were the shops and restaurants in and around Laurens Street — the main street — busy, but locals could be seen out and about at Amp the Alley, a family-friendly outdoor concert that runs every Thursday evening through October.
Also downtown are several churches with the antebellum St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church being the most notable. The stately Greek revival church — erected a few years after the town’s 1835 founding by Scots-Irish emigrant and railroad developer William Aiken — is Aiken’s oldest continuously used church. A few blocks away stands the Southern Baptist-affiliated First Baptist Church, a handsome 1950s edifice that blends classical and colonial revivalism.
Outdoing the Protestants are Aiken’s Roman Catholics.
While St. Mary Help of Christians looks like an Italian cathedral it is actually a mere parish church. The cruciform-shaped church with its Renaissance-inspired design was built a few years ago to replace two earlier brick Gothic revival structures that remain in regular use. One of these is St. Claire’s Chapel, which was designed by acclaimed New York architect James Renwick Jr. (St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is considered Renwick’s masterpiece.)
Outside of downtown, everything else in Aiken seems to revolve around horses. Racing, polo, fox hunting and other equestrian sports originated with the Winter Colony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when upper-class Northerners were drawn here by the relatively mild winters.
Later snowbirds included Fred Astaire, who split his time between the races and golf course. More recent names include the ruler of Dubai, a prolific owner and breeder of horses whose vast holdings included over 300 acres here.
This legacy comes alive during polo matches every Sunday through early June at the Aiken Polo Club. Admission is open to the public and not just the equine set. Even more can be discovered at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum on the grounds of the 14-acre Hopeland Gardens.
If you go
I stayed at 419Hayne, an upscale four-suite rental bookable through Airbnb. Not only was my suite nicer than most hotels, but the location was perfect for discovering Aiken by foot. While it was my first Airbnb experience it won’t be my last since so many hotels are using coronavirus as an excuse not to provide the services that make a hotel a hotel.
For restaurants, my dinner picks are Solo Vino, The Willcox and The Stables at Rose Hill. For something more casual try Betsy’s Round the Corner with its throwback blue-plate specials.
Be sure to visit South Boundary Avenue with its canopy of live oaks (you will recognize it from postcards) and the Aiken County Historical Museum, which is housed in an old Winter Colony mansion. Trolly tours also depart the Aiken Visitors Center every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. (tickets are $15).
The closest commercial airport is across the Savannah River in Augusta, Georgia. American and Delta provide service.
Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.