Aiken, Southern Carolina, is a vibrant and large city with deep Southern roots and a welcoming community.
Serving as the seat of Aiken County, the town has a colorful history that stands in contrast to the modern attractions scattered within its city limits.
One of the most prominent aspects of the city is the horse culture, with breeding and equestrian activities still an important part of their heritage.
Nature-related activities also abound here, with lush gardens and wooded areas serving as a refuge for those who want to escape the busy urban life.
So whatever your preference, you’ll find something to enjoy in this charming city.
Here are the 20 best things to do in Aiken, SC:
Join in the Fun at Aiken Steeplechase
Steeplechase is a distance horse race that involves obstacles and other challenges, and it gets quite exciting here in Aiken.
Held both in Spring and Fall, the steeplechase is the culmination of the city’s equestrian heritage.
After you buy a ticket, you’ll enter the grounds and join the various events happening all around.
Of course, the most prominent one is the steeplechase, where you’ll see highly trained equestrians and their majestic horses race against each other while avoiding hazards and obstacles.
It’s a thrilling experience, especially when you’re close to the track and hear the stomping hooves as they come closer to where you’re standing.
Aside from the steeplechase, you can join activities like hat-making and costume contests.
There are also many stalls along the grounds that offer local delights, souvenirs, and other products that are uniquely Aiken.
Check Out the Exhibits of Aiken County Historical Museum
One of the best ways to make the most of a trip to a city is by understanding its history first.
That way, you can put into context the notable locations you’d visit and gain a better appreciation of them along the way.
So when in Aiken, make sure that you spend a few hours exploring the halls of Aiken County Historical Museum.
It’s located in one of the winter colonies that once thrived in the city: two cottages of immaculate white colors and Greek Revival architecture.
You’ll find artifacts, exhibits, and collections that showcase the past of the county itself, most notably as a horse-loving community.
From time to time, residents will bring items that have been passed on from generation to generation, adding new elements to the museum if only for a small amount of time.
This makes the facility a “living museum,” one that celebrates the past, present, and future of the city.
Join a Workshop Session at Aiken Center for the Arts
Aiken has a thriving art scene, and one of the best places to see it is at the Aiken Center For the Arts.
Within the small but eclectic building, you’ll find collections and exhibits of works by talented local artists.
There are also workshop classes where you can try your hand at learning how to use watercolor, oil, and other media.
You’ll be encouraged to explore your imagination and find your hidden talent in these sessions.
But if you don’t have much time to spare, you can simply browse the themed exhibits and find a piece you like.
Most of the works here are for sale, so you can buy some and bring it home to enliven your rooms.
Commune With Nature at Boyd Pond Park
On the southwestern borders of Aiken lie the peaceful and panoramic Boyd Pond Park.
The 210-acre outdoor destination is a perfect place for those who want peace and relaxation away from their busy lives.
The uninterrupted tree line, verdant grounds, and heavily wooded trails invite a serene vibe for solo travelers and families.
Perhaps the most prominent of the sights here is Boyde Pond itself, a 30-acre body of water located in the heart of the park.
A small wooden boardwalk juts into the lake, commonly used as a fishing platform for the many freshwater creatures living in the depths.
It’s also a great spot diving.
And because of the forested areas that make up most of the park, many birds call this place home.
It’s a favorite spot for birdwatching, with woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, and other local species flitting about among the branches.
Tour the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum
Thoroughbred racing is one of the things that put Aiken on the map.
So if you want to see where it all started, visit the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum.
It’s situated in the old carriage house of a celebrated sportswoman, Hope Goddard Iselin.
She was a horse-lover herself, owning Thoroughbred horses that sometimes participated in races.
When you visit, you’ll see the history of equestrianism in the town, famous and champion horses, as well as the culture of racing that permeates the city even today.
The experience is an intriguing glimpse into Aiken’s past that will put into context the other horse-related attractions and events of the city.
Explore Hitchcock Woods on Horseback
Now, if you want to participate in the equestrian culture of Aiken, Hitchcock Woods is a great place to start.
This privately-owned ecological park has more than 2,100 acres of sandy trails, sparsely wooded forests, and stunning clearings that make it a haven for nature lovers.
One of the best ways to explore this beautiful location is on horseback, especially if you have experience as an equestrian.
It’s an exhilarating experience to explore the wooded trails and natural terrain atop a robust horse.
But if you don’t own a horse, you can book a horseback riding tour with one of the businesses in Aiken.
Or you can simply explore the location on foot and watch as the thundering horses and their riders pass.
Either way, you’ll still get to enjoy the unique ambiance of this park, one that you’ll find in few other places in the country.
Play a Few Rounds at the Aiken Golf Club
The Aiken Golf Club may seem like a small golf course that pales in comparison to the grander courses within the nearby cities.
But this destination is a favorite among golf historians, as the course has been around since 1912.
So there are certain features of the course that serve as a record of how they were designed back in the early 1900s.
The gameplay itself is quite challenging, with uphill shots and an undulating terrain that even professionals may find tough.
It will definitely test your short game skills.
However, the cedar pines framing the course, intuitive routes, and well-maintained grounds make for scenic gameplay.
There’s also a practice green where you can warm up and get ready to ace a hole in one at the 18-hole main course.
Feel the Magical Vibe at Hopelands Gardens
Hopelands Gardens is an event place taken right out of a fairytale movie.
This magical destination is filled with twisting, moss-covered trees, landscaped gardens, and terraced ponds that create an enchanting ambiance.
No wonder it’s a favorite spot for weddings, photoshoots, and other special events.
So when you’re here, make sure that your phone or camera is fully charged so you can take as many pictures as you want.
There are numerous paths covered by the canopies of ancient cedars, bridges covered in blooming vines, and fountains bubbling with cool waters that make for a perfect background.
You can also bring your special someone and take romantic walks to see the curving branches of the hundred-year-old oak trees all around.
If you’re lucky, you might catch the events like yoga sessions and storytime classes that take advantage of the serene ambiance of the park.
Learn About the City’s Past at Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum
Before the elites turned Aiken into a winter and horse racing destination, it was originally a bustling railroad town.
You’ll see glimpses of this history at Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum.
The site was a train depot that was operating until 1954 but has been restored with better insulation and building materials to make it safer for visitors.
On the first floor, you’ll find the Visitors Center, which has maps, brochures, and helpful employees ready to assist before you start your tour of the city.
The second floor is the museum itself, which contains dioramas depicting the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company right of way.
It was the first steam engine commercial railroad and the longest route in the United States at its heyday, spanning more than 136 miles of tracks all within South Carolina.
There are also interactive displays that will allow you to learn more about railroad history.
Marvel at the Night Sky at DuPont Planetarium
Lovers of the cosmos and astronomy will have an exhilarating time at the DuPont Planetarium.
Located within the University of South Carolina Aiken, this learning facility was established to inspire students, locals, and visitors alike with the majesty of the heavens.
It can seat more than 50 people per show, so reserve your tickets and watch educational and fascinating movies about the night sky.
The projectors and dome have recently undergone renovations, and the results have elevated the viewing experience.
You’ll get to learn about ancient sky lore, constellations and stars, colors of space, and many other topics.
Weather permitting, the researchers may open up the observatory and invite visitors for telescope viewings.
It’s an exciting activity that few are lucky to experience.
Browse for Premium Veggies at Aiken County Farmers Market
Looking for a place to find fresh produce?
Aiken County Farmers Market offers a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and other crops that highlight the agricultural background of the city.
Located on Williamsburg Street, the market brings together local farmers and businesses to continue this long-standing tradition.
It’s actually the county’s oldest farmer’s market, having been around for more than 50 years.
Even the tables used by the vendors were once used by their parents and grandparents when the market was first started.
You’ll find fruit and vegetable cultivars, seasonal produce, baked goods, honey, and dried meat within the stalls.
To get shopping tips and recipes, don’t forget to mingle with the locals and vendors!
Catch a Show at Aiken Community Theatre
As the center for performance art in the city, the Aiken Community Theatre attracts hundreds of visitors for its amazing shows.
It’s a small venue, allowing for an intimate theater-going experience that will let you see the actors up close as they perform plays and act their hearts out.
The acclaimed productions and intriguing but relevant stories will have you amazed and wanting more.
And since it’s a learning theater, there are workshops and classes where various aspects of theater are taught, whether it’s acting, directing, or playwriting.
Join one if you want to try your hand at show business, and who knows, you might discover a hidden talent.
Go Birdwatching at Carolina Bay Nature Preserve
Carolina bays are unusual natural features unique to this region of the US.
These enigmatic lakes are often elliptical, and they have mysterious origins that scientists don’t fully understand yet.
One of these Carolina bays is found in Aiken, and the site is aptly called Carolina Bay Nature Preserve.
It sits in the middle of the city, but it is highly protected so that the wildlife will remain undisturbed by human development.
So if you want a tranquil wetland to explore that isn’t too far from an urban setting, this is the place to be.
You’ll find Canadian geese, Mississippi kites, wood ducks, and other avian species hunting and feeding on the lake.
There are also flowers reintroduced to the banks of the bay, adding a splash of color in the dense greenery surrounding the attraction.
Learn About the Cold War at Savannah River Site Museum
A fascinating and one-of-a-kind experience is what you can expect when visiting the Savannah River Site Museum.
When the Soviet Union detonated their own nuclear bomb, then-president Harry Truman wanted to respond by opening the Savannah River Site.
The facility was built to manufacture nuclear materials for hydrogen bombs, and in the next few years, contributed to the Cold War efforts of the US.
It was a remarkable project that advanced nuclear and environmental safety, and this achievement is celebrated in the present-day museum.
The exhibits and interactive displays may look intimidating—fall-out shelters, spy planes, and simulated glove boxes—but they all highlight the researchers' precautions to keep the facility safe.
You’ll also find a timeline of the Savannah River Site, from its inception to its present-day status as a museum.
It’s an informative and engaging way to learn about the Cold War and how it affected the community of Aiken.
Try the Local Cuisine Downtown
No trip to Aiken would be complete without trying the local delights at favorite restaurants.
Downtown is where most of these establishments are located, so you’ll have an easy time hopping from restaurant to restaurant to try the best that the city has in store.
Aiken Fish House and Oyster Bar is the go-to place for premier seafood, with a menu consisting of shellfish, calamari, freshly caught fish, and more.
Another famous dining establishment is Betsy's Round the Corner, an old-fashioned restaurant offering traditional Southern dishes.
City Billiards offers a unique combination of pool games and hearty dishes, including American staples, signature burgers, and alcoholic ice cream.
Enjoy Water Activities at Aiken State Park
Both the natural beauty and notable history of Aiken State Park are outstanding.
Fishing, paddling, and kayaking are all quite popular in Aiken State Park.
The South Edisto River runs through the Aiken State Park, a great place for water activities.
Paddlers from across the area come to the state park to use the gorgeous 1.7-mile kayak and canoe track that meanders along the southern branch of the river.
In addition to the kayak and canoe course, Aiken State Park has twenty-five campsites, three rentable picnic shelters, and four lakes where people can go fishing.
View Artwork Exhibits at Art & Soul of Aiken
Art & Soul of Aiken, LLC gallery was established by Stacy O'Sullivan and Kimberly Rising to exhibit their artwork.
Stacy has spent her whole working life creating stained and leaded glass, and Kim is a former nurse who discovered her true calling in sculpture.
Both artists strongly commit to their craft and support other artists.
The gallery is set up enough so artists can rent their display area and keep every penny of their sales.
Most artists participating in The Art & Soul of Aiken are local, and there are also chances for performance art.
The Aiken Area's high-end, creative art will soon be centered in this one-of-a-kind gallery experience.
Art and spirituality collide in this distinctive exhibition.
Refreshen Your Body with Tea at the Confection Cottage
In the center of Aiken, The Confection Cottage provides great food options, top-notch loose leaf teas, and more.
It functions as a tea room, cafeteria, and patisserie.
The café takes pride in using fresh ingredients from nearby farms wherever possible and delivering daily products produced from scratch.
Customers can browse the store for a selection of desserts, tea accessories, specialty tea blends, and handcrafted items that make wonderful presents.
Talented cooks with more than thirty years of experience work at The Confection Cottage, together with a tea master who has earned worldwide certification.
Stroll around Henderson Heritage Preserve
Frank P. Henderson, a previous mayor of Aiken, is honored by having this preserve bear his name.
There are wetland areas, and sheltered walking routes in this pine and oak tree preserve.
Bog spicebush is one of the few visible plant species.
In addition to several marshes, the mountainous landscape features a variety of hiking trails.
A network of unmarked firebreak pathways makes up the Henderson Heritage Preserve.
These routes circle the wild and peaceful area.
Visitors can pick one of the two portions of the unmarked, difficult, mountainous trails to tour.
While they stroll through rutted roads and sand pathways past high viewpoints, lowland areas, and ponds, they might encounter turtles, among other species.
Pick up Healthy Food at Aiken County Farmers Market
Fresh produce from local farmers, including fruit, beans, tomatoes, and corn, is available at the Aiken County Farmers Market, listed on the city's Historic Register.
Several merchants offering cheeses, meats, and various baked products are also available to visitors.
Aiken's farmers market has been a gathering spot for locals to exchange recipes and stories for over 50 years.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from dawn until noon, the Aiken County Farmers Market is open all year round.
Every year, Saturdays are filled with a variety of programs and events.
From unique museums to enigmatic natural sights, the top spots of Aiken are something you’d never find anywhere else.
The equestrian culture also adds to the appeal, especially to those who love horses and everything related to these majestic animals.
So for your next trip, why not make Aiken your top choice?
You’ll have lots of fun, first-time experiences, and new connections while staying in this charming city.