Driveable Destinations: Greenville, South Carolina

There’s been a lot of noise about Greenville, South Carolina over the past few years. The New York Times (NYT) ranked the quaint city, set in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as 14th on list of 52 places around the world to visit in 2023. Food & Wine calls it one of “America’s Next Great Food Cities” proclaiming that this once sleepy mill town “hums with culinary energy…menus are inventive and constantly evolving.” Sid Evans, the editor in chief of Southern Living (which named it the South’s Best City on the Rise in 2022), has proclaimed, “The food here is adventurous, and the chefs have embraced the global influences shaping the modern South.”

The Grand Bohemian Lodge at Falls Park on the Reedy River, courtesy of Grand Bohemian Lodge Greenville

With more than 120 great eateries, from fine dining to casual favorites—some of which have been nominated as semifinalists for James Beard awards—there are plenty of noteworthy spots to check out, including The Anchorage, Passerelle, Jianna, Soby’s, Fork and Plough, Juniper, CAMP, Comal 864, Topsoil Kitchen & Market, The Commons and Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocer. 

But the buzz is not all about the food. Those in search of outdoor adventure getaways are following the advice of Outside magazine and Men’s Journal, which have also praised Greenville’s spectacular terrain and ample recreational pursuits.

For decades, Greenville was overshadowed by such neighboring cities as Charleston and Hilton Head but, in 2022, Fodors declared, “You’re going to the wrong city in the Carolinas. With the warmth of a small town and the urban planning of the future, Greenville’s intentionality stands out.”  

As if it needed further confirmation, on the aforementioned NYT list, Charleston straggled behind Greenville at number 32 and Hilton Head didn’t even get a mention. 

But this is no happy accident. Greenville’s community leaders and tourism agencies have been actively and strategically designing it to be a desirable and highly Instagram-able destination for close to a decade. An annual report from the official destination marketing organization for the city, VisitGreenvilleSC (VGSC), reveals its vision for it, “To be one of the most visited–and talked about–travel destinations in the Southeast” and Greenville’s city council published an economic development strategic plan in 2022 that identifies “intentional placemaking” as one of seven goals, to “celebrate Greenville as a preeminent lifestyle destination.” 

“Intentional” is an apt descriptor and while it can feel a bit like the city has been cleverly designed, like a Hallmark movie set to attract visitors, the appeal is somewhat undeniable. 

Courtesy of Grand Bohemian Lodge Greenville

“Tourism, economic development work hand in hand making it an attractive place to live, work, and play,” David Montgomery, former vice president of sales for VGSC, explained to Greenville Business Magazine while discussing, among other topics, the organization’s popular hashtag, #YeahThatGreenville, which Montgomery pointed to as the catalyst for the growth. “There are 36 other Greenvilles out there in the U.S., so we felt like we needed to distinguish ourselves from the others.”

And they have not only cashed in on that idea, but are keeping receipts—evidenced by a cheeky video on the VGSC website called, ‘The Greenville to End All Greenvilles’ – That’s MY Greenville, based on their press accolades. 

The VGSC also published the following information in their 2019 annual report, based on information provided by the US Travel Association/SC Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism: “Visitors to Greenville, SC generate more than $1.3 Billion in direct spending in our community and $77 Million in state and local taxes. Yeah, Cha-Ching.” 

“We see a high frequency of return travel,” Montgomery notes. “To a certain extent, we have people who come as visitors and wind up moving here permanently because they fell in love with the destination.”

Indeed, the population has expanded rapidly, bringing fresh blood, talented creatives and such companies as GE, Michelin and BMW to the area, which has helped transform the small city into a place filled with engaging outdoor spaces, curated experiences, notable events and diverse cultural happenings. And the locals couldn’t be more excited about the changes.

“Citizens pulled out all the stops in an effort to top our list, putting signs on lawns, bombing our Facebook page (more than 7,000 people voted), and even organizing a parade down Main Street led by the mayor,” Outside magazine reports of the city trying to land on their best places to live in America list. “While Greenville didn’t win, we wouldn’t hesitate to consider a move here.” 

It’s clear that the scenic destination is inspiring lots of folks to relocate and that they are finding a rich community at its core.  

My first stop after arriving in town was to visit M. Judson Booksellers, located in a historic Beaux-Arts style building in the heart of downtown. This innovative independent bookstore offers a great selection of classic and contemporary works, everything from poetry to Southern Lit to cookbooks, releases from local authors, gourmet foods and gifts, as well as a charming café called Camilla Kitchen that serves breakfast and lunch, offering coffee, tea, wine and beer alongside light bites, ice cream and pastries. There, I met two locals who may pass for natives but are among those who relocated to the area for all it had to offer. Ashley Warlick is one of the owners and founders of the bookstore and her husband, Jim Scott, works as a bookseller. This energetic couple were thoroughly engaging and eager to chat about what makes their store and adopted home so special.  

“What we aspire to is to not just be stacks of bestsellers. We want to have books that you didn’t think you wanted to read because you’ve never heard of before. We want those to be as prominent as bestselling books,” Scott explains. “We’re all readers in the store. We’re passionate about books. I’m a former English teacher and taught for 25 years. We do staff picks and we keep rotating those. People love them and it leads to conversations with our staff members. I think that that adds a lot.”

It’s all about “curation,” Warlick shares.

“We pride ourselves on being able to find a story for everybody, even for those who aren’t necessarily readers. When we first opened, one of our inspirations was ABC [Carpet & Home] in Manhattan and the way that you can buy everything there,” she recalls, referencing the legendary 125-year-old lifestyle emporium in NYC. “We can’t offer you everything, but we can offer you some really interesting stuff. We’re great appreciators of food here and so almost everything is from South Carolina, from the greater South. We make an effort to reflect where we are with our food, like Marsh Hen Mill grits, cocktail mixes from Jack Rudy’s out of Charleston and wines from a local distributor called Mission Grape, who specialize in natural and organic and biodynamic wines. So, it’s all brands that have great stories. That’s what we do. We tell stories in a bunch of different forms. All of the furnishings are also for sale. They’re vintage items that I pick up in the area.”

The store has many inviting seating areas where visitors can eat, read or do a bit of people watching. 

“Over time, the space has evolved and making all these little nooks has been one of the really fun things. This is a space for community, where you can just come and have a seat. It’s about instantly making a warm connection with people when they walk in the door,” Warlick offers. “It’s unique, local and authentic in all the ways that word can be used.”

They even sell custom guides developed by locals for those seeking insider recommendations.

“We collaborated on these with a local company called Paper Routes. Lib Ramos, the designer behind them, pairs local writers and local illustrators to make these really stunning maps. There is a coffee map, a cocktails map and I did one called Food from Other Places,” she explains of her guide to the local international food scene. “We wanted to do something that was artful and beautiful and reflected the routes where we would take visitors.”

When it comes to active adventures in Greenville, Scott says there’s a choice for every interest, from hiking and biking to more “laid-back recreation.” 

By Nick Steele

“I can drive 30 minutes and go on a beautiful hike alongside a waterfall,” he says, offering that his favorite hiking spot is the nearby Jones Gap. “We also just opened up Unity Park downtown, where you can go for a walk and visit the brew pubs and restaurants right on the river alongside the park.”   

“The cycling community is also large here,” he continues. “Because you have miles of safe biking on the Swamp Rabbit Trail.” 

Set on an historic rail bed that runs alongside the Reedy River, the paved trail stretches over 20 miles, is one of Greenville’s most popular and accessible recreation options, and offers you the option to bike or walk as you enjoy the beautiful scenery and parks that connect downtown to the quaint town of Travelers Rest. Swamp Rabbit cuts through the historic heart of Greenville at Falls Park, a bustling 32-acre community green space complete with a 200-foot suspension bridge that overlooks and curves around the waterfall below.

Just steps from the park sits Greenville’s most talked about new hotel, The Grand Bohemian Lodge. This boutique propertywith a distinctive restaurant, bourbon bar and loungeis perched on the falls just steps from Greenville’s vibrant downtown. A contemporary take on a rustic lodge environment, it features urbane interiors and a serious nod to Native American art and culture. The hotel’s location is a unique draw. If you stay here, ensure you reserve a room on the falls side to take advantage of all that natural beauty.

Those looking to shift their vacation into high gear may want to check out the BMW Performance Center, where you can get behind the wheel of the company’s fastest cars, including the M8 Coupe (which can reach 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds) and experience a NASCAR-esque outing. You could also visit the aerial adventure park Treetop Quest, where they offer more than 60 outdoor obstacles and ziplines, or get in some tubing or kayaking on the nearby Green River, which has Class I and II rapids. But that’s just a taste of what “The Greenville to End All Greenvilles” has to offer. Yes, that Greenville! OS

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