It is rare to find a person who does not love where they went to college, but during the collegiate years of my children, I found that I was also drawn to the schools they attended and to the cities those schools call home. Thus, for eight years I made a regular trek to attend events at Furman University while visiting Bryant and Caroline. This lovely campus is a short drive north of Greenville, and downtown Greenville became a crib for parents to use as home base during college visits. During my “second” college season, I watched downtown Greenville, from down Main Street into the West End, evolve into a beautifully vibrant, friendly and dynamic walking city, and after a recent weekend visit, I have a renewed appreciation why Greenville has become the “crown jewel” of the South Carolina Upstate.
Nancy and I arrived early Thursday afternoon for an extended weekend stay at the Westin Poinsett. Located as a central anchor in the downtown hub, this grand hotel brings back the elegance of a bygone era, complete with piano music in the lobby bar welcoming its guests. From our comfortable room on the top floor, we had a scenic view looking down Main Street toward the West End. During our stay, the hotel was bustling with guests in town for two weddings.
Upon our arrival, we dropped our bags and hit the streets. We had a late lunch at the recently renovated Nose Dive, a gastropub located adjacent to the Westin Poinsett. With its big open-air front windows and the bulb-lit “Nose Dive” sign inviting diners in for good food and a beer, it was a great way to start our visit.
Downtown was filled with people along tree-lined Main Street, as we walked by new office buildings and well-placed open air plazas among the older brick storefronts on our way to visit Heritage Green, the plaza of museums located on College Street. The museums, all within a short walking distance of one another, offer something for all ages, from the interactive Children’s Museum of the Upstate to an extensive Andrew Wythe collection at the Greenville County Museum of Art. Being a history major, I was particularly drawn to the Upcountry History Museum. In partnership with Furman, the museum tells a quite interesting story of the region’s development as it preserves the history of Upstate South Carolina — the first gem we found on our trip.
Strolling back to Main Street, Greenville welcomed us to the weekend with its Thursday Downtown Alive concert series at NOMA Square next to the Hyatt, the anchor of the north end of Main Street. Jos Roberts and the Hinges from Charleston had the crowd warming up early to some lively hard rock rhythms. A tent community spanned the center of the street for a block, serving patrons food and drinks. We were quite taken with the number of shops that remained open into the early evening hours, inviting folks to browse and linger.
The Lamberts enjoyed an extended weekend stay at the Westin Poinsett.
We met our Furman grads, now Greenville residents, and their friends at Sip, a rooftop wine bar with fabulous views of downtown. The comfortable outdoor furniture dotted with numerous umbrellas created a great setting to cool us off and watch the setting sun, while enjoying some nice wine and beer selected from its extensive menu. As the kids left us for their first experience at Breakout Greenville, a new life-sized escape adventure game, we were heading to Soby’s, our favorite restaurant over many college visits to Greenville. We walked the several blocks to dinner, encountering quite a number of street musicians playing a saxophone and bass and singing with a guitar or acoustical organ, another gem we found in downtown.
Soby’s never has disappointed us; it has been consistently excellent with both food and service, and this visit was no exception. Its menu is best described as Southern cuisine with a twist and creates quite a conundrum in deciding what to choose. The extensive wine list is user-friendly with many recognizable vineyards. One of the greatest difficulties lies in not filling up on the starter cheese biscuits! I had to return to the fried green tomatoes appetizer, an old favorite, and we both enjoyed a cup of she crab soup. The crab cakes have always been my favorite main dish, but the shrimp and grits rival any I have had in Charleston. The white chocolate banana cream pie provided a surprisingly light ending to a fabulous meal.
Table Rock State Park is an easy drive north from Greenville.
In the cool of Friday morning, we started our trek on the paved GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail with road bikes from Reedy Rides off of Main Street, biking to the quaint town of Travelers Rest, located just north of the Furman campus at the foothills of the climb to Caesars Head. The GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, which was constructed in the railroad bed of the abandoned Greenville and Northern Railway, spans 21 miles from Greenville Technical College through Falls Park and downtown Greenville to Travelers Rest. The trail was not new to us; while at Furman, Caroline often rollerbladed with a friend from the Furman campus to downtown and back. So, we were excited to explore the trail.
There are many spots in town to jump on the trail. We were amazed at the number of people of all ages we passed on a Friday morning: runners, walkers, bikers and one person on rollerblades. We soon left the sounds of the city streets and traversed the Reedy River for portions of the trail. The river bottom was cool and felt good. We biked through many canopies of hardwood trees sprinkled with an occasional pine, but I was taken by the number of mimosa trees filled with their pink puff blooms.
A family of nine mice sculptures in surprising places on Main Street provides a unique scavenger hunt for people of all ages as they learn more about the city.
Since Furman touches the trail, we wandered on the campus. We saw some students strolling from classes and enjoyed a ride around Furman Lake. Back on the trail, we peddled along the headwaters of the Reedy River several miles north into Travelers Rest. If Furman parents don’t stay in downtown Greenville, they look to Travelers Rest with its wonderfully casual places to eat. Our destination this trip was Tandem Crêperie and Coffeehouse and its sweet and savory crêpes. Well before noon there was a steady line of folks at the counter to order. The potato and sausage crêpe was a hearty meal after the bike ride and provided the nourishment needed for our return trip.
After a brief rest at the Westin Poinsett, we were back on the streets heading to the West End. Our first stop was at Beija-Flor Jeans. The company’s name is Portuguese for hummingbird, which translates as “kiss the flower.” Amy Vanderwerff welcomed us to the flagship store, and she shared with us the amazing story of a local mother and daughter who have developed what many will say are the best fitting jeans a woman can buy. All of the jeans cuts and styles are named after family members. Just drop in to visit this friendly staff. It won’t take long to shop as the clerks will advise what jean to try, and the first pair will fit perfectly — as Nancy discovered.
We walked farther into the West End toward Flour Field, the home of the Greenville Drive, which anchors the south end of downtown Greenville. We dropped into many of the shops along Augusta Street until we reached Brick Street Café, which was a regular spot for us from our Furman days. Its bakery is a must stop for any sweet tooth; I ordered a sweet potato cake to bring home.
As happy hour time arrived, we found ourselves meeting our kids and several friends at The Community Tap, a popular tap room located a short drive from Main Street on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Tables abound inside, but many folks gather on the covered side porch with their families and dogs in tow. The comfortable surrounding invites people of all ages to choose a craft beer from the wall. The beers change every time a keg is emptied. From the front of the store, customers can buy many types of specialty beers as well as wines. The Community Tap also has quite a wine selection. We purchased two bottles of French white wine and a limited release Flanders style sour ale, developed as a collaboration with The Community Tap and Hedges Family Winery. Food trucks know where hungry people are and, as we were leaving, one arrived in the parking lot and the line was already forming, this night purchasing Greek food.
Returning downtown, we dropped by several art galleries to see the work of a number of friendly, local artists, eager to tell about their experiences. Walking on the plazas along the Reedy River, we made our way to the recently opened Halls Chophouse. Anyone who has eaten with the Hall family in Charleston knows the hospitality of this specialty steakhouse. On this weekend, Jeanne and Bill Hall, the patriarchs of this family, were in town to welcome their guests. The house was full, but the attentive waitstaff made the selection of each course special, offering insight on each type of steak and the manner it is prepared.
There are many wonderful sides, making it hard to choose which ones to share around the table. Our scrumptious meal was topped off with a fresh peach cobbler served piping hot in a small iron skillet, with ice cream melting perfectly into the cobbler. We complimented the head chef when he came to visit our table, and he shared with us how his time in New Orleans has influenced his development of new items to try at Halls. It gave me a new appreciation of how hard this chef works in his kitchen to prepare a nightly feast.
Saturday mornings start early on Main Street as street vendors take over three blocks for TD Saturday Market, a farmers market with more than just fresh local fruits and vegetables. By 9 a.m., the street is filled with people sipping coffee and purchasing fresh pastries. With bagel in hand and children in tow, folks stroll the booths of pottery, jewelry, art, honey, soap and baked goods scattered among fresh fruits and vegetables. We bought some of the fresh peaches we had enjoyed in our cobbler at dinner the night before.
I broke away from the crowd at the Saturday Market to meet my son, Bryant, at Greenville Glides for our Segway Tour through downtown Greenville. Our guide, John, first prepped us well on the finer points of riding a Segway; there is no brake so the control is all in the balancing of your feet. Off we went into the streets, carefully maneuvering through the crowded sidewalks still filled with shoppers from the Saturday Market. Folks smiled and pointed to our guide and touring band of six. The Segway Tour is a great way to learn about the history of Greenville, and John was filled with fascinating anecdotal stories about how Shoeless Joe Jackson got his nickname and why Albert Einstein spent so much time in Greenville.
The best takeaway from our Segway Tour was an appreciation of the public art located through downtown and the dedication of business to perpetuating the arts. Perhaps the most fascinating art, Mice on Main was developed as a Greenville native’s senior high school project. A family of nine mice sculptures in surprising places on Main Street between the Hyatt and the Westin Poinsett provides a unique scavenger hunt for people of all ages as they learn more about the city. The amount of public art is another downtown gem.
We enjoyed lunch in the casual atmosphere of Rick’s Deli & Market on Falls Park Drive. There is always a steady but quick moving line, and I chose among appetizing selections of homemade sandwiches and salads. The Carolina Black & Bleu or Rick’s Chopped Salad are my favorites, followed by the coconut or carrot cake.
After lunch we strolled up Main Street to Magnolia Scents by Design. Magnolias is a micro-factory and feel-good shop of candles and soaps made of natural ingredients in the store as patrons watch. The friendly and welcoming staff tells a wonderful story of a how a family perfected the art of candle-making in Kansas and found downtown Greenville as a perfect place for a second storefront. We took advantage of a class where we made our own candles, finding it both fun and easy to do, as we chose from a myriad of scents and color combinations. The specialty soaps are also quite alluring; we purchased bars of oatmeal shea and lemongrass rosemary soaps.
The wine cellar at Soby’s features an extensive list of options. Courtesy of Stephen Stinson Photography.
In the early evening, we wandered into the true gem of downtown: Falls Park on the Reedy, a 32-acre park located in the West End district. The park features nature trails, access to GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, picnic areas, a pond with a foot bridge, scenic overlooks and landscaped gardens. The park’s most striking feature is a unique one-sided cable suspension pedestrian bridge, giving an unobstructed view of the river’s waterfall. We came upon a bench set on a high perch near Falls Cottage overlooking this beautiful park filled with flowering shrubs, crepe myrtles trying to break open and large stands of lavender. We saw a few stray blankets on a grassy lawn with people in front of the Shakespeare in the Park summer stage, disappointed that the rain shower had canceled the evening’s production.
Leaving the park, we walked a short distance to join Bryant and Caroline for dinner at one of their favorite restaurants with a fabulous view of the Reedy River and its surrounding plazas. The Lazy Goat, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine, offers a variety of small bites and full entrees. We loved starting with the crispy Brussels sprouts and the fried goat cheese. We were also drawn to the toasted garlic shrimp over a bed of arugula. I enjoyed the paella; others enjoyed the pizza — there are many to choose from. Clearly a very popular spot, it is best to make reservations early.
Falls Park’s most striking feature is a unique one-sided cable suspension pedestrian bridge, giving an unobstructed view of the Reedy River’s waterfall.
As with many Southern cities, Greenville is filled with church spirals, and we attended a Sunday morning worship service in one of the beautiful downtown churches. It seemed an appropriate ending to our three-day excursion, giving us a new-found appreciation of Greenville as the crown jewel of Upstate South Carolina.