How Greenville Became America’s Coolest New Weekend City
Art, food, and waterfalls as tall as buildings.
Every few years, there’s someplace or other that's clamoring for the title of “coolest city in America.” Back in the day it was Austin and Portland, then it was mid-sized spots like Boise and Asheville. But one city that’s been steadily “on the rise” for the past two decades or so is actually in South Carolina. And no, it isn’t Charleston.
Greenville lures in visitors with an absolutely astonishing downtown, anchored by a 60-foot waterfall and expansive green space. Combine that with one of the finest urban bike paths in America and a flourishing local food and arts scene, and it’s no wonder this happening little locale of 70,000 about an hour south of Asheville has become one of America’s fast-growing cities in recent years.
To get the skinny on what makes Greenville so great, we tapped the minds of a quartet of local experts for tips on the best things to do in town. According to them, here’s why Greenville is more than just hype.
Walk around one of the most charming downtowns in America
Once considered the “Textile Capital of the World,” this former manufacturing town fell on hard times in the 1960s and ‘70s. But thanks to visionary city planning and revitalization efforts, today’s Downtown Greenville looks “completely different from its former self,” says John Nolan, owner/founder of Greenville History Tours.
The crown jewel of downtown is undoubtedly Falls Park on the Reedy, a lush, 32-acre park that underwent full-scale renovations in 2004—including a serious river clean-up and the addition of 20 acres of gardens—to showcase the beauty of Reedy River Falls. The cleanup “was such a game-changer for Greenville, its importance cannot be overstated,” says Nolan. (Are you listening, Gowanus Canal?)
Snap photos of the 60-foot Reedy River Falls, then take in the view from atop the equally-photogenic, 345-foot Liberty Bridge, the only single-cable suspension bridge of its kind in the US. This is also your jumping off point for a food crawl down Swamp Rabbit Trail, a super popular, 22-mile bike path lined with cool bars and restaurants. Stop in at Soby’s or The Lazy Goat, or head out a little further to Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery. On Saturday mornings you can also ride all the way down to the farmer’s market in nearby Travelers Rest.
Find out what a “booming food scene” actually looks like
When asked to describe the Greenville food scene in a few words, Jackie Brooker needs only one: “booming.” Fitting for a city with over 120 restaurants sardined into a 10-block radius near downtown. And no, it’s not all Southern food.
“[Greenville is] not just a place to have shrimp and grits or fried chicken. We have a diverse culinary scene driven by international businesses,” says Brooker, who founded Off the Grid Greenville, an insider’s guide to underrepresented small businesses in upstate South Carolina. “Many of the best places are the ones run by families that established themselves in Greenville to serve their community, giving the rest of us the opportunity to dine around the world in our own backyard.”
Greenville is home to buzzy, Bourdain-approved Husk BBQ, as well as James Beard-nominated chefs like Adam Cooke of Topsoil Kitchen and Greg McPhee of The Anchorage. But many of Greenville’s best finds can be uncovered in no-frills spots, says Brooker. Go for standout Middle Eastern food at the cash-only, family-run Pita House, or fried chicken from the local South Carolina gas station franchise Spinx.
You can also hit a food hall made of shipping containers at Gather. There’s also the recently relocated Myles Pizza, which Brooker says gets folks driving in all the way from Ohio, as well as the only non-Nashville location of the legendary Prince’s Hot Chicken, which can be found at Greenville brewery Yee-Haw. Speaking of beer, Greenville’s 17-brewery-strong craft beer scene is another industry clearly on the rise.
Swing by art galleries and catch a cultural festival
Lured by relatively cheap rents, artists have been steadily flowing into Greenville and cultivating one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the South. “The depth and diversity of artists and arts amenities is astounding,” says Artisphere’s Kerry Murphy. “Visitors are always charmed by the small town feel and blown away by the big city cultural offerings.”
Along with Artisphere—which takes place every spring and is one of the top art festivals in the country—Greenville’s year-round calendar of events includes classics like Euphoria and Fall for Greenville.
Warhols and Pollocks can be perused at the Greenville County Museum of Art, but Murphy recommends paying a visit to one of the many independent galleries in the arts-centric neighborhood of West Greenville. Sculpture hounds will find more than 95 public works of art scattered around the city, including Dale Chihuly’s Rose Crystal Tower in Falls Park.“The city has been evolving for 20-plus years,” says Murphy. “Every time you come back, there is a new artist studio or restaurant. The arts scene mimics the vibe and energy of the city.”
Take a day trip to mountains, lakes, and waterfalls
Nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with five state parks within reach, Greenville’s got the easy outdoor escapes thing down pat. Paris Mountain State Park, with four lakes and 9,000 feet of elevation change, is a mere five miles from town. “You can get so deep in [the park] you forget you’re only five miles from 12-story buildings,” says Ty Houck, a Director at the Greenville County Recreation District.
Other standouts include Caesars Head State Park, home to the 420-foot Raven Cliff Falls as well as portions of the Middle Saluda River; and Table Rock State Park, where you’ll find some of the most stunning mountain views in the state. Caesars Head and nearby Jones Gap State Park make up the bulk of Greenville’s massive outdoor playground known as the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, where, according to Houck, “you’ll have to remind yourself that you're not in the Rockies.”
Fishing is popular at local spots like Lake Cunningham and the Reedy River, while the Cliffs at Glassy golf course is easily one of the most scenic around. If that’s not enough action, stop by Greenville’s Fluor Field to take in a ballgame in a minor league stadium modeled after Fenway Park, complete with its own miniature Green Monster.
But if you just want to hang out in Falls Park and stare at the waterfall, that’s quite alright. “The second you see it,” says Brooker of the falls, “you fall in love and want to move here.”You certainly wouldn’t be the only one.
Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile