An insider look at a South Carolina city with great coffee, culture and natural spaces.
by Brian Rosenzweig
For many North Carolinians, the term “Greenville” spurs images of pine-filled coastal plains, kayaks lining the Tar River, and for some, the rich purple and yellow of their alma mater. Or maybe, you’re one of the (in my biased opinion) lucky few natives who also knows my Greenville.
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just straddling the North Carolina border, Greenville, South Carolina is filled with a rich arts and coffee scene, a bustling downtown and gorgeous natural scenery. It used to be our stat’s best-kept secret, but that’s not quite the case anymore, to my occasional dismay. In 2013, Greenville’s tourism board debuted the slogan, “yeah, that Greenville” as both a tongue-in-cheek reference to the predominance of identically-named cities in North Carolina, Tennessee and even Michigan, and as an assertion that among all the Greenvilles, this was the one that deserved to come to your mind. And in recent years, it increasingly has.
Greenville is constantly growing and changing, and has made a name for itself as it’s done so. If you’re looking to explore it, summer and early fall is the perfect time. At just over a four-hour drive from most parts of the Triangle, Greenville offers an easy weekend escape. So if you find yourself in that special part of the Appalachian foothills, where the water tumbles right through the heart of the city, here’s how to make the most of your time in the Greenville that stands apart from the rest.
Where to Stay in Greenville, South Carolina
For the history lover: The Poinsett – Once Greenville’s destination stay for its biennial Southern Textile Exhibit, the Poinsett is a historic, luxury hotel in the heart of downtown, now maintained by Marriott’s Westin imprint.
For the urbanist: Aloft – Known for its modern architecture and central location (literal steps from one of downtown’s most popular spots, One City Plaza), Aloft also has its own rooftop bar.
For the explorer: Hyatt Place – Just two blocks from Greenville’s Falls Park, this centrally-located stay in the historic downtown features an indoor pool, complimentary breakfast and pet-friendly rooms (trust me, Downtown Greenville will love your four-legged friend) with scenic views at sensible prices.
For the golfer: Embassy Suites – With a plaza so gorgeous it’s become a destination venue, this elevated stay at the Preserve at Verdae offers a sprawling golf course, made to order breakfast and a New South restaurant and bar with complimentary evening reception.
For the adventurer: Modal – Hostels don’t just exist in Europe! Perfect for larger families, budget travelers or anyone looking for an alternative lodging experience, Modal offers smartly-designed shared bunk- and pod-style beds ranging from 3 to 10 people per room, as well as private studios and suites. With an in-house bar serving specialty espresso drinks and local beer and wine, plus local art throughout the property, Modal is much more than just the bare-bones stay hostels are often noted for.
What to do on Friday
If there’s one thing Greenville is known for, it’s the downtown, and it’s easy to see why. Tree-lined streets, wide sidewalks and architecture that’s equal parts Charlotte’s metro Uptown and Asheville’s historic brick make it a gorgeous place to spend an evening.
For a taste of Greenville’s “New South” charm, look no further than Soby’s on Main for dinner. This spot in the heart of Downtown offers elevated Southern staples like country ham and hot-honey-drizzled fried chicken alongside stunning plates of crispy duck confit and Creole mustard glazed salmon. Be sure to take advantage of the bar offerings, from their popular lineup of “New South mules” to local beers sourced all throughout the Carolinas.
Afterwards, a brief trek down Main brings you to Coffee Underground, a beloved Greenville coffee and wine bar known equally for its rich drink selection and entertainment. On any given night, you may find yourself snapping along to a poetry slam or swaying your head to a jazz collective. Whatever the vibe, Underground will keep your cup full, whether with rich red wines or foamy cappuccinos, late into the night.
What to do on Saturday
Time to really soak in downtown. Start your morning at Methodical Coffee, one of Greenville’s native roasteries. Marble counters, qinghua porcelain teacups, Renaissance paintings and wall-to-wall indoor plants make Methodical one of the most gorgeous shop spaces you’ve ever seen. I recommend a traditional drip and a cinnamon roll, as well as getting a take-home bag of their light-roast beans for yourself.
Next, trek down Main street to M. Judson Booksellers. Located in Greenville’s historic county courthouse, this woman-owned bookstore has only been in Greenville since 2015, but immediately became a vital part of the downtown scene. Housed within the gorgeous Beaux-Arts style building, this sunny bookstore offers a charming selection of classic and contemporary works, small-press titles from local authors, cookbooks, gifts and a charming café offering teas, espresso and pastries (the scones and cupcakes are musts).
One block down from M. Judson, you’ll find Falls Park. The crowning jewel of Greenville’s downtown, Falls Park is a lush community gathering space filled with gorgeous picnic spaces, local restaurants and the Reedy River Falls flowing right through the park’s center. Falls Park was once eclipsed by a four-lane highway bridge that made the river and surrounding areas a dumping grounds for waste, but has since been revitalized into perhaps the most bustling green space in the city, adorned with a 200-foot suspension bridge overlooking the falls (read: ideal place for photos). By midsummer, Upstate Shakespeare Festival is in full-swing. The beloved local arts tradition presents Shakespeare plays in the park, and will be taking on the iconic tragedy Othello this year.
The area just around Falls Park offers a spate of Greenville’s best lunch options, including the cozy French cafè Passerelle, the Mediterranean-inspired Lazy Goat, and Persian bistro Pomegranate on Main.
Main Street, of course, is host to everything from Brooks Brothers and Lululemon to local art galleries and boutiques. For a fun incentive to explore Main Street, especially if there are kids around, embark on a scavenger hunt to find all of the Mice on Main, nine bronze mice statues subtly scattered throughout the downtown street.
If you’re in need of a sweet treat, Main’s got you covered too, with creamy gelato from Luna Rosa, fluffy pastries from Le Petit Croissant, or coffee and ice cream from brick-walled staple Spill the Beans.
Ready for some dinner after a day of exploring downtown? Nose Dive offers a relaxed, communal gastropub setting with elevated American-style dishes, Takosushi offers a surprising fusion of Asian and Tex-Mex flavors and Larkin’s has you set for high-quality steaks, aged wines and gorgeous riverside views.
Or, if you feel so inclined, venture outside of downtown for Greenville’s other iconic bites, including Sidewall Pizza on Pelham, Giovanni’s Italian on Woodruff, or the Peddler, a classic steakhouse on Greenville’s north side that looks and feels like a mountainside tavern.
Wherever you end up for dinner, however, I must recommend you end at least one night at SIP Whisky and Wine Bar, a rooftop bar with beautiful views of downtown and fine wines and spirits to keep the conversation flowing.
What to do on Sunday
I’ve focused a lot on Greenville’s city life so far, but its name begins with “green” for a reason. Sunday is the perfect day to explore all the outdoor nature Greenville has to offer. Start your day at Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, offering coffees, teas, bakery items and sandwiches, alongside a shop of locally-sourced and organic produce, meats, dairy, and other treats – perfect for hike snacks.
From there, there are great options for outdoor adventures all throughout Greenville, including the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which cuts northwest throughout Greenville, offering scenic views of the city and its rich ecosystem.
A short driving distance north, you’ll find Paris Mountain State Park. While perhaps not a mountain by Western North Carolina standards, this beloved park rests on a monadnock – a mountain that rises out of otherwise flat land – and long acted as a rural retreat for Greenville residents in the mid-20th century. Paris Mountain offers nine trails of varying length and difficulty, from the 0.5 mile lakeside Turtle Trail to the 2.4 mile hillside Brissy Ridge Trail.
If you’re willing to burn a little more gas, I’d highly recommend you visit Jones Gap State Park, about 25 miles from the city center. Further out into the Appalachian range, this park offers some Blue Ridge Parkway-level mountainside views, incredible trails and the crowning jewel, Rainbow Falls, a nearly 100-foot free-falling waterfall on one of the park’s trails. At just over 7km out and back, it’s certainly a more challenging trail, but in my opinion, well worth it if you’re feeling up to it.
If you’re hitting the road back to the Triangle in time for a late lunch, or are in need of a coffee pick-me-up, I’d recommend checking out Taylors Mill, a collective of art studios, coffee shops, and other small businesses housed within a historic printing factory. Local favorites include the stunningly-decorated Junto Coffee, savory American spot The Farehouse, and the carousel of local food trucks that often station themselves in front of 13 Stripes Brewery.
Some other things to know:
- A lot of my recommendations have you running up and down downtown. Which is why it’s so great that Greenville has a historic trolley system running routinely through Main Street, as well as the West End. Step aboard these open-air trolleys and enjoy some cool wind as you glide down Main. P.S. It’s totally free.
- Greenville isn’t just its downtown! In fact, a lot of the area’s appeal comes from neighboring small towns. The aforementioned Taylors Mill in Taylors is popular with the “hipster” scene, Greer offers a family-friendly historic downtown (similar to Chapel Hill or Hillsborough), and Travelers Rest, just about 10 miles north, has farm-to-table local stores including Tandem, the most picturesque (and delicious) creperie you’ll ever visit.
- If you’re looking to explore Greenville’s shopping scene a little more, I’d recommend you check out Magnolia Park. What was once Greenville’s humble movie theater strip mall has become a shopping plaza the likes of Durham’s Southpoint, with dining, shopping, recreation, and more. If you find yourself there at brunch (or just in the mood), I’d recommend trying Another Broken Egg Café.
- Don’t get it twisted: while Greenville, North Carolina on paper has a larger population than Greenville, South Carolina proper, we’re still bigger. Accounting for the metro population, Greenville edges its sister city out by over 300,000 people. So it’s an argument best not to start. Us Greenvillains are pretty sensitive about that “yeah, that Greenville” supremacy.