Photo by KAD Photo/Shutterstock
Courtesy of VisitGreenvilleSC
At Markley Station, the trio of dining tenants includes Urban Wren, a wine shop and eclectic kitchen with a swanky industrial motif.
This South Carolina city is growing in all the right ways, while staying true to itself. Come to enjoy fast cars, slow bike rides, and inspired eats.
The best restaurant in Greenville isn’t on the city’s walkable Main Street. It’s not in walking distance of anything. Take the highway north from town, pass Lowe’s on the right, and turn up the dirt driveway just after the Speedway gas station. Although Oak Hill Café has quietly garnered serious acclaim—it was a 2020 James Beard Best New Restaurant Semi-Finalist (that’s in the entire country)—its determined but low-key approach speaks to what’s been happening all over Greenville.
Here is a restaurant in a humble house, with blackberry bushes from the onsite 1.5-acre farm edging the parking lot. Oak Hill’s version of hyper-local requires about 50 steps from harvest to plate, with an array of dehydrators, fermenters, and pressure cookers in between, extracting every molecule of flavor while embodying a no-waste ethos. The kitchen’s “deviled egg” is deconstructed into emulsified pellets of Worcestershire sauce, crème fraîche, honey Dijon, and roe, spooned over blended egg and spread across toast. It’s divine.
But Greenville is growing so quickly that Oak Hill still feels like it flies under the radar. It hides in plain sight, not unlike the cascading waterfall on the Reedy River that sat underneath a highway for 35 years—now the centerpiece of downtown’s Falls Park—or the blighted railroad tracks that were transformed into the lauded Swamp Rabbit Trail.
In Greenville, growth is contagious. Another public space currently in development, the 60-acre Unity Park, is already bringing creative eateries and new small businesses to once-derelict warehouses at the Commons. Just across the river, the massive brick factories that fueled this textile boomtown are steadily transforming from neglected, hulking shells into luxury lofts with fascinating back stories.
Local historian John Nolan’s Greenville History Tours reveal the city’s early 20th-century manufacturing heyday, including a “Textile Crescent” tour of the mill villages where baseball legend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson got his start. These re-emerging towns-within-a-city are fueling a second phase of rebirth that builds on the buzz Greenville first generated a decade ago with the revitalization of Main Street. The rumble of constant construction means that the city’s list of “must try” places warrants a monthly update. In this moment, Greenville is a city in full bloom.
Downtown Greenville adds a major new hotel nearly every year.
Book now: from $146/night, marriott.com
In 2019, Marriott opened its combination Residence Inn and SpringHill Suites, featuring generously sized rooms, full kitchens, and a tree-themed modern aesthetic. Swinging chairs hang from the ceiling in the airy lobby, and richly colored, three-dimensional wood artwork fills common spaces. A courtyard pool and grill area temper steamy summer afternoons, and it’s one block from bustling Main Street. Rates are half of what you’d expect in a bigger city (Charleston, for example) for this level of luxury. Bonus: You’re just around the corner from downtown’s best spot for a nightcap, the dimly lit but intoxicatingly inviting Swordfish Cocktail Club.
Book now: from $199/night, expedia.com
Set directly on Court Square, the city center, the Westin Poinsett combines history with AAA Four Diamond luxury. An ornate lobby and gilded ceilings suggest stepping a century back in time. Jesse Jackson was a porter here in the 1950s, and nods to the building’s Roaring 20s origins abound, like a stall in the lobby’s public bathroom built into the hotel’s original safe.
Several more major hotels are expected to open in 2021, including the highly anticipated Grand Bohemian, with sweeping views over the waterfall.
Greenville’s recent history is defined by a series of game-changing public access initiatives, beginning with the formation of Falls Park on the Reedy, a 32-acre park in the heart of downtown. The signature waterfall is best viewed from the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge, a single-cable suspended path that extends 345 feet as it curves around the waterfall below.
Public space extends north and south along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a grand slam of smart urban planning that parallels the Reedy River as it rambles for 22 miles over converted railway. The path moves south to the freshwater marsh at Lake Conestee Nature Preserve and north to Travelers Rest, a bedroom community where eateries like Upcountry Provisions and Monkey Wrench Smokehouse make a worthy destination for a long afternoon bike ride. Two miles north of downtown, the Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery marks an appealing waypoint with its park-like outdoor seating, sandwiches on house-baked bread, and a bicyclist ethos. Welcome to Asheville, 25 years ago.
On McBee Street downtown, Reedy Rides rents seven-speed cruisers (plus pull-behind wagons for kids) to explore the trail. Book early for weekend rentals—the scenic ride along the Reedy is a popular diversion.
Minutes from downtown, Paris Mountain State Park rises from the piedmont, inviting hikers and runners to tackle its terrain. But not all of Greenville’s attractions are natural. Another new-ish diversion, Topgolf Greenville, features three tiers of hitting bays and a relaxed happy hour vibe. Topgolf turns a driving range into a bowling alley atmosphere, with beginner-friendly competition, regional craft beers, speedy service, and a surprisingly good chicken taco.
Nearby, Greenville’s most distinctive—and face-melting—attraction sits across the street from BMW’s largest manufacturing plant in the world. The BMW Performance Center puts you 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. There’s no faster way to go from groggy eyed to peak adrenaline than a professional racecar driver commanding you to “Floor it!” as you shift from full acceleration to slamming on the brakes to drift and squeal around a turn. Just remember when you get back in your own (or rental) car that you don’t have ceramic brakes. BMW’s facility also includes an off-road course, where you’ll navigate its X5 “Sports Activity Vehicle” through a river and teeter on two wheels as you climb and descend the craggy obstacles.
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Greenville fully embraces the trend of repurposing historic buildings into mixed-use developments. Beer/café/food truck/yoga studio combos, built into former brick warehouses and textile mills, abound on downtown’s perimeter. The hippest of these hangouts is Hampton Station, where Birds Fly South brewery shares a building with White Duck Taco Shop, across a central picnic-tabled courtyard fronted by Due South coffee roasters, an axe-throwing joint, a dog hotel, and a meadery.
At Markley Station, the trio of dining tenants includes Urban Wren, a wine shop and eclectic kitchen with a swanky industrial motif. And Greenville isn’t without a true food hall: Gather GVL opted for stacked, multicolored shipping containers over old brick to house its dozen vendors dishing everything from acai bowls to lobster rolls.
Just outside of town in the Village of West Greenville—a revitalized thoroughfare heavy on art galleries—the Anchorage is aptly named for its role on the street. Exposed brick and whitewashed rafters complement a menu driven by its relationship with nearby Horseshoe Farm. Opt for the four-course family-style tasting menu.
Of course, trendy perimeter developments wouldn’t exist without a strong urban root structure. Main Street—which now extends well across the river into the once blue-collar West End—is a highly walkable thoroughfare in the heart of Greenville. Start the day at Methodical Coffee, a serene, light-filled space with an excellent “Tres Leches” latte, or a “Lord Have Mercy” detox juice with ginger, cayenne, and lemon from Southern Pressed Juicery. On weekends, you can skip the wait for a brunch table by joining a breakfast ramble with Foothill Foodie Tours. It also offers dessert and cocktail tours—solid values that let diners chow down on Main Street with minimal hassle. These aren’t “tasting” tours—you won’t leave hungry.
Outside of Oak Hill—a restaurant that's worth planning a Greenville trip around—the best place to land a reservation is Husk BBQ, where chef and pit master Dave Jensen takes the classic smoked meat platter to elevated heights. After dinner, cap the night with the doughnut holes—cloud-like vessels for the salted caramel dipping sauce—at Foxcroft Wine Co., charmingly set in a restored brick building that once housed a Ford dealership in the Model T era. Or close the night just across the street with a slice of the surprisingly light chocolate truffle cake at Old Europe.
Greenville’s Main Street hasn’t gone the way of Charleston’s Market or lower King Streets—restaurants catering to tourists and locals are not geographically segregated. In Greenville, locals and visitors still dine together. The city is bustling, growing at a dizzying pace, yet to a visitor, it still feels undiscovered.
Just 20 years ago, the notion of Charleston as an internationally sought-after destination for culture and cuisine was a scoff-worthy suggestion. But when South Carolina has its next moment, it will be Greenville’s bright glow that catches and holds the world’s gaze.
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