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Small City or Big Town, Greenville Is Worth a Visit

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By Victor Block

When I first heard mention of Greenville, South Carolina, I had to look at a map to learn exactly where it is. Little did I know that it has received rave reviews from major newspapers and magazines. It didn't take long after I got there to agree with those accolades.

My first impression after arriving was the inviting setting. Greenville is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While its population (about 70,000) gives it small-city status, the atmosphere in many ways resembles that of a small town. Adding to the attraction is a unique blend of traditional Southern charm and cosmopolitan cool.

No wonder The New York Times ranked Greenville No. 14 on its 2023 list of "52 places to go," and Conde Nast Traveler called it "No. 1 Friendliest city in the U.S." while Travel + Leisure reported that its culinary treasures earn it a place among the "Best Food Cities in the U.S."

My enjoyable task was to verify the truth of these tributes, and verify them I did. I was immediately immersed in what could be a motion-picture setting, and, in fact, a number of movie scenes have been filmed in Greenville.

The center of the action, and appeal for me and many visitors, is Main Street. It's the bustling heart of the city with wide, tree-shaded sidewalks that lead past restaurants and bars, galleries and an eclectic collection of boutiques in a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Typical of the diverse lineup of shops are the Cornerstone gallery, which sells crystals, minerals and animal skulls and skeletons; the Savannah Bee Co. that offers a free mead experience; and the local branch of Mast General Store. It originally opened in 1883 selling everything "from cradles to caskets." Along with traditional merchandise, it offers stone-ground corn meal and grits, locally produced "old timey" soaps and Amish-made rocking chairs.

While strolling in town, I also kept my eyes peeled for glimpses of sculptures, murals and other public art that transform Greenville's streets into an open-air gallery. I saw one reference to more than 160 pieces of public art, including statues, fountains, plaques and more.

Perhaps most famous is a 40-foot-tall, 2-ton kinetic metal sculpture by Anthony Howe, titled "Octo," that moves with the wind and is said to represent the sun. At the other end of the size spectrum are nine tiny whimsical bronze statues of mice hidden along Main Street, inspired by the children's book "Goodnight Moon," which people of all ages delight in locating.

A world-class collection of other works is not far away at Heritage Green, an arts and cultural campus. The Greenville County Museum of Art houses the world's largest public display of watercolors by Andrew Wyeth along with an impressive assortment of paintings and prints by Jasper Johns. Its Southern Collection surveys American art from Colonial times to the present.

Sharing the Heritage Green site are the Sigal Music Museum, a children's museum, and my favorite, the Upcountry History Museum. That institution depicts South Carolina's "Upcountry," the state's northwestern area that includes Greenville. Videos, dioramas and exhibits trace the nation's past, beginning with the American Revolution, and tell stories of people as varied as Native Americans, pioneer settlers and formerly enslaved people.

These touches of culture add a pleasant surprise in a community the size of Greenville. While its museums, galleries, theaters and symphony orchestra rival those of much larger cities, it retains many of the attributes and attractions of small-town United States.

Other chapters of Greenville's past are told in several historic neighborhoods. Houses that were built in the early 1800s grace the Colonel Elias Earle Historic District. After getting its start in the 1830s, the West End District expanded rapidly after Furman University was established there in 1852. The first home was built in the Hampton-Pinckney neighborhood prior to the Civil War.

 

Hints of the city's early industrial story include old brick warehouses remaining from its days as a thriving textile-making and manufacturing center. Power for the industries was provided by the Reedy River, a gentle waterway where I watched ducks and geese swim and squawk while I walked along the impishly named 20-mile-long Swamp Rabbit Trail, which parallels the narrow canal.

The river flows beneath the Liberty Bridge, a 355-foot-long curved span suspended by a single cable -- the only overpass of its kind in the United States. At this point, the Reedy River Falls tumble 28 feet over a rocky path at the place where Greenville's first European settler in 1768 established a trading post and later built grist and saw mills.

Another magnet for travelers is the city's reputation as a gourmet paradise, which earned it yet another tribute from People magazine as among the "Top New Foodie Cities in America." In addition to down-home Southern cooking, more than 200 restaurants offer food from around the country and the world.

This full menu of taste treats enhances Greenville's status as a small city or -- in many ways -- a large small town. It combines an air of sophistication usually associated with much larger urban centers and a friendly, down-to-earth lifestyle.

In 1901, the first electric trolleys began lumbering around Greenville and rides cost a nickel. Today, they're free. The vintage trams run on five different routes downtown and are wheelchair accessible and equipped with bicycle racks.

With so much to see and do in Greenville, visitors with limited time might wish to take advantage of the list of available tours. Whatever your interest -- history or mystery, culinary or cocktails, traveling by foot, bike or Segway -- there's likely to be something that fits your fancy.

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WHEN YOU GO

For more information: www.visitgreenvillesc.com or 864-233-0461.

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Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


 

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