Over the years, Aiken has become one of the finest horse-training centers in the nation and an international equestrian training center as well, even attracting the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who brings horses from the Middle East.
Chartered in 1835, Aiken was originally a stop along the newly established railroad from Hamburg to Charleston. Soon, wealthy northerners flocked to the small town in search of reprieve from their cold winters. They brought their leisurely lifestyles – and their horses.
Since 1941, 39 champion thoroughbreds have trained at the famed Aiken Training Track, including Palace Malice, winner of the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
This important equestrian center has facilities for race tracks, steeplechase, polo, trail riding, fox hunting, hunter-jumper events, and year-round training for both race and sport horses. There’s no better town for horse enthusiasts to gather, ride, spectate and play.
Visitors will want to spend some leisurely time at the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum to learn about Aiken’s significant achievements to racing from 1900 through today.
Next, take The Historic Tour on the Aiken Trolley to get familiar with this picturesque town, one of the prettiest in the south. On the tour you’ll see and hear about historic homes and churches, equestrian sites, the Civil War’s battle of Aiken, The Live Oak Canopy on South Boundary, and things about the Hope Diamond you never knew.
Enjoy exploring up and down Lauren’s Street for amazing shopping. Stop in at the Aiken Center for the Arts where local artisans offer their original works for sale. Plan ahead to attend the 2016 Julliard in Aiken Performing Arts Festival. A unique partnership between Aiken and this famous performing arts conservatory brings students, faculty and alumni of Julliard each year. Performances are open to the public.
It turns out that the sandy soil of Aiken that is so good for horses is also good for people. Equestrians, hikers and joggers all enjoy the 70 miles of sandy trails that run through Hitchcock Woods. At 2,000 acres, it is the largest urban forest in the United States and contains a fascinating variety of ecosystems.
Lodging in Aiken is also world-class. The renowned Willcox Hotel, rated one of the world’s top hotels, is here; its small statues of jockeys at the front door have greeted guests such as Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Arden and many dignitaries and royalty. Soothe your worries away at the hotel’s spa. Dining is unpretentious but distinctively delicious.
Another tasteful choice in lodging is the Rose Hill Estate, the first Aiken property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For an exquisite dining experience on the estate, visit The Stables Restaurant and its lovely garden setting.
Fit in with the local horsemen and get your day off to a great start at The Track Kitchen. For lunch you can’t go wrong at the New Moon Café where they roast their own free-trade coffee in small batches and bake their breads and pastries daily. Magnolia Café and Market offers dishes for everyone from carnivores to vegans and those in between, all made with local, organic ingredients. You’ll find only the finest of aged steaks, whole lobsters and fresh seafood at Prime Steakhouse, located in the historic downtown area.
TASTE OF WINE AND ART, AIKEN CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 122 LAURENS ST., SW, 7-9:30 P.M., OCT. 29
A Taste of Wine and Art features a tasting of more than 50 wines from around the world, sample size portions of signature dishes from Aiken’s finest restaurants and caterers, and a silent auction. Cost: $55. Call 803-641-9094 or visit http://www.aikencenterforthearts.org/fundraisers.html.
FALL STEEPLECHASE, FORD CONGER FIELD, 931 POWDER HOUSE ROAD, AIKEN, GATES OPEN AT 9:30 A.M., LAST RACE AT 3:30 P.M., OCT. 31
The 24th Holiday Cup, with six steeplechase races around the track. Tailgating, a carriage parade, and the Village of Shops round out the event. Cost: $10 each in advance (children 10 and under are free); $15 each at the gate. Call 803-648-9641or visit www.aikensteeplechase.com/fallevent.html.
SOUTHERN CITY FILM FESTIVAL, VARIOUS VENUES ACROSS DOWNTOWN AIKEN INCLUDING AIKEN CENTER FOR THE ARTS, AIKEN COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE, NOV. 6-8
The SOUTHERN CITY Film Festival will bring an array of films, from amateur to professional in six categories: feature films, documentary films, short films, script to screen, homegrown and animation, with the winning films receiving a distribution deal to showcase their work. Cost varies. Visit https://www.southerncity.org/festival/.