From little towns to big cities, the Carolinas are home to a plethora of thriving downtown communities. Even some of the smallest mountain towns now count art galleries, coffeehouses and excellent restaurants among their attractions, and larger cities continue to host award-winning entertainment from around the world.
Below are five lively downtowns worth visiting in North and South Carolina. Handmade crafts, fine arts, barbecue, beer and celebrated chefs: They can all be found in at least one of these destinations.
Wilmington, North Carolina
“No matter your age, Wilmington can take you back to your childhood in an instant,” said John Sneed, vice president of sales and services with the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau. With its beaches and the riverfront, the city offers several settings within close reach of one another, which allows Sneed and his colleagues to “build an itinerary around just about any special interest.” The downtown area is part of a 230-block National Register Historic District. It is bordered by a 1.75-mile riverwalk along the Cape Fear River.
Visitors might not know where to start, with the more than 200 shops and restaurants within walking distance of the river. Suggested places include the Cotton Exchange, a series of historic warehouses that were converted into shops, restaurants and coffeehouses, and the Old City Market.
For history buffs, Wilmington has something for every era. The Burgwin-Wright House was built about 1770. After a taste of Colonial Carolina, jump forward in time at the antebellum Bellamy Mansion. Round out the day by visiting the Latimer House, built in 1852 but now preserved in the Victorian style. Alternatively, if military history is more to a group’s taste, the Battleship North Carolina is just across the river.
To take a guided tour around downtown Wilmington, all visitors have to do is pick their mode of transport and subject matter. But the choice is a difficult one, and the CVB can provide information about tours on foot as well as by boat, Segway, horse-drawn carriage or trolley. Follow the Wilmington Ale Trail to explore the local craft breweries; Front Street Brewery offers daily free tours and tastings, and has a restaurant on-site. The film tours are very popular; the city has more than 400 movie and TV credits. Sneed can also put groups in touch with a local guide who is knowledgeable about the area’s African-American history.
Columbia, South Carolina
According to the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s director of communications, Andrea Mensink, one of the great things about downtown Columbia is that it offers “a manageable urban experience.” “It is very easy to get around on foot,” she said.
In the past five years, the city has undergone a lot of revitalization. Now the Main Street area features museums, shopping and restaurants all within walking distance of one another. Also downtown are many major hotels, and due to open this fall is the Hotel Trundle, a 41-room boutique hotel located in three restored historic buildings. Every room will have its own unique style and decor to match the original fixtures and setting.
The South Carolina Statehouse stands at the center of the city. Nearby are the South Carolina State Museum, the EdVenture Children’s Museum and the Columbia Museum of Art. For those who prefer to spend their time browsing the shops, Main Street is home to a diverse mix of gift shops, boutiques, bakeries and more. Mensink said that visitors can “easily spend the entire day exploring the downtown area and still not find every little nook, cranny and alleyway that there is to discover.” Among those easy-to-miss places that she recommends seeking out are Ally and Eloise Bakeshop, where Mensink promises “the most decadent desserts,” and the recently opened Lula Drake Wine Parlor, where guests can enjoy a number of limited-run wines.
In addition to various events throughout the year, downtown hosts First Thursday on Main on the first Thursday of each month. Shops and galleries stay open late, providing free entertainment and a free shuttle.