One of my guidebooks for South Carolina described Greenville as "the coolest city you've never heard of". After spending a few days there over the last week or so, I would have to agree. I knew nothing about Greenville when I arrived, and absolutely fell in love with the city while I was there. It seemed like there was so much thought and care put into it and every time I looked around I found something else to smile about. It's an intensely livable city, with so many of the things I would look for if I was thinking about where to settle down, and it seems to be attracting quite a few young people who are doing just that. With a great arts scene, a few sports teams and some wonderful bars and restaurants it really has everything you could ask for in a city this size. And with all of these things in a city this size, why would you want to live somewhere bigger? Greenville definitely kept me around longer than I had intended to stay, and even when I did leave I felt a little bit sad to go. But I promise, I will be back. If Greenville isn't on your travel radar, it should be.
First I think it's important to note that Greenville owes much of its successes in urban revitalization to its economy. Greenville used to be an industrial town, with an industrial feel. Reinventing itself as the modern and hip town that it has become wasn't easy, but it also wasn't cheap. Once a major textile manufacturing center, Greenville has moved into the modern age by attracting companies like Michelin, BMW, Lockheed Martin, 3M, Honeywell and General Electric. These companies require a skilled labor force and have to pay people accordingly. This leaves Greenville with a strong tax base and an educated, employed population and because cost of living isn't outrageous, it means people have some money in their pockets at the end of the week. Greenville has recognized this and created a fun city that people want to live in and stay in and raise their children in, not just a stepping stone to bigger and better places. I applaud them for realizing this and making it happen.
Downtown Greenville is the focal point of this effort. The city has spent a lot of time, energy and money to make downtown an attractive and pleasant place to walk, eat, shop and linger. Main Street is where it is all happening. The sidewalks are wide and shaded and there are plenty of places offering outdoor seating so you can sit and enjoy the nice weather. There are lots of great statues of people from Greenville's past along the sidewalks. Main Street businesses have a lot to offer as well. Mast General Store is a wonderful place to wander around and check out their wide selection of clothes, souvenirs and candy. There is also a toy store and a sports memorabilia store, a comedy club, a wide variety of restaurants and bars, a wonderful and cavernous underground cafe and so much more.
Perhaps my single favorite thing about Greenville also happens on Main Street - the Mice on Main project. Way back in 2000, a student named Jim Ryan wanted to create an art project geared towards children and based on one of his favorite stories: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. After clearing a lot of red tape, his project was approved and with the help of Greenville sculptor Zan Wells, they turned it into reality. There are 9 bronze mice hidden up and down Main Street and your goal is to find them all using clues you can pick up at many places around town. When I found out about this, I set out to find them myself and despite the fact that it was windy and rainy out, I was giddy each time I spotted one of the little critters. I'm not going to lie, Millie stumped me for 3 days before I finally found her. Obviously this project is aimed more towards children, but can be enjoyed by all of us! How many towns have something like this that is for kids and really just for fun? I applaud the Mice on Main project wholeheartedly and encourage other towns and cities to think of ways to engage the minds and imaginations of your youngest visitors too.
The Reedy River cuts through downtown Greenville and has been turned into the centerpiece of the whole downtown area. Falls River Park is really an extraordinary place with plenty of grass to spread out a blanket and have a picnic lunch or dinner on. The namesake falls are small but beautiful and I really enjoyed them when I was there. Hovering over the falls, Liberty Bridge is an amazing 345 foot curved, pedestrian-only suspension bridge which apparently replaced a 6 lane traffic bridge which once occupied that space. Liberty Bridge is a definite improvement over a traffic bridge and makes for a wonderful place to stroll and enjoy the views both down on the park and back over the city. It takes a lot of thought and planning and a huge leap of faith to make changes like this to your city. Greenville has really done it well.
Along the river are also several other really cool features of downtown Greenville. In an incredible re-imagination of a space, the Wyche Pavilion was one of my favorite places to visit and photograph. Once a paint shop for a wheel manufacturing company, it became the first Duke's Mayonnaise plant and now is a beautiful open pavilion right on the river which hosts weddings and other special events. Next door is the TD Stage, a great outdoor amphitheater which gets plenty of use in the Summer I am sure. A small pedestrian bridge crosses the river nearby making for another attractive photo of the city. Across the river are several downtown hotels and restaurants. I really enjoyed the Blues Boulevard Jazz club, where I stopped for a quick beer and some great live blues music. This use of the Reedy River is really wonderful, bringing a little nature into the heart of the city. It reminded me of the Riverwalk in San Antonio, but much less commercialized. I like being in nature and I really like when a city can break its connections to concrete and steel even for a little bit, and provide a nice green space for people to sit out in and enjoy their lunch on a sunny day.
Just a stone's throw north and east of Main Street sits Heritage Green which houses the main branch of the public library system, the fabulous Upcountry History Museum, the Children's Museum, Art Museum and Music Museum. I used the library to get some work done while I was in town, and I really loved the History Museum. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to visit the other museums there, but it was a beautiful and well laid out campus right next to the heart of downtown.
Walking in the other direction down Main Street, you come to Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive, a minor league baseball affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. This is a beautiful, modern, downtown baseball stadium and I was sorry I was there before the season began because I love an evening in a minor league park. Out front of the stadium is a statue of one of Greenville's most favorite native sons: Shoeless Joe Jackson. Joe played in the mill leagues in the area from the time he was 13 and went on to become one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Along with Greenville's minor league hockey team the Swamp Rabbits, the Drive gives the town something to rally around and cheer for. Minor league sports are great and more affordable than the majors. I think they are also a great way to spend an afternoon or an evening when you're in town.
Branching out from downtown, Greenville has a lot of great historic neighborhoods, parks and businesses. I found great Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese food in the area along with plenty of great southern food as well. I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of restaurant choices for a city this size and happy to get my fill on Asian food before I moved on. In addition to the blues club, I enjoyed some live music at Smiley's Acoustic Cafe and at the Radio Room. There were bowling alleys, a great array of breweries which I wrote about HERE, and I even found an axe throwing club at Hampton Station near Birds Fly South Ale Project. Like I said earlier, Greenville kept surprising me around every corner.
When you're in Greenville, you're not far at all from some great outdoor experiences. IN addition to nearby Paris Mountain State Park, there are several great state parks and national forests within an hour or two making this a great base to explore the region from. It's also just a few hours from Charlotte, Asheville, Columbia and Atlanta making it a great weekend getaway from any of those cities.
Greenville has so much to offer, and I feel like I only just scratched the surface. The downtown area is vibrant and alive and made me feel happy and the surrounding neighborhoods added to that feeling. The people I met during my stay were friendly and welcoming and eager to share what their city had to offer. Greenville really may be one of the greatest cities you've never heard of, only now you have, because I told you. Add it to your plans, you won't be sorry you did. And when you go keep your eye out for Millie the Mouse on Main Street - you may find her faster than I did, but I'm sure she'll make you smile when you finally do.