Exploring Spartanburg, South Carolina

A local’s pick of the gems that shine in Sparkle City

Photo: Gabriela Gomez-Misserian

A fall stroll through Morgan Square in downtown Spartanburg.

Whether you’re a Spartanburg local (like me!) or you’ve passed through to visit the popular Beacon Drive-In, Carolina Panthers Training Camp, or Ballet Spartanburg, there are plenty of reasons to swing back into South Carolina’s Hub City. In recent years, the upstate community has nurtured a restaurant renaissance, an evolving art scene, and many ways to enjoy nature. Discover the city’s newest seasonal dishes and drinks from neighborhood favorites, plus the latest events for outdoor, art, and music enthusiasts.

photo: Marcos Gomez
The downtown Spartanburg skyline.

See & Do

Stroll through the Johnson Collection to see a showcase of Southern artists in the gallery’s latest exhibit, The Sight of Sound, through October 28. Curated in collaboration with the Spartanburg Philharmonic, the show features pieces that mirror sound and patterns from the orchestra’s season premiere program. The stylistic diversity of the artwork pairs with the sonic variety in the performance: You’ll find Bernice Sims’ lively Tent Revival alongside Sam Gillam’s geometric shafts of color in Tumble II. Even the brushstrokes in The Sight of Sound—from the carefully rendered glowing forest of Harvery Joiner’s Woods Scene to vibrating, curving strokes of color in The Clothesline by William Dodge—visualize the range of music heard from the Philharmonic. “We’ve invited viewers to experience the visual and performing arts in tandem,” says Sarah Tignor, the chief operating officer at the Johnson Collection. Be sure to spin through the gallery for the upcoming exhibition, Connections & Formulations (November 8, 2023–January 20, 2024), a show that spotlights the works of German artists Anni and Josef Albers. Nine silkscreens from Anni’s Connections collection will debut for the first time in Spartanburg alongside her artwork from Josef’s Formulation : Articulation, a thoughtful exploration of color theory and composition.

photo: The Johnson Collection
Anni Albers (1899 – 1994). Study for nylon rug from “Connections.” 1959 / 1983.

Warm up at Little River Coffee Roasters with an apple cider chai or pumpkin pie latte before checking out Hub City Bookshop & Press next door. Upcoming events at the bookstore this fall include a discussion with G&G contributor Latria Graham and Eastern Tennessee author Halle Hill, whose book Good Women knits together the stories of twelve Black women across Appalachia. The calendar also includes a conversation with Pilley Bianchi on For the Love of Dog, a book reflecting on her relationship with “the smartest dog in the world.” Hub City also hosts two monthly book clubs: Her Story meets up to discuss titles written by women, and Rainbow Reads explores stories highlighting narratives from LGBTQ+ characters and authors.

photo: courtesy of hub city writers project
Inside Hub City Bookshop.

This winter at Ballet Spartanburg, don’t miss The Nutcracker (December 8–10), a beloved tradition  for the past thirty years. This season, the ballet will host a new Nutcracker Market with holiday goodies, hot chocolate, and artwork before the show. Some of my favorite memories include joining my mom—a ballet teacher and artistic director at Ballet Spartanburg—for fresh gingerbread cookies during the intermission and marveling at the dancers’ bejeweled costumes backstage. I still play Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on loop every year to kick off the holiday cheer.

photo: courtesy of ballet spartanburg
The Waltz of the Snowflakes from Ballet Spartanburg’s production of The Nutcracker.

Get Outside

Hikers, campers, birdwatchers, and anglers frequent the expansive Croft State Park, which supports twenty miles of biking and hiking trails and seven thousand acres of lush forests—and it’s five miles from downtown Spartanburg. Rent boats for leisurely paddling or fishing on Lake Craig, or grab binoculars to scout wood ducks, bald eagles, and Cooper’s hawks before migratory birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks and wood warblers return in the spring. Before exploring the woods, stop by the Local Hiker to stock up on outdoor necessities; be sure to venture to the Hiker’s Hub in the back, where you can sip wine and beers from nearby breweries in upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina, like Highland, Thomas Creek, or New Groove. On Saturdays, thumb through the Local Hiker’s vinyl collection and spin your album, or come by on a Thursday to play games with friends.

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A stone’s throw from downtown, Cottonwood Trail is a local favorite. Four miles of easy boardwalks and trails snake through swampy woodland and stretch along Lawson’s Fork Creek, including a 550-foot wooden footpath through protected wetlands. Listen to the strikes of downy woodpeckers and peter-peter-peter whistle of titmice—and bring your binoculars. I love to explore the trails after work with my pup, Glory, as we both try to locate the birds calling from the branches above.

photo: Gabriela Gomez-Misserian
On the Cottonwood Trail.

Food & Drink

Wake up and slip into a booth at the Skillet, a neighborhood breakfast institution for over seventy years. Plenty of locals come in and out of this charming greasy spoon for crispy chicken and biscuits, fluffy silver dollar pancakes, and bowls of creamy grits, but the top-notch hospitality is a consistent draw for my Spartanburg friends. If you’re looking for a lighter breakfast, check out Pharmacy Coffee, an extension of Little River Roasting, for the best avocado toast in town. 

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Head into the heart of Spartanburg for dinner or lunch. Since fully closing the streets around Morgan Square to car traffic in 2021, downtown buzzes with visitors lounging outside restaurants and enjoying dinner at bistro tables on West Main Street. 

Order breakfast, lunch, or to-go sandwiches, salads, and desserts (including pecan pie, buttermilk pie, and lemon chess pie) at Blue Moon. Join in on a tasting—and share bites of cheese and cured meats—at Bond Street Wines before dinner. From the outside tables, you can hear live music down the street from Delaney’s, the neighboring Irish pub. 

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The buzzy square of downtown has dinner options in abundance. Initial Q reimagines barbecue in an refined setting and includes local rabbit, shrimp, and smoked duck alongside traditional brisket, pulled pork, and chicken. My go-to spot to satiate hungry friends is Miyako Sushi, where we order plates of specialty rolls. Tulip Tree has traditional Southern fare like shrimp and grits topped with tasso ham gravy and black lip mussels swimming in white wine sauce. Sophia’s, a cozy Italian restaurant that arrived in 2020, is a favorite of my parents, with dishes like gnocchi arrabbiata with gooey mozzarella; lobster ravioli; or chicken marsala over homemade pasta. For dessert, we order a generously cocoa-dusted slice of tiramisu. Or, after dinner, my mom and I will take our pups on a walk and stop by Hub City Scoops to satisfy our shared sweet tooth. We both love banana-flavored desserts, and the Fat Elvis is a toothsome mix of creamy banana ice cream blended with a ripple of peanut butter.

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If you’re looking for a modern fine-dining experience, seek out the Kennedy, one of my favorite Spartanburg restaurants, off the main drag of West Main. The art deco interior, simple but elevated cocktails, and imaginative dishes bring a level of hospitality to the Upstate that rivals what you might find in the Lowcountry. The fall menu features mussels bathed in a tomato-inflected sauce, slices of tender duck breast, shrimp and grits topped with shreds of fried leek, and pork shank flecked in benne seeds. The desserts, including my dad’s favorite, the ginger-frosted carrot cake, don’t last long on our table.

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On a weekend night, head out to Fr8yard, a downtown hang with an expansive and lively open-air biergarten, where you can grab a “yard dog” (a hot dog in flavors like  “Korea Town” or beer cheese with kraut) and kick back to enjoy a live band. Just make sure to visit before the yard closes for the winter from late December to early March.

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For good company and live music inside a neat industrial setting, head to RJ Rockers taproom, an airy warehouse space with different artists on stage every week, from acoustic sessions to lively jam bands. The frequently updated calendar pencils in performances for Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Besides catching a show, you can play ping pong or foosball and taste some of the brewery’s current craft offerings, like the Gruntled Pumpkin Porter, made with toasted pumpkin fruit.

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Wind down at the AC Hotel and take in a view of the skyline of downtown Spartanburg from top-floor restaurant Level 10. “We try to do simplicity well,” says head chef David Phillips, who joined the group in 2020. The New Orleans chef is crafting refined fall dishes, like sweet tea–braised roasted chicken with warmed winter veggies, za’atar scallops with fennel and dill, and ravioli stuffed with mushrooms. Slurp down chilled East Coast oysters on the half-shell, or stay warm with creamy she-crab soup.

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The hotel’s polished look was influenced by the aesthetic of European modernism and features the Johnson Collection’s impressive series of artists from North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, including Robert Rauschenberg, Anni and Josef Albers, and Ruth Asawa. Curators at the Johnson Collection collaborated with the hotel’s architects and interior designers to select pieces and craft an engaging visual experience, complete with wall text and labels for each work. “It’s always open to the public for a museum-like experience,” says Sarah Tignor, who spearheaded the curation of the space. 

photo: Courtesy of the AC Hotel
The AC Hotel and top-floor restaurant Level 10.

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