1. Greenville, South Carolina
Greenville has bumped along under the radar for a few years now, but that seems to be changing. The small city sits in northwestern South Carolina, a little more than an hour’s drive south of Asheville, North Carolina. And Asheville is frequently invoked when people mention Greenville – as in, “the next Asheville.” It’s a small, walkable city with a growing arts scene and some spectacular nature on its doorstep.
In the latter half of the 20th century, many US cities came up with plans to reinvent dying downtowns as thriving spaces with culture, art and dining. The results can be seen around America, including in Fort Lauderdale – but Greenville’s a place that really offers a blueprint for how it’s done.
Leafy, restaurant-tables-on-the-sidewalk Main Street provides an easy walk to much of what you’ll want to see in Greenville. At the north end of downtown, the Greenville County Museum of Art is home to the largest collection of 20th-century American realist painter Andrew Wyeth’s work in the world.
In the summer months, sports fans can walk south on Main to Fluor Field at the West End, home to the Greenville Drive, a minor-league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The ballpark’s less than two decades old but with its reclaimed bricks and manual scoreboard in left, it gives off a more nostalgic vibe. (Future Red Sox fans can also get used to Boston’s Fenway Park’s most unique feature, the tall Green Monster left field wall, thanks to a similar wall at Fluor.
West Greenville’s the city’s bohemian arts-and-culture district. Located, would you believe, just west of downtown, the district is home to small galleries and a mix of independent shops and restaurants. Fort Lauderdale locals will even find a familiar face at Inchoate Art Gallery. Artist and gallery owner Thaddeus Inchoate ran his gallery in the MASS District and Oakland Park before relocating to Greenville last year; visitors will find the same paint-and-sip nights, live music and bold art that were Inchoate staples down here.
Northwest of the city, Devils Fork State Park sprawls across more than 600 acres of forest and water, offering plenty of hiking, canoeing or kayaking, and fishing. The park includes parts of Lake Jocassee – actually a reservoir formed in the 1970s at the confluence of four rivers – as well as several spectacular waterfalls.
2. Athens, Georgia
Athens’ reputation for art and culture is fairly well established. The college city about 70 miles east of Atlanta has long fostered a reputation for bohemian cool – and if you want to be known for a music scene, it doesn’t hurt to be the place that spawned both R.E.M. and the B-52s.
The home of the University of Georgia is not, however, a place that rests on its artsy laurels. Visitors today will still find a vibrant, growing culture, and a small city with all sorts of options when it comes to live music, visual arts and great nights out.
On the University of Georgia campus, the Georgia Museum of Art displays a wide array of American art as well as much from farther afield – one current exhibition focuses on contemporary Japanese ceramics. It’s easy to find galleries, public art and local art in restaurants in Athens’ busy downtown as well.
Athens’ community of live theater and performing arts venues and organizations is also impressive, particularly for a city of its size. Check out the Morton Theater, a gorgeous venue with a fascinating history. Opened in 1910, the vaudeville hall was unique for being built, owned and operated by a Black businessman, Pink Morton. Cab Calloway performed there, as did Bessie Smith and Blind Willie McTell.
For a unique live music experience, check out a gig at the Lewis Room at Tweed Recording. In 2019 the recording studio took over an adjacent shoe company showroom and turned it into an intimate venue that hosts an eclectic mix of musicians.
If you want your art to exist more in nature, Athens offers a truly dreamlike spot that allows for both hiking and learning. Along the Middle Oconee River, the more-than-300-square-acres State Botanical Garden of Georgia can be approached like a proper day out in nature if you want – it offers about five miles of trails. The Children’s Garden is an immersive, hands-on experience. Next to the Discovery and Inspiration Garden, the Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum offers a perspective on nature through one of the art mediums most closely inspired by it.
If you’re in Athens on a University of Georgia football Saturday, you’ll definitely see a different and raucous side of the place. But with its traditions of live music, interesting art and learning, this is a small Southern city that’s just as at home in the library as on the 50-yard line.