Summer Road Trip Guide: Travel More, Spend Less

Free Times is mostly about Columbia. We love it here. We know it here.

But sometimes, we like to get out of town. So we thought we’d share what we like about some of our neighboring cities.

This is far from a comprehensive guide, obviously. You can find out the top tourist attractions in each city pretty easily, and we didn’t feel the need to duplicate that. Instead, we’ve relied on our own experiences and those of people we trust to curate a short list of cool stuff in each city. Consider it a starting point for planning a journey.   

Huntington Beach State Park

Huntington Beach State Park

Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach is both famous and infamous as the heart of the Grand Strand, 60 miles of largely uninterrupted beach along the northern coast of the Palmetto State. But there’s more than bike weeks and crab leg binges to be had at this immensely popular tourist destination.

1. Dig past the seafood buffets.

Yeah, those big, overpriced seafood buffets along Highway 17 have a bad rep, and for good reason. But there’s much more to eat in the Myrtle Beach area. From appealingly tourist-targeted oddities — Hamburger Joe’s, a greasy spoon with the cleanest, coldest PBR this writer has ever tasted; Angelo’s, an Italian pasta and steak joint with a surprisingly high-quality all-you-can-eat buffet — to genuinely great seafood — check out the stalwart Chesapeake House or the Hook & Barrel, renowned for its focus on freshness and sustainability — and beyond, there’s a lot more going on than smorgasbords of mediocre fried fish.

2. Catch a show at the House of Blues.

A couple weeks ago, I caught two of the best metal sets I’ve seen in a while — one from the purposefully churning Portland stoner crew Red Fang, another from Raleigh’s Southern-fried and groovy Corrosion of Conformity. The two bands opened for Black Label Society, led by famed former Ozzy guitarist Zakk Wylde. I saw this show in North Myrtle Beach at the House of Blues, a gorgeous and great-sounding large-scale rock club in, of all places, the laid-back shopping village Barefoot Landing. It’s a room that frequently finds Live Nation flexing its corporate booking muscles, bringing bigger acts than you’d expect to town.

3. See some art.

You might not know this, but the Art Museum of Myrtle Beach has been around since 1997, and right now they have two exhibitions that dig into their surrounding locality. One highlights William H. Miller, a full-time artist and gallery owner owner in Myrtle Beach, which, per the museum, “showcases a body of work examining the artist’s struggle to successfully actualize two art media: traditional painting and digital painting.” The other, The Kings Highway, features the “photorealistic graphite renderings” of Coastal Carolina University professor Steven Bleicher, which dig into the history of the ribbon of highway that once stretched from Maine to Florida, right through Myrtle Beach.

4. See a symphony.

You also might not know that in addition to the shows featuring pirates and knights, Myrtle Beach also has a professional symphony. The Long Bay Symphony has been around since 1986. Hit the beach, get cleaned up and head out to the Masterworks Series (which concludes on April 15 at the Myrtle Beach High School Music & Arts Center with a collection of “popular symphonic masterpieces”) or one of the orchestra’s special events.

5. Find a less crowded beach.

The coastline around Myrtle Beach is about as developed as possible at this point, but you can still find some sand away from the condos and hotels. Huntington Beach State Park features three miles of beach (as well as the opportunity to see more than 300 varieties of birds and a cool abandoned mansion), or if you’re willing to step through a shallow inlet at low tide, there are some stretches of less developed beach where you can get away from the daunting summer crowds.

6. Ride the less beaten path.

Trade the Highway 17 strip for a path that’s a little more green. The Waccamaw Neck Bikeway is a popular multipurpose path that parallels the highway from Murrells Inlet to Huntington Beach State Park. The 12 miles of paved trails aren’t all connected yet, so you’ll have share the road for some stretches, but it still offers a nice opportunity for a bike ride or a hike.

Charleston angel oak

Angel Oak, Charleston


You know the hype (and if you don’t, someone from Charleston would be happy to tell you): It’s the top tourist city in the world. But once you’ve stumbled up and down a few cobblestone streets, eyeballed the houses on Rainbow Row and eaten at a few world-class restaurants, you may find yourself in want of something different. Here are a handful of things we like to do in the Holy City.

1. Amble around Fort Moultrie.

It doesn’t get as much attention as nearby Fort Sumter — and the National Park Service doesn’t even list it as a separate park, instead subsuming it under Fort Sumter — but Moultrie is super cool. First in use in Revolutionary times, it played a role in coastal defense throughout the country’s history. The rolling green lawn surrounds a fort that’s been restored to reflect various eras during which it was used. In general, you’re going to get high-quality interpretation at national park sites — so, none of that “the enslaved people at our plantation were very happy” stuff you get at some Charleston historic sites — and Moultrie is no exception. More:

2. Toss back a few at Westbrook.

We’re not just being Palmetto State partisans when we saw Westbrook Brewing Co. is one of the most well-regarded craft breweries in the country. (Any brewery that Evil Twin teams up with probably has some serious cred.) Westbrook has a huge, shiny facility that is located in what amounts to an office park, with limited hours, which is to say this is more of a destination brewery than a neighborhood spot. But it’s worth it. Weird sours (as of this writing, a batch of Raspberry Vanilla Lassi Gose has just come on tap, per Westbrook’s Twitter), barrel-aged things and much more — plus plenty of the brewery’s solid flagships like One Claw and the IPA. More:

3. Be moved by the Angel Oak.

The Angel Oak is at least than 400 years old, and might be much older. Over the centuries, this live oak’s branches have wandered and twirled, diving down to the ground and then up again, spreading a massive canopy. Its dark-limbed profile is lovely, and it’s old and mossy and ancient. Angel Oak Tree Park is a low-key place with no admission charge; there’s a gift shop but all you really need to do is wander around and be in the presence of this beautiful tree. But no touching: As Columbia’s own Molly Ledford sings on her children’s album Trees, “Angel Oak, I’m not allowed to climb you / Angel Oak, there are park rangers around … I’d love to stroll on up your branches / But it’s not allowed.” More:

4. Drink at the Belmont.

A great craft cocktail bar needs to serve amazing cocktails, sure. But it also just needs to feel like a good bar, somewhere you’d be just as happy downing a shot of Jameson and a PBR rather than a Boulevardier. In downtown Charleston, The Belmont hits that sweet spot: knowledgeable, low-key bartenders; classic but unpretentious vibe; pleasingly low light. It also has a really, really good create-your-own meat and cheese board. More:

5. Hike the Ravenel Bridge.

People pay money to race across this cable-stayed bridge every April, but you can just walk up there anytime. The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, also known as the Cooper River Bridge, is 575 feet high and 2.7 miles long, with a walk/bike lane the whole span, which means you can get a nice bit of exercise and serious views by scaling it. Leave your pup at home — dogs are not allowed. The easiest parking is on the Mount Pleasant side, at Waterfront Memorial Park.

Augusta marina

5th Street Marina, Augusta

Augusta and Aiken

You probably know the same thing about Augusta as everyone else: It’s the home of the Masters. Golf does dominate come azalea season, but during the rest of the year, Augusta can be a chill, intriguing place to be. Its developed waterfront teems with stuff to do — really, there are even two strip clubs right in the downtown corridor. Neighboring Aiken, South Carolina, is just as identified with horses as Augusta is with golf, but it has some other stuff going on, too.

1. Get on a mountain bike.

The editor and publisher at Augusta’s Metro Spirit hipped us to this one: Augusta just happens to have a world-class mountain bike trail, one that’s hosted national events. The Forks Area Trail System, aka FATS, is 37 miles of trail in the middle of the Sumter National Forest. It features six loops, plenty of them good for beginners. Borrow or rent a bike and get out there.

2. Sip some draft kombucha.

Aiken’s Alley Downtown Taproom loves putting things on draft so much that it offers not only craft beer but kombucha, nitro coffee, soda, cider and wine on its 48 taps. It has a bring-your-own-food policy and a coffee shop atmosphere, which means you could basically post up here and drink draft things all day long. In general, downtown Aiken is worth a stop — it’s thriving, and there are some decent places to eat and drink. More:

3. See a show at the Country Club

Augusta has a honky tonk called The Country Club, the upcoming shows at which include Waka Flocka, Montgomery Gentry, Sir-Mix-a-Lot, Nappy Roots and Craig Morgan. As Free Times staff writer Chris Trainor puts it: “Yes, a place that has line dancing … and books Waka Flocka.” More:

4. Buy some vinyl and ruminate on a legend.

Of course James Brown’s hometown (yes, he was born in South Carolina, but he put in the work in Augusta) is going to be a good place to dig through some crates. Between Grantski Records and Retro Records, you’ll probably stumble into some cool finds. And when it comes to the aforementioned Godfather of Soul, you’ll want to check out the collection at the Augusta Museum of History, which has an interactive exhibit devoted to the man and the legend. You can even scope some of Brown’s wilder costumes. More:

5. Hit Soul Bar.

When you’re done crate-digging and museum-wandering, it’s time to actually immerse yourself in live music — and the Soul Bar keeps the party going, often with no cover, with live bands (touring and local) during the week and DJs on weekends. Divey and cozy, with diverse tastes. More:

Greenville downtown Falls Park

Falls Park, Greenville

Greenville and Spartanburg

For years, the Upstate has felt caught between more regarded destinations, with Asheville sitting just up I-26, and Atlanta and Charlotte requiring just a short ride up or down I-85. But more and more, Greenville and the surrounding area offer options for recreation and entertainment that not only make it nice for residents, but also worth a trip.

1. Yeah, That Downtown — and the other one

It’s unlikely at this point that you haven’t heard about Greenville’s downtown. The attractive Main Street is lined with popular bars and restaurants (with great pizza at Barley’s Taproom, raved-about sushi at Purple, fine java paired with a subterranean theater open to “comedy, improv, sketch, local songwriters, poetry and other performers” at Coffee Underground), and the beautiful Falls Park along the Reedy River is iconic for good reason.

But while long derided, the Upstate’s other major city has made strides with its downtown, too. Spartanburg now has a stylish AC Hotel sitting near the pretty Morgan Square, just across from the popular craft brewery and hangout spot RJ Rockers. Both reside just down Main Street from the conjoined one-two-punch of the local Little River roastery’s cozy downtown coffee outpost and the Hub City bookshop and press “focused on finding and spotlighting new and extraordinary voices from the American South.”

2.  Drink beer from here.

Continuing a recurring theme in this guide that points to the growing proliferation of really good beer across the Carolinas, there are many worthy brews to try during your time in the Upstate. The aforementioned RJ Rockers is one of the state’s most popular local breweries (try the Black Perle, as good an example of a black IPA as this state has to offer), while Anderson’s Carolina Bauernhaus is doing tantalizing things with wild yeasts and hyper-local ingredients. Swamp Rabbit in Traveler’s Rest has emerged with a diverse array of crowd-pleasers and more adventurous offerings, much like Greenville’s long-standing Thomas Creek, and Birds Fly South, also in Greenville, more than lives up to its goal of pursuing “progressively old school urban farmhouse brewing.”

3. Hit the theater or the club.

Options abound for live entertainment. From the palatial Peace Center off Greenville’s Main Street (the modern classical tour de force Brooklyn Rider, soul-singing legend Mavis Staples, and the comedic power team of Steve Martin and Martin Short will all post up at the venue before the end of February) to reliable rock clubs (Greenville’s recently relocated Radio Room, Spartanburg’s heavy music haven Ground Zero), the Upstate has a lot.

4. Get outdoors.

The rolling Piedmont hills around Greenville offer ample opportunity to have fun in the great outdoors. Opened in 2009, the Swamp Rabbit Trail offers 19.9 miles of greenway that ride an old railway corridor along the Reedy River between Greenville and Traveler’s Rest. Located just a few miles from Greenville, the Paris Mountain State Park offers 15 miles of hiking and biking trails, waterfalls and a popular swimming area. Poke around, and you’ll find many other chances for outdoor recreation.

5.  Check out the botanical garden.

Down the road in Clemson, you’ll find the South Carolina Botanical Garden, containing 295 acres of natural and manicured landscapes created in line with the ecosystem of the South Carolina Piedmont. Within the free-entry garden, you’ll find guided walks, educational programs for children, an internationally regarded collection of nature-based sculpture, along with a geology museum displaying an array of fossils, minerals and gems from the region.

Asheville Sierra Nevada Brewery

Sierra Nevada Brewery, Asheville


Tucked in among the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville offers the rustic charm of a humble mountain burg along with artistic and cultural highlights that rival those found in the South’s larger cities. Couple that with the beautiful scenery found in every direction, and it’s easy to understand why it’s become such a popular destination.

1. Yes, drink beer.

There is no spot in the country better known for its craft beer scene than Asheville. The city has more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city, with the city’s tourism website touting that you can enjoy about 100 local beers from the city. The hype has only intensified in recent years, with major West Coast craft breweries bringing East Coast operations to the area — New Belgium sits on the French Broad River near downtown; Sierra Nevada’s Willy Wonka-meets-mountain cabin outpost is close by in Mills River; and Oskar Blues is also nearby with its location in Brevard. And then there are locally grown favorites such as Burial, Wicked Weed, Highland, French Broad, Pisgah, Green Man, and more. Drink up.

2. Ride the river.

One of the coolest things about Asheville is how quickly you can go from bustling city to pristine natural environments and back again. A really great way to enjoy this is to grab a ride down the French Broad River, snaking down the gracefully flowing river as it passes from tranquil woodlands into Asheville’s River Arts District. There are several river outfitters offering canoe, kayak and inner tube rides that can help you take advantage.

3. Take a hike.

Speaking of all those nearby opportunities to see the beautiful outdoors, the area around Asheville offers plentiful opportunities for a good hike. Asheville’s tourism website ( is a good place to start in parsing your way through the thousands of miles of hiking trails that await near the city. One popular favorite starts in Gorges State Park, taking you out to the sparkling, 125-foot Rainbow Falls and the smoother and smaller Turtleback Falls, which you can slide down during the warmer months.

4.  See some music.

Population-wise, Asheville is actually solidly smaller than Columbia. But its musical bookings rival nearby metropolises such as Atlanta and Charlotte. The intimate, 1,050-capacity Orange Peel grabs far bigger names than you’d expect for such a rock club, while smaller rooms such as the Grey Eagle and The Mothlight perform similar magic. And the U.S. Cellular Center, which contains the Arena and the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, brings in a diverse array of bigger names. Keep an eye on these concert calendars and others as you plan your trip.

5. Keep Asheville (shopping) weird.

Asheville is a big-time tourist destination, and as such, you’ll find a lot of shops that feel a little Every Resort, USA. But do yourself a favor and keep digging for the more interesting spots, of which there are still quite a lot. Malaprop’s Bookstore is a fantastic spot to pick up reading material, and the nearby Woolworth Walk art gallery offers everything from quirky collectibles to larger local art pieces. The downtown and West Asheville areas offer a plethora of offbeat and trendy boutiques, while Harvest, skewing weirder and more current, and Static Age, leaning into the legacy of underground rock, are record shops with wonderfully distinct personalities.

6. Eat!

There is no chance that we can cover all the many fantastic dining options in and around Asheville in this small space here. But whether you’re looking to spend a little — Farm Burger does its thing as well as anybody; Early Girl is a brunch and comfort food institution; 12 Bones smokes barbecue that will stick to your ribs and in your dreams — or a little more — the small plates at Cúrate and Night Bell are revered; The Admiral plays the lowbrow-as-highbrow game as nimbly as can be. Again, this is just scraping the surface. Get out and explore.

Savannah downtown

Downtown Savannah


Savannah is historic as heck, and it has a thriving drinking culture and a massive St. Patrick’s Day celebration (the Savannah visitors bureau says 300,000 people will descend on the city for St. Pat’s this year). But it’s not all horse-drawn carriage tours and puking people clad in green. Here are some things we like to do there.

1. Drink in a historic square.

River Street, with its Wet Willie’s slushies and pirate-history appeal, is the locus of much of Savannah’s outdoor drinking. But it’s legal to carry your drink on the street throughout the historic district. That means you can hang out in one of the city’s 22 pleasant, tree-shaded squares and sip your craft beer. Maybe you could even have a little picnic. Note to the City of Columbia: Please do this.

2. Ride the ferry for free.

Speaking of ideas we should adopt here in Columbia: Georgia’s Chatham County transit system operates a public ferry across the Savannah River to Hutchinson Island. There’s a hotel, golf course and convention center on the island — but you can also just ride the ferry along its three-stop route for a little maritime sightseeing and fresh air. It runs daily from 7 a.m. to midnight. More:

3. Go to The Grey.

This hip restaurant is not exactly underground — it’s one of the current most hyped restaurants in the country, and for good reason. Housed in a remodeled Greyhound Bus terminal, it’s beautiful inside and out, the sleek Art Deco design echoing everywhere. New York-born Chef Mashama Bailey uses some Southern ingredients and touches but creates food all her own, highlighting the beauty in everything from celery to popsicles. Savannah’s dining scene has really stepped up recently, as evidenced by spots like The Grey and the new Husk location. More:

4. Hand over some cash at Pinkie Masters.

If you’re more of a dive bar sort, Savannah has a lot to offer you, but you should at least pop your head into Pinkie Masters (now called The Original Pinkie Masters). After closing a few years ago, the storied bar is back, with some of its key memorabilia — most importantly a plaque commemorating Jimmy Carter’s 1978 visit to the spot while president — reinstalled. It only takes cash. Look for the big Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. More:

5. Check out the National Wildlife Refuge.

Even if you’re not that into birds, the scope of the birdlife at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is pretty breathtaking. A series of former rice plantations, this 30,000-acre expanse has been left to nature, with the paddies full of water and birds. There’s a four-mile dirt loop you can drive, or if you’re feeling more ambitious you can try the geocache tour or get in a kayak. More:

Charlotte Mint Museum

Mint Museum, Charlotte


If you’re like us, you probably roll your eyes when you see the slogan. But even the cynical folks here at Free Times have to admit that Charlotte’s got a lot. The biggest metropolitan area in the Carolinas offers all the things you’d expect from a big city, along with enough local flavor to keep it from feeling overwhelming.

1. Explore the neighborhoods.

Visitors from Columbia should feel right at home with the way Charlotte is broken up into various neighborhood communities. Exploring these various clusters and drinking in their personality is part of what makes the Queen City so fun to visit. Poke around Plaza-Midwood, hanging out in the combo-deli-bottle shop-and-watering hole that is Common Market, grabbing a deservedly fawned-over burger at the Diamond, catching a local band in the comfortably divey confines of Snug Harbor. Relax in NoDa, enjoying the great beer bar Growlers Pourhouse, grabbing a cup of joe at Smelly Cat, enjoying the impressive slate of touring bands that come through the Neighborhood Theatre. In these neighborhoods and others, local color abounds.

2. Go to the Whitewater Center.

Whether you’re looking to kick back or have some adventure, the U.S. National Whitewater Center is quite the spot. Sitting on 1,300 acres on the Catawba River, the center provides opportunities for folks of various ages and skill levels to raft, kayak, paddle board, rock climb and mountain bike. There are also ziplines and canopy tours. Or you can simply chill, enjoying the scenery at the River’s Edge Bar & Grill or the Pump House Biergarten, taking in some music at the River Jam concert series that takes place every Thursday and Saturday during the summer. Or you could combine all of the above during the annual Tuck Fest, a free April event that this year brings in music from Shakey Graves and The Wood Brothers among others. More:

3. See a sport.

During the fall, you can take in the NFL’s Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. During the winter and spring, you can see the NBA’s Hornets (formerly the Bobcats) at Spectum Center. Or during the summer, you can see the Charlotte Knights play minor league baseball in their beautiful downtown home at the BB&T Ballpark. This March, the city also hosts first and second round games in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Yeah, if you’re a sports fan, Charlotte’s a pretty great spot.

4. Ride the big roller coaster.

Climb to 325 feet and then drop 320. Reach a top speed of 95 mph, alternately grabbing air time as you rise against your harness and feeling g-force as you glide through smooth curves. Yes, Fury 325, which debuted in 2015, swooping across the Carolina state line at the front entrance of Carowinds, is one of the very best roller coasters in the world — ranked as the top coaster on the globe for 2017 by Amusement Today. Take the plunge. More:

5. Hit a museum.

Now with two locations in Charlotte, the Mint Museum for the Fine Arts opened as the state’s first art museum in 1936, while the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art holds things down on the more contemporary end of things. The Levine Museum of the New South offers intriguing displays digging into the history of the region since the Civil War, while the the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture stands apart with its celebrations of black contributions to the fabric of America and the South. And hey, there’s also a NASCAR Hall of Fame. Yeah, pretty much wherever your interests lie, Charlotte probably has a museum to pique them.

6. Drink beer from here.

As much as — or perhaps more than — any other spot in the Carolinas, the beer scene is exploding right now in Charlotte, with the likes of Sugar Creek, Olde Mecklenburg, Birdsong, Heist, NoDa, Salud Cerveceria, Legion, Lenny Boy, The UnKnown, Triple C, and — if you can believe it — a host of others offering a diverse selection of impressive brews. Like Asheville, you could really do a Charlotte trip (really, more than one trip) entirely focused on beer. Pepper in a few breweries, or take the deep dive. Either way, the Queen City is a good place to drink.

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Summer Road Trip Guide: Travel More, Spend Less


Summer Road Trip Guide: Travel More, Spend Less