Lots of folks make their first trip to Sumter to visit Swan Lake Iris Gardens, and it’s one beautiful destination. After you see the swans and admire the blooms (depending on time of year), plan to stay for several days to see what else Sumter has to offer. Hint: think history, hospitality and the great outdoors.
Sumter is a lovely town with deep historical roots and an attitude that embraces the future. It’s called the Gamecock City in honor of General Thomas Sumter, the “Gamecock General” of the American Revolution, a hero for whom the city and county are named.
And the military connections remain strong, with Shaw Air Force Base located just eight miles from downtown. Active since 1941, it is one of the largest military bases in the United States, and the popularity of the town has convinced a number of officers to return and retire in Sumter. In addition, Sumter is a business friendly community, with international and national companies who call it home.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Sumter, but before we talk about the history and antebellum past, you’ll need to get settled into your accommodations, and make note of several restaurants that shine in this city.
Springhill Suites by Marriott is Trip Advisor reviewers’ top pick for clean and new accommodations that provide assistance and great beds! It’s a lovely little oasis with the pool and fitness center, and a hot breakfast to start your day.
Candlewood Suites features full-sized refrigerators and a large covered back deck with a full–sized gas grill. The staff is attentive and the rooms clean and spacious.
Major hotels are well represented and located throughout the area.
When it’s time to eat.
From barbeque or seafood to fine dining, Sumter has food for every taste and budget. Here are a few of our favorites:
Hamptons is an award-winning restaurant that focuses on fresh ingredients, prepared with a Southern, regional approach and a bit of international flair. The pan-seared Carolina Grouper with sweet potato hash, Carolina rice and crawfish gravy is one of its winners. For outdoor dining, their Alley Way is casual and cozy, with an outdoor fireplace and frequent live entertainment. Fresh artisan breads and pastries are made on-site at their bakery.
Simply Southern Bistro is a gem of a family-owned business. The sweet potato fries are mentioned time and again on the food sites, and the duck dish is not to be missed. It’s worth the effort to find and enjoy.
Willie Sue’s is a fairly new restaurant, but folks are talking about the fried broccoli, beef and seafood dishes. You can dine on the patio and enjoy their Southern hospitality and friendly wait staff.
Palmetto Oyster House offers seafood, and for landlubbers, beef. They have a loyal following and fresh seafood, despite being two hours from the coast.
J O’Grady’s is a bit reminiscent of an Irish Pub, with great burgers and super potato salad. Casual, with a welcoming atmosphere, and do try their yummy sangria.
Johnny’s Garden Juice Bar -- With personal stories of recovery from one of the owners, this is a perfect destination for a rejuvenating breakfast or a pick-me-up with raw fruit and vegetables. Folks say these smoothies are the best ever, and with options like the Bootcamp Blast (mango, almond milk, fresh peanut butter, agave, rice protein, banana) you’ll have energy and a delicious treat.
Guignard Diner is a local favorite and great little meat-and-three diner for lunch. You’ll get a taste of home-like cooking and Southern hospitality.
Baker’s Sweets Bistro and Bakery has Lowcountry sandwiches, Shrimp & Grits, Pecan Crusted salad and homemade chicken salad. Try their signature potato soup. Early in the day, enjoy their yummy cinnamon rolls, and any time of day, you’re sure to covet the homemade cakes!
Make Sure You Visit ...
Swan Lake Iris Gardens any time of year. As the only public park in the United States that’s home to all eight known species of swans, these majestic creatures glide through the black waters and make their home alongside Canada Geese, mallards, wood ducks, herons, anhingas, and more. In late Spring, more than 120 varieties of Japanese iris bloom, delighting visitors and providing a backdrop for the annual Iris Festival, held each Memorial Day weekend.
The festival is a multiple winner of the Southeast Tourism Society’s “Top 20 in the Southeast” Award. Better Homes and Gardens has named it one of America’s “best freebies,” and the ¾ mile long trail wanders past the Braille garden, camellia garden and other stops among the 150 acre park. Stop by the gift shop for a memento or two. And look over their website to discover what will be blooming when you visit.
When you visit, make a stop at the Swan Lake Visitor’s Center, which also houses the Sumter Convention & Visitors Bureau, where you can find out more about some of the area’s notable citizens, starting with General Thomas Sumter, a hero of the American Revolution. Other famous faces include Mary McLeod Bethune, who was advisor to four presidents and consultant to the United Nations, Bill Pinckney, of the Original Drifters, who brought Carolina Beach Music to the rest of the world, and artist Jasper Johns, the Pop Art icon whose name is known to serious collectors worldwide.
Drive through town and take a tour of the Sumter Opera House, built in 1894. The Art Deco interior dates from the 1930s and it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Another downtown stop is the Sumter County Museum, which was built in 1916. You’ll wander through period rooms and a Carolina Backcountry Homestead, which recreates life in the Sumter District during the early 1800s. Be sure to take a tour.
A pleasant drive through the Hampton Park Historic District reveals private residences with a variety of architectural styles. You’ll observe lovely Queen Anne homes, Arts & Crafts bungalows, and Greek Revival cottages. Make a stop at Memorial Park, designed by renowned landscape architect Julia Lester Dillon, and imagine life in your grandparents’ day.
A number of historic churches can be found in the area. Ask at the Visitor’s Center for directions to these structures, some of which date to the 1700s. Simply driving through the area will offer a delightful afternoon of seeing the past, beautifully preserved.
After dinner, check out the Sumter County Cultural Center, in which you may find live entertainment from the Sumter Little Theatre, or at the Patriot Hall Auditorium.
There’s more to do tomorrow. Rest well.
Stop by Johnny’s Garden or Baker’s Sweets to fortify yourself for a fun day.
There are plenty of big box retailers to be found here (especially at the newly renovated Sumter Mall), but if you’re looking for one-of-a-kind, seek out the many specialty shops on Bultman Drive in the University District, or enjoy the antique shops located on Broad Street and on Main Street in the downtown historic district.
Nearby Poinsett State Park is positioned in the High Hills of Santee, often called the “mountains of the midlands.” There are some of the most unique natural sightings in the SC park system, and the ten-acre lake is available for swimming, fishing, canoeing and paddle-boating.
During your visit, take a look at the coquina bathhouse which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as well as the remains of the pre-Revolutionary gristmill in the park. You can hike or bike miles of trails. This area was covered by water many thousands of years ago, and you can see the coquina in several places.
Nearby Manchester State Forest includes almost 30,000 acres of land and is available for hiking and biking, as well as horseback riding. A part of the Palmetto Trail wanders through here, on its way from the mountains to the sea.
Golfers can play the game at Beech Creek Golf Club, Crystal Lakes, and The Links at Lakewood. Additionally, there are about 20 more courses a short drive away. Learn more.
Tennis enthusiasts travel with racquet and ball, just in case. In Sumter, you’ll be rewarded. The Palmetto Tennis Center is a beautiful facility that welcomes visitors to 24 courts, private lessons and good times.
Shaw Air Force Base offers ways to learn a bit more about the base and the United State Air Force 20th Fighter Wing. Go to: www.shaw.af.mil/
Want to know more about Sumter and its charming combination of history, beauty and recreation? Visit www.sumtertourism.com.