Put downtown Florence on your daytrip itinerary!
Florence, South Carolina, is often a fly-by city from its hub of highways: I-95, I-20, U.S. 52, U.S. 301, or U.S. 76. It has also served for many as a pitstop to fuel up, take a bathroom break, or pull into a drive-thru for a burger.
I’m here to say that Florence is a place to stay a little longer – for a day’s getaway or overnight – and the city deserves more than a travel companion you pass by before you get to another destination. It deserves a true visit, which is what we did.
Only about an hour and a half northwest of Myrtle Beach, Florence was first chartered in 1871 and incorporated in 1890 after Florence County was created in 1888 by the South Carolina General Assembly. Back then, three railroads all intersected in Florence, a 577-acre town with seven streets and 96 lots that humbly began as a railroad depot and an inn. The city’s namesake is Florence Henning Harlee, daughter of General Harlee, who was president of the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad.
Centuries later, downtown Florence has transformed into a true destination for dining, recreation, entertainment, cultural offerings and shopping. It’s also an epicenter for business, health care, communications and more. Here is a day’s worth (and more) of our top recommendations for sights in the city.
Red Bone Alley, 1903 W. Palmetto St., redbonealley.com
This restaurant and bar, named after the owner’s daughter’s redbone coon hound, is a must-visit for the entire family. Resembling a movie set, the two-story space is converted from a former J.C Penney department store at the Florence Mall and now recreates the charming Charleston street cafes inside, complete with an open atrium, house facades, a back porch lit with lanterns, a children’s patio seating next to an old ice cream truck, an upstairs balcony, and a roomy sports bar and grill. The menu’s a real treat, too, made of South Carolina’s diverse cuisine influences. Try the Bermuda Triangle puff pastries stuffed with chicken, bacon and cream cheese; the Shrimp & Grits; and the Carolina Shrimp Platter, a whopping dozen and a half shrimp prepared your way, with homemade cole slaw and house-cut potato chips.
The Drive In, 135 E. Palmetto St., thebestdrivein.com
Open since 1957, this downtown Florence institution has been around this long for a reason. It combines the nostalgia from a 1950s-style drive-in with modern touches in the décor (and free Wi-Fi). They have truly been dedicated to the best quality food and customer service over the decades. Dine in, drive up, or order out on any of these picks from their book of a menu: the 301 Fresh Patty Burger, Greek Grilled Shrimp Salad, Fried Chicken Dinner, Pork Tenderloin Souvlaki, Calabash Shrimp and more.
Wholly Smokin’, 150 E. Dargan St., whollysmokinbbq.com
As a proud part of the revitalization of downtown Florence and in giving back to the community, Wholly Smokin’ is not only a dining destination, it’s a downtown revolution, with Jackie Travis and her two children keeping the legacy of her husband, the late award-winning Bill Travis, alive. And it’s apparent that they are keeping to his high standards, with holy smoked meats that are unbelievable, like pulled pork, pulled chicken, beef brisket and ribs. There are also non-smoked standouts, like the warm loaded baked potato salad side, collards, Jar-B-Q Platter (mac and cheese, spicy baked beans and pulled pork layered into a Mason jar), grilled chicken and Ms. Jackie’s Banana Puddin’. Dine inside the rustic surrounds, outside in the biergarten with live music, or take a bulk order home for the family. Any way won’t disappoint.
Tubb’s Shrimp & Fish Co., 1500 2nd Loop Road, tubbsseafood.com
Just outside of downtown Florence are a cluster of hip, new restaurants, like Tubb’s, a popular spot run out of a renovated gas station. The owners first gained fame on the pop-up market, and now they’re now known for serving some of the freshest seafood at one location west of the Waterway, such as their crab cake sandwich topped with the signature comeback sauce, seafood platters prepared the way you like, and fresh catches.
Whether you’re traveling with or without kids on a trip to Florence, it’s worth it to include in your itinerary a stop at any of the local craft breweries or distilleries located on the outskirts of downtown Florence, including Seminar Brewing, Southern Hops Brewing Company, Local Motive Brewing Company and Straw-Hat Distillery, which has a reputation for its whiskey and flavored moonshine. Fun and fresh-brewed local beer can be had at any of these stops, inside and out.
Hotel Florence, 126 W. Evans St., hilton.com/en/hotels/floatup-hotel-florence/
If you decide to stay the night in downtown Florence, this boutique hotel, one of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, is the result of a beautiful facelift, from its birth as a general store in 1891 before surviving a fire in 1899, to raising it three-stories in 1905 with a hotel on the top two floors, to the bottom floor serving as a candy store, bank, grocery store and more before being burned and demolished in 1963. It’s quite the survival story, and today, after officially opening as Hotel Florence in May 2013, it’s a marvel. The first-floor lobby is the curb appeal example of what to expect throughout the building, from lobby to penthouse suite: a marriage of modern and Southern charm (exposed brick walls and hardwood floors). Onsite amenities also include the renowned first floor restaurant Victor’s Steak, Wine & Seafood, a spa, fitness room and more.
Young Plantations, 2005 Babar Lane, youngspremiumfoods.com
This flagship store outside of downtown Florence is just west of I-95, but worth the few extra driving miles. The destination has grown into an empire, from its jumpstart in the 1920s, when forefather TB Young harvested his first batch of in-shell pecans in the Pee Dee. Today, you’ll be wowed by their inventory of gourmet pecans available in more than 16 flavors and in a variety of packaging and quantities. You’ll also want to take a bite out of the sweets that come out of the onsite bakery, such as pies, breads, cinnamon rolls, cornbread, pralines, muffins, cookies and more.
City Center Market, 200 Sanborn St., cityofflorence.com/local-foods-initiative/city-center-market
Florence’s phenomenal farmers’ market, run by the city’s Local Food Initiative, is quite the stop for shopping all things fresh and local, i.e., produce, heritage meats, handmade arts and crafts, organic soaps, goat milk lotions and more. It’s all laid out in what was once a warehouse for the Atlantic Coastline Railway. You can browse indoors and out on the plaza; there are also three entrepreneur incubator spaces to provide small business owners to start growing their own foods (or baking) to then sell at the market. Hours are Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and seasonally, April through October on Tuesdays from 4-7 p.m.
Mainstream Boutique, 138 W. Evans St., mainstreamboutique.com
Ladies, you’ll fall in love with this boutique stocked with cute, casual apparel that is timeless. In other words, it’s hip from head to toe, without feeling like you need to be a millennial to fit in. And when you’re in your mid-40s, that’s comforting. Yes, it’s a franchise in 24 states across the country, but it’s family-owned and feels just right in downtown Florence.
Important note: Downtown Florence received SC Arts Commission’s Cultural District of SC designation, joining only seven other communities throughout the state who have exhibited a concentration of walkable and connected cultural assets, amenities, and activities, such as the Florence Rail Trail, South Carolina Pecan Trail, and Public Art Trail Guide.
Florence Civic Center, 3300 W. Radio Drive, florencecenter.com
While it’s not in downtown Florence, this venue must be mentioned because it not only serves the Pee Dee, but also as one of the closest to Myrtle Beach in hosting concerts, fundraisers, expos and more.
Florence County Museum, 111 W. Cheves St., flocomuseum.org
This museum is a trifecta of art, science and history. The exhibits are amazing, from fossils to more than 140 works by Southern artists to Civil War artifacts and more.
Atomic Crater Marker, US 301 near Francis Marion University
On your way back to the beach, I highly suggest that you check out this bizarre site that made an “impact” on Florence history. Designated only by a roadside marker, this is where a crew on a U.S. Air Force B-47 accidentally released a 7,600-pound atomic bomb on March 11, 1958. Today, it has left behind a massive crater in the middle of nowhere.
Throughout the year, you can catch popular downtown Florence events, like their award-winning Florence After 5 Concert Series on the last Friday of the month throughout the summer, Octoberfest, or the S.C. Pecan Festival in November, but here is what you can attend this time of year:
Downtown Christmas Magic, Friday, Dec. 3, 6-9 p.m., florencedowntown.com
Activities in this annual event include free hot cocoa and marshmallow roasting, live holiday entertainment, an ugly sweater competition, decorated downtown storefronts, the Jingle and Mingle kids’ area, a meet and greet with Santa Claus, a holiday gift market, and more. Also, every evening to 10 p.m. from this night through Dec. 31, you can also experience the Downtown Music and Light Experience walk-through event on South Dargan Street.
Lex J Allen; Wholly Smokin' BBQ; Red Bone Alley; Phillip Guyton Jr.; Hotel Florence; Tapestry Collection by Hilton; True Light Photography & Florence Dowtown