Newberry is full of history, art and a few beautiful surprises
Anyone who’s traveled around the Piedmont and the upstate of South Carolina has inevitably passed the exit signs on I-26 for Newberry, probably without giving it much notice—just another small town in the countryside to pass by on the way to somewhere else. If you find yourself among those who’ve not slowed to take that exit and explore this old city, here’s a taste of what you’ve been missing.
Just off the highway, this quaint and friendly historic college town is loaded with antique stores, galleries and boutiques, fine dining, casual fare, cozy accommodations, world-class entertainment and surprisingly active weekend nightlife. Newberry is also home to one of the finest historically significant concert venues in the U.S., the Newberry Opera House. Here Willie Nelson, Michael Bolton, The Marshall Tucker Band, Ricky Skaggs, Aaron Neville, the Beach Boys and countless other superstars have played the same stage where minstrel shows and Shakespeare plays were performed as far back as the late 1800s.
Just 43 miles northwest of Columbia, and at just over three hours drive time from Myrtle Beach, Newberry should be on everyone’s getaway radar. For true Grand Strand-based road-dogs, Newberry is close enough for a daytrip there and back, but even more rewarding if you can stay a night or two and take time to really uncover its unique gifts and maybe catch a show.
Explorations of the immediate area should include 70-year-old Carter & Holmes Orchids, an internationally known orchid hybridizer with greenhouse tours and orchid sales. Each of these award-winning C&H flowers is a work of art, a careful and loving merger between nature and science exploding with color and variety.
Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Lynch’s Woods hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails, part of the S.C. Trails Program. Here you’ll find a variety of technically challenging, moderately difficult, and flat unpaved easy hikes and bike rides under a canopy of mixed hardwoods and pines. Some trails include freshwater creek crossings. Picnic areas and abundant natural beauty make Lynch’s Woods a hidden gem that still provides plenty of quiet on non-peak days, but comes to life with mountain bikers every weekend.
Because of its proximity to the busy interstate, those looking for accommodations will find the usual bevy of chain motels along the highway, just a short hop into town. Plenty of Airbnb and VRBO private homes are available, along with stately antebellum and Victorian bed and breakfast options, too. Perhaps most popular for overnight guests is the Hampton Inn Newberry Opera House (1201 Nance St.), located in the heart of the small city’s downtown. The stylized yet fully modern hotel was built in 2001 to match the style of its namesake neighbor, the magnificent jewel of architecture and form, the Newberry Opera House.
First settled in the pre-revolutionary mid-1700s, Newberry grew as a center for the cotton trade, and became the county seat of Newberry County in 1789. The town grew exponentially a century later, in the late 1800s, when the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad completed work on a line that bisects the city. Newberry College, situated on 90 picturesque acres, which was first an associated Lutheran seminary, opened its doors in 1859. Now a liberal arts college, the school still operates today. With enrollment of around 1,300, 2019’s fall enrollment broke all previous records in the school’s 163-year history. The college served as a hospital for Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War until trouble came calling.
Though lawless bands in U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army burned the college (later rebuilt) in his infamous march north through South Carolina, they did not burn the Old Newberry Courthouse (1852), which still stands today.
Newberry Opera House.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, the Newberry Opera House is, without question, the centerpiece of the city’s historic district. The Gothic-style building with a 130-foot tall clock tower was completed in 1881 and served as the town’s government offices, jail, firehouse and a lively performance hall. The large Victorian-era granite and brick structure was the multi-purpose center of the town’s civic, arts and political activity.
Known as the “entertainment center of the Midlands,” the second floor theater, with large stage, gas lighting, drop curtains, and professional theater accouterments, hosted touring New York City theater troupes, world famous lecturers, minstrel shows and even boxing exhibitions.
Eventually silent movies made their way into the theater, and by the 1920s the talkies took over and the theater was revamped as a movie house. By the 1950s, time had taken its toll on the venerable old institution and there had been serious talk of tearing it down, but cooler heads and wiser hearts prevailed. A major renovation was completed, but not until 1994, which included an expanded theater production facility and full interior and exterior preservations to the tune of $5.5 million.
Today the 426-seat theater hosts countless nationally touring musicians, plays and musicals, and local community events, all in an acoustically superior, state-of-the-art theater. Newberryoperahouse.com lists upcoming shows and contact information. A full lineup of holiday shows for all ages is slated through the end of December and superstars Travis Tritt and Delbert McClinton (among others) are slated to take the stage in January 2020.
Shop, Dine, Party.
Skipping the big box superstores and ubiquitous chains on the edge of town, make your way on to Main Street where you’ll find boutiques, art galleries, antiquing, a nearby old-fashioned hardware store (C.T. Summer Inc.), specialty bakeries, salons and spas, and a half-dozen cozy little restaurants with breakfast, lunch and dinner fare.
Figaro: The Dining Room (1215 Boyce St.) has gained a loyal following for excellent, eclectic American-Southern cuisine in a casual fine-dining atmosphere. Just a few doors down from the Opera House, Figaro is situated in a renovated historic building and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (dinner not served on Sundays).
A short walk across the street, Bar Figaro, a sister facility, hosts bands and soloists in another tastefully renovated historic building featuring a large cocktail bar and an adjoining music room. The intimate setting is suitable for listening to solo acoustic acts or partying and dancing with raucous variety bands each weekend.
While maybe not to everyone’s liking, just next door to Bar Figaro, The Lancero Lounge cigar bar (1008 Main St.) hosts those who want to indulge in a fine smoke, a glass of wine and/or a craft beer. Here locals tell tall tales, blow smoke rings and offer friendly fire to visiting cigar lovers until midnight most nights.
While the weekday nightlife tends to wrap up pretty early in Newberry, Friday and Saturday nights provide distractions and entertainment much later and often into the wee hours of the morning.
So consider this.
When the wanderlust urge strikes you to get out of town for a day or a weekend, Newberry, S.C., offers nearby arts, entertainment, shopping, dining and natural beauty in a well preserved and growing historic city, one you may have driven by countless times without realizing all that awaits your discovery just a few minutes from the busy highway and a few hours from the Grand Strand.
Photographs courtesy of the City of Newberry and South Carolina Clay Conference (Newberry Arts Center)