The Southeast is abuzz with talk of what is happening in downtown Florence, South Carolina. The city that hardly felt the recession has grown into a tourism hotspot, and the downtown area has exploded into a destination for art lovers and foodies alike. Nearly every night there are bands playing in courtyards and on restaurant patios, there are performances at the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center, and enthusiastic crowds enjoying the Florence Little Theatre performances.
Southern hospitality takes over as visitors step into Hotel Florence, a boutique accommodation in the heart of Florence’s historic downtown that’s won prestigious hospitality awards and rankings. Newly renovated, the second and third floors still bring to mind the historic nature of its earlier years. All the rooms are individually decorated with an uptown flair, and the penthouse suite offers two separate bedrooms with a rooftop patio overlooking the James Allen Plaza, where musical groups often perform free concerts.
Complementing Hotel Florence is Victors, which was voted “best in the region” for fine dining. Guests enjoy Southern style bacon-wrapped scallops over parmesan grits with barbecue butter as an appetizer. The Angus beef filet with choice of mushroom truffle sauce, Cajun seafood sauté, or blue crab Bearnaise is mouthwatering. Victors Chef Cooper Thomas was an SC Ambassador Chef, showcasing the state and its unique cuisine across the globe.
When it comes to casual places to dine, Dargan Street has this covered, from authentic SC barbecue at Wholly Smokin’ BBQ to dishes made from fresh ingredients at The Birds Nest. Located right next door to The Bird’s Nest is Dolce Vita, the wine and chocolate tasting room, where locals and tourists alike relax and enjoy delicious chocolates made by Belgian-trained master chocolatiers as well as cakes-in-jars made by Sweetleigh’s Cakes and Treats. Dolce Vita has recently expanded and is offering breakfast and lunch, plus cold-press coffee. This restaurant row also features made-to-order sushi at Thai House, and it has a shared outdoor seating area. This relaxing dining patio is called the William H. Johnson Renaissance Courtyard, named for a Florence artist who was a renowned painter in the Harlem Renaissance. The restaurants often host live entertainment from folk style singer/songwriters (on “Uncorked and Unplugged Fridays”) to jazz musicians such as Ezra Brown.
Ezra, himself, has opened a coffee shop and art gallery called Soulé Café on Irby Street. You’ll often find local entertainers performing inside. Just next door is King Jefe, serving street-style tacos.
Town Hall Restaurant on Evans Street serves locally-sourced dishes and even has a rooftop bar called The Dispensary. Just around the corner is Local Motive, a microbrewery with 12 unique brews on tap.
In the middle of it all stands the sculpture “Big Bleu Birdnanna” by funky husband and wife artist team Patz and Mike Fowle. Big Bleu leads the way to the new Florence Museum, which contains an extensive exhibit featuring artist William H. Johnson. A Florence native (1901-1970), he is most recognized for his intense, “primitivist” style depicting the African-American experience from both a historical and personal perspective. The newly opened Florence County Museum also includes an interactive display of the region’s history spanning Revolutionary War period through the dropping of an atomic bomb on Florence in 1958. In the neighboring Waters Building, the museum’s satellite exhibit includes a 1918 Seagrave fire pumping engine, state of the art in its time.
Along Dargan Street is the Cultural Corridor, the hippest place in the downtown. The Florence Little Theatre, the newly opened Florence Museum, and the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center highlight this area. The Florence Little Theatre brings a season of professional level plays and Broadway musicals performed by a local theater group. The FMU Performing Arts Center hosts a wide range of nationally touring Broadway performances, variety shows, and concerts such as Lyle Lovett and Roberta Flack. Florence Symphony Orchestra, its resident orchestra also provides a season of entertainment, including a pops series that has featured vocalists Art Garfunkel and the Indigo Girls.
To top it all off, artwork has been sprouting up all over downtown – you’ll find works by the mayor’s mother Jackie Wukela at Hotel Florence and Victors, along with exhibits at the Waters Gallery.