An historic opera house playing $1 movies, a free music concert series the fourth Friday of each month, and lots of great places to eat and shop make Sumter, South Carolina a place to visit this summer. Halfway between the beach and the state capital along a scenic route through the state, Sumter is easy to reach and unforgettable once you arrive. Once you take a tour around the Swan Lake Iris Gardens you’ll have a hard time leaving, and you’ll be sure to return.
Sumter is the home of Shaw Air Force Base but this is so much more than just a military town. A quaint downtown area brings in the visitors every night on the weekends, a boutique hotel is under construction, and the music series on the front lawn of the historic courthouse entertains the crowds. With Columbia just an hour to the northwest, Myrtle Beach an hour to the southeast, and Congaree National Park just thirty minutes away, Sumter is right in the middle of it all.
Here are five reasons you need to visit Sumter, South Carolina at least once this summer.
1. The Sumter Opera House
The historic Sumter Opera House has been around for a long time and is just as vibrant and entertaining as ever. Built in 1895 this 550-seat theater has been used by the community as a music academy, movie theater, city offices, the county jail, and of course an opera house. The wonderfully upkept building is used for various events throughout the year but the summers are some of the best events.
Throughout the summer this venue features $1 movies on Thursdays at 10a.m., 1p.m., and 7p.m., and on Fridays at 1p.m. and 7p.m. Popcorn and water is also just a dollar more, making it the most affordable place to watch movies. The movies aren’t first-run new releases, but instead feature some of the best new and old classics like The Lego Batman Movie, Moana, The Jungle Book, Rogue One, and Ghostbusters. I know where I would be spending every Thursday night.
2. Swan Lake Iris Gardens
The Swan Lake Iris Gardens is one of the most unique and peaceful places to visit in South Carolina. A man-made lake is the focal point of a massive botanical garden featuring thousands of irises that bloom each spring. About a dozen species of swans live on the lake along with ducks, geese, and turtles.
But the real attraction to the lake is the accessibility and peacefulness even while surrounded by the urban sprawl of the city. A large parking lot at the visitor center leads through a gate to one of several paved and unpaved paths around the lake. A complete stroll around the lake takes about 30-40 minutes, but by the time you sit on a few benches in the shade and watch the wildlife it will likely take well over an hour.
Don’t make the mistake of many locals who have gotten used to the attraction and skip the small extension across the street. A footbridge leads to the extension area that features more of a swamp area and several wooden boardwalks. You get closer to the wildlife here in a more intimate setting with nature. But whichever side you choose to explore you’re sure to feel at least a few worries fade away.
3. The 4th Friday Music Series
Every fourth Friday from May – October the historic courthouse lawn comes alive with live music, local food vendors, and people dancing in the streets. As early as an hour before the music is set to begin locals will start moving onto the lawn with chairs and blankets to stake a claim to a prime piece of real estate for the event. Those same locals will also stay long into the night until the very last song is played.
141 N Main St, Sumter, SC 29150 | http://sumtersc.gov/fourthfridays
4. The Downtown Area
The downtown corridor in Sumter is like that of many other small towns across the Southeast: once vibrant, fallen into decay and dereliction, but now rebuilding better than ever. While the Sumter Opera House and 4th Friday Music Series provide an anchor to pull visitors in, the variety of local restaurants and shopping are what keep the people coming back. Be sure to explore Main Street for about three blocks as far as the courthouse, and then head back to Sidebar for some great southern food and mixed drinks in the outdoor seating area.
5. Poinsett State Park
This small state park about thirty minutes from Sumter is a peaceful escape into nature for the family. The park features a small lake in the middle with lots of ways to enjoy the water, some large picnic areas and shelters, a nice gift shop, and a fantastic little campground. It’s got everything you would need for a long weekend.
In comparison to the primitive campgrounds of nearby Congaree National Park, the campground at Poinsett State Park features water and electric hookups, a nice gift shop with a few extra supplies, and well crafted sites for RV’s and tents. It’s got just enough amenities to help you enjoy the weekend.
The lake is a great place for fishing, swimming, kayaking, or paddleboarding. A few trails lead around the lake and into the wilderness for a short getaway. A beautiful small waterfall at the end of the lake is a draw for photographers. But the greatest way to spend the day on the lake is in a kayak or standing on a paddleboard. The calm waters make it easy to paddle across the lake and explore the entire shore before calling it a day.
6660 Poinsett Park Rd, Wedgefield, SC 29168 | (803) 494-8177 | http://southcarolinaparks.com/poinsett/introduction.aspx
Sumter Visitor Center
822 W Liberty St, Sumter, SC