For such a relatively large city—eighth largest in the state—there are comparatively few sights here. The main attraction in Sumter  by far is Swan Lake Iris Gardens (822 W. Liberty St., 803/436-2640, www.sumter-sc.com , daily 7:30 a.m.–dusk, free), begun in 1927 as the labor of love of regional business titan/amateur botanist Hamilton Carr Bland.
Legend has it that Bland’s initial iris planting failed so badly that, out of frustration, he told his gardener to dump the bulbs in the nearby blackwater lake. The irises then bloomed on their own with no trouble, resulting in the first inkling of the magnificent displays you see today. A trail takes you around the lake, while a boardwalk takes you 1,000 feet into the surrounding swamp. The best time to come is May–June, when the irises are in bloom.
Around the last weekend in May is the Iris Festival, a four-day event. December 1 marks the month-long “Fantasy of Lights,” in which the grounds are lit with—no joke—about a million Christmas lights.
The 150-acre grounds also host eight species of swans, the only public site in America to host every indigenous species (for the record, they are: Royal White Mutes, Black-Necked Swans, Coscorobas, Whoopers, Trumpeters, Black Australians, Whistlers, and Bewick Swans). You can feed them bread and crackers, but I recommend keeping your distance during mating season in early spring. If you want to feed yourself, go to the Iris Market (Thurs.–Fri. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., Sat. noon–5 p.m., Sun. 1–5 p.m.) on-site.
The center of civic and cultural life in town is the Sumter Opera House (21 N. Main St., 803/436-2640), which in addition to hosting multiple performances also hosts city hall. There’s a regular schedule of Friday night events at the Opera House throughout the month: First Fridays are for comedy, second Fridays are for classic movie screenings, and fourth Fridays are for jazz and blues concerts. The films are $2.50 per person, while live performances run about ten bucks.