South Carolina beaches are sometimes overlooked when compared with those in Florida, but the 187 miles of coastline have diverse places to soak up sun. Most are within a 5-6 hour of Atlanta, making these beaches ideal for a long weekend. The islands that make up the South Carolina coast have something to offer all ages for your next vacation.
Charleston’s Barrier Islands
Charleston has become one of the top destinations for travelers in the United States, winning it countless awards by travel publications. The history, charm, and food are part of the appeal, but you can also add a few days onto your trip to enjoy some of the best of the South’s beaches. The peninsula of Charleston is surrounded by barrier islands only 45 minutes to an hour from downtown. There are plenty of Charleston beaches to visit!
Nicknamed the “Edge of America,” Folly Beach, South Carolina is perhaps the most well-known and popular of Charleston’s beaches, located across a bridge from suburban James Island. It’s popular with nearby college students as well as families. Center Street is the hub for souvenir shops and restaurants, where you can find live music, Tex Mex fare, and cheesy t-shirts. Among the best restaurants on Folly Beach are Taco Boy, Drop In Deli, and Rita’s Seaside Grille. There are a few hotels on the beach but most accommodation options are rental houses and condos.
When arriving on Folly, you can get to the beach in either direction. Streets have both East and West sides. The further away from Center Street, generally the calmer the atmosphere is. The Washout on the eastern end of the island is a popular surfing spot. Keep going and you’ll arrive at a cul-de-sac where you can keep walking to an abandoned street of graffiti-covered foundations damaged by hurricanes.
This area has the best views of Morris Island Lighthouse, a defunct 1876 light that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s no longer accessible, but remains one of the city’s most iconic structures. Keep in mind that there’s paid beach parking, but otherwise street parking is free. Just make sure your car isn’t in the road.
On the western end of the island is the Folly Beach County Park, a swimming beach with a seasonal lifeguard. The area where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Folly River is a pelican rookery and dogs are allowed on the beach during low season with a leash. Kayaking is another popular Folly Beach activity. Before you enter the main Folly area, the Folly Boat welcomes visitors. The boat landed after Hurricane Hugo and is painted with messages about graduations, birthdays, and everything in between.
Isle of Palms
While Folly is popular with students, the Isle of Palms is more high end. The beach itself is still open to the public, but there are also areas where you can only access if you’re staying at a resort or one of the rental homes.
Wild Dunes is the main hub of the beach with multiple accommodation options including the luxurious AAA Four Diamond Boardwalk Inn, the VIllage at Wild Dunes, and both condo and house rentals. The complex also has pools for both adults and families, beach access, spa, tennis courts, and golf. Dine at one of the half a dozen eateries within the resort or venture out to local favorites like Acme Lowcountry Kitchen, Morgan Creek Grill, Luke & Ollie’s, and The Boathouse and Breach Inlet.
If you’re not staying within the gates of the resort, rent a bike to pedal your way around the island. Fishing charters are a popular day trip option and you can also find paddleboard rentals. Isle of Palms County Park has beach access with seasonal lifeguards and a designated swimming area ideal for younger visitors. They also have a playground and picnic facilities. You’ll need to pay to park, but you can also rent chairs and other beach gear.
If you ask a local what their favorite Charleston beach is, they’ll likely mention Sullivan’s Island. Even Bill Murray has been known to hang out here. Historically, the island was the point of entry for slaves being brought to America as well as the site of a Revolutionary War battle.
Head to Station 18 to see the newer Charleston Light, a less impressive lighthouse, and watch the cargo ships entering the harbor. The beaches have the white sand you’re looking for and fewer crowds. Rent a beach house for the full experience, as there aren’t hotels on the island.
Once you’ve had your fill of sun, tour the fort to get a glimpse of what life was like in the early days of Sullivan’s Island. Writer Edgar Allan Poe was stationed here, penning his short story “The Gold Bug” while on the island. Dine at Poe’s Tavern, a beloved local restaurant, for dishes named after him. Dunleavy’s Pub is another place to go for pub fare, while The Obstinate Daughter is one of the Charleston area’s top new restaurants.
Named for the Kiawah people that lived in the area, Kiawah Island is known around the country as a golf destination, especially for the Ocean Course. Once the getaway for a wealthy Charleston family, the island was developed into a residential community before the golf course and resort were added.
The resort boasts 90 holes of golf, including courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, spa, tennis, pools, and naturalist programs. Kiawah Island Golf Resort also has the award-winning Sanctuary Hotel, the Resort Villas, and rental Homes, as well as more than a dozen dining options. They range from the AAA Four Diamond-rated Ocean Room steakhouse to the casual Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House. Nearby Freshfields Village has even more restaurants to choose from.
Much of the 10 miles of beach are private access for homeowners, but visitors can go to Beachwalker County Park on the west end of the island for public beach access. Lifeguards are on duty seasonally and there is a nominal fee for parking. Guests of the resort have their own beach access. Kiawah also has 30 miles of paved trails ideal for walking or bike riding. Kayaking through the marsh, surfing, and paddleboarding are other options.
Pirates, soldiers, and well-to-do Charleston families have all called Seabrook Island home over the years. Named for local businessman and Charles Town settler Robert Seabrook, his descendants sold the island for worthless Confederate paper in 1863. Ownership changed hands many times before it incorporated as a town in the 1980s.
Today, the Seabrook Island Club is a gated community that has beach access and rental homes. Within it is a golf course, tennis facilities, a fitness and aquatic center, and a 22-acre equestrian complex. Because of the setup of the island, the beaches are open only to members and visitors. The unspoilt sand is unlike any other South Carolina beach.
The Seabrook Island Club has its own restaurants, including the more formal Palmetto Room and the casual Bohicket’s Lounge. Elsewhere nearby, the Bohicket Marina has a handful of dining options, like Red’s Ice House, as well as boat slips and charters. Johns Island, just across an inlet, has restaurants as well like The Fat Hen.
In addition to the beaches, visitors to Seabrook Island can see the area by bike. There’s also many species of animals worth scoping out like sea turtles, marsh rabbits, alligators, and white tail deer.
When it comes to Charleston beaches, Edisto Island is often left off the list, but this quirky beach town shouldn’t be forgotten. Less developed than some of the other barrier islands, the name “Edisto” comes from a Native American tribe that once called the area home.
Much like Grayton Beach in Florida, Edisto Beach still has a laid-back, local atmosphere. The beaches tend to be quieter, especially in the low season. Accommodation options are fewer, with one resort and a handful of rentals, but if you want to have a relaxing beach vacation, this might be the one. Dining options are also limited, but the Old Post Office Restaurant and SeaCow Eatery are two favorites.
One of the most unique things to see on Edisto Island, and perhaps in any of the South Carolina beaches, is the Mystery Tree. It’s more of a pole out in the swamp where items are mysteriously tied on. No one knows who started the tradition, but it’s not uncommon to see curious visitors stopping for photos.
Visitors also shouldn’t miss the Serpentarium, a wildlife habitat devoted to snakes and other slithery creatures. Edisto Island State Park has trails, cabins, a campground, and the best sunset views on the island.
The Grand Strand
The 60 miles of coast between the towns of Little River and Georgetown are known as the “Grand Strand,” representing the largest section of South Carolina beaches on the northern side of the state. Formerly inhabited by the Waccamaw tribe, Europeans settled here after the American Revolution.
Millions of visitors come to this area every year, especially Myrtle Beach. Unlike some of the other parts of the state, all of the beaches on the Grand Strand have public access points. No longer associated with raucous Spring Break festivities, the area is now known for its family-friendly attractions.
The first stop on your way north on King’s Highway is the quiet town of Pawleys Island, which is one of the oldest resort areas in the region. The “mainland” section of the town has a number of golf clubs and resorts, like Pawleys Plantation Golf and Country Club, but no beach access. But cross a small inlet and you’re on the island itself.
Otis Beach is a popular public beach in the area, located next to The Pelican Inn, a 1840s house turned bed-&-breakfast. Expect to stay at one of these independent inns or at a rental condominium or house.
In between beach visits, stop by the Hammock Shops to purchase the Original Pawleys Island Hammock. And you can’t go wrong at any one of the restaurants offering Lowcountry dishes like shrimp and grits and she crab soup. Chive Blossom, Litchfield Restaurant, and Quigley’s Pint and Plate are all favorites.
Located in unincorporated Georgetown County, Litchfield Beach is generally lumped in with Pawley’s Island. But in this area, you’ll find the beach named for a rice plantation from the 1700s, now a resort. It’s a quieter beach than some of those further north towards Myrtle Beach.
In addition to accommodations at Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort, visitors can stay at the nearby inns and vacation rentals. Litchfield by the Sea has its own beach access, but the public can enter at various points on Parker Drive. Parking is limited and there are no facilities to speak of.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day in Litchfield Beach, as the streets are lined with pancake houses like Applewood and Eggs Up Grill. The Deck at Litchfield Tiki Bar is a perfect spot for a drink come five o’clock. Golf and tennis are two of the main activities, but the quiet neighborhoods are also bike-friendly.
The next community north is Murrells Inlet, known as the Seafood Capital of South Carolina. Beaches line South Waccamaw Drive, where visitors can rent a house or come for the day. Huntington Beach State Park, also within the confines of the inlet, has its own beach and wetlands rich in wildlife like alligators, birds, and sea turtles.
You can camp within the park, go for walks on the nature trail, and visit Atalaya, a 1930s Moorish home where the Huntington family lived, for a small admission fee. Golf resorts and well-known hotel chains have locations in Murrells Inlet. Nearby Brookgreen Gardens is another popular attraction, a winding property with sculptures and a small zoo.
Hungry travelers will have their choice of restaurants in Murrells Inlet, especially when it comes to seafood. Wicked Tuna has a large menu of options and marsh views. Lee’s Inlet Kitchen, Dead Dog Saloon, and Drunken Jack’s Restaurant are popular choices as well.
Garden City Beach
Garden City is in a prime location on both the inlet and the Atlantic Ocean, offering twice the water activities. North Waccamaw Drive is the best spot for beach access in Garden City, with parking spots and the 668-foot long fishing pier.
The Garden City Pavilion Arcade has family-friendly games and activities that are open to the public. Golfers will want to tee off at Indian Wells Golf Club, one of the top-rated courses on the Grand Strand. Kingfisher Inn is just one of many places to stay.
Sam’s Corner is a well-known restaurant in Garden City, a 24-hour restaurant with famous hot dogs. Sara J’s Seafood Restaurant has local seafood and marshside dining. Inlet Crab House Restaurant and Raw Bar has the appearance of a dive, but Caribbean and Southern influences.
Right next door is Surfside Beach, which refers to itself as “The Family Beach.” Public beach access lines South Ocean Boulevard, where there are also rental properties and hotels. Wild Water and Wheels is a water park open seasonally that’s a hit with families. Most restaurant options are bunched around Surfside Drive, including River City Cafe, Bubba’s Fish Shack, and Scotty’s Beach Bar.
One of the best beaches Carolina has to offer, the main draw to the Grand Strand is Myrtle Beach. Myrtle Beach State Park has its own facilities as well as the public beaches around downtown. The Myrtle Beach Pier is an iconic landmark, where you’ll also find attractions like the Skywheel ferris wheel, which offers the best views of the coastline.
Nearby you’ll also find the Carolina Opry, which hosts year-round performances, the Art Museum of Myrtle Beach, countless amusement parks, and even a minor league baseball team. Don’t miss the old-school places like the Gay Dolphin souvenir shop and the classic arcade.
The dining scene in Myrtle Beach is varied. Peaches Corner is a well-known downtown hot dog joint, located next to The Chemist, a modern molecular gastronomy-themed restaurant. Croissants Bakery is ideal for breakfast and New South Brewing offers craft brews made locally.
Myrtle Beach is also the best place to stay as there are options for every budget. Ocean Creek is a popular condo complex, while the Doubletree Springmaid has all the features for families. Camping is available at Ocean Lakes Campground and the local KOA.
North Myrtle Beach
More commercial than the beach south of it, North Myrtle Beach has miles of sand along Ocean Boulevard open to the public. Cherry Grove has ocean and inlet access, ideal if you’re bringing your boat. It also has a fishing pier.
Downtown North Myrtle Beach also has public access, although limited parking, along with slides and other fun activities. Nearby, you can also check out the old school OD Pavilion and spot creatures at Alligator Crossing.
Barefoot Landing is one of the developments where you’ll find a number of restaurants and even wineries. Flying Fish Public Market and Grill is one such, along with SeaBlue Restaurant and Wine Bar, ideal for a date night out.
Hilton Head Area
The Hilton Head area, at the southernmost part of South Carolina’s coast, offers getaways for every type of trip, whether it’s a golf trip, romantic weekend away, or spring break with the kids. It’s the closest island south of Beaufort. Gullah Geechee communities have called the area home since the 1700s when they were brought over as slaves from West Africa.
They’ve retained many traditions, best learned on Daufuskie Island. The area is also known for its golf tournaments like the RBC Heritage Tournament.
This South Carolina beach is a favorite of families, many of which return year after year. Originally owned as private hunting land, it opened as a resort in the 1960s. Fripp Island Resort has two top-ranked golf courses, miles of bike paths, tennis courts, pools, restaurants, and shops. T
he island beaches are made up of over 3,000 acres for guests of the resort. Keep in mind that it’s an important wildlife habitat, so you should stay off the dunes.
Hunting Island State Park
Another one of the island beaches, Hunting Island was another hunting reserve until it opened as a state park in 1935 by the Civilian Conservations Corps. Four miles of beaches are nearly untouched by visitors and popular with wildlife. You can camp or stay in cabins on the island, walk the nature trails, and, of course, visit the North and South beach areas. Don’t miss the historic lighthouse, which you can climb for $2.
Located a short drive from Beaufort, Harbor Island boasts three miles of beaches frequented by herons, egrets, and other birds. Harbor Island Rentals operates the island’s accommodations, most of which are condos and houses, and include access to the beaches and tennis facilities. There aren’t restaurants on the island, so you’ll have to bring your own groceries to cook meals.
If you want to be in the heart of it all, there’s nowhere better than Hilton Head Island. Family-friendly and luxury resorts line the main road with brands like Omni, Disney, and Westin represented. Golfing is one of Hilton Head’s most notable pastimes, so some travelers may choose to bring their golf clubs.
It’s easy to see Hilton Head by bike via miles of paved paths. The iconic red striped lighthouse will set you back $6 to visit, but is a favorite spot for photos. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is the best place to spot birds and other creatures. There are many public beach access points, but Coligny Beach Park has showers and other essentials.
The restaurant scene in Hilton Head sets it apart from other beach towns, incorporating both local seafood and modern techniques. The Lucky Rooster serves up some of the best shrimp and grits around, while NEO is known for its gastropub fare. And The Salty Dog Cafe is known around the country for its popular t-shirts and tasty dishes
Beyond The Beaches
Thinking of visiting beyond the beach when you hit up South Carolina? We’ve got a few guides for you here:
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