Beaufort, SC is one of the South’s most beautiful towns, rich with history, draped with Spanish moss and framed by gorgeous coastal views. Adventure on the water or along the rails-to-trails path…relax at the beach or breathe easy on a large swing overlooking the river. Dive deep into the history of the Gullah Geechee people or the city’s Union occupation.
With so many things to do in Beaufort, SC you’ll want to return again and again.
The Best Things to Do in Beaufort
There are so many amazing things to do when you’re in Beaufort, but here are the best of the best!
Spanish Moss Trail. The Spanish Moss Trail is the Lowcountry’s Rails to Trails effort (much like Atlanta’s Beltline) that extends 10 miles. There are water and marsh views, great for walking or biking, and pets are welcome on a leash.
Download the app to get you started, and to find the nearest restroom or parking trailhead. Right now there is not a path from Bay Street (Downtown Beaufort) to the Southernmost trailhead, so you’ll have to either bike the street or haul your bike. They are looking at adding a 1.2 mile connector in the coming year, which will make my kids happy! Stay tuned for news on that.
No bikes? No problem. Many of the hotels (like The Beaufort Inn) have complementary bikes available for you to use. Just be sure to bring smaller bikes from home if you have kiddos with you.
Beaufort Lands End Paddling. We loved our tour with Lands End Paddling. Starting at the Beaufort Marina, we piled into a 4-person kayak and followed our guide (and the lowering tide) across the Intracoastal Waterway to a popular little sandbar.
Here, our guide showed us how to cast a net for fish, shrimp, and the like. She pointed out landmarks and told us of tales of “Old Beaufort.”
After we splashed on the sandbar a little more, we climbed back in the kayaks and rode the tide back to the Marina! You can take this tour (great for kids) or the Beaufort Kayak Tour or the Hunting Island Tour. You can also rent kayaks and bikes if you want to make your own adventure!
Hunting Island State Park. We love state parks and Hunting Island was no exception…I could have stayed here for an entire day (or more!). First, be sure to climb the lighthouse for fantastic views for up to 40 miles. It’s a nominal fee (cash only) and worth it!
Second, make time for the beach. There is a South Beach and a North Beach. We spent most of our time on the North side, near the lighthouse and “driftwood beach.” The South side is where you’ll find the nature center, fishing pier and boating area.
If you have time, there are miles of trails to explore, shoreline perfect for finding shark’s teeth…and beach camping! What a way to see the sun rise!
Bike The Point. If you keep reading, you’ll notice I mention that I recommend the Sea Island Carriage Tour. Whatever you do, take the tour before you bike The Point — you’ll appreciate the area so much more when you realize it’s more than just a group of pretty houses draped in Spanish moss.
The Point is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Lowcountry, and was originally owned by one man…until he passed in 1770, when it was divided into tracts of land. The homes built here were “second and third” homes of wealthy Confederates. When news of the war came to them, they fled.
The homes are still standing, despite the battles of the war in this region, because they became Union hospitals and the like – ensuring their preservation.
You can’t visit Beaufort without strolling the area, and I recommend doing it on bike so that you can see the entire neighborhood. You’ll run into locals walking their dogs and other tourists taking pictures. Just smile and wave!
Beaufort River Tour. Catch a ride on a river tour to see dolphin, birds, marshlands, and a closer look at the large homes dotting the river. Beaufort River Tour‘s Prince of Tides pontoon boat takes passengers on a leisurely ride Mon – Sat at 2pm and Sun at noon.
Captain Lawrence kept an eye out for dolphins – we saw about a dozen of them when we went out at low tide. He pointed to the homes featured in movies like The Big Chill and The Great Santini, and shared folklore (and truths) about the Beaufort area.
You are free to bring a small cooler on board (with adult or non-adult beverages,) though it’s more common on the sunset cruise.
Captain Lawrence let the boys drive the boat a little as we were heading back…and I really enjoyed that this tour took us North on the river, where the kayak tour took us more South, so we really got to see Beaufort from all sides.
Relax and Unwind
Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. The feature picture at the beginning of this post is a view from the Park at sunset, facing the marina. It sits right on the water, parallel to Bay Street (the main thoroughfare in the Historic District) and it is where all the action happens.
Our suite at The Beaufort Inn is the only accommodation option on Bay St, and it includes gorgeous views of the park and river…and you are within 100 feet of the park – so we spent a LOT of time here!
In the afternoon we sipped on a Sunset Slush as we strolled. We played frisbee in the green area, climbed the playground equipment, watched prom and graduation students gather for photos, took in the breeze and rocked on the over-sized swings lining the waterfront…it is also pet-friendly, so we watched pups playing catch! Super relaxing and soothing!
As the sun set, the number of families – locals and visitors – gathered. Several restaurants played live music for everyone to enjoy. We opted to eat at the restaurants each evening, but many families were enjoying picnics on the lawn. It was just a spectacular community space with breathtaking views that you don’t want to miss.
Explore Downtown. Visit some of the art galleries in town featuring local artists and browse through the shops on Bay Street. The Downtown Historic District is filled with culinary delights, sweet treats, and plenty of smells to draw you in.
Highway 21 Drive In. After the sun sets, head to Highway 21 Drive In. It was named one of the “10 Classic Drive-In Theaters” by the Travel Channel. Usually they are showing on the weekend, usually a double feature – just be sure to check their website before you go.
Get there early for a good spot…grab some snacks or an old-school style dinner of hamburgers and hot dogs…let the kids play on the playground equipment and get out the wiggles before you tune into the show.
Port Royal Observation Tower. Beaufort is on the island of Port Royal, but hold your hat because there is also a city of Port Royal just South of Beaufort and it is adorable. If you can’t stay for the entire day exploring the Old Village and surrounding area, you’ll at least want to walk the Port Royal Boardwalk and climb it’s 4-story observation tower for impeccable views of the Sound and marsh.
In the same parking area you’ll find The Sands, a small community beach. It’s great for lounging and having a snack, and popular for hunting shark’s teeth.
Stephen Elliott Park. The locals told us they call it Cannon Park, because of the cannons that sit along the water, on the other side of the bridge from Waterfront Park. They came from a British ship long ago, and offer a stunning backdrop to the Sound.
Take in the Local History
Gullah Geechee Visitor Center. The Gullah people are direct descendants of the African slaves brought to the US, who lived in the Lowcountry coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia – landing points for over 40% of slaves.
After slavery was abolished, they settled in remote, Lowcountry villages and formed strong communal ties – probably because of their isolation. What resulted is a unique culture that has persevered, and is continuing to hold steadfast to their traditions even today.
The Visitor Center is both information center and art gallery – and a must-visit location. I recommend asking the staff about the art and culture – they are a wealth of information! If this is a culture you’re not familiar with – don’t be scared! Ask questions…it’s how we learn, grow, and help keep the traditions alive.
The Spirit of Old Beaufort. We did not have an opportunity to take the Guided Gullah History Tour, but I will most definitely be back for this, if nothing else!
The 3-hour driving tour (yes, there is air-conditioning!) takes you to Lady’s Island and St Helena, both rich with Gullah Geechee history. You’ll explore one of the first schools for freed slaves, see the island churches, learn their songs, and more.
Penn Center. If you don’t have time to take the tour, then try to get out to the first school for freed slaves, for a self-guided adventure. Penn Center is so important to history, and an important lesson for our kids!
Don’t skip the movie about the Center and their mission, before you tour the museum-area.
Sea Island Carriage Company. We always take an “overview” tour of destinations we visit, so as to get a lay of the land and peak into the history. I am so glad we did this Sea Island Carriage Company!
The kids will love it because it’s an open air carriage tour pulled by a horse (in our case, Jasper – a Clydesdale!). Your guide will whisk you through the Historic District and The Point, offering tidbits on everything from The Mansion, where the South Carolina succession papers were signed – to Pat Conroy’s old home, where he lived after authoring The Great Santini.
We saw the home that Julia Roberts and Sally Fields each rented when in town for their movies; the home of Dr. James Robert Verdier, who developed a cure for Yellow Fever; and the home that was once a hospital served by Harriet Tubman. She walked from New York to Beaufort on foot, with a bounty on her head. Here she helped free 700 slaves just north of Beaufort, recruited the Gullah people to help the Union troops, taught the freed slaves, and served as nurse to Union troops.
My favorite story? It was that of Robert Smalls. I can’t do it justice here, so I will give you the short version and encourage you to look up more information about it on your own.
Robert Smalls was a boy raised a slave, who learned to command a ship, then stole one and saved hundreds of other slaves….gave the ship to the Union Army, who put him in charge of it. After the war, he came back to Beaufort and purchased the house he grew up in as a slave (picture above).
Now a free man, he had extended more grace than I could ever muster and made a room in his home for the wife of his former “owner” and tended her while she was sick. That’s character. He went on to serve as a Senator of SC until 2010.
Old Sheldon Church Ruins. The Sheldon Church Ruins give you a glimpse into one of the oldest “temple-style” churches in America. Opened in 1757, this large brick religious structure was also evident to military leaders throughout its early history as a strategic stronghold. Burned in both the Revolutionary and Civil War, it stands in its unrestored ruinous state to this day – yet the beauty of the original architecture remains. Bring your camera!
Parris Island Museum. To this day, over half of the Marine recruits in the US are trained in Parris Island, SC. Learn about the history of the United States Marine Corp at the Parris Island Museum, located within the Marine Corp Recruit Depot. This unique museum offers a glimpse not only into the Marine history, but also the history of the surrounding area from Native American periods to present.
Historic City Tour by Bus. On this 1.5-hour driving tour, explore the historic district of Beaufort, including the famous Old Point area and The Bluff with its antebellum houses and churches. As you drive around in air-conditioned comfort, your guide will introduce some of these beautiful, historic sites. See townhouses up close and learn about the architecture and people behind them. Discover what happened to the houses and the people of Beaufort during the Civil War Union Occupation.
Local History and Film Sites Tour. Calling all Forrest Gump fans! This 1-hour Local History and Film Sites Tour covers Beaufort’s historic district and gives you a chance to learn more about the town and its history. Relax in an air-conditioned van as you discover the sites and homes where the stars stayed in downtown Beaufort. Ride by locations surrounding Beaufort such as The Gump Medical Center (funded by Forrest’s “gazillions” he earned running the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company) and The National Cemetery where The Great Santini was buried.
Your ‘Must-Eat’ Noshing Checklist
Beaufort is home to so many great restaurants that it can be hard to chose from. Here are the places we ate and recommend for your visit.
Sweets and Treats
Common Ground. Superb coffee selections and more. From Breakfast Bundles to gelato, to organic wine with a great view of Waterfront Park.
YoYo’s Ice Cream. Great for the kiddos. A wide variety of soft serve ice cream flavors available, with a main large location on Bay Street, and a small concession location right next to the playground in Waterfront Park.
Scout Southern Market. From the street, it looks like a high-end home goods store. Beautiful decor. In the middle are adorable dresses (with pockets!) that any Southern girls would love. But the treat here in in the back at the Sweet Tea Bar. Two scoops of sorbet in a cup sweet tea. It’s divine!
The Chocolate Tree. Word has it Tom Hanks’ assistant picked up chocolate for him here every day during the filming of Forrest Gump. And that famous lifelike “box of chocolates”? Those weren’t no Russell Stovers. A bevy of delicious handmade chocolate perfection awaits you here.
Breakfast and Lunch
Blackstone Cafe. Two floors of Southern cooking and American fare served up fast and delicious. Located in the heart of Beaufort on Scott St, just a half block off the beaten path.
Lowcountry Produce. Restaurant and fresh food market all in one, grab lunch Low Country Produce and then look though their huge selection of sundries, canned goods, and kitchen and home supplies.
Rain-n-Bagels. A taste of New York in the deep south. Enjoy an authentic bagel or gourmet coffee. We recommend an Everything bagel with Taylor Ham.
Shrimp Shack. This is a great “hole-in-the-wall” lunch stop coming out of Hunting Island toward Beaufort. It’s known for the Shrimpburger, and I recommend you get a side of hushpuppies, too. It’s cash only with outdoor tables and plenty of sweet tea.
Saltus River Grill. Recommended for a special night out, have a seat overlooking the Port Royal Sound with a plate of local oysters and a bourbon cocktail. All of the seafood is superb, but we went nuts for the sushi selections.
Hearth Wood Fired Pizza. Although known for the “best pizza in town”, we opted for Pasta Bolognaise and Lasagna. Ok, we tried the pizza too which was wood-fired tasty.
Dockside. Open for dinner, just over the bridge from Beaufort, this seafood eatery is very popular. We noshed on flounder, oysters, and crab (with a diverse kiddo menu, too.) While the food was delish, the view is also a draw. It sits on the marsh at a marina, and we watched the sun set in the backdrop as we ate on the patio.
The Ideal Weekend Retreat
The Beaufort Inn
This historical, award-winning inn offers unique and distinct guest rooms, suites, cottages and extended stay options. We stayed in 808 Bay, a large 3-bedroom suite that showcased Bay Street on one side and the River from the patio on the other side.
Breakfast is included with each stay in the form of vouchers to local area restaurants. Wifi and bicycle rentals are complementary, along with nightly s’mores around the fire and passes to Hunting Island State Park.
We cannot recommend The Beaufort Inn more highly, with kids or without.
More Beaufort, SC Hotels
Best for Couples: Anchorage 1770 is another option for those traveling without kiddos. Located downtown with sweeping waterfront views, the 18th-century inn provides guests breakfast every morning and fresh baked cookies before bed. An in-house fine dining restaurant, beach cruisers available to all guests are just a few of the great perks you’ll find.
Best for Families: Home2 Suites By Hilton Beaufort features free bikes, seasonal outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center and shared lounge in Beaufort. Featuring family rooms, this property also provides guests with a terrace.
Best Pet-Friendly Option: Featuring a stylish urban design, the pet-friendly City Loft Hotel is located in Beaufort’s historic city center. Guests of the hotel will enjoy concierge services and an on-site espresso bar. The hotel is 5 minutes’ walk from Bay Street which offers waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment.
Campgrounds Near Beaufort, SC
Palmetto Shores RV Resort is located off of I-95, about 70 miles from Beaufort, SC, on the beautiful Lake Marion. With full service hookups (50/30 amp) on all pull thru and back in sites, big rigs are welcome. With amenities galore, you’ll find an arcade, two swimming pools, a splash pad, a lazy river, fishing on the lake, a beach, a playground, and an on-site restaurant.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Beaufort for hosting me and my family. Opinions here are all our own, as always. This post may contain affiliate links.