Charleston is renowned for gorgeous architecture, early American history, and world-class food. But less than an hour from the cobblestone streets, visitors can dip their feet in the sand, catch a wave, and bask in the sun on one of the area’s beaches. After days of exploring house museums, boutique shops, and she-crab soup, it might be nice to go for a walk on the beach and get a drink with a view of the water.
South Carolina is known for its pristine beaches. At the north end of the state, The Grand Strand – stretching nearly 90 miles from North Myrtle Beach through Myrtle Beach to Pawley’s Island – is one of the most popular beach destinations in the country. On the other end, Hilton Head Island is an escape from the world into a maritime forest with wide, clean beaches for the whole family to enjoy.
In the middle of it all, Charleston’s beaches are more intimate. Smaller in scale but still offering outdoor recreation, local food, and shopping. Each beach has its own identity, so you can pick your favorite or explore them all for the ultimate experience.
Which of these beaches would you enjoy visiting the most? Leave me a comment below!
Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms is a chic experience at the beach. Just 15 miles from downtown Charleston, it’s one of the most developed beaches in the area but still retains a peaceful charm. The drive can take 20-45 minutes depending on the traffic – plan to arrive early if you want to enjoy a day at this beach.
The easiest way to the island is the Isle of Palms Connector – a two-lane bridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway. Isle of Palms County Park is one of two large public parking areas on the island – the other is a sandy lot nearby. The county park features ADA access to the beach, restroom facilities, and outdoor showers to clean off when you’re ready to leave.
Ocean Boulevard from 10th Avenue to 14th Avenue is the heart of the beach town with local restaurants and shopping. The Windjammer is a rustic restaurant with hardwood floors and low ceilings, but it’s a happening place with outdoor live concerts with the ocean as the backdrop. Coda del Pesce is a contemporary Italian restaurant with oceanfront seating – a perfect place to enjoy their fine cuisine. Luke ‘n Ollie’s Pizzeria and The Dinghy are low-key places to grab something to eat, especially if you’ve just come off the beach. The Boathouse has been serving local catch seafood since 1997 with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway, but they’re only open for dinner, and reservations are recommended.
Wild Dunes is one of the premier resorts in Isle of Palms and a favorite among golfers. The Links Course and Harbor Course are open to the public, each offering 18 holes on courses designed by Tom Fazio.
Best for: Day trip visits to the beach and lunch at a local restaurant.
Just 9 miles from downtown, Sullivan’s Island is the closest beach to Charleston. It’s the easiest drive of any of the beach towns with four-lane highways as far as the bridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway to the island – it takes about 15-30 minutes to get there.
Sullivan’s Island was once a remote barrier island only glimpsed in the distance across Charleston harbor. But in the late 1700s, residents began making summer trips to the beach. In the 1800s, visitors could take an electric trolley from Mount Pleasant across the Pitt Street Bridge onto the island. Today, many of the north-south streets are named after the stations that once served the trolleys.
Three streets – Gold Bug Avenue, Raven Drive, and Poe Avenue – are named after the island’s most famous resident: Edgar Allan Poe. Under an assumed name, Poe served at Fort Moultrie for thirteen months. The fort played significant roles in the Revolutionary War and Civil War, a history that is interpreted at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.
There are only a few public beach accesses on Sullivan’s Island – most of it is reserved for private homes and short-term rental properties. Station 12 Public Beach Access is beside Fort Moultrie and is the most popular place on the island for out-of-town visitors. The parking lot fills up quickly on summer days with a capacity of about two dozen passenger vehicles.
Several local restaurants line Middle Street for a few blocks. These eateries offer savory food and outstanding service, making them popular during lunch and dinner rush hours. Poe’s Tavern serves American fare in a restaurant flush with Edgar Allen Poe décor. Dunleavy’s Pub offers Irish food and all sorts of beer along with live folk music in a rustic building. Home Team BBQ has several locations throughout the Charleston area where they serve Carolina-style barbecue with house-made sauces. The Obstinate Daughter is a casual upscale restaurant featuring American foods and local craft beers.
Best for: Exploring Fort Moultrie, going for a walk on the beach at Station 12, and getting lunch or dinner at a local restaurant
Only slightly further away than Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach is the most popular beach destination in the Charleston area. It’s an 11-mile drive that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on what time of day you visit. Hint: plan to arrive before 8 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to avoid the traffic.
Folly Beach is the quintessential beach town. Towering palm trees and curbside gardens line Center Street. Small buildings with pastel colors and metal awnings straddle either side of the street. Souvenir shops are located beside local restaurants, rooftop bars overlook surf shops, and not a single chain restaurant on the entire island.
The Folly Beach Pier is a central hub for activities on the beach. In 2021, a two-year project began to replace and update the existing pier. During this construction, the observation deck, gift shop, and restaurant are open to the public.
Public beach accesses with limited parking are located along Arctic Avenue. Folly Beach features wide beaches, even at high tide, offering plenty of room for throngs of people. And that leads to the biggest problem on Folly Beach – not enough parking. Strict rules have been developed over the years to handle a large number of daily visitors to the island.
The best place to put your toes in the island’s sand is Folly Beach County Park on the west end. The park features restrooms and dressing areas, ADA-accessible ramps to the beach, outdoor showers, and a big beach. The daily parking fee is $5-$15 for personal vehicles but arrive early if you want to find a spot.
The Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve at the opposite end of the island offers another chance to access the beach but with even fewer parking spaces. A cul-de-sac at the end of East Ashley Avenue provides enough room for maybe a dozen vehicles to park for free. A 0.4-mile walk along a paved road – closed to traffic – leads to a secluded beach viewing the Morris Island Light. Built in 1876, the lighthouse is surrounded by water after erosion changed the island’s shape over the past hundred years.
Pier 101 Restaurant & Bar offers some of the best views with food, although the rooftop bar at Snapper Jacks can’t be beaten. Rita’s Seaside Grille, The Crab Shack, and Woody’s Pizza are other restaurants you might want to try. Although it’s a block from the beach, Loggerhead Beach Grill features the largest outdoor seating area.
Best for: Spending a day at the beach and dining at a local restaurant for lunch or dinner
Kiawah Island is just a 25-mile drive from downtown Charleston – it usually takes about 45 minutes – but you’ll only find one public beach access on the island. The Kiawah Island Golf Resort, a private gated community, covers most of the island.
Kiawah Island Parkway is like a drive through a nature preserve. Oak trees and palm trees line the two-lane road, offering glimpses of the ocean every once in awhile. Before reaching the gatehouse, a right turn leads to Kiawah Beachwalker Park.
A large, paved parking lot has space for dozens of vehicles, but you’ll still want to arrive early to guarantee a parking space. It’s one of the best oceanfront parks managed by Charleston County Parks. The park features restrooms, dressing rooms, beach chairs and umbrella rentals, and an ADA boardwalk to the beach.
The beach is not very wide – certainly not as wide as Folly Beach. But it’s long. Beachgoers can explore the southwestern end of the island as far as the Kiawah River without any other beach accesses. Depending on how far you want to walk, you could have a good piece of sand all to yourself.
If you want to spend more time on the island, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort is one of the best oceanfront resorts in South Carolina. Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, and Jack Nicklaus designed the award-winning championship golf courses and feature some of the most stunning scenery around challenging traps and greens on the East Coast. The resort also features rental homes, villas, condos, a day spa, and a restaurant.
Best for: Day trip visit to the beach.
Kiawah Island and Seabrook Island share the same 25-mile driving route from Charleston as far as the Freshfields Village shopping center. At a roundabout, the Kiawah Island Parkway continues one direction while the Seabrook Island Parkway heads the other – toward the private island.
Bohicket Marina & Market is the only publicly accessible place on Seabrook Island. Visitors can rent a boat for 2-8 hours to explore the nearby barrier islands or book a fishing charter. At the Bluewater Tackle & Bohicket Trading Company, visitors can shop for fishing supplies, last-minute essentials, and souvenirs. Get something to eat at the Salty Dog Café with a view of Bohicket Creek, and then walk next door for dessert at Salty Dog Ice Cream.
Freshfields Village is a large shopping center serving the residents and guests of Kiawah Island and Seabrook Island. Do some shopping at Vineyard Vines, Indigo Books, and Islands Mercantile. Get something to eat at Hege’s Restaurant, FortyEight Wine Bar & Kitchen, or Cantina 76. Spend a night or two at the Andell Inn to enjoy the outdoor swimming pool, swanky lake-view rooms, and on-site bar.
Best for: Booking a getaway to a private beach.