Charming architecture, history-lined streets, award-winning restaurants: these are probably the things that come to mind when you think of a trip to Charleston, South Carolina. But what you may not know is that it’s also renowned for its beaches, most of which are no more than an hour from downtown. From the perfect setting for a family picnic to an afternoon of surfing with the locals, you’re guaranteed to find a favorite Charleston beach on our list. So, grab your sandals and sunscreen, and let’s get to it!
Folly Beach: The Charleston Beach Where You Can be a Local
Folly Beach, also called the Edge of America, has a long history as a hideout for pirates and, during Prohibition, bootleggers. The name “folly” is an old English word that means “dense foliage,” perhaps explaining why this small island at the edge of the Atlantic has served as a sanctuary for those fleeing the law.
Today, Folly Beach offers the perfect escape for those looking for nightlife, seaside sports, global cuisine, or simply getting a tan. A popular beach escape for Charleston residents, Folly Beach still maintains its intimacy, and visitors can enjoy the peace of a small town vibe just a short drive from downtown Charleston.
Folly Beach can’t-miss activities
Folly Beach offers a plethora of ocean activities. Known as one of the best surfing spots on the East Coast, surfing experts and novices alike can rent a board and try out the waves. Or, take paddle boarding or kayaking lessons.
If sightseeing is what you’re after, you won’t want to miss the marshes. Starting at the main park in town, there is a boardwalk that will take you on a picturesque walk through the nature-rich habitat. Birdwatchers will love the diverse bird life found on the island. A short hike away, the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve offers views of Morris Island Lighthouse.
Along Center Street, you’ll find the heart of the town. Browse local shops, eateries, and bars. Folly Beach is known for its Bohemian vibe and art culture, so it’s a bit of a haven for those who love local art.
Best restaurants at Folly Beach
As a proud small town, Folly Beach is quite protective of its small businesses. Because of this, you won’t find many chains here. Instead, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the abundance of amazing bars and restaurants available.
It’s hard to go wrong when wandering Center Street, but there are a few restaurants that stand out above the rest.
Taco Boy is a local favorite for its delicious Mexican cuisine. You can also wet your whistle with a wide variety of margaritas and other cocktails. Besides their tasty cuisine, they also serve the local community by supporting organizations like Darkness to Light, YWCA Greater Charleston, and The Green Heart Project, so you can feel good knowing that when you dine there, you’re also supporting the greater community.
Lost Dog Cafe is a local must for breakfast and lunch. Boasting a menu filled with breakfast staples and delicious lunch bowls, it’s the perfect spot for a morning or afternoon snack.
Jack of Cups Saloon offers that quintessential pub grub that we all crave at some point. They offer a few shared dishes featuring unique twists on favorites, like Green Curry Mac and Hoisin Meatballs. They also offer a full bar, so it’s a great place to enjoy some libations after a long day at the beach.
Many consider Folly Beach to be one of the more nightlife-friendly beach options in the greater Charleston area, so if you’re looking to get a little wild when the sun goes down, Folly Beach is the place to do that. All along Center Street, you’ll find rooftop dancing, casual beachside bars, live music, and plenty of other stuff going on. Simply put on your best party clothes and see where the night takes you.
Hotels & transportation on Folly Beach
There’s one main hotel on Folly Beach, The Tides Hotel, that offers beach views from every room. Here, you can enjoy all of the amenities of a resort, including dining, a pool, room service, and they even offer dog-friendly rooms.
If you’d rather not stay in a hotel, there are plenty of rental properties available as well.
Parking is limited on the beach, especially during peak times, so it’s important to keep that in mind. You may consider renting a bike to get around the island.
While there are limited taxi options to get you from Charleston to Folly Beach, it’s recommended that you rent a car to get there. Other methods of transport aren’t reliable, and you’ll be happy to have your own vehicle once on the island.
Folly Beach interesting facts
- Folly is an old English word that means “dense foliage.”
- In 1832, 120 passengers were trapped on the island after their ship, The Amelia, sank. Officials locked the island to keep the survivors from coming to the mainland when it was learned that one of the survivors had cholera.
- After the Civil War, Folly Beach was essentially abandoned, but it slowly gained popularity once people saw the potential of the beach getaway near a major city.
Folly Beach offers the perfect weekend getaway for those who love adventurous beach activities, local artist scenes, and nightlife. If you’ve got a diverse group of travelers, Folly Beach will offer a little something for everyone.
Sullivan’s Island: The Most Laid Back Beach
With more of an old south feel, Sullivan’s Island is the perfect Charleston beach for a quiet day out. Regarded as a more family-friendly beach, spring and summer sees crowds rolling in from Charleston for a quiet day of beach adventures.
Free from beachside amenities, guests must bring all of their own beach gear, but this also helps to keep the beach relatively peaceful, even during peak season. If you’re looking for a true getaway from the city, Sullivan’s Island offers just that.
But, it offers so much more than beach life. You’ll find a little something for everyone, from historical hotspots to gorgeous nature views.
Sullivan’s Island can’t-miss activities
At 3.3 square miles, it’s easy to believe that what you see is what you get at Sullivan’s Island. In reality, there are tons of hidden gems and activities for you and your family to try.
When you get tired of the sunny beach, take an electric bike tour through the city. E-bikes are great because they take the brunt of the work, which can be a lifesaver in the hot summer sun.
The last major lighthouse built by the US government, Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse (also known as The Charleston Light) is considered one of the most modern lighthouses in the US. The 140-foot tall structure is relatively skinny and triangular in shape so that it can withstand ferocious winds. It’s a can’t-miss for any architecture buffs.
History geeks will also love visiting Fort Moultrie. This destination offers Revolutionary War history as well as the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was later stationed there in the mid-1800s.
If you’re truly looking for a beach getaway and nothing more, Sullivan’s Island also offers kayaking, kitesurfing, sailing, and other fun beach activities.
Best restaurants on Sullivan’s Island
A quieter beach destination, Sullivan’s Island doesn’t have quite the restaurant selection as Folly Beach, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find amazing cuisine.
The Obstinate Daughter is a local favorite for Southern food that reflects its French, Italian, and Spanish influences. With an atmosphere that resembles old Southern architecture with chic modern touches, it’s the perfect spot to grab dinner after a day touring historical destinations.
For international fare, head to Pier 22 Sushi. You’ll love the classic sushi dishes served with Southern hospitality.
Located in a quaint home setting, Poe’s Tavern celebrates Edgar Allan Poe’s time on Sullivan Island. Known for its burgers and pub grub, this can be a great lunchtime break from the beach.
Hotels & transportation around Sullivan’s Island
You won’t find many hotels on Sullivan’s Island, but vacation properties are in abundance. Check out Vrbo or Airbnb for plenty of options.
If you’re just coming for the day, the best way to get here is to drive. Try to come earlier in the day during peak seasons to guarantee a parking spot near the beach. Otherwise, be prepared to walk a little bit.
You might enjoy packing your bikes or renting some once you get on the island.
Sullivan’s Island interesting facts
- Home to Edgar Allan Poe when he was stationed at Fort Moultrie 1827 – 1828. He set his short story The Gold Bug at Sullivan’s Island.
- Sullivan’s Island served as the entry point for around 40% of the 400,000 kidnapped Africans forced to come to the then-Colonies.
- In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused massive damage to the island when the eye of the storm passed directly overhead. The Ben Sawyer Bridge broke from its locks, leaving one end of the bridge pointing directly into the air.
When you’re in search of a great weekend getaway for the whole family, Sullivan’s Island offers the perfect escape. Get your fill of history, site seeing, and adventure here.
Isle of Palms: The Family-Friendly Beach
With 6 miles of unbroken, white sand shoreline, Isle of Palms is a well-sought beach destination. Here, you can find plenty of beach gear rentals and amenities, so don’t worry too much if you didn’t bring your boogie board with you.
The gorgeous coastline makes Isle of Palms the perfect place for all sorts of beach activities. Beach volleyball is quite common as well as kitesurfing, kayaking, and sailing.
When you get tired of the beach, there’s tons of shopping opportunities available. This can be a great destination to find the perfect souvenir.
There are tons of bike paths all across the island, so consider renting a bike to get around. The island is only 7 miles long and 1 mile wide, so you can easily get around on two wheels.
Isle of Palms is also known for its two picturesque golf courses. Enjoy ocean views while you make your way through the renowned golf courses.
For those who want to spend their time at the beach outside and in the sun, then Isle of Palms offers plenty of opportunity for just that.
Best restaurants on Isle of Palms
For a great beachside restaurant and bar, head to Coconut Joe’s. Featuring a rooftop bar, beach views, and Southern seafood cuisine, this is a great place to grab lunch or dinner after a long day playing on the beach.
A little more hidden, The Long Island Cafe offers seafood-oriented cuisine in a chic-casual setting. If you’re looking for something a little more upscale, then this is it. Don’t let their tucked away location fool you; reservations are highly recommended.
The Sea Biscuit Cafe, located in a cute home setting, is the perfect place if you want something more casual. A cash-only establishment, The Sea Biscuit Cafe offers a homey setting and some amazing local cuisine.
Hotels & transportation around Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms offers a few more hotel options than the previous two beaches on this list. If you’re keen to golf, you can stay at one of the golf resorts, like Wild Dunes Resort. There are also a number of beachside hotels along the island.
If you have a larger group, there are also plenty of private vacation rentals available. Be sure to check out sites like Vrbo and Airbnb.
Once you get to Isle of Palms, riding a bike can be an easy way to get around, especially since there are plenty of bike paths to explore. From Charleston, however, it’s recommended that you rent a car. You can also take a taxi, but taxi service won’t be guaranteed, and it might be a bit expensive.
Isle of Palms interesting facts
- The island’s original inhabitants were the Sewee Tribe.
- Originally known by a few different names, Isle of Palms got its current name in 1899 when it was purchased by J.S. Lawrence.
- Legend states that pirates hid their treasure somewhere on the island. These rumors have yet to be substantiated.
When you need a little something for everyone, then Isle of Palms is the beach destination that you need.
Kiawah Island: The Upscale Charleston Beach
Last but certainly not least on our list, Kiawah Island is the most upscale of the Charleston beaches. With most of the island requiring a pass to enter with a vehicle, nature on the island is plentiful, and the setting is incredibly pristine.
Primarily a private beach and golf course, Kiawah Island is best explored as a guest at one of the resorts or vacation properties. However, you can still access much of the island as a visitor.
Kiawah Island can’t-miss activities
Kiawah Island is the perfect destination for those looking to get some outdoor activities in.
Access the beach for catching some sun and relaxing. Kiawah Island’s beaches feature hard sand, so it’s common to see bicyclists and runners taking advantage. We recommend renting a bike to get around while on the island.
You can also book a boat for a fishing excursion. Or, go fishing on your own at one of the fishing areas.
Known for its abundant wildlife, you can also wander around the island in search of a wildlife sighting. Bird watchers will love the sea birds in the area, or you might even catch a glimpse of an alligator or bobcat or even a sea turtle.
Golfers must try out one of seven award-winning golf courses that helped make Kiawah Island one of the premiere golf destinations on the East Coast.
When you want that quiet beach escape filled with tee times, wildlife views, and birdwatching, then Kiawah Island is the place for you.
Best restaurants on Kiawah Island
Located on Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the Jasmine Porch offers fantastic Lowcountry cuisine in a luxury Southern setting. Featuring handcrafted seasonal menus with only the freshest seafood, Jasmine Porch is the perfect spot for local fare in a casual-classy setting.
For a wine-paired, seasonally cultivated dining experience, head to The Wild Olive. Their staff is made up of finely trained chefs, offering the perfect evening of fine dining.
If you’d like something a little more casual, head to Ryder Cup Bar, also located at Kiawah Island Resort. Here you’ll find delicious pub fare and a full bar all with amazing views of the ocean and golf course.
Hotels & transportation around Kiawah Island
Since most of the island is a private beach and golf club, you might consider staying at the Kiawah Island Resort to gain access to all of Kiawah Island’s offerings. However, you don’t have to stay here in order to enjoy the island.
You can also book a vacation rental via Vrbo or Airbnb. Just be aware that the island has strict rules—for example, you are not allowed to drape clothing or towels over your railing—so be sure that you’re aware of what you can or cannot do.
To get to Kiawah Island, it’s recommended that you arrive by car. Even if you’re not staying on the island, you can access paid beach parking. However, in order to access much of the island by car, you need a guest pass, which means that many places will be off-limits to you as a day visitor. Instead, you can rent a bike or walk around the island.
Kiawah Island interesting facts
- Kiawah’s Ocean Course was used in the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance starring Matt Damon and Will Smith.
- Named after the island’s original inhabitants, the Kiawah Tribe.
- Every year, from mid-May until the end of October, loggerhead turtles come to the island to nest.
For a luxury vacation, some of the best golfing in the US, and amazing wildlife views, Kiawah Island presents the perfect weekend escape.
Whether you’re looking for luxury dining, adrenaline-fueled ocean sports, nightlife & shopping, or simply a quiet day in the sun, Charleston’s beach scene offers a little bit of everything.