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South Carolina is a place with endless attractions, where you can enjoy everything from fabulous southern dishes and historic sites to spectacularly lush forests, a magnificent coastline, and beautiful parks. If you’re planning a trip to the Palmetto state, here’s where you can find the very best it has to offer.
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This captivating southern city has somehow managed to retain all of its charms while still reinventing itself for modern times, and is an ideal blend of rich history, outdoor adventure, striking scenery and culture. You’ll see grand mansions lining the streets along with high-end eateries, world-class galleries and boutique hotels. Charleston also has a gorgeous waterfront, outstanding nightlife and is home to some of the most hospitable people in the country. There are golf courses galore, fantastic opportunities for learning to surf or stand-up paddleboard, and in the late spring, you can experience one of the biggest performing arts festivals in the world, Spoleto Festival USA. Walk the cobbled streets of the Historic District and you’ll find something interesting around practically every corner. Don’t miss the chance to take a break to sample the local Low Country cuisine, which has influences ranging from English and French cuisine to African cuisine, introduced by the slaves who were brought here in the past.
Hilton Head, located just across the border from Savannah, Georgia, sits on a beautiful 12-mile barrier island and offers a less-touristy coastal South Carolina experience with beautiful oceanfront resorts. Surrounded by water, visitors have access to all sorts of activities like sailing, snorkeling, or just soaking up the sun on one of the many picturesque beaches. Hilton Head is also a favorite with golfers, with a multitude of outstanding courses that overlook the Atlantic, and it’s ideal for cycling too, with lanes and bike paths found throughout the town. Wildlife lovers will appreciate the opportunity to spot bottle-nosed dolphins on a boat tour, with sightings virtually guaranteed. And, tennis anyone? The island’s Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center is considered one of the best in “The 50 Greatest U.S Tennis Resorts” by Tennis Magazine, with 25 courts, instructional programs, and tournaments.
The state’s Lowcountry boasts over 350,000 acres of unspoiled natural beauty in an area known as the ACE Basin. The estuary is one of the largest on the Atlantic coast and offers unique landscapes, wildlife and vegetation. Its diverse geography and waterways make it a true paradise for outdoor adventurers. Just a few of the activities available include boating, fishing, hiking and biking on miles of dirt roads and nature trails, and bird watching. During the winter, nesting bald eagles can be seen perched in the trees and soaring through the skies. In the summer, osprey fish in the creeks, and in both spring and summer, you’ll hear the sounds of tropical migrant songbirds singing from forested creek banks.
Aiken, located near the middle of South Carolina’s border with Georgia, is considered one of the state’s hidden treasures. In the 19th century, it became a popular spot for wealthy northerners to spend their winters, and as a result, the equestrian industry became a major part of the town’s character, and it still is today. There are multiple races, polo tournaments and barns in the region, and Aiken is renowned as the home of many thoroughbred champions, with fox hunts and polo matches a way of life here. Even if you aren’t coming to participate in all things horse, you can enjoy strolling the charming downtown, as well as the rolling hills that surround it. Shop unique boutiques, dine at fabulous eateries and catch live music while wandering the quaint streets and gazing at the gorgeous oak canopy.
The town is also popular for its annual “Battle of Aiken,” when for three days in February, Civil War reenactors eat, sleep, live and fight in a painfully recreated version of the world in 1865. In addition to battle reenactments, it hosts authentic 19th-century military encampments, living history presentations, reproductions of medical facilities, an engineer and signal service, and civilian portrayals.
York County, located just south of the North Carolina border, is home to a number of charming towns, each with its own unique historic character, like Clover, with its quaint downtown streets lined with antique stores, a variety of other shops and eateries. If you want to enjoy the great outdoors, Lake Wylie, less than a 10-minute drive from Clover, with its more than 325 miles of shoreline straddling both North and South Carolina, makes for the ideal peaceful retreat where visitors can enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, water skiing, camping and hiking in the various parks located around it. And, if you’re looking for exciting entertainment for the whole family, head to the 105-acre theme and water park known as Carowinds, which features rides, shows, movie-themed experiences and more.
Bluffton is a unique mix of hippy and history. It’s filled with gorgeous homes, historic churches and an amazing art scene. It has its own quirky blend of genuine southern hospitality and artistic eccentricity that can be experienced amid centuries-old oaks, fantastic Lowcountry restaurants, shops and art galleries showcasing the talents of local artisans. On Thursday afternoons, Bluffton’s vibrant farmers market is an ideal place to be to enjoy delicious culinary fixings like southern-style BBQ, elaborate pastries and a potpourri of other artisan foods. Of course it also features plenty of locally grown produce, flowers, plants and herbs. There’s truly a new adventure to enjoy every day – outdoor lovers can enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing on May River in what’s been referred to as “the last true coastal village of the South.”
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville is home to one of South Carolina’s fastest-growing populations. It’s really no surprise that so many are choosing to move here, with its charming downtown, numerous cultural attractions and opportunities for outdoor activities. It boasts the one-of-a-kind Liberty Bridge, interesting shops and boutiques, great eateries, world-class museums, galleries and theaters, along with glistening lakes, rivers and mountains. Greenville also has a lovely River Walk and an acclaimed zoo. Baseball enthusiasts shouldn’t miss its minor league baseball stadium that was modeled after Boston’s legendary Fenway Park, and its Falls Park on the Reedy is a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic and soak up the picturesque surrounding scenery.
The entire town of Pendleton, located in the state’s northwest corner, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Pendleton and the surrounding region is famous for its natural beauty, rich history and culture. There are also magnificent waterfalls, lakes and streams and lush rolling hills ideal for outdoor recreation along, with farms, festivals, arts communities and more hidden within the picturesque countryside. Be sure to tour the Farmer’s Hall, located in the center of the town square, catch a show at the Clemson Little Theater and stop by Palmetto Moonshine, the state’s first legal moonshine distillery. It offers the chance to pick up a “true piece of the South,” with moonshine bottled in traditional moonshine jars, along with the opportunity to enjoy a free sample and areas for picnicking as well as featuring a general store that sells local products and souvenirs.
Mount Pleasant, located in Charleston County, is surrounded by the green marshes this area is famous for. It’s home to many parks where you can enjoy being surrounded by natural scenic beauty and offers lots for history buffs too. Not only are there a wealth of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, but thanks to the town being settled well before the 18th century also began, at the foot of Arthur Ravenel Bridge is a naval and maritime museum known as Patriots Point, which is home to the USS Yorktown, a World War II carrier, that now serves as a museum ship. The Charles Pinckney National Historic Site hosts the Snee Farm Plantation. A manicured lawn area with ornamental plantings surrounds the main house, and the property also includes a caretaker’s residence, corncrib and a barn.
One of the most charming small towns in the U.S., Beaufort is South Carolina’s second-oldest town, and as such, it offers a wealth of historic sites and spectacular old buildings. It’s renowned for its antebellum architecture, beautiful waterfront and mouth-watering local cuisines like those wonderful thick and spicy gumbos. You’ll experience an ideal blend of southern charm and urban refinement, with the walkable downtown lined with art galleries, antique shops and restaurants, and visitors can also enjoy nearby Hunting Island, a state park with more than three miles of unspoiled stretches of sands, known as some of the best beaches in the state. If you’re looking for sport, you should also know that National Geographic named Beaufort one of the top waterfront adventure towns in the U.S.
Congaree National Park is one of America’s newest national parks. And, while it may not be as famous as Yellowstone or Yosemite, it preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the country and is an underrated alternative to more crowded parks. It offers miles and miles of hiking trails along with unique flora and fauna, including fantastic bird watching. Look behind the veil of Spanish moss that drips from the cypresses, and you’ll step into a lush wilderness area that’s home to river otter, deer and bobcat. The best way to see its highlights is to get out and walk. While bird lovers prefer the 11.7-mile Kingsnake Trail in a remote area of the park, others may want to take the 2.4-mile Low and High Boardwalk Trails followed by the 4.4-mile Weston Lake Loop Trail that winds around the lake.
Edisto Island is one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, and it offers the ideal spot for experiencing the state’s slow, quiet beauty. It was inhabited by Native American tribes for a number of centuries, some of who still live here, and before slavery was abolished, a community of African slaves resided here and developed their specific type of Creole Gullah language. The result is the interesting traditions and history that can be experienced today. Visitors can also enjoy swimming and relaxing at Edisto Beach as well as some of the best surf fishing, river fishing, pier fishing, and deep-sea fishing you’ll find anywhere. Rent a bike or bring your own, and you can ride it throughout the island, with a path winding its way through most of the town of Edisto Beach, taking cyclists past eateries, shops and lots of scenic views.
Caesar’s Head State Park in northern Greenville County bordering North Carolina is the place to go for impressive views of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, as well as camping and hiking. Its highlight can be found at its southern edge, which features a large, isolated granite rock that protrudes over an expansive valley. The park is also home to Raven Cliff Falls. The two-mile Raven Cliff Falls trail will bring you to a suspension bridge that offers an overlook of the falls which plunge deep into the mountain cove below.
This park is a wonderful place to enjoy relaxing, and getting away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city, just a short distance from the business district and the university. Walk, hike or skate the trails while soaking up the picturesque scenery, and check out the history of the Columbia Canal and Water Works while looking through one of the old pump houses. The 167-acre park was the site of the original waterworks for the City of Columbia as well as the site of the world’s first electrically operated textile mill and the hydroelectric plant, the oldest ones in the state, is still operating. There is also a lovely brick amphitheater and a self-guided path by the old parts of the water plant. A number of popular events are held here each year as well, including the annual Riverfest, Greekfest and concerts.
Georgetown is now one of South Carolina’s most important ports, and one of its oldest cities – in fact, some historians claim that this was actually the site of the first attempt at colonization in North America – a Spanish colony that failed after its founding in 1526. This small coastal town offers lots when it comes to charm, history and personality. One of the best ways to experience is just to walk around the downtown streets or around the waterfront. Join historic tours or ghost tours, visit museums, go boating and fishing and shop ’til you drop with a number of one-of-a-kind stores selling high-end furniture, books, toys, clothing, shoes, gifts, housewares, jewelry and more. There are also many great eateries serving up fresh fish, sushi, Italian and Lowcountry cuisine.
Settled in the direct aftermath of the Civil War in the late 1860s, McClellanville has a surprising number of historical buildings considering its relatively small size. Best known now as a fishing and shrimping village, it was once the site of several plantations, and you can still visit some of them today, like Hampton Plantation, established in 1775 and considered one of South Carolina’s finest examples of a wood frame Georgian plantation house. There are also several other buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And with fish and shrimp playing such a big part in McClellanville’s economy, if seafood is what you’re after, you can be sure you’re enjoying some of the freshest.