South Carolina’s mix of subtropical shores, historical sites, and a seemingly endless supply of fresh seafood keep visitors coming back each year, with some choosing to live there full-time. Home to some of the best beach towns on the east coast, The Palmetto State is the perfect coastal destination for every type of vacation.
From larger, busier beach cities with many amenities to smaller, relaxed seaside communities, South Carolina has 187 miles of coastline to explore. These beaches are set along the Atlantic Ocean and are great for sunrises, fishing, surfing, and splashing in the waves.
While there are resort areas, many tourists opt to stay in a vacation rental home for a more comfortable (and spacious) experience. Many of these beach destinations also make great hideaway homes or quiet places to live for a slower pace of life.
In addition to being prime vacation spots, they are some of the best beach towns that make for a fantastic living. While many residents in beach towns are typically older, most communities have at least one school or are close enough to bigger cities like Charleston. When you’re ready to hit the sand, grab a towel and flip-flops and head to one of these destinations.
Here’s a look at the top beach towns in South Carolina to live and visit, in no particular order:
Myrtle Beach, SC
World-famous Myrtle Beach in northeastern South Carolina is one of the state’s busiest tourist attractions and beach towns. Thanks to its many amenities, vacation seekers in all categories can find a good time in this town, from college kids to retirees or families with young kids.
“The Grand Strand,” the 60-mile portion of the SC coast on which Myrtle Beach falls, was mainly unoccupied until the early 20th century. Even though a few settlers stayed for a while in the 1800s, it wasn’t an established town until 1938.
There were 35,682 people living on the island in 2020, and it regularly hosts about 2 million tourists annually from the east coast and beyond. Boasting more than 2,000 restaurants, 90 golf courses, lots of shopping areas, and endless outdoor recreation opportunities, it’s obvious why Myrtle Beach is appealing to so many people.
Myrtle Beach’s sands offer a lot of value for a time by the water. Banana boats, kayaking, paddleboarding, and surfing are a few of travelers’ favorite water-related activities. For a more low-key beach experience, bring a towel to sunbathe or drop a line for some fishing from the pier or charter boat.
Pawleys Island, SC
Located about 40 minutes south of the busy Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island is a small four-mile-long island that entices a slower pace of life. This laid-back community has a lot of beauty packed into it between the beaches, Pawleys Island Nature Park, and numerous cozy lodging options by the water.
Over 10,000 years ago, native people in the Winyah and Waccamaw tribes inhabited the island before European explorers arrived in the 1520s. Famous historical figure and former US President George Washington traversed this land while visiting an acquaintance and plantation owner in the region. The official town was founded in 1985, but only around 108 people (census 2020) reside on Pawleys Island these days.
The water is reasonably temperate from May to October for swimming or watersports, but much of the year provides shrimping, fishing, and crabbing opportunities. There aren’t any restaurants on Pawleys Island proper, but just across the marsh towards the inland area, there are several.
Beach access with limited parking is available at many points of the island. Residents of Pawley’s thinnest land strip might even have the ocean in both their front and backyards.
Hilton Head Island, SC
Hilton Head Island in southern South Carolina is a famous beach town with immaculate white sand and top-rated golf courses. This Lowcountry resort destination has 12 miles of beaches and is repeatedly rated as one of the top places in the country for a coastal vacation.
There are dozens of luxury resorts on the island from renowned companies like Omni, Disney, Westin, Marriott, and many others. The very first one, Sea Pines Plantation, was developed in 1956 when Charles Fraser saw the potential that the beautiful vistas and land had to offer.
According to the 2021 census, roughly 38,076 people are permanent residents of the island, and around 2.5 million visitors come each year. Before it became a hub for leisure, Hilton Head Island also had an action-packed history in significant world events like the Civil War and being fought over by European nations in the 16th-18th centuries.
The beach at Hilton Head is open to the public, but access paths to the water are usually on private land. However, the town has established a few beach parks with limited parking that give visitors access to the ocean without a hassle. An alternative is to use the free trolleys with regular dropoffs at the beach from mid-April to Labor Day.
Folly Beach, SC
Located 11 miles from Charleston, Folly Beach is a small coastal town of about 2,664 people (census 2020) and an area of almost 19 square miles. These shores have gained some recognition on the east coast for being a popular surf spot and also cater to tourism with plenty of gift shops, water sports stores, and restaurants.
Many South Carolinians call Folly Beach “the Edge of America,” where some of the best sunrises in the state can be seen. One of the most impressive structures in town is the Fishing Pier, which stretches out 1,045 feet straight into the Atlantic Ocean and provides unique spots to drop a line.
Folly’s casual, stress-free environment is one of the reasons that so many are drawn to the area for weddings, reunions, and lots of water sports action. This beach is also a critical location for loggerhead sea turtle nesting, and certain seasons of the year accommodate the species with their “lights out policy.”
Sullivan’s Island, SC
The small beach town of Sullivan’s Island is the perfect escape from Charleston, just 10 miles from downtown. With just 3.4 square miles in area, the relaxed population of about 2,000 share their island tourists looking for pristine beaches, dazzling restaurants, and a charming atmosphere.
Although tiny, the island has had a significant impact on US history. In 1776, this was the location of the “Battle of Sullivan’s Island” in the American Revolution and one of the places where the first shots were fired in the war. It was also an important port of entry for about half of the enslaved Africans brought to the country, meaning many African Americans have ancestors that passed through this town.
Visitors to the island who want to stay overnight can book a vacation home rental, which provides easy access to the public parks and ocean. There are 2.5 miles of coastline along the Atlantic, and some of the most popular activities include surf fishing, kayaking, kiteboarding, and paddleboarding.
Kiawah Island, SC
The town of Kiawah Island is on a barrier island and is home to a fancy golf resort, vacation home rentals, restaurants, and 10 miles of picture-perfect beaches. Founded in 1938, this primarily private island has many wildlife viewing opportunities and was a permanent residence for 1,772 people (as of census 2020).
Named after the Kiawah Indians living in the area, the island was used as a place for soldiers to recover during the Revolutionary War. Before the Civil War, cattle farms were the predominant use of the land.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the island was sold and developed to include residential neighborhoods, golf resorts, and other amenities for visitors. A few notable people, including sports figures Dan Marino and Ray Allen, own homes on Kiawah Island.
The two main beach areas on Kiawah Island are West Beach and East Beach. Only one public access to the sand can be found at Beachwalker County Park, but many others are available to private land owners and renters. Visitors to town need to follow the rules for being on the island, including beach hours, parking laws, and pet regulations.
Isle of Palms, SC
Escape strict itineraries and daily life chaos with a trip to this low-key coastal respite just half an hour from downtown Charleston. Isle of Palms has many beaches to frolic on and is located right next to the historic Sullivan’s Island, giving visitors more to explore in proximity.
The island is believed to be at least 25,000 years old and was once the home of the Sewee Indians. In 1929 the island finally got a bridge to the mainland, making it easier for tourists to enjoy a little relaxation. Since the late 1800s, the Isle of Palms was a vacation destination that could formally only be reached by ferry.
A population of 4,371 (census 2020) now call the island their permanent home and enjoy the beach lifestyle with a short commute to a bigger city.
IOP has seven miles of beautiful beaches, including a vast public area with restrooms, parking, and numerous shops to browse before or after playing on the sand. Alcohol and smoking are banned from the beach. The island’s city management asks guests to fill holes in the sand before leaving, so people and turtles don’t get hurt.
Daufuskie Island, SC
Daufuskie Island is a small sea island in the Atlantic Ocean, the southernmost in the state of South Carolina. It’s only eight square miles and located between Hilton Head and Savannah, GA but home to less than 600 people (census 2020).
A trip to Daufuskie is the ultimate way to unplug from the everyday hustle and bustle since the only way to get there is still by ferry. Like many other east coast islands, this one has survived involvement in many turbulent time periods in world history, including the European explorers’ arrival in the 16th century, the American Revolution, and the Civil War.
The Gullah culture is a large part of the island’s past, and many buildings from those communities still exist today. Visitors in modern times can enjoy many things on this remote island, such as walking through historical sites, dining, and relaxing in a rental home.
The entire island is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and almost everyone there gets around on foot or by golf cart. Featuring three miles of rural beaches, tourists have a chance to sprawl out on the sand without worrying about a schedule or parking. Beach equipment rentals and bundles are available on the island, which is excellent since most visitors don’t want to haul all their gear.
Edisto Beach, SC
This town is one of the few remaining beach areas that hasn’t been developed commercially, giving it that “good ol’ days” feel to visitors. Edisto Beach is in a unique location on the coast where the South Edisto River meets the Atlantic Ocean and is a laid-back place for a quiet seaside vacation with the family.
The Edisto Indians were the original settlers of the area until Spanish explorers came across the land in the 16th century. Until the Civil War, the area was often used to grow crops like rice and indigo on plantations. According to the 2020 census, Edisto Beach was a permanent home to 710 residents with a median age of 63.3 years that year.
Despite being renowned for its low tourism and lack of commercial amenities, this coastal town does have a few hotels, restaurants, and vacation rentals.
On the 4.5 miles of shores, there are 37 beach access points and limited parking lots with hours from 6 am to 10 pm. Besides relaxing on the sand, Edisto Beach State Park is to the east and north of town and offers recreation opportunities for picnicking, hiking, birding, fishing, and boating. Swimming in the Atlantic is allowed, but it’s at your own risk since no lifeguards are on duty in the park.
Don’t miss out on these top-rated beach towns on your next trip to South Carolina. Between the fantastic sunrises, fresh seafood, and pristine coastlines, many unforgettable memories will be made.