Best known for its beaches, warm weather, and charming cities, South Carolina is a stunning coastal destination in America’s Southeast. Its largest cities reflect the natural and historic aspects, as well as the state’s many thriving businesses and institutions.
Far from its coastline, tourists and locals can participate in many different outdoor activities. South Carolina has beaches and mountains alike, plus five state parks. The past is integral to the state’s culture as well. SC was one of the original Thirteen Colonies, and today, visitors can explore its historic sites such as plantations, battlefields, mansions, and forts.
Here are the ten biggest cities in South Carolina, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
Anyone who appreciates delightful, colorful architecture and white sand beaches will love Charleston, known as the “Holy City”. With just over 150,000 residents as of the 2020 census, it’s the state’s largest and perhaps most famous city.
The symbol of Charleston is a pineapple, which represents the city’s sense of southern hospitality. Whether people visit to go shopping, check out historic sites, or relax on the beach, tourism is an essential part of the city’s economy.
The favorite place to go shopping and dining in Charleston is King Street, located downtown. It’s a cobblestoned historic district that comprises most of the peninsula. Admire the pastel antebellum buildings, browse a mix of local, regional, and national shops, and try some of South Carolina’s famous foods.
Outside of the downtown area, Fort Sumter is one of Charleston’s most frequented attractions. It was originally started in 1812 to protect Charleston from the British. Then, in 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the American Civil War. You can visit this infamous fort on an artificial island by taking a Fort Sumter Tours ferry from Charleston.
Visitors can also explore Charleston through tours of the notable French Quarter area, horse-drawn carriage rides, and ghost and graveyard tours.
Columbia is South Carolina’s capital city and a thriving college town. According to the 2020 census, around 136,632 people call this city home.
Located in the center of SC, Columbia has multiple rivers, trails, and parks. It’s also a quick drive from nearby Lake Murray and Congaree National Park. This makes it the perfect place to enjoy some time outdoors, whether that means fishing, kayaking, camping, or just picnicking and going for a walk with the family.
Columbia also includes several notable museums and sites. Riverbanks Zoo & Garden has more than 2,000 animals and a botanical garden. The Columbia Museum of Art has an impressive permanent collection and various expositions and events throughout the year.
The Robert Mills House is a mansion and museum that dates back to 1823 and is a National Historic Landmark. The South Carolina State House is another important landmark and the current site the state government (SC General Assembly, Governor, and Lieutenant Governor).
Additionally, the University of South Carolina attracts students from all over the world to come live and study in Columbia. Its fall 2021 undergraduate enrollment was 26,864, and the university offers several master’s and professional programs.
North Charleston, SC
While many people consider North Charleston to be a part of the overall Charleston area, it’s in fact its own unique city that resides in three different counties (Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester). It had a population of about 114,852 during the 2020 census.
Because it’s just a quick 15-minute drive away from many of Charleston’s most in-demand attractions, North Charleston is a terrific place to use as a home base when exploring the coastal hub. It’s also calmer and less expensive than Charleston, making it a popular city to live in.
North Charleston also has many of its own things to do. The local Tanger Outlets center attracts shoppers to seek out great deals from national and designer brands. The North Charleston Fire Museum and Educational Center feature a series of interactive exhibits that teach the public about life as a firefighter.
The North Charleston Coliseum & Performing Arts Center, a part of the North Charleston Convention Center Complex, hosts popular concerts, sporting events, and theater performances. It’s also home to the Charleston International Airport, which has flights for both military and civilians. It’s the largest and busiest airport in the state.
Mount Pleasant, SC
Just a 20-minute drive from Charleston, another major city in the area is Mount Pleasant. This community of 90,801 residents (according to the 2020 census) is the place to go for seafood, museums, and charming downtown and waterfront areas.
The Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park is one of the area’s top attractions. It has a large playground and grassy area ideal for enjoying time outdoors, a pier with beautiful waterfront views, and a convenient gift shop and cafe.
The Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is the best place to go for a historical and educational experience. This complex features a museum, a Cold War Memorial, and National Historic Landmark Ships. It also has the World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown.
Foodies will want to take advantage of Mount Pleasant’s top seafood restaurants. The Shem Creek area has several restaurants and bars, many of which are open late to provide some of the area’s amazing nightlife.
Mount Pleasant is often recognized as one of the best places to live in Charleston County. It has top-notch schools, a low crime rate, several parks, and a suburban, family-friendly feel. The Historic District in particular offers picturesque homes, as well as several small shops and cafes.
Rock Hill, SC
Though it’s a big South Carolina city, Rock Hill is nestled in the northern part of the state and is often recognized as a part of the Charlotte, NC metropolitan area. The 2020 census recorded it as having a population of 74,372.
Old Town Rock Hill is the perfect place to explore and get to know the city. It has outdoor spaces such as Fountain Park and Glencairn Garden, restaurants and bars, art murals, shops, and the Center for the Arts. Special events in the Old Town area include a weekly farmers market and a monthly food truck event during the spring and summer months.
Any history buff or person interested in the stories and cultures of the area will see another unique side of Rock Hill. The city has notable museums including The Museum of York County and the Comporium Telephone Museum. Additionally, the nearby Historic Brattonsville area is where several Revolutionary War battles took place.
Along the Catawba River, just outside of Rock Hill, the Catawba Nation reservation has many trails and a cultural center and shop where guests can purchase handmade pottery and other objects. This is the state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe.
Also situated in the northern part of South Carolina, Greenville had approximately 70,720 residents as of the 2020 census. This city is best known for its outdoor spaces, museums, and university presence.
Many Greenville museums focus on art and history. The Greenville County Museum of Art features works by Southern artists and provides occasional events and exhibits. The Children’s Museum of the Upstate has activities for kids up to 15 years old and is the 10th largest children’s museum in the world. The Upcountry History Museum explores upstate South Carolina’s history and culture.
Many people also come to Greenville to experience the area’s beautiful nature and outdoor recreation opportunities. Unity Park is one of the newest spots in the area, complete with a splash pad, four playgrounds, and many spaces for picnics and events. In Downtown Greenville, Falls Park on the Reedy has many walkways and waterfalls in a convenient location.
Additionally, Paris Mountain State Park, just four miles north of town, is a popular state park that includes hiking trails, campsites, and lakes where visitors can go swimming and fishing.
Furman University, a small private liberal arts university, is also in Greenville. This academic institution’s presence brings many young people, as well as jobs and opportunities, to the community.
Summerville is a 35-minute drive away from Charleston, located further inland in the direction of Columbia. According to the 2020 census, it had 50,915 residents, and it’s best known for being the official birthplace of sweet tea.
Sweet iced tea is a staple in any authentically southern household, but especially in Summerville. This city celebrates its legacy as the hometown of sweet tea through the annual Sweet Tea Festival, an iconic sweet tea mural at the visitor center, and even a downtown monument that memorializes when the city created The World’s Largest Sweet Tea.
Visitors often enjoy checking out the “Sweet Tea Trail”, an informational scavenger hunt that explores the city’s sweet tea-related sites and many of the area’s top parks, businesses, and historical sites. Summerville isn’t all about sweet tea, though.
Its numerous outdoor spaces have given it the nickname “Flower Town in the Pines”. These include Azalea Park, Givhans Ferry State Park, the Ashley River Blue Trail, and Doty Park. To celebrate its beautiful nature, Summerville hosts an annual “Flowertown Festival”.
Despite being a large city with many businesses and amenities, Summerville does a great job of maintaining its small-town atmosphere. Its downtown shopping area is easily walkable, and the Historic District is full of enchanting, well-maintained old homes.
Goose Creek, SC
Goose Creek, also known as “The Creek”, is between Summerville and Charleston, giving it an ideal location for exploring many of the state’s most sought-after attractions. Its population at the 2020 census was 45,946.
Though it has not been proven, many people believe that the name “Goose Creek” comes from the shape of this city’s waterway. It has many sharp curves, which appear to resemble a goose’s neck.
This South Carolina city has a small-town, suburban vibe. Its business owners and residents welcome tourists to check out its hotels, restaurants, parks, and historical places, with open arms and southern hospitality.
Goose Creek is rich in outdoor recreation opportunities. Some of the most popular public parks are Central Creek Park, John McCants Veterans Park, and Dogwood Park, each of which has different amenities such as sports fields, playgrounds, and picnic tables. For those who like golfing, another popular place is the Crowfield Golf Club.
One of Goose Creek’s most notable sites is the national historic landmark of Saint James Church. It was built in the early 1700s, making it one of the earliest cases of Georgian church architecture.
Sumter is a city of roughly 43,463 residents (2020 census) sitting about an hour east of Columbia. It’s best known for its parks and nature and also has easy drives to some of the state’s best beaches and mountains within a couple of hours.
With dozens of local parks and playgrounds, outdoor recreation opportunities in Sumter are limitless. Poinsett State Park has cabins for camping and a lake where visitors can go canoeing and fishing. Cypress Trail is a natural-surface trail perfect for running, walking, and biking. Dillon Park is one of the city’s larger parks, complete with a 1-mile track and soccer, football, and baseball fields.
Nature lovers will also appreciate Sumter’s Swan Lake Iris Gardens. It is the only public park in the country to feature all eight species of swans, and it also has impressive Japanese Iris plantings.
The Sumter Opera House is the best example of the city’s thriving arts scene. This historic performance venue was built in 1894 and still offers different performances like concerts, movie screenings, and plays.
During your visit, check out the Sumter County Museum to learn more about the area’s history and legacy. This complex of various smaller museums shows what the architecture, businesses, and overall life in Sumter were like years ago.
Florence is a tightly-connected city northeast of Sumter dedicated to the arts, culture, and recreation. As of the 2020 census, Florence had just under 40,000 residents.
Downtown Florence is a hub of business and culture. It has several restaurants, shops, and hotels, making it a popular area for visitors. It’s also home to ten public art pieces, the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center. Downtown Florence is an official SC Arts Commission Cultural District due to these many artistic opportunities.
Another unique way to explore Florence is through its impressive trail system. The trails connect many parks, historic sites, and other attractions, making it the perfect way to enjoy some time outdoors while also seeing more of this Southern city.
You may prefer to learn about Florence’s art and history at the Florence County Museum. This family-friendly museum consists of several galleries and expositions
While in Florence, don’t miss out on the city’s many pecan-inspired delicacies. Because Florence is conveniently situated along the South Carolina Pecan Trail, pecans have greatly influenced much of the area’s cuisine. Whether you prefer a traditional pecan pie or some pecan-crusted fish, there are many ways to taste-test one of the region’s most important crops.
While these cities are rich in attractions and opportunities, they only begin to account for everything the state offers. During your next trip to South Carolina, be sure to check out several of the most populated destinations, as well as some beach towns, to fully experience the Palmetto State.