South Carolina is a coastal state in the Southeastern region of the United States. Famous for being part of the original Thirteen Colonies and one of two Carolinas, the state is best known for its historic sites, beaches, diverse geography, golf courses, and southern cuisine.
An engaging destination, South Carolina is particularly popular with couples and families. Visitors can take their pick from a long list of activities that include lounging at the beach, historic sightseeing, games of golf, hiking, shopping, and dining.
Of the many towns and states in South Carolina, the ones that see the most tourists are Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Hilton Head Island. Columbia, the capital city, as well as the small city of Greenville also see their fair share of travelers.
Whether you’re planning the perfect family vacation or looking for a romantic getaway, South Carolina is filled with exciting adventures. So, grab your bags and get ready to be swept away by this charming Southern state.
Livin’ La Vida South Carolina
Visit South Carolina’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Palmetto State”
The European exploration of South Carolina began in 1540 with the Hernando de Soto expedition. Bringing new diseases, large numbers of Native Americans died after contact with European explorers. More than 100 years later in 1663, the land was given to eight proprietors by the English Crown.
These proprietors would become the first colony of the Province of Carolina. The first settlers moved to the port of Charleston just two years later in 1670. Consisting of mostly wealthy planters and their slaves, the colony relied on agriculture to feed the people and fuel the economy.
By 1712, the land of the Carolinas was split into two: North and South Carolina. After pushing back attacks by Native Americans, the settlers overthrew the proprietor’s rule. South Carolina became a crown colony ruled by the British Crown in 1719. When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, the state saw lots of fighting with more than 200 battles.
On March 26, 1776, South Carolina became the 8th US state. Continuing to rely on agriculture, South Carolina plantations relied on work from indentured servants and African slaves. Just before the start of the American Civil War in December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union.
In April 1861, the American Civil War officially began after Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor. With the economy in ruins, South Carolina became one of the poorer states in the US. Even after the end of the war and when the state had rejoined the Union, racial conflicts continued well into the 20th century.
It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 20th century that the local economy truly began to recover as cotton production began to fade because of mechanization. Diversifying its markets, South Carolina’s economy relies mostly on automotive manufacturing, agribusiness, aerospace, and tourism.
Capital City of Columbia
As of 2020, there were 136,632 people living in Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina. Often called “Cola,” Columbia’s official nickname is “Soda City”. Packed with dozens of attractions, the city is most famous for its art, gardens, parks, historic sites, and food. Often overlooked in favor of Charleston, travelers shouldn’t skip out on this fun capital.
While there are 85 neighborhoods in Columbia, however, not all of them have become tourist attractions. Popular for their historic value, shops, and restaurants, Elmwood Park, Five Points, and Downtown Columbia are hot spots for visitors. Home to the Governor’s Mansion, Arsenal Hill is another neighborhood popular for sightseeing.
Boasting stunning local gardens known for their designs and layouts, other top attractions in Columbia include the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden. Additionally, two homes that have received high praise for their gardens are the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Robert Mills House.
For art lovers, creativity can be found everywhere in the city. The Columbia Museum of Art has more than 25 galleries to explore, while the South Carolina State Museum has a mix of historical artifacts and art pieces.
Charleston, The Largest City in South Carolina
The largest city, with a population of 150,277 as of 2020, Charleston is easily the most well-known and visited city in the state. Situated just south of the midpoint of the South Carolinian coastline, Charleston Harbor is an important historical site that has been tied to the slave trade and the American Civil War.
History is an important part of the city’s identity, but in recent years, it’s become a renowned resort area. Downtown Charleston is a prime tourist spot where visitors can go on walking tours, ride in horse-drawn carriages, and take food tours to learn more about the local history and culture.
With antebellum architecture that evokes feelings of the past, many of the buildings have been preserved and are open to the public. Another busy spot in the city is Charleston Harbor. Still a functioning port, the harbor is a major tourist attraction. Visitors can go on a boat to see the harbor from the water or stay on land to explore the historic sites, shops, restaurants, and museums.
Fort Sumter and the South Carolina Aquarium are the most famous attractions in the harbor. However, with all that there is to see and do, travelers can easily plan a full-day itinerary based around the waterfront.
Myrtle Beach, “First in Service”
On the northern coast of South Carolina, Myrtle Beach is the state’s premier sandy spot that attracts more than 20 million visitors annually. Supporting a resident population of 35,682 as of 2020 and growing, more and more people are moving to this seaside city each year. Renowned for its 60-mile stretch of beach, the city also boasts 86 golf courses and 1,800 restaurants.
While beaches and golf are the city’s premier attractions, the list of activities is nearly endless. Shopping and dining are world-class and you can find places to suit any budget. For families on the East Coast, Myrtle Beach is often the go-to vacation destination. Thrilling water and amusement parts give adrenaline boosts, while Ripley’s Aquarium is friendly to visitors of all ages.
To a little bit of everything, travelers should head to the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. Often receiving national acclaim as one of the “best boardwalks in the US”, visitors should check out the Ferris wheel, state park, and Pier 14. There’s plenty of action at or close to the boardwalk and visitors who want to stay nearby can easily book beachfront accommodations just steps from the sand.
Hilton Head Island, A Lowcountry Resort Town
On the southern coast of the state, Hilton Head Island is a barrier island that features 12 miles of beaches. Much smaller than Myrtle Beach, this popular beach town has a population of 37,661 people as of 2020. During the summer vacation season, the population of the town can swell to 150,000. Overall, the island is a much quieter vacation destination when compared to the northern beaches.
Although the island of Hilton Head is rather small, there’s plenty to do during your visit. The pristine beaches are the premier attractions as many families hit the beach for some time in the sand and surf. Golfers will love the numerous courses, which feature world-class designs. Additionally, the island has miles upon miles of walking paths and bike trails.
Greenville, “Yeah, that Greenville”
Another lesser-known tourist spot, but one that is rapidly growing is Greenville. With the tourist slogan, “Yeah, that Greenville”, South Carolina’s city of Greenville sets itself apart. Of the more than three dozen places in the United States called “Greenville”, this one was the first of them all having been founded in 1786.
As of 2020, 70,720 people live in Greenville and more are moving each year, which is pushing the city to become one of the South’s fastest-growing cities. Technically a city, the tight-knit community makes Greenville feel like a small town.
Tourist attractions in the city include NOMA Square, the Greenville County Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum of the Upstate, the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, and the Falls Park on the Reedy.
There are literally hundreds of historical sites throughout South Carolina and they come in all sizes. However, a few of the state’s historic sites have become more famous than others. Tourists especially enjoy Fort Sumter, the Cowpens National Battlefield, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, and the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.
By far, Fort Sumter is the most famous out of them all and there are daily ferries that take tour groups to the island, which sits at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Built after the War of 1812, Fort Sumter became the site where the American Civil War began in 1861.
Access to the fort is controlled by the National Park Service and the only tour company that has been authorized to take guests is Fort Sumter Tours.
South Carolinian Beaches
Looking past some of the busiest beaches in South Carolina, there are hundreds of sandy spots along the state’s 2,870 miles of coastline. Beaches that are often called “hidden gems” include Kiawah Island, Pawleys Island, Huntington Beach State Park, and Sullivan’s Island.
Kiawah Island is predominantly private land, but there’s a stretch of sand that has been opened to the public. Called the Beachwalker County Park, visitors can view some of the beautiful beaches while also enjoying resort amenities, scenic bike trails, and the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Much more remote and less developed is Pawleys Island.
Lacking the heavy commercialization, visitors to Pawley’s Island can escape into nature. The beaches are pristine and close by, the Brookgreen Gardens include a 9,000-acre wildlife preserve and botanical garden. Like many beachside destinations, there is a golf course called the Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club.
Not the same Huntington Beach that you’re thinking of in California, the Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina is a small coastal community that includes a dog-friendly stretch of sand.
On land, a 2-mile network of trails is popular with hikers and bikers, while just off the coast, surfers and fishermen hit the waves. For the best eating, tourists should head to the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk, which includes a historic boardwalk.
More popular because of its close proximity to Charleston, Sullivan’s Island is a local hotspot for summer vacations. The white sand beaches and calm waters are perfect for swimming, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The island’s historical charm was even the inspiration for The Gold Bug, a short story by Edgar Allen Poe.
World-Class Golf Courses
Golf is a major sector of South Carolina’s tourism and there are more than 350 public and private courses throughout the state. Many are considered to be championship courses that have been designed by some of golf’s greatest architects.
Many courses are located by the sea, but upstate visitors can also bring their game to idyllic riverside settings. Myrtle Beach is called the “Golf Capital of the World”, but the truth is that most major cities and towns in the state will have at least one, if not multiple courses.
Some of the best golf courses are the Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, May River Golf Club in Palmetto Bluff, The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, True Blue Golf Club on Pawleys Island, Barefoot Resort & Golf in North Myrtle Beach, and the Daniel Island Club in Charleston.
Beyond the coastline, South Carolina has a diverse landscape that shifts from northern mountains to central plains and the Atlantic coastal plain. There are 7 national parks in South Carolina including the famous Congaree National Park, which is just outside of the capital city, Columbia.
Centrally located within the state, Congaree National Park protects 26,692 acres of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest. Not many visitors head to this national park, which means that those who do, won’t have to worry about massive crowds. Activities at Congaree include hiking, canoeing, kayaking, camping, and bird-watching.
During the summer, fireflies are often seen throughout the park. Other wildlife living in the forest include deer, bobcats, opossums, and racoons. Hikers often take the 2.4-mile-long Boardwalk Loop, but there are volunteer-led hikes that give visitors the opportunity to head deeper into the forest too.
South Carolinian Cuisine
As a Southern state, South Carolina’s cuisine includes plenty of dishes of fried chicken, barbecue, biscuits, peaches, and grits. Not a food, but a drink – sweet tea was famously invented in South Carolina’s Summerville area in the 1700s.
More unique dishes that visitors should taste on their trip to the state include the Lowcountry delight and Frogmore stew. Consisting of boiled corn, sausage, potatoes, and shrimp, the stew is a big meal that can be shared amongst family and friends.
Another Lowcountry dish is chicken bog, which is South Carolina’s version of chicken and rice. In Charleston, She-Crab soup uses tasty Atlantic blue crab to make a thick and flavorful fish stock. No matter where you find yourself, South Carolina’s cuisine will have your stomach growling, it smells that good.
“Smiling Faces. Beautiful Places.”
Known for its rich history, South Carolina is like a living museum. Just walking the streets, travelers are transported back in time. Yet, history has collided with modernity and among the old antebellum architecture, the state has plenty of new-age attractions.
Whether you’re looking to chase the past or enjoy the moment on a sandy beach, South Carolina is the perfect destination for a Southern getaway.