Photo by Lisa Hendrickson/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Explore Charleston
A main attraction in Charleston, the Angel Oak is thought to be thousands of years old.
From historic gardens and handsome parks to fascinating museums and charming markets, here’s what to see and do in the Palmetto State.
South Carolina is a geographically diverse, purely Southern state that abounds with natural beauty. In the capital city of Columbia, everything from exceptional dining and captivating history to outdoor adventure awaits, drawing families with the promise of the perfect getaway. Farther south, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head offer Carolina coastal living at its finest, while Charleston and transformed towns like Beaufort and Greenville boast exciting cultural scenes.
Whether you visit for the parks and gardens, the historical landmarks, or the delicious food, you’re guaranteed a good time in the Palmetto State. Below, we’ve rounded up our favorite things to do across South Carolina to help you plan an unforgettable trip.
The 170-acre Riverbanks Zoo and Garden combines world-class animal exhibits, natural riverfront scenery, and a vast botanical garden into one of South Carolina’s finest attractions. Over 2,000 animals live here, spread across a bird sanctuary, reptile complex, and exhibits dedicated to Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. There are also ruins and interpretive exhibits dating back to the Civil War era. Families can fill a day with such kid-friendly attractions as a train ride, a carousel, a ropes course, and pony rides.
Few old-growth forests remain in the United States, making this swampy wonderland—located 30 minutes southeast of Columbia—ripe for exploration. There are miles of hiking trails, but the best way to see Congaree National Park is via canoe or kayak, either on a day trip or an overnight camping excursion along Cedar Creek. Ranger-guided tours are highly recommended—just check the website to see when registration opens and call immediately, as groups fill up quickly. Should you prefer to explore on solid ground, walk the elevated boardwalks through the watery forest, observing the perfect reflections of cypress and tupelo trees in the park’s still black water.
A National Historic Landmark, Brookgreen is consistently ranked among the top public gardens in the nation. Attractions include the country’s largest figurative sculpture collection (with over 2,000 works), plus a zoo and aviary filled with native Lowcountry species. There are also pontoon boat rides and overland excursions to explore the surrounding marsh and coastal forest habitat. Different plant species bloom in the gardens year-round, but the flowers are most colorful and dramatic in the spring.
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This sprawling outdoor shopping complex can fill days of family fun time with its size and scope, with over 75 stores spread throughout an amusement park that includes thrill rides, a zip line, a mini golf course, go-karts, and a Ripley’s aquarium. Broadway at the Beach is also home to name-brand restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe and Margaritaville, plus dance clubs and comedy and theater shows in the evening. In the summer, guests here can look forward to regular fireworks shows on Tuesday and Friday nights.
Located on Charleston’s Battery, the historic White Point Garden is surrounded by beautiful, grand mansions. Come here with a packable hammock to hang from the ample trees and relax for a while, enjoying sweeping views of Charleston Harbor. The park is also a great place to end a walking or biking tour of the South of Broad district, perhaps with a picnic lunch from nearby Burbage’s Grocery. Just know that there are no public bathrooms here, so plan accordingly before heading to the neighborhood.
When it comes to the Angel Oak’s age, estimates range wildly from 300 to 2,000 years. What everyone can agree on, however, is the tree’s immense beauty—its sprawling canopy shades 17,000 square feet of ground, its trunk measures 25 feet around, and its giant limbs reach up to 90 feet long. Located in a small, city-owned park that’s open daily and free to visit, it’s a perfect spot for a picnic or a welcome detour en route to Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island. While the Angel Oak’s heavy branches descend invitingly to the ground, resist the urge to climb them—it’s against the rules, and locals are serious about protecting this natural treasure for centuries to come.
Middleton Place exists because of slavery—a stark reality that’s acknowledged in exhibits throughout the sprawling plantation. Today, however, the site is a place to spend a day or a weekend. Just stroll through the 65 acres of landscaped gardens (the oldest in the nation) and you’ll quickly understand why this is one of the South’s most sought-after wedding venues. During your visit, tour the house museum and learn from costumed actors who teach the crafts once practiced here by slaves, including pottery, blacksmithing, and weaving. Then head to the on-site restaurant, which serves upscale Southern cuisine, or the adjacent inn, where you can escape the modern world in view of the Ashley River.
For many Charlestonians and tourists, every Saturday is spent in Marion Square at the market. Here, farmers from nearby John’s and Edisto islands sell their fresh vegetables, while artists hawk their work and a guitar player keeps the crowd entertained. Students nursing hangovers wait in line at the Charleston Crêpe Company stand and children play on inflatable slides. Grab some food from the assortment of French, Greek, Cajun, Spanish, Italian, Southern, German, and Indian cuisine on offer, then find a nice spot in the shade to eat and people watch.
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Just 15 minutes from Beaufort, St. Helena Island is home to the Lowcountry’s most active and vivid Gullah culture—thanks, in part, to the historic Penn School. One of the nation’s first schools for freed slaves, the Penn Center is now the cornerstone of the Reconstruction Era National Monument, complete with a museum and gift shop. After exploring the site, be sure to stroll the surrounding grounds, idyllic under a canopy of live oak trees.
The beachfront Hunting Island State Park, located less than 30 minutes from Beaufort, features camping sites, hiking trails, ample fishing spots, and a functional lighthouse. Bike rentals are also available just before the bridge onto the island, but pack a picnic lunch and beach chairs if you visit for the day. On the island’s north end, a short walk leads to a boneyard beach of fallen trees and crashing waves, offering solitude and serenity, with pelicans cruising overhead. Be sure to watch the tide chart though—the beach is wide at low tide but can be nonexistent at high.
If you’re enraptured by the beauty of the South, you’ll love this Beaufort gift shop, where the pages of Garden & Gun magazine seem to come to life. The open design at Scout Southern Market invites shoppers to explore the assortment of bespoke, Lowcountry-inspired items on offer, from pantry staples to tools for entertaining with style. Pick out a new bow tie, grab a shucker for your next oyster roast, or stock up on unique gifts for your family and friends.
For the many who visit Hilton Head year after year, spotting the Harbour Town Lighthouse means vacation has officially started. With 114 steps to the top, the structure is tall enough to offer great views of Hilton Head but is still climbable for families with young kids. The lighthouse also features a museum that highlights fun facts (did you know it’s looked after by one of the few female lighthouse keepers in the country?) as you ascend. A gift shop at the top sells an extensive collection of models and books. Try to visit on a cool day with few crowds, as the interior isn’t air-conditioned, then spend the rest of the day visiting the surrounding shops, restaurants, and beach.
Located a little off the main drag in Hilton Head, the family-friendly Coastal Discovery Museum boasts everything from resident Marsh Tacky horses and a butterfly garden to art exhibits and lectures on the healthy population of loggerhead sea turtles that nest along the nearby beach. Guests here can also look forward to meet and greets with a juvenile alligator, sweetgrass basket weaving classes, and guided tours of the adjacent salt marsh. It’s a full-day experience set in a gorgeous locale.
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>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to South Carolina
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