No longer a sleepy Southern backwater, South Carolina’s star is growing at a rapid clip, thanks to Charleston’s burgeoning culinary scene and the transformation of towns like Greenville and Beaufort into hip, cultural hubs. The state’s capital, Columbia, is home to the University of South Carolina a…nd anchors the Piedmont region. Rivers flow northwest to southeast into numerous lakes that dot the state, offering outdoor recreation and boating opportunities. Whether you’re teeing off on a golf vacation in Myrtle Beach or exploring the state’s small towns via back roads, the secret is out: South Carolina is ripe for discovery.
Geographically, South Carolina ranges from the barrier islands and pine forests of the coastal Lowcountry to the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in the Upstate. Expect temperatures in the 90s and above across the state during summer. In the winter, the subtropical climate of Charleston and Hilton Head brings mild, sunny winters that rarely reach freezing temperatures, even at night. Greenville experiences a full range of seasons, including a striking, fiery-toned autumn. In Charleston, tourism peaks in the spring, thanks to pleasant weather and events like the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, Charleston Wine + Food, and Spoleto, a three-week celebration of the arts held each May and June. Retreats like Lakes Keowee and Jocassee in the Upstate are busiest during the summer months.
Charleston is home to the state’s busiest airport, although Columbia, Greenville, and Myrtle Beach each have direct flights to locations throughout the East Coast. Locals frequently drive between cities to save on flights, since different airlines are represented at each. Public transportation is scarce in South Carolina, although Uber is popular in each major city. If you’re not staying in a central area or you plan to travel around the state, a car is a necessity.
The majority of visitors to South Carolina come for the coastal beaches, historic cities, and golf. In Myrtle Beach, it’s possible to tee off on a different world-class course each day for weeks, although the state’s most celebrated links are on Kiawah Island, a host to the PGA Championship. Charleston is the state’s culinary hub, and home to dozens of award-winning restaurants, chefs, and food personalities. Many visitors come here just to eat, filling in time with carriage tours and day trips to the neighboring beach communities. History buffs can’t miss a day trip to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, while further afield, numerous Civil and Revolutionary War sites and battlefields dot the state. For many, the state’s highlights lie at a roadside produce stand or BBQ joint along a country drive, or in idyllic small towns like Beaufort, Conway, and Aiken.
Seafood and barbecue reign supreme in South Carolina. The former is best enjoyed in the Lowcountry, where shrimp boats and oystermen still ply the waters, delivering their catch to be cooked and consumed soon after it leaves the sea. Although Charleston now has its share of raw oyster bars, the local bivalves are historically steamed over fire and served communally with melted butter or cocktail sauce. Barbecue here means pulled pork, smoked overnight. In the Piedmont, the indigenous sauce is mustard-based. Along the coast, you’re likely to find tomato- and vinegar-based options on the table, as well. In Charleston, Asian and international cuisines have gradually begun to take root and influence local menus. And each March, Charleston Wine + Food draws chefs and patrons from around the country, showing off the eclectic, energized culinary scene that the city has fostered.
Every small town in South Carolina seems to have an annual celebration for a local crop or cultural icon, be it grits, sweet potatoes, or bluegrass music, and each is unique and memorable in its own way. For more sophisticated entertainment, Greenville’s Peace Center is the Upstate’s hub for dance, symphony, and theater. Visual arts enthusiasts look to the Columbia Museum of Art’s seasonal exhibits, and the recently renovated Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston boasts one of the South’s most notable collections. Each May and June in Charleston, Spoleto Festival USA is an international affair, hosting U.S. debuts of operas, plays, and concerts from the world’s foremost artists.
Over 200 miles of beaches draw families to South Carolina each year, with Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head the most popular beach vacation destinations. In the former, you’ll find hundreds of attractions drawing you away from the sand, from Ferris wheels to go-kart tracks to putt-putt golf to helicopter rides, accompanied by all-you-can-eat buffets and massive outdoor shopping complexes. Hilton Head’s allure is more laid-back and focused on the beach and activities like tennis, golf, and swimming. A robust state park system also attracts families, from beachfront camping on Hunting Island to the scenic mountain trails at Table Rock and Caesars Head.
Like anywhere, you’ll feel like you're in the know when you manage to avoid the crowds. In Charleston, plan your downtown sightseeing for the morning, before the heat settles in, and scoot to Sullivan’s Island or Folly Beach after lunch to catch the afternoon breeze. Spoleto and the springtime festivals are an excellent time to visit the Holy City, but book accommodations well in advance, or stay at one of the neighboring beaches and commute 20 minutes into town for day trips and dinner. Columbia slows down and swelters in the mid-summer heat, and is best visited during the spring and fall when USC is in session and the city hums with activity (reserve a room early if you’re there on the same weekend as a USC football game). Greenville is pleasant all year, but comes alive in the fall when the surrounding mountains glow yellow and orange with the falling leaves.
Charleston alt-weekly and event listings: https://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/
Charleston news and events: http://www.holycitysinner.com/
Charleston food news: https://charleston.eater.com/
Columbia alt-weekly and event listings: http://www.free-times.com/
Greenville daily newspaper and event listings: https://greenvillejournal.com/
Myrtle Beach tourism site: http://www.visitmyrtlebeach.com/
Stratton Lawrence is a writer and editor based in Folly Beach, South Carolina, where he settled and started a family after roaming from New Orleans to New York to Rome to the California coast. He’s the author of Folly Beach in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, a co-author of two Fodor’s guides to Charleston and the Carolinas, and a regular contributor to Zagat and Thrillist. When he’s not writing about food, music, and travel, he’s performing his own acoustic songs, catching waves on his paddleboard, and hanging out with his wife—photographer Hunter McRae—and their infant son.