Experience the Culture
Coastal South Carolina harbors a treasure trove of cultural attractions. One unexpected gem is Atalaya, a Moorish-style castle located inside Huntington Beach State Park near Murrells Inlet. See the castle and original works by more than a hundred artisans at the annual Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival, in September. In historic Charleston, hear the stories behind sites such as Revolutionary and Civil War landmarks, antebellum mansions, and the City Market on a guided walking, horse-drawn carriage, or boat tour.
Best Bets: Atalaya’s sister site, Brookgreen Gardens, is located across from the state park and features the first public sculpture garden in the United States. Admission includes the Lowcountry Trail audio tour depicting daily life on the former Brookgreen rice plantation. Sip warm cider and see Brookgreen twinkle and glow during the gardens’s annual Nights of a Thousand Candles in December.
Insider Tips: Get a leisurely workout and a local’s view of South Carolina’s second oldest city (behind Charleston) on a three-mile Beaufort Running Tour. Celebrate the Sea Islands’s West African/Gullah Geechee culture at the annual Penn Center Heritage Days on St. Helena Island in November.
Don’t Miss: Head to Charleston’s world-renowned Spoleto Festival USA in May and June.
See the Cities
Urban adventures abound in every region of South Carolina. On the coast in Charleston, park at the official Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street. From here, you can explore the North of Broad historic district on foot or board CARTA’s (Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority) free hop-on, hop-off DASH Trolley. In the Midlands, downtown Columbia’s historic Congaree Vista, or Vista—a former industrial district and commercial railroad terminal—is the capital city’s upscale retail and entertainment hub. Greenville in the state’s western Mountains region has a revitalized downtown that’s easy to navigate on a Greenville Glides Segway tour.
Best Bets: Mid-April to early September, cheer for the home team at a Greenville Drive baseball game at Fluor Field (a miniature replica of Boston’s Fenway Park) or at a Columbia Fireflies game at the new (opened April 2016) Spirit Communications Park, named 2016 Ballpark of the Year by Ballpark Digest.
Insider Tips: In the Vista, buy flour, stone-ground grits, cornmeal, and other South Carolina grown and milled products at Adluh Flour, the state’s only remaining flour and cornmeal mill. Weather permitting, view the moon, planets, and stars during a Tuesday night observing session at the South Carolina State Museum Boeing Observatory.
Explore the Parks
Prehistoric wilderness, former plantations, and monumental sites all can be found in South Carolina’s national parks. In the Coast region, Fort Sumter National Monument marks the spot where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. The fort is only accessible by boats leaving from Liberty Square in Charleston or Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. In the Midlands, Congaree National Park boasts more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) of hiking trails and 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers) of boardwalk through timeless landscapes. Get out on the marked Cedar Creek paddling trail which passes through an old-growth forest containing some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. In the Mountains region, Kings Mountain National Military Park memorializes the battle between American separationists and Americans loyal to England on October 7, 1780, a turning point in the Revolutionary War.
Best Bet: All coastal routes lead through the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, celebrating the distinct culture and language that developed among slave-era West Africans and Central Africans on coastal rice plantations such as historic Snee Farm at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site.
Don’t Miss: Watch the 26-minute Battle for Kings Mountain introductory film shown every 45 minutes in Kings Mountain’s visitors center.
Hear the Music
Coastal South Carolina glides to the beat of beach music, an R&B and rock ‘n’ roll hybrid with the state's signature dance—the Shag. Marvel at the smooth moves of expert shaggers at North Myrtle Beach clubs such as Duck’s, Fat Harold’s, and OD Arcade and Lounge. In Charleston (namesake of the late-1920s dance craze), choose from more than 300 live-music venues. The Jazz Artists of Charleston events page lists upcoming jazz sessions at such places as the Charleston Music Hall and cozier confines like How Art Thou Jazz Lounge. In the northwest mountains region, catch local, regional, and national acts at the Peace Center in downtown Greenville. Groove to jazz and blues at Blues Boulevard, and kick it at The Blind Horse Saloon, Greenville’s old-school country music club. Travel I-26 to catch live performances several nights a week in the Midlands at places such as the Music Farm in Columbia and New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia.
Insider Tip: Built in 1881, the Newberry Opera House in the Midlands is worth a visit for the September-to-June performances and the French Gothic-inspired architecture.
Don’t Miss: Enjoy the Hagood Mill Music in the Mountains Series, every third Saturday of the month.
South Carolina cuisine has deep cultural roots and links to the sea. She-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, and upcountry shrimp and grits are found in the Blue Ridge Mountains region at Soby’s New South Cuisine in Greenville. From May to November, roadside stands sell boiled peanuts in places like Pelion in the Midlands near Columbia, where the South Carolina Peanut Party (celebrating 35 years in 2016) is held each August. In the food-rich Coast region, sample Low Country and Gullah Geechee dishes—such as fish chowder and sweet potato pie—at Gullah Grub Restaurant and Catering on St. Helena Island.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Best Bets: Charleston favorites serving authentic southern fare include Husk, where specials sometimes include South Carolina shrimp and grits; Hominy Grill, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and the Grocery, serving such dishes as roasted and fried okra and German butterball potatoes.
Insider Tip: For oysters by the shovelful, head to Bowens Island Restaurant, a no-frills, graffiti-covered fish camp in the marsh on James Island outside Charleston. Show up before the 5 p.m. opening time to avoid waiting an hour or so for a table.
Don’t Miss: Get grits—ground whole corn kernels or hominy—at the World Grits Festival in St. George in April 2017, or visit Geechie Boy Grits Market and Mill on Edisto Island where grits are ground in historic mills on the family farm. The store is only open Thursday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., in warm-weather months.
Start your epic Palmetto State adventure in the western Mountains region, where you can hike a portion of the challenging Foothills Trail. Sometimes called South Carolina’s Appalachian Trail, the route covers some 96 miles (154 kilometers) from Oconee State Park to Caesars Head State Park. In the Midlands, the 11-mile-and-expanding (18-kilometer) Three Rivers Greenway walking and biking path winds through the cities of Columbia, West Columbia, and Cayce. On the Coast, explore the Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area on Edisto Island, and Hunting Island State Park and the Hunting Island Lighthouse(the only lighthouse in South Carolina open to the public) on Hunting Island.
Best Bet: About 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Columbia, Dreher Island State Park abuts Lake Murray, which encompasses 78 square miles (200 square kilometers). Take a sunset sail on the lake with outfitters like Lanier Sailing Academy.
Insider Tip: Tourists flock to Hilton Head Island, but relatively few discover the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, 605 acres (245 acres) of prime Sea Pines Resortreal estate set aside as a permanent wilderness area open to the public.
Don’t Miss: Go wilderness canoeing (weekend rentals available March to November) through the cypress trees at Goodale State Park near Camden.