There are many things to love about Charleston, SC, but near the top of that list is the fact that there are five beautiful beaches within a relatively short driving distance from downtown. Each one of Charleston’s beaches has its own personality quirks, but common to all of them are stunning views and a relatively calm oceanfront.
Whether you’re just passing through or you’ve lived here for years, there is nothing quite like an afternoon spent on the beach. Locals have their favorite spots and often go back to the same beach, but tourists coming to town often wonder which is the best beach in Charleston.
Since Charleston’s beaches are all unique, deciding which one is best for you really comes down to how you’d like to spend your day on the beach. Charleston attracts all sorts of visitors, from people with families, to bachelorette parties and people wanting to drink, to history buffs, couples of all ages, and everything in between.
We’ve broken down the five beaches in Charleston below, giving our best local’s interpretation of each one and a few recommendations for the coolest things to do at each. Read on to learn more about Charleston’s wonderful beaches, in order from my personal favorite beach to my least favorite in the area.
Folly Beach, or the “Edge of America,” is the former sleepy, hippie beach town that still maintains plenty of its old charm, although it has become much more popular over the years.
Located on the James Island side of Charleston, it’s a short 20 minute drive from the city (if you’re lucky enough to not hit traffic), and takes the cake for my personal favorite beach in the area.
Folly is certainly the most hoppin’ beach in Charleston, so it’s the one I’d recommend if you were looking to walk around town doing some shopping and socializing. There are plenty of bars and restaurants out there and during the busy season there is always something to do, and it can also be quite the party spot.
Some of my favorite places to hang out on Folly Beach include the little beach bar and taco spot, Chico Feo, the quirky Jack of Cups Saloon, live music at Loggerheads, and breakfast/brunch at Lost Dog Cafe. My favorite bar downtown, The Royal American, has also opened a space on Folly Beach called The Bounty Bar, which I highly recommend.
On the way out to Folly Beach is an awesome seafood restaurant called Bowens Island that is 100% worth checking out, for the marsh views alone but also for the excellent fried seafood and laid-back atmostphere.
There are tons of beach house rentals in Folly Beach as well, so if you’re looking for an extended stay with a large group of people in the Charleston area, a Folly Beach house is always a good option.
If you’re looking to go surfing, Folly Beach is also the place for you. The waves aren’t exactly big, but they are definitely surf-able on a consistent enough basis for the beach to attract plenty of surfers.
There is also the Folly Beach Pier, located on the ocean right at front and center of Folly Beach. The pier is currently undergoing some much-needed renovations and is expected to reopen by the Spring of 2023. A friend of mine, Zach Ubaldini of Treetop Drone Creations, took some drone shots of the pier after it closed down and you can see it below.
The town of Folly Beach isn’t the only attraction on Folly, either. There is also plenty of sightseeing to do on Folly, including a place known to locals as “The Washout” (where the restaurant in town gets its name), or the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve.
Located all the way at the Northern tip of the island, all the way at the end of E Ashley Ave, you can drive out there and park your car, and then it’s about a mile walk to the end of the beach.
When you get there you’ll have the best view of the Morris Island Lighthouse that you can see without a boat, plus a generally-secluded beach and plenty of awesome marsh views to enjoy. As the oldest lighthouse in South Carolina, the Morris Island Lighthouse is truly a sight to behold.
Finally, Folly Beach is also a great spot to get out on the water. There are many options for boat charters and nature tours out there, and for those with a wilderness kick the marshy rivers are certainly worth exploring via boat or paddle board.
Of all the companies offering water tours of Folly, though, our favorite is Captain Johnny from Sail Folly. We highly recommend a sail with him on one of his 27 foot Stiletto catamarans. Learn more at sailfolly.com
See another drone shot of the Morris Island Lighthouse below, and enjoy your time at Folly Beach!
Sullivan’s Island is next up in Charleston’s beach guide, with an equally-appealing set of qualities. Located on the Mt. Pleasant side of Charleston, getting to Sullivan’s Island means driving over the Ravenel Bridge and taking Coleman Boulevard past the Old Village and Shem Creek until you reach the island.
The town of Sullivan’s Island is much smaller, though there are still several restaurants and bars out there that are worth mentioning, including Poe’s Tavern for burgers and The Obstinate Daughter for fine southern cuisine. This isn’t your party town, but is more on the quiet and upscale end of things in terms of the overall feel.
The houses on Sullivan’s Island are still mostly private residences, although there are still a few rentals to be found. Many of the homes are what you’d call beachfront mansions, with some being owned by old money, some by celebrities, and others by rich out-of-towners looking for a peaceful place to spend their free time. There’s even a famous hurricane-proof dome house.
If you’re looking to spend a relaxing day on the beach in a place that is still close to downtown Charleston and other things to do, then Sullivan’s Island is the place for you.
The beach is protected by the Charleston Jetties so the water is flat calm most of the time, with a tidal sandbar that allows you to walk out a good ways in knee deep water and find all sorts of shark’s teeth and sand dollars.
Sullivan’s Island is also the location of the historic Fort Moultrie, on the harbor side of the island. The fort is noted as the location of one of the first Colonial Victories of the American Revolution, and is free to walk around.
You can also get a good view of Fort Sumter, site of the first battle of the Civil War, if you walk down to the beach on the harbor side of the fort, giving you a good idea of what it would have been like to sail into Charleston Harbor in the 1800s.
Another attraction on Sullivan’s Island is the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse, which unlike the Morris Island lighthouse is still lit and functional. It was the last lighthouse built by the Coast Guard and it has a strange triangular design, which was experimental at the time.
As I mentioned earlier, Sullivan’s Island is also halfway between downtown Charleston and Shem Creek, which is definitely worth stopping into during your travels.
Shem Creek is where Charleston’s shrimping and fishing fleet makes its home base, and the dozen or so restaurants there offer fresh catch as well as a buzzing nightlife.
Isle of Palms
Located about twice as far from downtown as Folly Beach or Sullivan’s Island is the Isle of Palms, which has the most quiet feel of its two local siblings.
Still, though, the town of Isle of Palms has plenty of fun things to do including the local institution that is The Windjammer, one of the best music venues in Charleston and an awesome place to sip on some ice cold beverages.
Isle of Palms is where I’d recommend going if you’re looking for a little bit more seclusion than a downtown or Folly Beach getaway, but still want to be within an easy enough drive of downtown.
There are lots of beach house rentals and hotels to stay at here, including the Wild Dunes Resort that has two private golf courses and more.
The Isle of Palms Marina is also a good place to rent a boat or catch a fishing charter, as IOP offers some of the area’s most stunning natural views and wildlife areas.
There is also some surfing on Isle of Palms, and it is second in popularity for surf spots in Charleston. Most people surf at the break on the North side of the pier, but people also surf down by The Windjammer.
Located south of Folly Beach, about a 45 minute drive from downtown Charleston, Kiawah Island takes things up a notch further on the classy scale.
The island is mainly a private gated vacation resort, and is home of the famous the famous Ocean Course at the Kiawah Island Resort, site of the 2021 PGA Championship and many more professional golf outings.
Kiawah Island is the type of place that you can go and have everything taken care of for you, if that’s what you’re into.
Since it’s so far from downtown and is so exclusive it is not recommended to take a day trip out there but rather to treat it as a vacation spot in itself. It’s perfect for a romantic getaway but not exactly the place that I would recommend a group who is looking for a lively experience to seek out.
One thing to note about Kiawah Island that almost becomes another plus for Folly Beach is that it’s actually quicker to take a boat to Kiawah from Folly Beach than it is to drive out there.
Boat tours leaving from Folly often pull up on the beach on the North side of Kiahwah island, opposite the resort, where there is no development and nothing but salty marsh for miles. During the summer, this can be a very popular party spot.
Seabrook Island shares the private quality of Kiahwah Island, but it is more of a residential island than a place to take a vacation.
Like much of Charleston, Seabrook Island was formerly a mostly undeveloped space thats beauty has recently been discovered.
If you’re looking for a beautiful, quiet place to make your home or have a vacation home, Seabrook Island and its several gated beachfront communities are worth looking into.