While the city itself—situated on a peninsula on Charleston Harbor—doesn't have beachfront, several nearby islands are just a short drive away. These offer plenty of coastline for visitors seeking sand and sun; hiking trails and nature preserves; and water-friendly recreational activities like boating, surfing, fishing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding.
From remote islands with unspoiled beaches and plenty of wildlife to laid-back surfer towns with killer waves and eclectic shops, there are a variety of beaches within an hour or two of the city.
So pack your beachwear, sunscreen, and flip flops and head to one of these seven best beaches in Charleston.
This tiny barrier island just 30 miles south of Charleston boasts some of the state's prettiest beaches, many of which are on private property. However, Beachwalker County Park on the island's southwestern side is open to the public. With 10 miles of shoreline, nature trails, ample beach chairs, umbrella rentals, outdoor showers, restrooms, a dressing area, a picnic area with grills, and a long boardwalk with a handicap-accessible ramp, the beach makes a perfect getaway for the whole family. Note there is an entry fee, which ranges from $5-10 depending on the season.
Kiawah Island is renowned for its golf courses; the most famous of these is the Ocean Course at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which offers 18 holes of scenic oceanfront golf. Not into the links? Indulge in a facial or massage at the resort's onsite spa at The Sanctuary Hotel. Here, you'll also find the island's best restaurant, the Ocean Room, an elegant steakhouse with a wine list 1,000 bottles deep.
Just 50 miles south of Charleston, this sea island is less commercially developed than its peers and offers a low-key beach experience that's perfect for families. Get free public beach access at Edisto Beach State Park, which includes four-and-a-half miles of sandy coastline, four miles of hiking and biking trails, an 18-hole golf course, and campsites and cabin rentals for those wanting a longer stay.
Take a boat tour or charter to explore local wildlife; during mating season, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, which can be spotted in the Atlantic waters. The Edisto Island Museum is small but offers insight into the island's rich history, including an exhibit dedicated to the native Edisto tribe, the remains of a slave cabin, and Civil War artifacts. Get up close with snakes, frogs, alligators, iguanas, and other local reptiles at the Edisto Island Serpentarium.
A mere 15-minute drive from Charleston, the six-mile-long Folly Beach is easily accessible from the city. Surfers from across the globe flock to Folly Beach for its Atlantic Ocean locale and killer waves, particularly an area known as "The Washout."
More relaxing recreational activities abound as well, including stand-up paddleboarding; swimming at Folly Beach County Park; and fishing at the barrier island's iconic 1,045-foot-long pier, the second longest on the Atlantic coast.
The rest of the island is comprised of eclectic shops and restaurants. Try local favorite Bowen's Island Restaurant, which serves local Low Country fare like fried shrimp, fresh oysters, and Frogmore Stew.
Just 20 minutes from downtown Charleston, Sullivan's Island is ideal for a quick beach day getaway. Soak up the views as you traverse the iconic Ravenel Bridge to the island, which has three miles of pristine coastline. When you get there, rent a bike or try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking on the Intracoastal Waterway. Later, visit Fort Moultrie, a former military fortification originally built with the palmetto logs that inspired the South Carolina state tree.
No trip to the island is complete without stopping into Poe's Tavern, an outdoor café named after writer Edgar Allen Poe, who was once stationed at Fort Moultrie. Or try The Obstinate Daughter, which serves pizzas, small plates, and pastas all inspired by seasonal, Low Country ingredients.
Pro tip: The island is popular with locals and only offers street parking. Plan on hitting the beach early to grab a prime spot and beat the crowds during peak season.
Isle of Palms
With its lush marsh creeks and seven miles of beaches, Isle of Palms has long been a go-to beach destination for locals and visitors alike. Just 30 miles from Charleston, the barrier island is populated with several family-friendly resorts offering golf, tennis, swimming, kayaking, and other fun outdoor activities.
If you're not staying on the island, head to Front Beach on Ocean Boulevard between 10th and 14th Avenues for public beach access, parking, restrooms, and several shops and restaurants. Go-to eateries include the seafood-centric Long Island Cafe and laid-back breakfast spot Sea Biscuit Cafe. For live music, head to the Windjammer, an adults-only escape with oceanfront views and plenty of tropical drinks.
The island is also home to several endangered species like the loggerhead sea turtles. If you're lucky enough to visit during hatching season, you'll catch a glimpse of baby turtles making their way from their beach nests to the ocean.
For an unspoiled, natural retreat, head to this remote 5,000-acre barrier island located approximately 30 minutes north of the city. Accessible via private boat or daily ferry (only during the summer), Bulls Island has over 16 miles of trails and seven miles of sandy beaches. It's truly perfect for hiking, biking, birdwatching, and getting up close with loggerhead sea turtles and other marsh creatures.
Don't miss "Boneyard Beach," an eerie cluster of tree skeletons. Located on the island's north tip, the trees—formerly a forest—lost their leafiness due to erosion. Also worth a visit is the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which houses nearly 300 species of birds, 24 types of reptiles, black fox squirrels, and white-tailed deer.
Hilton Head Island
While a bit further away than Charleston's other beaches, Hilton Head Island is worth the two hour drive. The small sea island town has something for everyone: 13 miles of sandy beaches; more than 60 miles of bike trails; award-winning dining; shopping; and recreational activities like golf, zip lining, kayaking, and tennis. Park your car for free at one of the public access points like Coligny Beach.
Other island highlights include the Coastal Discovery Museum—a 68-acre property with trails, gardens, butterfly displays, and other exhibits dedicated to natural history—and the candy-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse.
When you've wrapped up your day, soak in waterfront views while enjoying fresh-caught bivalves on the half shell, shrimp, and other seafood specialities at the Old Oyster Factory.