17 Jul 2023
Folks who come to Charleston have a lot to draw them here…. the history, the charm, the politeness of the people, the world-class food and shopping.
But unlike many other nice destinations around the world, it also has one special “ace in the hole” going for it - its close proximity to terrific beaches.
In this blog, I’ll cover some of the best Charleston SC beaches, all of which are an easy drive from downtown.
But first… a bit of exciting news.
Charleston is the Top Destination in America for the 11th year in a row!
Well, Charleston has done it again. We’ve been voted as the #1 place to visit in the entire United States. You’d think that after eleven years of the honor that it would get kind of old, but honestly it’s still pretty cool.
The accolade comes from the savvy readers of Travel + Leisure Magazine, and their annual World’s Best Awards survey. Voting for Best City is based on these six main criteria: sight/landmarks, culture, food, friendliness, shopping, and value.
Here’s what Travel + Leisure had to say about us… “Once again named T+L readers’ absolute favorite U.S. city, Charleston, also known as the Holy City, has the perfect combination of southern charm and city vibes. ‘This place is a destination to behold,’ gushed one reader.”
You can read the whole list of the top 15 here. Santa Fe got the second spot, and New Orleans third. And guess what - neither one has easy access to great beaches.
Charleston’s Beaches Are Islands
Charleston itself is centered on the historic peninsula, tucked within Charleston Harbor between the Cooper River and the Ashley River. In fact, there’s a funny local expression among old Charlestonians that this is “where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers converge to form the Atlantic Ocean.”
Although geographically that might be stretching it a bit, you can’t argue with their sentiment.
Charleston SC beaches are located on the barrier islands which line Charleston Harbor on either side - both to the east and to the west of the opening to the Harbor, where historic Fort Sumter is situated. Of course, Fort Sumter is where the Civil War officially began.
I’ll cover the barrier islands – and their beaches – in order, from east to west. By the way, all beaches in South Carolina are open to the public by law, although access to it may vary.
Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms is often what people first think of when they hear about Charleston SC beaches - and with good reason. Yes, Exclusive Properties is based here, and we might be a tad biased - but it’s an awesome beach island.
Of all the beaches, Isle of Palms has very best and largest selection of luxurious oceanfront rental homes. You can stay right on the beach itself. Wake up to sweeping ocean vistas, step right out to the sand and swim in the surf. Then head home – just steps away – and relax on the decks as you sip an evening cocktail.
The entire length of the island - all seven miles of it - borders the Atlantic Ocean and is made up of lovely walkable beach. A total of 57 different public access paths lead out to the beach.
Low tide is especially fun for riding bikes, exploring tidal pools and playing games on the sand. Apps are available to check the tide schedule. Tideapp is a good one; just search for Isle of Palms Pier. Also check our handy guide for renting gear for the beach.
The IOP beach is especially good for dog lovers. They have ample off-leash hours, depending on the season, and no special permit is required (just proof of rabies vaccine). The City of IOP has several rules to help make your visit enjoyable, like limiting the use of plastics and glass containers, fireworks and smoking. For more information, check out IOP beach rules.
Just one island over from IOP is Sullivan’s Island, which borders the entrance to Charleston Harbor. It’s a great place to watch all the massive ships – both cargo and cruise – enter Charleston. Sullivan’s has lots of history, including Fort Moultrie, which functioned from the Revolutionary War through World War II.
Sullivan’s has 2 ½ miles of beach to explore. You can access it by the “Stations,” or streets that end at the beach. These were named after the stops of the old trolley that ran about a century ago to the IOP.
Tips: the shortest beach walks (less than 500 feet): Stations 18, 19, 28 ½ and 30. Most scenic: Stations 18, 21 and 23. Handrails are located at Stations 18, 21, 26 and 29. Be sure to look at the UFO house at Station 28 ½.
Sullivan’s allow dogs on the beach, but you must purchase a special permit, even for a day. Read all about their beach rules here.
Folly is located on the west side of Charleston, and to get there, you’ll cross the Ashley River into West Ashley.
Folly Beach has its own unique vibe. It calls itself “The Edge of America,” and has a definite laid-back, bohemian, surfer vibe. Be sure to stop at McKevlin’s Surf Shop on Center Street for a taste of the local scene. Folly has plenty of fun watering holes and dining spots, and the beach itself is six miles long.
The main focal point on the beach is the massive Folly Beach Pier, which stretches 1,045 feet out over the Atlantic. It recently underwent a major renovation and is the site for many special events and activities like fishing. Don't forget to check out Folly’s beach guidelines on their website.
Kiawah & Seabrook
Although it’s a bit of a longer drive - figure about an hour or so from downtown Charleston, depending on traffic - Kiawah and Seabrook Islands also have great beaches. Both are barrier islands, most of which are private and gated, with luxurious homes and resort accommodations. You must be a homeowner/guest to visit.
But Kiawah does have a wonderful beach park that is actually part of the Charleston County Park System – Kiawah Beachwalker Park, on the west end of the island. And Seabrook is one of the few places on the East Coast where you can ride horses on the beach.
So when you come to the best destination in America, aka Charleston - be sure to check out a beach or two while you’re here.
All best, Lowcountry Lisa
your Isle of Palms vacation blogger