The Palmetto State contains many surprises. It’s the first state to open a library (1698), and its state fruit is the peach – it produces even more than Georgia. But beyond what you may not know about this coastal state, South Carolina has plenty of what you would expect, from historic estates and cultural tours to gorgeous shorelines and its ever-present oak trees. It’s a state that blends old and new, land and sea.
For everything you plan to do in South Carolina, whether it’s golf, a stroll through manicured gardens or a day at the beach, seek out something new; maybe it’ll be a trolley ride through a tea plantation or a kazoo factory tour. Take some time away from the city – Charleston or Columbia – to tour an African village or spend a day learning about Gullah culture. You can also set off from the mainland to visit one of South Carolina’s many islands, where a centuries-old oak or the brief home of a famous author may await you.
With hundreds of years of history and postcard-perfect landscapes, South Carolina has something surprising in store for any traveler.
Charleston’s Historic District
Many of the sites and landmarks pivotal to South Carolina’s story are clustered together in the historic district of Charleston. The Heyward-Washington House at 87 Church St. is notable because it was built in 1772 as the Georgian-style town house of Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The “Washington” part of the name comes into play because none other than President George Washington used the home for a weeklong stay in Charleston in 1791.
Meanwhile, the Aiken-Rhett House was built in 1820, and remains one of the best-preserved town house complexes in the country. In addition to its architecture, the attraction is also notable because it was home to a number of enslaved people. Visitors today can gain a better understanding of the conditions that enslaved workers lived in; original paint, floors and fixtures remain from the 1850s. Recent patrons of the Aiken-Rhett House praise its emphasis on the slave experience, saying that having the full context made the visit more meaningful.
Even the hotels here are historic. In 1852, a wholesale grocery business at 181 Church St. became the largest of its kind in the South, and its founder brought in his first store clerks as partners. That location is present-day Hotel Emeline, which features its own archive on display spanning collections from 1920 through World War II, as well as a coffee shop named Clerks.
Don’t miss a stroll through the White Point Garden in the heart of historic downtown. Views of Fort Sumter and the harbor can be seen among the park’s old oaks and Civil War cannons and monuments.
Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is home to the oldest bottomland hardwood forest in North America, and that means its biodiversity is astonishing, from its endangered indigo snakes and red-cockaded woodpeckers to its massive loblolly pines. Across its 20,000 acres, there are more than 25 miles of hiking trails, including 2.4 miles of boardwalk that wind over the Congaree floodplain. A marked canoe trail invites visitors to kayak or canoe their way through the park along Cedar Creek. More adventurous and experienced paddlers can take on the Congaree River Blue Trail, a designated 50-mile recreational paddling trail that stretches from Columbia to Congaree Park. The park’s physical address is in Hopkins and it’s free to enjoy.
There are many historic homes across the Palmetto State, but Drayton Hall has the distinction of being the oldest unrestored plantation home in America, dating back to 1738. The structure, which homed seven generations, has been stabilized rather than restored to its period decor. Founder John Drayton’s wealth largely came from his 100 plantations and the enslaved people who worked them, estimated to have numbered in the thousands and included Native Americans. Visitors have noted that despite ongoing preservation-related construction, the archaeologists who work excavation sites at Drayton are fascinating to talk to.
Drayton Hall takes advance reservations for the main house tour − a self-guided audio tour that requires you to bring your own earbuds, or they can be purchased on the grounds for a fee. For an additional charge, hourlong interpreter-led house tours are available each operating day; online reservations are required.
Address: 3380 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414
Tour an African village
Covering 27 acres in Seabrook, the Oyotunji African Village is populated by families representing the Yoruba and Dahomey cultures of Nigeria and West Africa. The village, located in the woods, was founded in 1970 by “King” Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I (born Walter Eugene King). Referred to as Oba Waja, he was initiated into the Orisa-Vodun priesthood in Cuba in the 1950s. At this unique community, which seeks to celebrate and educate visitors on the cultural practices and societal contributions of these African tribes, you’ll find monthly festivals, historical documents, original art and more. You can schedule village tours, which last up to an hour, through the OAV website, for an additional fee, with discounts for kids and groups of 10 or more.
Address: 56 Bryant Lane, Seabrook, SC 29940
Touch an ancient oak tree
John’s Island is the largest island in South Carolina, and most of it lies within the jurisdiction of Charleston County. On the island there is a must-see oak tree that predates the Declaration of Independence. The Angel Oak is a Southern live oak tree that is believed to be at 300 to 400 years old. That means it’s estimated to have been around since at least 1620. It stands nearly 67 feet tall with its longest branch extending about 187 feet and is known as “A Lowcountry Treasure.” No trip to South Carolina is complete without a picture of the state’s grand oak trees, and the Angel Oak is one of a kind.
Address: 3688 Angel Oak Road, Charleston, SC 29402
Myrtle Beach is known nationwide as a soft-sanded, family-friendly beach vacation that’s home to 60 miles of coastline. It’s also known for its golf and is often considered a contender for the title of “Golf Capital of the World.” Myrtle Beach offers approximately 90 golf courses to choose from, with consensus from top golf publications that the courses are convenient and affordable. Dunes Golf and Beach Club has stunning ocean views and is consistently rated one of the top golf courses in the country.
Huntington Beach State Park is a gorgeous place in Myrtle Beach to take a walk or bird-watch – it’s considered one of the best birding locations in the state. Among the park’s waters and wildlife lies an unexpected estate: Atalaya Castle was the winter home of the Huntington family who lived on the grounds in the ’30s. The Friends of Huntington Beach State Park host tours of the estate March through May.
Channel Edgar Allan Poe on Sullivan’s Island
People often associate horror writer Edgar Allan Poe with the New England settings of many of his stories, but you may not know Poe was a college dropout who joined the military and briefly found himself on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, in 1827. He only lived on the island for 11 months, but both the place and the man left a lasting impression on each another. In Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” he says Sullivan’s Island “consists of little else than the sea sand and is about three miles long.” Today, Sullivan’s Island remembers the author with his namesake Poe’s Tavern. Open daily, the tavern serves sandwiches with names like “Raven” and “Pit & Pendulum.” Stop in, have a drink and soak in a tiny slice of little-known literary history.
Wander the oldest landscaped gardens in the country
(Courtesy of Middleton Place)
First landscaped in 1741, the gardens at Middleton Place are still lovely to walk, but the grounds now provide a framework for the 280 years of history since. This National Historic Landmark in Charleston consists of a house museum; the slaves’ quarters, called Eliza’s House; working stable yards; and of course, 65 acres of gardens, which were inspired by Versailles. The three components of the house at Middleton Place were burned two months before the end of the Civil War, but have been restored and were opened as a house museum in 1975. In the years since, the curators have worked to incorporate the history of those who lived and worked on the grounds, in addition to the Middleton family. A 10-year research project commissioned by the Middleton Foundation recovered the names and stories of more than 2,800 enslaved people owned by the family over the course of 127 years.
There is a fee to access the gardens, with discounts available for students and children. If you stay at The Inn at Middleton Place, admission to the grounds is free.
Address: 4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414
Try honey fried chicken from Yogi Bear
Yogi might have been “smarter than the average bear,” but his once-thriving fried chicken chain is down to just one location, and it can be found in Hartsville, South Carolina. In 1962, Gene Broome was the largest independent restaurant owner in the state, starting four national franchises, which later included Yogi Bear’s, based around Broome’s own recipe for honey-flavored fried chicken. But Hardee’s interest in the chain eventually led Broome to sell it, and reports claim that once Hardee’s had its honey additive, expansion of Yogi Bear’s halted and the other franchises fell into disrepair.
Anyone craving that honey chicken today can still purchase a “Picnic Basket” of chicken or an individual “Boo Boo Basket.” Adventurous diners can order fried liver and gizzards, as well.
Address: 14 S. Fifth St., Hartsville, SC 29550
Learn about Gullah culture on Hilton Head Island
There’s more to Hilton Head Island than golf courses and beaches. This small island is home to a community of Gullah people, who are the descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia to work on plantations. Their culture – including their Creole language and traditions – is still being preserved today. Descendants remain scattered across the Southeast coast, including South Carolina’s low country islands. The area between Pender County, North Carolina, and St. Johns County, Florida, is referred to as the “Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor” and it encompasses a variety of places significant to the Gullah Geechee people. Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, which begin and end at Hilton Head’s Coastal Discovery Museum, provide an authentic look into the modern-day Gullah way of life, as well as exposure to the language and customs of this South Carolinian community. Beyond Hilton Head, Charleston’s McLeod Plantation Historic Site, once a cotton plantation, is one of many estates strongly associated with the emergence of Gullah culture in the low country.
While you’re touring local homes, be on the lookout for “haint blue,” a color painted on the ceiling of porches and believed by the Gullah to ward off evil spirits – it’s particularly abundant throughout Beaufort. And if you’re visiting Hilton Head in February, consider attending the annual Gullah Celebration festival.
Fort Sumter National Monument
The Civil War began with shots fired on the garrison of Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Today, visitors can learn about what led to the war with a tour of the National Historical Park; the site is a must-visit for history buffs, according to recent travelers. But first, you’ll have to board a boat to get to Sullivan’s Island, where Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie are located. Fort Sumter Tours is the authorized concessioner of the National Park Service and operates ferry rides to the grounds, which include free ranger-led tours and a ride around the harbor on the return. Boats depart daily from Charleston or Mount Pleasant, and there are discounts for seniors, military members and children.
Address: 1214 Middle St., Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482
Learn the history of the kazoo and make your own
When you think of things associated with South Carolina, kazoos are probably not the first thing to come to mind. However, in Beaufort, visitors will find one of the largest public collections of the buzzing musical instrument on the grounds of The Kazoobie Kazoo Factory. America’s only plastic kazoo factory is proud of its product, with the museum, tours, a gift shop and a chance to make your own kazoo. Kazoobie was founded by Rick Hubbard in 1997 – Hubbard was a musician and gave away nearly a million kazoos during his lifetime at his traveling shows and became known as “The King of Kazoo.”
Recent visitors to the factory say it’s a great experience for the young and young at heart. Tours are offered for a fee and last up to an hour; visits to the museum and gift shop are free.
Address: 12 John Galt Road, Beaufort, SC 29906
South Carolina State Museum
(Courtesy of South Carolina State Museum)
In Columbia – the state’s capital – visitors will find an homage to all things South Carolina at this museum. Exhibits, along with a show in the planetarium, highlight the Apollo 16 lunar mission. South Carolinian astronaut Charles Duke is still the youngest person who has ever walked on the moon when he did so in 1972 at 36 as part of the Apollo 16 mission. Other state-centric exhibits include rotating displays on South Carolina history and a variety of topics. What’s more, the permanent exhibits span prehistoric fossils, the Civil War, the Black experience throughout history and more. A trip to the on-site 4D interactive theater is one of the many features at the museum that will maintain kids’ interest.
The South Carolina State Museum has general admission tickets and combination tickets can be purchased to include the planetarium and 4D theater.
Address: 301 Gervais St., Columbia, SC 29201
Visit one of the only tea plantations in North America
The majority of the world’s tea comes from the delicate plants of China and India; North American tea is rare. One of the very few places it does grow is in South Carolina. Visit the Charleston Tea Garden, one of the only tea plantations on the continent, located on Wadmalaw Island just a few miles south of Charleston. The small island dates back to 1666, when it was claimed for the English. Today, 127 acres of the island are dedicated to growing 320 varieties of black and green tea. The property was purchased by the Bigelow Tea Company in 2003 and visitors today can take a free tour, ride a trolley through the fields or have a picnic under ancient oaks – accompanied by some tea, of course. Recent visitors said they found the tea-making process surprisingly interesting and insist on not skipping the trolley tour.
Tea lovers visiting the Charleston area might also enjoy Summerville, which is located about 25 miles north of Charleston and is the self-proclaimed birthplace of the South’s famous sweet tea. Summerville takes its sweet iced tea seriously, with a trail that passes murals and Mason, the world’s largest sweet tea that can hold more than 2,500 gallons. Sweet tea cocktail bar crawls are held throughout the year, and the annual Sweet Tea Festival takes place each September.
Address: 6617 Maybank Highway, Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487
Explore the state parks and waterfalls of the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains run through South Carolina, with the state’s highest point at 3,560 feet on Sassafras Mountain. Located about 25 miles northwest of Greenville on the border of North Carolina, the mountain gets its name from the sassafras trees that grow on its lower slopes. South Carolina is home to eight stunning state parks that feature the natural beauty of this iconic mountain range across 17,000 protected acres and seen along 100 miles of the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway, also known as Highway 11. These parks include Lake Hartwell State Park in Fair Play and Table Rock State Park in Pickens. Hiking trails at most of these parks not only feature lakes and mountain views, but also waterfalls. Carrick Creek Falls can be found at Table Rock, and Rainbow Falls is located in Jones Gap State Park in Marietta. Fishing and camping are common pursuits year-round at the parks along the Blue Ridge Mountains. For peak fall colors, consider visiting in October.
Catch a game at the Fenway-inspired Fluor Field
Head downtown to catch a Greenville Drive game, a High-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. This minor league baseball team takes its affiliation seriously, and even the ballpark, known as Fluor Field, is designed to resemble Boston’s historic Fenway Park. Complete with its own Green Monster and Pesky’s Pole – iconic structural features of Fenway – Fluor Field welcomes fans to enjoy the nation’s pastime from April through September. At least one week of home games is scheduled every month in Greenville.
Address: 945 S. Main St., Greenville, SC 29601