Dreamy Folly Beach is only a 20-minute drive from downtown Charleston © Daniela Duncan / Getty Images
Charleston is justly famous for its carriage rides, historic homes and trendy oyster bars – but don’t forget to pack your bathing suit, too.
A launchpad for beachgoers ready to enjoy some of South Carolina’s finest beaches, the city is located within easy distance of five barrier islands scattered across Charleston County and the neighboring Lowcountry. A short drive from downtown will have you sunbathing, swimming and beachcombing along the Atlantic Ocean in no time.
These scenic islands are also bordered by creeks and marshes teeming with wildlife, and paddlers of all ages can take to the calm inlets to explore gentle Lowcountry landscapes. (Eco-minded local policies focus on keeping the beaches pristine and protecting coastal wildlife – so be sure to keep your plastic containers at home, and don’t disturb the loggerhead turtles.)
Cyclists are spoiled for choice too, with hard-packed sand, maritime forests and shaded small-town streets at the ready for two-wheeled explorations. And you can actually look forward to changing out of your suit at the end of a sunny day: the restaurants that line the coast are some of the best in the region.
Here’s is our guide to the best beaches near Charleston.
A memorable sunrise at Folly Beach Pier © Robert Loe / Getty Images
Join festive sunseekers at Folly Beach
If sunshine, broad shores and a festive beach-town vibe are your style, then the delightfully named Folly Island will be your happy place. Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Folly River 10 miles south of downtown Charleston, this narrow barrier island has 6 miles of oceanfront for sunbathing, swimming, fishing and surfing.
To enjoy public restrooms, outdoor showers, seasonal lifeguards, a snack bar and beach chair rentals, stake a claim at Folly Beach County Park, at the far west end of the island. There are several surf spots along the entire oceanfront; the best and most well known is the Washout. Guided boat and kayak tours explore the inlets, marshes and tidal creeks along the Folly River, all home to a diversity of wildlife. Restaurants, bars and shops line Center St, a fun place to catch live music and cut a rug after the sun goes down. Although the 1000ft-long Folly Beach Pier is currently closed as it undergoes major reconstruction, you can look forward to fishing, promenading and scanning for birds on a brand-new pier come 2023.
At the mouth of Charleston Harbor, the beach on Sullivan’s Island offers low-key family fun © Daniela Duncan / Getty Images
Look forward to a chill beach day at Sullivan’s Island
For a few hours of decompression, drop your chair on the sand right here. Directly south of Mount Pleasant at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, the broad beach on Sullivan’s Island isn’t usually crowded.
This tranquil beach is low-key, with no commercial activities permitted (although you might see kite surfers skimming across the water). You’ll also be swimming at your own risk since there are no lifeguards on duty at any time. Loggerhead turtles nest on the beach from mid-May through October, and plastic, polystyrene and glass containers are banned in order to protect the fragile natural ecosystem.
You won’t find a raging beach party scene on the adjacent streets, but you are within a short walk of several great restaurants perched along Middle St. For fantastic barbecue visit Home Team BBQ. Locally beloved High Thyme serves up fresh seafood and Southern-comfort fare.
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Head to Isle of Palms for family fun in the sun
If you’re looking for family fun in the sun, consider driving 12 miles to the Isle of Palms beach, a pretty, 7-mile swath of sand on a small barrier island east of Charleston and adjacent to Sullivan’s Island. Isle of Palms County Park overlooks the beachfront, which has an ocean swimming area monitored by lifeguards in warmer months. The park also has a playground, a volleyball court, restrooms and outdoor showers; ice cream and other snacks are for sale seasonally. Active families can bike along the beach or on the island’s shaded roads, or scan for shorebirds on a family-friendly kayak tour through the island’s marshes with Coastal Expeditions.
Posh pleasures await on Kiawah Island
Twenty-five miles southwest of downtown Charleston, Kiawah is a mostly private island anchored by the posh Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort and dotted with luxury villas and condos. With the exception of the resort and a small town center, Kiawah is refreshingly free of commercial development. Its white sand beaches and pristine coast are backed by maritime woodlands, sand dunes and marshes – all places where coastal wildlife thrives.
While most of Kiawah’s 10 miles of beachfront are private, visitors can enjoy a beach day at Kiawah Beachwalker Park at the southern tip of the island. The only publicly accessible beach on Kiawah, this family-friendly park has seasonal lifeguards, beach chair rentals and refreshments. Local outfitters (including the resort) offer kayaking tours and rentals for exploring the coastal marshes. You can also rent a bike and pedal across the hard-packed sand.
Edisto Island offers stark natural beauty as well as beach fun © Andrew Montgomery / Lonely Planet
Explore Lowcountry ecology at Edisto Beach
For a deep dive into the Lowcountry’s coastal charms, spend a day exploring lovely Edisto Beach on Edisto Island, 50 miles south of downtown Charleston. Home to a maritime forest and a salt marsh, the oceanfront Edisto Beach State Park is laced with hiking and biking trails (four miles of them ADA-accessible); the Forest Loop Trail wanders past palmetto trees and Spanish moss–draped live oaks. At the beach, you can sunbathe, fish, comb for seashells and swim in the Atlantic Ocean – just be aware that there are no lifeguards on duty.
The park’s educational center spotlights the island’s natural history and the surrounding ACE Basin, which encompasses the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers. Ranger walks and talks are also offered. The park has two campgrounds – one overlooking the beach and the other tucked within the maritime forest – for those looking for a full Lowcountry immersion.