Our Pick of The Best Coastal Towns to Visit In South Carolina
The coastline of South Carolina stretches 187 miles and is dotted by some truly outstanding places to visit. Today, we are talking about five of the best coastal towns to visit and what to do when your there. In this guide, we focused on a section of the Carolina Coast known as the Hammock Coast and picked our favorite charming beach side towns.
Stretching between Myrtle Beach on the Grand Strand to the north and Charleston to the south, South Carolina’s “Hammock Coast” crystallizes the scenic beauty, laidback coastal vibes, and rich history of the Lowcountry. This is one of the true hidden gems of the Eastern Seaboard: a place to slow down, dig deep, and refresh yourself amid Spanish moss and sea breezes while enjoying some fascinating arts, culture, sightseeing, and outdoor recreation.
A number of charming towns and villages nestle along the tidal rivers, estuaries, and Atlantic shores of the Hammock Coast. Jumping-off points for lazy beachcombing, saltwater angling, and birdwatching safaris, they’re also very much their own destinations to explore, and we’ll highlight five unmissable ones in this article.
Introducing the Hammock Coast
Why “hammock?” Well, the basic idea is that this is a quiet, unhurried stretch of the Lowcountry coast tailor-made for some shady, gently swaying R&R.
But there’s also some legitimate history encoded in that tag: the prototype of the American rope hammock comes from this neck of the woods. Joshua John Ward, a riverboat captain, innovated what became known as the Pawleys Island Hammock in 1889, and you can still buy one on the namesake barrier island today.
“The Hammock Coast encompasses a gorgeous mosaic of freshwater and salt marshes, bald-cypress swamps and other forested wetlands, sunny woodlands of longleaf pine, the enigmatic hollows known as Carolina bays, and absolutely seductive swaths of dune and surfside sand.”
Alligators drift past watchful herons and egrets in the freshwater lakes and ponds, sea turtles haul out to nest on the beaches, passing flocks of roseate spoonbills and white ibis draw the landscape to a colorful point. Then, of course, there are the long avenues of Spanish moss-hung live oaks: the quintessential natural scenery of the South Carolina coast.
Historical Snapshot of the Hammock Coast
This languid seaside realm was originally the homeland of such native cultures as the Waccamaw, the Santee, the Wee Nee, the Winyah, and the Pee Dee. The Spanish explored the Hammock Coast in 1526 and established the short-lived outpost of San Miguel de Guadalupe: by some counts the very first European settlement in what became the United States. English and French colonization commenced in earnest in the mid-17th century. Georgetown, the hub of the Hammock Coast, was gridded out at the confluence of the Black, Waccamaw, Sampit, and Great and Small Pee Dee rivers in 1732, making it the third-oldest city in South Carolina.
The area figured prominently in the Revolutionary War: the Hopsewee Plantation was the birthplace of Thomas Lynch Jr., one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and Francis Marion (the famous “Swamp Fox”) waged guerrilla warfare on British troops during the redcoats’ occupation of Georgetown in 1780 and 1781.
Early industries here included indigo, lumber, and rice, which, particularly after the Revolutionary War, became by far the most important export. Indeed, at one point, close to half the entire rice production in the U.S. came from Georgetown County, where African slave labor took skillful advantage of tidal currents to flood fields and cultivate “Carolina Gold.” You can learn more about the Hammock Coast’s rice-growing heritage at such sites as the Hopsewee and the Mansfield plantations, plus Georgetown’s aptly named Rice Museum.
“With the decline in rice cultivation following the Civil War, the area’s economics evolved. The huge paper mill established in Georgetown by International Paper Mill in 1936 remains in operation, and shipping, fishing, and lately tourism are also fundamental industries.”
Five Awesome Hammock Coast Communities
Now let’s roll into a spotlight of five of the Hammock Coast’s defining coastal towns! These are in no particular order, they are all worth a visit.
Located roughly midway between Myrtle Beach and Charleston and long serving as one of South Carolina’s most important ports, Georgetown is rightfully called the heart of the Hammock Coast. Its centuries of history, well on display at numerous historical sites and museums, and its vibrant arts-and-culture scene make it the perfect home base. In 2018, USA Today declared Georgetown “America’s Best Coastal Small Town,” and given this place’s charm and setting it’s not hard to see why.
The downtown area of Front Street includes four other outstanding museums besides the aforementioned Rice Museum, which calls the 1842-built Old Market Building with its iconic Town Clock home. They include the Kaminski House Museum, showing off a well-preserved Georgian-style antebellum home overlooking the Sampit River—one of more than 60 buildings in town on the National Register of Historic Places. Head for the Georgetown County Museum, run by the Georgetown County Historical Society, for a fascinating overview of the area’s past. The Gullah Museum, another genuine treasure, introduces visitors to the history, art, and crafts of the Gullah people, Lowcountry descendants of West African peoples brought over in the slave trade.
Then there’s the South Carolina Maritime Museum, one of the finest of its kind on the East Coast. Along with presenting a smorgasbord of historical photographs, artifacts, and other exhibits focused on the Lowcountry’s maritime heritage, the museum collaborates with the Harbor Historical Foundation to produce the popular Georgetown Wooden Boat Show every October: a must-see for any and all nautical obsessives.
“A stone’s throw from the Front Street downtown district, the Harborwalk offers a delightful place to stroll and sightsee along the Georgetown waterfront, especially fetching at sunset. Linking the Kawinski House Museum and Rice Museum, this wooden boardwalk also provides ready access to a host of shops, eateries, and art galleries.”
Another sight to see in Georgetown awaits within Lafayette Park outside of the Rice Museum’s Old Market Building: a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, who passed through Georgetown Harbor en route to aiding the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
(2) Pawleys Island
This three-mile-long barrier island narrowing off the Waccamaw Neck hosts a tiny village and a whole lot of serene vistas. You won’t find a stoplight or much commercial development at all on Pawleys Island, aside from the historic accommodations of the Pelican Inn (built in the 1840s) and the Seaview Inn (opened in 1937). The Pawleys Island Chapel, meanwhile, is an unforgettable place to tie the knot.
“The real attraction of Pawleys Island—edged by the Waccamaw River, Winyah Bay, and the Atlantic—is its shoreline, which includes some of the finest beachfront on the Hammock Coast. ”
Sunbathing, shelling, swimming, and paddling are classic pastimes here, as is fishing: whether on the estuary or the ocean side, where you can cast into the surf or take a boat out.
Also very much worthy of note: Pawleys Island is the headquarters for one of South Carolina’s most celebrated paranormal residents: the Gray Man, who, legend has it, materializes on the strand to warn of forthcoming hurricanes.
(3) Litchfield Beach
“Set north of Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach is another awesome place to get some sand between your toes on a Hammock Coast adventure.”
Composed of a network of one-time plantations, the communities of Litchfield-by-the-Sea and North Litchfield provide access not only to some splendid surf but also fine golf courses and tennis courts.
(4) Murrells Inlet
The old fishing village of Murrells Inlet, named for the planter Captain John Murrell who settled here in the early 1730s, is touted as “The Seafood Capital of South Carolina,” and indeed this is an excellent spot for delving into some fresh clams, oysters, and fish.
But the town has more to offer than the (legitimately great) enticements of a whole platter of crabs. Murrells Inlet, after all, is home to one of the state’s most distinctive historical residences: the Moorish/Spanish-style Atalaya Castle, the winter retreat of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. In 1931, the Huntingtons established Brookgreen Gardens, which is not only the oldest but also still the largest public sculpture garden in the country. Better than 2,000 sculptures by some 430 artists dazzle at Brookgreen, woven into an equally impressive spread of botanical plantings (including the Palmetto Garden) and some magnificent, centuries-old live oaks.
Atalaya, site of a major arts-and-crafts festival in September, falls within Huntington Beach State Park, a wonderful slice of Hammock Coast naturalness. This 2,500-acre property, which includes freshwater and salt marsh, beaches and dunes, and coastal thicket and forest, is a paradise for those of the birdwatching persuasion: more than 300 species have been recorded here, including bald eagles, ospreys, wood storks, and a whole menagerie of seabirds, shorebirds, and passerines.
“Huntington Beach is also fantastic for surf-casting, and a critical nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles, South Carolina’s state reptile.”
(5) Garden City
North of Murrells Inlet you’ll find Garden City, which straddles the northern reach of the Hammock Coast. Here’s another crowd-pleasing beach community, where you can kick back by the swash at Garden City Point, enjoy amusement parks and arcades, wile away a few hours fishing, and savor some knockout Lowcountry cuisine with a side of ocean views.
Lose Yourself Along South Carolina’s Hammock Coast
Kayaking a sea-of-grass salt marsh, wandering a world-class sculpture garden, fishing from a picture-perfect pier (or sitting down to a picture-perfect catch-of-the-day dish), kicking back on sun-splashed sands: the Hammock Coast is one of South Carolina’s best-kept secrets. One visit won’t do it justice, but hey—it’s a start!