While the Holy City has long been known for its history, culture, and restaurants, Charleston’s beaches aren’t as well known. Despite there being three beaches within a 20-minute drive of the peninsula (and three more not much farther away), Charleston generally isn’t known as a beach town.
But, as Charleston’s reputation as a top vacation destination continues to grow, so too does the popularity of its beaches. Each summer, Charleston’s beaches welcome an influx of visitors from other parts of South Carolina, across the United States, and around the world. However, some of the area’s beaches are still much more popular than others, as we discuss below, and you can truly make your Charleston beach vacation whatever you want it to be.
Whether you are looking for bars and restaurants, waves and sunshine, or peace and quiet, there is a beach in Charleston for you. If you are trying to decide which beach (or beaches) to visit during your Charleston vacation, keep reading to find out what you want to know about each of these beaches:
Map of Charleston’s Beaches
To begin, we’ve created a map that highlights each of the Charleston area’s six main beaches. While there are other beaches too (including beaches that are only accessible by boat), these are generally the ones you will be choosing from when planning a Charleston beach vacation. Our map of Charleston’s beaches includes some restaurants, public beach access points, public facilities, and other points of interest as well.
Charleston’s Beaches: What Do You Want Out of Your Beach Vacation?
So, which of Charleston’s beaches is right for you? That depends on what you want out of your vacation. Here is an introduction to each of Charleston’s main beaches, along with an explanation of why you might (or, perhaps, might not) want to consider each one when planning your trip.
Folly Beach is easily the most popular of Charleston’s beaches. The beach stretches the entire length of Folly Island, for roughly six miles of uninterrupted coastline. While there is one hotel at the beach (Tides Folly Beach, which is located on the ocean right next to the Folly Beach Pier, most vacationers book short-term rentals. There are oceanfront rentals on the southern half of the island, but at most you will be just a few blocks away from the water—and there are public access points along the entire coast.
Folly Beach has several restaurants; and, if you book a hotel room or rent a house near Center Street, you’ll be able to walk to breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of your Charleston beach vacation. If you rent a house closer to either end of the island, you’ll need to drive, unless you rent a golf cart or bikes, both of which are available during the on season.
The area around Center Street feels like a small beach town, and this is what attracts many vacationers to Folly Beach. The pier has a waterfront restaurant (or you can get ice cream on the pier for dessert), and you can rent a surfboard (or take a surfing lesson) as well. If you want to try to get away from the crowds, you can drive down to Folly Beach County Park.
You might want to choose Folly Beach for your Charleston Beach vacation if:
- You want to go out to eat regularly but don’t want to have to drive too far (or at all)
- You enjoy the atmosphere of a busy beach town with several restaurants and bars
- You are looking for a wide open beach where you and your kids can play in the sand or surf
Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms is located north of downtown Charleston; and, next to Folly Beach, it is the most popular of Charleston’s beaches among vacationers. Isle of Palms also has a small beach town vibe, though it feels different from Folly Beach. Whereas Folly Beach feels a bit more casual (and is commonly described as “funky,” though we’re not sure that’s quite right), Isle of Palms feels more like a beach vacation destination. The main drag has pizza restaurants, seafood restaurants, ice cream, and beach shops—though you can find a few more upscale and local-feeling restaurants as well.
Isle of Palms has several hotels; so, if you’re looking to rent a room rather than an entire house, it should be high on your list. If you rent a hotel room, everything you need will be within walking distance on Ocean Boulevard. But, there are lots of vacation homes on Isle of Palms as well (including many high-end luxury vacation homes); and, if you don’t want to be right in the middle of the action, you can rent an oceanfront or second-row home closer toward the northern end of the island.
If you’re interested in renting kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), a golf cart, or jet skis during your Charleston beach vacation, you can do so at the Isle of Palms Marina. Here, you can launch directly into the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and either head south past the waterfront homes or head north toward the uninhabited sea islands, where you will feel much farther away than you actually are.
You might want to choose Isle of Palms for your Charleston Beach vacation if:
- You want to be close to everything, from the ocean to restaurants and shops
- You prefer to rent a hotel room rather than a vacation home (though there are vacation homes here as well)
- You are interested in renting a kayak, SUP, or jet ski during your vacation
Sullivan’s Island is located next to Isle of Palms, and it is connected to the southern tip of Isle of Palms by a short bridge. Sullivan’s Island doesn’t have a hotel, so if you stay here you’ll be renting a vacation home. Many locals live on Sullivan’s Island (the same is true of Folly Beach, and many locals have second homes on Isle of Palms), and it is definitely considered among the quieter beaches in the Charleston area.
Most of the action on Sullivan’s Island, of which there isn’t a whole lot, is centered around Middle Street. Here, you’ll find a handful of restaurants, including well-known favorites like Poe’s Tavern and The Obstinate Daughter. There are several public beach access points on the island, but Sullivan’s Island’s beaches are not nearly as heavily trafficked or manicured as those on Folly Island or Isle of Palms.
You might want to choose Sullivan’s Island for your Charleston Beach vacation if:
- You are looking for a quieter Charleston beach vacation experience and want to get away from the crowds as much as possible
- You are interested in renting a vacation home for your stay
- You want to be close to downtown Charleston (Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach are the closest options)
Kiawah Beach is located south of downtown Charleston. While it is the next beach along the coast after Folly Beach, driving to Kiawah takes significantly longer (about an hour from the airport) because the only access point is toward the southern end of the island.
If you are interested in golfing during your Charleston beach vacation, Kiawah Island is definitely the place to go. Kiawah’s Ocean Course has hosted the PGA Championship and is widely considered one of the best courses in the area, if not in the country. Kiawah Island is a good option for renting a kayak or SUP as well, as you can paddle for miles on the calm Kiawah River on the inland side of the island.
Kiawah Island has multiple resorts with luxury amenities, and it has many luxury vacation rentals as well. But, there are more affordable options, too. If you aren’t staying oceanfront or within walking distance to the beach, you can visit Kiawah Beachwalker Park on the southern end of the island. This public park has restrooms, showers, and a small shop. Just be mindful that you’ll need to get there early to get a parking spot during the summer.
There are several restaurants on Kiawah Island, and nearby Freshfields Village has restaurants and a coffee shop as well. Freshfields Village also has a grocery store and an outfitter where you can buy anything you might have forgotten or rent equipment during the on season.
You might want to choose Kiawah Beach for your Charleston Beach vacation if:
- You want to stay at a resort for your Charleston beach vacation
- You are interested in golfing, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, or taking a fishing charter
- You want to get away from the crowds at Folly Beach and Isle of Palms for a more relaxed and refined vacation experience
Seabrook Island is right next to Kiawah Island. You get here the same way (by following Bohicket Road down Johns Island); but, when you get to the roundabout in front of Freshfields Village, you go right instead of left.
Seabrook Island is similar to Sullivan’s Island in that there are no hotels (except for one in Freshfields Village), and the island has many full-time residents. Seabrook Island is popular with snowbirds as well. Seabrook Island is relatively far from downtown Charleston and much of Johns Island is still undeveloped, so you’ll most likely be dining and shopping at Freshfields Village and Bohicket Marina while you’re here. Both have several dining options; and, at Bohicket Marina, you can eat outside on the water.
Due to Seabrook Island’s location, it is relatively quiet, and the beach is relatively uncrowded. This is especially true if you head to the southern tip of the island, where you’ll have 180-degree views of the North Edisto River, Edisto Island, Deveaux Bank, and the Atlantic Ocean.
You might want to choose Seabrook Island for your Charleston Beach vacation if:
- You want to rent a cozy house in a quiet location where you can camp out for the weekend (or week)
- You don’t mind driving five to ten minutes to get to restaurants or the grocery store
- Peace and quiet are among your main priorities for your Charleston beach vacation
Located at the southern end of Edisto Island, Edisto Beach is quickly gaining popularity as a beach destination in Charleston. This is true not only for vacationers, but also locals (see our article on taking a day trip to Edisto Island for some inspiration). Edisto Beach also doesn’t have a hotel, so you’ll be renting a beach house (which is currently more affordable here than at Charleston’s other beaches); or, if you are interested in camping, you can rent an RV site or tent site with beach access at Edisto Beach State Park.
Edisto Island’s beaches are great for relaxing, laying in the sun, playing in the sand, or playing in the water. There are beachfront homes along the island’s four-plus miles of public beach, but you’ll be within walking distance of the Atlantic Ocean no matter where you stay. There are also rental homes on the back side of the island, where you’ll have sunset views over Big Bay Creek.
There are several restaurants on Edisto Island. Most of these are what you’d expect in a beachy area, but Ella & Ollie’s is somewhat of a hidden gem where you can have a fantastic Lowcountry fine dining experience. Sugartime has saltwater taffy and all of the nostalgic candies you could possibly want, and you can rent kayaks and bikes on the island as well.
You might want to choose Edisto Beach for your Charleston Beach vacation if:
- You want a little bit of everything—easy beach access, seafood restaurants, and access to kayaking or boating
- You are interested in RV or tent camping for your Charleston beach vacation
- You are interested in renting a home for the week but don’t want to pay the higher prices you’ll find elsewhere.
You Can’t Go Wrong with Any of Charleston’s Beaches
While you should choose your beach based on what you want from your vacation, you really can’t go wrong with any of Charleston’s beaches. They are all great options for your summer vacation—whether you are traveling with your family, with a group of friends, or it’s just you and your spouse or partner. The main thing is just to go; and, once you get there, you can explore all that the area has to offer.