Surrounded by coastal islands, centuries-old historic sites and parks teeming with wildlife, Charleston is a fantastic basecamp for day trips – once you’ve had your fill of chef-driven restaurants and rooftop cocktails, of course.
Whether strolling through a swampy forest, paddling salt marshes or learning about Gullah culture, this list of best day trips includes options for a range of travelers. Public transportation is not a practical option, so these destinations must be reached by car or, in some cases, an organized tour.
Immerse yourself in history and nature in Beaufort & the Lowcountry
For movie-set backdrops and a celebration of Gullah culture, drive south to Beaufort (pronounced Byoo-furt) and its neighboring islands. On Port Royal Island, Beaufort is a walkable riverside town where streets are lined with antebellum homes and twisting magnolias. Cafes and galleries fill the small downtown. Movies filmed here include The Big Chill, The Great Santini and Forrest Gump.
A collection of marshy, rural islands lie just east. St Helena Island is considered the heart of Gullah country, where descendants of enslaved West Africans preserve their unique culture and history. The Penn Center was one of the first schools for freed enslaved people, and its museum traces the history of the school. Two buildings on the property are part of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park. Nearby Hunting Island State Park features a maritime forest laced with trails, and its marshes and saltwater lagoon are prime spots for wildlife watching. Scan the white sand beach for seashells.
How to get to Beaufort: Beaufort is 70 miles south of Charleston via US 17 S and US 21 S. Continue south on US 21, also known as the Sea Island Pkwy, to reach St Helena Island and Hunting Island State Park.
Tour the Ashley River Plantations
Three sites north of Charleston offer a chance to learn and grapple with the horrific legacy of slavery in the US. While we recommend these sites for their excellent talks about the institution of slavery in the US, the modern day grounds are also well-kept, and the live oaks draped with Spanish moss evoke thoughts of a Southern Gothic.
The first in the lineup, Drayton Hall, is a Palladian brick house completed in 1738, making it the oldest unrestored plantation house open to the public in the country. Sprawling Magnolia Plantation feels more commercial, with a tram, zoo and house tour, but it does have a swamp garden trail with alligators lurking in the outskirts. Designed in 1741, the elegant and expansive gardens at Middleton Place are the oldest landscaped gardens in the US. Middleton Place Restaurant serves delicious Lowcountry fare. It would be hard to visit all three plantations in one day, but two is doable.
How to get to the Ashley River Plantations: From downtown Charleston follow Hwy 17 S to Hwy 61 N, also known as Ashley River Rd. Drayton Hall is 12 miles from downtown.
Stroll a swampy forest at Congaree National Park
The Boardwalk Loop Trail at Congaree National Park twists through the largest contiguous old-growth bottomland forest in the US. This means you’ll be strolling past swaths of dark muck and a soggy woodland of bald cypress, tupelo and hardwoods – it’s simultaneously eerie and mesmerizing. From mid-May through mid-June synchronous fireflies blink in unison in the park – one of the few places in the world where this light show occurs. The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a fifteen-mile paddling path through the primeval forest.
How to get to Congaree National Park: The park is 105 miles northwest of Charleston via I-26 W, I-95 N and a handful of country highways.
Explore the Charleston County Sea Islands
Paddling, learning and sunbathing – all of these are options on the close-packed barrier islands south of Charleston. On St James Island, tours of McLeod Plantation delve into the lives of the plantation’s former owners and the enslaved African Americans who lived and worked here. The centuries-old Angel Oak Tree on Johns Island is one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi River. Just south, Kiawah Beachwalker Park is the only publicly accessible beach on swanky Kiawah Island. Rent a bike to cycle on 10 miles of sand or take a kayaking tour to explore the island’s coastal marshes. If you prefer history over sand, head to Wadmalaw Island to tour the Charleston Tea Garden, the only tea plantation in the country.
How to get to the Charleston County Sea Islands: From Charleston, take US 17 S to Folly Rd Blvd. Turn left and follow it to Country Club Dr and McLeod Plantation. Follow SC-700 W to reach the Angel Tree and the tea garden. Turn left at SR 10-20 from SC-700 W to reach Kiawah.
Unwind at Brookgreen Gardens
Home to an enchanting collection of botanical gardens dotted with statues, Brookgreen Gardens is a wonderful place to escape the crowds and immerse yourself in nature and art. Encompassing more than 9,000 acres – on former rice plantations – the sprawling gardens display the largest collection of American figurative statuary in the US. An alley of 250-year-old live oaks anchors the various gardens, staking out a local claim with appealing grandiosity. The gardens are perhaps most stunning during the Night of 1000 Candles, when candles and lights illuminate the grounds. Seasonal blooms are listed on the website. For delicious Southern comfort food, head to the Rustic Table in nearby Pawleys Island.
How to get to Brookgreen Gardens: The Gardens are in Murrells Inlet, 80 miles north of Charleston via US 17N. Myrtle Beach is 16 miles north of the Garden.
See what’s new in Columbia
The state capital and home of the University of South Carolina, Columbia is on a hot streak. The revitalized Main Street District is home to a slew of new restaurants as well as whimsical public art, a globe-spanning collection at the Columbia Museum of Art and the beloved Nickelodeon arthouse theater. The popular Soda City Market stretches across a four-block stretch of Main St on Saturday mornings. At the Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens, considered one of America’s top zoos, you can check out lions, giraffes and penguins before ziplining over the Saluda River. For craft beer, try Hunter-Gatherer Brewery at the Hangar. Head to Bourbon for Cajun-Creole fare and your favorite whiskey. The city’s Pimento Cheese Passport recommends 14 places to try the delectable cheese spread.
How to get to Columbia: Follow I-26 west to exit 115 then follow US 321 N to Columbia, which is 115 miles from Charleston.
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