South Carolina welcomes everyone with a friendly “hey y’all.” Laidback and relaxed, the Palmetto State is an easy place to visit, with a throng of sunshiney offerings, golden beaches, lazy rivers towered over by bald cypresses, and the tail end of the Blue Ridge.
That said, there are some things that are useful to know before you go. From practicalities such as checking the weather and watching for alligators (seriously!) to etiquette tips such as the proper way to approach a football conversation (very seriously!), here are a few key things to know before traveling to South Carolina.
Planning your trip
Think twice about jeans
South Carolinians generally dress slightly more formally, though they don’t overdo it. Men generally wear button-down shirts or polos, while women dress in skirts and slacks.
A hat with a brim and sunglasses in summer helps ward off the sun. If you wear a sundress in summer, remember that temperatures tend to drop at night so bring a jacket or sweater (besides, restaurants crank up the A/C).
And if you do wear jeans, dress them up with a blouse and heels (for women) and a button-down shirt (for men).
Book restaurants in advance
You’ll find some of the nation’s best restaurants in South Carolina, notably Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana and Charlie’s Coastal Bistro in Hilton Head, SeaBlue Restaurant & Wine Bar in North Myrtle Beach and The Bluffton Room in Bluffton.
Charleston alone is a hive of culinary expertise, with noted restaurants including Husk, FIG, Bertha’s Kitchen and Stars Rooftop and Grill. It's always wise to make a reservation, especially at upscale restaurants – often a week or more in advance for Friday and Saturday nights.
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Etiquette in South Carolina
Tea = sweet tea
If you order tea in South Carolina, you will be served an icy glass of black tea sweetened just right with sugar or simple syrup (and sometimes lemon). Many southerners claim they were drinking sweet tea before anything else, and a restaurant can’t be considered southern if it doesn’t offer it on the menu.
The historic town of Summerville, just outside Charleston, is said to have invented sweet tea when a group of old soldiers hosted a reunion in town in 1890. Their shopping list included 600 pounds of sugar and 880 gallons of iced tea.
If you don’t have a porch to sip sweet tea, Summerville’s Sweet Tea Trail – with businesses purveying sweet-tea-inspired specials – is the next best option.
College sports are life
Do not get into a discussion about college football unless you’re prepared to take a side: Clemson Tigers or South Carolina Gamecocks. This serious rivalry between two public universities located only 132 miles apart dates back to political tensions during post-Civil War reconstruction, though today it’s all about football.
The two teams face off at an annual game dubbed the “Battle of the Palmetto State” (unofficially the Palmetto Bowl) in late November, usually Thanksgiving weekend, leading to many discussions at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Tailgating is a time-honored tradition that accompanies every game.
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Always says yes to biscuits
Making biscuits is an art form in South Carolina, a time-honored tradition that turns simple flour and fat into rich, steamy, flaky, buttery cakes. The best are made at home, of course, but many restaurants pride themselves on their biscuit craftsmanship.
Some versions are plain, while others are mixed with hot cheese and garlic, served with hot house gravy, or a variety of other delectable ways. Try them at Biscuit Head in Greenville, Clarks’ Inn and Restaurant in Santee or Compton’s Kitchen in West Columbia.
…Or hush puppies
South Carolinian hush puppies are another age-old tradition. A warm, crusty bite of cornmeal goodness, they’re found at fish houses, barbecue joints and traditional southern restaurants.
Sometimes they’re spiked with spices, onions, hot peppers or corn and/or served with dips and creamy sauces. It’s not exactly clear where hush puppies originated.
One story claims a West African man named Romeo Govan who lived on the Edisto River served “red horse bread” at his fish fries – “red horse” was a type of fish common in South Carolina rivers.
The name is another story, though it probably relates to quieting dogs by giving them a little bite to eat. Whichever story you believe, you can’t go wrong trying them at Captain Steve’s in Fort Mill, Flower’s Seafood Company in Edisto Island or Little Pigs Barbecue in Columbia.
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Hot sauce goes on everything
South Carolinians have a thing about hot sauce – you’ll find it spicing up nearly every dish.
Among local sauces, you’ll discover Palmetto Pepper Potions (with flavors including Larynx Lava and Trenholm Venom) and PuckerButt Pepper Company (famed for its Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper, deemed the world’s hottest hot sauce).
Beware ghost chili sauce, a surprising kick added in many a South Carolina recipe.
This isn’t a sauce, but Blue Moon’s Yep! Shake spice is an all-natural, handcrafted secret out of Spartanburg – a mix of spices that elevates vegetables, meats and, really, anything except ice cream and strawberry shortcake.
South Carolina barbecue is mustard-based
South Carolinians are serious about their barbecue. Generally, you’ll find pork that's been slow-cooked over hardwood. But, as all BBQ aficionados know, the sauce is key.
And in South Carolina, it’s all about the mustard, with a yellow color and tangy flavor. The story goes that German settlers brought mustard with them from their homeland some 250 years ago. Many of the names associated with the South Carolina BBQ business remain German: Bessinger, Sweatman's and Sikes, for starters.
Don’t forget the Blue Ridge
In this mostly flat southern state, it’s easy to forget that the soaring peaks of the Blue Ridge make a brief appearance on its northwestern border.
In fact, here you’ll find the spectacular Blue Ridge Escarpment, a line at which the Blue Ridge plunges toward the undulating foothills of Upstate South Carolina.
You can explore this majestic natural landscape – full of waterfalls, hardwood forests, and crystal-clear lakes – at a variety of parks, including Jones Gap State Park, Caesars Head State Park, and Table Rock State Park, all within the 10,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.
Another option is to drive the 112-mile Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway (SC 11), which traces the edge of the Blue Ridge, showcasing waterfalls, mountain streams, and sweeping mountain vistas.
Hit the links at a state golf course
More than 350 golf courses speckle the state – private, public, and in all price ranges. The two best are Kiawah Island’s Open Course, stretching along the Atlantic Ocean and Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links – SC’s only annual PGA Tour stop.
But there are plenty of courses to keep you swinging. Many offer golf packages, including accommodations and, in some cases, access to otherwise private locations. Members-only Haig Point on Daufuskie Island, for example, welcomes a limited number of daily guests to the course.
Health and safety in South Carolina
When is hurricane season?
South Carolina does experience hurricanes – it’s best to avoid the coast between late August through October. If you do visit during this time, be sure to have an emergency plan in place and keep abreast of the weather news. Severe storms can also spawn tornadoes and deadly lightning.
Winters are mild, but summers are hot
Thanks to a humid subtropical climate, South Carolina’s winters are relatively mild, especially along the coast (60°F during the day).
It can get close to freezing inland, and it does snow, though generally less than an inch annually. The summers, however, are another story. They are hot, hot, hot and humid – averaging a solid 90°F – with frequent afternoon thunderstorms and dangerous lightning.
Tornado season is generally in early spring, with another peak in November.
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The bugs will eat you alive
Heat and humidity breed swarms of mosquitoes – 61 different species of the small fly live in South Carolina.
Whatever you do, do not forget your bug spray. And wear long sleeves and long pants at dawn, dusk, and twilight (as well as shady areas during the day) when they tend to come out.
Treat ‘gators with respect
Some 100,000 alligators call South Carolina home and they’re not something you want to mess with. Most of the time, they’re harmless – you’ll see them lounging around wetlands (especially at golf courses).
Just don’t get too close, and certainly don’t try to feed them, or swim in waters that are known to be alligator havens. Gator attacks are rare, but they do happen. The general rule is to avoid these lounging reptiles, and if you do come across one, slowly walk away.
Always exercise caution when out
South Carolina is considered a safe place to visit, though, as everywhere, always be aware of your surroundings. Be vigilant when visiting the state’s busy attractions, and don’t leave anything visible in the car that might tempt a break-in.
Places to avoid, especially at night, include Beaufort County, Greenwood County, and Marion County.