Best day trips from Charleston
Surrounded by coastal islands, century-old historic sites, and parks teeming with wildlife, Charleston is a fantastic base camp for day trips – once you’ve stocked up on chef-run restaurants and cocktails on the roof, of course.
Whether it’s walking through a swamp forest, paddling the salt marshes, or learning about Gullah culture, this list of the best day trips includes options for a wide range of travelers. Public transport is not a convenient option, so these destinations must be reached by car or, in some cases, by tour.
Immerse yourself in history and nature in Beaufort & the Lowcountry
For movie sets and a celebration of Gullah culture, head south to Beaufort (pronounced Byoo-furt) and its neighboring islands. On Port Royal Island, Beaufort is a riverside town where the streets are lined with pre-war houses and twisting magnolias. Cafés and galleries fill the small town center. Movies shot here include The big thrill, The Great Santini and Forrest Gump.
A collection of rural swampy islands can be found just to the east. The island of Saint Helena is considered the heart of Gullah country, where the descendants of West African slaves preserve their unique culture and history. The Penn Center was one of the first schools for freed slaves, and its museum traces the history of the school. Two buildings on the property are part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park. Nearby Hunting Island State Park features maritime forest bordered by trails, and its marshes and saltwater lagoon are prime locations for wildlife viewing. 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 Sea Island Pkwy, to reach Île Sainte- Hélène and Hunting Island State Park.
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Visit the Ashley River Plantations
Three locations north of Charleston offer a chance to learn about and fight the horrific legacy of slavery in the United States. While we recommend these sites for their excellent talk about the institution of slavery in the United States, the modern grounds are also well-maintained, and the holm oaks draped in Spanish moss evoke thoughts of a Southern Gothic.
The first in the line, Drayton Hall, is a Palladian brick house completed in 1738, making it the oldest unrestored plantation house open to the public in the country. The sprawling Magnolia plantation seems more commercial, with a streetcar, zoo, and house tour, but it has a swampy garden path with alligators lurking on the outskirts. Designed in 1741, the elegant and expansive gardens of Middleton Place are the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States. Middleton Place Restaurant serves delicious Lowcountry dishes. It would be difficult to visit all three plantations in one day, but two is doable.
How to get to the Ashley River Plantations: From downtown Charleston, follow Highway 17 S to Highway 61 N, also known as Ashley River Rd. Drayton Hall is 12 miles from the city center.
Walk through a swamp forest in Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park’s Boardwalk Loop Trail winds through America’s largest contiguous lowland old-growth forest. This means you’ll pass expanses of dark mud and a soggy forest of bald cypress, tupelo, and deciduous trees – it’s both eerie and spellbinding. From mid-May to mid-June, synchronous fireflies flash in unison in the park, one of the few places in the world where this light show takes place. The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a fifteen mile paddling trail through rainforest.
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 freeways.
Explore the sea islands of Charleston County
Paddle, learn and sunbathe – all of these options are available on the tight barrier islands south of Charleston. On St James Island, tours of the McLeod Plantation delve into the lives of the former plantation owners and the African-American slaves 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 chic Kiawah Island. Rent a bike to travel 10 miles of sand or take a kayak trip to explore the island’s coastal marshes. If you prefer history to sand, head to Wadmalaw Island to visit the Charleston Tea Garden, the country’s only tea plantation.
How to get to the Maritime Islands in Charleston County: 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 onto SR 10-20 from SC-700 W to reach Kiawah.
Relax 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. Covering over 9,000 acres – on ancient rice plantations – the sprawling gardens feature the largest collection of American figurative statues in the United States. A 250-year-old alley of holm oaks anchors the various gardens, marking out a local claim with attractive grandiosity. The gardens are perhaps the most breathtaking during the Night of 1000 Candles, when candles and lights illuminate the park. Seasonal blooms are listed on the site. For delicious Southern comfort food, head to the rustic table on neighboring 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 Colombia
The state capital and home of the University of South Carolina, Columbia is on a roll. The revitalized Main Street neighborhood is home to a host of new restaurants as well as whimsical public art, a worldwide collection at the Columbia Museum of Art, and the beloved Nickelodeon arthouse theater. The popular Soda City Market stretches a four-block stretch of Main St on Saturday mornings. At the Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens, considered one of America’s best zoos, you can spot lions, giraffes, and penguins before ziplining the Saluda River. For craft beer, try the Hunter-Gatherer Brewery at The Hangar. Head to Bourbon to sample Cajun-Creole cuisine and your favorite whiskey. The city’s Pimento Cheese Passport recommends 14 places to try the delicious cheese spread.
How to get to Colombia: Follow I-26 West to Exit 115, then follow US 321 N to Columbia, which is 115 miles from Charleston.