10 Cities in South Carolina You Must Visit at Least Once!

February 2, 2022

cities in south carolina

The Discover South Carolina website describes the southern state as “just right.” And believe me, it is exactly that. Nicknamed “the Palmetto State” (referring to the state palm tree), South Carolina is world-renown for charming antebellum mansions, traditional food like savory shrimp and grits, low-country Frogmore stew, lip-smacking pecan pie, best peaches (sorry Georgia!), quirky boiled peanuts, tangy pimento cheese, and the best BBQ on the planet, and a plethora of natural wonders, hidden gems, and outdoor activities. And don’t forget the delightful small cities in South Carolina, scattered across the landscape, just begging to be explored!

South Carolina, the eighth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788, was the first to secede from the Union in 1861. Advanced manufacturing, aerospace, and automotive are among the state’s top industries.

Whether you are taking a South Carolina coastal road trip or exploring inland, here are ten cities in South Carolina that are brimming with southern charm!

10 Columbia

columbia sc

  • Elevation: 292′
  • Area: 139.6 mi²
  • Population: 133,273

Nestled approximately halfway between world-famous Charleston on the coast and up-and-coming Greenville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, South Carolina’s capital city is often overlooked as a holiday destination. But Columbia, the first capital named for Christopher Columbus and famed as it was the first city in America, is bursting with southern charm, rich history, vibrant art community, and a thriving university campus.

The Columbia Museum of Art houses more than 25 galleries and a global collection covering 5,000 years of history. The museum contains permanent works by Claude Monet, Sandro Botticelli, Charles Willson Peale, and Duncan Phyfe, but also has exciting and continually changing topical exhibits.

For families, EdVenture Children’s Museum boasts eight galleries spanning 92,000 square feet with many hands-on exhibits, afterschool programming, and camps to make learning fun. Also fun for kids is the Saturday Soda Street Market in downtown.

Congaree Park has an old-growth forest which is among the tallest broad-leafed forests in the world, with more 130’ – 160’ tall trees than any other place in Eastern North America. That’s taller than old-growth forests in Japan, the Himalayas, and Europe! Visitors can hike, kayak, canoe, and fish. One of the best features is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop that winds over the swamp and meanders through the tall trees, fields of wildflowers, and past lakes.

During the fall season, the University of South Carolina stadium is the place to be. USC recently produced superstars like defensive linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (who went on to play in the NFL Houston Texans) and offensive running back Marcus Lattimore (career record for rushing touchdowns). Two popular and sellout games include Parents’ Day and the Thanksgiving Day game a.k.a. the Carolina–Clemson rivalry and officially dubbed the Palmetto Bowl. Witness the “sandstorm” after a touchdown – thousands of small white towels twirled it in unison while the crowd chants “USC!”

Here are 11 fun things to do in Columbia.

Here are the best rooftop bars in Columbia.

9 Aiken

aiken sc

  • Area: 20.8 square miles
  • Elevation: 515 feet
  • Population: 30,778

The largest city in and the county seat of Aiken County, Aiken was named the “Best Small Town in the South” by Southern Living Magazine. Located in western South Carolina, the sleepy little southern town has been drawing people in since the wealthy Astors, Vanderbilts, and Fields began building their summer “cottages” along Millionaire’s Row in the late 1800s.

In and around Aiken you’ll find historical sites, art galleries, nature parks, and dining experiences for a weekend of fun. Aiken’s quaint downtown is crisscrossed with a unique web of one-way streets, squares, and circles with fountains.

Known as “thoroughbred country,” Aiken has been home to many thoroughbred champions, and polo matches, steeplechases, and fox hunts – they are a way of life here.

Outdoor enthusiasts will love strolling around Hopelands, a lush garden filled with rare camellias and other flowering plants, and is one of the nation’s largest urban forests.

Don’t forget to visit South Boundary, aka “Avenue of the Oaks,” for your Instagram moment under the dreamy, iconic oak canopy dripping with Spanish Moss!

Here are more things to do in Aiken.

8 Hilton Head

hilton head

  • Area: 69.15 mi²
  • Elevation: 10′
  • Population: 40,007

Named after Captain William Hilton, who founded the island in 1663, Hilton Head has been a national vacation destination since the late 1960s. Located in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina, it has consistently been named as one of the top islands in the United States.  It’s a quiet, picturesque beach town, known for luxury beaches and golf resorts.

Even in the winter, the weather is moderate enough for strolling along the 12 miles of white hard-packed beaches. The island has more than 60 miles of scenic bicycle trails that are easy to navigate. Paths lead to the beach, through the woods, to the marina, with lots of great spots to stop for a picnic lunch.

Nature lovers can enjoy kayaking in the eco-protected salt marshes and the sound, where spotting wildlife such as turtles, herons, and wild dolphins are commonplace.

The Harbor Town Lighthouse and Museum and the Coastal Discovery Museum are also popular tourist attractions.

7 Lake Murray

Lake Murray SC

  • Area: 78.12 mi²
  • Shore length: 450 miles

More an area than a small city, Lake Murray rests mainly in Lexington County, close to the tiny town of Newberry and the state capital of Columbia. Called “the jewel of South Carolina,” shimmering, man-made Lake Murray is approximately 50,000 acres in size with more than 600 miles of shoreline.

The lake was named after chief engineer William Murray who conceived what was at the time “the world’s largest earthen dam.” Although the lake was originally completed in 1930 as a hydroelectric generating facility, it has come to be known as a premier recreation destination in the Midlands of South Carolina.

Lake Murray is known for striped bass fishing and summer water sports. The public can gain access to the huge lake via the marinas, boat ramps, and public parks along the dam.

A popular attraction is the Enoree River Winery, a picturesque venue for wine tastings and events.

Each summer, an estimated flock of over one million Purple Martins flock to Lake Murray for their seasonal roost at Bomb Island, located in the middle of the lake. The island is the site of the first official preserve in North America designated exclusively for nestling Purple Martins.

Here are more things to do in Lake Murray.

Here are more things to do in Columbia, South Carolina.

6 Murrells Inlet

murrells inlet

  • Area: 7.5 square miles
  • Elevation: 3 feet
  • Population: 7,547

Just south of the more touristy and well-known Myrtle Beach on the South Carolina Coast, Murrells Inlet could not be more different. The sleepy fishing village, which was once the lair of the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, is an outdoor enthusiast’s heaven.

Like other parts of the South Carolina coast, the area around Murrells Inlet boasts historic settlements that date back thousands of years, recorded in the shell mounds and archeological findings. Early inhabitants include the indigenous Waccamaw, which may have been one of the first mainland groups of Natives visited by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century.

Murrells Inlet is best known for the MarshWalk, an attractive ½ -mile-long boardwalk overlooking a salt marsh, lined on the other side with restaurants and shops. The MarshWalk comes alive with live music at night.

History of Murrells Inlet prominently features industrialist and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. The Hungtintons made their winter home in what is now the ruins of Atalaya Castle. Archer Huntington, a noted scholar of Spanish culture and art, designed the residence in the Moorish Revival and Mediterranean Revival architecture styles himself.

Stunning outdoor beauty abounds at Brookgreen Gardens, an incredible 9,100-acre preserve and sculpture garden founded by Archer and Anna Huntington featuring the world’s largest collection of American figurative sculptures, some of which are Anna’s very own creations. Brookgreen Gardens was opened in 1932 and is built on four former rice plantations

Huntington Beach is a coastal preserve, state park, and beach on the former property of the Huntingtons. It features clear blue water and is one of the most pristine sandy beaches on the South Carolina coast.

With such diversity, low cost of living, rich culture, an abundance of natural beauty, adorable towns, and delicious cuisine, it’s no wonder that South Carolina attracts both tourists and would-be transplants. I should know. I’ve been and am both.

5 Mt. Pleasant

patriots point

  • Area: 58.64 mi²
  • Elevation: 16′
  • Population: 86,982

Mount Pleasant is a large suburban town in the South Carolina Low Country. It’s the fourth largest municipality and for several years was one of the state’s fastest-growing areas, doubling in population between 1990 and 2000.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Boone Hall Plantation is one of America’s oldest working plantations, with continuous crop-growing for over 320 years. Boone Hall claims to be America’s most photographed plantation, and the long passageway of centuries-old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss as you approach the mansion is easily recognizable.

The Black History in America exhibit in nine of the original cabins of the plantation’s former enslaved people is impressive and heart-wrenching at the same time.  Through the use of videos, photos, audio, and exhibits, each cabin tells a different story of the struggles in history up to the present day.

Shem Creek offers picturesque waterfront dining serving traditional Lowcountry dishes and drinks. There are a park and a 10-foot wide boardwalk for a stroll with panoramic views of the marsh and Charleston Harbor and even the occasional dolphin viewings.

Also in Mount Pleasant is Patriots Point, the best place to catch a vibrant sunset over the Charleston cityscape across the Cooper River. There are restaurants there with huge floor-to-ceiling windows where you can dine while being mesmerized by the ever-changing brilliant colors. Before the sunset, visitors can spend some time at the maritime museum, a haven of American History. Tour the World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown (you can sleep on board!) – one of the main attractions at Patriots Point. There’s also a golf course and Waterfront Park and Pier.

4 Myrtle Beach

myrtle beach

  • Area: 23.77 mi²
  • Elevation: 26′
  • Population: 32,700

Myrtle Beach is one of the best-known tourist destinations in the Carolinas. In addition to the white sand beaches, balmy climate, and excellent culinary scene, it’s also popular due to the wide range of attractions and activities to suit every age and lifestyle. It’s identified for the heavily touristic beaches and boardwalk, but there are plenty of things to do for those who are seeking a respite away from the crowds.

Myrtle Beach is considered one of the best southeastern beaches in the U.S. as well as one of the best getaways on the Atlantic Coast. With over 60 miles of beautiful Atlantic beaches on Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand, there are a variety of beaches to choose from, to suit different styles. During the summer, many of the beaches are crowded but offer a fun, festive vacation vibe. Myrtle Beach is one of the best family beaches on the East Coast, but for those looking for more seclusion, there are other beaches located on the intercostal or in the small fishing villages that are unspoiled and quieter.

The place to be on the northern South Carolina coast is the spectacular Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. Opened in 2010, the festive promenade is the highlight of Myrtle Beach. It spans a length of more than a mile, from Pier 14 to 2nd Ave Pier. All along the way are colorful trinket shops and ocean view eateries beckoning visitors to stop and take a look… or taste. The famous 200-foot-high Skywheel is located on the Boardwalk.

Don’t miss a fun night out at House of Blues, an eclectically fitted-out venue that serves up favorite Southern grub such as po’boys and jambalaya, plus live music. It’s located on Broadway on the Beach entertainment area. When we were there, we were treated to a fabulous concert by South Carolina’s own hometown hero, Darius Rucker.

Here are romantic things to do in Myrtle Beach.

3 Greenville

greenville sc

  • Area: 28.8 square miles
  • Elevation: 966 feet
  • Population 68,563

Ah, Greenville, my adopted new hometown. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Over the last ten years or so, it’s been lauded as “the new Charleston,” the “Goldilocks Town,” and similar accolades as more and more tourists and prospective transplants discover the abundant charms of this small town. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville is halfway between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, about an hour’s drive from Asheville, North Carolina, and less than an hour’s drive to some of the region’s best lakes.

And the charms – where do I start? It’s one of the best small cities in South Carolina. The wildly popular downtown, revitalized 30 years ago, is the cultural heartbeat of the city and has become the go-to model for other small southern towns that are looking to revamp their own Main Streets.

Anchored by NOMA (North Main) on one end and Falls Park on the Reedy on the other, the downtown main drag is the “in” place to be. Every Friday from March through September, NOMA closes down and turns into a party with live music, street food, beer and wine, and a ton of happy, dancing locals. Further up, the light-strung tree-canopied street is lined with outdoor cafes, upscale restaurants, boutique shops, and ice cream parlors.

There are several entertainment venues in the downtown area – the Peace Center for Broadway shows, Bon Secours arena for concerts and sporting events, the Warehouse Theater and Center Stage for small, intimate live plays, and Café And Then Some comedy club.

Outdoor festivals include two 3-day events – Fall for Greenville in autumn and Artistphere in spring. Shakespeare in the Park puts on plays with local talent (taking lots of artistic interpretation) in Falls Park during the summer.

Outdoor activities include easy access to kayaking, white water rafting, hiking to dozens of waterfalls or mountain trails, zip-lining through the treetops, and biking or walking on the Swamp Rabbit Trail that runs through several small towns. And then, of course, there’s Falls Park, as it’s called by the locals. The park has walking trails, an artsy pedestrian suspension bridge, a gorgeous multi-tiered waterfall, grassy areas for picnics, and an ice cream and coffee shop conveniently waiting to serve patrons at the park entrance.

For baseball enthusiasts, Fluor Field in the West End hosts the Greenville Drive Class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. It’s particularly thrilling to me, a New England transplant, to watch a game in the stadium replica of Fenway Park, complete with its own Green Monster wall standing 30 feet high in left field.

Here are 10 of the best things to see on your first visit to Greenville.

Here’s how to discover Greenville on a Segway.

2 Beaufort

beaufort sc

  • Area: 33.6 square miles
  • Elevation: 10 feet
  • Population: 13,357

I’ll let you in on a secret…Savannah, Georgia was my favorite city in the United States for many years. Until I visited Beaufort, South Carolina.

Just a 1.5-hour drive from better-known neighbor Charleston, Beaufort (pronounced “byoo-furt,” not “bo-fort”), on Port Royal Island, is called the “Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands” for good reason. Ranked by Livability as one of the Top 100 Small Towns in 2015, Beaufort is known for its pristine beaches, charming antebellum mansions in the historic downtown, Gullah culture, and famous Lowcountry dining like Frogmore Stew.

Ocean and intercostal waterways provide opportunities for myriad outdoor pursuits such as the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, kayaking on the Beaufort River, jogging Forest Gump-style on the famous Woods Memorial Bridge, or exploring the stunning driftwood on nearby Boneyard Beach.

Unbeknownst to most, Beaufort is arguably the MOST important and historic town in the United States. ALL of American history began in Beaufort – not Jamestown, not Plymouth Rock. Intrigued? Here is the fascinating and important history of Beaufort.

About five miles away is Parris Island, one of two training grounds in the United States for Marine cadets. The general public can attend the incredible Parris Island Marine graduation festivity, and if you’re visiting during that time, I suggest that you do.

Here are more things to do in Beaufort.

1 Charleston

cities in south carolina

  • Area: 156.6 mi²
  • Elevation: 19.69′
  • Population: 135,257

Listed as one of the world’s best cities to visit by some of the big-name travel magazines, the smallish southern metropolis lives up to its name. The location on the coast could not be better — it’s approximately halfway between Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, and also an easy day trip to beautiful, historic Savannah, Georgia which is just a 2-hour drive.

Founded in 1670, the lovely city is defined by its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and pastel antebellum houses, particularly in the elegant French Quarter and Battery districts. The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park both overlook Charleston Harbor, while Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold where the first shots of the Civil War rang out, lies across the water.

You’ll want to explore Charleston on foot. Rainbow Row is arguably Charleston’s most Instagrammable spot. It’s a series of thirteen bright pastel-colored townhouses, lined up one-after-another opposite the waterfront. It’s the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the United States.

Waterfront Park offers 10 acres of fantastic views of the Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River and is the site of the Pineapple Fountain landmark. The park received the 2007 Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Click here to read more about what to do in Charleston.

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About the Author

Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.

She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.

Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.

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