Beaufort (pronounced “byoo-furt,” not “bo-fort”), on the South Carolina coast, 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 has everything needed to attract couples, families, or solo travelers – pristine beaches, charming antebellum downtown, rich history, Gullah culture, and famous Lowcountry dining. Outdoor and nature activities abound – you will not run out of things to do in Beaufort SC!
Nestled on Port Royal Island on the South Carolina coast, Beaufort is one of those destinations you’ll want to return to time and time again. The ocean and intercoastal waterways provide opportunities for all kinds of water activities. Combine that with the stunning visual of the old Spanish moss oaks and its undeniable place in the history of America, and it’s kind of like combining the best of Charleston (1.5 hours away) with the best of Savannah (one hour away) – but with a more laid-back vibe.
You may not realize it, but Beaufort arguably ranks as the most significant historical American city that you’ve never heard of. American history began in Port Royal Sound in the 16th-century. The Spanish settlement at Santa Elena on Parris Island is dated 11 years before St. Augustine, 38 years before Jamestown, and 51 years before the English pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock; Beaufort was the first European colonial settlement in the new world.
Rich plantation owners played a major financial role in the Revolutionary War. But perhaps most notable, under the leadership of Robert Barnwell Rhett, known as “the Father of Succession,” South Carolina was the first state to succeed and thus instigated the Civil War, and subsequent reconstruction period.
Beaufort history is incredibly fascinating. For a better understanding, read my article Beaufort SC: US History Began HERE.
The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of West Africans from the African country of Angola, spelled N’gullah. The enslaved worked on the rice, indigo and cotton plantations in Beaufort and the Sea Islands.
They created a unique culture with deep African roots that present in their unique arts, crafts, food, music, and spirituality.
Gullah Geechee is a unique, creole language which began as a simplified form of communication with vocabulary and grammatical roots fused from African and European languages. It is the only distinctly, African creole language in the United States and it has influenced traditional Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.
Many of the enslaved landed in nearby Charleston harbor. In fact, 60% of all African Americans can trace their lineage back to Charleston, South Carolina.
On my first visit to Beaufort, I had the opportunity to attend a private concert by the Gullah Kinfolk. Their unique style and uplifting renditions of the Gullah historical journey knocked my socks off! History sung through songs passed down over the ages in colorful traditional costumes. It was touching, to say the least.
Below is a list of the best things to do in Beaufort.
1. Kayak in the Bay
The bay is calm and perfect for kayaking. Our guide with Beaufort Lands End Tours took us out to view the abundant nature and ecology of the area and a small island offshore. We even had a couple of small dolphins surface playfully just next to our kayaks!
You can also kayak around the point to view the antebellum mansions used as film sets, but the current was against us that day, and we had limited time, so we weren’t able to take advantage of that part of the tour.
2. Beaufort Historic District
Downtown History Tours
Whether you take a carriage or walking tour, exploring the history of Beaufort is a must-do. Both tours take visitors to the most important historical buildings and landmarks in the city with excellent narration (and costumes!).
The Beaufort Arsenal
Completed in 1798 at a cost of $2,500, the huge yellow tabby-and-brick Beaufort Arsenal is one of the most significant historic buildings in all of Beaufort. Built in 1798 to house the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery after it fought with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, the Arsenal became a place for hosting social events and military ceremonies after the Civil War. In 1892 the BVA became the South Carolina National Guard.
In the courtyard are two British historic cannons that were captured and seized by Union soldiers and inside is the Beaufort History Museum.
Robert Smalls Home
Robert Smalls’ story is fascinating. Born into slavery in Beaufort in 1839, he lived there until being sent to work on the Confederate ship CSS Planter during the Civil War. On May 13, 1862, in an act of incredible heroism, he commandeered the ship and turned it over to the Union forces, freeing himself and his crew and their families from slavery. His example and persuasion helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.
After the war, he bought his former master’s home in Beaufort in a tax sale, and became a successful businessman, publisher, and very influential politician, passing legislation authorizing South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.
Parish Church of St. Helena
Founded in 1721, the still-functioning church is one of the oldest active churches in the country and was attended by many of Beaufort’s most prominent and wealthy citizens. The church’s cemetery includes graves of Colonel John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell, a famous colonial-era Indian fighter, Thomas Heyward, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Confederate General Richard “Fightin’ Dick” Anderson.
Once owned by Edmund Rhett, brother of U.S. Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett, Greek Revival-style mansion is where Southerners first met and later launched their secession plan. There is even an inscription on the basement wall that reads, “In this house, the first meeting of Secession was held in South Carolina.”
First African Baptist Church
This was built after the Civil War by freed slaves who purchased the land after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War two years later. The former slaves bought the land and built the church together. Robert Smalls was among the church’s earliest members. It looks today much as it did back then.
3. Beaufort Waterfront
Henry C. Chambers Waterfront
The most prominent of Beaufort’s twenty parks, the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park is a scenic spot to take a sunset walk along the riverfront or enjoy the water views from one the many swings. Opened in 1979, the 7-acre park anchors downtown with plenty of green space for frolicking around. The park can function as a secluded, romantic spot of peace-and-quiet in the heart of downtown, or as a playground where kids can burn off some energy. Also located in the Henry C. Chambers Park, is the bench Tom Hanks sat on as he pondered life.
Stephen Elliott Park
Just off Bay Street with the best view of Woods Memorial Bridge, “Cannon Park,” as the locals call it, is a popular setting for local weddings and photo ops. The park is home to two historic cannons that date back to the Revolutionary War, removed from the British ship Vigilant.
Woods Memorial Bridge
4. Filming Sets
If you’re a movie buff, you’ll want to The Point while in Beaufort. Covering a dozen blocks of historic residences, this area has been the setting for movies such as The Big Chill, The Great Santini, Last Dance, and Forces of Nature. The visually-stunning antebellum homes and streets lined with oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and a plethora of centuries-old churches provided the perfect background scenery.
There’s even a movie tour that you can take to see the filming sites. The most popular stop is Tidalholm (above), where both The Great Santini and The Big Chill were filmed.
Other filming sites in Beaufort and the Sea Islands include G.I. Jane, The Prince of Tides, Something to Talk About, and The Jungle Book.
5. Shop in Downtown
Named after Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, my interior designer background was in heaven here! Colorful and adorable, the charming shop has all sorts of Southern home décor, furnishings, and lighting on display. You can also buy unique jewelry and a sweet tea float (sweet tea combined with a sorbet of choice) at Scout.
The Chocolate Tree
The Chocolate Tree was a favorite of Tom Hanks during the filming of the movie Forest Gump. In spite of the shop being the inspiration for the movie and Hank’s line, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get,” this wasn’t precisely true for Hanks who hand-selected his chocolates from over 60 varieties of the sweet treats made daily. Note: they give out a free sample to every customer!
I could stroll for hours along Bay Street. With the water views on one side and colorful boutique shops on the other, there’s something to please everyone.
6. Spanish Moss Trail
The Spanish Moss Trail is a 10-mile scenic greenway that follows the former Port Royal Railroad that was constructed in 1870. Unfinished, the pathway will total 13.6 miles that will run through Beaufort County between Port Royal and Yemassee. Our hotel, the Cuthbert House, provides free bikes where you can start the bike ride from downtown Beaufort to Port Royal.
7. Old Sheldon Church Ruins
The Instagram-worthy ruins of the Prince William’s Parish Church is one of the most sacred spots in all of the Carolina Lowcountry. Constructed between 1745 and 1753, the church claims to be the first replica of a Greek temple in America. In 1779, the church was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War and later rebuilt in 1826. The church was burned again by General Sherman in 1865 during his march through the south in the Civil War.
Intriguing, mysterious, and stunningly beautiful, the sacred grounds are said to be haunted. The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 22, 1970.
8. Best Beaufort Restaurants
Saltus River Grill
Hand-down, our favorite eatery was Saltus River Grill. Fine dining made even better by the al-fresco atmosphere in historic downtown Beaufort and views of the waterfront. The mussels we had here were among the best we’ve ever eaten.
Urban-chic Breakwater offers a lighter, fresher “new southern” cuisine. The food was delicious and our server was superb – southern hospitality at its best.
Casual, down-home Plums in Waterfront Park is a great bistro for lunch. The diverse menu includes American favorites like burgers and chicken salad, and local seafood such as oysters, po-boys and peel-and-eat shrimp.
Q on the Bay
If you love smoked barbeque (and I do!), Q is your place. Overlooking the Beaufort River, the outdoor patio is the best spot to indulge your inner carnivore. Look for the sign with the pig.
Johnson Creek Tavern
Located on Harbor Island, just a short drive from downtown Beaufort, Johnson Creek Tavern has delicious she-crab soup and oysters, all eaten in an attractive marsh-view setting.
For a casual snack, head to the Lowcountry Produce Market and Café. Take-out picnic snacks or eat-in goodies such as pies, housemade relishes, local cheeses and all kinds of Lowcountry specialties are available for purchase there.
Old Bull Tavern
If you don’t mind a stuffed bull mounted above the bar looking at you, then you might try Old Bull Tavern. The quirky décor features a red British telephone booth that separates the two dining rooms. Full transparency, this was my least favorite restaurant. The service was not great, I didn’t care for the gorgonzola sauce on my Angus tenderloin, and it’s a bit overpriced for pub food
Lowcountry Food to Try
Also referred to as Lowcountry Boil, Frogmore Stew has been a staple of Lowcountry cuisine for decades. Don’t expect to find frogs in Frogmore Stew –instead look for loads of shrimp, sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob.
Known as “breakfast shrimp,” shrimp and grits originated years ago as breakfast for coastal fishermen and their families. The dish consisted of a pot of grits (usually cooked with cream, butter, and/or cheese) with shrimp pre-cooked in bacon grease. Over the past decade, shrimp and grits has become a refined staple southern dish, served in the best restaurants.
A favorite of coastal South Carolina, she-crab soup is a rich soup, similar to lobster bisque, made of milk or heavy cream and crab stock, with Atlantic blue crab meat, and a small amount of dry sherry served at the top of the soup.
Oysters and mussels….I don’t like them raw, but I can attest first-hand that the fried oysters and steamed mussels were fabulous.
9. Festivals in Beaufort SC
Beaufort’s Waterfront Park hosts a variety of fun festivals at monthly intervals throughout the year.
10. Explore the Islands
Port Royal is known for conservation efforts along with boating, walking, and bird watching. The Sands and Boardwalk at Port Royal offers a long boardwalk with a three-story tower to climb for the views or simply cast your line if you like to fish.
St. Helena Island
Founded in 1982, 50-acre Penn Center is the site of the former Penn School – the first academic school for freed slaves, and now a Gullah Community Center.
When the plantation owners fled after the Civil War, the freed Gullah Geechee people remained and were taught how to support themselves. Students received education in academics as well as skills in farming, finances, and homemaking.
The Penn Center also served as a secret meeting place for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his fight for Civil Rights. It is alleged that he penned his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from Gantt Cottage on the estate.
It’s considered one of the most significant institutions for African American education, history and culture in existence today.
Also on St. Helena Island, the Chapel of Ease, constructed of tabby in 1740, was built as a chapel of ease for parishioners for whom the main church of Beaufort was too far to travel. The Chapel of Ease ruins was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The church was burned by a forest fire in 1886 and it was never rebuilt.
Fort Fremont is a Spanish American War fort built in 1899 as a coastal battery, although no shots were ever fired from the fort because no threats or call-to-arms were ever made.
Located right along the water, the fort’s attractive grounds and battery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Historic Resources of St. Helena Island. The fort is usually open free to the public but is currently closed for renovations. Check their website for updates.
Less than a 30-minute drive from downtown Beaufort, exploring Hunting Island was my favorite thing to do! The State Park attracts more than a million visitors a year and includes 5 miles of pristine beaches, forests, marshlands, and a saltwater lagoon.
For me, the most anticipated Instagram site of my trip to Beaufort was the spectacular “boneyard” beach on Hunting Island (named one of the top 100 beaches by TripAdvisor). It did not disappoint. The driftwood beach is a hauntingly beautiful reminder of the ever-changing coastline. It’s not just branches that have been washed up onshore. It’s a veritable graveyard of entire trees that have been uprooted.
One of the most recognizable landmarks in the Beaufort area is the historic Hunting Island Lighthouse. It’s the only lighthouse in South Carolina where you can climb to the top, and it’s worth the 167-step climb to the observation deck of the 136-foot lighthouse for the birds-eye view. Only six people at a time are allowed to climb to the top, and climbers must be at least 44 inches tall.
Get your own Hello Sunshine hat here.
Parris Island is best known as the basic training center of the U.S. Marine Corps Eastern Recruiting Division. Many family members visit Parris Island to attend graduation ceremonies of loved ones. While here, visitors can also explore the Parris Island Museum as well as take in the many attractions of the other Sea Islands.
Since Kary is a retired Marine/Air National Guard, we decided to attend the Parris Island graduation of cadets. Much to my surprise, it was a fascinating and patriotic event. You can read Kary’s account of it here.
Where to Stay in Beaufort
Cuthbert House Inn
We absolutely adored the historic Cuthbert House and think it’s the very best place to stay in Beaufort! The front of the gorgeous antebellum mansion has unobstructed views of the bay (including from our suite!) and the convenient prime downtown location is within walking distance to all attractions.
The wealthy Cuthbert family (plantation owners) built the stunning antebellum home around 1790 but fled in 1861 because of the Civil War. Union General Rufus Saxton sieged Beaufort and Saxton took Cuthbert House as his own; in the Cuthbert House, he entertained no other than General W. T. Sherman.
In 1960, the Cuthbert House was one of the first homes in Beaufort to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We stayed in the Eastlake Suite – the inn’s best accommodation, which had a huge fireplace living area with water views, king bedroom, and bathroom. All maintained the beautiful colors, styles, décor, accessories, and charm of the era.
But the most interesting thing about Eastlake Suite was not the décor…. Young Union soldiers left some of Beaufort’s earliest graffiti behind when they carved their names in the black marble mantle of the fireplace in the Eastlake Suite parlor.
The inn also serves a delicious cook-to-order breakfast which changes every day in the sunny dining room and hosts a meet-and-greet wine hour every afternoon from 5:00 – 6:00 with hosts Pierre-Edouard & Connie Binot.
Another great option is the Beaufort Inn. It’s not directly on the water, the guest cottages are new, and they don’t serve breakfast, but it’s still beautiful and in a great location in downtown. The guest houses surround an attractive courtyard behind the main building.
When to Go
Beaufort is a gorgeous fusion of antebellum homes, intercoastal waterways, driftwood beaches, outdoor activities, superb Lowcountry dining, and a vibrant art scene. The weather is great, year-round, and there are so many things to do in Beaufort. Isn’t it time you visited?
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Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by Kary Kern.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Visit Beaufort during her stay, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” 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 six continents looking for places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.