Charleston is known for its historic charm, architecture, food, waterways and its beaches. And, within a short drive from Downtown Charleston, visitors and locals alike have a choice of five pristine beaches: Sullivan’s Island Beach, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, Kiawah Island Beach and Seabrook Island Beach. The three that rank among the best beaches in Charleston SC are mainly due to mere proximity coupled with their varied offerings. Let us dive in so you can choose which is the best of the beaches in Charleston SC for you.
What Beaches are In or Close to Charleston?
While in the downtown district proper, there are no beaches in Charleston SC, there are five beaches close by on the Atlantic Ocean and considered “Charleston SC Beaches.” These five are each located on a South Carolina barrier Island: Sullivan’s Island Beach, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, Kiawah Island Beach and Seabrook Island Beach.
What is the Closest Beach Town to Charleston?
Sullivan’s Island Beach 20 minutes, 9.8 miles
Folly Beach 22 minutes+, 11.5 miles
Isle of Palms 30 minutes, 13.6 miles
Kiawah Island 44 minutes, 25.3 miles
Seabrook Island 45 minutes, 26.6 miles
The 3 Best Beaches in Charleston SC, a local’s choice.
All five beaches are the type of beaches you would expect on the East Coast—smooth and flat with white sandy beautiful beaches. In determining the three best beaches in Charleston it comes down to distance as all five are quite lovely in their own right, however each of the top three Charleston beaches has a different personality. Let’s look at the three closest beaches to Charleston. (And, make sure to read to the end for a bonus beach that is a unique experience).
Sullivan’s Island Beach
Steeped in history and endowed with natural beauty, Sullivan's Island Beach stands out among the beaches in Charleston, SC. This island, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, is now a beach paradise for history buffs and nature lovers alike. In 2023, it continues to charm visitors with its lighthouse, historic Fort Moultrie, and wide sandy beach that invites a leisurely stroll or an invigorating swim.
Sullivan’s is the only non commercial beach on the list. There are no hotels, no B&Bs, no chain restaurants, no development at all on the beach itself.
Sullivan's Island Beach is located just outside Mount Pleasant, has a stretch of 3 miles of pristine beach, and is located at the mouth of Charleston Harbor and has views of Fort Moultrie.
There are no public restrooms, changing areas, lifeguards or parking lots. No alcohol, plastics or smoking allowed. Parking is free and limited along the streets prior to each station inlet. Dogs are allowed off-leash on the beach, with a collar license during certain hours, season dependent.
The beach is protected by a large section of sand dunes and natural growth along the access area with discreet and charming beach homes bordering in the distance.
Sullivan’s is known for its quieter beach and charming feel. You are likely to see dolphins, shells, sand dollars, jellyfish and even sea turtles (or at least evidence of their nests) during nesting season. Although, the beaches do get “crowded” during prime times of the summer, they are still much quieter than the other surrounding beaches.
Adjacent to the beach is a small, historic beach town (not your typical tourist beach town) that offers dining with local restaurants (Obstinate Daughter, Mex-1 and Hometown BBQ are a few favorites), a little shopping and a kiteboarding shop (one of the beach’s popular activities). Sullivan's Island Beach is a perfect place for early mornings—the Sunrises are fantastic. Sullivan's Island Beach Rules >
Folly Beach, known as the "edge of America," is a more typical tourist, surfer beach town. Expect a slightly larger eating and shopping district (although still small and quaint) complete with several souvenir and beachwear shops, live music, bars, eateries, water sports and hotels on the beach.
Folly is also widely known for its fishing pier, Folly Beach Pier stretches 1049 feet into the water (it is said to be the 2nd longest pier on the East Coast). As a hot spot for surfing, surprising, I know, it is home to two surf shops. Popular activities also include fishing, paddle boarding, kayaking, parasailing, shell hunting and more.
Folly Beach is popular with younger crowds and gets very crowded during the summer (it is considered one of, if not the, most popular beaches in the area. The road leading to Folly Beach can become quite congested, affecting the travel time.
There are life guards on duty seasonally, beach chair and umbrella rentals, public bathrooms and outdoor showers. Street parking is paid. Sunsets are spectacular. Smoking and alcohol are prohibited on the beach. Dogs are also prohibited from 10am to 6pm, May 1st to Sept 30th (and must be on leash at all times otherwise).
The least crowded spot on Folly Beach is at the west end of the Island, Folly Beach County Park. There is no fee to enter, there is a fee to park if driving. It also has beach chair and umbrella rentals as well as boogie board rentals plus showers, picnic area, and a restaurant inside the park. This also a great beach to find shark's teeth in Charleston—perhaps the best of Charleston's beaches, aside from a longer trip outside of downtown, for shark's teeth.
At the very eastern tip of the beach, Morris Island Lighthouse can be seen (not accessed). Folly Beach Rules >
Isle of Palms
The most commercialized of the three beaches, Isle of Palms is more of a resort beach town and also considered, the most family friendly.
In addition to its white sandy beautiful beaches, there is championship golf, tennis, a marina and all the traditional ocean water sports activities. It is lined with lodging options from the most basic to 5-star resorts, including Wild Dunes resort, and a Ritz-Carlton resort.
There is public access at Isle of Palms County Park beachside with rental chairs, umbrellas and a sand volley ball court. This area does get busy.
Public, paid parking is available. Alcohol and dogs are allowed on the beach (dogs must be leashed at all times). Isle of Palms Beach Rules >
Which is the Better Beach, Sullivan’s, Folly or Isle of Palms?
It really comes down to your own personal beach going preferences. As you can see, Charleston is lucky to have access to three distinctively different beaches.
For a more laid back, relaxing and natural beach, the best Charleston beach is Sullivan’s Island Beach. For a more typical beach town experience, Folly Beach is the best Charleston Beach. And, for a more resort and commercial experience, Isle of Palms is the best Charleston beach.
Bonus: Boneyard Beach, A Unique Charleston SC Beach
Let's take our sandy journey further, to the bewitching Boneyard Beach. This unique beach, with its enchanting landscape adorned with sun-bleached, time-ravaged trees is a sight to behold. Its eerie yet captivating charm draws you into a timeless world, where the line between land and sea is blurred. The haunting beauty of the skeletal trees, standing like sentinels on the beach, creates a captivating, almost mystical atmosphere. Boneyard Beach offers you a different, perhaps more profound, beach experience, where you can contemplate the relentless march of time and the impermanence of everything. It's not just a beach; it's a natural sculpture garden, a photographer's paradise, and a meditative retreat rolled into one.
Boneyard beach is located on the uninhabited island: Bulls Island and is accessible only by boat, or ferry. It's a perfect location for shark tooth hunting, nature exploring and yes, soaking up the rays. The ferry will make "beach drops" and allows you access to the beach for varying times frames.
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