Plan your summer vacation around one of these Carolina beach trips.
Coastal Carolina destinations are sure to capture your heart. Together, the Carolinas boast an impressive 500-some miles of shoreline, stretching from the Lowcountry of South Carolina to the thin strands of the windswept Outer Banks of Eastern North Carolina.
In fact, more than half of North Carolina’s coast is concentrated in the Outer Banks, a series of barrier islands divided into four regions. Conversely, you can take Ocean Highway 17-South into the Palmetto State for almost 200 weaving miles of Atlantic Ocean coast. Sprinkled into the shore are a diverse array of Carolina towns, each with its own character and beachy presence. Some are quieter, some rural or remote, while some Carolina coastal towns attract large, nation-wide crowds during high season. Whatever your speed, here are the places we think you should summer, and how best to enjoy each one.
South Carolina’s oldest city is known for its beautiful beaches, iconic cobblestone streets, and pastel-colored antebellum houses. Charleston is a city rich with history, dating all the way back to the 1670s. Swing by the French Quarter and check out local artwork and crafts at the 19th Century Charleston City Market. While you’re there, brush up on your Civil War history in the old Market Hall. Before you head out, grab some mouthwatering, southern-style seafood at one of the many restaurants along the waterfront.
Southport is a quaint coastal village bursting with local charm. Located where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic ocean, Southport is the perfect destination for water sports fans, foodies, and history buffs alike. Start your day by kayaking or paddle-boarding along the Cape Fear River. Then make your way over to the downtown area for a diverse array of local eateries, shops, and antique stores. While you’re there, make sure to visit Howe Street, where you’ll find a plethora of art galleries representing local talent.
Located along the pristine shores of the Pasquotank River, Elizabeth City represents the largest community in the northeastern coastal region of North Carolina. Adventure across 20,000 acres of state parks, lounge lazily on a pontoon boat, or check out downtown for a bit of history. For the craft beer enthusiasts, stop for a pint at Ghost Harbor Brewing. Situated conveniently in the historic Pailin’s Alley in downtown Elizabeth City, the brewery is a favorite haunt amongst locals.
Wilmington is a bustling river town with a beach bum mentality. The city itself, located along the Cape Fear River, boosts a population of over 100,000. Many visit for its proximity to a handful of local beaches along the Atlantic Ocean and it’s great surf. Take a walk through the river district, aka the heart of Wilmington, and discover local eateries, scenic views, and charming Victorian-era homes and gardens.
Home to the birthplace of the famous soft drink, Pepsi, New Bern is a picturesque coastal Carolina town rich with local history. The 310-year-old city has a thriving foodie scene–from southern-style cooking, to authentic Indian food, there’s a little something for everyone. New Bern offers many unique attractions, but perhaps the most iconic is the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses. Hop on the Island Express Ferry to get a view of the wild horses that live along the 56-mile long Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Georgetown is the third oldest city in South Carolina and the state’s second largest seaport. The town is situated conveniently at the halfway mark between Myrtle Beach and Charleston on the Winyah Bay. Take a stroll along the oak-lined streets of Historic Downtown Georgetown, visit one of the five museums the city has to offer, and shop downtown at the exclusively local retailers.
Minutes from Hilton Head Island and on the banks of the May River sits this Lowcountry town in Beaufort County. With a population of around 20,000, beautiful antebellum homes, artisan shops, historic churches, and delicious restaurants, Bluffton is anything but boring. Admire the oak trees draped in moss by the river. This is the spot to be whether you’re looking for a place to vacation with your family, get married, or even call home. If southern charm is what you’re craving, this town is just what you’re looking for.
Topsail Beach/Surf City
This laidback, family-friendly beach town in Pender County, North Carolina boasts the unique combination of small-town charm and gorgeous views. Enjoy the beach in its raw, unadulterated form and the freedom from crowds with a read, drink, or bite right on the water. When your skin needs a break from the sun, go learn about the pirate lore behind the beach’s name at Missiles and More Museum.
Port Royal Island, one of South Carolina’s coastal Sea Islands, hosts the city of Beaufort at its heart. Renowned for its scenic location, historic atmosphere, and preservation of antebellum architecture, Beaufort has a lot to offer. Fill your shopping bag at Habersham Marketplace, see the city from above for a biplane tour, learn about the town at Beaufort History Museum, or even dolphin watch during your stay in this amazing town.
Isle of Palms
Sharing the name of the island in which it’s located, this city is known for its beaches, condos, eateries, and sea turtle nests. Tan at the beach, play a game of golf, or enjoy a relaxing meal at the oceanfront resort Wild Dunes. You can also spend a day in Charleston, located only 30 minutes away. Whatever you choose, you’re sure to enjoy this island nestled between the Atlantic and Intracoastal Waterway.
Catch your own meal in this Charleston County, South Carolinian small fishing town. The Atlantic encompasses McClellanville and traditionally sourced its livelihood through fishing, shrimping, and oystering. Additionally, Francis Marion National Forest surrounds the town. It is a natural haven for hikers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, and all outdoorsy folk alike. If you happen to visit during the last month of spring, the town hosts its popular Lowcountry Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet on the first Saturday of May each year.
Words By Sunny Hubler, List Compiled By Erika Nesto & Sam Husted