13 Reasons to Drive to Hilton Head, South Carolina
Take a load off at craft distilleries, tasty seafood shacks, serene natural escapes, and all things beach.
While the South Carolina shoreline is peppered with all sorts of gorgeous islands, it’s tough to beat Hilton Head. In addition to abundant natural beauty, this top-tier vacation destination comes equipped with a vibrant food scene and some truly raucous bars—and, best of all, it’s within easy driving distance to both Savannah and Charleston, two of the South’s most beloved coastal gems. Whether you’re planning a full-on Carolinas road trip or just looking for a sandy beach to sip Mai Tais on, Hilton Head is the spot.
Explore Bluffton’s culinary landscape
If you’re in the mood for a little off-island exploration, the charming town of Bluffton awaits just across the Karl Bowers Bridge. Founded in 1852, this small community has developed a booming drinking and dining scene since the dawn of the 21st century. Case in point? Burnt Church Distillery, a massive venue armed with an even more massive spirits selection. After sampling some rye whiskey and sweet potato pie-flavored moonshine, be sure to swing by downtown Bluffton for some quality eats at FARM, a polished venue that offers New American fare with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.
Scan the shore for native wildlife
Hilton Head may be home to a booming tourism industry, but there’s a lot more to encounter here than your fellow homosapiens. The southwestern reaches of the island are home to top-notch birding destinations including Audubon Newhall Preserve and Sea Pines Forest Preserve, while Hilton Head’s sprawling coastline is a treasure trove of shorebirds and even the occasional sea turtle—and even if you don’t head into the island’s pristine forested parks, you’re likely to see a couple of Hilton Head’s resident alligators lazing along ponds all across the island. Just remember to watch your toes.
Get lost in local culture
Looking to get a lay of the land that goes beyond Google Maps? The Gullah Museum is a great place to start. Founded in 2003 by Hilton Head native Louise Miller Cohen, this fascinating institution offers first-hand information about the island’s Gullah community founded by Black Americans in the wake of the Civil War. While October visitors can sample seafood gumbo, deviled crab, and other savory shellfish dishes at the annual Gullah Food Festival, guided tours of the museum are available year-round.
Spend a day on Daufuskie Island
Located directly southwest of Hilton Head, idyllic Daufuskie Island is a paradise for nature lovers and history buffs alike. After a short 45 minute ferry ride, new arrivals can head next door to Haig Point Lighthouse for a gorgeous view of the surrounding sound, or head down to isolated Bloody Point Beach in search of sea turtles, horseshoe crabs, and native shorebirds. Once lunchtime rolls around, swing by Daufuskie Crab Co. for some classic deviled crab, then head up to Daufuskie Island Rum Company for an afternoon tasting. An interesting side note about Daufuskie: Cars are an incredibly rare sight around here, with most visitors preferring to zip around via electric golf carts.
Hit up the island’s favorite rooftop bar
If you like your cocktails a little elevated (literally), Poseidon’s Rooftop Bar offers just that. In addition to having one of the best sunset views available on the island, this open-air hangout hosts a wide range of events on the weekends including dueling piano shows, raging dance parties, and more. Though the rooftop is temporarily closed for renovations, visitors can still find incredible cuisine just a couple of feet below courtesy of Poseidon’s NautiBar. This open-air venue is a haven for Southern-style dining with pimento cheese dip, fried green tomato caprese, and hush puppies all gracing the menu.
Dine on fresh seafood
With roughly 12 miles of sandy shoreline facing the Atlantic, it’s easy to see how Hilton Head has developed such an incredible seafood scene. While there’s no shortage of shellfish-rich dining venues across the island, there’s one particular spot that’s absolutely essential for first-timers. A local staple for more than half a century, the beloved Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks provides diners with a gorgeous view of the coast that pairs perfectly with lowcountry boil, almond-crusted flounder, or crabmeat-loaded stuffed shrimp. If that alone doesn’t satisfy your craving, head to neighboring Skull Creek Boathouse for some of their famous salt and vinegar crab cakes to complete the Hilton Head bang-bang.
Or anything else your heart desires
Not a fan of all things under the sea? No worries—Hilton Head comes equipped with all sorts of other cuisines to keep you going. Traditional southern food can be found in abundance at Lowcountry Backyard, while burgers and tacos reign supreme over at Chow Daddy’s. For more adventurous eaters, Porter & Pig gastropub features creative small plates and complex cocktails alongside intricate charcuterie boards, and Frankie Bones serves up some killer Italian food for all your carbo-loading needs. If you’d prefer to ditch American grub in favor of a little Southeast Asian flair, Ruan Thai Hut has some of the best curry and pad thai on the coast.
Head out on a distillery tour
Hilton Head’s local bars and restaurants can stir up some pretty stellar beverages, but if you’re in the mood for spirits straight from the source, Hilton Head Distillery has your back. Rum can be found in abundance here, with the Mountain Peak Espresso Rum, Toasted Coconut Rum, and Two Traditions Dark 23 Rum all up for grabs, while juniper fans can sample Jocassee Gin, a fragrant offering that’s teeming with notes of magnolia blossom and honeysuckle. Come in for a tasting, or better yet, grab a few bottles to take back to the folks at home.
Or enjoy a frozen cocktail by the beach
Though not quite as party-centric as Charleston or Savannah, Hilton Head isn’t short on hotspots for whetting your whistle. To achieve true beachside bliss, head over to the Tiki Hut, a vibrant outpost complete with live music, frozen cocktails, and ice cold beers—and if you’re itching for a crawl, Pool Bar Jim’s is in easy walking distance. The menu here is loaded with all sorts of sugary concoctions, but don’t miss out on the Lava Flow, a dangerously tasty frozen concoction brimming with strawberry, coconut, bananas, rum, and a healthy dollop of whipped cream on top.
Ascend Hilton Head’s famous lighthouse
For all the pharologists—a word we 100% didn’t look up just for this article—checking out the island, the Harbour Town Lighthouse and Museum is definitely worth a visit. This half-century-old beacon is one of the most iconic sites on Hilton Head, festooned with a bold red and white striped exterior that’s reminiscent of Cape Cod’s famous Nauset Lighthouse. The $5.75 admission fee provides guests with an opportunity to climb 114 steps (AKA 90 feet) to the lighthouse summit, where stunning panoramas of Harbour Town Golf Links and the surrounding marsh await.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the island
If you need a break from all that beachy relaxation, Adventure Hilton Head is ready to get your blood pumping. This creekside park offers a wealth of sky-high activities ranging from ziplining to an aerial adventure course, while those suffering from a fear of heights can join in on the fun at the property’s GoKart race track. For an even more stellar vantage point, Sky Pirate Parasail is an ideal venue for—you guessed it—parasailing, vaulting visitors hundreds of feet in the air to bask in the beauty of the island and possibly spot a couple of curious dolphins.
Brush up on your minigolf game
Hilton Head (and neighboring Bluffton) are rife with world-class golf courses ranging from the classic Hilton Head National to the splurge-worthy Harbour Town Golf Links, but the region also offers ample opportunity to work on your short game (especially if that’s the only game you’ve got). Pirate’s Island offers up a charming swashbuckler theme adorned with smoking cannons and skeletons clinging to treasure chests, alongside two courses with varying levels of difficulty. On the eastern edge of the island, Adventure Golf features two lagoon-style courses and also serves as the only combination putt-putt venue and arcade on the island. If you’re a certified minigolf expert, Legendary Golf’s professional and championship course rise to the challenge, and there’s even an “all day play” option for a slightly higher price.
Sail the ocean blue
While the island itself is pretty amazing, don’t miss out on all the activities available just beyond the beach. Local company Live Oac is a master of all trades when it comes to water activities, offering dolphin tours, boating, tubing, jet skiing, kayaking, and a wealth of other aquatic draws. For those who are happiest out of the water with a reel in hand, Hilton Head Fishing Charters is the go-to operation for onshore, deep sea, and even shark fishing (start upping your lifting regimen now).