This Seaside Town Is All About Storytelling and Southern Comforts

Haunted hotels, boneyard beaches, and—obviously—sweet tea.

the historic downtown of a southern seaside town
South Carolina's second-oldest city is full of inspiration. | Photo by Michelle Gross
South Carolina's second-oldest city is full of inspiration. | Photo by Michelle Gross

Dating back to 1711, Beaufort is South Carolina’s second-oldest city. Situated roughly between Charleston and Savannah, its Lowcountry landscapes—think wide-open marshlands and swaying oak trees dripped in Spanish moss—hold stories that span generations. (They also appear as the backdrop for cultural touchstones like Forrest Gump and The Big Chill.)

To truly understand this seaside town, you have to delve into its history. Remnants of the past can be found along Bay Street, where sweeping federal mansions and antebellum-style homes still stand, and on St. Helena Island, where the Gullah-Geechee community has lived for centuries.

You also need to get to know its people, both modern and historic. Robert Smalls, a former slave-turned-Union leader and politician during Beaufort’s tumultuous post-Civil War era, would eventually become the first African American captain of a vessel in US service. And you can’t talk about Beaufort without talking about its beloved Pat Conroy, author of novels like The Prince of Tides and The Water is Wide, whose legacy lives on today at an eponymous Literary Center in town.

There’s really not a bad time to visit, but fall—when the humidity is all but a distant memory and festival season is well underway—is the ideal time to explore. Don’t let the small-town vibes fool you: there’s more than enough things to do (and eat) in Beaufort to keep you busy—when you’re not sipping sweet tea and idling on a porch swing, that is.

a boat near a lawn where a crowd has convened for a festival
Each fall, Beaufort comes alive with festivals. | Visit Beaufort

Savor the best of festival season

Every October, the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival marks the start of fall. The party delivers dishes unique to the Lowcountry, including shrimp perloo and she-crab soup, as well as the Run Forrest Run 5K, which sees hundreds of locals donning their most capable Forrest Gump attire as they run across the famous Woods Memorial Bridge. If you miss the Shrimp Fest, don’t worry: With cold weather comes oyster roasts across the Sea Island, all culminating in a ten-day Oyster Fest and Tides To Table Restaurant Week, which showcases some of the best locally-sourced crustaceans every January.

At the end of October, Beaufort’s Fall Festival of Homes and Gardens is a great way to dip into a bit of local history. You can expect behind-the-scenes access to some of the grandest Beaufort homes and gardens, a low-country picnic on the banks of the Combahee River in Prince William Parish, and a southern-style brunch in the formal gardens of a federal-style home downtown. Not long after in early November, the Pat Conroy Literary Center—an absolute must-do any time of year—hosts a literary festival with tons of great speakers and storytelling from prize-winning authors, poets, and more.

Set amongst tall oaks on the edge of a cypress swamp, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Auldbrass Plantation—one of the largest projects the famed architect ever undertook—is only open to the public once a year in the fall. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and tickets need to be booked in advance. The property includes a main house, guest house, cabins, barn stables, aviary, and a pond with a floating ‘dining barge.’

a colonial style inn
The 247-year-old Historic Anchorage Inn | Photo courtesy of The Anchorage Inn

Steep yourself in historic sites and storytelling

Once you have boots on the ground, hit downtown Beaufort, where the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park offers historical walking tours year-round, or stroll along Bay Street, where dozens of charming boutiques, restaurants, and galleries are a great place to stop and visit with locals.

Stop in the Old Bay Marketplace where Southern Sweets Ice Cream & Sandwich Shop serves up all the vintage soda jerk feels. A couple doors down, Legacy Art Gallery is helmed by local artist Lisa Rivers whose gorgeous Gullah paintings and portraits are on full display and make for a great souvenir to take home.

Not far from the main drag, Lowcountry Produce Market & Cafe is well worth a visit for a light nosh along with some sweet tea and a stack of green tomatoes served with pimento and a garlic pepper jelly drizzle. Just up the street, if you’re looking to take home a piece of Beaufort history, The Chocolate Tree is the place that inspired the famous line from Forrest Gump about life being like a box of chocolates. And for one of the most scenic walks in town, the Spanish Moss Trail is a ten-mile stretch along a former railroad that'll take you past picturesque Lowcountry marshes and wetlands.

trees covered in Spanish moss on a marshland
Spanish moss drips off the trees in the Lowcountry. | Photo by Shawn Hill

Get out on the water

One of the best ways to see Beaufort is either on or by the water. Coastal Expeditions offers one of the best boat tours in town; available year-round right from the downtown marina, you’ll spot bottlenose dolphins bobbing along the water, nesting bald eagles, and ospreys over the course of just an hour and a half.

You’re also going to want to spend a day on Hunting Island State Park, one of the state’s most popular beaches. Walk through the hauntingly beautiful boneyard along the south beach, go hunting for shark teeth in the sand, or conquer your fear of heights by climbing the 167 steps to the top of the lighthouse for just $2.

the ruins of a chapel beneath Spanish moss
St. Helena's Chapel of Ease ruins are centuries old. | Visit Beaufort

Hop over to St. Helena Island

For centuries, St. Helena has been the heart of the Gullah-Geechee nation: descendants of West and Central Africans known for their rich cultural heritage and creole language. The Penn Center is a great place to learn about Gullah culture and history, with tours and heritage celebrations that bring three days of arts, demonstrations, storytelling, and food to the island.

While you’re here, pop by the nearby Chapel of Ease. Originally built in the 1700s, the ruins are all that remain, but the historic significance and wistful Spanish moss that surround the structure make it worthy of a quick stop.

Once you’ve gotten your fill of history, get your fill of food. It’s easy to drive right by Beedos along the Sea Island Parkway, but the pimento cheese and fried chicken sandos are worth making a U-turn for. And for an intro to low-country cooking, Gullah Grub is also just off the Parkway. Arrive early to grab some crab soup with a side of rice and cornbread before it sells out, then head across the street to check out the incredible collection of Gullah artwork on display at LyBenson’s Gallery.

a meal and wine near a seaside restaurant
At Fishcamp, enjoy dinner and seaside sunsets. | Fishcamp on 11th Street

Feast on po'boys, potato pies, and painkillers

Fall is officially shrimp season in Beaufort, but before you dive in, start with pumpkin pie waffles and the best home-brewed lattes in town at Urban Brew + Co. Be sure to grab a succulent and a Beaufort hand-towel from the cozy and oh-so-cute gift shop on your way out.

Just off Main Street downtown, po'boys and chicken salad are always on tap on the back patio of Plums. It gets jammed on the weekends, so get there early enough to beat the brunch crowds. A few doors down, Saltus River Grill has a patio overlooking the harbor and easily the best shrimp and grits in all the Sea Islands.

One of the hottest tickets in town, you’ll need reservations for dinner at lowkey gastropub Old Bull Tavern. But with wine-soaked lamb shank, chicken andouille, and wood-fired pizzas oven on the menu—plus a Beaufort painkiller that’ll take you for a spin—it’s well worth waiting for.

There’s no dish more quintessential to Beaufort than Frogmore Stew, and Fishcamp in Port Royal is the spot to try it. There’s neither a frog nor stew in sight—the name is actually derived from a nearby town, and the dish itself is akin to a low-country boil complete with shrimp, sausage, and all the spices and Southern fixins that comes with it. Grab a spot at the bar or on one of the swings overlooking the shrimp boats in the old port for daily live music from 6-9 pm, plus some of the best sunsets in town.

Where to stay in Beaufort

Set along the water in downtown Beaufort, Anchorage 1770 has a history as storied as Beaufort itself. Today, the antebellum-style hotel has just 15 rooms, including a designated ghost room which couldn’t be spookier or more apropos for this time of year. Dinner at Ribaut Social Club in the hotel’s main salon, breakfast on the front patio overlooking the harbor, or porchin’ with a glass of wine on the upper terrace are all requisite activities here.

If you’re looking for some bonafide low-country luxury, Palmetto Bluff is a sprawling southern resort on 20,000 acres of a nature reserve in nearby Bluffton. This place oozes southern hospitality, and between the on-site bowling alley, scores of restaurants (don’t miss out on Octagon), romantic walkways, and miles of biking paths, it’s an experience well worth shelling out some serious money for.

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Michelle Gross is a New York City girl living her best life in the South Carolina Lowcountry. When she’s not on paddleboard or sipping on painkillers at Old Bull, she can be found rehabbing furniture or scouring a local thrift store.