This Seaside Town Is All About Storytelling and Southern Comforts
Run, Forrest, run… to this little slice of Southern beachfront bliss.
Charleston is often the South Carolina city that gets the most love for its small-town charm, leaving the second-oldest in the state, Beaufort, somewhat in the shadows. But this underrated town is one of the most culturally rich destinations in the South—let alone the US. Located on Port Royal Island among the largest Sea Islands dotting the southeast Atlantic coast, Beaufort was lined with mansions built by plantation owners pre-Civil War. And instead of destroying the town, the victorious Union troops decided to move on in. Today, dozens of restored, Antebellum-style homes and other structures characterize the downtown area—designated a historic district by the National Trust for Historic Preservation—while nearby St. Helena Island is home to the Gullah Geechee community, a population that’s lived here for centuries.
To truly understand this seaside town, you have to delve into its background. The Lowcountry landscapes—think wide-open marshlands and swaying oak trees dripping in Spanish moss—hold stories that span generations. (They also appear as the backdrop for big screen touchstones like Forrest Gump and The Big Chill.)
You also need to get to know its people, both current and past. Take Beaufort’s Robert Smalls, a former enslaved person-turned-Union leader and politician during the country’s tumultuous Reconstruction Era. Smalls would eventually become the first African American captain of a vessel in US service. And you can’t talk about Beaufort without mentioning its beloved Pat Conroy, author of novels like The Prince of Tides and The Water is Wide, whose legacy lives on today by way of an eponymous Literary Center in town.
Don’t let the small-town vibes fool you, though. Lettuce City (it’s real nickname) offers more than enough to keep you on your toes—when you’re not sipping sweet tea and idling on a porch swing, that is. Here are the best things to do, see, eat, and drink when visiting Beauford, South Carolina.
Get out on the water
One of the best ways to see Beaufort is either on or by the water, and Coastal Expeditions offers one of the top tours in town. Available year-round right from the downtown marina, you’ll spot bottlenose dolphins bobbing along the gentle waves, nesting bald eagles, and ospreys on the 90-minute trip.
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.
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 well-preserved traditions, distinct cuisine, and Creole language. The Penn Center is a great place to learn about Gullah culture through tours as well as the annual heritage celebration, which brings three days of arts, demonstrations, storytelling, and food to the island in November.
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 sandwiches are worth the U-turn. And for an intro to Lowcountry cooking, Gullah Grub is also just off the Parkway. Arrive early to snag some Crab Soup with a side of rice and cornbread before it sells out, then head across the street to check out the extensive collection of Gullah artwork on display at LyBensons’ Gallery.
Steep yourself in local storytelling
Once you have your boots on the ground, cruise over to downtown Beaufort, where the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park offers historical walking tours year-round, or stroll along Bay Street, where you can stop and visit with locals at dozens of boutiques, restaurants, and galleries.
Stop off at 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 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.
Savor the best of festival season
During the city’s largest event, the Annual Beaufort Water Festival, in July, Beaufort transforms into an outdoor stage hosting concerts in the park, arts and crafts markets, and Southern-style suppers—plus, of course, fleets and boat parades along Beaufort River. Festival season really kicks off in the fall with the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival in October. The party delivers dishes unique to the Lowcountry, including shrimp perloo and she-crab soup, in addition to hosting the Run Forrest Run 5K, when hundreds of locals don their most capable Forrest Gump attire as they run across the famous Woods Memorial Bridge.
At the end of October, Beaufort’s Fall Festival of Houses & Gardens is a great way to dip into local history. You can expect behind-the-scenes access to some of the grandest Beaufort homes and gardens, a picnic on the banks of the Combahee River in Prince William Parish, and a Southern brunch in the formal gardens of a federal-style home downtown. In early November, the Pat Conroy Literary Center—an absolute must-do any time of year—hosts a literary festival with tons of fantastic speakers and storytelling from prize-winning authors, poets, and more.
Set among 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 special 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.
Feast on Po'boys, Potato Pies, and Painkillers
Late summer is when shrimp season officially kicks off in Beaufort, but before you dive in, start with Pumpkin Pie Waffles and the best house-pulled lattes in town at Urban Brew + Co. And be sure to snag souvenirs in the form of a potted succulent and Beaufort hand towel from the cute little 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 sports a patio overlooking the harbor and serves up some of 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 oven-fired pizzas 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 on 11th Street 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 Lowcountry Boil complete with shrimp, sausage, and all the spices and Southern fixings that come with it. Grab a spot at the bar or on one of the swings gazing out over the shrimp boats in the old port for daily live music from 6 to 9 pm, plus mesmerizing sunset views.