The Discover South Carolina website describes the southern state as “just right.” And believe me, it is exactly that. Nicknamed “the Palmetto State,” South Carolina is world-renown for charming antebellum mansions, traditional food like savory shrimp and grits, low-country Frogmore stew, lip-smacking pecan pie, best peaches (sorry Georgia!), quirky boiled peanuts, tangy pimento cheese, and the best BBQ on the planet, and a plethora of natural wonders, hidden gems, and outdoor activities. And don’t forget the delightful small cities in South Carolina that are scattered across the landscape and begging to be explored!
South Carolina, the eighth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788, was the first to secede from the Union in 1861. Advanced manufacturing, aerospace, and automotive are among the state’s top industries.
Whether you are taking a South Carolina coastal road trip or exploring inland, here are five small cities in South Carolina, defined at population less than 100,000, that are brimming with southern charm!
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- Area: 20.8 square miles
- Elevation: 515 feet
- Population: 30,778
The largest city in and the county seat of Aiken County, Aiken was named the “Best Small Town in the South” by Southern Living Magazine. Located in western South Carolina, the sleepy little southern town has been drawing people in since the wealthy Astors, Vanderbilts, and Fields began building their summer “cottages” along Millionaire’s Row in the late 1800s.
In and around Aiken you’ll find historical sites, art galleries, nature parks, and dining experiences for a weekend of fun. Aiken’s quaint downtown is crisscrossed with a unique web of one-way streets, squares, and circles with fountains.
Known as “thoroughbred country,” Aiken has been home to many thoroughbred champions, and polo matches, steeplechases, and fox hunts – they are a way of life here.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love strolling around Hopelands, a lush garden filled with rare camellias and other flowering plants and is one of the nation’s largest urban forests.
Don’t forget to visit South Boundary, aka “Avenue of the Oaks,” for your Instagram moment under the dreamy, iconic oak canopy dripping with Spanish Moss!
Here are more things to do in Aiken.
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- Area: 33.6 square miles
- Elevation: 10 feet
- Population: 13,357
I’ll let you in on a secret…Savannah, Georgia was my favorite city in the United States for many years. Until I visited Beaufort, South Carolina.
Just a 1.5-hour drive from better-known neighbor Charleston, Beaufort (pronounced “byoo-furt,” not “bo-fort”), on Port Royal Island, is called the “Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands” for good reason. Ranked by Livability as one of the Top 100 Small Towns in 2015, Beaufort is known for its pristine beaches, charming antebellum mansions in the historic downtown, Gullah culture, and famous Lowcountry dining like Frogmore Stew.
Ocean and intercoastal waterways provide opportunities for myriad outdoor pursuits such as the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, kayaking on the Beaufort River, jogging Forest Gump-style on the famous Woods Memorial Bridge, or exploring the stunning driftwood on nearby Boneyard Beach.
Unbeknownst by most, Beaufort is arguably the MOST important and historic town in the United States. ALL of American history began in Beaufort – not Jamestown, not Plymouth Rock. Intrigued? Here is the fascinating and important history of Beaufort.
About five miles way is Parris Island, one of two training grounds in the United States for Marine cadets. The general public is able to attend the incredible Parris Island Marine graduation festivity, and if you’re visiting during that time, I suggest that you do.
Here are more things to do in Beaufort.
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- Area: 28.8 square miles
- Elevation: 966 feet
- Population 68,563
Ah, Greenville, my adopted new home town. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Over the last five years or so, it’s been lauded as “the new Charleston,” the “Goldilocks Town,” and similar accolades as more and more tourists and prospective transplants discover the abundant charms of this small town. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville is halfway between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, about an hour’s drive from Asheville, North Carolina, and less than an hour’s drive to some of the region’s best lakes.
And the charms – where do I start? The wildly popular downtown, revitalized 30 years ago, is the cultural heartbeat of the city and has become the go-to model for other small southern towns that are looking to revamp their own Main Streets.
Anchored by NOMA (North Main) on one end and Falls Park on the Reedy on the other, the downtown main drag is the “in” place to be. Every Friday from March through September, NOMA closes down and turns into a party with live music, street food, beer and wine, and a ton of happy, dancing locals. Further up, the light-strung tree-canopied street is lined with outdoor cafes, upscale restaurants, boutique shops, and ice cream parlors.
INSIDER TIP: Click here to compare prices on hotels in Greenville.
There are several entertainment venues in the downtown area – the Peace Center for Broadway shows, Bon Secours arena for concerts and sporting events, the Warehouse Theater and Center Stage for small, intimate live plays, and Café And Then Some comedy club.
Outdoor festivals include two 3-day events – Fall for Greenville in autumn and Artisphere in spring. Shakespeare in the Park puts on plays with local talent (taking lots of artistic interpretation) in Falls Park during the summer.
Outdoor activities include easy access to kayaking, white water rafting, hiking to dozens of waterfalls or mountain trails, zip-lining through the treetops, and biking or walking on the Swamp Rabbit Trail that runs through several small towns. And then, of course, there’s Falls Park, as it’s called by the locals. The park has walking trails, an artsy pedestrian suspension bridge, a gorgeous multi-tiered waterfall, grassy areas for picnics, and an ice cream and coffee shop conveniently waiting to serve patrons at the park entrance.
For baseball enthusiasts, Fluor Field in the West End hosts the Greenville Drive Class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. It’s particularly thrilling to me, a New England transplant, to watch a game in the stadium replica of Fenway Park, complete with its own Green Monster wall standing 30 feet high in left field.
Here’s how to see Greenville on a Segway.
- Area: 78.12 mi²
- Shore length: 450 miles
More an area than a small city, Lake Murray rests mainly in Lexington County, close to the tiny town of Newberry and the state capital of Columbia. Called “the jewel of South Carolina,” shimmering, man-made Lake Murray is approximately 50,000 acres in size with more than 600 miles of shoreline.
The lake was named after chief engineer William Murray who conceived what was at the time “the world’s largest earthen dam.” Although the lake was originally completed in 1930 as a hydroelectric generating facility, it has come to be known as a premier recreation destination in the Midlands of South Carolina.
Lake Murray is known for striped bass fishing and summer water sports. The public can gain access to the huge lake via the marinas, boat ramps, and public parks along the dam.
A popular attraction is the Enoree River Winery, a picturesque venue for wine tastings and events.
Each summer, an estimated flock of over one million Purple Martins flock to Lake Murray for their seasonal roost at Bomb Island, located in the middle of the lake. The island is the site of the first official preserve in North American designated exclusively for nestling Purple Martins.
Here are more things to do in Lake Murray.
Here are more things to do in Columbia, South Carolina.
- Are: 7.5 square miles
- Elevation: 3 feet
- Population: 7,547
Just south of the more touristy and well-known Myrtle Beach on the South Carolina Coast, Murrells Inlet could not be more different. The sleepy fishing village, which was once the lair of the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, is an outdoor enthusiast’s heaven.
Like other parts of the South Carolina coast, the area around Murrells Inlet boasts historic settlements that date back thousands of years, recorded in the shell mounds and archeological findings. Early inhabitants include the indigenous Waccamaw, which may have been one of the first mainland groups of Natives visited by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century.
Murrells Inlet is best known for the MarshWalk, an attractive ½ -mile-long boardwalk overlooking a salt marsh, lined on the other side with restaurants and shops. The MarshWalk comes alive with live music at night.
History of Murrells Inlet prominently features industrialist and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. The Hungtintons made their winter home in what is now the ruins of Atalaya Castle. Archer Huntington, a noted scholar of Spanish culture and art, designed the residence in the Moorish Revival and Mediterranean Revival architecture styles himself.
Stunning outdoor beauty abounds at Brookgreen Gardens, an incredible 9,100-acre preserve and sculpture garden founded by Archer and Anna Huntington featuring the world’s largest collection of American figurative sculptures, some of which are Anna’s very own creations. Brookgreen Gardens was opened in 1932 and is built on four former rice plantations
Huntington Beach is a coastal preserve, state park, and beach on the former property of the Huntingtons. It features clear blue water and is one of the most pristine sandy beaches on the South Carolina coast.
With such diversity, low cost of living, rich culture, abundance of natural beauty, adorable towns, and delicious cuisine, it’s no wonder that South Carolina attracts both tourists and would-be transplants. I should know. I’ve been and am both.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.