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Ask any Charlestonian about their preferred local beach, and there’s a good chance they’ll immediately dive into the attributes of Sullivan’s Island. As a former resident of the Holy City, I can attest to the fact that this slice of paradise is one of the Lowcountry’s best places to go for a large dose of rest, relaxation, and good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.
“It’s seen hundreds of years of American history (Fort Moultrie National Historical Park is at one end of the island), has beautiful public beaches, and is home to some of the area’s best restaurants that are located just a short walk from the sand,” says Elizabeth Rhodes, special projects editor at Travel + Leisure and South Carolina native. That first-rate roster of restaurants includes relative newcomers like The Longboard and Sullivan’s Fish Camp — which opened in 2021 and 2022, respectively — as well as infallible favorites like High Thyme, Home Team BBQ, and Poe’s Tavern.
While its culinary footprint may be impressive, it’s even more admirable when you consider the size of the island itself. “Sullivan’s Island is only 2.5 miles long, so it’s quite smaller than most people think,” says Ben Towill, co-founder of Basic Projects, a Charleston-based hospitality and design firm he runs with his wife, Kate. Small it may be, but its glorious scenery, family-friendly atmosphere, and unique local businesses create an inviting beach town experience that should be on every traveler’s to-do list when in Charleston.
Read on to start planning your trip to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.
Top 5 Can’t Miss
- Rent an Airbnb close to the ocean — preferably one where you can enjoy the sunset each night.
- Spend a morning or not-too-humid afternoon taking in the history of Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.
- Make your way to Middle Street, where several beloved local restaurants are within walking distance of one another.
- Leave your car in the driveway and explore Sullivan’s Island by bike.
- Visit in the fall to experience fewer crowds and see the blooming pink muhly grass.
Related: T+L’s Guide to Charleston
Where to Stay
Rhodes notes there are “no hotels or major chains” on the island, so finding accommodations through Airbnb, Vrbo, or another short-term rental service will be your best bet. Below, we rounded up a few of the area’s top-rated properties.
Sullivan’s Island Beach Oasis
Up to 10 guests can make this four-bedroom, three-bath property their Sullivan’s Island home away from home. The open floor plan, gourmet kitchen, full-sized ping pong table, outdoor shower, and easy access to the beach make it ideal for large family gatherings, especially those with little kids in tow.
‘Island Gem’ Sullivans Island Beach Getaway
If something smaller is more your speed, take a look at this one-bedroom condo overlooking Sullivan’s Island’s hub of activity. At this rental, location is everything; you can walk to the shops, restaurants, and the beach — you’ll only have to get in your car if you need to go to the grocery store or want to explore the neighboring communities.
Spacious Home with a Porch, Balcony, and Sun Deck
It doesn’t get more Sullivan’s Island than this beautiful beach home. Groups of up to 10 can spread out across the three floors and breathe in the ocean air from the balcony, sun deck, or spacious porch. There’s even an outdoor shower, grill, and complimentary beach gear to elevate your experience on the island.
Related: Where to Buy a Vacation Home in South Carolina
Best Things to Do
Enjoy the sun, sand, and surf on Sullivan’s Island.
Beach days are always on the schedule on Sullivan’s Island, even when the temperatures fall below 70. The beaches are “perfectly secluded during the off-season,” says Rhodes, and you can snuggle up with a picnic basket, blanket, and book before watching the sunset. Public beach access points can be found all along the south side of the island.
Rent bikes to ride around the island.
Kate Towill, who recommends Sealand Adventure Sports for bike rentals, says her typical route involves the following: “You can start with a quick bike ride through town, and then we love going through the neighborhoods. We then head over to the Breach Inlet to Isle of Palms and loop back to Sullivan’s to grab a seat on the patio of Sullivan’s Fish Camp.”
Snap a photo of Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse.
You can’t go inside Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, also known as “Charleston Light,” but it makes for a great photo opp. It’s also easy to spot, thanks to its two black and white color blocks and its position near Station 18 (a public beach access spot).
Visit Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.
Part history lesson, part scenic stop, Fort Moultrie National Historical Park is a must-do for anyone looking for an educational activity in the area. Its roots go back to the 1700s, but today’s fort has been restored to show different periods between 1809 and 1947. “We love walking the perimeter of the park, which is filled with beautiful wildflowers, and then looping back toward the ocean where you can see Fort Sumter,” says Kate Towill.
Get a frosé from The Co-op.
On the hottest summer days, the only thing that can bring any relief — besides a dip in the ocean — is an extra-cold drink. And on Sullivan’s Island, that means heading to The Co-Op. “The Co-Op is a must for stocking up on frosé,” says Rhodes, referring to the popular frozen alcoholic beverage the cafe is popular for. Pro tip: It’s best served alongside one of the in-house gourmet breakfast or lunch sandwiches.
Home Team BBQ
“Home Team is a great casual spot, perfect for families or large groups of friends. Whether you’re coming off the beach after a long day in the sun or heading out to the Island for an early dinner, their famous Gameghangers are not to be missed,” says Ben. If you do choose to indulge in a Gamechanger, proceed with caution: Its strength shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Poe’s Tavern — inspired by poet Edgar Allen Poe, who was stationed on Sullivan’s Island during his stint in the military — serves up delicious burgers and perfectly crispy hand-cut fries,” says Rhodes. When the weather permits, grab a table out front or on the porch, where you can appreciate the liveliness of Middle Street.
The Obstinate Daughter
For “a more refined dinner option on the island,” Rhodes suggests The Obstinate Daughter. A Southern restaurant with Italian, Spanish, and French influences, its menu consists of items like grilled octopus, peel-and-eat shrimp, ricotta gnocchi, and housemade pizzas. Due to its popularity, a reservation is highly recommended.
Sullivan’s Fish Camp
Sullivan’s Fish Camp’s history on the island stretches back to 1988, but this new chapter opened to the public in 2022. It’s the sibling property of Charleston’s Basic Kitchen and Post House Inn in Mount Pleasant — from the Towills’ company, Basic Projects — but it stands on its own in terms of its narrative and menu offerings. Highlights include jalapeño and gouda hushpuppies, the Fish Camp Sandwich, and the frozen piña colada. Kate Towill also recommends the New England lobster roll.
Ben Towill describes High Thyme as a “local spot with a laid-back atmosphere and delicious American fare dishes.” Think shrimp and grits, seared scallops, and pan-fried crab and shrimp cakes, all washed down with a selection of beer, wine, and specialty cocktails. Note that High Thyme doesn’t take reservations and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
Local art makes for a great souvenir or present for a loved one, and Sandpiper Gallery offers an impressive selection of paintings, jewelry, pottery, and other pieces made in a variety of mediums. It’s also conveniently located next door to Home Team BBQ and Mex 1 Coastal Cocina.
It’s hard to walk into Goldbug and not leave with something in hand, especially if you’re looking for something shiny or sparkly. Along with her locally made jewelry, owner and designer Ashley Reid Martin curates a tempting selection of swimwear, resort wear, beauty products, greeting cards, and candles, among other items.
Sealand Adventure Sports
Travelers who prefer active vacations to reading a book on the beach will more than appreciate Sealand Adventure Sports’ inventory. The kite, surf, skate, and paddle shop provides a range of rentals — including beach cruisers, beach chairs, and beach umbrellas — and carries apparel brands like Roxy, Huk, and O’Neill.
Best Time to Visit
Summer on Sullivan’s Island is definitely a crowd favorite, so you’ll want to plan your visit accordingly. “Sullivan’s Island gets incredibly busy during the weekends once the weather warms up. I recommend visiting during the weekdays to avoid the crowds of locals who flock here during the weekends,” recommends Rhodes. If you want to avoid peak season — and have an easier time parking — consider the fall. “Late fall is idyllic on Sullivan’s. The mornings are brisk, and the beach is filled with locals walking their dogs,” says Ben Towill. “In late October, you’ll also start to see monarch butterflies migrating to the coast, which is pretty incredible.” Another sign of autumn? The blooming pink muhly grass, a sight that begs to be photographed.
How to Get There
“Sullivan’s Island is the closest beach from downtown Charleston, about 15 to 20 minutes [away],” says Kate Towill. This convenient proximity makes it a great day trip from the peninsula; just be sure to head out on the earlier side if you want a better chance of finding a parking space. If you’re coming straight from Charleston International Airport (CHS), though, it’ll only take about 25 minutes, depending on traffic.
How to Get Around
Driving isn’t a prerequisite for exploring Sullivan’s Island. Instead, you can take advantage of the sidewalks and paved bike paths, which allow pedestrians and bikers to easily get around, or rent a golf cart. If you choose the latter option, be sure to have a thorough understanding of where you can and cannot drive on the island.