Updated: Jul 26
You know what I really loved about spending time in historic Beaufort, SC? Watching the white cranes tiptoe through the marsh and hearing the frogs plop from a creaking porch swing. It’s that level of uncomplicated wonder you can expect from your own weekend in Beaufort. It’s hard to sum it up in words because it’s more of a feeling. There’s an unsuspecting allure about this small town, where you can drive through the historic streets, through a tunnel of Spanish moss so thick and cascading, it feels like you could just reach out the window and it would graze your fingertips.
Beaufort, SC is undoubtedly one of the prettiest smalls towns in America, drawing artists, history buffs, retirees and even Hollywood elite to its shoreline. This is lowcountry, where spunky Palmetto trees mingle with marsh grass and centuries-old live oaks. It’s approachable and welcoming with a layer of mysticism that comes from living at the water’s edge. There’s magic in these marshes, where the critters and crustaceans live out their days just below the surface. That is, until one of the local fishermen comes along.
But Beaufort’s simplicity should not be mistaken for ordinary. Rather it’s that they seem to understand what people have forgotten long ago: that life is at its sweetest when we slow down and savor the uncomplicated details. We spent a weekend in Beaufort on our road trip from Charleston to Savannah, and I can honestly say, our time here was one of my absolute favorite parts of the trip.
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Things to do while visiting historic Beaufort SC
Stroll the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park
At night, you can sit at the Henry C. Chambers waterfront park. If you’re like me, you feel a tiny jab of joy the moment you settle into a rocking chair or porch swing. I’m here to tell you, with the enthusiasm of a Girl Scout who’s just sold her last box of Thin Mints, the City of Beaufort has scrapped the usual park benches and installed more than a dozen porch swings along the waterfront. It’s an inviting place to watch the fishing boats come in and moor for the evening. All set to the soundtrack of the bullfrogs and crickets in the marsh.
Ride down the Spanish Moss Trail
During the daylight hours, you can borrow bicycles from your bed & breakfast and ride down the Spanish Moss Trail. It winds its way through 10 miles of classic lowcountry scenery. We road through tunnels created by tree canopies, across causeways and through marsh lands, swamps and lush neighborhoods with sprawling lawns and gorgeous southern homes. It’s a great way to spend the morning, watching the red cardinals swoop in and out of the trees, the fish jumping out of the water to catch whatever tasty bug was sitting on the surface. And to see the occasional snake hop.
Yes, you read that correctly. I swerved my beach cruiser to avoid a garter snake who was hopping like mad to avoid my front tire. Poor fella, I think both of our lives flashed before our eyes. But he hopped with the ferocity of a summer-bound teacher during the sack races on field day, and we both managed to survive. It’s my hope for you, that you also see a small, non-venomous snake hop. It was absolutely hilarious, even if he was calling me every name but a child of God.
Catch one of the annual festivals
Remember when I said Beaufort was small? I wasn’t joking. With less than 14,000 people (according to the U.S. Census in 2021), they have a strong sense of community. And nowhere is that more apparent than their festivals. From the annual Oyster Festival, International Film Festival and A Taste of Beaufort, to a Gullah Festival, a Beaufort Water Festival and the Annual Shrimp Festival, these folks sure know how to get together and throw a party.
We were lucky enough to roll into town the same weekend as A Taste of Beaufort and had a ton of fun tasting our way through the town’s restaurants. We had warm buttered lobster rolls, fried okra, Frogmore Stew (seafood boil), Bahamian mac n cheese, fried chicken and waffles and embarrassingly enough…so much more. This was our first introduction to Gullah food, and it was an explosion of flavors and comfort ingredients. A plate of crispy, hot honey shrimp, a Gullah roll with collard greens, Hoppin Johns and smoked turkey deep fried in an egg roll. The festivals have live music, an artist village filled with vendors and handmade crafts, and entertainment for the kids. There’s a festival almost every month in Beaufort, so there’s a good chance your trip will land on one of those weekends. You lucky duck.
Take a historical tour
Beaufort was founded in 1711, and that means there was a full 150 years of the town’s history before the Civil War came knocking. And that doesn’t include the Native Americans who lived in this region first. The Beaufort Walking Tour is hosted by a beloved local woman named Janet. Beaufort is her hometown, so she’s intimately familiar with both its past and its present. If you can’t make the walk, or just want the quintessential southern experience, you can explore Beaufort’s historic quarter on a horse drawn carriage tour instead.
The Beaufort Gullah Heritage tour takes guests out through Beaufort’s neighboring islands. This region is home to one of the largest Gullah populations in the country. If you’re unfamiliar with the culture, they are descendants of slaves with West and Central African roots. Unlike the slaves in states like Virginia and North Carolina, the Gullah people were masters in rice growing. This means they were more isolated from the white plantation owners who left the area once the muggy seasons came long. It allowed them the opportunity to preserve elements of their culture like language, folk music, cuisine and other cherished traditions. The tour is truly one-of-a-kind, and bears witness to the daily lives of the Gullah people into the Reconstruction Era and beyond.
Visit the art galleries
By now, you know that Beaufort is a creative haven, drawing everyone from authors to artists and Hollywood’s A-list. But the galleries are where you can see what they’ve created while under the lowcountry’s spell. There are several art galleries along Bay Street for you to meander through that don’t require an appointment. Original works from sculptors to oil painters and photographers, historic artifacts like antique maps and firearms and even artist demonstrations can be found throughout the downtown area. It’s really extraordinary to find this many galleries woven together in such a small radius, but there’s one that’s worth the drive to get there.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Visitors’ Center is about 10 minutes outside the historic district on Sea Island Parkway. It was established in 1977 and features rare and original works like hand-carved busts in Zimbabwe verdite, African American paintings and historically significant photography, wooden masks and sculptures and of course, authentic hand-woven sweetgrass baskets. The art pieces are thoughtful and moving, and definitely worth the short drive.
Get out on the water
Water is a way of life in Beaufort. In fact, 51% of the county consists of open waters, sounds, marshes, and estuaries with an additional 14% that is freshwater wetlands. So if you don’t get out on the water, you’re only getting half the experience. There are a few locally owned and operated businesses that specialize in kayaking tours, paddle boarding excursions and fishing charters.
Spend an afternoon at Hunting Island State Park
Hunting Island is South Carolina’s most visited state park, and for good reason. There are miles and miles of semitropical trails to wander through, a historic lighthouse, lots of fishing off the beaches and piers and a whole slew of wildlife to take in. It’s a place I highly recommend visiting, and if you stay at one of the local beds & breakfasts, most will have a complimentary day pass for their guests. But, the fee is only around $4-$8 per person without it. Still worth it.
Where to stay in historic Beaufort SC
The Rhett House Inn
Anchorage 1770 Inn
The Beaufort Inn
Beaufort is small, and that means the historic district is even smaller. But luckily, the residents had the good sense to restore and repurpose some of those grand old mansions into well-appointed bed & breakfasts. One tradition I love throughout The South is their afternoon social hours. It’s common for bed & breakfasts to host happy hours for their guests with complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres each day. Click here to sign my imaginary petition for other regions of the U.S. to follow suit (Just Kidding!). Southerners understand that a good charcuterie board is not to be underestimated, so every day is a good day to enjoy one. There’s truly nothing better than someone handing you a glass of wine or champagne and your own cheese board after a long day of travel.
We had the pleasure of staying at the Rhett House Inn. The prominent Rhett family (and the Butlers of Atlanta) served as inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s characters in “Gone with the Wind.” The 6,000-square-foot Greek Revival mansion was built in 1820 by Thomas Smith Rhett and still retains much of its original character. During the Civil War, it was confiscated by Union soldiers and used as a hospital recovery ward. The cottage behind the main house, also part of the inn, was built in the 1840s and served as a store for freed slaves to buy and sell goods. We stayed in both the big house and the cottage, but the one leg up the cottage has is the screened-in porches. A modern (yet appreciated) luxury in this region of the United States.
But what really sets this place apart, aside from the quiet elegance and trickling fountain in the garden, is the service. Each day, there’s a fresh pot of coffee in the parlor, followed by homemade cookies, sweet tea, a charcuterie spread and wine in the late afternoon. There’s even a delectable late-night snack served after dinner. It was during one of these evenings I had the best key lime pie I’ve ever tasted. It was bright, both tart and sweet and ultra-creamy, with a perfect filling-to-buttery crust ratio.
The next morning, I set out to find the mastermind behind this to-die-for pie. Turns out, it was Karen, the Inn’s general manager for more than a decade. I’ve been writing about food for the last 10 years, and this was the best key lime pie I’ve had anywhere in the world. What makes this story even better, is that Karen had no idea I was a travel writer, and I had no idea she was the GM. We talked about Beaufort at length, what made it special, and why people came back year after year. I’m not much of a museum person, so I prefer to learn about places from the people who know them best – the locals. Thanks for ruining my life with your decadent pie, Karen.
The Anchorage 1770 Inn is a boutique, waterfront hotel that was built in (you guessed it) 1770. She was already a lady of a certain age by the time the Rhett House was built just a block over. The Anchorage 1770 Inn is believed to be the largest and oldest tabby structure still in use. Tabby, for those of us who aren’t well versed in building materials, is a type of masonry that was commonly used in this region of the U.S. It’s made from oyster shells and has a pretty interesting history, which our friends at Parched Around the World explain really well. The inn also has a supper club, with a chef whose whimsical take on regional delicacies like roasted duck breast and diver scallops continues to surprise unsuspecting guests. Remember before when I told you not to mistake uncomplicated for ordinary? Et voila.
A few doors down, you’ll find the Cuthbert House Inn, another Antebellum mansion that sits along the waterfront on Bay Street. Built in 1790 as a summer residence for the Cuthbert family, the 10,000-square-foot inn was one of the first homes in Beaufort to be listed on the National Register of Historic places. There are 10 traditional rooms and suites to choose from, with period details and furnishings like antique canopy beds, crystal chandeliers, and the names of Union soldiers carved into a fireplace mantle. The soldiers hand-carved them into the marble where General Rufus Saxton had taken up station, and the names can still be seen today.
The Beaufort Inn is a collection of historic homes from the 1800s, like the Wallace Smith Mansion, the Female Benevolent Society Cottage, and the Rhett Cottage. The Inn’s variety of accommodations occupy an entire city block near downtown, close to restaurants, shopping and the riverfront. With private porches or balconies off every room, private bricked courtyards with jasmine-covered trellises and fire pits, it’s a comfy hotel where you don’t mind staying awhile. It’s also a favorite for weddings, especially since there are 47 rooms to host your guests.
Where to eat in Beaufort
Lowcountry Produce Market & Café
The Lost Local
Old Bull Tavern
Saltus River Grill
The Breakwater Restaurant & Bar
The dining scene in Beaufort is a medley of casual and comfort foods, with a handful of elevated experiences. But here’s what they all have in common: they’re really good. While you will find traditional southern cuisine- savory grits, crispy shrimp and fried okra, pimento cheese- you can just as easily find a gooey wood-fired pizza, tender lamb shank and briny oysters on the half shell. I think that’s what makes Beaufort so special. Anybody can throw a stick of butter into a dish and make it good, but it takes true talent and skill to showcase a region’s ingredients in imaginative and delectable ways.
Lowcountry Produce Market & Café is a gem of a place. It’s a converted old post office that retains much of its original character. There’s a cannery with glass jars lining old wooden shelves, wire baskets filled with locally grown produce, paintings, hand-sewn quilts, fresh tomato pies in the cooler, and the best jalapeño jelly anyone has ever had. There are more handmade and homemade delights than you’ll know what to do with. And it’s all wonderful. We filled a picnic basket, bought a bottle of wine, and set out towards Hunting Island State Park to catch the sunset.
If you’re looking for another lunch spot in town, Plums has been feeding Beaufort since 1986, and you don’t stay in business that long unless you’re doing something right. It’s a great lunch spot right along the waterfront serving up a vibrant array of soups, salads and sandwiches. The team uses fresh, seasonal ingredients that are locally sourced. Wren Bistro is good another lunch spot with an industrial vibe, it’s a stylish place to grab a salad or sandwich for lunch and enjoy a glass of wine or a craft cocktail. But if what you need is your Mexican food fix (like my husband), The Lost Local is a super casual cantina with crisp and refreshing margaritas and killer seafood tacos.
Dinner is surprisingly easy to come by in Beaufort, although you should know most places close by 9 p.m. (those of us who live in Las Vegas gasped and clutched our pearls upon hearing this). The Old Bull Tavern is a gastropub serving up elevated cuisine like escargot and duck confit in a cozy and casual pub-like atmosphere. The Saltus River Grill, right along the riverfront is a great steak and seafood place with outdoor seating and a wine list as long as CVS receipt.
The Breakwater Restaurant & Bar creates a more contemporary twist on traditional southern cuisine. Classics like roasted oysters are paired with global influences like harissa butter, pimento cheese atop a Wagyu beef burger. And while the lowcountry probably isn’t the first place you’d think of when it comes to a shining example of Italian culinary delights, Griffin Market is quietly creating fresh, handmade pastas, hand-pulled mozzarella and a bevy of authentic olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
Where to shop in Beaufort
Beaufort’s storefronts still have that Main Street charm from the 1950s. The Bay St. windows are all dressed in their Sunday best, with vibrant displays and treasures and trinkets artfully layed out. There’s a wide variety of shops and boutiques to choose from, from clothing and candy to handcrafted soaps, teas, spices and gifts. It's refreshing to see so many boutiques that support the little guys, so make sure you shop locally for those gifts and souvenirs.
And don't forget to walk through the antique stores. Antiquing in the South is like walking into a candy shop owned by the Easter Bunny. Because the past is so much a part of the present, you can find immaculate period furnishings. Antique mahogany secretary and roll top desks, a fireplace mantel rescued from an ancient parlor, oil painting, 19th century chandeliers- you name it. It’s almost like a treasure hunt, and you never know what you’ll uncover next.
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.