Originally published on the widely popular lifestyle blog Design*Sponge
Today’s Beaufort, SC City Guide comes to us from Mallory Baches. Ten years ago, Mallory, her husband, daughter, and French bulldog settled into the southern city of Beaufort and quickly fell for the charm of the sea islands. An urban designer and civic specialist, she is the founder and director of The Civic Hub, where she focuses her work on the intersection of urban design and community development. Today, she shares with us the many gems this city has to offer with her extensive guide on the best dining, sites, and activities to enjoy in Beaufort. Thank you for such a wonderful guide Mallory! –Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump…
Most people come to know about Beaufort, South Carolina in one of three ways: they have read Pat Conroy’s novels, they have seen The Big Chill, or they (or someone they love) have become a member of the United States Marine Corps at Parris Island. This historic town of merely 12,000 or so permanent residents has been quietly tucked into the marshy barrier islands of the Lowcountry for over 300 years. With its mossy vistas and winding waterways, Beaufort is a landing spot for artists and outdoors(wo)men alike, and is adored both by the tourists who manage to stumble upon it and the lucky folks like me who choose to call it home.
Coastal Living Magazine found its readers to agree, naming Beaufort America’s Happiest Seaside Town this past spring. As a proud Beaufortonian, I couldn’t be happier to introduce you to my hometown.
Be sure to use this Google Map to locate all of the below listings!
Historic District (including Downtown and the Old Point neighborhood)
A large part of downtown Beaufort is designated by the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to its roughly 170 historic shopfronts, houses, and structures, many dating back hundreds of years. The district is easily walkable and hard to get lost in, with the majority of businesses focusing on and around Bay Street, the main drag. Slung to the side of downtown is the Old Point neighborhood, with dozens of particularly grand historic homes decked in the Federal, Neo-Classical, and Greek Revival architectural styles of the eras they were built in.
Beaufort’s extensive (and illustrious!) history informs much of what the town is today. The area was explored by the Spanish, French, and eventually English before it was officially chartered in 1711. It was inhabited by Native Americans long before that, and historical sites marking events and activities of these early groups are scattered across the area. With a legacy of agricultural and industrial strength, Beaufort steadily grew in size, power, and prestige over its early centuries, until the Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893 began a series of misfortunes that kept the town in decline for the next 50 years. Through the latter half of the 20th century, Beaufort has slowly regained healthy economic footing, thanks to investment from the military and resort development in the area. Today the town’s popularity as a tourist destination continues to grow, appealing with its quality of life and sense of place.
Compact, safe and picturesque, Beaufort is best experienced by choosing a downtown hotel, ditching the car, and walking to most of your sights and meals.
City Loft Hotel is one of the newest hotels available downtown, a complete renovation of an old 1950s motel just off Bay Street. The rooms are sleek and sophisticated, and the building also houses both the simple but complete City Fit gym (personal training sessions can be booked through the hotel) as well as the always-buzzing City Java & News cafe, where you can grab all manner of drinks and snacks throughout the day, whether you are staying at the hotel or just passing by.
If you prefer a true bed and breakfast, the Rhett House Inn is your best bet. A favorite of celebrity visitors, the 19 available rooms are stately and include all the modern accommodations. Room prices include heaps of Southern hospitality, including a full breakfast, afternoon tea and pastries, hors d’oeuvres during the hotel bar’s cocktail hour, and decadent homemade desserts (red velvet cake or chocolate pecan pie, anyone?!) offered before bedtime.
A more traditional choice, the elegant Beaufort Inn has charming rooms in a variety of configurations that can cater to individuals and couples just as well as to larger groups and gatherings. The Inn hosts events and is a particularly popular venue for weddings, with gorgeous gardens, a courtyard, and fountains on the property. Event coordination services are also available.
Operated by the Beaufort Inn, the Greyhound Flats are perfect for young families that need multiple beds in a single space. Each large suite offers two queen beds as well as two club chairs that fold out to singles, plus an added kitchenette with simple necessities.
Touring downtown Beaufort is the easiest way to get a quick education into the history and culture of the place. A first stop at the Visitor’s Center will give you ticket and event information, as well as an excuse to explore the local museum housed in the historic Arsenal, where the center is located. Spirit of Old Beaufort period tours, SouthurnRose horse-drawn carriage tours, Jon Sharp’s Walking History tour, Vintage Voyages yacht tours, and the Beaufort Movie van tours all offer different ways to take in the history and culture of Beaufort from whatever vantage most appeals.
Active outdoor lifestyles dominate in Beaufort, and there are a variety of options that help you to connect with our unique natural setting. Outfitter shop Higher Ground offers kayak and stand up paddleboard rentals and hosts SUP group outings. Dancing Dogs Yoga hosts classes in its second floor studio surrounded by a live oak canopy, while the Yoga Chandra Center studio is situated above the marsh with inspiring views across the river to downtown Beaufort. Lowcountry Bicycles has bike rentals available, and Bay Street Outfitters is a great place downtown to stop in and book a fishing charter.
On Fridays at noon, the Parish Church of St. Helena hosts organ concerts that are free to the public. In addition to the beautiful music performed by acclaimed visiting organists, the concerts are a great excuse to stroll the few blocks off Bay Street and explore the sanctuary and grounds of one of the oldest active churches in North America, with a congregation founded all the way back in 1712.
The Beaufort International Film Festival takes place every February, where festival-goers get unprecedented access to Hollywood insiders and passionate filmmakers.
Beaufort’s Water Festival hosted its 58th consecutive event in July, drawing crowds from across the region for 10 days of activities, events, concerts, and food. Locals often skip the crowds downtown and instead celebrate the festival while moored at the Beaufort River sandbar, viewable from the official festivities at Waterfront Park.
Every October, Beaufort celebrates the Shrimp Festival, honoring the local catch that has kept the region fed and thriving for hundreds of years. In addition to various family-friendly activities, it is a great opportunity to taste dozens of shrimp dishes, try your hand in the shrimp heading competition, and tour a working shrimp boat.
Eat and Drink:
The local food movement is thriving in Beaufort, and in fact, it isn’t a new thing here. Isolated from larger cities, and with such a wide variety of local harvests of both the land and sea, it is no surprise to see shrimp caught that morning on the menu that night being eaten by the shrimper who caught it. Eating local means eating the products of the people you know and love, for those of us in Beaufort, and visitors to our food-loving town get the benefit of that freshness, too.
Most restaurants expect casual dress, as is typical nearly everywhere in our laid back town, but I’ve noted exceptions below.
With a deep porch overlooking Waterfront Park and the Beaufort River, Common Ground Coffeehouse is an early morning stop to get your java fix. In addition to outdoor seating, the large comfy furnishings inside make for a great place to curl up with a book or catch up on a bit of work.
The best breakfast in town may be the one at the gorgeous Lowcountry Produce Market & Cafe, housed in the historic former City Hall building on Carteret Street. Start with a basket of made-to-order doughnuts (trust me!) and enjoy homestyle breakfasts, or one of their many salads or sandwiches at lunchtime. When you are finished with your meal, you can pick up some of their own line of canned goods, many of which are included in menu items, as well as a variety of gourmet products.
If you are in the mood for a more rural experience, take a side trip up to Lobeco just past the Whale Branch River on Highway 21 north of Beaufort for the same great Lowcountry Produce food in the Garrett family’s original rustic farmstand location.
Blackstone’s also offers a great breakfast and lunch selection. The casual restaurant opens early and remains open long after lunch, with hours from 7:30am-2:30pm. Plenty big enough to accommodate large parties, just place a call ahead to make special arrangements for your group.
In the center of Bay Street, you’ll probably notice Plums by their gorgeous tile and reclaimed wood oyster bar overlooking the sidewalk. Get in early for lunch, as it is a favorite spot, and have one of the daily soup specials along with the many sandwich, salad, and seafood options. The menu shifts substantially for the dinner service, with a variety of starters and more hearty entree options. Plums also features a great Friday happy hour, where oysters are free between 5:00pm-7:00pm while you enjoy alcohol specials.
Another popular lunchtime destination is Wren. Often chosen by locals for celebratory meals or by folks with large parties, this slightly more upscale option has gorgeous interiors and a menu that appeals to those looking for healthy choices as well as the expected Southern favorites. Also open for dinner, and sporting a large bar area that can become busy later in the evening, Wren appeals to a wide clientele.
It might be a real surprise to find the authentic menu at Yes! Thai Indeed in a small town in the South, but locals have kept the restaurant constantly busy since it opened 6 years ago, anxious for the selection of curries and noodles and soups and Thai classics. Specials change with local seafood availability; located at the edge of downtown on Boundary Street, Yes! Thai Indeed is open for both lunch and dinner service.
Walking off your lunch is a great reason to head up Carteret Street to The Chocolate Tree, where you can watch chocolates being made and (attempt to) choose from the dozens of beautiful chocolates, fudges, brittles, toffees, and truffles in the shop’s glass cases (my favorite: the Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels). And if you have kids (or are simply a kid at heart), The Lollipop Shop has every candy you could imagine, and is located adjacent to Waterfront Park, giving plenty of space to run off all of the resulting sugary excitement.
Emily’s Restaurant and Tapas Bar is tucked into quiet Port Republic Street, but the menu is truly worth seeking out. Dozens of exotic tapas choices, like wild boar sausage or peppered emu steak, mix with standards like crab cakes and oysters. There is a full dinner menu as well, and a separate bar with TVs, a popular place to catch major sports match-ups.
Located on the tight block of West Street just off of Bay, the Old Bull Tavern matches its self-proclaimed (and well-deserved) moniker as a “gastropub.” Old Bull, as locals call it, has both a cocktail and dinner menu that you probably aren’t expecting, full of fun and flavor, much like the bartenders, servers, and the atmosphere in general here. The menus themselves are dated and numbered, reiterating their rotation based on available ingredients, and the bar snacks available are great for tiding you over while enjoying one of bartender Matt’s creations (my favorite is The Purgatory).
For finer dinner dining, Saltus River Grille is an excellent choice. Chef Brian Waters offers a sushi and raw bar menu as well as small and full size plates of the best that the waters around Beaufort have to offer. The dinner menu includes meat and vegan options as well, along with a selection of sides served family style. Around the corner, Breakwater is another favorite, where the menu by Chefs Gary Lang and Beth Shaw has options for every size and type of appetite. I never eat at Breakwater without having the tuna tartare tapas plate, and I love that you can order something as elegant as the rack of lamb or as simple as the lamb sliders. Both Saltus and Breakwater also have lively bar areas for before- or after-dinner drinks.
Up the street a few blocks, Griffin Market is an elegant opportunity to visit the Italian Piedmont without ever leaving the lowcountry. Chef Laura Bonino and her sommelier husband Riccardo dote on their customers, happy to make recommendations from their authentic menu and extensive wine list. One of the best opportunities to enjoy Laura’s talents is the Sunday dinner fixed price menu, which offers a family-style appetizer, a choice of primi (usually between pastas and soups), a choice of secondi (various protein main courses), and an impossible choice between dessert selections. During the rest of the week, menus change daily based on available ingredients. If you are lucky, you might happen upon Pat Conroy while dining there; writing his first (and only) restaurant review in a local publication, he declared the food at Griffin Market to be, “by a long shot, the best Italian food ever served in the state of South Carolina.” How can you argue with praise like that?!
With very little exception, shops in downtown Beaufort are independently owned and operated — a nod to our small town nature and our community’s dedication to keeping it that way. And while there are some catering specifically to stop-through tour groups, many are stores that those of us who live here enjoy right alongside visitors to our town.
It is hard to leave Lulu Burgess without finding at least one thing that you can not live without, and it is my go-to place for picking out gifts for family and friends that will make them laugh or cry or both. Owner Nan Sutton and her fellow Lulu clerks will chat with you like longtime girlfriends and are ready to help you with whatever you might need. Nan has the fun of gift browsing down to an art in her shop full of happy discoveries.
A block down Bay Street, M Home & Garden offers the same type of fun, but for home decor browsing. The classic but current furniture, fixtures, and (often seaside-styled) details that you will find throughout the store capture the character of Beaufort and can be found in the best tailored homes of locals. Further still down Bay Street, Joli Home & Events is a great blend of Lulu and M, with both home furnishings and decor as well as plenty of gift and specialty items you won’t find anywhere else.
Beaufort style is chic but casual, and there are a few shops in town where you can add similar pieces to your own collection. Beaufort Clothing Company is always updating its selection of trendy clothing and accessories for women, while Bay St. Outfitters provides a shop for the more rugged clothing and gear needs of outdoorsmen and women. Palmetto Running Company offers running shoes, apparel, and accessories, and Higher Ground sells clothing and accessories for every type of outdoor activity, from swimsuits to fleeces. They also stock water crafts and camping gear.
Brand new but highly anticipated, the toy store Monkey’s Uncle is the ideal place to bring up your best childhood memories while your kids browse the shelves beside you. Classics like Whoopie Cushions and Rubik’s Cubes sit beside thoughtful choices featuring environmentally-friendly materials and educational benefits. Owners Joe and Liz O’Brien have two young children of their own, so they are experts at making recommendations, should you find yourself needing some help in choosing.
On Port Republic Street, you can find two shops for the “makers” out there. Coastal Knittingoffers knitting and crochet yarn and supplies, and offers drop-in classes, while Tabby Fabric & Studio sells fabrics and sewing supplies, hosts classes and events, and has a sewing studio available for open sew.
Artists are drawn to the unique lowcountry setting, and the rich collection of Beaufort galleries is proof to the creative undercurrents of our community. For an introductory sampling of work, stop into the Beaufort Art Association Gallery which showcases works in a wide variety of mediums produced by its members, all for sale to benefit the artists and the association itself.
Next, stop by the map on the outside wall of Bay Street Jewelers, on the West Street Extension (adjacent to the town clock), and guide your way to any one of the great private galleries in our town, including ArtLofts, Bay St Gallery, Charles Street Gallery, The Gallery, Golden House Gallery, I. Pinckney Simons Gallery, LyBensons Gallery & Studio, and Rhett Gallery.
For an opportunity to meet the artist herself, head in the opposite direction up West Street to visit the gallery and workshop of local artist Elena Madden, who captures reflections of lowcountry light and water through her gorgeous oil paintings. Acclaimed and prolific, Elena has open hours in her studio and is available by appointment as well.
Just 5 miles south of downtown Beaufort, Port Royal is her sister-city, with the charming Old Village neighborhood being the town’s main tourist draw.
On Saturdays mornings, the Port Royal Farmer’s Market is the local gathering spot and one of the largest farmers markets in the area. Growers, fishermen, bakers, canners, specialty producers, and craftspeople set up weekly under the live oak canopy, usually to the backdrop of a local musician.
Each April brings the Soft Shell Crab Festival which for many locals is often a first chance of the season to enjoy the lowcountry specialty. If you have never tried soft shell crab before, it is not to be missed: light, briny crab meat from the recently-molted blue crab, usually deep fried and served on sandwiches, salads, or all on their own. Lines at the festival food booths are typically long, and for good reason.
Street Music on Paris Avenue is a weekly free concert and street fair on the main drag through Port Royal, showcasing an incredible variety of musical styles on Saturday evenings from the spring through the fall. Bring your own chair or blanket, or just grab a section of the curb, and take in whatever the week’s musical offering is.
Where Battery Creek flows into the Beaufort River on the edge of downtown Port Royal, the Sands beach is an opportunity to admire scenic views of the surrounding rivers and estuaries from the sandy beach, the long boardwalk, or the 5-story observation tower. The waters edge is also a great place to hunt for shark teeth and petrified sand dollars. The Cypress Wetlands on Paris Avenue are another quick and easy way to get up-close and personal with the spectacular flora and fauna of the sea islands.
Eat and Drink:
11th Street Dockside is a local institution, with shrimp boats docked outside the restaurant and the sunset view down Battery Creek. The setting makes it popular with visitors to the area, and a wide selection of local seafood has kept it a standby with locals for almost 20 years. While they don’t take reservations for parties of 6 or less, the wait is usually a welcome opportunity to walk the porch and dock and take in the stunning views.
Habersham is a small village 6 miles west of downtown Beaufort. A New Urbanistneighborhood that was founded in 1996, it is a common to see folks of all ages strolling the sidewalks, kids riding bikes and scooters , and dogs relaxing beside their owners at outdoor tables.
Habersham’s Marketplace hosts a monthly street party called First Fridays, where musical performers and vendors underscore the month’s theme, from blues to shag to rock-n-roll. Every March, the neighborhood is the setting for a regional-favorite road race, the Beaufort Twilight Run, benefitting the public school students at Riverview Charter School. Habersham also hosts an annual Harvest Festival, with live music, local food stalls, craft vendors from the region, and plenty of fun activities.
Eat and Drink:
Habersham has multiple dining options, all casual and laid back but with different specialties. Piace Pizza owner Brian Ferry makes thin crust New York style pies that are repeatedly voted the best in Beaufort by local newspaper readers. Norberto Lopez opened Berto’s Tex-Mex Grill after a long career in the restaurant industry, with a menu of authentic favorites like chiles rellenos and tostadas and table-side handmade guacamole. And don’t be fooled by the word “pub” in the name of Maggie’s Pub & Bistro, neighborhood resident Chef Richard Wilson serves a seasonal menu with fabulous daily specials that are different every night, based on unique ingredients he finds thanks his personal relationships with local farmers. Save room for dessert, so that you can try a slice of one of Richard’s wife Peggy’s amazing cakes.
Pearls Before Noon was opened by neighborhood resident Ann Munger, growing out of a life honing her eye as an antique collector. The Dewdrop line by Gillian Stevens is housed on Market Street, a collection of hand-made leather and paper items reflecting the nature of the region. And stop by the Sea Island Local Outlet, or SILO, to browse their in-stock locally-produced food and beverage products or find out how you can bring their unique online grocer concept to your hometown.
Off the Beaten Track
The sea islands around Beaufort are a delight to explore, with an abundance of canopy roads, marsh wildlife, and hidden historical treasures. Be sure to leave time during a visit for some meandering, and try one of these stops while you do.
The Parris Island Museum offers a look into the military history of Beaufort and the recruit depot that has trained Marines for nearly 100 years. It is located on base, though visitors must simply show valid ID, vehicle registration and insurance at the gate for access. The Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10:00am-4:30pm.
The Penn Center Historic District is a campus on St. Helena Island a mile south of the crossroads known as Frogmore. Originally founded in 1862 as the Penn School for freed slaves, the district houses a museum showcasing images and artifacts of the education, health services, and self-help programs provided there as part of the Port Royal Experiment. The museum is open Monday-Saturday from 11:00am-4:00pm.
An easy 20 minute drive through the rural sea island landscape, Hunting Island State Park is the area’s major public beach access. The island park is 5 miles long and home to sandy beaches, nature trails, marshes and maritime forests, a fishing pier, a nature center and museum, and the 150 year old Hunting Island Lighthouse. Park entry is available from 6:00am until 6:00pm in the winter, 9:00pm during Daylight Savings Time, and camping facilities are available as well.
One of only two still in operation in the state of South Carolina, the Highway 21 Drive-In just north of Beaufort is a chance to relive what for many is just a distant childhood memory. Two screens each show a double feature, with one always showing a pair of family-friendly films. Bring a chair or a blanket and enjoy the rare opportunity to watch a movie under the stars.
17 miles north of Beaufort, the Old Sheldon Church Ruins are just as inspiring in person as they are in the hundreds of photographs you can find of them online by professional and novice photographers alike. A unique backdrop often used for weddings or professional portraits, you can park in the lot across the road and spend as long as you’d like wandering the moss-draped oaks, building ruins, and graves at the site.
Eat and Drink:
Not far from the entrance to Parris Island, Fat Patties is a newcomer to the local restaurant scene where the theme of “hand-crafted” reigns. They offer a fantastic selection of enormous hand-made burgers with your selection of protein: grass-fed beef, half beef/half bacon, shrimp, turkey, or black bean, each served with a side of rosemary fries. There are plenty of options beyond burgers, an always-changing selection of craft beers, and if you can possibly save room, there are more than a dozen small-batch ice creams made on site waiting to make your gluttony complete.
Open daily for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, The Foolish Frog sits in the crossroads known as Frogmore on St. Helena Island. The menu has a wide variety of local classic ingredients, shrimp and oysters and crab, and local musicians are showcased multiple nights a week.
Newly opened in response to their success at area farmers markets, the Beaufort Bread Company is the culmination of owners Rick and Deborah’s dream of opening a neighborhood bakery offering artisanal breads, pastas, sausages, and a light menu selection. The only place in Beaufort where you can get a Vietnamese banh mi or a Mexican cemita, and with a chocolate croissant that stops my daughter in her tracks, this bakery is a worldly treat here in little old Beaufort that shouldn’t be missed.
A common stop along the drive from downtown Beaufort to the beachy barrier islands, the Lowcountry Store carries a wide selection of local products and is the main shop to find the popular lowcountry chair, a simple local take on the classic adirondack chair design that would be a perfect way to relive your laid-back trip to the lowcountry on your own porch back home.
Noteworthy Beaufort-raised and Residents
Actor Tom Berenger
Author Pat Conroy
(the late) Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Frazier
American Idol Candice Glover
Artist Jonathan Greene
DJ Jazzy J
Libby Pataki, wife of former New York Governor George Pataki
U.S. Representative and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford
Hollywood Producer Joel Silver
Movies Filmed In and Around Beaufort
Thanks to its popularity as a filming location in recent decades, you can get a taste of the beautiful backdrop of Beaufort in any one of these famous movies without leaving the comfort of your couch:
The Great Santini (1979)
The Big Chill (1983)
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)
The War (1994)
Something To Talk About (1995)
Forces of Nature (1999)