Charleston and Hilton Head Island are two of the most popular vacation destinations in South Carolina. In comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head, you will find that both places have unique charms, rich histories, and diverse attractions.
So which coastal destination is worth visiting with your hard-earned money? We compare the pros and cons of each destination and take a look at their distinctive characteristics, local attractions, dining and shopping options, and much more.
Charleston vs. Hilton Head as Coastal Destinations
While Charleston and Hilton Head aren’t that far apart on the South Carolina coast, they are very different places. Charleston is the largest city in South Carolina and offers a vibrant nightlife to match cities rich history. In comparison, Hilton Head Island is much more preserved and less developed.
Still, for those interested in spending most of their time on the beach, Hilton Head Island might be the better option. There is not really a beach in Charleston proper; visitors need to drive to Folly Beach or somewhere nearby.
Location and Geography: How Close Are Charleston and Hilton Head Island?
Hilton Head Island sits about 2 hours south of Charleston, but they seem worlds away, even though they are both along the South Carolina Coast. For starters, Charleston sits adjacent to the Charleston Harbor, which creates a unique landscape for the city. On the other hand, Hilton Head is an island that juts into the Atlantic Ocean.
Beachgoers must leave Charleston and drive down to Folly Beach or Kiawah Island when they are ready for some fun in the sun. In comparison, the perimeter of Hilton Head Island is essentially a long stretch of beaches. But that’s just the start of the many differences.
Interestingly, Charleston sits two hours south of Myrtle Beach, so the three cities largely define the South Carolina Coast. And each offers a unique experience.
Charleston, South Carolina
The Charleston Harbor plays a significant role in shaping the city’s most prominent features. The Cooper and Ashley rivers frame this picturesque city, meeting at the tip of the peninsula to flow into the Harbor, which in turn feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, oceanfront parks surround the city’s core.
Charleston is susceptible to hurricanes and flooding, but the city has proven resilient over the years to recover. Plus, the Port of Charleston provides stability to the region’s economy, which helps it weather economic storms that often follow physical storms.
The Port of Charleston is one of the largest ports in the country. Its strategic location near major shipping lanes makes it a crucial hub for supply chains worldwide. Charleston is majorly important to the entire region, even the state of South Carolina.
Hilton Head Island (HHI), South Carolina
Hilton Head is a beautiful island located on the southern coast of South Carolina. The Atlantic Ocean mostly surrounds the island, but the Broad River (a tidal channel) borders the northern edge of Hilton Head Island. One reason that I love the island is that it isn’t as overdeveloped as many beach communities. It’s a fairly big island covering 69 square miles and boasts 12 miles of beautiful beaches.
Massive oak trees cover the island, such that it doesn’t feel like you are on an island until you reach the beach. Still, there are plenty of palm trees and marshland too. The Hilton Head Island Trust preserves the natural habitat of the island. Its 300 acres include the Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy, Cypress Converancy, and Fort Howell.
While the beaches feature white sands and picturesque vistas, the entire island is stunning, with lush greenery and intimidating marshes. To offer a sense of the natural feel for the island, you find signs all across the island reminding visitors to stay away from alligators. I’ve never seen one while visiting, but they clearly thrive in the marshes.
What is the Difference Between Charleston and Hilton Head?
In comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head, you will find that Charleston is a more dense and picturesque city with cobblestone streets and rich history. In contrast, Hilton Head Island is more preserved in its natural state and offers more direct access to beaches.
The Beaches! Comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head Oceanfront
While Charleston and Hilton Head offer direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, Charleston is protected by Charleston Harbor. Charleston offers beautiful oceanfront parks but no beaches. Instead, you must drive 30 minutes or so to get to the beach. In comparison, Hilton Head boasts 12 miles of beaches.
An Overview of Beaches Near Charleston
While Charleston doesn’t have beaches in the city core, there are plenty of beautiful beaches within a short drive. Folly Beach is one of the most popular nearby beach towns. It is known as the ‘Edge of America‘ and is the rare beach town that has remained mostly unchanged over the last few decades.
When my family travels down to the Charleston area, we usually go to Folly Beach. The main street has old-school shops and local seafood restaurants, and the town’s quintessential fishing pier stretches more than 1000 feet into the ocean.
Just a little further south sits Kiawah Island, which is known for its upscale beachside living. Kiawah Island boasts 10 miles of exclusive beachfront, creating the perfect atmosphere for a relaxing walk on the beach. Just how exclusive?
Well, Kiawah Island features only one public access beach. The rest of the island is split into two areas, referred to as East Beach and West Beach, and most of the private beachfront are protected by gates.
Lastly, Sullivan’s Island is a popular beach destination near Charleston. Sullivan’s Island features a unique blend of history and seaside charm. You will find the likes of Fort Moultrie and the Edgar Allan Poe Library. You will also find iconic seafood and a family-friendly atmosphere. No alcohol is allowed on the streets, boardwalks, or beaches.
So, while Charleston doesn’t feature direct access to beaches from its cobblestone streets, there are plenty of great beaches within a short drive.
Folly Beach Pier
An Overview of Hilton Head’s Beaches
Perhaps its that access to the island is naturally limited by the one bridge entering the island, but the island feels more natural and untainted by humans than many beaches. Some beaches on the island, especially near the Broad River, look like you might expect them to have looked when explorers first found the island.
Marshes run near the coast such that reeds are pilled up on some of the shores, and the beaches are filled with shells.
Still, most of the beaches have the whitest sand I’ve seen anywhere along the eastern coast of the United States. I grew up in Florida going to the beaches, and Hilton Head’s beaches are much better, especially along the Atlantic.
And even so, something feels more natural than other beaches, even those in South Carolina. The last time I was there with my kids, a beautiful sting ray swam by about 5 or 6 feet away from where we waded into the ocean. Later we saw a cannonball jellyfish float on by.
I love Hilton Head Island because it feels so natural, even though thousands of beachgoers enjoy its 12 miles of beaches daily. Hilton Head might have my favorite beaches in either Carolina.
Activities: Does Charleston or Hilton Head Offer More To Do?
In comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head, you will find that Charleston is more urban and vibrant, while Hilton Head is more preserved and natural. At Hilton Head, you are more likely to go kayaking or hiking, while in Charleston, you are more likely to walk around the city’s historic streets.
What Activities Are Available Near Charleston?
Charleston, South Carolina, often attracts tourists who enjoy history and art. The city’s cobblestone streets speak the past while underpinning Charleston’s present-day cityscapes. In addition to the beautifully preserved homes, there are multiple forts nearby that add further depth to the region’s complicated story.
In April of 1861, the Union forces surrendered to Confederate troops at Fort Sumter, which is in Charleston Harbor. This battle marked the beginning of the civil war. Today, you can still visit multiple nearby forts, as well as beautiful plantation homes. It’s a tangled history, but one that makes Charleston even more intriguing to visit.
Charleston is also celebrated for its arts and culture scene. The city boasts multiple art galleries featuring both local and international artists. In fact, many inspiring artists attend the College of Charleston School of Arts.
Beyond arts, there are also several museums in the area. The Charleston Museum is heralded as America’s first museum. You will also find the South Carolina Historical Society, Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum, the Old Slave Mart Museum, and much more.
Needless to say, visit Charleston for a weekend full of history, art, and culture. And when you are ready for something a little lighter, the beaches are a short drive away. Charleston is also well known for shopping and dining options, so there is plenty to do.
What Activities Are Available on Hilton Head Island?
Hilton Head Island is a true paradise for those seeking outdoor activities. The iconic red-and-white Harbour Town Lighthouse is a must-visit attraction that has served the island for more than five decades. Visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for breathtaking views of the Yacht Basin and island.
For those who prefer to explore the island by land, there are over 60 miles of bike paths to explore, as well as numerous hiking trails and nature preserves.
Golf enthusiasts will find plenty to love on Hilton Head Island, which is home to over 20 championship golf courses. These courses offer a range of difficulty levels and styles, and Hilton Head was voted a Top 10 golf destination in the world. In fact, the island is home to a PGA Tour event known as the RBC Heritage.
For those who prefer to explore the island’s natural beauty from the water, kayaking is a popular activity on Hilton Head Island. Visitors can rent kayaks and explore the island’s many waterways, including Broad Creek and the Calibogue Sound. Kayaking tours are also available, offering guided trips through some of the island’s most scenic areas.
Of course, no trip to Hilton Head Island would be complete without a visit to the beach. With 12 miles of white-sand beaches, the island offers plenty of opportunities for swimming or just relaxing.
There are so many activities on Hilton Head Island that there is something for everyone. This includes the massive Adventure Playground, which is a playground for kids made to look like a pirate ship.
Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?
In choosing whether to visit Charleston or Hilton Head, your decision really comes down to the type of experience you want to have. Many people visiting Charleston go to museums and art galleries, as well as stroll the historic neighborhoods. For this purpose, a hotel works just fine.
Down in Hilton Head, most people want to spend time on the beach or outdoors doing activities like hiking or kayaking. Because of this, beachside rentals are much more common in Hilton Head. There are fewer traditional hotels on Hilton Head Island.
Where Should You Stay Near Charleston?
When you are choosing a place to stay in Charleston, the city’s neighborhoods offer a variety of distinct experiences. For the classic Charleston experience, consider staying in the historic downtown district. There, you will find famous cobblestone streets and pastel-colored houses.
You will also be nearby famous landmarks and have plenty of dining and shopping options. The downtown is so well preserved that you might think you’ve stepped into the history books. Staying in downtown is an excellent choice for anyone interested in culture and history.
Consider the Upper King Street district if you are searching for a lively nightlife scene. This area is the center of Charleston’s entertainment scene and is packed with bars, live music venues, and a range of food options. You will also find boutique hotels nearby.
I usually seek out a more tranquil and family-friend environment, so Folly Beach is more my speed. This laid-back beach community offers countless vacation rentals, great restaurants, and a walkable main street core near the boardwalk. Folly Beach is only about 20 minutes from downtown Charleston.
Where Should You Stay Near Hilton Head?
There are plenty of places to stay on Hilton Head Island, including luxurious resorts and beachfront rentals, so you will surely find something that fits your needs. One of the best ways to choose where to stay on Hilton Head Island is to consider the distinct neighborhood vibes.
Sea Pines is one of the island’s most well-known and picturesque neighborhoods. It’s home to the Harbour Town lighthouse, as well as a number of high-end resorts and vacation rentals. The vibe here is upscale and family-friendly, with plenty of outdoor recreation and places to relax.
Palmetto Dunes is another popular neighborhood on the island that has some of the most direct exposure to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, as well as its golf courses and tennis facilities. Palmetto Dunes is active and sporty but still offers plenty of access to the beautiful island beaches.
Some of the neighborhoods on the island, like Mitcheville near the airport, offer more residential neighborhood experiences. This makes it a great place to find VRBOs and AirBnBs. This is also a neighborhood with more secluded beaches that attract fewer tourists. Neighborhoods like Mitcheville are ideal for visitors looking for a more low-key experience.
We recommend considering Bluffton if you are looking for something a little different. While not on the island, the town of Bluffton is only a few miles away, and it is one of our favorite towns in all of South Carolina. Bluffton has a historic downtown area that is only a few blocks from a public dock on the nearby May River. It may be the perfect place to go boating or kayaking.
Bluffton Public Dock
Dining and Nightlife: Where Are The Best Places to Eat and Drink
While you will find options for any night in both cities, Charleston offers a more vibrant nightlife, while Hilton Head Island is more family-friendly. With that said, Charleston is much more populated and urban, so there are plenty of family-friendly experiences in both cities.
Still, in choosing whether to visit Charleston or Hilton Head Island, the cities definitely have different vibes.
Where Should You Eat and Hang Out In Charleston?
While we discussed this above, it is worth reiterating that downtown Charleston offers the classic experience with plenty of restaurants and small shops. If you want something low-key, I recommend checking out Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. You will be glad you did. For other options, look at the cluster of places between E Bay St and Concord St.
For a more lively experience, venture to Upper King Street, where you will find destinations like Bourbon ‘N Bubbles, High Wire Distilling, Prohibition, and the Charleston Distilling Company. Upper King Street is just a short walk from the Battery, which is great when you need to step out for some fresh air.
Beyond the buzz for these neighborhoods, I also recommend that you check out Avondale, which is a trendy district located just west of the Ashley River. Locally it is known as a culinary hotspot.
Where Should You Eat and Hang Out on Hilton Head Island?
Hilton Head Island is a fun and relaxed place to hang out, with a wide variety of restaurants and places to eat. While some of these spots are high-end restaurants, I appreciate that there are also several local restaurants that are still affordable.
Coligny Plaza is one of the most popular areas to eat on the island. My family loves to stroll around Coligny Plaza in the evenings because there are plenty of low-key places to eat and shop (and eat ice cream!). And there is a massive play area for kids, including a huge pirate ship, across the street at Coligny Beach.
Another popular area for dining on Hilton Head Island is Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina. This waterfront destination is home to a number of restaurants and bars. Naturally, many of the restaurants offer outdoor seating with beautiful views of the marina.
Overall, Hilton Head Island has no shortage of dining options, from casual beachfront eateries to more high-end restaurants. Whether you’re in the mood for seafood, pizza, or something in between, you’re sure to find something to satisfy your appetite on this beautiful island.
Is Charleston or Hilton Head Better?
In comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head Island, you will find they are very different places. This is despite sitting only two hours apart along the South Carolina coastline. Charleston drips with history, art, culture, and nightlife. Comparatively, Hilton Head feels much more natural and preserved, highlighting the beautiful beaches.
People also compare Charleston and Hilton Head vs. Myrtle Beach, but in my opinion, Charleston and Hilton Head represent the best South Carolina has to offer. If you are road-tripping down from the north, you might consider comparing the Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach. There is no shortage of fantastic Carolina destinations.
The Verdict: Charleston vs. Hilton Head
I recommend visiting Charleston for a romantic weekend or on a friend’s trip. There will be no shortage of things to do, places to eat, or boutique hotels to choose from. And if you are a runner, you can visit during April to participate in the Cooper River Bridge Run, which often has more than 40,000 runners.
For a more relaxed experience with the family, visit Hilton Head Island instead. Go hiking or kayaking, visit the Harbour Town Lighthouse, or chill along miles of pristine beaches. Take the kids to the Adventure Playground to burn some energy. Then walk across the street to Coligny Plaza for great dinner and dessert options.
Needless to say, in comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head, there are fantastic reasons to visit both cities. Your choice will likely come down to your personal preferences and personal circumstance. Either way, we hope you enjoy some time in South Carolina’s beautiful coastal cities!