Close enough for a spontaneous weekend trip, South Carolina’s cities and towns that offer a fun contrast to Raleigh
By Hannah Kaufman and Brian Rosenzweig
Just a quick drive and a state away, South Carolina offers small towns and mid-sized cities filled with vibrant beaches, historical walking tours, delicious food, and Southern charm. From Columbia’s bustling Soda City Market to Greenville’s peaceful Reedy River Falls waterfall, here are 5 cities within a 5-hour drive that feel a world away.
For the Southern History Enthusiast: Charleston
The oldest city in South Carolina, and just a 4-hour hour drive from the Triangle, the port city of Charleston is bursting with color and culture. Start your day downtown at the iconic Charleston City Market — an artisan market hosted seven days a week — for your fix of coffee, sweet treats, and local art. Then, stroll down the historic downtown area, taking in the beautiful Colonial-era houses rich with history; the eclectic beachside Rainbow Row and gorgeous Battery Park are musts on a walking tour.
Or, for those who don’t feel like walking, try hopping on a scenic carriage tour, a great way to take in the sights of the city. Be sure to take full advantage of Charleston’s unique, Southern food culture: the acclaimed Rodney Scott’s BBQ for lunch, the renowned Hank’s Seafood for dinner, and freshly-made saltwater taffy for any time of day on just about every corner. For more NC favorites, stop by celebrity chef’s Vivian Howard’s new restaurant Lenoir for cornmeal-dusted catfish and chef Sean Brock’s restaurant Husk for Southern staples. An evening spent at Sullivan’s Island Beach, watching the ships roll by and taking in the dazzling sunset, is the perfect way to end a day in this beloved beachside city.
For the Big City Lover: Columbia
Just a 3-hour drive from Raleigh, Columbia is full of all the opportunities, history, and fun you’d expect from the state capital, and summer and early fall are this city’s prime time. Start your day downtown at the Devine Cinnamon Roll, a popular breakfast spot where you can enjoy creative Hawaiian-bread cinnamon rolls like the strawberry cheesecake roll, the wildberry graham cracker crumble, and more. If you’re visiting on a Saturday, be sure to stop by the Soda City Market, a lively produce and vendor market that closes off the city’s Main Street — overlooking the State Capitol — every weekend.
Spend a few hours exploring one of the capital’s many attractions, from the Columbia Museum of Art and South Carolina State Museum to the Riverbanks Zoo, ranked as one of the top zoos in North America. And of course, Southern soul food is the name of Columbia’s food game, with Rush’s, Big Boy’s Smokehouse, and A Peace of Soul being fixtures in the area. Round out the day with a stroll through the scenic Canal and Riverfront Park, and watch a sunset from the rooftop at River Rat Craft Brewery.
For the Outdoors Enthusiast: Greenville
This upstate city about four hours from Raleigh has become one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and it’s easy to see why. With a unique blend of historic architecture and 21st century urbanization, Greenville has all the fun of a larger city, with an indelible small town charm and lush nature integrated into much of the downtown with mature trees. Kick off your day grabbing coffee and a delicious blueberry, lemon, and goat cheese scone while browsing at M. Judson Booksellers, a woman-owned indie bookstore in a gorgeous historic building. From there, head down the iconic Main Street into Falls Park, a green space right in the downtown’s center with a breathtaking waterfall, Reedy River Falls, running right through it. Picnic near the bottom of the falls, take a stroll around the park, and step onto the Liberty Bridge bridge overlooking the park for an unforgettable photo-op location. Enjoy a delicious ice-cream or cool coffee drink from the brick-walled Spill the Beans overlooking the park, or head up the street to Luna Rosa for some incredibly smooth gelato. Be sure to also take advantage of the less urban side of Greenville, from the gorgeous Paris Mountain State Park to the cyclist-favorite Swamp Rabbit Trail running through much of the city. You won’t want to miss out on all the amazing dining experiences Greenville has to offer, including the eclectic and mouth-watering Nose Dive gastropub, the elevated Southern-style Soby’s, and the award-winning Rick Erwin’s steakhouse. There’s also the zoo right downtown!
For the Ocean Lover: Hilton Head Island
A beloved beachside community that’s grown in popularity in recent decades, this scenic island less than 5 hours from Raleigh in South Carolina’s Lowcountry is an amazing place to spend even a weekend. While Hilton Head has a wealth of fun resort experiences — Marriott, Palmera, and Disney have all laid claim there — the island also has plenty of smaller hotels, rentals, and Airbnbs to fit virtually any budget and timeframe. The coast itself is obviously a draw, with gorgeous views of the Atlantic, clean beaches, and regular dolphin sightings (the island itself is a natural dolphin habitat). Coligny Beach is a reliable public option for those who may not stay at a location with beach access, but anywhere is sure to land you a great day in the sun.
For those looking to elevate their beach days, dolphin tours, tubing, and even parasailing rentals are available to guarantee a good time. Don’t miss out on all the fun within the island, too, with incredible golf courses, shopping at Coligny Plaza and Shelter Cove, and the charming Harbour Town at the southern tip. Enjoy tropical drinks in the shade at Harbourside, grab dinner at the comfort-food-style Truffles Cafe, and be sure to take a tour of Harbour Town’s historical lighthouse and climb to the top before sunset for a truly incredible view. And of course, no visit to Hilton Head is complete without a trip to the Salty Dog Cafe at the South Beach Marina, the seafood restaurant and shop that’s become a sensation all around the South.
For the Foodie: Mount Pleasant
Don’t let the name confuse you — as the largest town of South Carolina and a popular waterfront destination, Mount Pleasant is anything but mountains, but it certainly is pleasant! Located 4 hours from Raleigh and once one of the state’s fastest growing areas, this town is an amalgam of historical landmarks, suburban living, coastal sightseeing, and family-friendly attractions.
Check out the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum to tour historical landmark ships like the USS Yorktown, and then picnic at Memorial Waterfront Park, known as Mount Pleasant’s crown jewel for its spacious lawn, nautical-themed playground, and delicious soft-serve ice cream at the River Watch Cafe. Speaking of food, Mount Pleasant is full of delicious spots for all tastes and cuisines. Stop by the Five Loaves Cafe for breakfast, The Pickled Palate deli for lunch, and Swig & Swine for classic American BBQ or Grace & Grit for the perfect beachy dinner: seafood.
For more fun, head to the trendy stores and historic neighborhood in the Old Village District, or visit the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market to shop and socialize with locals every Tuesday, with live music and freshly baked goods. The Pitt Street Bridge and Waterfront District at Shem Creek are also great waterside sightseeing spots, and Charleston Fun Park and Splash Island Waterpark at Palmetto Islands County Park are full of adventures for the whole family. The town is situated on the coast of the Charleston harbor, with beaches at Isle of Palms and Sullivans Island just a short distance away.
For the Small Town Seeker: Spartanburg
Rich with Revolutionary War era history and miles of trails, lakes, parks and rivers, Spartanburg is the perfect place to explore the past — and the great outdoors. A small city located less than 4 hours from Raleigh, Spartanburg balances a relaxing small-town atmosphere with opportunities for fun, adventure, and great food.
Make sure to swing by the Beacon Drive-In — a Southern landmark since 1946 and the second largest drive-in in the nation — for savory cheeseburgers, onion rings, and fries, grab a table at The Kennedy for cocktails and fine-dining, and look out for delicious homemade ice cream at Hub City Scoops. If you’re feeling an outdoor picnic or a scenic walk with the family, head over to Cleveland Park, Spartanburg’s most popular public park and a great venue for meetings, weddings, and special events.
Spartanburg Regional History Museum and Hub City Railroad Museum are full of learning opportunities, and Spartanburg downtown cultural district is brimming with art and culture, from visual exhibits to ballet to theatrical performances. If the kids want to let off some steam, Shipwreck Cove Water Park and Sparkle City Mini Putt miniature golf course are both adrenaline-filled options for all ages.