In 2016, Travel + Leisure magazine named Charleston, South Carolina the best city in the world. But drive about 10 miles to the east and you’ll find a small beach community called Sullivan’s Island.
While staying on Sullivan’s Island for the eclipse, I fell in love with it. Here are my top 5 reasons why any visit to Charleston isn’t complete without a trip to Sullivan’s Island.
1. Laid-back, beachy vibes
My favorite part about Sullivan’s Island, hands-down, is that it’s a slow-moving, laid-back beach community. Because I am a generally neurotic city person, I often travel to get a breath of fresh air and to relax. Sullivan’s Island provided me with ample opportunity to do exactly this.
The maximum speed limit on the island is 35 miles per hour, which serves as a good example that basically no one is in a rush. In fact, golf carts are a popular form of transportation on island (and given that the island only 3.4 square miles large, it makes sense why).
The further down south you go on the island, the more laid back the vibe is. Although towards the northern end of the main drag, Middle Street, there are bars and restaurants including Home Team (a popular bar with amazing wings), the southern part of the island is almost entirely residential. The beaches in this part of town are sparsely populated – even during the eclipse, which saw an influx of approximately 1 million people to Charleston, the area of beach I was on was almost entirely empty.
In addition to the beach, on the opposite side of the island are marshes, with beautiful docks and views of downtown Charleston. This area is similarly laid-back, and the views are arguably even better than those from the beach.
2. Fewer tourists
Being named the best travel destination in the world has some disadvantages. Walking around Charleston, there were throngs of people everywhere (although admittedly it was quite busy for the eclipse, it’s generally very common to see lots of tourists around the city). As an example, while I was at brunch on a Saturday afternoon, I saw at least 5 bachelor/bachelorette parties in the span of about an hour.
When I travel, I generally like to avoid crowds and, particularly, I usually like to avoid areas that are full of tourists. Sullivan’s Island was perfect for this (at the time of writing this article, Google puts the population of Sullivan’s Island at only 1,936 people).
With no major hotels on the island and because it’s relatively unknown to outsiders, you can enjoy the beach, Southern hospitality, and some great historic spots without the crowds. In fact, many celebrities have caught onto its charms and relative exclusivity, which is why Reese Witherspoon, Bill Murray, and Stephen Colbert have purchased homes on the island (Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel lived there as well, though I was told they only rented).
3. Bike-friendly community
The summer heat and humidity in Charleston is not conducive to outdoor activities, aside from laying in the sun and getting an amazing tan. That being said, on the Sunday before the eclipse, I woke up early enough to enjoy a long bike ride before the Sun’s rays became too hot to handle.
The island remind me a lot of Caye Caulker in Belize, which, as I’ve written about before, is an island with no cars. While Sullivan’s Island isn’t as restrictive to motor vehicles, its roads are perfect for biking, and the island is small enough that you can cover everywhere in just a few hours.
Also helping the bike-friendliness of the island is that it’s almost entirely flat. Coming from San Francisco, hills are my main barrier to biking, so I really enjoyed being able to ride around the island without killing my quads.
As great as this all already sounds, my favorite part of biking around the island was looking at the beautiful houses, which brings me to my next reason that Sullivan’s Island is a must.
4. The architecture and houses are amazing
When you think of Charleston, you normally think of how pretty the houses are, and Sullivan’s Island is no exception. Sullivan’s Island is fairly affluent (see point 2 about the celebrities who live there!), and, as a result, some massive and gorgeous houses have been built, which are sprinkled all around the island. Some of the homes are, quite literally, right out of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.
Any bike, walking, or even driving tour of the city will cause you to stop every few minutes to look in awe at the amazing residences. Many of the houses are on stilts – because the island is flat and at sea level, flooding is often a problem. But the stilts look, for lack of a better description, so freaking cool. Many of the houses also have amazing porches, equipped with classic rocking chairs that you’d expect to see in the South.
I especially loved looking at the incredible pools that many of these houses have. Most of the year, the weather is warm enough to swim, and homeowners on Sullivan’s Island definitely take advantage of this. I really enjoyed the contrast of old Southern homes with sparkling new pools that would fit in perfectly at a fancy spa or hotel.
5. There’s so much history
Did you know Edgar Allan Poe was station on Sullivan’s Island, or that it served as an important base for the Civil War? The locals are incredibly proud of Sullivan’s Island rich history, and for good reason.
One of my favorite parts of my visit was when I was walking home from the beach, without even trying, I ran into an important military post from the civil war, Fort Moultrie, which was on top of a small hill. There were cannons outside, which I was able to touch. You can take tours of Fort Moultrie for free, and being able to add a historic flare to an otherwise beachy vacation made the island even more enjoyable.
Sullivan’s Island is a truly special place which should be on the itinerary of anyone going to visit Charleston!