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Charleston may get a lot of attention — it’s been named Travel + Leisure readers’ favorite U.S. city in our World’s Best Awards numerous times — but there are many other South Carolina spots with sandy shores, fresh seafood, magnificent live oaks, and a slower-paced way of life. Of the charming towns across the state, there’s one in particular that embraces visitors with a sense of tranquility and an extra dose of Southern hospitality.
Edisto Island, one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, is just an hour south of the Holy City’s peninsula — and its landscape, history, and people have created a rich cultural destination. “Edisto Island is a place where time has moved and is moving very slowly. We have no traffic lights, high rises, or chain restaurants,” says Thaddeus Daise, who was born and raised on the island and serves as a commissioner on the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission and as a director of the Edisto Island Open Land Trust. “The residents are friendly, caring, and accepting to all.”
While a popular place to vacation, modern-day Edisto Island is also deeply connected to its past. Named after the Edisto Native Americans who inhabited the area in the 1500s, the 68-square-mile island has a history of displacement and resilience. After the Civil War ended, formerly enslaved individuals returned to the area to work as free men and women; cooperatives were organized by Black leaders to eventually purchase the land. Today, Edisto Island is still home to many in the Gullah Geechee community, descendants of the West and Central Africans who were forcefully brought across the Atlantic to work on the area’s plantations.
Along with typical beach-related activities — of which there are plenty — visitors should take the opportunity to learn more about the roles the island and its inhabitants have played in American history over multiple centuries. “The Edisto Island Museum is chock-full of interesting history of the island, and we have a brand-new permanent exhibit celebrating the rich Gullah culture that is such an important part of Edisto Island,” says Gretchen Smith, director of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society.
Whether you’re interested in visiting for a weeklong beach getaway or a quick day trip from Charleston, read on to discover where you should stay, eat, and explore on Edisto Island.
Related: 8 Charming Small Towns in South Carolina
Where to Stay on Edisto Island
“There are no hotels here, only vacation rental homes and condos, which adds to its quaint charm,” says Chelsea Harrison, executive director at the Edisto Chamber of Commerce. If you’re looking to stay overnight on the island, search Airbnb or Vrbo for short-stay rentals — we rounded up a few of the best listings below.
Relaxing Water View Home
Grab your family or a group of friends and rent out this three-bed, 3.5-bath home on the island. It sleeps eight total, and there’s even a deck and patio for extra room (and the opportunity to dine al fresco).
Marshfront Villa in the Trees
If you want 360-degree marsh views, you’ll get them at this three-bedroom villa. Vaulted ceilings and “jungle surf” decor define the overall look and feel of the interior, and there are several outdoor porches where you can soak up the sights and sounds of a Lowcountry evening.
This is the type of rental you book to truly unplug. The two-bedroom cottage is outfitted with a front porch facing the tidal creek, and guests can access a shared dock.
It doesn’t get more “beachfront” than Sulla Sabbia, a four-bedroom home featuring a wall of windows overlooking the ocean. The property is ideal for larger parties, as it can sleep up to 10 people.
Built in 2016, Junglelow is a two-bedroom cottage that boasts a large screened porch, an outdoor shower, and a sizable deck. Perfect for visitors who love to cook, the home also features an open kitchen as well as a fish-cleaning station in the garage.
Best Things to Do on Edisto Island
Spend a day at Edisto Beach.
On the southern end of the island, you’ll find Edisto Beach and its 4.5 miles of peaceful coastline. To access the beach, visitors need to pay the $8 entrance fee to enter the state park. The cost is worth it, though, as you have the chance to experience excellent shelling, fossil hunting, and incredible sunrises. “To round out the perfect day, I would head to the end of our beach where the sunsets are absolutely gorgeous, equipped with dolphin sightings and all,” says Harrison.
Dive into the island’s history at the Edisto Island Museum and the Hutchinson House.
The Edisto Island Museum’s hours vary based on the time of year, but from March through October, it’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Along with the exhibitions, there’s also a gift shop and books on the Gullah Geechee community and the island in its entirety.
Another way to learn about Edisto Island’s past is to visit the Hutchinson House. “The Hutchinson House is the oldest home of a former slave on the island,” says Daise. “The house is currently being restored by the Edisto Island Open Landtrust (EIOLT).” There’s a trail around the grounds that visitors can explore while the house undergoes its final phase of restoration, and, according to the EIOLT, the plan is to open the house to the public in 2024.
Head to Botany Bay, the island’s nature reserve.
“The road leading to [Botany Bay] is one of the most photographed on the island,” says Smith. Within the 4,600 acres of the Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area, there are two former plantations as well as several outbuildings, freshwater ponds, a beach, and a maritime forest. “The beach is sometimes referred to as ‘Boneyard Beach’ because [of] the fallen trees that have been bleached out by the sun and weather,” says Daise.
Bring the whole family to the Edisto Island Serpentarium.
Combining education and adventure, the Edisto Island Serpentarium houses more than 20 adult American alligators, many different types of turtles, venomous and nonvenomous snakes, and three different lizard species. “The Serpentarium is great for kids and adults who like snakes, gators, etc. They do a really great job, especially with their presentations on snakes. They do one on gators, too, along with [daily] feedings,” says Smith.
Explore the island by hiking, biking, or taking a guided boat tour.
To get the full Edisto Island experience, you’ll want to see as much of the area as possible, whether by foot, bike, or boat. Harrison recommends a “scenic boat tour of [the] creeks and marshes to experience the beauty of the ACE Basin,” and Botany Bay Ecotours offers a variety of programs, including Edisto’s African American Journey, Beachcombing Walking Tour, and the Dolphin Boat Ecotour.
Related: 13 Best Beaches in South Carolina
Best Restaurants on Edisto Island
Ella & Ollie’s
Ella & Ollie’s, or “E & O’s,” appears on most Edisto Island guides — and with good reason. “They use local fresh seafood and produce as a staple at the restaurant,” says Daise. Led by Brandon and Katherine Rushing, the restaurant’s dinner menu features items like tomato pie, shrimp and grits, and she-crab soup.
The Rushings also own Briny Swine, a smokehouse and raw bar restaurant that’s “equally worth checking out,” according to Daise. Buttermilk hoe cakes and buffalo blue cheese fried oysters are served alongside ribs, wings, and pulled pork sandwiches. Just make sure to save room for the dessert selection, which includes Southern classics like coconut cake and banana pudding.
In a building that once served as a gas station and convenience store, Whaley’s serves up seafood and dive bar food to both island locals and visitors. Burgers, fried mahi-mahi bites, fried dill pickle chips, and oysters are all on deck. Whaley’s also hosts karaoke on Monday nights as well as live entertainment throughout the year.
Edisto Seafood and Flowers Seafood Company
If you don’t want to eat at a restaurant, there’s another option. “Our two local seafood shops, Edisto Seafood and Flowers Seafood Company, sell shrimp fresh out of the ocean for you to prepare yourself,” says Harrison. “Try it in a Lowcountry Boil if you want to eat like the locals.”
The SeaCow Eatery
For what Daise calls the “absolute best breakfast on the island,” make your way to The SeaCow Eatery. Open for more than 25 years — although it’s changed hands a few times — The SeaCow is where you go for a substantial breakfast. “Moo La La” French toast, “Moo Mania” home fries topped with eggs, mushrooms, onions, and sausage gravy, and the six-egg John’s Omelet are equally as delicious as they are unforgettable.
Best Time to Visit Edisto Island
Summer may have beautiful beach weather, but fall is the best time to visit Edisto Island. “Temperatures start to cool but the weather is still great for getting outdoors, rates are lower, and the beaches are less crowded,” says Harrison. Plus, she adds, “There is no shortage of things to do with a ton of local events going on.” This year, fall events include the Cookin’ on the Creek BBQ Festival and the Edisto Plein Air Paint Out; all Edisto Island happenings can be found here.
Travelers should, however, be aware of hurricane season. Hurricane activity typically peaks from late August to early September, but the season runs from June through the end of November.
Related: The Best Times to Visit South Carolina for Pleasant Weather, Fewer Crowds, and Lower Prices
How to Get There
Charleston International Airport (CHS) is about a 50-minute drive from Edisto Island — you’ll skip a majority of the downtown Charleston traffic — and the drive from Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) will be around an hour and 40 minutes. “It is one way on and one way off,” says Daise, which means you’ll need a car to get on the island itself.
How to Get Around
“We call it ‘EdisSLOW’ for a reason. No one goes over 35 mph here… and you can get anywhere you need to in a golf cart or [by] bike,” says Harrison. While you can’t bring your own golf cart, you can rent one from Island Bikes and Outfitters or Infinity Cart Rentals. “Please check out our website for some tips on local golf cart etiquette if you do,” she adds.