16 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do on Hilton Head Island, SC
Author Bryan Dearsley frequently visits South Carolina, including in the spring of 2023, and has explored Hilton Head Island and the surrounding area extensively.
Hilton Head Island in beautiful South Carolina is not only one of the newest vacation destinations in the US – it was only connected to the mainland by bridge in 1956 – it's also one of the fastest growing. The big draw? In addition to the many fun things to do here for families, its tourist attractions, and its great hotels and resorts, Hilton Head Island (HHI to those in the know) is a heaven on earth for beach lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
In addition to its attractive sand dune-backed beaches, the island boasts acres of protected wildlife and nature preserves, as well as numerous fun water adventures such as dolphin tours and fishing charters.
It's also a paradise for cyclists, with a vast network of mostly traffic-free, paved bike paths to explore. Add to this list the superlative golf and its many great restaurants, and there's no end of reasons for you to want to linger and explore this beautiful Low Country paradise.
I was first exposed to Hilton Head Island's beauty after making an impromptu visit more than 10 years ago. Heading home from a family vacation in Orlando, once we experienced the island's beach, it was an easy and unanimous decision to return the following year (and countless times since) to discover more about this unique and utterly charming Lowcountry island.
You'll find the best places to visit on the island with my list of the top tourist attractions and things to do on Hilton Head Island.
- 1. Enjoy the Endless Beaches
- 2. Relax in Coligny Beach Park
- 3. Explore the Bike Trails and Do Some Beach Biking
- 4. Take a Dolphin Cruise Tour
- 5. Have Fun in Coligny Plaza
- 6. Climb the Harbour Town Lighthouse
- 7. Visit Harbour Town
- 8. Get Back to Nature at the Coastal Discovery Museum
- 9. Walk the Trails at Sea Pines Forest Preserve
- 10. Enjoy a Sea Kayaking Tour
- 11. Explore the Ruins of the Stoney-Baynard Plantation
- 12. Take a Boat to Daufuskie Island
- 13. Take a Drive to Bluffton
- 14. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
- 15. Take the Kids to The Sandbox Children's Museum
- 16. Bird-Watching at Audubon Newhall Preserve
- Map of Attractions & Things to Do on Hilton Head Island, SC
- Hilton Head Island, SC - Climate Chart
1. Enjoy the Endless Beaches
However much fun there is to be had elsewhere on Hilton Head Island, it's to the beaches I always go first. Beach access points are everywhere, generally consisting of usually free public parking and a wood boardwalk or sandy path leading through the dunes to the water. A handy free shuttle bus service, The Breeze, can get you to the beach and back, too.
That first glimpse of the Atlantic is always a treat, followed by the fact you don't have to go far in any direction to get away from any crowds that may have set up chairs or beach blankets.
If walking the beach is more your thing, knock yourself out. HHI boasts over 12 miles of pristine sand to explore on foot or by bike. And yes, beach biking is encouraged, and is easy and fun, unless it's a windy day. While sunrise is a good time to walk, be sure to head home once dusk arrives. The island has a strict policy preventing lights on its beaches due to their important habitats for nesting sea turtles.
For those traveling with kids wanting to swim, choose a beach location that offers lifeguard services at least during the prime beach season. These include Coligny, Islander, Driessen, and Folly Field Beaches.
The other top beaches to explore include Burkes Beach, which is also a great spot for some fun beach biking mid-way up the island; and Fish Haul Creek Beach, one of the quieter spots as it's at the northern tip of the island and north facing. My personal favorite, South Beach, is located at the southern tip of the island in the Sea Pines Resort neighborhood.
A great choice for couples, South Beach also has the advantage of being just a short bike ride away from restaurants, snack bars, and shopping in Harbour Town. It's usually quieter here as there's no parking, so you'll want to take your resort up on its bike rental options. It's also a great spot to watch the boats pass between you and Tybee Island, just a few miles away across the water, as they make their way to and from Savannah, Georgia.
2. Relax in Coligny Beach Park
The busiest of Hilton Head Island's top beaches, Coligny Beach is adjacent to Coligny Beach Park at about the mid-way point of the Island's Atlantic shoreline. Although it's the nearest the island has to a typical seaside scene, with nearby Coligny Plaza boasting a variety of shops and dining establishments, it's tastefully done.
Whether you arrive on foot, by bike, by car (parking can be tight), or on one of the handy trolley buses that connect the island's neighborhoods and car parks to the water, you enter the beach through a pleasant park area which offers amenities such as change rooms and outdoor showers, as well as restrooms.
There are also a number of great seating areas, including shady gazebos with rockers, as well as sturdy swing chairs. And yes, there's even free Wi-Fi here.
Beach access is made easy for those with mobility issues thanks to rubber matting laid across the sand. It leads directly to the ocean, where beach chairs can be rented. It's also a handy surface for those pushing strollers or, like me, walking my bike from the beach to the nearby Hilton Head Social Bakery for a coffee and a sweet treat or lunch.
Address: 1 Coligny Circle, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
3. Explore the Bike Trails and Do Some Beach Biking
In a world overrun by automobiles, a vacation to Hilton Head Island is a refreshing change. Not only does its 12-mile stretch of Atlantic-facing beaches encourage you to get out and walk, but this very forward-looking holiday destination is home to one of the most extensive bike path networks in the US.
In fact, it's the perfect opportunity to park and forget about the car for the duration of your stay and instead rely on some pedal power. You can bring your own, or rent one from your hotel, resort, or any one of the numerous bike rental locations that have sprung up.
I find the resort bike rentals extremely cost-effective, especially if you reserve one for a few days, bringing the cost down per day. A chain and padlock are provided, but be warned: the bikes all look alike and are usually the same color, so remembering where you parked is crucial. And be sure to get a bike with "fat tires" that make beach riding possible (standard bike tires just won't work).
Pretty much everywhere you go on Hilton Head Island there are paved, smooth bike paths, either lining the roads leading into and around the island or setting off into the trees or toward the beach. Whatever direction you go, it's pretty easy to escape the congestion, noise, and fumes of regular traffic and instead explore at your leisure. And given its flat topography, it's extremely easy to pedal here.
HHI was in fact one of the first destinations in the US to be awarded the League of American Bicyclists' Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community Award. And it's pretty easy to see why once you start pedaling. Bicycle traffic flows peacefully along some 117 miles of pathways shared with pedestrians, plus another six miles dedicated solely to bikes.
Whether you're walking or riding, though, you do want to pay attention and stick to your designated section of the path. "On your left!" is a frequently heard greeting bikers call out to pedestrians, and is one you'll want to make use of, too.
Plus, of course, there's an additional 12 miles for beach biking, a wonderful experience that will have you riding leisurely along the hard-packed sand surface at low tide on bikes with those special wider-than-normal tires making it almost effortless.
A word of caution, though. What at first might seem like a gentle sea breeze pushing you down the beach might feel like a gale-force wind when you head back to your accommodations. I typically pay attention to that breeze and will plan a route that will make use of the inland trails to avoid a hard slog home.
While it's generally easy to make up your route as you go, bike path maps are everywhere, whether in shops and restaurants, hotels and resorts, or at convenient pathway kiosks or bike rental locations.
4. Take a Dolphin Cruise Tour
The waters surrounding Hilton Head Island are simply teeming with marine life. Fortunately, it doesn't take a great deal of effort to actually catch a glimpse of a variety of fascinating sea creatures.
Topping most people's lists of "must-sees" are the native Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins that have made Hilton Head Island their home. It's believed around 170 of these elegant marine mammals live here year-round and are thriving.
Although the Island's playful dolphins can sometimes be spotted from shore, by far the best way to catch a close-up look at them is aboard a boat. While many dolphin cruise options are available, I enjoy combining a little dolphin spotting with a ferry ride to neighboring Daufuskie Island.
These comfortable 45-minute crossings from HHI are provided by Daufuskie Island Ferry and, every time I've been aboard, seem to attract the attention of a dolphin or two… sometimes even more. Hilton Head's dolphins aren't shy and seem to enjoy showing off as they splash about in the vessel's wake. Best of all, you get to do it all again on the return trip.
If you're looking for a more formalized experience that's dedicated solely to a dolphin-watching experience, try the Hilton Head Island Dolphin Watching Nature Cruise. These 90-minute cruises depart from Harbour Town Yacht Basin in the Sea Pines Resort neighborhood. There's ample free parking here, so just look for the lighthouse to guide you.
In addition to dolphins, this always fun cruise provides opportunities to catch sightings of the island's abundant birdlife, too. Other highlights include commentary as you cruise past landmarks, including Bull Island and Haig Point Lighthouse. For an added dose of fun, consider joining a sunset dolphin cruise.
There are, of course, other dolphin cruise providers worth considering. Two that I recommend are Dolphin Discoveries Boat Tours, which offer a personalized experience aboard smaller vessels and guarantee you'll see dolphins; and Kayak Hilton Head which offers fun dolphin nature tours where you do the paddling.
5. Have Fun in Coligny Plaza
While Hilton Head is well-known for its endless miles of bike paths and pedestrian boardwalks, one of the nicest stretches of footpaths leads from Coligny Beach Park and the car parks around Coligny Circle to the shops, eateries, and entertainment opportunities at Coligny Plaza.
This always-bustling plaza is fun to explore. In addition to the usual souvenir gift shops and eateries, there are a number of unusual places to visit worth checking out that sell high-end fashions and accessories. Our favorite for casual clothing and beachwear (hey, who doesn't forget something when packing!) is Fresh Produce, and we pay a visit at least once or twice per island visit.
Feeling peckish? In addition to less-traditional foodstuffs, there are coffee shops (Carolina Coffee and Crumb is a good one), ice cream stores (try Rita's famous ice custard), and lunches (grab a sandwich at Earle of Sandwich) to enjoy.
Coligny Plaza is also home to a movie theater, and during the busier months, free live music can be enjoyed outdoors as you partake in an al fresco snack or meal.
Address: 1 N Forest Beach Drive, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
6. Climb the Harbour Town Lighthouse
Undoubtedly Hilton Head's most recognizable landmark, the Harbour Town Lighthouse is a must-visit. Located in the heart of Harbour Town in the ritzy Sea Pines Resort district at the Island's south end, this iconic red and white striped lighthouse serves not only as a navigation aid to boat traffic using the Harbour Town Marina and the Intracoastal Waterway but is also a first-rate museum.
Erected in 1970 and standing 90 feet tall, a visit to this must-do attraction will lead you past a number of interesting exhibits as you climb the building's interior upwards toward the viewing platform. Highlights include displays of historic photos and artifacts related to the island's history (it has been inhabited for some 10,000 years) and a special exhibit showcasing the role of the Coast Guard over the decades.
While it's a steep climb, you can pace yourself as I did with a pause to check out the exhibits. The views from the top of the lighthouse, however, are spectacular, and certainly make the climb worthwhile. From here, you can see over a large part of the island, as well as nearby Daufuskie Island, and even Tybee Island in the neighboring state of Georgia.
There are also two gift shops on-site, and events and functions such as weddings can make use of the building with prior booking. For a great photo, follow the boardwalk to the opposite side of the marina and use one or two of the yachts moored there to frame the shot. Nice!
Address: 149 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
7. Visit Harbour Town
Harbour Town itself is also well worth exploring. Considered the commercial hub of the high-end (and huge) Sea Pines Resort, it's a great place to shop. Shopping highlights include a number of fine boutique stores selling chic clothing, home décor, and furnishings, as well as a great selection of crafts, gifts, jewelry, and art.
There are also plenty of great dining options, including casual fare at the Harbour Town Bakery & Café, which serves great baked goods, sandwiches, espresso coffees, and teas, all served al fresco. I also enjoy the fact there's plenty of outdoor shaded seating, making it the perfect spot to rest after all that biking and beachgoing.
Harbour Town is also a hub of sporting activity. Much of the action centers around the marina. Here, you can pick up a sailing excursion aboard a famous racing yacht, hop aboard a dolphin-watching cruise, send the kids on a pirate ship adventure on the Black Dagger, rent a Jet Ski, or embark on a kayak eco-tour.
Golfers are also well-catered to at the famous Harbour Town Golf Links, well-known for its iconic 18th hole: just aim for Harbour Town Lighthouse. There's also a tennis club with world-class courts, along with a large adventure playground for the kids.
Editor's Note: while parking is free, there's a small admission to pay when entering this ritzy resort and residential area, even if entering by bike or on foot. That said, some of the nearby resorts, such as the Marriott Grande Ocean just outside the Sea Pines Resort area, do provide complimentary passes so you can come and go as you, please.
Address: 149 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
8. Get Back to Nature at the Coastal Discovery Museum
A must-visit while on Hilton Head Island, especially for nature lovers, is the Coastal Discovery Museum. This popular educational center is set on 68 acres of land, some of it abutting the coast, and makes for a fun half-day excursion. You'll enjoy learning about such native tree species as the magnificent live oak, so-named as they never completely lose their foliage, as well as a nearly 500-year-old southern red cedar.
There's plenty of wildlife, too, including many species of birds and butterflies. Best of all, much of the property can be explored simply by following its network of well-marked nature trails, including three fun marsh boardwalks along the tidal Jarvis Creek.
Other notable features are the Bird's-Eye View Theater, an outdoor theater staging regular events and shows, and a replica shell ring made of local shellfish in a style known to have been used for over 4,000 years. The Coastal Discovery Museum is also the site of a popular weekly farmers market, plus a large annual art show.
Address: 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
9. Walk the Trails at Sea Pines Forest Preserve
Also worth a visit for nature lovers is Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Located in the Sea Pines Resort area, it's a delightful area to explore on foot and easy to get to by bike.
Established in 1970, highlights of this important nature reserve include a network of walking trails and wetland boardwalks, an ancient original shell ring that's reputedly 40,000 years old, and plenty of wildlife, including alligators. Other fun things to do here include wagon rides, horseback riding, guided boat tours, and fishing.
Author's Tip: Sea Pines Forest Preserve, like most parks on the island, is easy to get to by bike and makes for a great spot for a family picnic. This is just one of the reasons I make sure my bike rental comes with a carrying basket large enough to pack snacks and picnics, plenty of water, as well, of course, as towels. From experience, I also found them handy when our 20-pound pup got tired.
Location: Sea Pines Resort, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
10. Enjoy a Sea Kayaking Tour
Nothing says "I've been to Hilton Head Island" quite like grabbing a selfie before you hit the water in a kayak. And given the increased interest from travelers in healthy outdoor pursuits, there's certainly no shortage of options available on Hilton Head Island.
For casual kayakers, or more experienced paddlers traveling without their own vessel, a great way to sample this must-do experience is by joining a professionally led kayaking experience. Reputable providers include Island Water Sports, whose 90-minute excursions offer single- and double kayaks, as well as an educational component before hitting the water. H2O Sports in Sea Harbour Town is another convenient choice, and offer tours as well as rentals.
Another good option is taking a guided kayak nature tour of Hilton Head. This fun, safe two-hour adventure includes the services of a professional naturalist who will guide you through the salt marshes of Broad Creek Wildlife Area, a nature preserve that's brimming with wildlife. In addition to numerous native and migrating bird species, you'll likely spot some dolphins along the way, too. Suitable for older children, the tour also includes a safety talk, as well as life jackets.
11. Explore the Ruins of the Stoney-Baynard Plantation
After exploring Sea Pines Nature Preserve, head over to the nearby Stoney-Baynard Plantation historic site to explore the remains of one of the former plantations that once dotted the island. Also known locally as the Baynard Ruins, this fascinating historic archeological site dates back to 1790 and was destroyed at the end of the Civil War. It's also said to be haunted!
You can certainly get a good sense of the scale of the plantation, with notable remains including a portion of the original two-story house, as well as evidence of the encampment made by occupying Union troops during the Civil War.
Address: Plantation Drive, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
12. Take a Boat to Daufuskie Island
Sandwiched between Hilton Head Island and the northern shoreline of Georgia, the much smaller Daufuskie Island is well worth taking the time to visit. The island's population is small, too, totaling just 400 residents, plus or minus musician John Mellencamp, depending on the season.
Getting here is certainly fun and consists of a 45-minute ferry ride along the Intracoastal Waterway. Regularly scheduled ferry services are provided by Daufuskie Island Ferry, while private operators offer a variety of services, including water taxis, during the busy season.
If you're not taking a bike with you, be sure to make arrangements in advance for a golf cart to await your arrival. Better still, take part in an organized tour by companies like Tour Daufuskie. Not only will they arrange transportation, but they'll also whisk you around the highlights and, if required, will rent you a golf cart to explore some more.
Just five miles from tip to tip (and half that in width), Daufuskie, too, is known for its beaches, boasting some three miles of sand all told. It's also a cultural destination, with many of its residents making a living as artists, writers, musicians, chefs, or sometimes a combination of these skills. Interestingly, the whole island is on the US National Registry.
Be sure to include a visit to the historic Mary Fields School on your itinerary. This historic site is famous as the place where author Pat Conroy once taught and is a great place for a coffee or to shop for traditional indigo-dyed clothing.
The First Union African Baptist Church is another must-visit and offers a fascinating insight into the lives of those sold into slavery through the separate "sheds" that served as their place of worship. There are also two lighthouses on the island, one of which, at the infamous Bloody Point, was built in 1883. The other, at Haig Point (now a high-end real estate development), was constructed in 1873.
A great way to enjoy this unique destination is to book a Daufuskie Island Guided History Tour from Hilton Head, a fun outing that takes in the main sightseeing opportunities. Whichever you take, a dolphin sighting is all but guaranteed.
However you get there, you do want to pay attention to the weather. My most recent trip was later in the season, meaning a rough crossing (these boats are generally smaller than traditional ferries) and enough rain to end our plans to pedal around the island. In hindsight, I wish I'd paid a little more attention to the weather and rescheduled for a warmer, drier day.
Address: Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
13. Take a Drive to Bluffton
While not strictly speaking on the island, the town of Bluffton is considered by locals and visitors alike to be a part of Hilton Head. Start your visit in the Old Town, a delightful area with great restaurants, including the superb fine-dining establishment, The Bluffton Room, chic boutique shops, and a pleasant public square.
It was near here that the seeds of the secession and the Civil War were sown when members of the Bluffton Movement in 1844 protested against high federal taxes. This history, and much more besides, can be reviewed at the Heyward House Museum and Welcome Center. Built in 1841, it's now home to the town's visitor center. Guided tours are available.
Other fun things to do in Bluffton include visiting the Church of the Cross, dating from 1857, and participating in cultural events such as the popular Bluffton Village Festival each May and the Historic Bluffton Arts & Seafood Festival in the Fall.
Address: 70 Boundary Street, Bluffton, South Carolina
14. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
The sprawling Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1975 and covers an area of more than 4,000 acres. Sandwiched between Hilton Head Island and the mainland, it shares the same bridges and highway network that connect the two larger landmasses.
It was established by the Pinckney family, who built a plantation here in the mid-18th century and lived on the island for over 200 years. It's considered one of the most important archaeological sites in South Carolina for its more than 115 historic sites, some showing evidence of human habitation over 10,000 years ago.
It's a wildlife spotters' paradise and is home to numerous species of waterfowl and shorebirds, including white ibis, egrets, and herons, as well as bald eagles. Also likely to be spotted are deer, alligators, and armadillos. Guided nature tours are available on an electric shuttle, or by bike; advance booking is required.
It's also a great place for hiking and cycling enthusiasts and boasts over 10 miles of well-marked trails. Of interest to Civil War enthusiasts are the headstones of black soldiers, possibly former Pinckney Island slaves, who served with Union forces.
15. Take the Kids to The Sandbox Children's Museum
If the kids ever get tired of playing on the beach, consider taking them for a visit to the Sandbox Children's Museum. Handily located near Coligny Beach Park, the museum has been around since 2005 and provides plenty of fun, hands-on activities that encourage children to explore and learn about the world around them.
The focus is very much on playing while they learn, with interactive exhibits covering everything from nature to big machines. Highlights include kid-sized stores and banks, an aircraft flight deck, as well as a regular program of events and activities guaranteed to entertain and challenge.
A second "satellite" museum is located in the Tanger 2 shopping outlet in Bluffton.
Address: 80 Nassau Street, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
16. Bird-Watching at Audubon Newhall Preserve
While there's no shortage of great places to visit for bird-watching on Hilton Head Island, one of the best can be found at the Audubon Newhall Preserve. Set on 50 acres of land at the south end of the island, the preserve features a number of easy-to-walk, wheelchair-accessible trails through a forested area that houses numerous bird species.
While the trails only extend a total of a mile, be prepared to stop often, hoist the binoculars, and try to identify who's behind the birdsong you're hearing. Handy guides and displays are provided in the small information kiosk near the car park.
Be sure to visit the observation platform that overlooks the property's pond; it's a great place to spot various waterfowl looking busy. Dogs are welcome but must be leashed.
While the trails are all relatively short, you can bike them. If I don't stop, I can generally get around them in around 10 minutes each. But stop for a spot of birdwatching and, well, who knows!
Address: 55 Palmetto Bay Road, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Map of Attractions & Things to Do on Hilton Head Island, SC
Hilton Head Island, SC - Climate Chart
|Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Hilton Head Island, SC in °C|
|14 3||16 4||19 8||23 12||27 17||29 21||31 23||31 22||28 20||24 14||20 8||16 4|
|Average monthly precipitation totals for Hilton Head Island, SC in mm.|
|Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Hilton Head Island, SC in °F|
|58 37||61 39||67 46||74 53||80 62||85 69||88 73||87 72||83 68||76 57||68 47||60 40|
|Average monthly precipitation totals for Hilton Head Island, SC in inches.|
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Easy Day Trips: Hilton Head Island's location at the southern tip of South Carolina makes it the perfect jumping-off point for some fun Low Country day trips. A favorite is to hit the historic district of Savannah, Georgia, one of the best-preserved - and most picturesque - old town centers in the US. Savannah is an easy one-hour drive from HHI; better still, take a ferry or pleasure cruise, which run regularly throughout the year.
Equally pretty is Charleston, a wonderful example of "Old South" architecture with numerous fine parks and gardens to explore. South Carolina's capital city of Columbia is also within reach, with highlights such as the State House and the Historic Waverly Neighborhood.
Coastal Towns: Other great vacation destinations on the East Coast include Myrtle Beach at the top end of South Carolina, popular for its endless beaches, countless hotel options, and fun family attractions.
Farther north, the city of Wilmington offers plenty of great attractions to explore, including the huge Battleship North Carolina.
Virginia Beach also boasts long stretches of lovely beaches to explore, as well as one of the longest boardwalks in the US.
Something Fishy: The US boasts some of the top fishing vacation destinations anywhere in the world. For a look at some destinations for fishing in the area, see our articles on Deep Sea Fishing in South Carolina, or, for something a little different check out Trout Fishing in North Carolina.