Perched on a peninsula surrounded by vast expanses of salt marsh and sea islands, Beaufort has long drawn visitors looking to experience the unique cultural heritage and beauty of the Lowcountry. But this seaside city has a lot more going for it than just geography.
A summer retreat for wealthy plantation owners, Beaufort was one of the only Southern towns Union troops chose to occupy rather than burn down during the Civil War. Its rich history is beautifully preserved in the buildings and stately antebellum homes that line the city’s oak-shaded streets.
With more than 50 architecturally significant structures, the entire downtown was designated a National Historic Landmark — a distinction earned by few US towns.
Several of these plantation-era mansions are now B&Bs and inns, welcoming visitors in classic southern style with big wraparound porches and intimate courtyard gardens.
The vibrant little town also features sidewalk cafés, trendy bistros and an assortment of shops and boutiques, along with museums, art galleries and an iconic waterfront park overlooking the Beaufort River.
If you’re visiting the city for the first time, stop at the Beaufort Arsenal, originally built in 1798 for the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery. Today, the brick and tabby building is home to the Visitor Center and Beaufort History Museum.
Here you can pick up the Official Beaufort Visitor Guide, featuring a self-guided tour map of the historic district with 39 points of interest. Walking at your own pace through the riverfront town, you’ll be able to take in the details of the high-style architecture common to the Southern plantations of the period.
The three-mile route starts in Old Point on the tip of the peninsula. This residential neighborhood features some of Beaufort’s largest and oldest homes, including “The Castle," which served as quarters for Union forces and later a military hospital.
Old Point also is home to the Edgar Fripp House, where scenes from both “The Great Santini” and “The Big Chill" were filmed, as well as the three-story mansion featured in the film “Prince of Tides,” written by Beaufort’s adopted son Pat Conroy, who lives on nearby Fripp Island.
The second half of the tour includes the mansions of The Bluff along Bay Street and some of Beaufort’s oldest churches, among them Tabernacle Baptist Church where former slave-turned statesman Robert Smalls is buried.
While visitors are welcome inside several of the historic buildings, the only planter’s residence open to the public is the John Mark Verdier House, a Federalist-style mansion built circa 1804.
As impressive as the architecture are the ancient live oaks that shade the pre- and post-Civil War buildings. The trunks of some of the trees are massive with huge limbs dripping with Spanish moss spreading out in every direction.
You can learn more about Beaufort’s Landmark Historic District by taking a horse-drawn carriage, bus or walking tour led by guides eager to regale you with fascinating stories of the homes and the people who have lived in them.
One of the historic district’s most popular attractions is Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, located on the banks of the Beaufort River. Swings along the park’s walkway provide a shady spot to enjoy the water view and the cool sea breezes. A number of events are held at the park each year, including the Gullah Festival, Beaufort Water Festival, The Taste of Beaufort and Beaufort Shrimp Festival.
Just north of the park is the colorful Bay Street with its eclectic collection of restaurant and shops. Lunch, dinner or dessert, you’ll find plenty of options from Plums Restaurant, specializing in the local Lowcountry cuisine, to Wined It Up, a wine bar and deli, to Southern Sweets, an old fashioned ice cream parlor and luncheonette.
Foodies will enjoy hip neighborhood bistros like Wren on Carteret Street and Old Bull Tavern on West Street. Many of these new gastropubs sport the “Fresh on the Menu” brand, a designation earned by chefs with menus featuring at least 25 percent “Certified South Carolina Grown” ingredients.
Beaufort also offers plenty of activities for those who love the outdoors. The multi-use Spanish Moss Trail, a 12-foot wide paved pathway from Beaufort to Port Royal, is a favorite destination for walking and cycling.
For fun on the water, take a kayak or stand up paddle boarding tour through the network of waterways around the peninsula. Dolphin tours and fishing charters also are available with trips departing from several area marinas.