2 perfect days in Hilton Head

Hilton Head may only be 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, but don’t discount this small island off the South Carolina coast. What it lacks in geographic area it makes up for in attractions so varied it’s guaranteed to appeal to just about anyone you know. After all, how many locations can pander to beach bums, seafood connoisseurs, conservationists, history buffs, and golf aficionados?

This two-day itinerary will marry these diverse appeals, pairing waterfront excursions with a round of golf at one of the most sought-after courses in the country, history lessons with lazy beach lounging, and no shortage of restaurants with views as delicious as their seafood. We’ve also incorporated Tripadvisor ratings and reviews to ensure you make the most of your trip to this charming island in South Carolina’s lowcountry.


Happy hour at Hudson’s Seafood House, in Hilton Head

Hudson’s Seafood House
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Heavy breakfast and a lighthouse in Harbour Town

Rise and shine with the mouthwatering anticipation of breakfast at Harbour Town Bakery and Cafe, a charming spot to gorge on banana pancakes, freshly baked quiche, or pit-smoked brisket hash and eggs in the sun-dappled patio. Once adequately caffeinated and satiated, saunter down to the southern end of the island for its most recognizable landmark: the candy cane-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse and Museum. A winding and harrowing 114-step climb to the top promises a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and the 18th green of the Harbour Town Golf Links. Acrophobics can keep to the red chairs at the base of the lighthouse or wander past boats docked along the pier.

Traveler’s say: “We headed out to the lighthouse on the first morning of our stay on Hilton Head. The first thing we learned was that you have to pay to enter the Sea Pines section of Hilton Head where the lighthouse is located. The second thing we learned was that parking in the lighthouse vicinity is a bit difficult; we found a space further out after riding around a bit. The lighthouse (there is a small fee) acts as a museum by having different things at each landing on the walk up and down. The materials were very interesting although sometimes you had to wait to see them as the landings are not big. Once up top there is a nice view of the area with sign boards to tell you what is in each direction. After making our way back down we walked over to the little amphitheater around a live oak tree where we got a good picture of the lighthouse. Then off to find something for lunch.” —@Alice D

AFTERNOON: Communing with nature in Harbour Town

After huffing and puffing up the lighthouse stairs, the good news is that lunch isn’t very far. Just a few steps away from the lighthouse base, Quarterdeck is a waterfront restaurant with Instagram-worthy views of the pier, marina, and boats coming in and out of the docks. There are burgers and sandwiches, but you’ll be kicking yourself later if you skimp on any of the fresh-caught seafood dominating the menu.

Now that you’ve caught your breath and filled your belly, it’s time to hit the links. For golf aficionados, no trip to Hilton Head would be complete without teeing up at one of the dozen-plus courses dotting the 12-by-5-mile long island. On the tippy top of most golf-course bucket lists is Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines, which was imagined by none other than the famed golf course designer Pete Dye and pro-golfer-turned-consultant Jack Nicklaus and has since become a formidable stop on the PGA Tour.

For the golf-averse, do not fret because there are plenty of ways to spend an afternoon appreciating Hilton Head’s natural beauty without ever swinging a club. Instead, explore the 600-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve, an eight-mile network of paths and boardwalks winding through Spanish moss-draped oaks, palmetto, and pine trees. There are plenty of trails — all teeming with wildflowers, birds, and fish — but the Shell Ring Trail, which leads to a 4,000-year-old shell ring built by Native Americans for what was believed to have been a ceremonial or community plaza, is the most compelling.

EVENING: Dining and drinking on Skull Creek

It’s time to head to the northern side of the island for some stunning waterfront views. Dating back more than 50 years, Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks’ fresh-caught (often hours-old) low-country seafood and spectacular sunsets appeal to locals and tourists alike. Time your visit right and you might even catch the restaurant’s shipping fleet coming in to unload the day’s catch of oysters, shrimp, and soft-shelled crab.

There are plenty of cocktails, margaritas, and other boozy frozen drinks at Hudson’s but heading next door to Skull Creek Dockside offers a change of waterfront scenery with the fewest amount of steps and the greatest amount of alcoholic drinks to choose from.


  • All aboard this sunset sightseeing cruise with a naturalist captain to spot Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and learn about other local marine sea life.
  • Count the breaching dolphins as you set sail from Palmetto Bay Marina to Disappearing Island (a curious sanddollar-filled strip of land that only appears at low tide).
  • Take a lowkey ride around Calibogue Sound boasting sunset views of Harbour Town and breaching dolphins.


Jarvis Creek at the Coastal Discovery Museum, in Hilton Head

Coastal Discovery Museum
Image: Management/ Tripadvisor

MORNING: Learning about Lowcountry

Start your day at Harold’s Diner, a no-frills diner that seems endearingly stuck in time with its silly stickers and signs lining the walls and the motto: “Eat here or we both starve.” The menu is reasonably priced and with all the fixings of a neighborhood diner from sausages, pancakes, french toast, omelets, and eggs any way you please. Sit up at the counter to banter with the cook as your bacon sizzles.

Continue this nostalgic foray to the Coastal Discovery Museum. There’s no better place to learn about the region’s natural heritage and history of the South Carolina Lowcountry with exhibits highlighting the region’s ancient Native American roots and its impact on colonization. Among the salt-water marshes, live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and many, many butterflies, the property’s 68 acres also boasts the oldest wooden structure on the island. Don’t miss the Camelia Garden with more than 100 different varieties.

Traveler’s say: “The museum is informative concerning local culture, and preservation. It’s sits on a stunning property with beautiful, old growth trees and an amazing camellia garden. The employees are knowledgeable and welcoming, and really seem to want guests to get the best experience possible. Bonus is the farmers market held on Tuesday mornings which was small but had some great options for art, produce and gift items.” —@Carrie Ann G

AFTERNOON: Experiencing Coligny Beach

What the small island of Hilton Head lacks in a so-called downtown it makes up for with Coligny Plaza, a central nucleus with live music concerts, local vendors, and the Coligny Plaza Shopping Center, which is your best bet for souvenir hunting.

Shop but before you drop head to Watusi Cafe to fuel up on salads, bowls, sandwiches, and other nutritious fare in the cozy interiors or outdoor patio. Finally, enough of looking at all the water surrounding the island and time to go in it! With dunes, sea oats, and silky smooth sand, it’s obvious why Coligny Beach is the most popular public beach in town. Spend an afternoon splayed out on the shore taking it all in and keep an eye out for breaching dolphins on the horizon.

EVENING: Celebrating Gullah culture

Load up on oyster roasts, seafood boils, and shrimp and grits at A Lowcountry Backyard Restaurant, which celebrates the Gullah cooking and culture at the heart of Hilton Head’s roots. The portions are heaping but make sure to save room for cornbread, homemade banana puddin’, and tasty moonshine cocktails.

Keep the spirit and libations flowing at Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar, the kind of establishment that proudly states on its website: “We take our drinks as seriously as the food.” You can go wrong ordering off the hand-crafted cocktail list with curiously named concoctions like Pain in the Coconut (aged white rum, dark rum, pineapple juice, orange, coconut, nutmeg) and We Don’t Talk About Bruto (gin, raspberry liqueur, prosecco).

Worthy detours along the way

Know Before You Go

Summer is certainly the busiest season at Hilton Head, a time when families from northern and western states descend upon the small island. The spring (April to June) and fall (September to November) are the shoulder seasons with less crowds and, also, when the weather is its most moderate. But keep in mind hurricane season (June to November) can be unpredictable and that reservations fill up quickly during the RBC Heritage golf tournament every April.

Any day is fine to visit. Just note that some establihsments close on Mondays and Tuesdays, and that during the busy season reservations might be easier to snag midweek.

Shops and establishments tend to open around 8 or 9 a.m., and close anywhere from 6 to 9 p.m. Restaurants mostly stay open until about 10 p.m. Breweries and bars stay open until 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. depending on the vibe.

Mid-Island: The William Hilton Pwy is the main thoroughfare through this part of town and lined with scores of eateries, bars, and shops to keep you busy. There’s public access beaches, including Folly Field Beach Park and Driessen Beach. But the semi-private Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort is arguably the most well-known, operating the Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina, Shelter Cove Town Centre, and Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort. There’s no shortage of nature trails, tennis or golf courses.

Coligny Area: The closest thing Hilton Head has to a downtown makes this area extremely walkable and conveniently close to Coligny Beach and Coligny Plaza. A stay at the Beach House guarantees you’re close to the action of its beloved tiki hut bar with plenty of opportunities to wind down in the pool and sleek rooms bathed in neutral tones.

Sea Pines: On the island’s southern tip, Sea Pines is the largest and most well-known gated community. It includes South Beach, Lawton Stables, and Harbour Town, which is the landmark at the top of most travellers’ bucket lists with its iconic lighthouse and golf course. The luxury boutique Inn & Club at Harbour Town is a particularly romantic option, with golf course views, an infinity-edge pool, and relaxed beachfront access.

Public transportation: The Breeze is Hilton Head’s free public trolly that runs from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. depending on the day. It services the south and mid-island.

By bike: There are multiple bike rentals and bike paths on the island.

By rideshare: Uber and Lyft are both available.

By taxi: Taxis are also available but might have to be call or ordered ahead of time.


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