Hilton Head Island marina at sunset

Hilton Head Island Travel Guide

By Stratton Lawrence
February 26, 2021

Hilton Head's 12 miles of beaches and slow pace of life have drawn families and travelers for decades. Two dozen golf courses weave through the island's 25,000 acres, including the internationally renowned Harbour Town Golf Links. Balmy, breezy weather makes it a haven for world-class tennis and excellent inshore fishing, while an island-wide network of paved trails makes it possible to travel the island from end to end via bicycle.

Before 1956, when the first bridge opened, Hilton Head was a sleepy Southern island. It takes its name from Captain William Hilton, who claimed it for the British crown in 1663. Hundreds of enslaved people toiled on the island's cotton and rice plantations before Union soldiers liberated them in 1861, leading to a century of Gullah-Geechee culture. In the 1960s, the island saw the rapid expansion of tourist infrastructure.

Today, Hilton Head's rich cultural and natural history is evident in a tray of oysters at Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks, or in the sweetgrass baskets on display at the Coastal Discovery Museum. New influences, like chef Philippe Feret of Hilton Head Social Bakery, lend the island a worldly flair, while old-school hangouts, like the Lowcountry Backyard, keep it anchored in tradition.

Hilton Head is a place to relax, challenge yourself at a world-class golf course, and then relax some more. The island invites long family bike rides, or lazy days wandering back and forth between the beach and an oceanfront pool. Most of all, it's a place to slow down and enjoy the Lowcountry lifestyle.

Time Zone

Eastern Standard Time

Best Time to Go

Hilton Head comes alive during summer, when families descend from the Midwest and across the East Coast for a week of R&R. Shoulder season — April to May (with the exception of the RBC Heritage golf tournament) and September to October (unless there's a hurricane circling offshore) — shows off the island at its best, with moderate temperatures in the 80s, warm water in the ocean, and fewer crowds at restaurants and popular attractions. During winter, the pace slows dramatically, and it's possible to walk for miles on mostly deserted beaches.

Things to Know

Hilton Head seems like a small island, but driving from one end to the other can easily take a half-hour during peak season. You're here to relax, so choose your accommodations based on the part of the island you want to spend the most time on. The Sea Pines Resort dominates the southern half, and offers enough beaches, shops, restaurants, and attractions so you never have to leave. But beaches on the island's north end, including near hotels like The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, don't get as crowded on busy summer weekends as others closer to the island's middle. Finally, golfers should book tee times well in advance — this is one of the world's premier golfing destinations, so you'll need reservations and a timely arrival.

Currency: U.S. Dollar

Language: English

How to Get Around

Unless you plan to stay put at a single resort for the duration of your trip, a car is a necessity on Hilton Head. Uber and Lyft both service the island and are readily available.

For guests staying within the 4,500-acre Sea Pines Resort, a free trolley shuttles you from Harbour Town to South Beach Marina Village and the beach.

Visitors wanting to explore nearby Daufuskie Island or downtown Savannah can hop aboard the Spirit of Harbour Town with Vagabond Cruise, enjoying a ride down the river and four hours to explore the island or the city.

The Inn & Club at Harbour Town
Credit: Courtesy of The Inn & Club at Harbour Town

Best Hotels

Beach House, a Holiday Inn Resort

Address: 1 South Forest Beach Dr., Hilton Head, SC 2992
Phone: (855) 474-2882
Website

This resort's centerpiece, the rollicking Tiki Hut beachfront bar, hosts one of the island's biggest parties every afternoon. During this time, live bands take to the outdoor stage fronting the Atlantic Ocean. Guests can choose between rooms that look out on the scene and quieter options without beachfront views. There's also a large pool and a beach volleyball court.

Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort

Address:  22 Harbourside Ln., Hilton Head, South Carolina 29928-3522
Phone: (843) 341-4100
Website

Families love this resort for its pools, which include a long waterslide extending from a water tower, and for the idyllic marshfront setting on an inland creek. But even though there's a dedicated beach clubhouse (and additional pool) for resort guests — accessible via shuttle or bike path — the distance from the ocean makes it best for guests who plan on spending most of their time at the pool, playing golf, or at other nearby attractions. 

The Inn & Club at Harbour Town
Credit: Courtesy of The Inn & Club at Harbour Town

The Inn & Club at Harbour Town

Address: 7 Lighthouse Ln., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 363-8100
Website

Rooms at this elegant inn overlook the first tee at the famous Harbour Town Golf Links, making it the perfect place to stay if you're playing a round. Set within The Sea Pines Resort, the luxurious experience extends to poolside service, tastefully appointed rooms, and dining at the adjacent Links restaurant.

Ocean Oak Resort by Hilton Grand Vacations

Address: 41 S. Forest Beach Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 342-8400 
Website

Following a full renovation that was completed in 2020, this polished Hilton hotel includes both timeshare properties and two-bedroom rental suites with full kitchens. Units feature views of the ocean and the pool complex that's framed by palm trees and the Oceanside Bar & Grille. A raised boardwalk and sandy path lead through the dunes to the beach.

Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort

Address: 23 Ocean Ln., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 842-8000
Website

Striking a balance between an intimate escape for couples and a fun-packed getaway for families, this resort features a sprawling three-pool complex directly on the beach, plus two hot tubs and a splash pad. The grounds include a playground, ping-pong tables, and outdoor fireplaces. Guests also have easy access to the tennis complex and three golf courses within Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. The spacious studio suites include private balconies — many overlooking the ocean or pool — and small kitchens.

Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island

Address: 130 Shipyard Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 842-2400
Website

There's little reason to leave this inviting property after parking the car, thanks to a huge pool complex and five on-site restaurants, several of which offer oceanfront outdoor seating. Get pampered at the Arum Spa, or simply kick back in a poolside cabana for the afternoon. Generously sized rooms boast at least 450 square feet, but are set back from the beach, allowing the attractive grounds to take center stage.

South Beach Inn

Address: 232 S. Sea Pines Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 671-6498
Website

Located at the island's far southern end, this quaint inn consists of one- and two-bedroom suites overlooking Braddock Cove and the boardwalks of South Beach Marina Village. Guests have easy access to The Salty Dog Café, a swimming pool, and the resort's tennis complex.

The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa

Address: 2 Grasslawn Ave., Hilton Head, SC 29928 
Phone: (843) 681-4000
Website

This resort's commanding beachfront presence is mirrored by soaring ceilings in indoor communal spaces and comfortable balconies overlooking the ocean and pool complex. There's fine dining at the Carolina Room and casual eats at the poolside grill. The location inside Port Royal Plantation offers close access to one of the island's best golf courses and tennis clubs.

Seafood spread of fried shrimp, coleslaw and potato salad
Credit: Courtesy of Hudson's

Best Restaurants

Hilton Head Social Bakery

Address: Harbourside Ln., Building 1, Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 715-3349
Website

The croissants, eclairs, and sandwiches at this tiny bakery rival those in Paris. Chef and owner Philippe Feret, a native of Normandy, France, once helmed the kitchen at New York's Tavern on the Green. Today, he enjoys a slower pace of life, delighting patrons with homemade quiche and fougasse (stuffed baguettes). The bakery's location in Shelter Cove includes attractive outdoor seating along the waterfront.

Seafood spread of fried shrimp, coleslaw and potato salad
Credit: Courtesy of Hudson's

Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks

Address: 1 Hudson Rd., Hilton Head SC 29926
Phone: (843) 681-2772
Website

Dating back to 1967, Hudson's may be an institution, but it doesn't rely on tourists to keep business bustling. The forward-thinking restaurant doubles as an aquaculture operation, growing its own oysters and allowing the kitchen to source 90% of its seafood from the waters around Hilton Head. The laid-back vibe extends through the winding dining rooms and expansive outdoor porch. First come, first served.

Links, an American Grill

Address: 11 Lighthouse Ln., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 363-8380
Website

Surf and turf are the primary offerings at this elegant dining room located directly on the Harbour Town Golf Links, but the smartest orders are the specials from chef RJ Dye, a veteran of Fig and The Ordinary in Charleston. Creative dishes like huli-huli tuna and milk-braised veal make it one of the most exciting dining experiences on the island. Outdoor seating is available, and reservations are recommended for dinner.

A Lowcountry Backyard Restaurant

Address: 32 Palmetto Bay Rd., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 785-9273
Website

This laid-back outdoor joint is perfect for families and those looking for authentic local flavors. Order a crab cake sandwich or a steaming platter of Lowcountry Boil to share, and kick back while acoustic musicians play under the tin roof of the outdoor stage. Reservations are not required, and covered and open-air outdoor seating are available.

Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar

Address: 841 William Hilton Pkwy., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Website 

Locally sourced ingredients prepared with passion helped put this strip-mall eatery at the top of many culinary lists in Hilton Head. Specialties like braised pork ragout baked pasta form lasting flavor memories, if you can make it past the selection of small plates such as seared octopus and roasted bone marrow. The wine list, cocktail program (including several on draft), and weekend brunch each deserve high praise. Reservations are not required, and indoor and patio seating are available.

Ombra Cucina Italiana

Address: 1000 William Hilton Pkwy., #G2, Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 842-5505
Website

The traditional menu at this restaurant includes classic antipasti like carpaccio (thinly sliced beef) and mussels sauteed in white wine. There's a fresh house-made ravioli each day, and hearty entrees that include delicate veal medallions and fillet mignon wrapped in prosciutto. Reservations are recommended. Indoor seating only.

One Hot Mama's

Address: 7A-1 Greenwood Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 682-6262
Website

Taking its name from owner "Mama" Orchid Paulmeier, this casual hangout for ribs and pulled pork feels authentically Southern, but the fiery flavors take a few cues from Paulmeier's Filipino heritage. Grab a cold beer and a seat inside or on the porch to dig in, or kick back at the bar to watch a game. There's a late-night menu and a hopping bar scene on weekends, plus a second location in Bluffton. No reservations.

Santa Fe Cafe

Address: 807 William Hilton Pkwy., #700, Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 785-3838
Website

 

The chimichangas are rightfully called "outrageous" at this hopping spot serving generously sized fajitas, burritos, and seafood entrees, including blackened local redfish. The rooftop cantina is a popular weekend hangout. Reservations are recommended. Indoor and patio seating are available.

Sea Pines Forest Preserve
Credit: Mark Wilson/500px/Getty Images

Things to Do

Coastal Discovery Museum

Address: 70 Honey Horn Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29926
Phone: (843) 689-6767
Website 

Half museum, half nature preserve, this 68-acre interpretive center includes trails and a boardwalk through the marsh, a butterfly garden, osprey nests, and a horse stable. Exhibits and programs include dolphin tours and highlight the regional Gullah-Geechee culture. Admission to the grounds is free — the museum is part of the Smithsonian Affiliations network.

Coligny Beach Park

Address: 1N Forest Beach, Hilton Head, SC 29928
Website

One of the island's most popular — and centrally located — beaches, Coligny attracts families with free parking, easy access to restrooms (including showers), and shaded beachfront swings. The restaurants and shops at Coligny Plaza are directly across the street, and the popular Tiki Hut bar hosts live music every afternoon.

Folly Field Beach Park

Address: 55 Starfish Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Website 

On the north end of the island, Folly Field is slightly less crowded than other public beach access points. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer, and there are restrooms and open-air showers. Parking is metered.

Harbour Town Golf Links

Address: 11 Lighthouse Ln., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 363-8385
Website

Rivaled in South Carolina only by The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, Harbour Town's immaculate fairways, gorgeous views, and first-class caddy service set a high bar for golfers. Each April, the course hosts the RBC Heritage PGA golf tournament, bringing major stars — and big crowds — to the island.

Harbour Town Lighthouse Museum

Address: 149 Lighthouse Rd., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (866) 305-9814
Website 

The candy-cane-striped lighthouse is the island's most iconic landmark, presiding over Harbour Town and the 18th hole of the Harbour Town Golf Links course. The view from the top offers a rare aerial perspective of the Lowcountry's marshland. Other exhibits include a pictorial history of the island and mementos honoring the Coast Guard's role in protecting the coast.

Outside Hilton Head

Address: 50 Shelter Cove Ln., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 686-6996
Website

The rivers and creeks surrounding Hilton Head provide the island's seafood and much of its beauty. This established local outfitter offers everything from stand-up paddleboard rentals to fishing charters to family boat tours. Their flagship store is also the place to grab clothing, accessories, and anything else you need for days outside or on the water.

Pirates of Hilton Head

Address: 149 Lighthouse Rd., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 363-7000
Website

The show may be designed for children, but parents will love every minute of this action-packed tour on the Black Dagger. Sit back in the shade while the kids shoot water cannons at the rival boat captain before he falls in the water. Guests get into the pirate mood with tattoos, face paint, and plenty of swashbuckling chatter.

Sea Pines Forest Preserve
Credit: Mark Wilson/500px/Getty Images

Sea Pines Forest Preserve

Address: 175 Greenwood Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Website

Nestled in the island's southern interior, this expansive preserve feels like stepping back in time — especially at the site of a 4,000-year-old Native American shell ring. During the summer, seeing alligators basking in the sun is almost a guarantee from the boardwalks overlooking the lake.

Stoney-Baynard Ruins

Address: Plantation Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Website

Tucked away in the middle of a neighborhood within The Sea Pines Resort, this 18th-century home is one of the best remaining examples of "oyster shell tabby" architecture. The home was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War, but several exterior walls have survived another century and a half of hurricanes and wear.

Zipline Hilton Head

Address: 33 Broad Creek Marina Way, Hilton Head, SC 29926
Phone: (843) 682-6000
Website  

Soar through the canopy of pines and live oaks on the eight zip lines at this family-friendly attraction that also includes a high ropes course. The grand finale is a 900-foot drop that lets two riders race across the treetops.

Salty Dog T-Shirt Factory on Hilton Head Island
Credit: Courtesy of Salty Dog T-Shirt Factory

Best Shopping

The Bird's Nest Jewelry & Handbags

Address: 1 N. Forest Beach Dr., Hilton Head SC 29928
Phone: (843) 785-3737
Website 

More than a jewelry store, this local institution sells charm bracelets with Lowcountry imagery like sea turtles and palmetto trees. The gift selection also includes beach totes, purses, hats, and other mementos featuring local wildlife.

Coligny Plaza

Address: 1 N. Forest Beach Dr., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 842-6050
Website 

Just across from the island's most popular beach, this mainstay for shopping and dining includes plenty of beachwear spots, ice cream and coffee shops, and even a kite store. There's also a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and a movie theater.

Haskins & Co.

Address: 1 N. Forest Beach, Unit A-9, Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 295-9003
Website

The island-inspired items at this boutique includes sundresses, brightly colored jewelry, and comfortable tops — all with affordable prices.

The Shops at Sea Pines Center

Address: 71 Lighthouse Rd., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Phone: (843) 363-5699
Website

This shopping area is home to boutique stores like By Hand, Ink (for stationery) and Lowcountry Produce, a go-to for local culinary specialties such as chow chow and pimento cheese. Other notable shops include The Back Door (for dresses, jewelry, and shoes) and Pyramids, an eclectic home décor spot.

Village at Wexford

Address: 1000 William Hilton Pkwy., Hilton Head, SC 29928
Website

This upscale shopping destination includes a stationery shop (Pretty Papers), a modern women's clothing store (Evelyn & Arthur), and a Lilly Pulitzer Signature shop. There's also a kids’ boutique (Island Child) and kitchenware specialty shop (Le Cookery).

Salty Dog T-Shirt Factory on Hilton Head Island
Credit: Courtesy of Salty Dog T-Shirt Factory

Salty Dog T-Shirt Factory

Address: Multiple Locations
Website

Brunch at the Salty Dog may be a requisite for a visit to Hilton Head, but equally important is a souvenir T-shirt. The shaggy dog in his yellow rain cap is instantly recognizable anywhere.

Weather

Hilton Head Island's position at the northern end of the southeast coast's subtropical climate zone means comfortable weather all year. It's rare for overnight temperatures to reach freezing during winter, and coastal breezes keep the heat in check, even at peak summer. During summer, it's wise to plan for a brief rainstorm each afternoon. August total precipitation averages over eight inches, but most rain comes in short afternoon bursts surrounded by hours of sunshine. 

The following are average Fahrenheit lows and highs by month. 

January: 39°F to 60°F
February: 41°F to 63°F
March: 48°F to 70°F
April: 54°F to 76°F
May: 62°F to 82°F
June: 69°F to 87°F
July: 73°F to 90°F
August: 72°F to 88°F
September: 68°F to 85°F
October: 58°F to 77°F
November: 49°F to 70°F

Apps to Download

Hilton Head Island Compass: Itineraries, discount coupons, and information on concerts and events
iOs | Android

Serg Restaurant Group: Deep discounts and free items at 15 popular restaurants on the island
iOs  

Uber: Fast, private transportation all over the island
iOs | Android