Thinking about planning a trip to South Carolina for the summer? Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island are often the stars of the show when thinking of Carolina beaches and we’re here to compare the two.
In short, Hilton Head Island is more upscale and expensive than Myrtle Beach, but is definitely worth it. Myrtle Beach is great for groups looking to have a fun, casual beach vacation with more affordable lodging and plenty of nightlife, while Hilton Head is quieter, featuring natural beaches with plenty of wildlife in a high-class resort environment.
Myrtle Beach is located on the coastline of South Carolina, part of the “Grand Strand” 60-mile long beach. It’s one of the most popular beach destinations in the United States, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors to it’s sandy shores, numerous shopping areas and tourist district every year.
Hilton Head is also located on South Carolina’s coastline, about a 4-hour drive south from Myrtle Beach. It’s a beautiful barrier island that sees fewer visitors annually, but is often considered and compared with Myrtle. Hilton Head Island has a classier resort atmosphere and is well-known for it’s impeccable golf courses and natural, untouched scenery.
Town & Lifestyle
Myrtle Beach is a municipality that feels a lot more like a city. In fact, it’s got nearly 200,000 permanent residents, on top of the hundreds of thousands of guests that visit each year. Because of it’s popularity and affordability, it can often be crowded. On the plus side, this has sparked more construction of entertainment, shopping and dining areas that everyone can enjoy.
If you fly into Charleston, you can make it to the beach in less than two hours. It’s also important to note that Myrtle Beach is quite a bit larger than Hilton Head. The area surrounding the main portion of Myrtle Beach can often be more affordable for lodging and grant access to other beach areas that are not quite so busy.
Some of these areas include Pawleys Island which is a fairly quiet and relaxing beach located South of Myrtle. While Myrtle Beach State Park is a beautiful reserve featuring local wildlife and minimal activity. North Myrtle Beach is farther away from the action but has surrounding golf courses and recreation areas that are sure to please.
In town, you’ll find great family-friendly fun right alongside entertainment and nightlife geared more toward adults. There are a few amusement parks along the boardwalk, putt-putt golf locations, and kid-approved splash parks at hotels like Kingston Plantation.
Hilton Head definitely has more of a purpose-built resort feel to it’s tourism and goes for an upscale environment to attract less rowdy and more refined guests. That said, there are lots of affordable options around the area; it’s not just ritzy hotels. Fine dining, sunset cruises and upscale entertainment are all part of Hilton Head’s likeability.
The beautiful part about Hilton Head’s town is that they take their image seriously, limiting retail signage and chain restaurants. They place a heavy focus on the natural environment and even restrict building height so as not to compete with the beach scenery of the island. And while the beach is the main attraction, the world-class golf courses are the second.
Hilton Head is also divided into little communities called plantations. Each comes with it’s own look and feel, while maintaining the same natural emphasis and upscale atmosphere of Hilton Head as a whole. They each have various styled resorts that are worth exploring when determining where to stay.
You can get a great vacation out of one week in Hilton Head, but if you’d like to broaden your horizons, you also have fairly easy access to Savannah, GA (located 40 minutes away) and Charleston, SC (located 2 hours away). These large cities not only make traveling to Hilton Head easier, they also elevate the trip.
We want to note that since both beach areas have a decent number of tourists visiting each year, the cities have set a list of rules on each beach that you should read through before going. Most are laws pertaining to the environment and prohibited items or activities.
Myrtle Beach has a vast number of areas where you can plant your umbrella and set up your chairs and most of them are public beaches. Most of them are heavily occupied, especially during the Spring and Summer months when the majority of tourists are visiting. The busiest areas are going to be near and around the Boardwalk.
This Boardwalk area is the main part of Myrtle Beach, allowing visiting to walk from the entertainment straight to the beach and vice versa. However, if you’re looking for quieter areas to set up your tent, we suggest checking into North Myrtle Beach, Litchfield Beach or Pawley’s Island. They are a far drive from the bustle, but will provide better relaxation.
Myrtle Beach is characterizes by it’s cool Atlantic waters and white sandy shoreline. Surfers say the waves are better here. The sand can range from soft and powdery to sharp and shelly, depending on where you’re walking. The sand is mostly made up of quartz, often found on the Atlantic coastline, and the ocean water is typically light blue or green.
Hilton Head has beach access from each plantation and feels a lot less crowded and more environmentally-friendly. Compared to Myrtle Beach, the sand is harder and makes for better horseback riding and biking excursions along the oceanfront. The water has the same light blue or green hue and the sand mostly white quartz.
The hard-packed sand means that beachfront walks may not be quite as enjoyable, but active exercisers who fancy running or biking will prefer Hilton Head’s shoreline. There is a lot more seagrass, sea grapes, seaweed, and other vegetation along the island, but the beaches themselves are long and wide. Wildlife is more prevalent here, featuring alligators, turtles, and even white-tail deer.
Hilton Head has more private beaches than public ones, guaranteeing you won’t be vying for a spot on the sand. Most of the hotels and resorts have their own beach access, but places like Islanders Beach is a great public area that happens to be pet-friendly.
Things to Do
Myrtle Beach has an abundance of activities and entertainment to fill your time on vacation. You simply have to determine what’s best worth your time because there are an endless number of things to choose from.
On the beach you can participate in surfing, fishing, snorkeling, exercising, walking, horseback riding in certain areas, swimming and relaxing. In town, you’ll find various ways to shop, eat, tour, play (at water parks, amusement areas and play parks), as well as listen to live entertainment.
Great shopping districts include the Market Common and Barefoot Landing. Barefoot Landing often has live entertainment with bustling local boutiques and specialty stores along with a plethora of restaurants of different cuisines. Similarly, the Market Common has it’s own collection of retail shops and restaurants that are more well-known and recognizable.
Nightlife in Myrtle Beach is lively and loud, with a bunch of different entertainment venues, bars and restaurants to spend your nights in. Dance clubs are also dotting some of the busier areas, but there are a few locations to the north and south of Myrtle Beach that offer quieter settings for date nights and family outings.
Hilton Head has a more subtle approach to nightlife after a day at the pristine beaches. While Myrtle Beach may have neon lights and high-rise buildings, Hilton Head maintains it’s refined and luxurious atmosphere with it’s bars and restaurants, which also offer late-night options.
During the day, the island is best known as a golfer’s dream, especially a golfer who wants to enjoy the beach with his family. There are more than 40 championship golf courses in and around Hilton Head, including Robert Trent Jones Course and uber-famous Harbour Town Golf Links, both recognized by the PGA Tour.
In addition to golf and beach bumming, Hilton Head has plenty of fishing, snorkeling, paddling, horseback riding, biking and hiking adventures. Wildlife tours are common, taking place on both the land and the sea. You can spot everything from dolphins and stingrays to gators and otters.
Farther inland on the island, there are many shopping opportunities at the resorts which include luxury brands and local goods. Main Street Village has Lowcountry fresh produce and local handmade crafts and souvenirs. On the flip side, Coligny Plaza and other similar areas have a more traditional shopping center with local boutiques and retail shops.
Myrtle Beach has a numerous amount of attractions to enjoy during your stay. Broadway at the Beach is perhaps the most popular destination, comprised of multiple shopping facilities, cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues centered around a small lake. You can dine at Hard Rock Cafe, Paula Deen’s Kitchen and Joe’s Crab Shack after shopping around the square. Myrtle Waves Water Park and Action Park make great outings with the kids.
One of the most popular things that you can’t leave without visiting is the “Biggest Ferris Wheel on the East Coast” known as SkyWheel. This incredible Ferris wheel is 200′ tall and propels guests to the top in glass-encased gondolas that seat six people.
On the beach, the piers are beautiful and conspicuous landmarks that make for excellent photographs. You’ll find Apache Pier and campground north of Myrtle Beach, Second Avenue Pier right in the center of the action, and Springmaid Pier near Myrtle Beach State Park.
Hilton Head‘s Harbor Town Lighthouse is the tallest point on Hilton Head Island and is located at Harbor Town Marina. This striking red and white landmark is hard to miss. Guests can climb the steps of the lighthouse to view the expanse of the Atlantic coastline off South Carolina. Inside the museum you can discover the Coast Guard Exhibit which celebrates the brave heroes who’ve saved countless lives.
Fort Fremont is a fort and battery turned historical preserve which showcases the United States’ 1898 defense construction in preparation for the Spanish American War. While it was never used to defend the country, it did house 110 troops until 1912 when the fort was eventually closed.
Museums and Cultural Exhibits
Myrtle Beach‘s Broadway at the Beach is one of the main centers to go for seeing museums and cultural exhibits. With such attractions as Wonderworks science museum and Ripley’s Aquarium it’s not to be missed. Just outside the main center of Broadway at the Beach lies Legends in Concert, Hollywood Wax Museum and the home of Myrtle Beach Pelicans baseball.
Outside of Broadway, head over to the Brookgreen Gardens which house a unique blend of art, nature and history. These botanical gardens have epic scenery with American sculptures sprinkled throughout the facility. The Lowcountry Zoo is also located on property which has local creatures on display.
Myrtle Beach State Park is a great place to visit, or even camp if you want to rough it, with loads of hiking trails, wildlife sightings and photo spots. The state hosts multiple tours via boat, kayak or scuba in their lakes, rivers and coastal waterways. There are even mountains and waterfalls to behold within the state park.
Hilton Head‘s Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a must-see. It’s over 4,000 acres of protected land, but visitors can enter freely to appreciate the natural ambience. Biking and walking the trails through the refuge is encouraged, along with saltwater fishing on the inlets.
Coastal Discovery Museum is an ode to Lowcountry living and features an abundance of historical architecture and surrounding wildlife. Visitors can get lost in the breathtaking scenery of the docks on the marshes, historical homes, and art exhibits. There’s even a quaint farmer’s market with fresh produce, local artwork and native plants.
The Stoney-Baynard Plantation Ruins is set on six acres and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It dates back to 1790 but was unfortunately demolished around the time of the Civil War. The seemingly haunted ruins depict a fallen two-story house with obvious signs of a temporary camp made by the Union.
Events and Festivals
Myrtle Beach has more official annual events than Hilton Head which draw more visitors for those specifically. One such event is the celebration of Canada’s mass exodus to the area during Spring Break. Canadian-American Days (or “Can-Am Days” for short) is a weeklong event where various concerts and parties take place on the beach and in town.
Myrtle Beach is home to the Pelicans which have Spring Training at the beginning of each season. Ultimate fans won’t want to miss the Ripken Experience, which allows you to park for free, access training areas, complimentary lodging and a chance to meet the players.
If you have a Harley Davidson or love to see vintage and modern motorcycles in action, Harley Bike Week should be on your calendar. Each May Harley owners gather on the beach for a Spring Rally at Myrtle. The bikes are parked in multiple areas around Myrtle Beach so you can go to different areas for food, bikes and entertainment.
Carolina Country Music Fest is a summer festival that hosts country music headliners on the Boardwalk stage. Multiple outdoor concerts happen over the course of four days along with beach parties. There are loads of concession stands and bars, plus guests can have fun on the rides and amusement areas along the Boardwalk.
Hilton Head also has a variety of events, though not quite as big as those in Myrtle Beach. For instance, RBC Heritage at Harbor Town Golf Links is a golf tournament that hosts the best golfers in the sport. It’s held at the famous Harbor Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.. The tournament is marked by it’s signature plaid pattern on the blazers and event materials.
Another great event is the Hilton Head Island Food & Wine Festival. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but if you’re looking to try the Lowcountry’s best wines and food from local chefs, this is the place to be. It takes place each Spring and proceeds from the event go toward college tuition for needy students.
Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival is a classy event that takes place late fall each year. This celebration honors the “fine art of the automobile” from it’s inception to current models. Car designers, collectors and even aviators are present at the event to showcase their stunning historical makes.
Weather & Seasons
Myrtle Beach, like most places in the Southern United States, is warm in the Summer and cool in the Winter. Summertime is one of the most popular times to visit the beach, but you’ll often see visitors crowding the shores year-round. Summer temperatures are usually between 70*F and 86*F, and humidity is common this time of year. Thunderstorms and brief rain showers are frequent during the Summer months, with threat of minor hurricanes on occasion.
Spring and Fall months are often the most pleasant time to visit where weather is concerned, averaging temperatures around 50*F to 70*F.
Wintertime temperatures are often hit or miss and can vary wildly from week to week or day to day. Some days will be warm and sunny, while others are cool and overcast. On average, Winter temps range from 35*F at night to 60*F during the day.
Hilton Head has similar temperatures each season to Myrtle Beach. Being on the coast of South Carolina, both of these towns have more mild temperatures than what you’ll see inland. However, Hilton Head Island is located farther South on the coastline, so the temps can be slightly higher.
Summer temperatures are usually between 70*F at night and up to 90*F at midday. August is the rainiest month of the year, with a chance of thunderstorms almost daily and brief rainclouds rolling through frequently. Spring and Fall temperatures will usually be about mid-50’s to low 70’s.
Winter is a great time to visit for cooler weather and almost no chance of rain or snow. As a matter of fact, it’s extremely rare for both Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island to receive snow. Hilton Head’s Winter temps are usually between 40*F at night and mid-60’s throughout the day.
Based on everything we’ve compared between both of these great beach towns, we would prefer to visit Hilton Head Island. Hilton Head has excellent accommodations and a higher standard of living and vacationing than what you’d find on average in Myrtle Beach. We love the fact that Hilton Head is a little less busy and more laidback, while offering high-class recreation, dining and shopping.
Hilton Head places a big emphasis on taking care of their natural habitats, which makes the beach experience more enjoyable and wildlife tours exciting. We also love the fact that the majority of the beaches on the island have private access, so there are fewer guests crowding the shoreline. Also in Hilton Head’s favor is the fact that it’s so close to Savannah and Charleston.
On the flip side, Myrtle Beach makes a great destination for groups that prefer more nighttime activity and liveliness on the beach. There are so many things to occupy your time off the sand at Myrtle Beach from bars and restaurants, to amusement parks and events. That said, we still prefer the easy lifestyle and more natural splendor you’ll find at Hilton Head.