Founded in 1670 as Charles Town, after King Charles II of England, Charleston is the oldest city in South Carolina, and is the epitome of southern charm and hospitality. History and romance ooze on every street in the historic district, like something out of a novel.
Efforts taken by local groups to preserve this great American city is noticeable. One city ordinance states that nothing older than 75 years may be torn down. That, along with no new building can be taller than eight stories high, is what keeps Charleston’s grand old buildings and homes, and their rich history, intact, restored, and preserved for many more generations to enjoy.
Getting there is easy from all points north, south, and west. Most major airlines fly into Charleston International Airport (CHS), 12 miles west on I-526.
Once there you’ll find so much to see and do that you just may never want to leave.
Here is a list of some of the best things to do in Charleston:
1. Charleston City Market
Over 200 years old, the City Market is the best place to find souvenirs. The four-block long open-air market hosts dozens of vendors with everything from spices, South Carolina treats, and hand-crafted trinkets to watches, hats, and even artwork. A must-have souvenir is a traditional African sweet grass basket hand made by local Galluh women.
Located: Where else? Market Street. Open 365 days a year, including Christmas day.
2. Walking Tour
The best way to see and get to know Charleston is by walking around. Take one of the many Guided Walking Tours, which are about 90 minutes to two hours or grab a free downtown map with points of interest highlighted and head out on your own. You can find these maps at the Visitor’s Center or many of the local hotels.
Must see points of interest: St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church and graveyard, the Dock Street Theatre built in 1736, and the Gothic Revival style French Huguenot Church all on Church Street.
Nearby is Chalmer’s Street, a cobblestone street paved in 1760, the famous Pink House, the Old Slave Mart (now a museum), and the German Fire Steam Engine Co. (a firehouse used from 1851 to 1888).
At the end of Broad Street, on East Bay Street, stands the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (now a museum). East Bay Street is also where you’ll find the iconic Rainbow Row houses.
Be sure to visit the Pineapple Fountain in Waterfront Park and White Point Park at the end of Battery Street with its 160-year-old oak trees, civil war cannons, and monuments.
3. Horse-drawn Carriage Ride/Tour
Whether you are having a romantic getaway or a family vacation, one of the best ways to experience Charleston is relaxing in an open carriage ride—feel the sunshine on your skin, smell the sweet fragrances of the many gardens throughout the city, hear the clippity-clop of the horses hooves all while listening to the driver’s tales of a by-gone era as he points out various historical landmarks.
There are several companies that offer horse-drawn carriage tours including Charleston Carriage Works, Classic Carriage Works, Old South Carriage Co, and Palmetto Carriage Tours.
Carriage Tours are $28 for adults, $18 for children.
4. Forts Sumter and Moultrie
Charleston’s most popular attraction, Fort Sumter, is just a short boat ride out to the entrance of the harbor. Now a National Historic Park, it’s from the fortress on this small island that the first shots of the Civil War rang out.
Boat Tours depart from two locations: Liberty Square, Fort Sumter Visitor and Education Center, 340 Concord St. and from Patriots Point, 40 Patriots Point Road, Mt. Pleasant. 1-800-789-3678
Tour times vary throughout the year. Ticket price is $24 for adults with discounts for kids, seniors, and active military.
Fort Moultrie was prominent in the Revolutionary War. Just a palmetto-log fort, it was first attacked by nine British ships in 1776.
A short 11-mile ride by automobile across the Cooper River to the north. The facilities at Ft. Moultrie include a visitor center, historic fort, picnic area, and public dock.
Open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, kids are free.
5. Historical Antebellum Mansions
No trip to Charleston is complete without seeing the grandiose, historic antebellum mansions.
You can’t miss them if you walk or drive around. If you have the time, take a tour of these mansions and their gardens to get a glimpse into the lives of past Charleston elite and most prominent residents.
A few notable homes that offer tours are the Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St), Edmondston-Alston House (21 East Battery St), Calhoun Mansion (16 Meeting St), and Nathaniel Russell House (15 Meeting St)
Mansion Tour prices vary.
Nicknamed “Holy City” for its many churches, no visit would be complete without checking out these historic places of worship. Many still hold services. Some provide tours.
Stop and listen to the bells ringing from the bell tower of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church (1836) at noon.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (1907 – replaced original 1854 church lost in a fire). 120 Broad Street https://charlestoncathedral.com/
Visit St. Michael’s Church (1761) also on Broad St and sit in the very same pew as President George Washington and Gen. Robert E. Lee when they worshiped here.
Believe it or not, not everyone who visits Charleston is a history buff. The good news is that there is more to see and do here—something for everyone. Charleston is a shopper’s paradise. Along with the City Market, there is antique and high-end shopping.
The Shops of Historic Charleston on Meeting Street is where you’ll find bookstores, boutiques, reproduction furnishings, jewelry, and artwork. https://www.historiccharleston.org/store/
Upper-crust retailers like Gucci and Louis Vuitton alongside mid-range shops can be found at The Shops at Belmond Charleston Place, also on Meeting Street.
As you stroll through the French Quarter, look for the many eclectic shops and galleries in Cabbage Row/Catfish Row (89-91 Church Street).
Upper King Street is home to the “designer district” with a bohemian atmosphere. Innovative furniture shops, home décor, and designer jewelry along with trendy restaurants and lively nightspots.
While Lower King is home to Antique Row, “hip” boutiques, and art galleries.
8. Eat, Eat, Eat
After a day of sightseeing or shopping, you’ll want to grab some lowcountry cuisine at the many dozens of restaurants in Charleston’s historic district. Most of them serve fresh seafood as well as lowcountry favorites—shrimp and grits, lowcountry boil (sausage, shrimp, potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob), she-crab soup, crab cakes, and oysters.
Some favorites are SNOBS – Slightly North of Broad Street (192 E Bay St), Magnolias (185 E Bay St), 5th Church Charleston (32B N Market St), and Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar (205 E Bay St).
Restaurants in the historic district tend to be somewhat expensive, although many have moderately priced items on their menus as well as dishes to share.
Charleston does have its fair share of history museums, but there are others. The Gibbes Museum of Art, Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, Postal Museum (77 Meeting Street – 843-727-1129), Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, and the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.
10. South Carolina Aquarium
Home to more than 5,000 animals. From the ocean and coastal region to the forest and mountains. The kids’ will especially enjoy the hands-on discovery center and touch tanks.
Open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving and Christmas days.
Ticket Cost – $29.99 for adults, $22.95 for children 12 and under.
11. Other Great Tours
Charleston locals are proud of their city and love to show it off. There are many ways to tour and get around. Along with those previously mentioned there are bus tours, trolley tours, bicycles, and boats. A variety amazing tours for everyone in the family—Charleston Alley & Hidden Passages Tour, Graveyards, Haunted Jail, Gullah, Pirate, Culinary, even Swamp Tours, just to name a few.
12. Historic Plantations and Gardens
All the fun doesn’t just take place in the historic district of Charleston either. Just 12 miles away on SC-61 you’ll find the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. This impressive 500-acre estate was acquired by the Drayton family in 1676.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is one of the oldest plantations in the South. Once a rice plantation, Magnolia is now known for its 60-acres of romantic gardens. Visit any time of year and you will find hundreds of fragrant, colorful blooms.
The estate also include a reconstructed and restored pre-Revolutionary mansion, slave cabins, horticultural maze, nature trails, petting zoo, biblical herb garden, nature boat, nature train, and a swamp garden.
Hours of operation vary throughout the year. Allow two hours for a tour, although you might want to stay all day. Prices also vary depending on tour. 800-367-3517 https://www.magnoliaplantation.com/
Boone Hall and Plantation is located just eight miles to the north on US-17. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it traces its history back to 1681 when it was primarily a cotton plantation. Boone Hall is also one of America’s oldest working farms, still growing fruit and vegetables today. The present Georgian-style plantation house is a reproduced antebellum mansion, built in 1936.
Hours of operation vary throughout the year. Tours: $26 for adults, $12 for children (6-12) with discounts for seniors, military, and AAA. 843-884-4371 https://www.boonehallplantation.com/
13. Patriots Point
For military buffs, just north of the historic district across the Cooper River, is Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum—home to the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, the destroyer USS Laffey, the submarine USS Clamagore, and 28 historic aircraft.
Open every day of the year except Christmas Day from 9 a.m. – 6.30 p.m. Adults $24, Children (6-11) $16, and discounts for seniors, military, veterans, and first responders.
If your stay is long enough and you desire to relax a bit, Charleston has five nearby beach towns with 60 miles of inviting beaches. Each area has its own vibe, sights, and activities. Whether you want to build sand castles, grab a surfboard or kayak, hit a round of golf, or just relax on the warm sand under an umbrella, Charleston’s beaches await.
The closest beach to downtown Charleston is Folly Beach. Folly is what you think of when you think of a “beach town” with lots of surfing and fishing.
Sullivan’s Island is a mix between peaceful wide beaches, walking trails, and crazy water sports like kite boarding when the wind is right.
Isle of Palms is a residential and resort community with amenities like golf and tennis. Take an afternoon drive along the miles of beach houses each with a distinct flair.
Kiawah Island boasts 10 miles of sandy beaches plus a maritime forest, sand dunes, and marshes all teaming with wildlife. You might even catch a glimpse of an alligator.
Charleston’s farthest beach, just 30 miles to the south, is certainly worth the drive. Along with world-class golf courses and tennis courts, there is an equestrian center and a fitness and aquatics center.
Whichever beach town you choose to visit you’ll find a variety of water sports, great seafood, and other restaurants, shopping, and best of all…relaxation.
When planning a trip to Charleston you may want to take note of all the wonderful festivals they have throughout the year. The Lowcountry Oyster Festival takes place in late January with a second, Shukin’in the Park Oyster Roast, in March.
Sample the city’s best in early March at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival.
The annual Blessing of the Boats with festivities honoring Charleston’s shrimping industry includes shrimp eating contests and samplings from the area’s best restaurants.
Art and wildlife come together at a three-day event held annually since 1983 on the weekend before President’s Day—the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. There are several other arts festivals—Spoleto Festival USA, North Charleston Arts Festival, MOJA Arts Festival, and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival—held at various times throughout the year.
Charleston’s Balloon Festival and the Victory Cup Polo Match are held in October.
The year always ends with a sparkling wonderland of the Holiday Festival of Lights and the Holiday Parade of Boats in the harbor. December is filled with holiday events throughout the city, including special tours, galas, pageants, parades, and the list goes on.
There is so much to see and do in Charleston. One thing is for sure, one trip is not enough. You will want to go back time and again.
Where to Stay
There are several amazing hotels in the historic district, although somewhat pricey. More moderately priced and budget friendly hotels can be found north of the historic district as well as just across the Ashley River to the south and the Cooper River to the north.
The moderately priced Charleston Harbor and Marina Hotel to the north, next to Patriot’s Point, is what I’d consider a grand hotel with swimming pool, jacuzzi, gift shop, and Fish House restaurant all on site, as well as the marina where you could take a boat out fishing or to Ft Sumter. The hotel also has a convenient, 365 days a year, hourly shuttle bus to and from the heart of the historic downtown district.
Last Updated on December 3, 2020