Best Things To Do in Charleston
Soaking in the ambiance of the brick-walked, Spanish-mossed downtown is Charleston's to-do. Historic homes are also plentiful: The Nathaniel Russell House, Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation & Gardens are just a few examples. And if you want to pick up a few travel souvenirs – perhaps a sweetgrass basket – look no further than the Charleston City Market. There are even a few beaches in close proximity – Folly Beach and Isle of Palms, among others – ideal for warm-weather swimming and cold-weather strolling.
Updated July 12, 2018
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Many visitors say you can't leave Charleston without seeing this stretch along the city's southern tip. This row of Southern-style mansions overlooking Charleston Harbor was formerly the heart and soul of the city's maritime activity. Today, the area attracts camera-toting tourists from all over the country.
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To get a better view of the Charleston harbor (and maybe even spot some dolphins), consider signing up for a boat tour. Not only will you enjoy some time on the water, you'll also have the chance to learn more about the city's maritime history (many boat captains provide historical commentary throughout their tours). Along the way, you'll likely see some of Charleston's top landmarks, including The Battery, Waterfront Park, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney.
- #3View all Photos#3 in CharlestonBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
Comprising only 3.3 square miles, Sullivan's Island may not seem like a must-see for Charleston visitors. But this beachfront town proves that good things come in small packages. Sitting at the mouth of the Charleston harbor – a little less than 10 miles east of the downtown area – Sullivan's Island boasts beaches, tasty restaurants and unique shops, plus a colorful history. You'll also find a bevy of vacation rental properties here – a worthy alternative if you want a little more seclusion than some of downtown Charleston's hotels and bed-and-breakfasts can provide.
- #4View all Photos#4 in CharlestonBeaches, Golf, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Golf, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
If several days in Charleston proper have you longing for a do-nothing day at the beach, Isle of Palms might be just the ticket. Located just 16 miles east of the city, visitors will find about 7 miles of shoreline, ideal for swimming, sailing, windsurfing or sunbathing. If you're having trouble deciding between Charleston's two closest shorelines (don't forget about Folly Beach), your fellow beach bums might help you decide: Isle of Palms is known to attract more families than Folly Beach. Isle of Palms also boasts a few more beachfront vacation rentals, plus the sprawling Wild Dunes Resort and The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. What's more, you don't have to be a guest to enjoy the two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses at Wild Dunes: both courses are open to the public.
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After a few days exploring Charleston's historic sites, take some time to kick back, relax and enjoy the Southern sun. Overlooking the Atlantic from the West Islands – 12 miles south of downtown Charleston – this massive stretch of coastline makes for a great daytrip away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Come here for the nature and the surfing, or head to the pier to sit and fish. Folly Beach's friendly atmosphere attracts a variety of travelers: most of the families stick to the shore, while adults traveling sans kids tend to congregate in the many bars that line the sand. If you're hoping to lay claim to some fine beach real estate, you better get here early: Past visitors said the beach can get crowded as the afternoon progresses. And if you didn't bring your own beach chair, you can rent one near the beach, along with umbrellas and nonmotorized sports equipment.
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With its centuries-old mansion and cobblestone streets, Charleston is like a living museum. One of the best ways to learn about its history (and its ghosts) and the significance of its best-known landmarks is on a walking tour. There are a variety of options available, ranging from broad tours of the city's historic downtown district, to more niche tours that explore the city's paranormal presence, pirates and art galleries and studios.
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According to many, there's no better example of antebellum life than the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. Originally built in the early 1800s and then expanded by Gov. William Aiken and his wife in the 1850s, much of the house's original style has been preserved. As you wander through, pay special attention to the antique furnishings, the original wallpaper and the stunning bronze chandeliers installed by the Aikens. Also, spend some time exploring the grounds: You can visit the slave quarters, the stables and the kitchens, all of which have been preserved to satisfy any history buffs yearning for a taste of the Old South.
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Considered one of the best foodie cities in the USA, Charleston is famous for its low country cuisine and bevy of trendy restaurants. For a crash course in the city's best eats, consider spending a few hours with Charleston Food Tours. The company offers seven tours, ranging from one dedicated to the city's best desserts to a private dining experience in the home of a local James Beard award-winning chef.
- #9View all Photos#9 in CharlestonHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
Built in 1738, Drayton Hall is one of the oldest surviving plantations left in the South. Take your time exploring the massive red-brick main house, which hasn't changed all that much from when it was originally built (be aware that there is no air conditioning, electricity or heat). Afterward, you can wander along the two walking trails, which follow the Ashley River and the marsh, or pay your respects at the on-site African American Cemetery.
- #10View all Photos#10 in CharlestonTours, Wineries/BreweriesTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDTours, Wineries/BreweriesTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
After you've sampled Charleston's culinary scene on a food tour, your next logical step should be a brewery tour. The four-hour tours start with a distillery stop (and six tastings) and continues on to two local breweries for a pint at each. Among the breweries and distilleries included in the tour are Holy City Brewing, Revelry Brewing Co., Charleston Distilling Co. and Firefly Distillery.
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While Middleton Place's gardens attract those who like trimmed hedges and flower-lined paths, the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is the place to go if you're more of an avid nature lover. Yes, the house is worth an hour of your time – it's a less ornate version of other Charleston plantation homes, but the interior is just as beautiful – but most visitors come here to enjoy the wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for gators, otters and turtles in the Audubon Swamp Garden, grab your binoculars and look for local birds at the waterfowl refuge, don your helmet and bike one of the several trails or get lost in the horticultural maze. Recent travelers also agree that the petting zoo makes this a great place to bring the kids.
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While some may say that the Charleston City Market is a bit of a tourist trap, others call it a great glimpse into life in the Old South. It is often referred to as the "Slave Market" because it was here that slaves would purchase food for the plantation. Today, the market buzzes with residents and visitors alike, perusing stalls loaded with toys, clothes, leather goods and regional souvenirs. But if you plan on buying anything here, you should head straight to the "basket ladies." These women (and men) have been weaving baskets for centuries – this craft originated in West Africa and has been passed down through the generations – using local materials such as sweetgrass and palmetto leaves.
- #13View all Photos#13 in CharlestonHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
If there were ever a place to stop and smell the roses, this house would be it. Built in 1755, this mansion was once the home of Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Today, Middleton Place houses an impressive collection of historic furniture and portraits (all originally owned by the Middleton family), plus a stable with heritage-bred animals. Visitors can also watch historical re-enactors demonstrate the skills and technology used on an 18th-century plantation, or take a carriage or specialized tour. Just make sure you save time to treat yourself to a bite to eat at the Middleton Place Restaurant, where the menu is inspired by traditional low country Gullah cuisine.
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You probably remember Fort Sumter as the place where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, back in 1861. Today, you can see for yourself where all the action happened by taking a ferry to the actual fort. Take your time exploring the thick stone caverns, which still house several Civil War-era cannons. You should also stop by Fort Sumter's small yet informative museum, which provides more in-depth information about the fort's role in the war. According to most Charleston visitors, Fort Sumter is a must-see, especially for kids and history buffs.
- #15View all Photos#15 in CharlestonHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
Constructed at the turn of the 19th century by Nathaniel Russell – a wealthy Southern merchant – this historic home is best known for its magnificent spiraling staircase, detailed furnishings and landscaped gardens. Unlike the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House has undergone an architectural and interior restoration.
- #16View all Photos#16 in CharlestonMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, ToursTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, ToursTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND...Read More »
Originally built in 1864 for the Confederate Army, the H.L. Hunley became the world's first successful combat submarine. Toward the end of the 19th century, it was suddenly lost at sea until 1995 when it was discovered off the coast of Sullivan's Island. In 2000, the Hunley and the remains of its crew were brought to the surface for a detailed restoration at the Old Charleston Naval Base. Today, you can visit the base and tour the submarine; an experience that many recent visitors say is well worth your time, especially if you're interested in nautical history. However, travelers do point out that a trip to the H.L. Hunley isn't well-suited to children because it's not an interactive museum – it's an ongoing, public restoration project that likely won't capture the attention of young kids.
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