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.
As you explore this picturesque neighborhood, make sure to also spend some time in the nearby White Point Gardens, where several Civil War relics and memorials commemorate the city's role in the battle. Start your tour of the Battery at the 12-acre Waterfront Park (home to the giant pineapple fountain featured on many Charleston postcards), then follow the walking paths on East Battery Street for the nearly mile-long stroll to White Point Gardens. If you're staying at one of the hotels or bed-and-breakfasts located downtown, you can easily walk along the Battery from your digs. If you're driving to the Battery, you'll find some limited street parking, and some lots closer to Waterfront Park. Bus route No. 211 provides service to Waterfront Park and East Bay Street.
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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.
There are a variety of tours and operators (including private charters) in Charleston that offer a bevy of experiences for all types of travelers. Adventure Harbor Tours receives high praise from previous visitors for its Morris Island tours and sunset cruises. Tours aboard The Schooner Pride are also popular, especially if you're interested in the mechanics of sailing, as the captain offers travelers the option to raise and trim the sails with the crew. If you're looking for a less intimate or more formally narrated experience, sign up for a Charleston Harbor Tour, which has a fleet of boats that can accommodate hundreds of passengers.
- #3View all Photos#3 in CharlestonBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead 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.
Even if you're not much of a beach bum, you'll still find plenty of interesting local history to make a pit stop here worthwhile. For instance, Fort Moultrie was the first fort on Sullivan's Island. Composed of soft palmetto logs, it withstood a nine-hour battle in 1776 when nine warships were advancing on Charleston. Its soft composition meant enemy cannonballs simply bounced off its cushy exterior. Aside from its triumphant ability to protect the city, Fort Moultrie also served a purpose in literary history: Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at the fort from November 1827 to December 1828. Those who have read his short story, "The Gold Bug," will recognize Sullivan's Island as the backdrop of the tale. His brief residency is celebrated at Poe's Tavern, a local watering hole situated about two blocks north of the beach.
- #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 SPENDRead 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.
You'll find more than 50 beach-access points dotting the shoreline. It won't cost you anything to access the beach, but you should expect to pay a small fee for parking. For more information about Isle of Palms, visit the city's website.
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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.
Along with the casual beachfront bars and eateries, you'll also find a few hotels near the shore, as well as restrooms and foot showers for cleaning off sandy toes. Away from the beach sit several casual eateries, including traveler favorites like Taco Boy and Lost Dog Cafe.
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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.
Recent visitors praised operators like Charleston Footprints, Oyster Point Historic Walking Tours and Two Sisters Tours. To see a more complete directory of available walking tours, check out the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau's website.
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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.
Recent visitors praised the house tour, specifically the fact that it's a self-guided audio tour (included with admission). Travelers said the audio tour allowed them to view the house at their own pace, without having to wait or rush to catch up to an entire group. However, visitors provided more mixed reviews of the state of the house itself. Some were pleased that the Historic Charleston Foundation chose to leave the property untouched, but others were less impressed, commenting on the need for restoration and general feeling of dilapidation exhibited throughout the house's grounds.
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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.
Past visitors raved about the tours, especially the knowledgeable guides. According to reviewers, this is a great activity if you're interested in the Holy City's food scene as well as its history. Just make sure you go hungry – a few travelers made the mistake of eating before their tour and walked away stuffed.
- #9View all Photos#9 in CharlestonHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead 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.
Much like the Aiken-Rhett House, Drayton Hall hasn't been structurally renovated. And after surviving the 1886 earthquake and its role as a staging ground for both Colonial and British forces during the Revolution, the house is showing its age. For some visitors, this preservation provided a rare air of authenticity while others were disappointed that the rooms weren't decorated with any furniture. Travelers also praise the tour guides for their vast knowledge of the house and its history.
- #10View all Photos#10 in CharlestonTours, Wineries/BreweriesTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDTours, Wineries/BreweriesTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead 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.
Past visitors gave Crafted Travel high marks for its brewery and distillery tour and praised the knowledgeable and fun guides. Aside from sampling a variety of spirits, participants also learn a great deal about the city, according to reviewers.
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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.
There are also several guided tours offered here, each one detailing a different aspect of the plantation's history or its natural surroundings. Recent visitors specifically recommend taking the 45-minute "From Slavery to Freedom: The Magnolia Cabin Project Tour" (which will cost you an extra $8), and skipping the 30-minute house tour.
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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.
Although this is a great place to experience southern charm and to people-watch, recent visitors recommend that buyers beware: A few travelers said some vendors hawk overpriced trinkets.
- #13View all Photos#13 in CharlestonHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead 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.
According to most reviewers, however, the real reason to visit Middleton Place is to see the gardens. Modeled after traditional French gardens, the 65-acre grounds here are peppered with camellias, azaleas, magnolias and myrtle throughout the year. Recent visitors agreed this historic home is beautiful, though some cringe at the high cost of admission: $28 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 13. General admission includes complimentary guided walking tours and full exploration of the gardens (all 65 acres). Expect to pay additional fees for guided tours of the house museum and carriages. Middleton Place is located about 16 miles northwest of downtown Charleston along the Ashley River. It is open every day of the week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit the Middleton Place website.
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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.
Fort Sumter National Monument is perched on a small island in Charleston Harbor several miles southwest of the city. Ferries to the monument depart from the Liberty Square Visitors Center and from Patriot's Point, which sits just opposite of the harbor in USS Yorktown State Park (parking is available at both departure points). Though the ferry ride is not the main attraction, most enjoyed it, calling it relaxing and a great way to see some of the area's dolphins. Ferries to the fort and ranger talks take place daily, but hours vary depending on the season. Guided tours aren't available at Fort Sumter, but you can listen to a 10-minute, ranger-led history discussion before heading out on your own self-guided tour; rangers and volunteers are available to answer any questions you may have.
- #15View all Photos#15 in CharlestonHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead 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.
Recent visitors said this is the place to go if you're looking for insight into the more lavish side of Southern comfort. Tours, which last approximately half an hour, are docent-led and commence every 30 minutes. During the tour, you'll learn about the Russell family and the slaves who cared for the home.
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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.
The H.L. Hunley Confederate Submarine and the Old Charleston Naval Base are located about 7 miles north of downtown Charleston. Half-hour tours are provided on the weekends (Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.), but they must be scheduled ahead of your visit. Tickets for adults cost $16 and can be ordered online or purchased at the door on a first-come, first-served basis. The most efficient way to reach the Old Charleston Naval Base is to drive. Once you arrive, you'll find plenty of parking. For more information, check out the submarine's website.
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