Charleston, SC Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Fall Vacations
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Courtesy of Sam Antonio Photography/Getty Images

3-day Itinerary in Charleston, SC

Explore the best things to do in Charleston, SC in 3 days based on recommendations from local experts.

Day 1

  • 1
    #6
    Walking Tours
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    #6 in Charleston, SC
    Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    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 FootprintsWalks of Charleston and Two Sisters Tours. To see a more complete directory of available walking tours, check out our roundup of the eight best.

    10-15 minute walk
  • 2
    #1
    The Battery
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    #1 in Charleston, SC
    Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Many visitors say you can't leave Charleston without seeing this stretch along the city's southern tip, which they call beautiful and a must-visit. 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 Garden, 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 Garden. 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. Several of the city's best walking tours make stops along the Battery. If you're interested in the history of the mansions or the promenade's role in the Civil War, consider signing up for a tour.

    10 minute walk
  • 3
    #17
    The Nathaniel Russell House Museum
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    #17 in Charleston, SC
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    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 and were quite impressed with the detailed restoration. Tours, which last approximately half an hour, are docent-led and commence every 30 minutes, a highlight for many visitors. During the tour, you'll learn about the Russell family and the slaves who cared for the home.

    10 minutes by car
  • 4
    #2
    Charleston Boat Tours
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    #2 in Charleston, SC
    Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

Day 2

  • 1
    #13
    Charleston City Market
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    #13 in Charleston, SC
    Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. Other enjoyed the variety of unique items.

    5 minutes by car and 45 minutes by boat
  • 2
    #15
    Fort Sumter National Monument
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    #15 in Charleston, SC
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

    15-25 minutes by car
  • 3
    #3
    Sullivan's Island
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    #3 in Charleston, SC
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. Many visitors say the beach is ideal for families. 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. For a more formal dinner, consider The Obstinate Daughter.

Day 3

  • 1
    #7
    The Aiken-Rhett House Museum
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    #7 in Charleston, SC
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Museums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Museums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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 Jr. and his wife in the 1830s and 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 Aiken family. 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 discerning history buffs.

    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.

    35-45 minutes by car
  • 2
    #14
    Middleton Place
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    #14 in Charleston, SC
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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 cuisine and features items like shrimp and grits and collard greens.

    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 are peppered with camellias, azaleas, magnolias and myrtle throughout the year.

    5-10 minutes by car
  • 3
    #12
    Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
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    #12 in Charleston, SC
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Parks and Gardens, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Parks and Gardens, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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 zoo and nature center make 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. Families also might enjoy the nature tram or boat rides (also extra).

    5-10 minutes by car
  • 4
    #10
    Drayton Hall
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    #10 in Charleston, SC
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Dating back to 1738, Drayton Hall is one of the oldest surviving plantation houses 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 walking trails that follow the Ashley River and the marsh, or pay your respects at the on-site African American Cemetery. Archaeological artifacts and objects from the Drayton family are also on display in the on-site Gates Gallery.

    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. Travelers also praise the tour guides for their vast knowledge of the house and its history. Though visitors recommended making a stop here, they also warned that admission is pricey.

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