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6 Must-See Charleston Museums

Charleston's past may be ever present, but these spots really bring it to life.

U.S. News & World Report

6 Must-See Charleston Museums

Nathaniel Russell House Museum

Stop by the Nathaniel Russell House Museum to see an incredibly well-restored historic house with amazing art and antiques.(Courtesy of Rick McKee)

With its antebellum grandeur, historic churches and cobblestone streets, Charleston, South Carolina, is steepled and steeped in old-world charm. Just by walking around, you get a sense of what the city was like in its 18th-century cultural heyday. But to get a fuller picture of the city’s rich history as well as its contemporary vitality, visit these Charleston museums, recommended by in-the-know experts: select Charleston concierges.

The Gibbes Museum of Art

The Gibbes Museum of Art(Courtesy of MCG Photography)

Newly reopened after a sparkling restoration, The Gibbes Museum of Art presents rotating exhibits as well as a premier permanent collection spanning four centuries of American art and art from the American South, including contemporary pieces from notable regional artists.

“The Gibbes does a great job of telling Charleston’s history through art,” says Jenny Miehe, concierge at French Quarter Inn.

It’s also one of the oldest art organizations in the country, founded in 1858 as the Carolina Art Association, and its elegant Beaux Arts building, with a signature stained-glass rotunda and courtyard garden, is eye candy in itself. But don’t miss the fascinating Miniature Collection – one of the country’s most prestigious collections of tiny portraits, an art form that originated long before the advent of photography (and smartphone selfies).

The Gibbes is located in the heart of the peninsula and convenient to the Charleston City Market, historic churches, Waterfront Park and hotels. Its gift shop is a great spot to buy local crafts and art-themed goods, and a cafe serves lunch and snacks.

The museum is open Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. It's closed Mondays and on major holidays. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and members of the military, $10 for college students, $6 for youths and free for children 3 and younger.

The Charleston Museum

The Charleston Museum(Courtesy of The Charleston Museum)

Boasting America’s first museum collection, The Charleston Museum has been acquiring artifacts since 1773. The museum's Natural History Gallery features the remains of prehistoric animals that once lived in the area, like the can’t-miss-‘em bones of a primitive toothed whale. (The gallery will be closed for renovations from Aug. 7 to Sept. 19, 2017.) There's also an exhibit on Charleston’s role in the American Revolution, as well as on the slave trade and rice economy.

David Hood, head butler at The Spectator Hotel, says it's “a good starting place to get a feel for low country history.”

And Jess Segall, front office supervisor at HarbourView Inn, recommends purchasing a museum combo ticket granting entry to the Joseph Manigault House, the magnificent 1803 home of prominent Charleston Huguenots directly across the street. “Visitors get to brush up on history at the museum and see a historic house and architecture at the same time,” she says.

Be sure to see the museum’s exquisite collection of Charleston silver, including President George Washington’s christening cup.

It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday starting at noon. Admission is $12 for adults or $18 for a combo ticket. It's $5 for children 3 to 12 and $10 for youths 13 to 17.

The Old Slave Mart Museum

Both haunting and riveting, The Old Slave Mart Museum is a “must see,” says Robbie Fagerstrom, concierge at The Vendue. “It’s one of the most interesting places in town – one of the few remaining buildings where slaves were bought and sold.”

The museum’s self-guided tour tells the story of the thousands and thousands of domestic slaves bought and sold on this site after the U.S. trans-Atlantic slave ban in 1808. The Slave Mart’s gothic revival architecture adds to its emotional heft, and its location on cobblestone Chalmers Street in the heart of the French Quarter makes it an easy stop on any stroll through the historic district.

The Old Slave Mart Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children and seniors. It's free for kids younger than 5.

Aiken-Rhett House Museum

Aiken-Rhett House Museum(Courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation)

Built in 1820 by a wealthy sea merchant and later owned by rice planter and South Carolina Gov. William Aiken Jr., Aiken-Rhett House Museum is “definitely worth seeing,” says Devon Brusseau, concierge at The Restoration. Brusseau says he appreciates the raw beauty of its architecture and the approach the Historic Charleston Foundation takes to preserve the property (the organization does what it can to protect the house and its original furniture from the ravages of time, without restoring them to their original state).

The Aiken-Rhett House Museum is unique in that all the original outbuildings still exist, giving visitors a sense of the intertwined domestic lives of slaves and their masters.

It's open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for youths as old as 16 and free for children 5 and younger.

Nathaniel Russell House Museum

Nathaniel Russell House Museum(Courtesy of Rick McKee)

Charleston has loads of historic houses, but if you had to pick only one to tour, choose the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, advises Richard Burton, head concierge at Belmond Charleston Place.

“It’s so incredibly well-restored,” Burton says, “especially that flying staircase. And you get to see amazing art and antiques as well.”

Like the Aiken-Rhett, the Nathaniel Russell is owned and operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation, but this house museum is more centrally located, just a few blocks from The Battery. The formal gardens surrounding the house are an added bonus.

It's open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for youths 6 to 16 and free for those 5 and younger.

South Carolina Aquarium

South Carolina Aquarium(Courtesy of South Carolina Aquarium)

As ancient mariners, sea turtles tell a different kind of history – one not of slave trading, architecture and agriculture but of the natural history of a sea-rimmed city. The South Carolina Aquarium loves its turtles, plus it offers an incredible waterfront view – complete with refreshing breezes and frequent dolphin sightings – and that alone may be worth the admission.

While the aquarium showcases fish, birds and aquatic life from South Carolina’s upstate river ecosystems down to the ocean, the centerpiece is undoubtedly the Great Ocean Tank, where sharks glide by nonchalantly and neon-colored fish dart and swirl around. And the new Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery is truly “unique and special,” Burton says.

The aquarium is open daily, except on Christmas and Thanksgiving, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $29.95 for visitors 13 and older, $22.95 for children and free for those younger than 3.

To experience more of what Charleston has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.

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