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6 Tours Unique to Charleston
By foot, boat, or fork and spoon, these tours let visitors experience Charleston's historic charms.
A horse carriage tour is a good way to cover a bit more ground than you can on foot.(Courtesy of Robin Knight Photography)
Ask anyone who's sweated through the extensive exam required to become a licensed Charleston, South Carolina, tour guide: This charmed port city takes its history and culture seriously. Tourism authorities go to great lengths to ensure that all official tour guides are well-versed, but that hardly means all tours are the same. In fact, whether you're interested in Gullah culture, ghosts or grits, there are a number of great tours that allow you to experience the city through a unique lens.
The Gullah people are descendants of West African slaves who incorporated elements of their language and culture into their communities on the Sea Islands along the Atlantic Coast. “You can’t understand Charleston without appreciating the impact of Gullah culture on this region,” says Darcy Shankland, editor-in-chief of Charleston Magazine.
[Read: The Best Hotels in Charleston.]
Learn about the history of the Gullah people on Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tours. Brown, author of "A Gullah Guide to Charleston" who was raised in a Gullah community, takes visitors on a two-hour narrated bus tour of significant sights. Tickets are $20, and reservations are strongly recommended.
Another option if you're interested in Gullah history is the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, says Jenny Miehe, concierge at the French Quarter Inn. “You not only get to see an iconic Southern plantation, the plantation admission cost includes an 'Exploring the Gullah Culture' tour with great storytelling that’s only about 45 minutes long,” Miehe says. Admission is $24 for adults, $21 for seniors and members of the military, $12 for children 6 to 12 and free for kids 5 and younger.
Tommy Dew's Walking History Tour(Courtesy of Travis Dew)
Small and quaint, Charleston is ideal for exploring on foot. “A walking tour is my favorite way to experience all Charleston offers because you can see the city’s delights from a human scale, up close,” says Richard Burton, head concierge at Belmond Charleston Place.
Miehe says there are numerous walking tour options, but the good news is that it’s hard to go wrong. “I've never met a Charleston walking tour guide who wasn’t cool,” she says. Speaking of cool, Miehe recommends scheduling walking tours early in the day, before the temperatures heat up.
According to local experts, standout walking tour options include Lowcountry Legends (a two-hour private walking tour costs $50 per person, with a minimum of four people), Tommy Dew's Walking History Tour (the less-than-two-hour tour costs $25 for adults and $15 for children 12 and younger) and Oyster Point Historic Tours (the two-hour tours cost $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and younger).
Palmetto Carriage Works(Courtesy of Robbie Silver Photography)
A horse carriage tour is a good way to cover a bit more ground than you can on foot, plus it puts you at the perfect height to glimpse over garden gates and into the windows of the historic homes. “I definitely recommend a carriage tour – they’re only an hour long so guests get a good overview, but it leaves enough time to go back and explore on your own,” says Jess Segall, front office supervisor at the HarbourView Inn.
Several carriage companies offer tours, but experts recommend Old South Carriage Co. and Palmetto Carriage Works. Both companies offer hourlong tours that are $26 for adults, $16 for children 4 to 11 and free for younger kids if they ride in a parent's lap. All horse carriages follow one of several routes, and the particular route a tour will go on is determined by a lottery.
[Read: The Best Charleston Walking Tours.]
Fort Sumter Tours
Fort Sumter Tours(Courtesy of Fort Sumter Tours)
“You don’t fully experience Charleston until you see it from the water,” says David Hood, head butler at The Spectator Hotel. And one fun way to get on the water and see Charleston’s historic harbor, plus get a refresher on your Civil War history, is to tour Fort Sumter National Monument. Fort Sumter Tours leaves from either Liberty Square downtown or Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant, and includes a half-hour boat ride out to the fort (and back), with breathtaking views of Charleston – plus, if you're lucky, frequent dolphin sightings. Once you arrive, you can take a self-guided on-the-ground tour of the historic fort itself.
Tickets are $21 for those 12 and older, $18.50 for seniors and members of the military, $13 for children 4 to 11 and free for those 3 and younger.
In recent years, Charleston has become as celebrated for its food and James Beard Award-winning restaurants and chefs as it has for its architecture and history. Indeed, much of the city’s history and culture is linked to its food. So, what better way to get an authentic taste of the city than with a behind-the-scenes tour of its foodie scene?
[Read: The Best Charleston Ghost Tours.]
Charleston Culinary Tours offers various delicious options. Its classic 2.5-hour "Downtown Charleston Culinary Tour" allows you to sample classic Southern fare at three or four well-known restaurants (destinations vary by tour) while your guide gives you a primer on the city's culinary scene. The tour costs $60 per person, and alcoholic beverages aren't included.
Any history-rich city has its share of hauntings, and Charleston is no exception, according to its many popular ghost tours. Among them, Bulldog Tours gives its guests an up-close-and-personal tour of the beautiful historic Circular Congregational Church's graveyard, whose earliest resident was buried in 1695. As you hear ghoulish tales, you'll also learn about some of the city’s prominent citizens.
The hour-and-a-half-long ghost tour costs a few shivers and $25 for adults and $15 for children 7 to 12. It's free for brave souls 6 and younger.
To experience more of what Charleston has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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