Charleston, South Carolina, is the perfect place to escape for a weekend. This charming Southern city is full of history and culture, and there are plenty of things to do and see. From exploring the downtown area to eating at some of the best restaurants in the country, Charleston has something for everyone.
This mini-guide will introduce you to some of our favorite Charleston spots.
- 1. Ride the Free Shuttle
- 2. Explore the Museums
- 3. Go Shopping
- 4. Go on a Carriage Ride
- 5. Go to Church
- 6. Dine on Authentic Southern Cuisine
- 7. Go on a Ghost Tour
- 8. Ride a Boat
- 9. Go on a Food Tour
- 10. Ride a Bike
- 11. Search for Sharks' Teeth at Folly Beach
- 12. See the Angel Oak
- 13. Walk Along the Battery
- 14. Sip Some Tea
- 15. See Fort Sumter
1. Ride the Free Shuttle
You might be surprised to find out that Charleston's French Quarter pre-dates New Orleans by 40 years! Although Charleston's old roads were laid out in a grid, it might be easier to to ditch your car and to hop aboard the free shuttle (click here to learn more) and make your way around the historic city.
Get off on King Street and explore some of the shops and along the way take note of the palm trees. Those are palmettos and are South Carolina's state tree. (Fact: Palmettos may be called a tree, but in reality, they are monocots and in the same classification as grass.)
2. Explore the Museums
Make your way to the Confederate Museum located at 188 Meeting Street in the historic section. The museum is located up the stairs of the Market Hall building which was designed after the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens, Greece, and was built in 1841.
The Confederate Museum opened in 1899 and is only open from 11 am until 4:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Nathaniel Russell House Museum is a must-see for history buffs! You'll get to explore the lives of those who lived during colonial times and early federal periods.
The museum offers insights into how these people thrived, including artisans or craftspeople they hired while building their lavish homes; as well as all that was required from enslaved men & women - which included forced labor in order to make it possible.
Not only is the spiral staircase beautiful to look at, but it is also an architectural marvel, with each cantilevered step supporting the one above and below it.
The Aiken-Rhett House is a beautifully preserved townhouse complex that offers an incredible insight into the life of Southern politicians and industrialists who lived during America's Civil War era.
It has been opened to public since 1975 and stands to tell so much history not only from an architectural point view but also social issues related to slavery.
The house is open daily from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. (The last tour begins at 4:15.).
The Old Slave Mart Museum tells a story that is critical to understanding the role of slavery in our history and its impact on today’s society. The museum features an extensive collection including objects from auctions, articles used asides slave islands or prisons where slaves were held before being transported North for sale.
There is a small admission fee to the museum which is open Monday-Saturday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
3. Go Shopping
Underneath the museum is the Charleston City Market and one of the places that you have to go to when in Charleston.
The market is the perfect spot for purchasing a sweetgrass basket that was handmade in Charleston. Basketweaving was originally brought to this area from Africa during slavery and it has been passed down for more than 300 years.
Did you know that it’s against the law to sell instruments and jewelry on Sundays in South Carolina? This may seem strange but there are some weird state laws around the country.
4. Go on a Carriage Ride
Nearby the city market, you will see signs for carriage tours. Book one - it's the best way to see Charleston and to learn about its rich history.
There are a couple of tour operators and I have gone on tours with both: Palmetto Carriage Tours and Old South Carriage. Both companies are good.
Among the things you may learn about on your carriage ride tour of Charleston includes the story of The Great Fire that ravaged Charleston on December 11, 1861. Over 540 acres, 575 homes, numerous businesses, and five churches burned during the disaster. (That's a fire watchtower below.)
You might spot earthquake bolts on a few of the buildings that you pass. In 1866, there was a devastating earthquake that shook the city. That earthquake probably would have registered near 7 on today's Richter scale.
You'll by gorgeous homes and half homes. What's a half house? Well, back in the day kitchens were not located inside the main house due to potential fire hazards. Therefore the kitchens were built as a stand-alone units. Today, those units still stand but have been renovated into full homes.
Many homes have beautiful wrought iron gates. You are bound to hear stories about the need for iron during the Civil War. Some gates were melted for the cause.
Have you heard of oleander?
There is a story floating around about the country's first female serial killer who made her home near Charleston. Her name was Lavinia Fisher and legend has it that she would serve (oleander) tea to wealthy male guests at her inn. Long story short, she and her husband would murder the poor guys if the tea didn't do the job and they would take all their possessions.
Lavinia and her husband got caught and were sentenced. On her way to the gallows, it was reported that Lavinia's last words went something like, "If any of you have a message to give the devil, give it to me quick -- I'm about to meet him!"
5. Go to Church
There's a reason Charleston is called The Holy City. There are more than 400 places to worship, some with quite a bit of history such as the Circular Congregational Church. (The earliest unmarked grave there dates back to 1695.)
The Circular Congregational Church is one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in South Carolina. It was founded about 1681 and has a long history.
The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist has been a part of Charleston for more than 180 years. The church was founded in 1854 and burned during The Great Fire. In 1890 the new cornerstone was laid on top of the foundation of the 1854 cathedral.
The French Huguenot (Protestant) Church was originally built in 1687 at the corner of Church and Queen Street. It was replaced in 1800 after the original building was destroyed in 1796 in an attempt to stop a fire. The current structure was built in 1845 and has survived shellfire during the War Between the States and an earthquake in 1886.
The oldest congregation in the United States south of Virginia, St. Philip’s has been vital to both spiritual and cultural life for over three centuries and continues to thrive even through times as dark as war or occupation by external forces.
6. Dine on Authentic Southern Cuisine
When in Charleston, you need to make sure that you eat some good Southern food.
For breakfast, head to nearby Mt. Pleasant and make your way to Viscious Biscuit, where the biscuits are anything but ordinary. Be prepared - this is a very popular place to get your fill and the line may very well be out the door.
For a truly Southern appetizer, head to Cru Cafe for their AMAZING fried green tomatoes. You should go there even if it is only for that dish.
The Fried Green Tomatoes come with Pork Belly Croutons, Sheep’s Milk Feta, and Smoked Tomato Caramel.
For a casual lunch or dinner in the heart of the city, may your way to The Blind Tiger Pub, named after illicit drinking and gambling establishments that opened their doors as temperance legislation swept across the country.
While the menu is rather simple, the food is pretty good.
For an upscale dining experience, you'll want to make reservations at Circa 1886.
The service is impeccable and the food is incredible. Once you dine there, you'll understand the basis for its numerous awards.
Executive Chef Marc Collins uses fresh, seasonal local ingredients to create his culinary masterpieces.
For a quick, sweet treat to finish your day, Kilwin's has you covered. Kilwin's has been making their "super-premium" ice cream since 1985.
Kilwin's is located at 59 S. Market Street, across from the Charleston City Market. They are open every day from 10:00 am until 10:00 pm.
Another way to finish your day is to go to Byrd's Famous Cookies and sample some of their delicious cookies. Bonus: Sampling is FREE!
There's not one, but TWO locations of Byrd's on Market Street near the city market.
7. Go on a Ghost Tour
With all of her history, Charleston is full of tales from beyond the grave. Bulldog Tours offers history, food, and ghost tours that depart from their location at 18 Anson Street (which happens to be really close to Palmetto Carriage Tours).
Keep in mind that these are walking tours and you need to wear comfortable shoes. You'll go down old cobblestone streets and hear about old-fashioned duels that once took place and may have left the loser's soul to wander.
You'll hear stories of our country's first president and how he was such a ladies' man. He once danced at the “Exchange” or “Customs House" house (pictured below) with a full dance card.
Beneath the Old Exchange is the Provost Dungeon that once held many a pirate. On the Bulldog Tours, you can enter the dark, damp dungeon and imagine what it was like to be held prisoner there. You might even catch a specter on your camera.
8. Ride a Boat
If you have additional time, consider exploring Charleston's harbor from the deck of one of SpiritLine Cruise's vessels.
SpiritLine offers harbor tours, dinner cruises, private dining events, and sightseeing. What's really cool is cruising at night and seeing the battery at twilight. The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge, is really awesome lit up at night.
9. Go on a Food Tour
One of the best ways to learn about the gastronomy of a city is to book a food tour where you will learn about the history, culture, and cuisine of the city.
I recommend that you book a food tour during the first part of your trip so that you will know where you want to dine later.
When we went, we booked the Savor the Flavors Charleston Food Tour through Get Your Guide. The 2.5 hour tour took us around the historic district through several restaurants where we dined on shrimp and grits, she crab soup, biscuits, and so much more.
10. Ride a Bike
A fun way to get around and explore a city is by taking a bike ride, or rather tour. Rebellion Roads in Mount Pleasant offers three different tours around the area.
Tours are about an hour and half to two hours long, but don't let the thought of pedaling a bike for that long scare you. They have electric bikes that can do a lot of the hard work for you!
Though not located in the Outer Banks, fans of the show might recognize some familiar landmarks as they cruise around Mount Pleasant.
11. Search for Sharks' Teeth at Folly Beach
Folly Beach, South Carolina is known for its picturesque views and natural beauty. But don't be fooled - this area also has some serious shark teeth!
The water's edge is a treasure trove of ancient teeth, with shingle-like scrapers that have been left behind by sharks over time. At times it might be beneficial to dig up some sand and look for treasures underneath!
12. See the Angel Oak
The centuries-old Angel Oak on St. John’s Island is a treasure not just for those who live there but also for visitors from all over! Angel Oak is 66.5 feet tall and has a circumference of 28 feet. Its largest branch is 187 feet long.
The tree is believed to be between 400 - 500 years old, making it one of the oldest oak trees in the Southeast.
Angel Oak Park is open from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm Monday - Saturday and from 1:00 pm until 5:00 pm on Sundays.
13. Walk Along the Battery
Charleston's Battery is a public park that runs along the waterfront and was once the site where pirates were publicly hung. If only those trees could talk...
14. Sip Some Tea
The Charleston Tea Garden is the only tea plantation in America, and it’s a great place to learn about the history and production of this popular beverage. Visitors can take a tour of the plantation and taste different kinds of tea.
15. See Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a historic site located in Charleston Harbor. The fort was the site of the first shots of the Civil War, and today it’s a popular tourist destination. Visitors can take a ferry to the fort and explore the museum and grounds.
- For more information, check out Charleston's Visitor's Guide online at https://www.charlestoncvb.com/visitors-guide/.
- Be sure to use the hashtag #ExploreCharleston when you share your pictures from your trip.
- Looking for a fabulous place to stay while in Charleston? Consider staying at a historic home once owned by a signer of the United States Constitution?
- To save on attractions, check out the offers at Tour Pass.
If you have been to Charleston, what are some places that you would recommend to visitors?
I used to live in Charleston many years ago off Ashley Ave. This article brings back many happy memories of a spectacular town, especially on vacation! I'm glad you mentioned Fort Sumter. A lot of people don't even realize it's there and it's definitely worth a visit if you have the time.