The Top Things to See and Do in Charleston, South Carolina

The Top Things to See and Do in Charleston, South Carolina

Founded as Charles Town in 1670 in honor of England’s King Charles II, Charleston was one of the most important cities in the United States during its early history and colonial era. Today, it is known for its rich and fascinating historical heritage, welcoming locals, fantastic beaches, and beautiful architectural treasures. Charleston has won a long list of accolades from major travel publications as an American must-see gem. Travel + Leisure magazine rated it as the “World’s Best City” in 2016, and Charleston has also earned high praise and accolades from periodicals including Southern Living and Condé Nast Traveler in recent years.

There’s tons of amazing things to see and do in Charleston, and these 12 suggestions are great starting points for first-time visitors:

12. Explore the French Quarter

Art galleries, boutiques, historic churches, and several of the city’s architectural landmarks are clustered in the French Quarter, which is bounded by Market Street to the north, Meeting Street to the west, Broad Street to the south, and Waterfront Park to the east. While many architectural and history walking tours will highlight this part of the city, it’s well worth exploring in more detail, particularly if you have a strong interest in Charleston’s rich and storied heritage.

11. Check out Charleston City Market

While Charleston City Market is characterized by some as a touristy cliché, it’s one of the best places in the city to experience the contemporary character of traditional Old South life. Formerly known as the Slave Market, as slaves would be sent here by their masters to buy food for their households in centuries past, Charleston City Market is an ideal place to go people-watching and find some authentic handicrafts.

One recommended option is to seek out the market’s so-called basket ladies, who perform a time-honored type of traditional basket weaving that was originally practiced in West Africa. Practitioners hand-make beautiful baskets from materials like palmetto leaves and sweetgrass, with the craft’s secrets being carefully passed down from generation to generation.

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10. Hit the Beach

Folly Beach is the most popular of the city’s beaches, which offer a welcome respite of lounging and relaxation after a few busy days of sightseeing. Charleston has a humid subtropical climate, which extends beach season beyond the summer months into the late spring and early fall. Folly Beach is about 12 miles outside of downtown Charleston, and setting it aside as a day trip during your stay in the area is usually the way to go. Interestingly, Folly Beach is where George & Ira Gershwin wrote their famous opera Porgy and Bess during the summer of 1934.

9. Discover the City’s Museums

Beyond Fort Sumter National Monument, Charleston has many other museums that are sure to interest curious visitors and history buffs. The Aiken-Rhett House Museum offers a one-of-a-kind glimpse into life during the antebellum age, while the Nathaniel Russell House Museum is an architectural masterpiece with a stunning spiral staircase. Charleston Museum, Heyward-Washington House, Confederate Museum, and the Old Slave Mart Museum are other popular options to consider.

All in all, Charleston is home to dozens of museums, so if you’re particularly keen on the city’s history, it’s best to do some research before you arrive so you can learn more about the things that interest you most.

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8. Cruise to Sullivan’s Island

Speaking of island ferries, you should also make room in your itinerary for Sullivan’s Island. A relatively compact 3.3 square miles, Sullivan’s Island is one of those often-overlooked hidden gems that vacationers rave about after visiting. The island is home to a charming and welcoming town, which is brimming with beachfront eateries and one-of-a-kind boutiques. A popular option is to plan your day around having lunch on Sullivan’s Island and giving yourself an hour to explore the shops before heading back to the mainland.

7. Brush Up on Your Civil War History at Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter National Monument is forever enshrined in American history books as the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Cannons that were used in the war are still nestled into the fort’s cave network, which is located on an island in Charleston Harbor. Regular ferry service is available to transport you to Fort Sumter, and once you’re there, it’s also recommended that you spend some time exploring the island’s small but worthwhile museum to learn more about the long list of fascinating treasures still housed there.

6. Lose Yourself in Beautiful Gardens

Charleston and the surrounding area are home to some of the best-preserved plantations and gardens in the American South. Middleton Place, constructed in 1755, remains one of the city’s most enduring such attractions, but there are several others that are definitely not to be missed. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens has spectacular, postcard-worthy scenery, and charming Drayton Hall, which dates to 1738, is one of the oldest intact plantations still standing in the United States.

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5. Stroll Along The Battery

Ask a Charleston local, and chances are they’ll tell you there’s no way you can leave the city before you’ve visited The Battery. Once the center of the city’s maritime economy, The Battery is now lined with a stunning collection of charming and colorful Southern mansions. As you make your way through this picturesque and unique neighborhood, it’s worth making a stop in White Point Gardens, which is located close by and contains several interesting Civil War artifacts and memorials.

A visit to The Battery is a perfect companion activity to Waterfront Park, as the park doubles as an entry point to the neighborhood.

4. Relax in Waterfront Park

Located along the banks of the Cooper River, Waterfront Park is a relative newcomer to the Charleston tourism scene, having been completed in 1990. Its shady trees and breathtaking landscaping make it the ideal place to relax and enjoy some quiet time, and it’s a popular place with the locals as well. Pack a picnic or bring along a good book—chances are good you’ll want to stay here for a while.

3. Take a Carriage Ride

Carriage rides offer yet another tour option. Like the city’s walking tours and boat tours, carriage rides also dedicate themselves to specific sections and quarters of the city’s historic center. Popular options explore the city’s residential architecture, downtown core, and historic areas. As with the walking tours, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. However, these horse-drawn carriage rides add an undeniable mystique to your experience, bringing the classic elegance of the South to life like nothing else.

James Kirkikis / Shutterstock.com

2. Head to Charleston Harbor

Charleston is also home to a robust selection of boat tours, most of which embark from historic Charleston Harbor. These tours explore the city’s fascinating maritime history, all while cruising past many of the city’s most iconic landmarks. On many tours, the boat’s captain doubles as your tour guide, creating a truly unique experience.

Also, keep your eyes peeled during your boat tour, as dolphins are known to frequent the waters around Charleston. You might just catch a glimpse of one!

1. Take a Walking Tour

Tour operators offer dozens of choices to visitors, so it’s best to consider your options in terms of what you’d like to see and learn about. Some walking tours are dedicated to the city’s fascinating Civil War history, while others highlight its architectural gems. Other possibilities include culinary walking tours of the city’s famous eateries, church tours that delve deep into its religious history, and spooky tours that visit the city’s haunted hotspots after nightfall.

 

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