Charleston… The mere mention of the city’s name makes you dream.
With its colorful architecture and typical southern charm, its small cobblestone streets lined with centuries-old oak trees, its seaside, its hospitality and its perfect climate, it has all the ingredients to be a must-see destination.
Not to mention that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States.
Want to visit this southern belle on your next vacation?
Here’s what you need to know to plan your stay, as well as our 12 must-sees and must-dos in Charleston.
In this article
- Organize your stay in Charleston
- 12 things to do in Charleston
- 1 . Take a guided tour of the historical center
- 2. Explore the historic center and the French Quarter
- 3. Walking in the Footsteps of History at Fort Sumter
- 4. Visit the plantations of Charleston
- 5. Visit Charleston’s historic homes
- 6. Pineapple Fountain at the Waterfront Park
- 7. Rainbow Row
- 8. White Point Garden and The Battery
- 9. Visit old cemeteries
- 10. Explore the salt marshes by kayak
- 11. Savor the cuisine of the American South
- 12. Relaxing at the beach
- More things to do in Charleston
Organize your stay in Charleston
When to go to Charleston?
Spring is a great time to visit Charleston, from approximately mid-March through May.
The flowers are in bloom, the sun is shining and the weather is nice but not too hot.
On the other hand, it is the high season, so the prices of the hotels are a little higher and there are many tourists.
Autumn is also a great time to visit the city, with warmer temperatures and fewer tourists.
If you plan to visit Charleston during the summer months, expect hot and humid days. Plan some beach days!
How long should you stay?
Charleston has no shortage of attractions to visit. At the very least, consider staying 2 nights, but ideally, plan for 3 or 4 full days there if you plan to visit plantations or go to the beach.
Where to stay in Charleston?
Let’s face it, lodging in Charleston will probably be your biggest expense on the trip.
You have two options: stay in the historical center where most attractions are within walking distance or stay on the outskirts of the center, in Mount Pleasant or North Charleston for example, where rates will be slightly lower.
The advantage of staying in the historical center is that everything can be visited on foot. However, the rooms are more expensive and you’ll have to pay parking fees if you have a vehicle.
Staying in Mount Pleasant or North Charleston is a good option if you have a vehicle (parking is often included) and if you plan to visit attractions in the Charleston area such as the plantations.
However, you will have to drive to visit the historical center.
There are several hotel chains in Mount Pleasant, often recent or freshly renovated like the Cambria Mount Pleasant where we stayed.
The ideal? Split your stay in half between the historical center and Mount Pleasant, for example, if you are staying several nights.
How to save on admission fees
As is the case everywhere, the budget allocated to visits can rise quickly if you make several of them.
For Charleston, the best deal we know of is the Charleston TourPass*.
Depending on the package you take, you can save up to 40% on the total price of different admissions and the pass includes most of the attractions mentioned in this article including plantation tours, some historic homes, Fort Sumter, Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, Old Slave Mart and other museums as well as guided tours, kayaking, cruises and distillery tours.
A little reading to plan your trip
Who says travel says travel guide! For this one, we used a very well done book, which presents both Charleston, the surroundings and Savannah.
It is Moon Charleston & Savannah (Travel Guide) by Jim Morekis *, published in March 2022 and purchased on Amazon.
This book paints a really comprehensive picture of the region and most importantly, it is up to date! Note that it is only available in English.
How to get around Charleston?
Unless you plan to visit only the historical center, renting a vehicle * is the best option for visiting Charleston and the surrounding area, especially if you stay in a hotel away from the center.
More articles about Charleston– Where to eat in Charleston? Here are 6 restaurants to try.
– Which plantations to visit and how to organize your visit?
12 things to do in Charleston
1 . Take a guided tour of the historical center
Charleston has a history and culture of its own, shaped by its slave-owning past, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, the Reconstruction period and various natural disasters such as the 1886 earthquake.
To make the most of your stay, a guided tour of the historical center is a must to grasp the essence and understand the history of the city.
Even though a lot of the tourist attractions focus on slavery and the fact that Charleston is the birthplace of the Civil War, the periods that followed are just as important.
Several companies offer guided tours, in group or private.
During our stay, we had the opportunity to discover the city with a private tour given by Bulldogs Tours.
This very interesting two-hour tour gives a good overview of the history of the city, its antebellum houses, its inhabitants and its cemeteries.
With our guide, it was also the occasion to linger on various details on the houses, like the anti-seismic bolts or the famous pineapples.
2. Explore the historic center and the French Quarter
After your guided tour, it’s time to explore the historic center and the French Quarter.
Walking through the cobblestone streets and observing the beautiful houses or the twisted oaks, covered with Spanish moss and ferns that “come to life” when it rains, is a real pleasure.
Church Street, Price Alley, Meeting Street or Legare are just a few examples of the streets to visit.
There are also several places to visit in these neighborhoods. Here are some of them:
The Four Corners of Law: at the intersection of Broad Street and Meeting Street, where the Charleston Courthouse, the Federal Courthouse, the City Hall and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church are located.
Old Slave Mart : Not to be confused with the City Market. It is one of the places where the slaves auction took place. A small exhibition on site allows you to learn more about this subject.
Old City Market: One of the oldest public markets in the U.S. with origins dating back to the early 1800s. Renovated, it extends over 4 blocks. You can find souvenirs and local specialties such as sweetgrass baskets.
3. Walking in the Footsteps of History at Fort Sumter
It was following the bombing of Fort Sumter in April 1861 that the Civil War began.
The visit begins with a short boat ride to the fort, where you can observe dolphins, among other things.
Obviously, due to the consecutive battles, the fort did not remain intact.
If there is not a lot of things on the site, the visit is still interesting.
On the spot, you can see the old cannons and the fortifications still standing. A small exhibition is also presented there.
The boat ride is very pleasant and it is impressive to walk where such an important page of the United States history took place. Information and tickets
4. Visit the plantations of Charleston
The plantation tour is a must-do in Charleston, as it provides a better understanding of the history of the country and the antebellum South.
Each one offers a different experience. Some will cover more of the historical aspect, the Gullah culture or the reconstruction period.
Other plantations will offer several family activities or visits to magnificent gardens.
To learn more about McLeod Plantation, Boone Hall, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantations, check out our article Which Plantations to Visit and How to Plan Your Visit to Charleston.
5. Visit Charleston’s historic homes
The plantations are a must-see in Charleston, but you shouldn’t miss the sumptuous mansions located in the historical center.
A visit to these houses gives a nice glimpse into the lives of the very wealthy at the time and allows you to learn more about urban slavery.
In fact, just about everything that was built before the Civil War was the result of the forced labor of slaves, from roads to bricks to houses and agriculture.
Here too, there are several to visit. Here are just a few:
The Aiken-Rhett House
This house is very interesting as it is preserved rather than restored.
Everything is original and offers a very interesting portrait of urban life and slavery.
The visit is done with an audioguide, starting with the exterior where the the slaves’ quarters are located : kitchen, original slaves’ quarters, carriage house, etc. Website
Located in The Battery, the piazza of this house offers a magnificent view.
It was here that General Beauregard witnessed the attacks on Fort Sumter that marked the beginning of the Civil War.
The vast majority of the furniture is original and the Alston family, who own the house, still live on the top floor. Website
Nathaniel Russell House
The central staircase of this house, which is spiral and seems to fly, is a big part of what makes this house famous.
Built in 1808, this house is also recognized as one of the most important neoclassical houses in America.
This is a restored house that has been brought back to its former glory. Website
6. Pineapple Fountain at the Waterfront Park
The pineapple fountain in the Waterfront Park is one of the city’s landmarks.
A symbol of Charleston’s hospitality, you’ll notice pineapples all over the city, including on some of the historic district buildings, fences and doors.
In addition to its famous fountain, the 8-acre park also includes a pier along the entrance to Charleston Harbor, a walking trail, gardens and picnic tables.
7. Rainbow Row
Rainbow Row is a string of pastel-colored houses on East Bay Street, between Tradd and Elliott Streets.
The colors, as well as the palm trees along the street, give them a Caribbean look.
The houses date from the 1700s and were left abandoned after the Civil War.
In 1931, a woman named Dorothy Porcher Legge purchased a section of these homes, from 99 to 101 East Bay and, undertaking to renovate them, chose to paint their facades a pretty pink. The neighbors then followed and painted their house with vibrant colors.
Much like the Painted Sisters in San Francisco, these houses are now an icon of Charleston and one of the most photographed places in the city.
8. White Point Garden and The Battery
The Battery is bordered by a seawall along the waterfront, Battery Street South and East, and White Point Garden Park.
The park was once a strategic location for the defense of the city but is now a perfect place to relax.
Take the time to walk along the dike and in the adjacent streets to admire the sumptuous residences.
This is also where you will find the Edmonston-Alston house mentioned earlier in this article.
9. Visit old cemeteries
With their old moss-covered headstones, shaded by majestic oak trees, Charleston’s ancient cemeteries are spectacular.
They all have their own special atmosphere and they are supposed to be all haunted!
If you have to do only one cemetery, we recommend the Unitarian Church Cemetery, our favorite of the three.
It may not be the biggest, but with the abandoned vegetation that has reclaimed its rights, the view is very impressive.
You might also likeDiscovering the haunting beauty of Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia
Also in the historical center, St. Michael’s cemetery is worth a visit. Among other things, you can see the tomb of John Rutledge, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
The other cemetery to visit is Magnolia, which is larger and located away from the center, where there are beautiful monuments.
Several historical figures are buried there as well as the crew who lost their lives in the CSS Hunley submarine and several victims of the Civil War.
Since these are cemeteries, there are not many explanatory panels so if you want to know more about the people who are buried there and the legends surrounding them, a guided tour is strongly suggested.
10. Explore the salt marshes by kayak
The water is omnipresent in Charleston.
For a different view of the city and a glimpse of the Lowcountry, plan a kayaking trip*.
With a small group and our guide, we had the chance to navigate the salt marshes and observe crabs in their natural habitat.
I really enjoyed the experience, which allowed me to enjoy the outdoors and appreciate the area in a different way!
Depending on the time of day, the season and the tides, you may also see dolphins and turtles during your trip.
For those who would like to go out on the water on a less sporty version, it is also possible to opt for a cruise around Charleston*.
11. Savor the cuisine of the American South
A trip to Charleston would not be complete without spending some time discovering the local cuisine.
Southern classics are featured prominently on restaurant menus, sometimes prepared in the traditional way, sometimes revisited with a more modern touch.
Whether it’s she-crab soup, a crab soup with sherry that’s similar to bisque, BBQ, seafood gumbo or hush puppies, you’re in for a treat.
Discover our 6 restaurant suggestions in Charleston
12. Relaxing at the beach
To end your vacation on a high note, why not set aside a day to explore the seaside and relax at the beach?
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, South Carolina has superb white sand beaches.
There are many beautiful beaches near Charleston, including Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palm, to name a few.
More things to do in Charleston
Of course, the list of things to do and see in Charleston is not limited to these 12 things. You may also want to visit :
- Patriot’s Point where you can find a maritime museum, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and a fleet of ships;
- South Carolina Aquarium;
- Charleston Tea Garden, the only tea plantation in the United States.
- Tastings in distilleries to discover spirits made in Charleston. For example, you can visit the High Wire distillery to discover whiskies and bourbons or the Firefly distillery which offers a wide range of vodkas and other spirits.