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Charleston: which plantations should you go to & how to organize your visit

As with many cities in the southern United States, Charleston’s slavery past is intimately tied to its history and development.

In fact, a visit to Charleston’s plantations is a must-do on a first trip to the city, as it provides a better understanding of the history of the country and the antebellum South.

Just like in Louisiana, there are several plantations around Charleston and each offers a different experience when visiting. Some will cover more historical aspects, others the Gullah culture or the reconstruction period while some will offer several family activities.

Charleston, SC : which plantation should you visit?

Since there is something for everyone and it is impossible to visit them all at once, we have compiled a short guide to 5 plantations in Charleston, so you can choose which ones to visit according to your interests and the time available to you.

In this article

Charleston and its plantations: brief historical overview

Magnolia Plantation
Magnolia Plantation gardens

Charleston, originally named Charles Town, was founded in the 1670s by English planters from Barbados.

Over time, Charleston became a hub for slavery and the slave trade.

Just before the Civil War, there were hundreds of plantations along the Ashley River, located outside of Charleston, growing rice, indigo and cotton, among other crops.

Charleston grew so rich from these cultures that it became one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, if not the world.

And slavery was so prevalent that by the early 1800s, the majority of Charleston’s population was of African descent and owned by another human!

The tide turned with the defeat of the Confederates in the Civil War as slavery was abolished and most of these plantations were damaged, destroyed, or left abandoned.

Since then, some of them have been restored and opened to the public as museums or tourist attractions.

How to organize your visits to the plantations

McLeod Plantation Oak Alley
McLeod Plantation Oak Alley

Before going into more detail about Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, Drayton Hall, Boon Hall and McLeod, here are some tips for planning your visits.

How to get around to visit the plantations?

Renting a car is the easiest way to get around to visit the plantations, as they are all located outside of downtown Charleston.

Otherwise, tours to visit the plantations are offered from Charleston, including transportation. You can find tours to visit Boone Hall, Magnolia Plantation or Middleton Place.

The closest plantations to downtown Charleston are McLeod Plantation and Boone Hall, which can be good options if you want to go by cab.

Entrance fees: check the inclusions

Be sure to check what is included in the admission price.

Some plantations have a price that includes all the tours available on their site while others charge extra for different activities in addition to the entrance fee, which can raise the bill quickly.

Also check the tour schedules and if you need to book your place in advance or not.

Ways to save on the price of admission

Good news, there are options to get discounts for combined visits.

For example, The Charleston Federation Heritage sells a passport that allows you to visit different historic homes and plantations.

Alternatively, the Charleston Tour Pass is a great option if you plan to spend more than a day in Charleston. It will save you a lot of money on the price of about 40 attractions in the city including McLeod Plantation, Boone Hall and Drayton Hall.

How much time should you allow to visit a plantation?

We have indicated the approximate time required for each plantation later in this article but be aware that you can easily spend several hours and even more than half a day at each site, especially if you decide to do different tours.

You should also consider that the entrance fees can be rather expensive, so it may be a good option to choose only one plantation and maximize your visit there.

Which plantations to visit according to your interests

Which plantation should you visit for its gardens? Magnolia and Middleton Place are both known for their gardens. Middleton Place has classic style gardens, more structured, while Magnolia has romantic style gardens that are more wild and natural.

Which plantation has the most beautiful oak tree alley? To see a majestic oak alley, head to Boone Hall, which you’ve probably already seen in movies like The Notebook. McLeod has a cute oak tree alley but much smaller.

Which plantation to visit with children? Magnolia will definitely appeal to families with young children as there is a small zoo, an observation tower, the opportunity to take a boat ride, etc. Middleton Place also has a farmhouse and beautiful gardens with a pond and bridges.

Which plantation should you visit if you don’t want to drive too far from Charleston? McLeod and Boone Hall are the two closest plantations to downtown Charleston.

Where to go to visit several plantations in a single day? Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall are all located within minutes of each other along the Ashley River, which is about 30 minutes from Charleston.

Which plantation should you visit to learn more about slavery or Gullah culture? All plantations offer information about slavery but McLeod Plantation is definitely the plantation to visit to learn more about the reconstruction period, the lives of the people who lived on the plantation and the Gullah culture. Boone Hall also offers an interactive exhibit on Gullah culture.

5 plantations to visit in Charleston

Find out more about these 5 plantations near Charleston: McLeod Plantation, Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place.

McLeod Plantation

McLeod Plantation House
McLeod Plantation House

The tour of McLeod Plantation offers a different experience, and of all the plantations visited, it was my favorite.

The focus is not put on the wealth of the owners or their lush gardens, but rather on the lives of the enslaved and people who lived there during slavery and after the Civil War up until the 1990s.

McLeod Plantation, which dates back to the 17th century, was one of the first plantations on James Island and played a role in the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Reconstruction period.

The guided tour of the site is highly recommended as it is very interesting and rich in history.

The old slave cabins, with neither running water nor electricity, were occupied until the 1990s at McLeod Plantation
The old slave cabins, with neither running water nor electricity, were occupied until the 1990s.

The complex relationships between the former “owners” and their emancipated slaves, the Gullah culture, the Reconstruction period when land seized from plantation owners was given to freed slaves before being taken back, and the poverty that ensued after the defeat of the South are all topics covered during the tour.

After the guided tour, you can continue exploring the property and visit the plantation house.

Allow about 1.5 hours for the full tour of the plantation (the guided tour takes about 45 minutes). This is definitely a must see in Charleston.

McLeod Plantation
325 Country Club Drive, Charleston
Website

Good plan to eat: Gillie’s Seafood

The fabulous seafood gumbo served at Gillie's Seafood

Before or after you visit McLeod Plantation, make sure to stop at the nearby Gillie’s Seafood Restaurant. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip!

It is also one of our suggestions of restaurants to try in Charleston.

Everything is homemade, including cornbread, crabcakes, hush puppies and soup. We feasted on SheCrab Soup, a specialty of Charleston and seafood gumbo!

Gillie’s Seafood
805 Folly Road, Charleston SC

Boone Hall

Boone Hall Oak Alley- Charleston
Photo: Christopher Shane 2014

When you get to Boone Hall, you’ll probably recognize the majestic and beautiful oak tree alley where many movies and mini-series, including The Notebook, were filmed.

Founded in 1681, the farm used to grow cotton and pecans, but now strawberries, tomatoes and pumpkins have taken over.

It is one of the oldest plantations still in operation in the United States.

For those who love history and authenticity, it should be mentioned that the house is not original and was built in the 1930s by the Canadian ambassador of the time, Thomas Stone, based on his interpretation of what a planter house should be.

While the oak alley is what the plantation is known for, there are many activities offered on site including guided tours of the slave house and cabins, trolley rides and an interactive exhibit on Gullah culture.

Several events are also organized throughout the year, including berry and vegetable picking.

Since the plantation is located in Mount Pleasant, it is ideally situated for those who don’t want to travel too far from downtown Charleston. Allow a few hours to half a day for the visit.

Boone Hall Plantation
1235 Long Point Road, Mount Pleasant
Website

Drayton Hall

Drayton Hall in Charleston
Photo: ©Charlotte Caldwell

Drayton Hall is distinctive because the plantation house, which can be visited, is preserved rather than restored.

This means that the house, which was first built in 1738 by John Drayton, is preserved as it was in the mid 1800s.

It is the only plantation house along the Ashley River that remained completely intact after the American Revolution and the Civil War. No refurbishing has been done since, and neither electricity nor running water has been installed.

So you will find little or no furniture, no artwork and no freshly painted walls… This is what makes it so interesting as it gives a better insight into the architecture and construction of the house and the materials used.

A trip back in time!

Allow about 2 hours for the complete visit of the house and the exterior, the cemetery and the exhibition in the Caretaker’s House.

Drayton Hall
3380 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414
Website

Middleton Place

Middleton Place gardens
Walking along the waterfront at Middleton Place

Middleton Place is one of two plantations in Charleston known for their gardens.

It is also one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States.

Covering no less than 60 acres, organized in a geometric and symmetrical fashion, the gardens are beautiful.

Various paths run through the property, some of them built like mazes, and there are secret gardens, flowerbeds and terraces, statues and plant sculptures.

You can also see alligators and birds as you walk.

Statue in the gardens of Middleton Place

Even though Middleton Place is primarily visited for its splendid gardens, the history of the plantation and the slavery that took place there is not overshadowed.

The visit of the house, offered in supplement of the entrance fee, is very interesting. It must be said that the Middleton family includes several people who played an important role in the history of the United States, including Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Middleton Place House
Photo: Courtesy Explore Charleston

As was the case with most of the plantations in the area, the main house was burned down during the Civil War and the entire property and gardens were largely damaged and neglected in the years that followed.

The house you visit today is not the main house of the time, of which only a few ruins remain, but rather one of the three houses that were found in Middleton.

Inside, you can see a collection of original portraits, furniture, fine silverware, a rare silk facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, Audubon paintings and other items that belonged to family members.

Other on-site features include the stable and the slave cemetery.

You can spend half a day there, or even the whole day if you take several tours, including Beyond the Fields, which provides more information about the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Middleton.

This was one of my favorite plantations, because of the walk through the beautiful gardens, the visit of the house and the very relaxing atmosphere by the river.

Middleton Place
4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston
Website

Magnolia Plantation

Magnolia Plantation
Magnolia Plantation
Photo: Courtesy Explore Charleston

Established in 1676 by the Drayton family, whose descendants still own it, Magnolia Plantation is not only the oldest garden in America but also the first public garden, since it opened its doors to visitors in the 1870s.

Magnolia Plantation gardens

It is the plantation that offers the most activities for the whole family.

It’s well run and there are many options: boat tours, plantation house tour, slavery to freedom tour, a small zoo, an observation tower, the Audubon swamp garden, etc.

Audubon Swamp Garden
Audubon Swamp Garden

But what really steals the show is a visit to the lush, romantic gardens with bridges, ponds and statues.

Birds at Magnolia Plantation

Here too, you will have the opportunity to observe turtles, alligators, peacocks, herons and other birds.

Not surprisingly, this is one of the most visited plantations in the region, which also comes with some drawbacks. The heavy crowds can sometimes spoil the tranquility of the place and give a feeling of an amusement park.

Please note: many of the attractions and tours offered on site are not included in the admission price.

Count several hours for the visit and even a full day if you make several tours.

Magnolia Plantation
3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston
Website


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