TOP
North America Solo Travel

12 Of The Best Things To Do in Charleston SC

Last updated on February 29th, 2024 at 11:06 am

Charleston South Carolina has an abundance of things to see and do. Founded in 1670, Charleston was once known as Charles Towne and located in an area now known as Charles Towne Landing. The city has a long and complicated history but one that it seems to have embraced and is now eager to tell. Whether its museums you’re after or being outside in nature, there really is something for everyone in Charleston.

My stay in Charleston was, unfortunately, only 3 days long but in that time I clocked up more than 10,000 steps a day and experienced so much of what the city has to offer. I made sure to have a data package that allowed me to get online in the USA, whether to access maps or research attractions, without incurring roaming charges. I used an eSim for the USA from Airalo. Super easy to set up and with a range of packages to choose from, it was an excellent choice.

Here’s my list of 12 of the best things to do in Charleston.

Take a History Walking Tour

I know I must sound like a broken record, but I’m a huge fan of walking tours. Not only do they help you get your bearings in a new city, but they also provide key historical information and a bit of myth and legend too! Most guides are also happy to offer recommendations for where to visit and dine.

In Charleston I joined several walking tours run by Bulldog Tours and can highly recommend them.

Stroll Along Rainbow Row

One of the must see stops on any trip to Charleston is Rainbow Row, a row of 13 pastel coloured houses close to Waterfront Park.

During the 18th century the buildings housed shops and businesses on the lower levels and living quarters above. After the Civil War, they fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s the houses began to be renovated.

Today they are a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, not least because admiring Rainbow Row is one of the free things to do in Charleston! Look out for the joggling board outside number 107 – don’t know what that is? Check out my post 10 Hidden Gems and Unusual Things in Charleston.  

Visit Boone Hall Plantation

Boone Hall was founded in 1681 and is still a working farm some 300+ years later. With its famous alley of oak trees, big house and well preserved slave cabins, its no wonder it’s one of the most popular historical sites in the Charleston area.

It’s my view that visiting Boone Hall is one of the best things to do in Charleston. Read my post 6 Excellent Reasons Why You Should Visit Boone Hall Plantation for more advice and tips about this very important site.

Explore the Churches

Charleston is known as the Holy City due to its religious tolerance and high number of churches. The skyline is dotted with over 400 steeples!

Now, I’m not suggesting you visit all of them, although that would be a great way to see Charleston! It’s definitely worth stopping by a few though and these are the four I suggest (all are designated National Historic Landmarks):

The French Protestant Church (also known as the French Huguenot Church)

Dating from 1844 the French Protestant Church is the most gorgeous pink colour. It’s also the oldest Gothic Revival church in South Carolina. The current building did sustain some damage in the Civil War and also during the earthquake of 1886. 

Image of the pink French Protestant Church in Charleston. Exploring churches in the Holy City is one of the best things to do in Charleston

Circular Congregational Church

This church dates from 1892, although the congregation was established in 1681. The nearby Parish House dates from 1870. Its graveyard is one of the oldest in Charleston and definitely worth a visit. The earliest unmarked grave dates from 1695 whilst the earliest inscribed gravestone is dated 1729. The gravestone art is also really interesting – see later photo.

Image of the circular congregational church in Charleston. Exploring churches in the Holy City is one of the best things to do in Charleston

St. Michael’s Anglican Church

It dates from 1761 and is the oldest church in Charleston. Famous attendees include President George Washington who worshipped there in 1791 (pew number 43) and Robert E Lee in 1861.

Image of the bright white St Michael's Church in Charleston. Exploring churches in the Holy City is one of the best things to do in Charleston

St. Philip’s Church

It dates from 1838, although the steeple was added a decade later. It houses the oldest congregation in South Carolina. Several colonial governors, five Bishops and a former US Vice President are amongst those buried in the graveyard.

Image of the historic St Philip's Church in Charleston. Exploring churches in the Holy City is one of the best things to do in Charleston

Join A Ghost Tour

When a city is as old as Charleston there’s bound to be plenty of graveyards and cemeteries (yes, they’re different) and ghost stories to go with them! 

Feeling brave I joined a walking tour one evening and although I didn’t experience anything paranormal, Charleston certainly felt and looked different in the evening. 

My walk was led by Bulldog Tours and it was very good. There are other tour operators available of course – Get Your Guide is always a good place to start looking.

Regardless of who you choose, I really believe that a walking tour is one of the best things to do in Charleston.

Visit Fort Sumter

On 12 April 1861 the first shots in the American Civil War were fired by Confederate troops from Fort Johnson on the Union forces located at Fort Sumter. The Union forces surrender the next day – the battle over, the war just beginning. 

Fort Sumter is located in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Its significance in American history however make it a must visit place when you’re in Charleston. Read my post How to Visit Fort Sumter for advice and tips on making a visit.

Explore Charleston’s Waterfront Park

Created in 1990 and running alongside the Cooper River, Waterfront Park (sometimes referred to as Joe Riley Waterfront Park after the former Mayor) is only a few blocks from central Charleston. Wide open spaces, a boardwalk with swings and view of the harbor, shaded park benches and the famous Pineapple Fountain make the Park popular with tourists and locals alike.

My tip – visit early morning when there are no crowds.

Read my post 10 Hidden Gems and Unusual Things in Charleston for more information about the significance of pineapples to Charleston!

Stop By the Dock Street Theatre

Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre began life as the Planters Hotel but was converted into a theatre in 1935. Before that, the site upon which it sits was home to the first building in the 13 American Colonies built specifically for use as as a theatre. It opened in 1736 and was believed to have been destroyed in a large fire that engulfed much of the French Quarter of Charleston in 1740. The current building was built in 1809.

Included amongst those who worked and patronised the Planters Hotel were well known actor Julius Booth, father of actors Edwin and John Wilkes Booth (the latter gaining notoriety in another theatre!) and Robert Smalls who worked as a waiter but who is well known for having escaped from slavery by commandeering a Confederate ship in Charleston harbor and sailing it into Union hands.

The Dock Street Theatre still holds performances – check here for current shows and tickets. The theatre is also open to the public who can pop in and have a look around for free (although a donation is always welcome). It’s definitely worth a visit.

Explore Charleston City Market

The Charleston City Market runs for 4 blocks, at the start of which is Market Hall built in 1841. The market itself dates from the late 18th century.

Open every day except Christmas Day, the market is a great place to wander and to shop, especially if you are looking to buy a sweetgrass basket. There’s plenty to see, buy and eat!

Contrary to what you may hear or read, the market was not a place where slaves were bought and sold.

Image of the historic Charleston city market. A must visit and one of the best things to do in Charleston.

Visit Museums

Charleston is blessed with many excellent museums and visiting them is one of the best things to do. Whether its naval and maritime history, art, the Civil War or slavery that interest you, making the decision on what to visit however can be a challenge!

Here are 4 that I visited and enjoyed:

Old Slave Mart Museum

When the United States banned the international slave trade, a domestic market grew with Charleston at its centre. The Old Slave Mart Museum details Charleston’s role in the buying and selling of enslaved people. It’s also the place where slave auctions were once held.

Tickets cost $8 for adults (concessions available) and the museum is open Monday – Saturday, 9am to 5pm. I would recommend allowing at least 1 hour for your visit. Check the museum’s official site for up to date visitor information.

Image of the historic Old Slave Mart Museum. A must visit and one of the best things to do in Charleston.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

Not as scary as it sounds! Built in 1771, the Old Exchange has been used over the past 250+ years for a variety of purposes including as a commercial exchange, custom house, post office, the site of slave auctions and, during the American Revolution, the bottom floor was converted by the British into a prison.

Today it houses an interesting museum focusing on the American Revolution and colonial Charleston. Tickets cost $15 for adults and the museum is open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm and on Sundays 11am to 5pm. Tours of the upper floors are self guided and there is a 25 minute guided tour of the basement. I would allow an hour for your visit. Check the museum’s official site for up to date visitor information.

Image of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. A must see and one of the best things to do in Charleston.

The International African American Museum

The International African American Museum opened in June 2023 and, in my view, it’s one of the best attractions in Charleston SC.

Its location at Gadsdens Wharf is no mistake – between the years 1783 and 1807, Gadsdens Wharf received the largest number of enslaved Africans into North America.

The museum, through various permanent exhibitions, tells the story of the lives of enslaved Africans through their history, culture, transport to America, stories and the struggle for Civil Rights together with their long lasting legacy and contribution to the United States. The museum also contains a family research centre which is really interesting.

The garden outside and upon which the museum building is built is free to enter – make sure you spend time there. The Tide Tribute is particularly poignant, representing the Brookes slave ship diagram which illustrates the inhumane transportation conditions enslaved people were subjected to – shackled together in the belly of the slave ships.

Tickets cost $19.95 (concessions available) and are currently being sold by way of timed entry so the advice is to buy online in advance. I would allow 2-3 hours for your visit. Check the official site for up to date visitor information.

Image of the tide tribute outside the International African American Museum in Charleston. Without doubt one of the best things to do in Charleston.

Aiken-Rhett House Museum

I find house museums really interesting and this one did not disappoint.

Built in 1820, the house was bought by the Aiken family in 1833 in whose ownership it remained until 1975. Visitors will get to see inside the house as well as the original slave quarters, carriage house and kitchen areas.

The museum takes a ‘preserve as found’ approach meaning that, save for a room containing various art works, nothing has been renovated.

I think the approach to preservation has meant that visitors get a glimpse as to what life was like both for the enslaved people living in the house and their enslavers and in that way, makes this museum a definite must visit.

Tickets cost $15 for adults and the museum is open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm. Tours are self guided and you are advised to download the relevant app ahead of visiting. Don’t forget to ensure your phone is charged and that you have your earphones with you!

Check the official site for up to date visitor information, including details as to the app. Note that the app also offers a free walking guide to over 300 Charleston points of interest.

Seek Out Unusual Sights!

Fancy looking for something a little unusual? A bit quirky? Then read my blog post 10 Hidden Gems and Unusual Things for a list of things that I discovered during my visit to Charleston.

Image of the stone marker above a time capsule. Seeking out unusual sights like this is one of the best things to do in Charleston!

Enjoy Local Restaurants & Cafes

Visitors to Charleston are spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat. Whether it’s a lovely multi-course meal at a well known restaurant, a more casual dining experience or simply a nice coffee at a relaxed café, you’re bound to find something.

My recommendations include:

Poogan’s Porch – I can recommend the Fried Green Tomatoes and Shrimp & Grits for dinner!

Another Broken Egg Café – the goat cheese omelette definitely hit the spot for me one lunchtime!

Bitty & Beaus – a café chain staffed by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who serve great coffee, a wonderful place to get your caffeine fix!

I really believe that trying local cuisine is one of the best things to do in Charleston…you won’t be disappointed!

If Only I Had More Time In Charleston!

How many times have I said this?! When you’re limited on time you have to make choices and so there are some things you just won’t get to. For me these included some of the following – you may want to consider adding them to your Charleston itinerary:

  • Angel Oak on Johns Island – a huge live oak said to be between 300 and 400 years old
  • Sullivan’s Island – a beachfront town
  • South Carolina Aquarium – home to thousands of animals and a great location from which to view the Arthur Ravenel Bridge 
  • Charleston Museum – America’s first museum, founded in 1773
  • Magnolia Plantation & Gardens – beautiful gardens and open spaces, albeit with a history of slavery
  • Folly Beach – a chance to kick back and relax after all your sightseeing
  • Middleton Place – another plantation with a history of slavery
  • White Point Garden – an almost 6 acre park at the tip of Charleston peninsula
  • McLeod Plantation – another prominent plantation with a history of slavery
  • Cypress Gardens – gardens and swamp boat adventures await!
  • Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum – located in Mount Pleasant
  • Heyward-Washington House Museum – President George Washington stayed here when in Charleston in 1791
  • Edmonston-Alston House – another house museum
  • The Nathaniel Russell House Museum – a renovated house museum containing an impressive cantilever staircase
  • Horse drawn carriage trip – travel around the historic district and maybe even take a ghost tour in one!
  • Charleston Tea Garden – America’s largest tea grower

Disclaimer – Information correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting.

Disclosure – This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you book something using them, I will earn a small commission but you will not pay anything extra. Thank you for supporting my blog.

TAGS:

«

»

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.