Looking for the best things to do in Charleston?
You’re in the right place! After living here for six years in my twenties, and returning to visit with family at least once a year since, I’ve had decades of experience exploring the Charleston area like a local.
Charleston is a beautiful historic town with tons to do. From learning the deep and often tragic history, to tasting mind-blowing food, relaxing on lazy beaches, and perusing the beautiful parks and scenery, there is no shortage of adventure.
This is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit; I can’t wait for you to enjoy it!
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about Charleston, South Carolina to plan the perfect trip.
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Top Places to Visit in Charleston, South Carolina
If there are two things Charleston is known for, it’s the history and the beaches. Charleston was one of the first cities to be settled in the US so it has centuries of history not common in the country. Located on the Lowcountry coast of South Carolina, Charleston has plenty of beaches to enjoy as well, beyond the historic downtown.
Guide to the Beaches of Charleston, SC
Charleston is a coastal town with some of the finest beaches in South Carolina, but how do you choose? On the North coast are the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, while to the South are Folly Beach, and Kiawah Beach. Here are a few of the perks for the main beaches in this lazy Carolina town.
Isle of Palms
Just a short drive from downtown Charleston, Isle of Palms in Mount Pleasant offers a charming retreat. The island is known for its laid-back atmosphere and beautiful shoreline.
Along the palm-lined streets, you’ll find a variety of restaurants and shops that cater to all tastes and budgets, perfect for a mid-day break from the beach. We love stopping by the Co-Op for some refreshing frosé!
As an expert tip, I recommend taking advantage of the free parking available on residential streets when visiting. This way, you won’t have to worry about hunting for a spot that you have to pay for.
If you’re looking to extend your stay, Isle of Palms has numerous beach houses available for rent as well. I once spent my Thanksgiving holiday with a friend and their family on the beach here and it was perfect to have lots of space for everyone and beachfront access as well.
This tranquil beach is a hidden gem, often a favorite among locals in Charleston. For the history buffs, you can’t miss out on Fort Moultrie. As part of the National Park Service, it’s loaded with fascinating historical insights dating back to the Revolutionary War. (Don’t forget to bring your national parks pass and passport!)
Sullivan’s Island is also peppered with fantastic restaurants – it’s hard not to try them all! Poe’s Tavern, famed for its burgers, is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed at Fort Moultrie in the 1820s. For some coastal cuisine, check out The Obstinate Daughter, a favorite Charleston brunch spot serving up southern fare with an Italian twist.
And, of course, the beach itself is exceptional. I recently took a leisurely stroll with my family on Sullivan’s beach during a stunning sunset. The orange and pink hues covering the sky over the calm waves made for an unforgettable evening.
Folly Beach is probably my favorite beach in Charleston. In addition to the huge shore, there is a mini downtown area that is more developed than other beaches around. Here you will find shops, restaurants, and the Folly Beach Pier.
The pier is operated by Charleston County Parks. It has a tackle shop, rod rentals, and several spots along the pier to fish from. There is also a gift shop, ice cream and snack stand, and access to the beach from the pier. The parks department provides a beach-accessible wheelchair as available, and lifeguards seasonally.
Down at the Southern end of the island is Folly Beach County Park. Parking here is free and there are additional showers and a snack stand.
*Pro Tip: head off the beaten path.
Turn left on E Ashley Ave towards The Washout – a popular surfing spot on Folly Beach. As you drive you will notice the original main road and previous houses have been washed away by the ocean – as the name suggests. Park at the end of the road and walk to the Morris Island Lighthouse. This part of the beach is wild, with rough surf and long-abandoned driftwood filling the shore. We do not suggest swimming here but it is a cool area to explore.
Off of John’s Island and the furthest beach from downtown Charleston, Kiawah is perfect for a chill beach experience. This beach community lies further away from bustling crowds and commercial establishments.
Kiawah Island is known as one of the top-rated beaches in the U.S. and for a good reason. On arrival, you’ll find clean restrooms and showers at the entrance to the beach, so you can comfortably freshen up.
Do note that there’s a small fee to access the Beachwalker Park unless you have a Charleston County Parks pass.
Kiawah Island is all about immersing yourself in nature and enjoying the beach’s serene beauty. In fact, I even spotted a deer once on the path from the parking lot to the beach!
On that note, keep in mind that there are no restaurants accessible directly from the beach, so be sure to pack a picnic to satisfy those midday cravings.
Exploring the Historic Downtown
Now that we’ve soaked up the sun, it’s time to hit the charming cobblestone streets. Follow along as we dive into the rich history, culture, and delightful culinary scene of downtown Charleston.
Meander Down Charleston’s Famous King Street
King Street, a bustling artery in the heart of historic downtown Charleston, offers a unique blend of old-world charm and modern sophistication. It’s a must-visit for any traveler to the city, brimming with an array of shops, eateries, and landmarks, all nestled amidst grand old architecture.
As you stroll along King Street, you’ll find lovingly restored historic buildings hosting contemporary businesses. The Urban Outfitters, housed in the repurposed Historic Garden Theatre, is a perfect example of the city’s modern historical character.
Another significant landmark is the College of Charleston. Established in 1770, the College is one of the oldest in the United States. While its main campus is located on George St, there are many buildings interspersed throughout King Street as well.
💡 Insider Tip
On the Second Sunday of each month, King Street is closed to cars and becomes a market!
Browse the Charleston City Market
This market has been the site for locals to sell and purchase handmade wares and produce since it was ceded to the city by Charles Pinckney in 1788.
It is often rumored to be an old ‘slave auction site,’ however this is a misnomer. The market was frequently referred to as the Old Slaves’ Market, either because enslaved people were sent here to shop, or set up shop to sell their own wares (sources seem to disagree on which). However, enslaved auctions were never recorded here at this site, but rather at the docks where the International African American Museum now stands, as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum.
As you explore the Charleston City Market, you’ll find it bustling with a unique energy that embodies the spirit of the community here. The market spans four city blocks, showcasing a plethora of artisans, crafters, and vendors.
You’ll encounter a diverse range of high-quality goods, from locally sourced foods to traditional sweetgrass baskets handwoven by Gullah artisans. These baskets, made using centuries-old techniques, are emblematic of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage.
Spend some time pursuing the shops, and maybe even grab a few unique items to bring a bit of Charleston home with you.
Explore the Vibrant Rainbow Row
Next up on your list of things to do in Charleston should be the famous Rainbow Row. A series of 13 colorful historic houses lined up neatly along East Bay Street, this charming landmark is one of the most photographed spots in Charleston, and it’s easy to see why. But the vibrant houses of Rainbow Row are not just for show, they each carry a piece of Charleston’s history.
Dating back to the mid-18th century, these houses were originally the commercial hub of the city, with merchants operating stores on the ground floor and living upstairs. After a period of neglect following the Civil War, the buildings were bought and restored in the early 20th century by Dorothy Porcher Legge. Legend has it that she painted the houses in pastel shades to brighten up the area, giving birth to what we now know as Rainbow Row.
Joe Riley Waterfront Park
Just a short walk from the vibrant houses of Rainbow Row, you’ll find Joe Riley Waterfront Park. Known for its iconic Pineapple Fountain, the park is a favorite spot for both locals and visitors, beckoning with its beautiful harbor views.
Next to the Pineapple fountain are the Echo Stones – a bit of a hidden gem even among locals. Stand in the middle and fascinating stones will carry your whispers, echoing them back to you.
As you’re exploring, don’t forget to pause for a moment to take in the stunning vista of Charleston Harbor.
Whether it’s a leisurely stroll, a picnic with a view, or a frolic through the splash fountains, Joe Riley Waterfront Park adds a refreshing touch to any Charleston, South Carolina, itinerary.
This scenic spot offers breathtaking views of Fort Sumter and the Charleston Harbor. It’s also home to a charming Gazebo, perfect for a shaded rest or a memorable photo. In fact, Charleston’s Battery Park is a popular spot for wedding photos in Charleston.
The park is nestled among grand historic homes, whose well-preserved architecture transports you back to the Southern charm of the 19th century. Take time to wander the neighborhood and see such historic homes as the Williams Mansion.
Other Things to See in Charleston, SC
Visit the International African-American Museum
This brand-new museum just opened in June 2023 and is a must-see during your trip to Charleston, South Carolina.
It is no secret that Charleston has a sordid past involving the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and this museum does the history justice. Not only do the exhibits cover enslavement in South Carolina and globally, they also go on to follow the African Diaspora through time, even honoring accomplished Black figures in the current day.
I was lucky to snag a ticket during the first month of the museum’s opening, and I have to say it is incredible and encourage anyone who is able to visit. They even have a room dedicated to those who have reconnected to their ancestors after being forcibly removed hundreds of years ago.
There are quiet rooms available for those who need a moment to process the heavy subject matter.
Sail off to Fort Sumter National Monument
The Visitor’s Center for Fort Sumter is located right between the International African American Museum and the South Carolina Aquarium.
If you’re a history buff, then a tour to Fort Sumter National Monument is a must. This is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, making it a crucial piece of American history.
It’s a short, pleasant ferry ride from the mainland, which is included in the tour price of $35 for adults and $21 for children. Expect to see the original cannons, fort ruins, and museum exhibits that narrate the story of the Civil War.
It’s an afternoon well spent soaking in some history.
Stroll under the Angel Oak Tree
Just a short drive from downtown Charleston on John’s Island, you will find the Angel Oak Tree, a natural marvel estimated to be between 300 and 500 years old. It is named after the estate of Justus Angel and his wife, Martha Waight Tucker Angel.
This tree is a testament to the passage of time with its sprawling branches extending in all directions, creating a canopy that covers 17,200 square feet.
Not only is the Angel Oak Tree an iconic symbol of the Lowcountry landscape, but it is also free to visit, making it a Charleston must-see.
Cross the Cooper River Bridge (or just enjoy the view)
Known officially as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, this awe-inspiring structure is more than just a conduit between downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant.
Make your way to the Mount Pleasant Waterfront Memorial Park below the bridge, where free parking is available. You can start your adventure on the pedestrian path spanning 2.5 miles across the bridge. Take in the panoramic views of the city and harbor as you walk, jog or bike across.
The bridge also hosts the annual Cooper River Bridge Run, a world-class event attracting thousands of participants from around the globe.
Visit a Plantation
There are many plantations in the area, but we wouldn’t recommend all of them. Some plantations operate as wedding venues and don’t do justice to the history of the enslavement and violence that built them.
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site does an excellent job of honoring this past. It is a Gullah Geechee heritage site that tells the story of these enslaved people who populated the Sea Islands and preserved their African heritage. Entrance is $20, or free with a Charleston County Parks Gold Pass.
Charles Towne Landing
The original site of the first European landing in South Carolina, it’s easy to see how Charles Towne Landing got its name. Step back in time and explore the 17th-century English settlement, complete with replica buildings, a native animal zoo, and plenty of green space to enjoy. Plus, admission is only $10 for adults and $6 for children.
Take a Tour to Learn More About Charleston
Of course, the most obvious way to see more of the area would be to take a tour. From walking tours, to food tours, to spooky ghost tours at night, there is something for everyone.
Horse-drawn carriage tours remain popular, however, we do not recommend these. Sources say it’s not good to have the poor horses on the same busy roads with cars and in the heat. There have also been multiple incidents of collapsing horses in the heat. It is probably best to just leave that piece in the past.
Where to Eat in Charleston, SC
Charleston is renounced for its incredible restaurant scene, but in addition to the popular places. don’t forget to do some exploring on your own.
In fact, some of my favorite spots are tucked away and are best found as a day of aimless wandering and exploration, which is perfect in the city of Charleston.
In the South, especially in Charleston, we take brunch seriously.. like we-have-champagne-on-tap in the soda guns and mimosas-for-$1 in some places kind of serious. So welcome to the Holy City- please get yourself some brunch!
Caviar and Bananas
Good for a light breakfast/brunch or also lunch. This little place has shelves of fancy cooking oils and chocolates and a deli case so come to poke around and stay for a quick brunch. The duck confit sandwich and the mimosa go well together.
Lost Dog Cafe on Folly Beach
Perhaps a step up from standard diner food, the Lost Dog Cafe won’t break the bank but will fill you up and perhaps even cure your hangover, if you have one of those. The walls are satisfyingly filled with cute framed dog photos from floor to ceiling. Grab breakfast here then hit folly beach for a day of lounging and exploring.
Where to Find the Best Coffee in Charleston
While the coffee scene in Charleston has grown exponentially since my days living here, there are still few favorites I like to visit when in town that I also think you will love.
Harken Cafe, and its sister cafe Harbinger, are a welcome addition to the Charleston coffee world. Filled with unbelievably delicious pastries, specialty coffee drinks, and even lunch items, these two cafes are a must when looking for things to do in Charleston.
Bitty & Beau’s, located just around the corner from the Charleston City Market is more than just a convenient stop for your morning cup of Joe. This B Corp™ aims to fix the problem that 80%+ of people with disabilities being unemployed. A little good feeling with your coffee ain’t bad, huh?
Best Restaurants in Charleston for Lunch or Dinner
At Husk, you’ll get a true taste of the South. Housed in a 19th-century mansion, Husk is famously known for its unique approach to Southern cuisine. The menu changes daily based on what’s locally sourced, but if you’re lucky, you might get to try their shrimp and grits or the cornbread made with bacon.
Looking for something authentic and budget-friendly? Let’s swing by Bertha’s Kitchen. This no-frills joint is a favorite among locals and has been serving up Gullah Geechee fare for over 30 years. Don’t miss out on trying their fried chicken, lima beans, and okra soup.
For a more upscale dining experience, make a reservation at FIG (Food is Good). Not only does FIG offer a sophisticated ambiance, but its dishes are known to delight the palate. Their menu is also deeply rooted in local ingredients, but with a unique twist on classic Lowcountry cuisine. Try their Fish Stew for a truly unforgettable culinary experience.
Remember, these are just a few options in a city full of culinary treasures. Whether you’re craving seafood, Southern comfort food, or something in between, Charleston won’t disappoint.
Where to have drinks in Charleston, SC
Not sure where to start with drinks? Start with the Firefly Distillery. Not only can you indulge in a variety of delicious spirits, but you can also enjoy live music on their spacious outdoor stage.
While Firefly is known for their famous Sweet Tea Vodka, there are many more spirits and cocktails you can enjoy. In fact, for just $13, you can take a tour of the distillery and enjoy six tastings of their unique and flavorful creations.
The Firefly Distillery is more than just a place to sample liquor – it’s a full-blown music venue with a huge outdoor area. So, bring some friends, grab a cocktail, and settle in for an unforgettable night of music and spirits under the stars.
Grab a Local Brew to Enjoy Anywhere
Two of my favorite beers are from local Charleston breweries: Holy City Brewing and Westbrook Brewery. Whatever your taste in beer, be sure to try out some local brews while in the Holy City.
Not sure where to start? Check out Bay St Biergarten. You can load your ‘tap card’ and then pour your own beer from taps located all over the restaurant. There are taps in the center of community tables, and also taps and different-shaped beer glasses all along the walls. The food is typical German and affordable. There is a nice outdoor patio as well with cornhole boards in the summer.
Where to Stay in Charleston, SC
Hyatt Place Charleston Historic District: The Hyatt Place Charleston Historic District is a great option for mid-range budget-conscious travelers. This hotel features modern and comfortable rooms with amenities such as a fitness center, outdoor pool, and free breakfast. It is also conveniently located within walking distance to many of Charleston’s top attractions.
The Francis Marion Hotel: For those seeking a more upscale experience, The Francis Marion Hotel is a luxurious option that won’t break the bank. This historic hotel is located in the heart of downtown Charleston and features elegant rooms, a rooftop terrace, and a full-service spa.
NotSo Hostel: If you’re looking for an affordable and unique stay, consider NotSo Hostel. This cozy and charming hostel offers both private and shared rooms at an affordable price. It also features a communal kitchen, outdoor patio area, and is located just a short walk from many of Charleston’s top sights.
Map of Charleston, South Carolina
FAQ About Visiting Charleston, SC
When is the best time to visit Charleston, SC?
If you are coming to Charleston for summer vacation, be warned: the Southern summer heat is like nothing else. Imagine being in the humidity of the tropics like Belize or Hawaii, but without a bathing suit on, and pack accordingly.
Also prepare for stormy downpour if rain is in the forecast. Downtown Charleston is below sea level and WILL flood during heavy rains and hide tides. Check the weather and plan accordingly for that as well. You may want to pack a rain jacket and boots, as an umbrella won’t be enough in this type of heavy rain.
Do you have you pay for parking in Charleston?
Yes – most parking in downtown Charleston is paid. If you plan to drive or rent a car, you should be aware that in the downtown district parallel parking along main streets is metered, so bring quarters and check for “2 hour parking” limits.
At the time of writing, metered parking is free after 6 pm and all day on Sundays downtown. You can also park in parking garages around the city, marked with a P for public parking. Most of these can be paid with cash or card.
Does Charleston have public transportation?
If you are coming from a city with great public transportation you may be surprised to learn that Charleston does not have such an easy infrastructure. There are a few public bus lines but these are extremely inconvenient and not frequently used by most residents.
Why are there children giving out free sweetgrass flowers?
You will probably see people performing or making baskets and flowers out of sweetgrass. Sometimes younger children will “gift” you one then ask for money to pay for it. Many opinions exist surrounding this, but our advice for you is to inform yourself and interact in the way you see fit, but no matter what ALWAYS treat the people whose home you are visiting with the utmost dignity and respect.
Final thoughts on this Guide to Visiting Charleston, South Carolina
Adventurers, we’ve come to the end of our journey through Charleston, South Carolina. From its vibrant culture and rich history to its stunning architecture and mouth-watering cuisine, this city truly has it all.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, I hope this guide has given you some inspiration for your next trip to Charleston. But remember, there’s always more to discover in this charming city, so don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path and create your own adventure.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab your bags, lace up your walking shoes, and get ready to experience all that Charleston has to offer.
Until next time, Happy Adventuring!
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