Whether you are planning a vacation for the first time, or are an experienced Charleston native looking to rediscover some old faves, I am so glad you get to see the best of South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful historic town so there is tons to do from sight-seeing, learning the deep and often tragic history, tasting mind-blowing food, the most relaxed beaches, beautiful parks and scenery, and on and on.
Tips Before You Go
Parking: Downtown Charleston- Parallel parking along main streets is metered, so bring quarters and check for “2 hour parking” limits. Metered Parking is free after 6 pm and all day on Sundays downtown. Please pay attention however to all signage, as parking off the main roads is usually in zoned residential areas that are by permit only. You will most definitely get a ticket if you park in these, which will end up costing way more than street parking or a garage. A good rule of thumb is to look for meters and if there aren't any, odd's are that it is a residential zone. You can also park in parking garages around the city, marked with a P for public parking.
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. Charleston is below sea level and WILL flood during heavy rains and hide tides. Check the weather and plan accordingly for that as well.
If you are coming from a city with great public transportation you may be surprised to learn the 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. I would recommend renting a car or using a rideshare service such as Uber or Lyft.
Bonus: If you are staying close to where you want to visit, walking is also nice.
You will probably see people performing or making baskets and flowers out of sweetgrass. Sometimes a kid will "gift" you one then ask for money to pay for it. Many opinions exist surrounding this, but my tip 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.
Did I miss anything important? Leave a comment below with any must-know tips to include before visiting!
Now, onto the important things.
Food - arguably the best part
If you are wanting to venture out into this lazy yet bustling Southern town on your own, the three main streets to see can be found downtown and run parallel with each other: King St, Market St, and Bay St. All 3 have tons of options for amazing fare and I am sure you couldn't go wrong. 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.
You will likely receive a billion recommendations from everyone you talk to who has visited, and I would say those are likely all excellent, but listed here are the restaurants I have heard of friends obsessing over or have personally obsessed over myself.
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!
$25 per person, $3 mimosas, Brunch on Saturdays and Sundays
This is honestly the best brunch in Charleston and also happens to be a buffet. I would usually plan on this being my only true meal of the entire day. You can try literally every brunch favorite in the south, from the low-country staples like shrimp and grits to specialty flavors like pecan praline french toast. The brunch bar is located downstairs but head upstairs to the rooftop bar to enjoy the panoramic city views before you leave. Being an old and historic city, Charleston still has a law that no building can be taller than a church steeple, so take full advantage of that with sweeping views of the city peppered with little steeples rising in the distance.
As always, the location downtown is the best one, but parking is like in Seattle. Street parking is hard to find and I am never counting on a parking lot. Come here for brunch, order carbs.
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. I am sure you are noticing a theme in my recommendations at this point. There is one location in the Charleston Market, and one near the College of Charleston on George St.
Standard brunch place but really good food and nice bright outdoor space. Sit outside on the patio if the weather is nice, and order the burger with a giant mimosa: a classic combination, and one of my favorites.
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.
They have coffee and beer. I tend to prefer coffee options where I am from so love this place! Also, if you are visiting from the west coast- welcome to the south my friend! No more IPAs... and plenty of white wheat and Belgians! Try alllll the local beer while you are here :)
This used to be called Black Tap but it looks like they just changed the name. Standard coffee shop with basic pastries and coffee offerings. I loved it because they had lavender syrup which is hard to find. Many of my friends claim this as their favorite.
Come here for coffee on folly beach. The space reminds me of Costa Rica with all the bright colors. You will find good iced coffee options and yummy pastries to fuel you for a day of exploring. They also offer heavier breakfasts to sit down and enjoy.
Best location is downtown, but parking is hard to find. Second is Mount Pleasant (plenty of parking options in a lot), and I would not bother with the newest location farther North in Summerville.
This is a local spot your friends will probably never tell you about. Half price bottles of wine Wednesday and Sunday. I am obsessed with their white chicken chili which is always a soup of the day, their grilled peaches wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled in honey, and their mussels
There are several restaurants on the waterfront at Shem creek. These are especially amazing to sit outside and watch the sunset from. There is also a little boardwalk that goes out into the marsh at the creek. I recommend taking a stroll and grabbing brunch, lunch, dinner, or at least a drink at least one of these places:
Tavern and Table- only gotten drinks here but I really enjoyed them. It has a great atmosphere and good offerings.
Water's Edge- I have been here many times with my bestie as they have a really good brunch buffet on weekends.
Vickery's Bar & Grill- I have not been to this one, but heard good things so including an additional option for you guys.
Red's Ice House - if you are looking for a no-frills experience drinking an ice cold domestic beer on the water surrounded by a crowd, this is likely your place.
Really any meal would be good here. I recommend trying at least one of these next few. You can't come to Charleston without trying one of the ole' faithful local places (i will mark these with a * so you know to try at least one of them). Once a year Poogan’s will roll back their prices to decades past- which is when I went. I think its a little pricier normally, but I was a broke college student so you may not even notice.
I have only been able to afford eating here during Charleston Restaurant week but the crab cakes were literally to die for. If you can swing it I would recommend grabbing food here. Lunch is always cheaper than dinner!
Other Old Faithful Charleston Restaurants I haven't been to
Page's Okra Grill
Jestine's Kitchen(most will have a wait but this one was on TV and will have a line.. some say its the best in town. I went once and would say its just southern food lol but you can see for yourself), etc.
I would say pick one of these 4 or something like this. Tons of people will recommend places that are super fancy and expensive like Hall's Chophouse or Hominy Grill. Just look at the pictures and if it looks super uppity then its not the same as these old faithfuls. I am talking carbs and butter delicious southern food that isn’t too fancy to be what it is.
This is literally the coolest place ever. You can put money onto a 'tap card' then fill your own glasses with beer from all over the restaurant. There are taps in the community tables where people can sit first come first serve and you just squeeze between them to fill your glass, and there are also taps and different shaped beer glasses all along the walls. The food is typical German and super good. There is a nice outdoor patio as well with cornhole boards in the summer.
This is literally the best in Charleston. As always go to the one downtown on Meeting Street and avoid the Mt. Pleasant location. There should be plenty of parking.
I have no idea how I did this but I never made it to this place. It is hands down the best BBQ in Charleston and coveted by the locals. It was always crammed with people so I never wanted to deal with the crowds, but you can't come to the south and not have amazing barbecue. Try to come for lunch to beat the happy hour crowds. There are a few locations but I think the one on the beach is the best (Sullivan's Island).
Well you are on the coast so you need to have some good seafood! A lot of people like places on the water like Fleet's Landing. I dont think you can go wrong with that but I personally really loved Coast the one time I went during restaurant week. Just make sure you have good seafood at least somewhere!
You can probably get a coupon for a $5 off appetizers from a local hotel to this place or to Big Billy's Burgers, which are both owned by the same team. I like it because its cheap local and really good seafood. I like the mahi mango tacos. There is one in N. Charleston and one downtown. Both should be good.
I have 2 burger suggestions for you. Sesame Burger and Big Billy's Burgers. Both should be pretty close to actual Boeing near the Tanger Outlet Mall. Both have their own spin on burgers so it is anything but boring. Big Billy's has beer from the Bahamas and sweet potato tots. They also have more crazy meats like bison and boar. Sesame has more unique toppings like fig jam, etc. Either one is a good choice.
There are a ton of really good restaurants on this island and it is not very touristy. I would say this is more populated by locals and is a very laid back beach. Most of the beaches in Charleston are laid back actually. You cannot go wrong here.
Folly Beach is probably my favorite one to go to, because there is a mini downtown area that is more developed than other beaches around Charleston. The beach should be much a much longer shore than in the past as the city paid to have sand drudged up from the ocean and put back on the shore. They have issues with sand washing away (see about the washout below). It is probably the least manicured and more gritty of the 3 all well. Like if you are into Reggae you probably live here lol. You have to drive through James Island to get there, and there is only one road so expect serious traffic if you don't get out there early. There is a pier you can walk on and a little ice cream shop at the beginning of it. Parking is just along the streets parallel and is free, you just have to find a spot. If you come down the main road- Center St, it goes straight to the end and makes a T with the waterfront road-Arctic Ave, at a hotel (Pier 101). Turn right for the less populated side of the beach. Down a ways on the beach front on this side is Windjammer bar. A friend of mine saw Darius Rucker play here before Hootie and the Blowfish was big. They have live music sometimes and a quick bite to eat that doesn't require you to really leave the beach. The food isn’t that great but its ease of access without having to go back to the center of town, and a toilet in a pinch. The pier in the center that I mentioned also has little outdoor showers at the base by the sand if you get in the water and get all sticky from the salt and the heat. This is the only of the 3 beaches you will find such a luxury. Definitely eat at Taco Boy while you are out here. It is the best! Also, look for the little road stand of Tokyo Crepes.
*Pro Tip, if you come down the main road (Center St) and turn left on E Ashley Ave (the road just before the last one that is on the waterfront) you can drive all the way down to the washout - a place where people surf and where the main road and tons of previous houses have been washed out. Park here and walk through the sand dunes continuing down the road and you will come to the Folly Beach lighthouse! Such a cool spot out there with lots of driftwood and beautiful views.
Isle of Palms
This is where all the rich people have their beach homes. When you come in off the bridge at the light you can go straight which will ease right and go alongside the waterfront. On this side there is paid parking and a few shops. My tip is not to park here, but to instead at the light get in the left lane and follow that road along to the residential area and park for free along the street. There are lots of little paths to the beach, just look for "public beach access" signs and don't end up going through someone's yard. This one has the prettiest sand dunes that stretch out pretty far before the shore begins.
Botany Bay- Edisto https://scpictureproject.org/charleston-county/botany-bay.html
I have never been here but it is a place I dream of going to. It is a bit of a drive to Edisto from Charleston, so I imagine that this is a little out there as well. Much more nature and less vacation style of a beach. Not sure if you will have time given you are in town for business, but just in case.
Other Things to Do
Angel Oak - John's Island
Pictured above, this beautiful old and incredible huge tree is an amazing & free attraction on John’s Island. The island is a bit of a drive from Charleston proper make a side trip out of it and find somewhere to grab lunch or brunch. The oak is huge and estimated to be around 300-400 years old. There is no fee to visit and a crazy sight to see. Definitely worth the trek.
This architectural marvel spans the Cooper River from downtown Charleston to the city of Mt. Pleasant. To enjoy it from up close, come from the Mt. Pleasant Side. There is a parking lot by a park under the bridge with free parking. You can walk out to a waterfront view across the river and then take the ramp up. This is a nice 2.5 mile run or for less of an effort you could walk to the middle of the bridge to take in the view and turn around. I used to love training for runs here. It is so beautiful.
Back when we were dating, my husband Diego went on a tour to this fort one day with a friend while I was working. He loves history so it was right up his alley. The south has a ton of history- albeit sad at times. This is a great tour to take if you are interested in learning about the war and some historic things about Charleston and the South East.
Take a walk down the busiest street. The college of Charleston is literally integrated into downtown, so you will see dorms and bookshops peppered into the normal businesses of downtown. The urban outfitters is inside of an old concert hall. The third or fourth Starbucks down is inside of an old bank- the vault is now a storage room. This place is rich with history and also restaurants and shops to see.
Pro Tip- on the Second Sunday of each month this street is closed to cars and becomes a huge pedestrian market! This is super fun so if you will be there on a second sunday do not miss.
This used to be the old slave markets and is now a center for handmade goods and local restaurant stalls. Don't buy the first of anything you see, as there are usually several repeats of varying prices throughout the market. Parts are now enclosed and air conditioned, but other parts are still open air. Even if you don't buy anything it is cool to walk through and see.
Battery Park & Rainbow Row
Classics you have to see. The battery park is at the tip of the peninsula and surrounded by historic million dollar homes. If you have time this is generally a beautiful walk from the heart of downtown but if not parking is free if you can find a spot along the road closer by. There is a gazebo and lots of shading trees and you can walk right along the edge where the water meets the peninsula. From here you can head back downtown and hit the famous row of colorfully painted houses. There isnt much to it but the homes around this area are beautiful and as most are neutral colors the Rainbow Row really sticks out.
This is just down the road from a really nice rooftop bar called The Vendue. It is also a restaurant but i was a poor college student so never been there. The park has a pier that has giant swings and a nice view of the water. You can also see the famous Pineapple fountain, and the echo stones. These are elevated round slabs that you can only hear yourself echo from on top of standing in the middle. Pretty neat!
See an Old Plantation
There are several around- Magnolia, Middleton Place, Drayton Hall, etc. If you have a few hours to spare these are beautiful. If not, you probably will not be sad for missing it, so it is okay to skip out on this.
This is a really cool historic site and systems of trails. I believe there is also a zoo that my adviser from college volunteered at. I never made it but this place is on my list for my next trip.
Also the most obvious would be to take a tour. I think a historic tour that gives you a little story to go along with the old buildings would be super cool. I have done a walking food tour before and really loved it, but it was a gift so unfortunately do not have the contact info on that. You could also just give yourself a food tour by eating everywhere lol. There are horse drawn carriage tours but tbh you could skip that. A lot of people say its 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. Probably best to just leave that piece in the past.
One last thing- DRINKS! I am sure you could grab a drink anywhere, so I will only mention this very unique one- Prohibition. Exactly as it sounds it is a 20s style bar with house infused moonshine and speakeasy style drinks. Pretty cool! Other than that, just find a rooftop and sip away! The sunsets on the east coast are truly the best, so enjoy!
Two of my favorite beers are from Charleston breweries Holy City Brewing and Westbrook Brewery. This one has a professor who was fired from my university over his image being on a beer can! Fun fact!
Thank you for stopping by while planning your trip - I hope you enjoy your trip in Charleston!
Did I miss anything? Leave a comment below!