There’s a reason why Travel + Leisure voted Charleston the best city in the world this year. The city boasts a historic past full of battles, streets full of authentically southern architecture, and pure Antebellum charm and lowcountry hospitality.
Charleston was my favorite place to visit when I was a child growing up in South Carolina’s scenic lowcountry. We lived in Bluffton, which sat on the mainland of Hilton Head Island – just an hour and a half drive into Charleston, which made it the perfect weekend excursion. We’d drive along backroads, stopping at a roadside stand for boiled peanuts and moon pies. I would go to camp every summer on John’s Island, and when my parents would pick me up we’d make our annual pilgrimage to the Angel Oak and into downtown to wander the City Market. I’d never experienced something quite like this city, but it was powerfully charming.
I’m not really the settling down type of girl. I love to travel too much to fathom committing to one place forever. But if you asked me if there was one place I could see myself settling down, it would be Charleston, South Carolina.
Whether you have a day in Charleston or a week in Charleston, you will find plenty to see and do. Step into the city’s rich history and get lost in the cobblestone streets. Here are some of my top things to do in Charleston.
Take a stroll down Rainbow Row.
A Charleston icon, Rainbow Row is a series of thirteen colorful Georgian row houses that line East Bay Street. These historic merchant houses were painted an array of pastel colors so that they could easily be identified.
And while you’re at it, stroll down East Battery.
When I was a little girl, I always said that one day, I would live in that big white southern mansion on East Battery Street. A girl can dream, right? East Battery is lined with some of the most stunning homes in the city, and offers a scenic waterfront view where you can see Fort Sumter in the distance.
Visit the Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park.
The pineapple fountain is one of Charleston’s most iconic landmark. Though pineapples seem to be experiencing a moment in the spotlight right now, they’ve always been a large part of Southern life as a symbol of hospitality.
Take a carriage tour around town.
See the city in the most traditional fashion – by horse-drawn carriage. Roll down the cobblestone streets and take in the historic architecture and sights.
Explore the Charleston City Market.
Stroll through the historic market complex on Meeting Street and explore the many goods that vendors have to offer, from handwoven sweetgrass baskets to local tastes and artisinal crafts.
Shop and dine along King Street.
King Street boasts exquisite boutiques, designers, and fine dining that makes for a perfect afternoon spent shopping.
Visit Charleston’s beautiful and historical churches (and their graveyards).
The steeples of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and St. Philip’s Church are iconic landmarks on the Charleston skyline. These beautiful churches, like the Circular Church, are worth visiting for their architecture and even their history (look closely at St. Philip’s and see where cannons hit the steeple during the Civil War). And if you’re into the more macabre side of history, stroll through the graveyards.
Take a ferry out to Fort Sumter.
The first battle of Fort Sumter infamously signaled the start of the American Civil War when confederate soldiers attacked and the Union fort was surrendered. If you’re a history junkie like me, this excursion offers a fascinating look into America’s history.
Visit some of the area’s old plantations.
There are plenty of historical plantations that are open to the public to visit. Step back in history at the famous Boone Hall plantation, or at Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation or Middleton Place.
Kayak alongside some dolphins, or take SUP tour.
Strolling the cobblestone streets isn’t the only way to explore Charleston. See the city from the water via kayak or paddleboard!
Get spooked on a nighttime ghost tour of Charleston.
If you’re into ghost stories as much as I am, the South is one of the best places for them! Every building feels like it should be haunted. Take a haunted night tour of Charleston for fun!
Tour the Calhoun Mansion.
Calhoun Mansion is Charleston’s largest single family residence, built in 1876 and deemed “the handsomest and most complete private residence in the South” when it was built. If you’re a fan of the Notebook, you may recognize the interior of Charleston’s largest home as the set of Allie’s parents’ house. While it may be frowned upon to run through the study yelling “Daddy, I love him!” it is still a stunning look at the city’s Gilded Age.
Venture out of downtown for the day.
There are plenty of surrounding areas that are worth a day trip or afternoon excursion. From Isle of Palms to Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island to Mount Pleasant – there’s no way to go wrong in the beautiful lowcountry.
Marvel at the Angel Oak.
Making the drive over to John’s Island is absolutely worth it to visit this ancient tree. Estimated to be about 500 years old (though some argue it is 1,500), the “Angel Oak Tree stands 66.5 feet tall, measures 28 feet in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet. From tip to tip its longest branch distance is 187 feet.” (source)
Get lost amongst the cobblestone streets.
Charleston’s architecture is famously and uniquely southern. Most houses are built in the Charleston Single style, who’s origins date back to seventeeth century Charles Town. They are most recognizable for their long porches that line the side of the house rather than the front. While strolling along Rainbow Row to East Battery, I love to wander through the side streets and admire the beautiful homes. There’s no shortage of secret gardens, stunning doorways, and verandas complete with joggling boards to see.
Dine on local cuisine!
With more fine dining establishments per capita than any other city in the South, there is no shortage of amazing eats in Charleston. And the South offers some of the most amazing food in the world, in my honest opinion (or maybe that’s because I grew up on fried chicken and grits). Make sure you try as much local cuisine as you can while you’re here. From killer barbecue to fresh seafood, you cannot go wrong. Do try: shrimp and grits, oysters, boiled peanuts, southern fried chicken and barbecue, brunswick stew… the list goes on.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Charleston?