The historic downtown of Charleston SC

25 Best Things To Do In Charleston SC: The Only Charleston Guide You Need

Last Updated on May 5, 2024 by Soumya

With its history, culture, food, and warm, hospitable people, Charleston is one of the best places to visit in the American South. There are so many wonderful things to do in Charleston, SC that you will fall in love with this place—completely!

I fell hard for Charleston. Its beautiful architecture, charming waterfront, and delicious Lowcountry cuisine.

I can happily spend a week in Charleston, SC, checking out its top attractions and still not be done. The list of fun things to do in Charleston is literally endless.

In this post, you will find everything you need to plan your trip to the Holy City (a moniker often used for Charleston) of Southern USA. It includes a list of the top things to do in Charleston, SC, the best places to stay, the best tours, and great places to eat.

If you would like to read more about Charleston, here are some related posts.

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Wondering what to do in Charleston SC? Here are the 25 best things to do in Charleston plus recommendations on where to stay, best places to eat, and lots of travel tips for Charleston. The best Charleston travel guide that you should steal right away. #Charleston #SouthCarolina

Best things to do in Charleston, SC

Stroll down the Battery

This is one of my favorite things to do in Charleston – walking down the Battery.

A gorgeous walkway that separates the ocean from the land, the Battery is a stunning place. Once a defensive seawall, the Battery is now a promenade where you can enjoy the evening breeze and a magical sunset.

Not to forget the incredible sights of Charlestonian architecture, horse-drawn carriages, and lots and lots of gram-worthy photo ops.

Relax at Waterfront Park

This was my favorite part of the trip. I could just sit back and relax at the waterfront park in Charleston while letting my little one play in the cool waters of the Pineapple Fountain.

Waterfront Park is a large park located along the Cooper River in downtown Charleston. You can stroll through the gardens, take a walk along the esplanade, or spend some time at one of the many fountains.

Do not forget to end your stroll with an ice cream because Belgian Gelato is right across the street. It is definitely one of my favorite places to get desserts and pancakes.

Visit the Nathaniel Russel House

Nathaniel Russel, a successful merchant and slave trader, arrived in Charleston in the late 18th century.

His opulent new home, the Nathaniel Russel House, is one of the most stunning neoclassical houses in America’s South, even though its walls hide years of hard work by enslaved laborers – the unsung heroes.

You can buy tickets for a tour of this historic home on the official website here. The tour will allow you to appreciate the elaborate plasterwork, geometrically shaped rooms, a three-story staircase, and well-laid-out gardens.

You can also club your trip with the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, another beautiful antebellum mansion in the city.

Explore Charleston’s French Quarter

If you are looking for a romantic, leisurely walk in Charleston, visit the picturesque French Quarter.

Once inhabited by French Huguenots who migrated here to escape religious persecution, this area is now filled with stunning historic churches and many art galleries.

Visit historic sights such as The Doc Street Theater and St. Philip’s Episcopal churches. Shop for great art to take home. Eat at one of Charleston’s many fine-dining restaurants. Or stay at The French Quarter Inn and enjoy southern hospitality to the fullest.

Pro Tip: Book this affordable, self-guided tour of Charleston’s French Quarter for a more immersive experience.

Make time to see the Rainbow Row

The Rainbow Road is one of the prettiest places to visit in Charleston SC
Rainbow Row – one of the best things to see in Charleston

Located alongside the Battery, not very far from the Waterfront Park, is a row of 13 brightly-colored houses called the Rainbow Row.

If you are looking to click some cool photographs, you have to come here. Covered in lovely pastel shades, these houses make the perfect backdrop for gram-worthy pictures.

Plus, there’s some interesting history, too.

These houses were not always so vibrant and colorful. Constructed around 1740 and used as merchant shops and homes for a long time, the Rainbow Row houses wore a desolate look at the end of the Civil War.

It was in the 1930s that Dorothy Porcher Legge purchased a house here and decided to paint it a shade of pink. Her neighbors followed suit. And well, the rest is Rainbow Row!

Explore one of Charleston’s famous museums

Contrary to what we may think, Charleston is not just about beaches and the waterfront. It is home to authentic Lowcountry culture and some amazing art museums, too.

See the best of Charleston at some of its beautiful museums listed below.

Charleston Museum is one of the oldest in the country. Founded in 1773, it has many interesting exhibits, such as the Lowcountry History Hall, The Armory, History Textiles, Charleston Silver, and Bunting Natural History Gallery.

Another interesting museum is the Gibbes Museum of Art, where you can learn all about the story of Charleston. They have interesting permanent collections such as the ones on Miniature Portraits, 18th and 19th century American paintings, and Charleston Renaissance.

Learn about America’s Slave History at the Old Slave Mart Museum

Old slave mart in Charleston SC
Visiting the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC can be a deeply moving and enriching experience at the same time.

After the 1808 ban ended America’s participation in the international trading of slaves, cases of domestic slave trading (between the states) rose. Charleston became a major center for collecting and selling enslaved labor.

The building that houses the Old Slave Mart Museum today was once part of a much bigger complex that functioned as a slave auction site.

The exhibits inside the museum provide a lot of information about this turbulent period and are extremely moving.

Please note that these visuals can be really disturbing. Touring the Old Slave Mart Museum was a deeply moving experience for all of us but enlightening at the same time.

Unfortunately, we cannot change history, but we can always learn from the past to become better versions of ourselves.

Pro Tip: For an immersive experience, visit the Old Slave Mart on this 2-hour Lost Stories of Black Charleston Walking Tour.

Dig into some more history at Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

A historic building in Charleston, the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon served as a prison facility during the American Revolution. It was used for several other functions, including serving as a customs house, public market, and a meeting place.

The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

You can take a self-guided tour of the historical exhibits on the top 2 floors and a guided tour of the Provost Dungeon located in the bottom floor cellar.

Take a carriage tour of downtown Charleston

A guided carriage tour of the historical district is one of my favorite things to do in Charleston.

It is amazing to see the mansions, churches, and gardens from the comfort of your carriage. And learn all about the history, architecture, and people that gave the Holy City its unique character at the same time.

Explore downtown Charleston on foot

If horse-drawn carriages are not your thing, then take a walking tour through the historical lanes of downtown Charleston.

Visit several points of interest, such as the White Point Garden, Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, and the City Hall on this 2-hour Historic Charleston Guided Walking Tour.

Experience the paranormal with a haunted tour

When in the south, it is not uncommon to take a haunted tour. And Charleston’s ghost tours and infamously chilling.

On these tours, you will learn about Charleston’s darker history and documented hauntings. You will also visit several spooky landmarks, such as graveyards, the Old Exchange, and Charleston College.

If you believe in the supernatural or are looking for an exciting thing to do in Charleston at night, try this 40-minute ghost tour of Charleston with rave reviews.

Enjoy a Charleston Harbor Tour

Carolina Belle Ferry

Hop on board the Carolina Belle Ferry and enjoy a wonderful tour of the Charleston harbor.

Tours usually last an hour and a half and include close-up views of several historical landmarks, including Fort Sumter, accompanied by full narration.

Pro Tip: Click here to book your Charleston harbor tour now.

Enjoy a food & drink tour of Charleston

Grits - A mainstay of Southern American cuisine
Southern Grits: A must-have when visiting Charleston, South Carolina.
Image courtesy: Lynne Mitchell from Getty Images via Canva Pro

You can’t really leave Charleston without digging into delicious Southern food.

Lowcountry cuisine is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Southern USA. I can never get enough of shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and fresh fish. Can you?

If you are looking for a highly-rated food tour in Charleston, here are my top picks.

If you plan to do a self-guided tour, check out this list of Charleston’s best restaurants.

Head to The Charleston Tea Garden

Are you a tea lover? Then, you must visit the Charleston Tea Garden located on Wadmalaw Island, about 20 miles south of Charleston.

This is the only tea garden in the continent where you will get a never-ending view of tea bushes, a truly unique experience in North America.

Note that there is no admission charge here. You only pay if you wish to take their trolley tour, which is definitely one of the highlights.

Spend some time at the South Carolina Aquarium

If you are looking for exciting things to do in Charleston with kids, try the South Carolina Aquarium.

Overlooking the Charleston Harbor, this place encourages you to connect with sea animals and learn how to care for them.

Take a tour with Charleston Fossil Adventures

Looking for a fun and unique outdoor activity? Try Charleston Fossil Adventures (CFA).

Learn all about fossils, hunt for hidden treasures, and find your first shark tooth – all on adventures with the team at CFA. You can shop for fossil merchandise or custom-make your own fossil jewelry. Now, isn’t that super exciting?

Tour one of Charleston’s famous plantations

Boone Hall Plantation
Boone Hall Plantation is one of the best places to visit near Charleston.

Keen to learn about the city’s southern past? Visit one of Charleston’s many historic plantations, where you can step back in time and discover snippets from the antebellum period.

There are numerous plantations in the area that can be easily done as Charleston day trips.

Some of the most popular ones are Boone Hall, Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation, and Drayton Hall. You can also visit Charles Pinckney’s Snee Farm for free.

Most of these plantations used slave labor to grow crops like indigo, rice, and cotton. Even though slavery has been abolished now, these estates are important places to learn about this phase of American history.

Looking for guided tours? Here are a couple of highly-rated ones.

Visit the Angel Oak

Estimated to be more than 400 years old, the Angel Oak on John’s Island is one of the oldest and most magnificent live oaks in the Southern USA.

With its huge canopy, it is not just a natural wonder but also a brilliant photo-op.

Plus, the Angel Oak has been around for such a long time. It has seen some of the best and worst bits of American history.

Needless to say, the tree holds great cultural significance. Local legends say that the ghosts of former slaves still visit the tree as angels!

Experience Gullah-Geecee culture

When you are in the American South, you have to experience the beautiful Gullah-Geecee culture. My first tryst with it was in Savannah, Georgia, and it was unique.

Enslaved Africans who were often isolated on islands and coastal plantations, the Gullah-Geecee developed a unique culture of their own. They had their own food, art, traditions, and even a language.

Well, you can find out about it and more on this Gullah tour of Charleston, that takes you to several historic spots such as the Slave & Free Blacks Cemetery at Bethel United Church, Old Jail, and Philip Simmons House. And don’t forget to buy a sweetgrass basket at the Charleston City Market.

Pro Tip: Did you know those beautiful sweetgrass baskets are one of the most popular Gullah art forms?

Relax at the Cypress Gardens

Drive to the beautiful Cypress Gardens to spend a day strolling the gardens and paddling through the swamps.

Remember the romantic scene from the movie The Notebook, where Noah and Allie are out on a rowboat in the middle of hundreds of geese on a lake? That was shot right here in Cypress Gardens.

Even though the geese are no longer here (they were brought in only for the movie), you can still take a swamp boat ride, visit the Butterfly House, and catch up on various seasonal flowers.

Visit Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter Charleston SC
Visit Fort Sumter for insights into American History.

Fort Sumter is an island fort off the coast of Charleston. It played an important role in the American Civil War and is, therefore, an interesting halt on every traveler’s Charleston itinerary.

Fort Sumter is still run by the National Park Service today. It has a small museum that does a great job of telling the fort’s story.

You can also see many cannons on site. But beware: You cannot climb on them.

Take time to explore the grounds and enjoy the cool sea breeze.

Pro Tip: You will need to take a ferry from Liberty Square or Patriot’s Point to get to the fort. Book your Fort Sumter Entry Ticket & Ferry Ride.

Shop at Charleston City Market

Keen to shop for souvenirs? Want to take goodies back home?

Head to the basket ladies at Charleston City Market for a sweetgrass basket. One of the most beautiful handicrafts of Southern USA, sweetgrass baskets have been woven by Gullah artisans for more than 300 years now.

There is also plenty of other stuff to see, eat, and buy. The market is open every day (day and night) except December 25th.

Be sure to try a slice of the legendary 12-layer coconut cake at Peninsula Grill nearby.

Take a stroll on Ravenel Bridge

Ravenel Bridge on Cooper River has a pedestrian and bike section where you can get your daily dose of exercise as well as some stunning views of Downtown Charleston. So, if you are in the mood for a run or walk, then go ahead and do it here.

Go birding at Caw Caw Interpretive Center

If you are a bird lover, then you will surely love a trip to Charleston, SC.

One of the best things to do in Charleston is to head to Caw Caw Interpretive Center for a guided bird walk. Check out their calendar here.

Located only 10 minutes away from Charleston, Caw Caw was once home to enslaved Africans and extensive rice plantations. Today, the interpretive center features nature trails, boardwalks, and picturesque bridges.

Relax on the beach

Isle of Palms beach at sunset

The best part about visiting Charleston, SC, is that there are so many wonderful beaches to relax on—all less than an hour away from downtown.

We spent a day at the Isle of Palms, and it was wonderful.

As you leave downtown, you can literally take any turn to reach one of the best beaches in Charleston.

Some of the most popular ones are Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, Bull Island, and, of course, Isle of Palms. Let me know which is your favorite.

Practical information to plan the best Charleston trip

Best time to visit Charleston, SC

Charleston, South Carolina, is a popular destination at all times of the year. But the ideal time to visit is either in spring (March – May) or fall (September—November). Temperatures and humidity are low, and the weather is pleasant overall.

Spring is the best time because magnolias are in bloom. And the city is peppered with festivals of all kinds.

Festival of Houses & Gardens and Charleston Wine & Food Festival are some of the most popular ones. That said, this is also when Charleston is extremely crowded, and hotel prices are sky-high.

Fall is a good time with comfortable weather and lots of food and wine festivals. Come here for Restaurant Week and the MOJA Arts Festival.

Summers are hot and muggy. Families and kids flood the city.

On the other hand, winters are not bad because it rarely snows in Charleston. Fewer people and better deals. February can be a little crowded because of Valentine’s Day.

Best places to stay in Charleston, SC

  • Francis Marion Hotel: This hotel is historic and absolutely beautiful. It is blessed with the perfect location, great service, and comfortable rooms. What else do you need?

Best places to eat in Charleston SC

There are so many great places to eat in Charleston that you will be spoiled for choices. Although there is no shortage of fine dining restaurants in the city, I am attracted to the more casual, soul food-type places.

Bertha’s Kitchen on Meeting Street Rd is a favorite among many. It opened way back in 1981 and has been serving comforting hot plates of collard greens, fried chicken, and lima beans ever since.

Poogan’s Porch – the perfect place for an unforgettable Lowcountry dinner at a beautifully restored Victorian house.

Hannibal’s Kitchen on Blake St. is another popular place for some good old chicken meal, crab rice, and lip-smacking seafood. Florence’s Lowcountry Kitchen is yet another place to sample some Southern delights.

Getting to Charleston

If you are flying, then get to Charleston International Airport, which is less than 20 minutes away from the historic downtown. Here’s a complete list of airlines that operate out of Charleston.

If you are driving, then I-26 and US 17 are the highways you should be looking at.

You can also arrive by train. Silver Service/Palmetto trains run through Charleston; details are here.

Getting around Charleston, SC

The best thing about Charleston is that it is extremely walkable – one of the many reasons why I love this place.

Walking through the charming historical lanes, studded with historic homes, boutiques, and galleries, is probably the best way to explore the essence of Charleston.

The city also has a free Downtown Area Shuttle, known as DASH. It has three routes and stops at several Charleston attractions, including the City Market and Waterfront Park. Download a free printable map here.

If you are planning to get out of the historic center and spend some time at the beaches, you will need a car. Rent a car here. Or ride an Uber or Lyft.

Charleston SC Travel Essentials

  • Use Viator to find great deals and discounts on tours, attractions, and more across the city. I highly recommend it and use it all the time.
  • Find the best hotels in Charleston, SC.
  • Pressed for time? Check out our short and sweet one-day itinerary for Charleston.
  • Spending a long weekend in the Holy City? Have a look at our 3-day itinerary for Charleston.
  • Get a good pair of walking shoes with you because there’s a lot to be seen on downtown walks.
  • Carry sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water because Charleston can get HOT!

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Soumya is an acclaimed travel writer who has traveled to 30+ countries and lived in 8 while pursuing her passion for history and culture. Her writings have been published in BBC Travel, Architectural Digest, National Herald, and many more. She loves exploring world heritage sites and has a deep affinity for everything ancient, especially the lost civilizations of Mesoamerica!

2 thoughts on “25 Best Things To Do In Charleston SC: The Only Charleston Guide You Need

  1. This Charleston SC Guide is incredibly helpful. You’ve really thought through everything you need to know before planning a trip. Thank you for this helpful resource. Saving this guide for later!

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