Best neighborhoods to explore in Charleston

A street view of St. Philip's Church on Church Street in Charleston, South Carolina @ Tetra Images/Getty

There’s a reason Charleston, SC, is a consistent favorite among in-the-know travelers. Along the coast, beach communities charm visitors while the urban core features eclectic chefs who craft exquisite menus and cocktail lists. A varied arts scene is evident in everything from street murals to productions at the Dock Street Theatre to the sweetgrass baskets made by members of the Gullah/Geechee Nation along the “Seven Mile” stretch

No one’s ever left the Lowcountry dissatisfied with the food or the hospitality locals bestow upon them. The combination of old Southern charm and worldly influences fuse together like a fine iced tea.

Even though the downtown Charleston neighborhoods have so much to offer, some of the most interesting locales extend beyond that historic peninsula. The barrier islands, Mount Pleasant, West Ashley and North Charleston all have their own sights and tastes visitors enjoy just as much. But they’re not all a 20-minute car ride away from each other, so it’s easiest to concentrate on one general area in a day so you can fully soak it in — along with the sun’s rays and high humidity.

The pineapple fountain at the Waterfront Park in Charleston in South Carolina, USA.
The pineapple fountain at the Waterfront Park in Charleston in South Carolina, USA © Wolfgang Kaehler/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

South of Calhoun

The picturesque tip of the peninsula encompasses Harleston Village, Ansonborough, the French Quarter,and the famed South of Broad area. Horses clip-clop down the streets south of Broad as they pull carriages. Rainbow Row’s Colonial Georgian architecture looms bright and large over East Bay Street. Carefully preserved churches and historic homes with grand columns, intricate ironwork, and sideways porches dot every street corner. The cobblestone streets south of Broad don’t make for easy walking yet manage to still be charming. In short, it's a quintessential Holy City experience.

Colonial Lake in Harleston Village is a great place to walk your dog or go for a picturesque morning run. The colorful homes have wide, welcoming porches. You only have to walk a few blocks to replenish those calories at nearby restaurants. This area has some of the best places to dine al fresco. The Marina Variety Store Restaurant lets you enjoy the boats in the Charleston Harbor, while Vendue’s rooftop bar and grill offers customers panoramic views of the city. And don’t miss Waterfront Park’s Pineapple Fountain, where many have popped the question in the hopes of getting that Instagram-worthy engagement shot.

Beautiful Hampton Park
Bench by a footpath at the tranquil Hampton Park in Charleston, SC @ Daniela Duncan / Getty Images

North of the Crosstown

Hampton Park Terrace, the Northside and the Westside neighborhoods have always been more diverse, less touristy and more laid back than southern Charleston. Many families planted their roots here several generations ago, and as a result, it’s imbued with a strong sense of community. The area has less pomp and circumstance surrounding it, but it’s always been a fun place to walk around and relax.  

You’re likely to see pickup basketball games at Hampton Park directly across the street from Moe’s Crosstown, which many locals insist has the best local burger menu. In fact, the area is dotted with sports fields, like the Charleston Riverdogs’ Minor League Baseball stadium. The Citadel, a military college established in 1842, lies next door with its orderly grounds and cadres of cadets.

The city blocks surrounding the I-26/Highway 17 interchange have loads of eclectic eats and watering holes. The high-concept Edmund’s Oast has an ensconced outdoor bar and courtyard great for savoring craft cocktails and picture-perfect plated meals. At the other end of the price spectrum, The Royal American is a dive joint whose menu includes housemade beef jerky and buffalo cauliflower. Its front porch is always packed on weekends.

Folly Beach Pier Sunshine
A sunrise at the Folly Beach Pier located in South Carolina @ Robert Loe / Getty Images

The Beaches

The Lowcountry will teach you that not all beaches are created equal, and there is a unique beach vibe for each one. Folly Beach is a paradise for the perennial beach bum crowd. It’s a great surf spot where you can see the Morris Island Lighthouse in the distance. Its main drag, Folly Road, has all the little seafood huts, tiki bars and beach shops you could ask of a six-block stretch.

Sullivan’s Island, on the other hand, draws a more serene, sedate crowd. There are beach rentals, but on the whole, Sullivan’s has a more residential feel and a distinct air of wealth. The houses lack the splashy, bright colors most associate with coastal communities. On the flip side, this is a perfect spot for a truly relaxing beach day. Fort Moultrie, which began as a structure of palmetto logs and sand yet still rebuffed British ships in 1776, is a favorite of history buffs and tourists alike.

If you drive east on the H.L. Hunley Bridge, you’ll end up next door at Isle of Palms (IOP). IOP features seven miles of beach that you can get to via paid lots and metered spots along Ocean Boulevard. This beach community has a mix of older beach cottages and tall, slick structures that easily surpass the million-dollar mark. The Windjammer on Front Beach is a longtime favorite of barflies who appreciate stellar local music. Wild Dunes, located on the east end, is a gated resort community with lavish homes and a top-notch golf course.

And, finally, the ultra-luxe Kiawah Island boasts several golf courses, resorts like The Sanctuary, and lots of paths ideal for a bike ride or even a leisurely stroll. Beachwalker Park offers the only public access to the coastline.

Marina at night
Shem Creek marina at night, Mt. Pleasant SC © PeterPhoto/Getty Images

Old Village

This Mount Pleasant waterfront hamlet is a favorite with the 30-and-up crowd. The neighborhoods are lined with leafy live oaks and white picket fences, while the shopping district along Coleman Boulevard has retained its mid-century charms. The Hibben House holds a lot of intriguing colonial history, as does the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor just up the road on Highway 17. Shem Creek’s dockside restaurants boast some of the best seafood in the entire Lowcountry. And if you want to really enjoy the setting at sunset, the Palmetto Breeze catamaran is the best (and booziest, if you so choose) way to do it. It’s also a stone’s throw away from Patriots Point, a peninsula that overlooks the Charleston Harbor. The decommissioned USS Yorktown is docked there and has a naval and maritime museum on board with fighter planes atop its deck. If you happen to be there for Independence Day, don’t miss the spectacular fireworks show. 

Vanishing Point
A deserted trail in West Ashley Greenway @
Daniel Delgado/Getty Images

Avondale

The Avondale community in West Ashley, hugged by Highways 61 and 17, is perfect for a day date or a night out since it straddles the line of the commercial district and cozy neighborhood so well. All the restaurants clustered around the US 17-Magnolia Road intersection are favorites of locals and tourists alike. The Roost is the kind of sports bar even a non-sports fan can enjoy since it has fabulous pub fare, rustic decor and a regular roster of trivia nights and live music. Gene’s Haufbrau is a solid watering hole to close out the night with its rotating beer menu and funky murals. And Caroline’s Aloha Bar is Hawaiian-themed with a retro feel and an elevated bar menu. It also has those tall, tropical drinks that can always put a smile on your face.

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