Charleston has upped its game. Carriage tours still clip-clop through the historic district and ferries still shuttle crowds to Fort Sumter, but new attractions and revamped old favorites are keeping the Holy City relevant – and fun.
Rooftop bars, innovative breweries and small-batch distilleries keep opening their doors while plantations and historic homes are digging deep into Charleston’s diverse and complicated history. And foodies take note: Debates about the city’s best barbecue are just as passionate these days as debates about shrimp and grits.
This list of Charleston’s best things to do offers a mix of the old and new.
Stroll the Historic District
Historic Charleston feels like one big living museum, and it's easily explored by foot. Antebellum homes, grand churches, weathered cemeteries and brilliant gardens – often tucked behind wrought-iron gates – hug the straight and narrow streets, which were laid out in the 1670s. Highlights include the colorful homes of Rainbow Row and the Battery and White Point Gardens on the waterfront at the southern tip of the peninsula. Pick up a map at the visitor center.
With its seafood shacks, quirky mainstays and a dizzying array of “must-try” restaurants from wunderkind chefs, Charleston has enjoyed a culinary hot streak for a decade. Many menus are built around Lowcountry dishes and seafood, but creative interpretations of old favorites keep the dining scene fresh. Beyond shrimp and grits, top regional fare includes oysters, pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, she-crab soup, and a Lowcountry boil (shrimp, corn, potatoes, sausage and seasoning).
Tried-and-true stalwarts include Mike Lata’s FIG, oysters at the Ordinary and food that’s both fast & French at Gaulart & Maliclet. Barbecue is also hot, with Home Team BBQ and Lewis Barbecue getting consistent local kudos. Top-notch International options are plentiful too.
Immerse in Gullah Culture
Enslaved people brought from West Africa to the Lowcountry held onto many of their homeland traditions after slavery ended. The resulting Gullah culture (Geechee in Georgia) has its own language and traditions, including amazing storytelling, art and music. Learn their history at McLeod Plantation on James Island, where tours describe the daily lives of enslaved people on a cotton plantation and trace the emergence of the Gullah culture. Their culture is celebrated annually in late May at the Gullah Festival in nearby Beaufort. Gullah Tours visits historic sites in and around Charleston.
Sample locally sourced spirits
Sweet tea is a distinctly Southern beverage, and according to state lore the popular drink was created in South Carolina. The team at Firefly Distillery embraces this heritage with its sweet tea-flavored vodka, which is made with tea from the Charleston Tea Garden. High Wire Distilling uses ingredients and heirloom grains from across the Lowcountry and South Carolina for its popular spirits. Tastings are available at both distilleries. Tours are offered Thursday through Saturday art High Wire.
Explore Historic Homes
The Historic Charleston Foundation protects historic buildings in the city and advocates for the preservation of gardens, parks and neighborhoods. The foundation manages two historic buildings: The Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House. Tours of the former, a townhouse that has been preserved but not restored, share details about past owners as well as the enslaved people who worked there. A self-supporting spiral staircase anchors the Nathaniel Russell House, a meticulously restored 1808 Federal Style-house.
First Sumter National Monument
The shelling of Union-held Fort Sumter by Confederate forces in 1861 triggered the Civil War. The fort, which occupies a small pentagon-shaped island in Charleston Harbor, sees a steady stream of visitors, especially in summer. But even with the crowds, it’s easy to immerse in the chaotic confusion of that historic day thanks to the remote setting – a ferry ride is required – and an engaging ranger talk that spotlights the historic clash.
Walk the Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge
Burn off last night’s shrimp and grits with a power walk over the graceful Arthur J Ravenel Bridge, which links the town of Mount Pleasant and the Charleston Historic District. The 2.5-mile pedestrian path over the cable-stayed bridge rises about 200ft above the Cooper River and provides gorgeous views of both communities. There's a parking lot with access to the pedestrian path in Mount Pleasant. The view from the span is especially nice at sunset.
Tour the only tea garden in the US
Attempts to grow tea commercially in the US began in the 1820s in southeastern South Carolina, where the sandy soil, sub-tropical weather and frequent rainfall were well-suited for tea plants. In the 1960s wild tea plants from one of these early plantations were harvested and successfully re-planted on Wadmalaw Island 30 miles southwest of Charleston. Today Charleston Tea Garden offers tours of its tea factory (free) and trolley tours of its acres of hardy tea plants.
Get out on the water
Flanked by creeks, marshes, rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, the Lowcountry is an ideal place for paddling trips and boat excursions. Wildlife and gorgeous coastal views abound. Keep it simple with a ride on the Charleston Water Taxi between Charleston and Mount Pleasant or scan for dolphins during the boat ride to Fort Sumter. Adventure Harbor Tours runs sunsets cruises and trips to uninhabited Morris Island. Numerous outfitters offer paddling trips through Shem Creek and Lowcountry creeks and marshes.
Wander the Gardens at Middleton Place
Designed in 1741, the elegant gardens at Middleton Place are the oldest landscaped gardens in America. Today they are also home to more than 100,000 azaleas. One of three historic plantations along the Ashley River northwest of downtown, Middleton Place owes its early beauty to the work of the enslaved people who spent years developing and maintaining the land. Their stories are shared onsite. Lowcountry fare is on the menu at the popular restaurant here.
Ride the Charleston Beer Trolley
A free trolley swings through the Charleston Beer District in downtown Charleston on Saturdays, stopping at ten breweries between 1pm and 9pm. You can visit them by hopping on and off. Revelry Brewery has a fire pit on its rooftop while Edmund’s Oast has 20 house-brewer beers on tap. Check the Charleston Brewery District Facebook page for the current trolley schedule.
Explore Mount Pleasant
For a break from the historic district, board a water taxi at Waterfront Park and cross the Cooper River to Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. At the Naval and Maritime Museum you can tour the USS Yorktown, an enormous decommissioned aircraft carrier used in WWII. You’ll need your car to visit Boone Hall Plantation and its striking Avenue of Oaks, planted in 1743. The most compelling buildings here are the original slave cabins. Explore charming Old Village then make your way to lovely Shem Creek for dinner by the water. Look for dolphins and party boats.
Find family fun Downtown
If your kids dig spooky attractions, it’s hard to get much creepier than the dungeon at the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon in the Historic District. The British held American patriots in the cramped space here during the Revolutionary War. The 385,000-gallon ocean tank and the sea turtle rehabilitation hospital lure in kids for a closer look at the South Carolina Aquarium. The Kidstory area at the Charleston Museum explores the city’s history with hands-on exhibits. Enormous skeletons of prehistoric creatures keep things real in the natural history gallery. For skateboarding, head to SK8 Charleston, a 32,000ft concrete skatepark in North Charleston.
Visit the Old Slave Mart Museum
In the heart of the Historic District, this small but hard-hitting museum occupies the site of a former open-air market that auctioned African Americans in the mid-1800s. Text-driven exhibits provide an unflinching look at the cruelties and horrors of the slave trade. Compelling oral histories from former enslaved people and a handful of chilling artifacts also make a powerful impression.
History Prep at the Charleston Museum
History hurtles at you from every direction in Charleston, which played a pivotal role in America’s past as a busy port city and center of trade. For a quick history primer, spend an hour or two in the Charleston Museum. Exhibits dedicated to the city’s early development and its role in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars provide helpful background and context. Artifacts highlight diverse experiences, including those of Native Americans, enslaved African Americans and influential politicians.
Sip Cocktails on a Rooftop Bar
Swanky rooftop bars with sweeping views of downtown are plentiful. They are also easy to find – just ride the elevator to the top of the trendiest hotels. Twinkling views of city lights and Charleston Harbor bring crowds to the iconic Rooftop Bar at the art-themed Vendue. You’ll find an infinity pool, illuminated umbrellas and more stunning city views at the Pavilion Bar atop the Market Pavilion Hotel.
Shopping on King Street
King Street is the historic district’s prime shopping corridor. With numerous stores selling home furnishings and housewares, Upper King is considered the design district while Middle King is the fashion district, home of well-known clothing stores as well as high-end boutiques. The southernmost stretch, Lower King, is dotted with antique stores. Pop into Blue Bicycle Books for new and used books, many with a focus on the South.