Looking for fresh inspiration on your next trip to the Holy City? Get lost in the romance of Charleston’s French Quarter. Gorgeous architecture, colorful avenues, and cobblestone streets make this historic area one of the most picturesque parts of Charleston, SC. But this neighborhood is much more than just a pretty face.
The French Quarter is part of the original walled city and claims major historic attractions like The Old Slave Mart Museum and the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. But it’s also home to smaller slices of history like the Powder Magazine. In fact, you’ll find history in every corner of the French Quarter, from sun-soaked Joe Riley Waterfront Park to the shopping paradise at Charleston City Market.
Want to get under the skin of this adorable district? This complete guide will help you discover what to see & do, where to eat & drink, and where to stay in Charleston’s French Quarter.
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What to see & do in Charleston’s French Quarter
Old Slave Mart Museum
Kickstart your tour of the French Quarter with a visit to the Old Slave Mart Museum. As the first African-American slave museum, it’ll hit you with some uncomfortable truths about the opulent surroundings of Charleston’s historic neighborhoods. At one point, 35-40% of slaves entered the United States through Charleston, flooding huge amounts of wealth into the city.
The Old Slave Mart Museum was once a functioning slave auction gallery and might be the last one left in South Carolina. Today, it’s one of Charleston’s most popular museums and serves as a haunting reminder of the city’s slave-trading past. Understand more about the history and impact of slavery and how its traces still linger in present times.
The bleak building houses murals, multimedia displays, and a small selection of artifacts to help paint the picture. Many of the staff trace their own ancestry back to slavery and are on hand to answer your questions.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is the most historic building in South Carolina. But it’s much more than a city landmark; it’s an exciting and interactive museum that brings some of Charleston’s biggest historical events to life.
This incredible Georgian building will immerse you in Charleston’s colonial and Revolutionary eras. From the grand ballroom to the majestic courtyard, every inch is decked out in lavish period furnishings.
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon was built in 1771 to be a commercial exchange and customs house. Since then, it’s served many roles, including a military headquarters, city hall, and slave market.
There are interactive exhibits and historical re-enactments throughout the site, but they really shine in the dungeon. Descend into the brick arches and learn about the pirates and prisoners of war who were trapped down here. If the cool and dark space isn’t setting the tone for you, the gunpowder kegs and life-sized pirates definitely will.
South Carolina Historical Society
Soak up the state’s fascinating heritage at the South Carolina Historical Society. The museum’s interactive exhibits show the people, places, and movements of South Carolina. It’s housed in the Fireproof Building, a stunning 1827 Greek Revival-style mansion.
Explore small and large pieces of South Carolina’s past, from the early settlement years to flourishing cultural diversity. Personal manuscripts, maps, and artifacts tell forgotten stories from long ago, while the innovative new technologies at the South Carolina Historical Society help you form a connection with the state’s rich history and culture.
From scrapbooks to photographs, you’ll look at major events like the 1886 earthquake and the American Revolution. Uncover the lives of unnamed soldiers and read letters from the president. Learn about the state’s long history of migration and look at how cultures have come together through art, architecture, photography, and music.
Joe Riley Waterfront Park
Take some time for yourself at Joe Riley Waterfront Park. Today, this is a peaceful waterfront oasis for the city, but before 1955, this spot was a hub of shipping activity. Take a stroll down the half-mile stretch to soak up the history, beauty, and scenic views.
As you amble along in the sunshine, take the time to appreciate the views over Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River. You’ll be able to spot sailboats and cruise ships in the distance, and pelicans and egrets often swoop along the banks.
This stretch of land once witnessed huge amounts of maritime traffic from Charleston Harbor. After a fire at one of the steamship terminals, the area became forgotten and overgrown. In 1990, the park got a stunning makeover.
The highlight of Joe Riley Waterfront Park has to be the Pineapple Fountain. This elaborate water feature is surrounded by palm trees and turns the park into a tropical wonderland.
Charleston City Market
Local markets are always a great way to get a feel for a new city, and the Charleston City Market doesn’t disappoint. With a rich history and official “made in Charleston” vendors, you’ll get a huge dose of the city’s personality. One of the coolest tourist attractions in Charleston, SC, it’s a dreamy setting to do your souvenir shopping, with open-air sheds witnessing two centuries of action and an impressive 1841 Greek Revival-style market hall at its center.
TheCharleston City Market dates back to the 18th century, when local farmers, butchers, and fishermen would come to sell their goods. Over time, they found easier places to work, and independent sellers flocked to the area.
Today, the market prides itself on vendors who sell Certified Authentic Handmade in Charleston goods. Over 50 sweetgrass basket weavers were selling here in the 1970s, and you can still pick up one of these traditional Gullah baskets here today.
Combine more green spaces and history at Washington Square. This public park was made the official city square in 1818. Step into the wrought iron gates and relax for a while in the lush shady space.
Some of the most important buildings in the Charleston Historic District surround Washington Square, including Charleston City Hall, the South Carolina Historical Society, and the historic courthouse. Catch glimpses of grand period architecture through the gaps in the rustling branches. Majestic oak trees and blooming azaleas weave throughout the park, so it’s a dreamy place to be, whatever season of the year you visit Charleston.
Stop and cool down on one of the wooden benches or follow the brick paths and admire the monuments in the park. Say hello to the statues of William Pitt the Elder and Gen. Pierre Beauregard.
The centerpiece of Washington Square is a sleek 42-foot obelisk made from made of Carolina gray granite. It’s a mini version of the one in Washington, DC.
If you’re looking for a unique historic treasure in Charleston, check out the Powder Magazine. It’s Charleston’s oldest public building and was built in 1713 to store gunpowder during the American Revolution. Now, the Powder Magazine lives on as a National Historic Landmark and a colonial military history museum.
Step inside the tiny building and learn all about its journey from the 1700s. Fun exhibits and staff in period dress will give you the lowdown on everything from pirates to patriots. Follow the evolution of colonial defense and understand more about the original settlers in Charleston. You’ll even get to hold a musket and put your detective hat on with a scavenger hunt.
Not only is the Powder Magazine one of Charleston’s oldest buildings, but it’s also rumored to be one of the most haunted. Keep an eye out for any ghostly soldiers during your visit!
St. Philip’s Church
Nothing adds charm to a city quite like an elegant church spire. The red brick walls, ornate windows, and Wren Gibbs-style tower at St. Philip’s Church reflect Charleston’s passion for religion and architecture. Step under the immense columns of the Tuscan porticoes and explore the grandeur inside.
St. Philip’s Church is home to the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina. The first church here was built in the 1680s, but the congregation would face hurricanes and fires before the building you see today was built in 1836.
The congregation at St. Philip’s Church is still thriving today. Check out what events they have on, and you might get to experience the church’s acoustics with a beautiful musical performance.
The graveyard at St. Philip’s Church is the final resting place of many important US figures, including colonial governors, Episcopal bishops, and a former US Vice President. Stroll the winding pathway laced with colorful azaleas and low-hanging trees.
Where to eat & drink
With its striking architecture and historical significance, Charleston’s French Quarter is home to some of the most atmospheric bars and restaurants in the city. Photogenic venues make the most of beautiful period details with a touch of modern luxury. Feast on tasty southern classics that give a nod to the area’s heritage while adding in fresh innovation.
Start your day in Southern style at Another Broken Egg Café. This is the best brunch spot in town, with an inventive menu, laid-back seating, and spiked cold brews.
Poogan’s Porch is the oldest independent restaurant in Charleston. Take a seat in the gorgeous Victorian townhouse and make your way through their classic southern menu with a stylish twist.
Everything at Magnolias is beautiful, from the rustic chic décor to their refined take on traditional southern cuisine.
Lap up more Lowcountry delights at High Cotton Charleston Restaurant. The restaurant throws you into classic Charleston hospitality, with a farm-to-table ethos, antique dining rooms, and daily live music.
Get the ultimate dive bar experience at The Griffon. You’ll find a dollar bill stuck to almost every surface, but its huge beer menu and friendly local feeling will have you coming back for more.
The Ireland-inspired Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub & Restaurant is full of antique mirrors and Irish memorabilia. Great drinks and a huge live music lineup keep it busy every night of the week.
The Blind Tiger Pub combines cozy with upscale. Find a warm wooden corner to curl up in at the 1803 alehouse, or have a magical al fresco drink in the historic courtyard.
If you like your drinks with a view, head to The Rooftop at the Vendue. This chic spot has sweeping views of historic Charleston and some of the finest craft cocktails in the city.
Where to stay
As it’s located in the heart of the city’s historic district, the French Quarter is one of the coolest places to stay in Charleston, SC. Here, you’ll find a wide array of accommodations, including some of the city’s finest boutique hotels.
This striking pink palace will give you the ultimate French Quarter experience. With tasteful design at every turn, your glorious surroundings encourage you to gather with loved ones and make new connections. Lounge in pink paradise with a cocktail by the pool, on the patio terrace, or in the charming courtyard restaurant.
This boutique hotel is dripping with 1920s glamour. Start every day with a gourmet breakfast in your suite. Then take your complimentary bike out for a day of exploring. This is the perfect base, just one block away from the Charleston City Market and The Powder Magazine. In the evenings, live out your Gatsby dreams in the plush speakeasy.
This lavish hotel is full of Charleston charm and luxurious amenities. Savor some of the nation’s best cuts of meat in the steakhouse, sip cocktails by the Charleston skyline, and float in the city’s only cascading rooftop pool. Or retreat to your extravagant room with plenty of classic historic Charleston touches.
Pretend you’re visiting your wealthy Charleston relative at the French Quarter Inn. A glass of champagne will be ready for you on arrival while you settle into this elegant retreat. The trickling fountains and ornate fireplaces please your eye, but adorable touches like milk and cookies and pillow menus please your soul.
Wake up to the finest views in Charleston at this delightful waterfront hotel. Wrap yourself in your indulgent waffle weave robe as your laze in the tasteful décor of your boutique room. Have a craft cocktail delivered to your door, or make your way up to the exclusive rooftop bar for views across the harbor and Charleston’s historic sites.