Ready to jump into the heritage and culture of the American South? You’ll want to take the time to visit some of the best museums in Charleston, SC. With glorious antebellum architecture reflecting an opulent and dark past, this South Carolina city should be top of the list for any history lover or art & design enthusiast.
Charleston, South Carolina, is home to important sites from American history like the Old Slave Mart and the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Get a better sense of the city’s past with a visit to The Charleston Museum, then explore how artists captured it at Gibbes Museum of Art.
You can’t visit Charleston and not go to at least one of its famous antebellum homes. You’ll be spoiled for choice, from the neoclassical architecture of Nathaniel Russell House to the antique furniture of the Aiken-Rhett House Museum.
Ready to take a deep dive into this fascinating region of the US? Create the perfect itinerary with this Charleston museum guide.
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Old Slave Mart Museum
As the first African-American slave museum, a visit to Old Slave Mart Museum won’t be a comfortable one. Throwing visitors into the history and impact of slavery in the United, this museum offers an essential look at how the slave trade shaped our history, culture, and social justice.
Did you know there was a point when 35-40% of slaves entered the USA through Charleston? The Old Slave Mart Museum was built in 1859 and was a functioning slave auction gallery—and might be the last surviving one in South Carolina. Today, the building is a haunting reminder of human atrocity and an informative museum to educate future generations.
As you step through its grim façade, you’ll enter a fountain of information. In-depth posters and murals detail the experiences and struggles of enslaved people, with some artifacts and multimedia displays to drive the message home.
The Charleston Museum
Are you looking to get the very best out of your stay in Charleston? Visit The Charleston Museum. Located in the heart of the Charleston Historic District, this museum will give you an in-depth look at every part of the city and the South Carolina Low Country, from maritime heritage to a rich southern culture.
The Charleston Museum is the oldest museum in the USA and has been sharing the history of the area since 1773. But its approach to learning is far from old-fashioned! Embark on an incredible journey through the ages at this top-rated Charleston tourist attraction.
You’ll start with the indigenous people of the Lowcountry and learn how the colonists transformed the Charleston Peninsula into a grand fortification. Native American artifacts and pieces from archaeological excavations bring the whole story to life.
Learn how plantations and enslavement of African Americans brought immense wealth to the city, demonstrated by opulent goods on display. Delve into the Civil War and the American Revolution, aided by the evolution of weapons shown in the Armory.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon will throw you into Charleston’s colonial and Revolutionary eras. South Carolina’s most historic building is more than a museum; it’s a major landmark for the city. Interactive exhibits and historical re-enactments give you a live experience of some of Charleston’s darkest periods.
Over two and a half centuries, this historic site in Charleston’s beautiful French Quarter has been a pirate dungeon, military headquarters, city hall, slave market, and prisoner of war facility. The beautiful Georgian architecture of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon gives you a fascinating look at the Colonial era. Explore the grand ballroom and courtyard, all decked out in elaborate period furnishings. Make sure you sign the Declaration of Independence in the Great Hall!
Descend underground into the brick dungeon. Its cool air is thick with history. Take a tour through its arches to discover life-sized pirates, gunpowder kegs, and staff in period costumes.
Gibbes Museum of Art
Creatives can learn about Charleston in a visual way at the Gibbes Museum of Art. Over 10,000 pieces of fine art concentrate on American artwork at this top-rated art museum. Many have strong connections to the South or come from artists who have deep roots in Charleston.
The Gibbes Museum of Art is in a stately Beaux-Arts building. You’ll feel like you’re stepping onto a movie set as you approach the grand façade that has barely changed since 1905. Their goal is to connect the region’s rich history and artistic heritage with the modern interpretations of the present.
From portraits to multimedia installations, jump on a ride through the South’s heritage and culture. These American artists drew inspiration from their natural landscape, flourishing cities, and the influx of new cultures. Explore exciting works from the Charleston Renaissance and contemporary art from the Lowcountry region.
The Museum at Market Hall
Learn more about how the Civil War shaped Charleston at The Museum at Market Hall. Once the front entrance to a farmers’ market, today it showcases the wartime possessions of Confederate soldiers. These wartime relics serve as a reminder not to repeat the mistakes of our past.
Built in 1841, this beautiful Greek Revival landmark is a copy of the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens, Greece. Step under grand columns and archways painted in warm tones of yellow and orange.
Get up close and personal with the Confederate soldiers of the Civil War at The Museum at Market Hall. From swords and sabers to jackets and shoes, these are all authentic possessions donated at the end of the war. In fact, this was the same site where many of them first came to sign up as soldiers.
Want more colonial history? Check out Heyward-Washington House. Once the grand home of a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, it’s a wonderful museum for lovers of history, decorative arts, and architecture.
This beautiful Georgian townhome in the South of Broad neighborhood dates back to 1772. As you explore the ornate home, you’ll spot exquisite 18th-century furnishings, including a collection of Charleston-made furniture. One of Charleston’s most beautiful historic homes, Heyward-Washington House also offers an opportunity to visit the city’s only kitchen building from the 1740s open to the public.
If you want some fresh air, take a stroll in the lush gardens. The gardens are forged in a 19th-century style and feature common plants from the South Carolina Lowcountry in the 18th century.
Thomas Heyward, Jr. was the first owner of the Heyward-Washington House. He was a revolutionary war veteran and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Take a tour to learn more about its history, including a visit from George Washington in 1791.
Nathaniel Russell House
Soak up more of Charleston’s fabulous architecture at the Nathaniel Russell House. Made a National Historic Landmark in 1973, it’s one of the most important Neoclassical houses in the US. If you want to see the opulent fruits of slave labor and stunning examples of late colonial craftsmanship, this museum should be on your list.
Nathanial Russell was a wealthy slave trader who built the antebellum townhouse in 1808. Explore the lavish interior, complete with a spiraling staircase and 6,000 square feet of living space. The art and furnishings aren’t original pieces from the house but reflect its former glory in the 1800s.
On your visit to the Nathaniel Russell House, you’ll learn not only about its history and the families that lived there but also about the enslaved African Americans who maintained it. There may have been at least 18 people forced to work in the gardens, stable, and kitchen. Explore it all, as well as artifacts from an archaeological dig.
Mace Brown Museum of Natural History
Charleston is much more than human history; it’s rich in natural history, too! The exciting exhibits at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History will throw you into the worlds of paleontology, geology, anthropology, and zoology. Part of the College of Charleston, lessons for the geologists of the future take place right next door, with knowledgeable students on hand to answer your questions.
Mace Brown Museum of Natural History is the home to 15,000 fossils from around the world, including exciting paleontology from the South Carolina Lowcountry. You’ll be left in awe as you make your way through displays of dinosaur bones, mosasaurs, and cave bears. Check out the reconstructed jaw with real teeth from Megalodon, a giant extinct shark.
The star of the show at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History is the world-class exhibit on the evolution of fossil whales. Look at how their bones adapted over time to become the majestic animals you see today.
South Carolina Aquarium
Explore life below water at the South Carolina Aquarium. This is your chance to get up close and personal with over 6,000 aquatic animals. Resting along the historic Charleston Harbor, you can get in the mood before you step inside with wonderful views across the water.
At the South Carolina Aquarium, meet everything from jellyfish to alligators. Check out the touch tank to get hands-on with crabs, sea stars, and urchins. The Great Ocean Tank is the deepest tank in North America. There are over 100 animals here, including sharks and loggerhead turtles.
Spend some time at the Sea Turtle Recovery Center, an off-shoot of the aquarium that rehabilitates sick and injured turtles. Meet some of the patients and learn about their journey from injury to release.
But it’s not all underwater fun at the South Carolina Aquarium. You’ll also experience the habitats of a mountain forest and a swamp at twilight. Stop to say hi to Liberty the bald eagle on your way in!
Aiken-Rhett House Museum
Step into the world of two of the most important families in Charleston antebellum society at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. This historic townhouse has been standing since 1820 and is one of the best preserved in the United States. Uncover the opulent lifestyles of the Aiken and Rhett families and learn about the roles of the enslaved people who supported them.
The Aiken-Rhett House Museum is the last surviving urban plantation in Charleston. Efforts to preserve the house as much as possible have paid off, and it still has many of its original wallpapers and furnishings.
Explore antique furniture the family selected themselves 150 years ago. The art gallery is the only restored room in the house and is full of pieces from the Aiken family’s European Grand Tour. Make your way to the back of the house and into the slave quarters. It’s quite a contrast from the grandeur out front.
International African American Museum
Looking for an in-depth look at African-American heritage and culture? Head to The International African American Museum on Gadsden’s Wharf. This site was once the disembarkation point of up to 45% of America’s slaves, a harrowing tribute to the African American experience.
Today, the International African American Museum is changing the narrative, with exhibitions honoring the past, telling untold stories, and highlighting the achievements of African American people.
However you like your museums, there’s something here to capture your imagination. Make your way through over 150 historical artifacts, 30 artworks, and almost 50 films and digital experiences.
Special exhibitions explore the impact of plantations in the American South and South Carolina, but this is a museum with a global outlook. Honor important African-American figures who shaped history and explore the interconnectivity between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
Joseph Manigault House
Not got your fix of stunning Charleston architecture yet? Make your way to Joseph Manigault House. This grand 1803 house was the home of a wealthy rice-planting family and is a wonderful example of preserved Adam-style architecture.
Brothers Gabriel Manigault and Joseph Manigault designed the property. The grand three-story home is an antebellum masterpiece, but it’s the ornate interior that steals the show. Authentic furnishings and finishes showcase the possessions of some of Charleston’s wealthiest residents, many crafted by the Manigault’s own slave laborers.
Joseph Manigault inherited several rice plantations and over 200 slaves. You can see his wealth in every aspect of the building, from the immense spiral staircase to the sparkling chandeliers.
To get a better insight into how the Joseph Manigault House snagged a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, take a guided tour.