Planning a trip through the Deep South? Start your adventure by exploring the best things to do in Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1670, Charleston is the state’s oldest city with a rich history to match.
Visiting the “Holy City,” there’s plenty for travelers to see & do. Many of the top tourist attractions in Charleston reflect the Southern city’s long history. In historic Downtown Charleston, you’ll whisk past lovely antebellum homes. You’ll stroll along tree-lined alleyways, retiring to the waterfront for sweeping harbor views. In the evening, you’ll experience Southern hospitality at its finest with a taste of Charleston’s famed culinary scene.
Need a primer on what to do in Charleston? Plan your ultimate trip with this guide to the best places to visit in Charleston, SC.
Best places to visit in Charleston, SC
Charleston Historic District
If you’re visiting Charleston in one day, there’s no better place to start than the Charleston Historic District. Wedged between the Cooper River and Ashley River, Charleston’s historic city center is one of the finest in the United States. Packed with Southern charm, it’s the ultimate place to see in Charleston.
History buffs will love roaming around the cobblestone streets in search of historic homes and churches. Keep your eyes peeled for gems like Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and Nathaniel Russell House. (More on that in a bit.)
Aside from its architecture, Downtown Charleston is a fantastic place to shop & eat. For a little of both, hop over to King Street. Located in the district’s north, King Street is one of the main streets in downtown. It’s got over 300 years of history under its belt.
While still showing off its historical roots, King Street is lined with upscale shops and trendy restaurants. After a luxury shopping spree, pop into the refined Millers All Day diner for shrimp & grits. Or for exquisite Southern-French fusion in a luxurious setting, treat yourself to an evening meal at Charleston Grill.
No stroll through Downtown Charleston charms more than The Battery. The landmark defensive seawall sweeps northward to Water Street from the southeastern tip of the peninsula. For locals & travelers alike, The Battery is one of the top points of interest in Charleston.
Enjoy harbor views to the east as you slide past beautiful antebellum homes and monuments. Along East Battery, you’ll spot several standout houses. If you’ve got time, duck into Robert William Roper House and Edmondston-Alston House. Both homes are some of the city’s finest examples of early-19th century Greek Revival architecture.
After soaking in harbor views from the High Battery, venture northward to Rainbow Row. Lining East Bay Street, this multicolored collection of 13 Georgian townhouses is bound to catch your eye.
Dating between 1748 and 1845, the colorful houses are painted in soothing pastel tones. If you’re looking for an Instagrammable moment on your Charleston sightseeing adventure, this is your chance!
Charleston City Market
The heart of the city’s historic district beats at the Charleston City Market. Established in the late-18th century, the marketplace is one of the oldest in the United States. Centuries later, the City Market is still one of the top Charleston points of interest.
City Market spans four blocks eastward from its historic Market Hall. Over the stretch, you’ll stroll past over 300 local vendors. The stalls peddle everything from art & handicrafts to delicious local cuisine.
After taking in the historical charms of the City Market, venture west to King Street. One of the main commercial avenues in downtown, King Street is slammed with trendy boutiques, restaurants, and wine bars.
Ravenel Waterfront Park
Ditch the history lessons and enjoy a stroll at Ravenel Waterfront Park. Also known as Joe Riley Waterfront Park, the 8-acre park stretches about half a mile along the Cooper River.
From the riverside boardwalk, you’ll enjoy incredible views over Charleston Harbor, Ravenel Bridge, and the U.S.S. Yorktown.
Besides the beautiful waterfront vistas, look out for the park’s signature Pineapple Fountain. Located in front of the City Gallery, the fountain is Charleston’s most photographed modern art installation.
Nathaniel Russell House
If you only have time for one historic house in Charleston, make it the Nathaniel Russell House. Located just a few blocks from the High Battery, the mansion is one of the finest neo-classical homes in the United States.
The interior of Nathaniel Russell House centers around a dramatic three-story spiral staircase. As you amble through, you’ll admire elaborate plasterwork and restored period furniture collection.
Although it’s not as popular, the nearby Calhoun Mansion is also worth visiting. Also called The Williams Mansion, the baronial Italianate house is one of the East Coast’s most impressive post-civil-war homes. The Calhoun Mansion is located on Meeting Street a few blocks south of the Nathaniel Russell House.
Aiken-Rhett House Museum
For a taste of antebellum life in Charleston, carve out time to visit the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. Built in 1820, the historic home tells a compelling story of the pre-Civil War South.
Unlike other houses in downtown, Aiken-Rhett House Museum is preserved rather than restored. Much of what you’ll see here remains from its turbulent first century of occupancy.
The most interesting part of the Aiken-Rhett House tour is its former slave quarters. With the abolition of slavery in the United States, the home’s slave quarters were abandoned. They’ve remained almost untouched since, a veritable time capsule to enslaved life in the 1850s.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
With a name like Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, this top Charleston attraction is bound to worm out intrigue. Built in 1771, the historic building on East Bay Street pre-dates the US itself.
Over the centuries, the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon have been used at every level of government. Most famously, the building acted as a colonial prison during the American Revolution. It’s since served at the federal, state, and municipal level.
Learn about the Exchange’s history with a self-guided tour of the upper floors. Be sure to save time to check out the eerie cellar, housing the former British dungeon.
Admission to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is $10 for adults and $5 for children between 7 and 12. Children under 7 can visit the museum for free.
Old Slave Mart Museum
None of the top Charleston attractions is as chilling as the Old Slave Mart Museum. The National Historic Site is one of the city’s most important historical sites. Operating off and on since 1938, the museum was the first African-American slave museum in the US.
The Old Slave Mart Museum recalls Charleston’s dark past as the largest slave-trading port in the United States. At the peak, the city saw about 40% of US slaves pass through its port.
Set aside about an hour for a self-guided tour through the museum’s exhibits.
South Carolina Aquarium
Looking for family-friendly attractions in Charleston? Squeeze in a visit to the South Carolina Aquarium. Perched near the headwaters of the Cooper River on Aquarium Wharf, the aquarium is one of the best places to go in Charleston with kids.
The massive South Carolina Aquarium is home to over 10,000 plants, sea creatures, and birds. Among its exciting exhibits, you’ll spot river otters, alligators, stingrays, and native fish species.
The highlight at the South Carolina Aquarium is its Great Ocean Tank. At 42 feet high, it’s the tallest tank in North America. Peer within to get face-to-face with fish, sharks, and its 220-pound sea turtle.
White Point Garden
Sitting on the southern edge of “The Peninsula,” White Point Garden is one of the prettiest places to see in Charleston. The garden spins together military history with beautiful waterfront views.
The best time to hang out at White Point Garden is in the early morning hours. It’s a famous spot for locals to catch the sunrise over Charleston Harbor.
After a stunning sunrise, explore the park’s Civil War-era cannons and military monuments. The garden also offers a convenient location to start exploring the city’s beautiful historic homes to the north.
While it may not hold a candle to its New Orleans namesake, the French Quarter is still one of Charleston’s most charming neighborhoods. The petite French Quarter is bound by the Cooper River, Meeting Street, Broad Street, and Market Street. With its central location, the district home to several top things to see & do in Charleston, including City Market and Waterfront Park.
The French Quarter offers some of the city’s most distinctive architecture. Keep on the lookout for The Dock Street Theatre. Built in 1809, it was the first theatre in the Thirteen Colonies during the British colonial era.
Also worth checking out in the French Quarter is the Pink House. Built between 1694 and 1712, the pink-hued home is one of the oldest buildings in South Carolina. Today, Pink House hosts a museum and art gallery.
Exploring the French Quarter got you thirsty? Pop into the Blind Tiger Pub on Broad Street for a sip of local suds. The pub only dates back three decades. The historic building, however, once (reputedly) housed one of the city’s first speakeasies in the prohibition era. The award-winning courtyard is one of the city’s favorite outdoor patios.
Fort Sumter National Monument
If you’re a Civil War history buff, you need to set aside time to visit the Fort Sumter National Monument. Just thirty minutes by ferry over Charleston Harbor, the military fortress was one of the most important in American history. The first shots of the Civil War rang out in 1861 at Fort Sumter.
At Fort Sumter, visitors will see the Civil War-era cannons and gun emplacements. Interpretive exhibits and knowledgeable park rangers help piece together the fort’s storied past.
The fort combines with Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to form the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park. Like at Fort Sumter, military buffs will love exploring Fort Moultrie’s seaside defenses. From Sullivan’s Island, you’ll also enjoy sweeping views over the harbor and Fort Sumter.
Tours to Fort Sumter depart from Liberty Square in Downtown and from Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
Located in Mount Pleasant, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is one of Charleston’s top attractions. Visiting Patriots Point, military history buffs will explore several decommissioned navy vessels.
The highlight for many at Patriots Point is the U.S.S. Yorktown. The retired aircraft carrier was famed for its valor in the Pacific during World War II and the Vietnam War. You’ll learn all about the ship’s past at the fun & interactive Engine Room Experience.
Shem Creek Park
Need a break from historical sightseeing? Slip on your hiking shoes and unwind in Shem Creek Park. Located near the mouth of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, the popular nature park is a great place to escape the hubbub of South Carolina’s biggest city.
Walk along its boardwalks, winding through the wetlands, to catch a breath of fresh air. Shem Creek Park is a short 10-minute drive from Patriots Point.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
On any South Carolina road trip, visiting a plantation is a must. And if you can only fit in one while in Charleston, make it the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens. Sitting about 35 minutes outside the city in North Charleston, the Magnolia Plantation is one of the best Charleston day trips.
The Magnolia Plantation dates back to 1676, pre-dating the republic by a century. The 464-acre plantation has plenty to see but is most famed for its beautiful gardens. Opened in 1870, it’s the oldest public garden in the United States.
Unlike other formal gardens in America, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens aren’t landscaped or manicured. Rather, its bridges, pathways, and flora balance with the area’s natural features. Between its weeping oak trees and streams, you’ll dazzle at azaleas, camellias, and daffodils.
Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens
Need yet another escape to nature? Head east to Mount Pleasant to check out Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens. Just a 25-minute drive from the city center, the 738-acre plantation is a Charleston must-see.
Dating back to 1681, Boone Hall Plantation is most known for its 3/4-mile oak alley. The two massive rows of oak trees, dubbed Avenue of the Oaks, were planted nearly 280 years ago. Their droopy moss-draped branches form a stunning natural corridor into the plantation. It’s one of the most iconic scenes in Charleston!
Besides the oak tree alley, set aside time to visit the historic plantation house and slave quarters. Built in 1936, the Colonial Revival-style home teems with antique furniture and artwork. The contrast between the lavish home and austere slave quarters will be quite striking for you.
Located on the banks of the Ashley River near North Charleston, Middleton Place is a fantastic place to escape the bustle of downtown. The former plantation dates back to the colonial era. It’s home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States. With its long history and beauty, Middleton Place became a National Historic Landmark District in 1971.
To get the most out of your visit to Middleton Place, focus your energy on its gardens. Dreamt up in 1741, the gardens represent the pinnacle of 18th-century European landscape design. The classical gardens use geometric principles to unleash their beautiful scenes and vistas over the area.
Looking to relax on the beautiful South Carolina shoreline? Venture 25 minutes south to Folly Beach. Located on Folly Island, Folly Beach is one of the most popular day trips from Charleston. It’s a favorite for locals wanting to escape the city for a fun beach day.
Unsurprisingly, the main draw on the barrier island is Folly Beach itself. The beach centers around a 1,000-foot pier. The area teems with boutiques, surf shops, and restaurants. Compared to other popular SC beaches like Myrtle Beach, the vibe here is even more relaxed and laid-back.
If you’re into watersports, Folly Beach is the perfect place to test your skills. The beach is one of the best surf spots on the east coast and a great place for paddleboarding adventures.
Traveling with kids? Stop off in James Island along the way to Folly Beach. The barrier island is home to several top-notch family-friendly tourist attractions. Options around James Island include Splash Zone Waterpark and Wild Blue Ropes Adventure Park.
Angel Oak Tree
Want to escape the urban bubble? Venture to Johns Island to marvel at the famous Angel Oak Tree. Measuring 65 feet high and 25 feet around, the majestic tree is believed to be the oldest oak east of the Mississippi River.
The Angel Oak Tree shades an area sprawling a whopping 17,000 square feet. Reaching out in every direction, its longest branch thrusts out a stagging 187 feet!
Although the 400- to 500-year-old live oak has been hit by floods and hurricanes, it continues to thrive. Pay the ol’ gal a visit and give your shutter a workout as you find the perfect angle for your travel photos.
Perched on the banks of the Ashley River, Drayton Hall is one of Charleston’s most important historical attractions. The National Historic Landmark dates back to the 18th century, hosting seven generations of the Drayton family.
The Drayton Hall Plantation is worth visiting for a glimpse at its outstanding architecture. The house is among North America’s finest examples of Palladian architecture. Originating in Italy, the unique architectural style blends elements of Ancient Greek, Roman, and Venetian touches.
On a tour of Drayton Hall, you’ll marvel at its stunning grounds, peppered with ancient live oaks and a garden. You’ll also have a chance to explore its galleries, featuring art & artifacts from prehistory to the modern era.
Charleston Farmers Market
For a local experience in the heart of historic Charleston, pop over to the Charleston Farmers Market. Held in Marion Square every Saturday from mid-April to December, the renowned event has attracted Charleston’s weekend shoppers since 1989.
Charleston Farmers Market offers a little of everything from fresh produce & plants to handicrafts & art. Spend time browsing its stalls and enjoying some fresh local flavors as you rub elbows with locals.
Charleston Tea Plantation
Tea might not be the first thing that comes to mind on your South Carolina trip. Don’t let that stop you from adding the Charleston Tea Plantation to your travel plans.
Also known as the Charleston Tea Garden, the plantation sits on picturesque Wadmalaw Island in the Lowcountry. It’s the only tea garden in North America, adding to its intrigue.
On a tour of the Charleston Tea Plantation, you’ll learn all about the tea factory and its production area. You’ll also get to enjoy a 45-minute trolley ride through the property, including a stop at its innovative greenhouse.
Be sure to stop at the Charleston Tea Garden gift shop to stock up for some afternoon tea sessions at home!
Not to be confused with its namesake plantation, Magnolia Cemetery is Charleston’s oldest burial ground. The cemetery was founded in 1849, sprawling 128 acres near the west bank of the Cooper River.
For its park-like expanse and beautiful Victorian monuments, Magnolia Cemetery is one of the city’s most interesting places to see. As you roam around, you’ll spot the resting places of some of the South’s most important historical figures, including governors, generals, and soldiers.
Founded in 1773, Charleston Museum retains the title of the oldest museum in the United States. The museum pre-dates the republic itself, with its public opening delayed by the onset of the American Revolutionary War.
For U.S. history buffs, Charleston Museum is a must-visit. The museum is jam-packed with exhibits covering everything from ancient artifacts to American Civil War relics. It’s also famed for its large collection of historic textiles and impressive silver exhibits.
The Charleston Museum also managed two historic houses, Joseph Manigault House and Heyward Washington House. Pick up a combo ticket to combine a visit to the museum and the houses to save money.
Morris Island Lighthouse
Located just north of Folly Beach, Morris Island Lighthouse is one of Charleston County’s most interesting historic relics. Now defunct, the 161-foot lighthouse was built in 1876 at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.
The Morris Island Lighthouse lit the way into the harbor for almost a century. After years of erosion, the tower was decommissioned in 1962.
With its now offshore location, the tower isn’t open for tours. You can, however, take the short walking path at the end of Ashley Avenue to the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve. From the small beach, you’ll be able to snap impressive photos of the lighthouse.
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site
One of South Carolina’s most important historical sites, Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site is a must-see for history enthusiasts. Located in West Ashley, the park marks the 1670 English settlers’ landing spot, establishing the Carolinas colony.
Start your visit to Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site at its interactive museum to get a primer on the park’s history. On its self-guided history trail, you’ll hear stories about the port city’s founding and importance to Britain’s American South colonies.
Charles Pinckney National Historic Site
Located in Mount Pleasant, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site commemorates one of America’s founding fathers. The 28-acre national park sits upon the grounds of Pinckney’s 16th-century plantation.
Although most of the site’s original buildings are long gone, you’ll still get a glimpse of a few of its historical charms. The 1828 Lowcountry cottage is home to a small museum and visitor center. Peruse its exhibits and displays to learn about Pinckney’s role in drafting the Constitution. You’ll also glean insights into plantation life in the 18th century from the perspective of both the free and enslaved.
Where to stay in Charleston for sightseeing
For travelers, the best places to stay in Charleston are in & around the Historic District and Downtown. The downtown is not just home to the city’s best sightseeing; it’s also the safest area to stay in the city. Here are a few ideas to start your accommodation search.
For a taste of Southern hospitality, book yourself into the Indigo Inn. The location a few blocks north of the City Market is perfect for travelers passing through. You’ll love the hotel’s relaxing 19th-century courtyard.
To add a dash of European charm to your stay in the Holy City, lay your head down at this historic inn. The rooms feature both modern amenities and classic Euro flair.
Revel in Southern luxury with a night at this 4-star hotel. Wedged between Meeting Street and King Street, the location is perfect for tackling all the city’s top things to see & do. The luxury hotel is also home to the famed Charleston Grill, one of the best fine-dining restaurants in the city.