Why it's worth visiting Charleston, SC.
Something about the Lowcountry, specifically Charleston, keeps calling folks back. You can’t just visit once. The Southern city is most popular for its preserved historic architecture, rich food scene, and so much more. From foodie finds to museums and the best outdoor activities, our list of the top things to do in Charleston will leave you full of ideas for your trip to South Carolina. We’ve narrowed it down to 30 things you can’t miss on your trip to The Holy City.
WHEN TO VISIT CHARLESTONAnticipate outdoor dining most of the year since Charleston weather is great year-round with mild winters and hot summers.
Check out the city’s website for updated information on COVID-19 regulations.
Top Picks for You
Eat Boiled Peanuts From Timbo’s
If you visit the Lowcountry and don’t eat boiled peanuts, you’re missing one of the true regional American delicacies. This airstream serving boiled peanuts sits on the road to most of the area’s plantations—Middleton, Drayton Hall, and Magnolia—and its worth a stop on your way. Timbo, much like Madonna, has reached the level of fame that allows one name only and that’s thanks to his 20 years in operation serving plain, Cajun, and ham-flavored boiled peanuts. Wednesday through Sunday, grab yourself a hot and heaping bag and an ice-cold beverage to go for the perfect road trip snack.
Find out Why Bill Murray Loves the RiverDogs
Bill Murray is the co-owner of the RiverDogs minor league team, and the spectators seem to have as much fun as he does at the stadium (minus mid-field hi-jinx). The games, held at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Stadium, are the main event, but there is a packed events calendar that draws fans of all ages. The food is also so good that the RiverDogs have launched a food truck. While dining there, though, consider old reliable hot dogs or options that are new for 2022, like a man salad from Wicked Sausage or Taco Pie’s, well…taco pies. Don’t forget to high-five Charlie the RiverDog before you go!
See How the Early Charleston Elites Lived
Charleston’s historic homes are unlike those of any other city. A few places still maintain the old charm and are well-preserved despite being centuries old. Aiken-Rhett House does a quality job of centering the story of former governor William Rhett and the enslaved people who built and tended to the house. Visitors can walk through and see original furnishings and the slave quarters outside.
Skip a Carriage Tour and Rent a Bike Instead
Sure you could take a carriage tour of the peninsula with all the other dozens of tourists, but why not see the city the way its citizens love to: by bike. Affordabike on King Street rents bikes for the day and they come with a basket and lock so you can cruise, stop, and shop along the way. Or, if you’d prefer, Charleston also has a bike share program called Holy Spokes. For $8 an hour, you can bike around the city and park your bike at 25 locations across the peninsula. How do you find those spots? A slick app for your phone maps it all out for you.
Stand Where the First Shots Were Fired
Charleston is a city of historical significance, and if that’s your thing, you can’t skip visiting Fort Sumter. At this spot in April 1861, the first of many Civil War battles were fought. You can visit the fort on your own or in conjunction with a Civil War tour since the city has quite a few memorials. Fort Sumter tours take people out to the National Parks site from Liberty Square next to the S.C. Aquarium and Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant. The hour trip to the harbor is matched by an hour informative visit to the fort. It’s a great starting point for any visit to this historic city.
Go Brewery Hopping
Charleston has a growing brewery scene with easily over 50 breweries. Every year there is a new one under construction. Palmetto was the first in Charleston and has been popular since 1993. Other popular breweries don’t have quite the legacy of Palmetto, but the locals love them. There are clusters in the downtown area and Mt. Pleasant, which makes for a great beer crawl. Edmund’s Oast is one of the most famous breweries in the city, and it can stand alone since its food and festivities are superb. Revelry is known for being dog-friendly, and Brewlab is brand new and worth the trip (or a six-pack for your journey home)
Tour the Gibbes Museum of Art
Recently reopened after a $13.5 million dollar remodel, one of the nation’s oldest art galleries is a must-visit. While touring exhibits come and go, the Gibbes almost always displays its room of miniatures, tiny portraits that served as tokens of affection during the early 20th century. Some no bigger than a locket, these endearing paintings give a glimpse into courting of the era
Visit One of the Oldest Plantations in the US
Charleston has quite a few plantations still standing, but Drayton Hall is one of the few remaining that isn’t restored. It is well known for its Georgian-Palladian architecture and is run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to keep it as it once was. Visitors see how the wealthy lived and also learn about the history of those enslaved on the property.
Enjoy Modern Cocktails in an Old House
If you walk past during off-peak hours, you wouldn’t anticipate just how many people this Victorian-style building could hold. Husk Restaurant is quite popular, but if you forgo making a reservation, you’d be just fine going to the bar next door. Built in an old brick kitchen house, the two-story bar feels like you’re imbibing in Charleston’s historic past.
INSIDER TIPNoted for serving Madeira, Ports, and punches, our favorite is the Charleston Light Dragoon cocktail. It is fashioned from an old Charleston recipe and promises to send you charging into the night.
Eat Oysters the Ma Bowen Way
Bowen’s Island became known for its oysters after Ma Bowen opened her fish camp and seafood shack in 1946. The Bowen family tradition has continued for decades, even after the original Bowen’s Island Restaurant burned to the ground in 2006. Plan to stay for a while if you visit because this place is often packed.
Search for Shark Teeth at Folly Beach
Folly Beach is known as the Edge of America, but the sharpest things you’ll find there are sharks teeth. If you walk slowly and look closely, you might find the tiny grey incisors of the scariest fish in the sea. After a stroll on the beach, head to Pier 101 for burgers and beers.
Tour Historic Houses During the Charleston Tour of Homes
Each spring, Charleston becomes an interior design lover’s dream as local homeowners open their doors for the Charleston Tour of Homes. You’ll get to see numerous houses that are only open to the public once a year. The area deemed “Rainbow Row” is worth seeing year-round, and after you’ve taken photos in front of the historic homes, walk over to the Pineapple Fountain and strike a pose there.
Visit the USS Yorktown
The famous “Fighting Lady” of WWII, the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum includes the USS Yorktown, destroyer USS Laffey, and a Vietnam-era fire base. The ships host numerous displays ranging from naval aviation, crew life, and a medal of honor museum. Allotting an afternoon is encouraged, as this site large and there’s a lot to take in and appreciate.
Kayak the Intracoastal Waterway
For the best view of the Lowcountry, you can’t beat a kayak trip on the Intracoastal Waterway. March visits filled with seabirds and dolphin spotting make a trip on the water an entertaining way to spend the afternoon.
Visit Kiawah Island
Kiawah Island is worth a visit if you have time to venture out of Charleston. This upscale town is known for golfing and fine dining. If that doesn’t entice you, consider watching turtle hatchlings trek to the shore or even searching for alligators (from afar) on the beach.
Eat Fresh Caught Seafood at the Site of a Shipwreck
The sea shanty aesthetic of this landmark restaurant, The Wreck of Richard and Charlene, should be all the indication you need that you’re in for some no-frills fresh seafood. If you’re looking for straight-from-the-dock seafood without all the pomp and circumstance of downtown establishments, this is the place to go. Think fried shrimp baskets, deviled crab, and stone crab claws. If you plan your timing right, you can watch the shrimp boats come in as the sunsets on Shem Creek.
Taste Gullah Cuisine From Bertha’s Kitchen
Gullah cuisine is the bedrock of Charleston’s culinary prowess, so it’s impossible to truly say you’ve eaten in the Lowcountry without trying some. We suggest you head to Bertha’s for some lunch—and don’t forget the lima beans. This restaurant was recently declared a James Beard American Classic. What more convincing do you need?
Feed Your Soul in a Converted Church
Everything about dining in a church seems dramatic—from the gothic architecture to the religious iconography—but Church and Union leave the pomp and circumstance to the building’s former history. Instead, the restaurant adds sophisticated flavors to the foods that the low country is most known for. Brunch is the best time to visit, that way, you can enjoy the Anson mill grilled and a fried chicken BLT.
Learn About Eliza’s Role at Middleton Place
Middleton Place was once home to both a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a later signer of the Ordinance of Secession. It was also home to Eliza Leach, who died in 1986; she was was one of the last Middleton Place residents and worked at the home for 40 years. You can see where she slept, in a cabin–now called Eliza’s House–that was formerly part of the slave quarters, where many enslaved people were forced to live.
Go on a Barbecue Tour of the Top Pitmasters in the South
Charleston has plenty of good food, but new to the city is acclaim for our pitmasters. In the past two years, we’ve gained what some have called “the barbecue triangle”, a one-mile radius that’s home to Lewis Barbecue, Home Team BBQ, and Rodney Scott’s BBQ. Each one has its own style, but one thing is the same, they’re all delicious. Wear your eating pants and be sure to add this tour to your list.
Visit the Slave Mart Museum
Much of the wealth of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston was the result of a economy based on chattel slavery. Charleston played a prominent role in the international and domestic slave trade. This site on Chalmers Street actually operated as a Slave Mart and site of auctions beginning in the 1850s, and inside are many objects from that period. Any study of Charleston’s complex history is not complete without an understanding of this exploitative institution.
Make the Drive out to the Center for Birds of Prey
For the nature lovers, the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw northeast of Charleston up Highway 17 is an exceptional place to go. The center is home to numerous varieties of birds of prey and the knowledgeable staff provide scheduled flight demonstrations that are sure to wow. The center also offers a unique perspective on the Lowcountry ecosystem neighboring Francis Marion Forest.
See the Oldest Tree in the Southeast
Down a dirt road on Johns Island—30 minutes from downtown—sits a 400-year-old tree that is beloved by all who see it. Angel Oak covers 17,200 square feet and stands 66.5 feet tall. It’s considered one of the oldest living things in the United States and it’s completely free to see it.
Buy a Sweetgrass Basket at the Four Corners of Law
Very few African traditions that pre-date slavery remain in the U.S., but Sweetgrass Crafts is one of them and remains relevant to this day. These incredible woven works of art are made by men and women from 50 different Gullah families who can trace their lineage back to the first slave ships. You can still buy baskets at the former slave market and at Charleston’s “Four Corners of Law,” located where Meeting and Broad Streets intersect.
Catch the Sunset at Vendue
For a peninsula, Charleston has surprisingly few waterfront restaurants. That’s why a seat at the Rooftop at Vendue around sunset is a great find. The downtown hotel has a beautiful rooftop bar with vistas that stretch from the Ashley to Cooper rivers and beyond. From this vantage point, take in the Holy City’s namesake steeples as the sun sets over the city.
Enlighten Yourself at McCleod Plantation
Slavery is a true stain on American history and a reality that we, as a society, are still grappling with the repercussions of. While many plantations seem to lean away from their problematic past, McCleod—once a major cotton provider in South Carolina—seeks to educate visitors about all that occurred on their plantation.
Visit Philip Simmons House and Workshop
From the outside, this workshop is unassuming. Inside, however, the owner was crafting gates, window grills, and balconies for which the city is known—just look for the tightly-curled iron. Philip Simmons was raised by formerly enslaved people and forged a 78-year career as a blacksmith. He owned the home and workshop from 1960-2008, and it is now maintained by a family member.
Find Your Biscuit Jam
Have you really eaten in the South if you haven’t had a biscuit? These are a breakfast (or any time of the day) staple, and they can be sweet and topped with jam or savory and wrapped around a piece of fried chicken. There are plenty of places to get biscuits in Charleston, but one of the most famous places is Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit.
Devour Some She-Crab Soup
She-crab soup is made with the female crab, its roe, sherry wine, and other ingredients. Many restaurants serve this as a side or by the bowl with slight variations. Knowing which one is your favorite means you’re going to have to try a lot of She-Crab soup. That’s not a bad thing since it’s a dish that Charleston has perfected over time. Restaurants like Amen Street, Hank’s, Poogan’s Porch, and 82 Queen are a few favorites.
Visit One of the Oldest Museums in the Country
The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and features various permanent and rotating exhibits. Permanent installations focus on the city’s role in the American Revolution (including an armory) and the slave trade. Guests can expand beyond the museum and visit preserved historic homes of former wealthy Charleston families.