Charleston

Bounded by the Ashley River to the west, the Cooper River to the east, the Battery to the south, and Calhoun Street to the north, the city's historic heart is a fairly compact area of 800 acres that contains nearly 2,000 historic homes and buildings. The peninsula is divided up into several neighborhoods, starting from the south and moving north, including the Battery, South of Broad, the Market area, and Upper King Street, ending near the "Crosstown," where U.S. 17 connects downtown to Mount Pleasant and West Ashley.

You'll see no skyscrapers in the downtown area, because building heights are strictly regulated to maintain the city's historic setting. In the 1970s, most department stores decamped for suburban malls, turning King Street buildings into rows of (architecturally significant) empty shells. Soon, preservation-conscious groups began to save these beauties, and by the mid-1980s the shopping district was revived with the addition of the Omni Hotel (now Belmond Charleston Place). Big-name retailers quickly saw the opportunity in this attractive city and settled in as well. Lower King thrives and Upper King is booming, with many new businesses—hip bars and restaurants in particular—targeting the city's young, socially active population. Look up at the old-timey tile work at the entrances; inevitably it will have the names of the original businesses.

Beyond downtown, the Ashley River hugs the west side of the peninsula; the region on the far shore is called West Ashley. The Cooper River runs along the east side of the peninsula, with Mount Pleasant on the opposite side and Charleston Harbor in between. Lastly, there are outlying sea islands: James Island with its Folly Beach, Johns Island, Wadmalaw Island, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, Isle of Palms, and Sullivan's Island. Each has its own appealing attractions, though Johns and Wadmalaw have farms instead of beaches. Everything that entails crossing the bridges is best explored by car or bus.

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  • 1. Aiken-Rhett House Museum

    Upper King | Historic Home

    A prime example of the wealth derived from chattel slavery, the Aiken-Rhett House is considered one of the best preserved town-house complexes...Read More

  • 2. Angel Oak Tree

    Viewpoint

    Live oak trees do as much to define the Lowcountry landscape as the salt marsh, and this gorgeous specimen is likely the oldest—and biggest...Read More

  • 3. Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

    College of Charleston Campus | Museum/Gallery

    Part of the College of Charleston, this museum and archive was once a school for African Americans, training students for professional careers...Read More

  • 4. Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge

    Nature Preserve/Wildlife Refuge

    Maritime forests, barrier islands, salt marshes, beaches, and coastal waterways make up this 66,287-acre refuge established in 1932 as a migratory...Read More

  • 5. Charles Towne Landing

    West Ashley | Zoo/Aquarium

    This off-the-radar gem of a park (and zoo) marks the site of the original 1670 settlement of Charles Towne, the first permanent European settlement...Read More

  • 6. Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site

    Historic District/Site

    The town of Dorchester boomed during the 18th century before being abandoned at the onset of the Revolutionary War. All that remains of this...Read More

  • 7. Cypress Gardens

    Garden

    Explore the inky swamp waters of this natural area in a flat-bottom boat, or walk along paths lined with moss-draped cypress trees, azaleas...Read More

  • 8. Edisto Beach State Park

    Beach

    This 1,255-acre park includes a 1½-mile-long beachfront with some of the area's best shelling, marshland, and tidal rivers as well as a lush...Read More

  • 9. Folly Beach

    Folly Beach | Beach

    Charleston's most laid-back beach community fills up on weekends, so head out early to avoid traffic if you're visiting on a Saturday. A rebuild...Read More

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  • 10. Fort Moultrie

    Military Sight

    A part of the Fort Sumter National Monument, this is the site where Colonel William Moultrie's South Carolinians repelled a British assault...Read More

  • 11. Fort Sumter National Monument

    Military Sight

    Set on a man-made island in Charleston's harbor, this is the hallowed spot where the Civil War began. On April 12, 1861, the first shot of the...Read More

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  • 12. Gibbes Museum of Art

    Downtown Historic District | Museum/Gallery

    Housed in a beautiful Beaux Arts building with a soaring stained-glass cupola, this museum boasts a collection of 10,000 works, principally...Read More

  • 13. Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

    College of Charleston Campus | Museum/Gallery

    Seasonal shows at this gallery known for progressive, contemporary art have included exhibitions by Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns. Managed...Read More

  • 14. Hampton Park

    City Park

    The jewel of Charleston’s park system, Hampton Park is equally beloved by recreational runners, picnickers, bird-watchers. history buffs, and...Read More

  • 15. Joe Riley Waterfront Park

    Downtown Historic District | City Park

    Enjoy the fishing pier's "front-porch" swings, stroll along the waterside path, or relax in the gardens overlooking Charleston Harbor. The expansive...Read More

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  • 16. Kiawah Beachwalker Park

    Beach

    This county park 28 miles southwest of Charleston has a wide beach at low tide, often ranked among the country's best. Stunningly beautiful...Read More

  • 17. McLeod Plantation Historic Site

    Historic District/Site

    Directly across the Ashley River from downtown Charleston, on James Island, this 37-acre site is the only former plantation in the area where...Read More

  • 18. Meyer Vogl Gallery

    Downtown Historic District | Museum/Gallery

    Two local artists and friends own and curate this gallery that balances the impressionist and abstract works of well-known painters like Anne...Read More

  • 19. Middleton Place

    West Ashley | Historic District/Site

    Established in the 1730s, Middleton Place was at the center of the Middleton family’s empire of rice plantations, where they enslaved 3,500...Read More

  • 20. Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park

    City Park

    Sprawling beneath the Ravenel Bridge, this beautifully landscaped green space invites lounging on the grass with views of Charleston Harbor...Read More

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