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 | House/Mansion/Villa

    One of Charleston's most stately mansions, built in 1820 and virtually unaltered since 1858, has been preserved rather than restored, meaning...Read More

  • 2. Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

    Garden/Arboretum

    A drive through a ½-mile-long live-oak alley draped in Spanish moss introduces you to this still-functioning plantation, the oldest of its kind...Read More

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  • 3. Charles Towne Landing

    Park (National/State/Provincial)

    There's plenty to see and do in this park marking the original 1670 settlement of Charles Towne, the first permanent European settlement in...Read More

  • 4. Fort Sumter National Monument

    Archaeological Site/Ruins

    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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  • 5. Gibbes Museum of Art

    Market | Museum/Gallery

    Housed in a beautiful Beaux-Arts building, this museum boasts a collection of 10,000 works, principally American with a local connection. An...Read More

  • 6. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

    West Ashley | Garden/Arboretum

    Sprawling, beautiful Magnolia Plantation was established in the 1670s by Thomas Drayton after he moved from Barbados. The extensive garden—the...Read More

  • 7. Middleton Place

    West Ashley | Garden/Arboretum

    Established in the 1730s, Middleton Place was at the center of the Middleton family’s empire of rice plantations, which consisted of 63,000...Read More

  • 8. Nathaniel Russell House Museum

    South of Broad | House/Mansion/Villa

    One of the nation's finest examples of Federal-style architecture, the Nathaniel Russell House was built in 1808 and has been restored to a...Read More

  • 9. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum

    Museum/Gallery

    Climb aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier—which contains the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum—as well as the destroyer USS Laffey...Read More

  • 10. The Battery

    South of Broad | Park/Playground

    During the Civil War, the Confederate army mounted cannons in the Battery, at the southernmost point of Charleston's peninsula, to fortify the...Read More

  • 11. 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

  • 12. Charles Pinckney National Historic Site

    Museum/Gallery

    This site includes the last 28 acres of the plantation owned by Charles Pinckney, a drafter and signer of the U.S. Constitution. You can tour...Read More

  • 13. Charleston Museum

    Upper King | Museum/Gallery

    Although housed in a modern-day brick complex, this institution was founded in 1773 and is the country's oldest museum. The collection is especially...Read More

  • 14. Charleston Visitor Center

    Upper King | Transportation Site (Airport, Bus, Ferry, Train)

    Exhibits about Lowcountry culture and a 36-minute film called Forever Charleston make a fine introduction to the city. The first 30 minutes...Read More

  • 15. Circular Congregational Church

    Market | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    The first church building erected on this site in the 1680s gave bustling Meeting Street its name. The present-day Romanesque structure, dating...Read More

  • 16. City Hall

    North of Broad | Government Building

    The intersection of Meeting and Broad streets is known as the Four Corners of Law, representing the laws of nation, state, city, and church...Read More

  • 17. City Market

    Market | Market/Bazaar

    Most of the buildings that make up this popular attraction were constructed between 1804 and the 1830s to serve as the city's meat, fish, and...Read More

  • 18. College of Charleston

    College of Charleston Campus | Educational Institution

    A majestic Greek revival portico, Randolph Hall—an 1828 building designed by Philadelphia architect William Strickland—presides over the college...Read More

  • 19. Colleton Museum & Farmers Market

    Museum/Gallery

    This museum chronicles the history of this small Southern town, displaying everything from butter churns to the country's first anesthesia machine...Read More

  • 20. Dock Street Theatre

    Broad Street | Arts/Performance Venue

    The original Dock Street, built in 1736, was the first theater building in America. The current structure, reopened in 1935 and renovated in...Read More

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