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. 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

  • 3. 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

  • 4. 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

  • 5. 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

  • 6. Nathaniel Russell House Museum

    South of Broad | Historic Home

    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

  • 7. Neema Gallery

    Broad Street | Museum/Gallery

    Housed in a building that once printed Confederate money, Neema Gallery is the city's only gallery space dedicated exclusively to black artists...Read More

  • 8. Old Slave Mart Museum

    Downtown Historic District | Museum/Gallery

    Used as a site for the auctioning of enslaved people (as well as a jail and morgue) until 1863, this building is now a museum that educates...Read More

  • 9. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum


    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. Robert Lange Studios

    Downtown Historic District | Museum/Gallery

    The most avant of the contemporary galleries, this striking, minimalist space is a working studio for Robert Lange and other exceptionally talented...Read More

  • 11. South Carolina Historical Society Museum

    Downtown Historic District | Museum/Gallery

    Trace 350 years of the state's history through the interactive exhibits here, focusing on everything from Native American cultures and the atrocities...Read More

  • 12. Anglin Smith Fine Art

    Downtown Historic District | Museum/Gallery

    This gallery exhibits contemporary paintings by Betty Anglin Smith and her talented triplets, Jennifer, Shannon, and Tripp. Her son, Tripp,...Read More

  • 13. Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens


    Celebrities Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively have publicly distanced themselves from their 2012 wedding here at Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens...Read More

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  • 14. Charles Pinckney National Historic Site


    This remnant of Charles Pinckney's 715-acre birthplace was winnowed down by development, but today the National Park Service uses archaeological...Read More

  • 15. 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

  • 16. Children's Museum of the Lowcountry

    Upper King | Museum/Gallery

    Hands-on interactive exhibits at this top-notch museum will keep kids—from infants to 10-year-old children—occupied for hours. They can climb...Read More

  • 17. 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

  • 18. Colleton Museum & Farmers Market


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

  • 19. Corrigan Gallery

    South of Broad | Museum/Gallery

    Owner Lese Corrigan displays her own impressionist-influenced paintings of Charleston and the works of some 20 other painters and photographers...Read More

  • 20. Edmondston-Alston House

    South of Broad | Historic Home

    In 1825, Charles Edmondston designed this house in the Federal style on Charleston's High Battery; it was built by the labor of enslaved people...Read More

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