Julie United States Leave a Comment

Charleston is a small coastal city in South Carolina. Touring its historic homes, shopping along King Street and in the Charleston City Market, and getting a history lesson at its museums top the list of things to do in Charleston. But you can also dine at a wonderfully long list of restaurants and venture beyond the city limits, learning more about this city’s history.

With its historic buildings, small size, easy walkability, and ghost tours, Charleston is very much like its nearby neighbor Savannah. One day is really all you need to see the highlights, but more time allows you to explore the sites outside of the city center and try a few of its fabulous restaurants.

Interesting Facts about Charleston

Founded in 1670, Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the USA (St. Augustine, Florida takes the #1 spot, founded in 1565). The city was founded at Albemarle Point as Charles Town, in honor of King Charles II. Ten years later it was relocated to its current site. However, touring Charles Towne Landing is one of the best things to do in Charleston.

Charleston was a major slave trading port. You can learn more about this at the Old Slave Mart in Charleston and at the plantations that surround the city.

Charleston is a relatively small compact city. Most of the main things to do are clustered in the city center. However, there are a few key places to visit outside of the city, such as the Angel Oak Tree, the plantations and gardens, and Fort Sumter.

Best Things to Do in Charleston

This list of things to do in Charleston is split into two sections: things to do in the Charleston city center and things to do outside of Charleston.

Best Things to Do in Charleston (City Center)

1. Go Shopping on King Street

Take a stroll down King Street, one of the main thoroughfares through town. It is lined with a mix of boutique shops, popular brand names like Williams-Sonoma, Lululemon, J. Crew, and Pottery Barn, plus high-end luxury shops such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

King Street Charleston | Best Things to Do in Charleston

King Street

2. Charleston City Market

This is another great place to satisfy your shopping itch when you are in Charleston.

Charleston City Market | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Charleston City Market Photo

Charleston City Market | Best Things to Do in Charleston

For hundreds of years, this was the main public market in Charleston. The main building was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1841. Smaller buildings, called sheds, run alongside the Great Hall.

The sheds and the Great Hall are filled with boutique shops, jewelry stores, and food stalls. It’s also a great place to shop for sweetgrass basketry, a handicraft that has an African origin and is a Charleston cultural treasure.

The Charleston City Market is open daily from 9 am to 5:30 pm. In the evenings on weekends from March through December, the market reopens, offering live music and food. Learn more on the official website.

3. Charleston Farmers Market

If you happen to be in Charleston on a Saturday during the warmer months of the year, don’t miss the Farmers Market. Located on Marion Square, you can shop for locally made arts and crafts, produce, or sample the foods sold at the food stalls. The market is so well done that Travel + Leisure named it as one of the top 10 best markets in the USA.

The market is open from April through November. Learn more about the market and get the hours of operation on the official website.

4. Take a Photo of the Pineapple Fountain

Stretching along the water’s edge, on the east side of Charleston, is the Joe Riley Waterfront Park. This small park is covered with live oak trees and has great views of the Charleston Harbor.

The centerpiece of the park is the Pineapple Fountain. This iconic fountain is a symbol of the city of Charleston and one of its most photographed landmarks.

Pineapple Fountain Charleston | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Pineapple Fountain | Best Things to Do in Charleston


Joe Riley Waterfront Park | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Joe Riley Waterfront Park

5. The Battery & White Point Garden

From the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, continue the scenic walk south along the water and it won’t take long until you reach the Battery and White Point Garden.

White Point Garden

White Point Garden

The battery is lined with cannons and has views across the water to Fort Sumter. White Point Garden is a small park filled with massive live oak trees, which keeps the park cool during the hot summer months. Lining the park are historic mansions and some of the most expensive properties in Charleston.

The battery and the park are open 24 hours a day and free to visit.

6. Rainbow Row

Lining East Bay Street are thirteen houses each painted a different pastel color. This is another famous photography location in Charleston. It’s a popular thing to do and only takes a few minutes of your time.

Rainbow Row Charleston | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Rainbow Row

Across the street from the colorful houses is The Tavern at Rainbow Row. They state that they are America’s oldest liquor store.

Charleston Tavern

7. Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

Located just steps away from Rainbow Row is the Old Exchange Building. Built in 1771 by the British, it was first used as a prisoner of war facility by the British during the American Revolutionary War (the Provost Dungeon). In 1788, the United States Constitution was ratified in this building. It was later used for public slave auctions.

The Old Exchange Building is a National Historic Landmark.

Old Exchange | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Old Exchange Interior

On a visit here, you can visit the two upper floors of the building on a self-guided tour. Every half hour, a 25-minuted guided tour of the Provost Dungeon is offered (the dungeon can only be visited on a guided tour). Combo tickets are available that include the Old Slave Mart, mentioned next. Get hours and pricing on the official website.

8. The Old Slave Mart Museum

It is estimated that 35 to 40% of enslaved people passed through Charleston. This small, educational museum is a must-visit to learn more about the city’s role in the slave trade.

Old Slave Mart

In just two rooms, there are exhibits about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, domestic slave trade in South Carolina, as well as presentations about slavery and its impact on the history and culture of America.

A visit here lasts 30 minutes to an hour. It is included on the combo ticket with the Old Exchange Building. Get hours and pricing on the official website.

9. Tour a Historic House

In Charleston, there are several historic houses to visit. Owned by prominent Charleston citizens, touring one or more of these homes gives you another look into Charleston’s past.

Edmonston-Alston House

Located in the Battery and overlooking the waterfront, this is one of the oldest houses in the Battery. It was constructed in 1825 by Charles Edmonston, a Scottish shipping merchant, and later purchased by the Alston family. Much of the 19th century furniture and decorations still remain in the house, as well as an original print of the Ordinance of Succession.

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Edmonston-Alston House | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Edmonston-Alston House | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Heyward-Washington House

Built in 1772, this large brick Georgian-style house is considerably older than the Edmonston-Alston House. Thomas Heyward Jr. was one of four South Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence and this was his home.

Heyward-Washington House

George Washington spent one week in this house in 1791, giving it the name the ‘Heyward-Washington House.” On a tour, learn more about the history of the home, see its historic furniture, and see its kitchen that was built in 1740.

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Nathaniel-Russell House

This historic house is gorgeous inside and out. Famous for its curved 3-story staircase, this house was acclaimed as one of Charleston’s finest when it was built. You can tour the house on a guided tour or with the audio guide.

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Nathaniel-Russell House

Nathaniel-Russell House


Nathaniel-Russell House Staircase | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Nathaniel-Russell House staircase

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Unless you have a big interest in touring historic houses, visiting just one or two is sufficient. These get to be a bit repetitive and if you are on a quick visit to Charleston (1 to 2 days) picking just one historic house to visit gives you more time to visit more places.

Aiken-Rhett House

This townhouse was built in 1820 and then enlarged in the 1830s and 1850s by Governor Aiken Jr. It is one of the best-preserved examples of pre-Civil War life in Charleston, with its furnishings and its slave quarters, which remain the same as they did since the 1850s.

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Aiken Rhett House

Aiken-Rhett House

10. Philadelphia Alley

This is one of the shortest streets in Charleston and also one of the most photogenic. It’s easy to miss as you walk through Charleston and yet many walking tours of the city will include a visit to this picturesque spot.

Philadelphia Alley Charleston | Best Things to Do in Charleston

It is located between Cumberland Street and Queen Street, a short walk from the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Old Slave Mart Museum, and Charleston City Market. Learn more about its history here.

11. Take a Ghost Tour

Taking a ghost tour is one of the best things to do in Charleston. With its history of slavery, hurricanes, wars, and earthquakes, Charleston is filled with haunted places.

On this 90-minute walking tour, visit one of Charleston’s oldest cemeteries after dark.

This 90-minute walking tour visits the back alleys of the historic district and the Provost Dungeon.

Finally, this 1.5 hour walking tour visits the dark side of Charleston. It’s not a ghost tour but you will learn about the city’s history of prostitutes, crime, corruption, and brothels.

12. Charleston Museum

For museum lovers, this is not to be missed…visit the oldest museum in North America.

Founded in 1773, the exhibits inside of the museum include artifacts that have been collected since 1790, including some items from ancient Egypt and fossils from the Lowcountry. However, the main focus of the museum tells the history of Charleston, with exhibits about the Native Americans who first inhabited this area to Charleston’s role in the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Charleston Museum

Charleston Museum Artifacts

Charleston Museum | Best Things to Do in Charleston

13. Gibbes Museum of Art

This art museum has on display hundreds of works of art by artists with ties to Charleston. Four centuries of paintings, sculptures, and miniature portraits form the main collection with several temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Learn more on the official website.

Gibbes Museum | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Gibbes Museum of Art

14. Dine at Charleston’s Top Restaurants & Bars

With its fabulous restaurants and rooftop bars with a view of the city, having lunch, dinner, or a drink with a view tops the list of things to do in Charleston.

We spent a lot of our time sampling Charleston’s best restaurants and bars, which you can see in our Charleston Restaurant Guide (coming soon).

Carmellas Charleston | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Chocolate peanut butter cakes at Carmella’s Cafe and Dessert Bar

Our favorite restaurants in Charleston include Bar 167 (start your meal with an oyster shooter, don’t miss the focaccia with truffle butter, and every main dish we had was fabulous), 82 Queen (the best She Crab soup in Charleston), Revival (fantastic Lowcountry food), Ma’am Saab (Pakistani restaurant, perfect if you want a break from southern food), and Carmella’s Café and Dessert Bar (the place to satisfy your sweet tooth).

If you want a drink with a view, don’t miss RITUAL Rooftop or Citrus Club at the Dewberry.

Citrus Club Charleston

Ritual Rooftop Charleston

Ritual Rooftop | Best Things to Do in Charleston

15. Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist

Opening in 1907, this church is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston. One of the highlights is seeing the stained-glass windows. We were only able to see the cathedral on the outside since mass was being held during our visit. From looking at photos online, it is well worth a quick visit to see the magnificent interior of this cathedral.

Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist

Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist

Best Things to Do in Charleston (Outside of the City Center)

Everything listed next is a short drive from the Charleston city center.

16. The Angel Oak Tree

Depending on the source, this Live Oak tree is somewhere between 400 and 500 years old, making it one of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi. It is located just 30 minutes outside of Charleston, is free to visit (but donations are accepted!), and it is an amazing sight to see. Just think about the long list of events that have occurred during this tree’s lifetime.

Angel Oak Tree | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Angel Oak Tree | Best Things to Do in Charleston

17. Visit a Plantation

One of the best things to do in Charleston is to visit one or more plantations that sit just outside of the city. There are four popular plantations to choose from.

Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

Boone Hall is one of the most popular plantations to visit. And if you’ve watched the movie The Notebook, it may look somewhat familiar to you.

Boone Hall is one of the oldest plantations still in operation and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

You’ll enter the on the Avenue of Oaks, a long driveway lined with old live oak trees, and it gives an amazing first impression of this property. You may read online that this is where the “Run Forrest Run!” scene of Forrest Gump was filmed, but it was actually filmed at Bluff Plantation.

Boone Hall Avenue of Oaks | Best Things to Do in Charleston

Boone Hall Mansion

Sitting at the end of that long driveway is the Boone Hall mansion. If you have seen The Notebook, this house was used as Allie’s family’s summer home.

On a visit to Boone Hall, you can tour the property on your own, visiting the gardens and seeing the slave quarters. You also have the option to take a tour of the property, learning more about the history of Boone Hall.

Boone Hall Slave Quarters

On the official website, you can see the tours that are offered as well as get hours of operation and pricing.

McLeod Plantation Historic Site

At this plantation site, there are no fancy gardens and no spectacular avenue of live oak trees. A visit here is more about learning more about the life and toils of enslaved peoples.

We took a tour of the McLeod Plantation, since the tours here get some of the best reviews of the plantations around Charleston. There is no sugar coating of what happened on the plantations, just an informative history of slavery in South Carolina. It focused on the experiences of the enslaved peoples rather than the plantation owners.

If you want to take an educational, informative tour about the plantations and the experiences of enslaved people, visit the McLeod Plantation. If you simply want to see manicured gardens and grand mansions, then visit the other plantations on this list.

McLeod Plantation

Get hours and pricing on the official website and schedule your tour time in advance.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

A visit here is more about strolling through the acres and acres of gardens and forests on this property. Our visit was at the end of March, a gorgeous time of year to visit South Carolina, as the azaleas are in full bloom, making these gardens absolutely spectacular.

Magnolia Gardens Charleston

Magnolia Gardens

Six miles of walking trails weave around the mansion and through the gardens. We were lucky to spot an alligator in one of the lakes on the property.

There are guided tours of the property, which we did not do, but many reviewers state that most of the focus is on the gardens, without much history of the enslaved people.

Middleton Place Historic Landmark

This National Historic Landmark is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in America. It is acclaimed as being the prettiest plantation to visit in Charleston.

We did not visit Middleton Place, choosing to spend our time at three listed above, but it looks beautiful from photos that I have seen online and gets overall great reviews. You can tour the gardens with a guide or take a tour to learn about the experiences of enslaved people who lived and worked at Middleton Place.

Learn more on the official website.

18. Charles Towne Landing

Charles Towne Landing was the first official settlement by Europeans in the area. Landing in 1670, English settlers lived and worked here for 10 years, forming the first permanent settlement in South Carolina.

Charles Towne Landing

Charles Towne Landing Photo

Charles Towne Landing Museum

On a visit here, you will stroll through the gardens, you can tour the Adventure ship, and visit the Animal Forest zoo. We walked a loop around the site, which takes about 30 minutes. There are only a few things to see, such as a few cannons and a house, so it wasn’t an educational experience, but it is a very pretty walk. There is also a museum inside of the visitor center which does a great job illustrating the early settlement of Europeans and their interactions with Native Americans.

Overall, we enjoyed our time here, but it is only worthwhile for those with a lot of time on their hands and want more of a walk in the park rather than an educational, historic tour.

Learn more on the official website.

19. Fort Sumter & Patriot’s Point

Fort Sumter

This sea fort was built to protect Charleston from naval invasion. Construction began after 1812 and was still incomplete during the Battle of Fort Sumter in the Civil War. It was damaged and left in ruins and never completed.

The National Park Service owns and operates Fort Sumter. To get here, you will take a ferry. Visitors can take a guided tour of the fort or visit it unguided. Learn more on the NPS website.

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum

This naval museum sits across the Charleston Harbor from Charleston and Fort Sumter. You can drive and park here, unlike Fort Sumter.

This naval museum has several warships you can tour, including a destroyer, a submarine, and an aircraft carrier (the USS Yorktown, which served in the Korean War and Vietnam war and was the recovery ship for the Apollo 8 space mission). From here, you can also take a ferry to Fort Sumter.

Learn more on the official website.

USS Yorktown

USS Yorktown at Patriot’s Point | Best Things to Do in Charleston

20. Shem Creek Boardwalk

The Shem Creek Boardwalk is a short walking path/boardwalk trail that runs through the Mount Pleasant marsh. It’s an easy, scenic walk and offers nice views of the marsh and marina. This is not a must-do on a visit to Charleston but it is a worthwhile experience for those with a lot of time on their hands that want to go for a scenic walk.

Shem Creek Boardwalk

Shem Creek Boardwalk

Best Things to Do in Charleston: On a Map

How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

Where to Stay in Charleston

LUXURY: Hotel Bennett. Located on Marion Square in the Charleston city center, this hotel has an excellent location. From this hotel, you can walk to everything in the city. The service is impeccable, some rooms have a spectacular view of the city, and there is an onsite rooftop bar.

Where to Stay in Charleston

Charleston South Carolina

The view from Hotel Bennett

UPSCALE: 20 South Battery. Stay in a historic house located in the Battery. This small, lovely property offers a variety of room types, including spacious suites and two-bedroom apartments.

UPSCALE: French Quarter Inn. Located next to City Market, this historic inn is decorated in vintage furnishings. With excellent reviews and rooms that can accommodate up to 4 people, this makes a great pick for families.

MID-RANGE: Hilton Club Liberty Place. With large, well-decorated rooms and a central location, and one of the best review scores, this is one of our top picks for Charleston. The two-bedroom suites can accommodate large families and the king deluxe room are perfect for couples who want a spacious room without a big price tag.

MID-RANGE: Barksdale House Inn. If you want to stay in the heart of the historic district, look no farther. This historic inn was built in 1778 and decorated in a European style.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the must-see sights in Charleston?

In Charleston, the must-see sights include the Charleston City Market, the Pineapple Fountain in the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, touring a historic house in Charleston, taking a plantation tour, seeing the Angel Oak Tree, shopping on King Street, and visiting Fort Sumter. One of the best things to do in Charleston is to dine at its long list of restaurants and bars.

How much time do you need in Charleston?

Ideally, plan on spending at least two days in Charleston. This gives you enough time to visit the main attractions in the city center and spend some time just outside of the city, seeing the Angel Oak Tree, Fort Sumter, and touring one or more plantations.

Charleston Rainbow Row

If you have any questions about the best things to do in Charleston or if you want to share your favorite experiences, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to Charleston

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA: Learn about the top experiences in our article Best Things to Do in Savannah, Georgia. We cover the top places to eat in our Savannah Restaurant Guide and the top rooftop bars in our Guide to the Savannah Rooftop Bars. Savannah also makes a great place to work remotely.

CONGAREE (SOUTH CAROLINA): Learn about the best things to do in Congaree National Park and learn how to plan your time with our One Day in Congaree Itinerary.

VISIT MORE CITIES IN THE USA: Explore more American cities in our guides to New Orleans, Key West, Las Vegas, New York City, Nashville, Boston, and Washington DC.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA: Tour the best bars in our article Best Bars in Atlanta.

If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide and our South Carolina Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.


Charleston South Carolina Things to Do


Note: This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase using one of these affiliate links, we get paid a small commission at no extra cost to you.

All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *