48 Hours in Charleston: The Perfect Itinerary

downtown Charleston
downtown Charleston.

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There's a reason Charleston is a top travel destination. Continually ranked one of the world's friendliest cities, this coastal town has it all: rich history, world-class dining, a vibrant arts scene, beautiful beaches, stunning architecture, moderate year-round weather, and endless recreational activities. It has so much to offer that choosing what to do and where to go for a weekend getaway can be a real challenge, but we've selected the highlights every visitor to Charleston should see.

01 of 06

Day 1: Morning

Marion Square

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10 a.m.: Once you've landed at Charleston International Airport, grab your rental car, hail a taxi, or use a ride share for the 20 to 25-minute drive into the Historic District. While we can't guarantee early check-in, we do recommend a trio of hotels adjacent to Marion Square—the mid-century inspired The Dewberry, the luxurious Hotel Bennett, and the historic Francis Marion Hotel—in the heart of the city for stellar views of the Charleston's famed church steeples and picturesque harbor (ask for a south-facing room) as well as walkability to major attractions. Drop off your bags, freshen up, and prepare to explore the city.

11 a.m.: Head to Queen Street Grocery for a late breakfast or early lunch. Order one of the signature crepes or a savory omelet to enjoy on the sidewalk patio. Alternatively, grab a smoothie, salad, or hot pressed sandwich to go and head to the nearby Colonial Lake park for a scenic picnic. Then walk to the nearby Battery and White Point Garden on the south end of the peninsula. Bordered by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the seawall promenade includes walking paths, remnants of Civil War artillery, harbor views, and stately Antebellum homes.

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02 of 06

Day 1: Afternoon

Rainbow Row

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1:30 p.m.: Explore the city on foot with Charleston Sole Walking Tours, owned and operated by a 10th-generation resident. The two-hour, 1.5-mile guided tour starts at the Old Exchange Building on East Bay Street and includes city landmarks like the Dock Street Theatre, Nathaniel Russell House garden, St. Michael's Church, and Rainbow Row. Book in advance to reserve your spot.

For a free, self-guided audio experience, download Free Tours on Foot, with tour options ranging from the city's origins to Civil War history to notable architectural landmarks.

4 p.m.: If hunger sets in, stop by goat.sheep.cow's Church Street outpost for a snack of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, and wine. Eat there or pack some snacks and head to Waterfront Park to watch boats on the harbor, catch a glimpse of Fort Sumter, and snap photos in front of the Instagram-able pineapple fountain.

Then stroll through nearby galleries like the Dog & Horse Fine Art & Portraiture and Sculpture GardenDiNello Gallery, and Helena Fox Fine Gallery, which showcase the best of locally and nationally renowned international artists. If you have time, tour one of the many churches—like St. Philip's and its adjoining cemetery—that give Charleston its "Holy City" moniker.

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03 of 06

Day 1: Evening

A hand reaching out to serve food from Husk

TripSavvy / Anna Haines

6 p.m.: While Charleston has plenty of amazing restaurants to choose from, no trip to the city is complete without a visit to the much-lauded Husk. While founding chef Sean Brock has moved on to other ventures, his celebration of Southern ingredients lives on in dishes like deviled eggs with pickled okra and trout row and okra stew with Carolina Gold rice. If you can't score a reservation, visit the restaurant's bar which offers a rotating a la carte menu and an extensive menu of craft cocktails, Southern spirits, wine, beer, and cider.

8 p.m.: After dinner, walk over to the Charleston Gaillard Center or Charleston Music Hall for a show. The former is a non-profit performing arts venue with programming ranging from touring Broadway hits and orchestras to concerts from contemporary artists like Tony Bennett and Little Big Town. The latter is a 19th-century Gothic revival building that offers live music, comedy, dance, and theater productions year-round.

Additional options for live music include The Royal American, vintage jazz club The Commodore, and the Music Farm.

10:30 p.m.: Charleston stays open late, so finish your evening with a nightcap at the mid-century brass bar at The Living Room at the Dewberry Hotel, or cocktails at the intimate, 1920s-inspired the Gin Joint.

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04 of 06

Day 2: Morning

Morris Island Lighthouse at sunrise, South Carolina, USA
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8 a.m.: Fuel your second day of adventures with hearty soul food from Hannibal's Kitchen in Eastside Charleston. The casual, family-owned spot has been dishing up soul food for over 35 years, and at $6, the Blake Street Breakfast—with choice of meat like sausage patties or bacon along with two eggs, grits, and a side of toast—can't be beaten. The $2.75 build-your-own East Bay Breakfast Sandwiches, with options of lettuce, cheese, or tomato plus a protein, are another great option. The menu also includes shrimp and grits, corned beef hash, and fried local shark.

Want something on the lighter side? Go for Stumptown coffee, salmon or avocado toast, sauteed greens with eggs, or a smoothie from the light and airy neighborhood cafe The Daily on King Street.

10 a.m.: Hop aboard the Morris Island Boat Tour with Adventure Harbor Tours. The three-hour excursion includes sightings of some of the city's most notable landmarks such as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the Battery, Fort Sumter, and Waterfront Park, as well as a stop at nearby Morris Island, an undeveloped barrier island teeming with wildlife and unspoiled beauty. During the 90-minute walking tour, you'll learn about the tides and the island's history, the ecology of barrier islands and marshland, and search for treasures like shark teeth and shells. You may even spot a dolphin or two!

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05 of 06

Day 2: Afternoon

Food from Rodney Scott BBQ

TripSavvy / Anna Haines

1 p.m.: South Carolina native's Rodney Scott's BBQ specializes in whole hog barbecue, smoked over oak coals mixed with hickory and pecan wood and generously doused in the pitmaster's signature sauce. Get it on a sandwich, over grits with cornbread, by the pound, or on a plate piled high with two sides, like hush puppies, greens, and mac and cheese. The restaurant's menu also includes BBQ spare ribs, fried catfish fillets, wings, and smoked turkey. Save room for dessert; Ella's banana pudding is not to be missed.

2:30 p.m.: Make your way further down King Street to browse the shops in the Historic District. From estate jewelry at Croghan's Jewel Box to rare and vintage finds at Blue Bicycle Books to art galleries like Robert Lange Studio and women's fashion at Hampden Clothing, this well-traveled thoroughfare has something for everyone. National retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Anthropologie, and lululemon have locations here as well.

4 p.m.: Head to the Gibbes Art Museum, one of the oldest arts organizations in the United States. The permanent collection includes over four centuries of paintings, decorative works, sculptures, and other works from American artists like Angelica Kaufmann and Conrad Wise Chapman. As the country's first-ever miniatures were painted in the city, it's fitting that the Gibbes houses the largest collection of the genre, with over 600 pieces from the Colonial era through the early 20th century.

If you missed the Daily in the morning, the museum has an outpost, which offers coffee, smoothies, juices, and a variety of grab-and-go sandwiches and salads for a quick afternoon pick-me-up.

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06 of 06

Day 2: Evening

empty counter with oysters behind the glass at The Ordinary

Andrew Cebulka 

5:30 p.m.: You can't visit Charleston without eating fresh-caught seafood. Located in a former 1920s era bank, The Ordinary on King Street offers $1.50 oysters during weekday happy hour, Tuesday through Friday between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Grab a seat at the raw bar to watch the shucking in action, then order a selection of East Coast bivalves, peel and eat South Carolina shrimp, littleneck clams, or all of the above plus lobster cocktail and other oceanic specialties on a shellfish tower. Feeling fancy? Indulge in the restaurant's caviar service served with Johnny cakes and traditional garnishes. The Ordinary also has a full dinner menu, plus cocktails, beer, and wines by the bottle and glass.

Another can't miss happy hour can be found at Prohibition, which offers $1 oysters on the half shell, plus $5 for all snacks (get the fried oyster roll), classic cocktails like the Moscow Mule, and select beers Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., all in a speakeasy setting in the heart of the Historic District.

7 p.m.: Head to The Ordinary's sister restaurant, FIG, for dinner. Helmed by Chef Jason Stanhope, the Meeting Street spot offers a tight menu of Southern, seasonally-inspired dishes like Jimmy Red cornbread with cottage cheese and persimmon and fish stew Provençal, which pair well with selections from the restaurant's award-winning wine program.

10 p.m. End the night (and your weekend) at The Rooftop Bar at The Vendue. Located on East Bay Street, the bar is open seven days a week and offers unparalleled views of Charleston Harbor and Waterfront Park, as well as snacks, beer, wine, and specialty cocktails. For $100, you can order a bucket of bubbles to toast to the perfect weekend in the Holy City.

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