With its award-winning restaurants, temperate climate, and coastal locale, Charleston, SC is a popular destination for travelers worldwide—and among the cobblestone streets and historic church spires that give the city its "Holy City" moniker, you'll find several museums worth a visit.
The city has a designated "Museum Mile," which begins at the Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street downtown. This easily walkable route includes six museums, including the Charleston Museum and The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. The Gibbes Museum of Art, the SC Aquarium, and museums dedicated to fire fighting, naval history, and contemporary art round out the city's diverse offerings.
Here's more about the nine best museums to visit in Charleston.
Part of the city's "Museum Mile" and founded in 1773, this is the oldest museum in the United States. The permanent exhibits include collections dedicated to the Low Country's history, from pre-historic times to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the present day. Along with artifacts like George Washington's christening cup, highlights include an interactive children's exhibit and the Bunting Natural History Gallery; here you'll find skeletons and animal remains, like the cast of jaws from a Megalodon, a now extinct 40-foot-long shark that once lived off the Carolina coast.
The Museum also operates two historic homes: the Georgian-era Heyward-Washington House, home of Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Heyward, Jr., and the antebellum Joseph Manigault House.
Museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets start at $12 for adults ($10 for youth ages 13 to 17, and $5 for children 3 to 12), with combination tickets available for all three attractions.
Located on a small island in the Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter was originally built as one of a series of fortifications on the East Coast after the War of 1812. It's also where Confederate forces first fired shots at federal troops in 1861, thus starting the Civil War.
The fort, now part of the National Park Service, is accessible via a scenic 30-minute ferry ride from either Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant or the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center in Liberty Square downtown. In addition to touring a small on-site museum, guests can listen to rangers talk about the monument's role in history, take a self-guided tour of the fort to explore cannons and other artillery, and enjoy views of the harbor.
Advanced tickets are highly recommended and can be purchased online. The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except for New Year's, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Days.
Explore Charleston's role in naval history at three former ships-turned-museums at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, a suburb just northeast of downtown. Ships on display include the World World II aircraft carrier "USS Yorktown," the destroyer "USS Laffey," and the submarine "USS Clamagore." The complex also includes the Medal of Honor Museum, Cold War Submarine Memorial, and the Vietnam Naval Support Base exhibit. It's open from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily except major holidays.
One of the oldest arts organizations in the United States, the Gibbes' permanent collection features over four centuries of paintings, decorative art, sculptures, and other works from notable American artists like Angelica Kaufmann and Conrad Wise Chapman. It also houses the largest collection of miniatures, with over 600 pieces from the Colonial era through the early 20th century.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. On Sundays, it's open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
From an art room where budding Picassos can try their hand at painting, to an organic garden for tasting herbs and watching butterflies, to a replica pirate ship where little ones can learn about the history of Charleston Harbor, this downtown museum will keep young tourists occupied for hours. Other exhibits include "waterways," an interactive water model of the city, and a medieval "creativity castle," which features a puppet theatre.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Built in 1771, the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon has served as a commercial exchange, custom house, military headquarters, city hall, and post office. The historic building was the site of some of the city's most notable events, like the signing of the U.S. Constitution, as well as its darkest moments, like public slave auctions. Now a public museum, the Georgian-style building has a self-guided exhibition as well as a docent-guided tour of the cellar, where pirates, prisoners of war, and others were held. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except holidays.
Located along the Charleston Harbor downtown, the South Carolina Aquarium is home to more than 10 thousand plants and animals, including river otters, loggerhead sea turtles, horseshoe crabs, sharks, sea urchins, and ocean fish. Exhibits cover the state's habitats from the mountain forests of Appalachia to the coastal plain. Highlights include the Touch Tank, where visitors can interact with hermit crabs and Atlantic stingrays, and the two-story, 385,000-gallon Ocean Tank, the largest in North America.
The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (the building closes at 5 p.m.) and closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. Tickets are $29.95 for adults and $22.95 for children.
Part of the College of Charleston campus in downtown, this museum hosts approximately five to seven annual exhibits from both local and international contemporary artists. Expect diverse, thought-provoking works ranging from multimedia instillations to sculptures, paintings, and photography. The museum also hosts an artist-in-residence, lectures, film screenings, and other learning events.
During exhibitions, gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with extended hours to 7 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is free.
It's worth the short drive to North Charleston to see the country's largest collection of professionally restored American LaFrance fire apparatuses, some of them dating back to the 1780s. In addition to the antique trucks, you'll find fun, interactive displays with fire fighting gear and games like "Are You an Escape Artist?" to test fire safety knowledge.
Admission for adults is $6 and free for children 12 and under. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.