Frequently ranked as one of America's best places to visit, Charleston, South Carolina is a top destination for its temperate climate, coastal locale, friendly charm, and wealth of activities for the whole family. From world-class dining and historic sites to museums, and shopping, the Holy City and the surrounding area offer plenty of things to do for a short weekend or an extended stay.
Whether you're planning your first visit to Charleston or a repeat visitor, here are the top 17 things to do in Charleston.
Sure, you can explore popular historic district sites like Waterfront Park, Rainbow Row, and the Battery on your own. But why not take advantage of the city's free, two-hour guided walking tour to learn about Charleston's past and present from the pros? Tour options range from Civil War history to architectural landmarks to the always popular night-time ghost tour for supernatural enthusiasts.
Discover Lowcountry Cuisine
Long known as a top destination for classic Southern favorites like shrimp and grits and regional Lowcountry specialties like Frogmore Stew, Charleston is a food lover's paradise. Eat dinner at the pioneering Husk, which merges fine dining with seasonal, regionally-sourced ingredients. Later, try Bertha's Kitchen or the family-run Hannibal's Kitchen for soul food like collard greens and fried chicken.
Charleston offers visitors a variety of annual festivals and special events, none more popular than Spoleto Festival USA. Running annually from Memorial Day weekend through early June, Spoleto hosts more than 150 performances ranging from jazz and dance to opera and theatre in churches, parks, performing halls, and other venues throughout the city. Its companion festival, Piccolo Spoleto, features free and low-cost offerings from local and regional artists.
Charleston's Museum Mile runs along a one-mile section of Meeting Street, beginning at the Charleston Visitor Center downtown. This easily walkable route includes six museums like the Charleston Museum and The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, plus historic homes, picturesque parks, and notable churches and buildings. Ticket packages can be purchased online or in person at the Charleston Visitor Center.
Walk Along the Historic Charleston Battery
No trip to the city is complete without a stroll along The Battery, located at the southern end of the Charleston peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet. Points of interest include Charleston's grandest historic homes, displays of Civil War artillery, the scenic White Point Gardens shaded by majestic live oak trees, and views of Charleston Harbor—perfect for packing a picnic and watching the sun set.
To learn about the city's role in naval history, explore Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum. Located in the northern suburb of Mount Pleasant, Patriots Point is home to three former ships-turned-museums: the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, the destroyer USS Laffey, and a submarine, USS Clamagore. The complex also includes the Medal of Honor Museum; the Cold War Submarine Memorial; and the Vietnam Naval Support Base exhibit, the only one of its kind in the United States.
Located along the Charleston Harbor, the South Carolina Aquarium is home to more than ten thousand plants and animals like 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, and highlights include the Touch Tank—where visitors can feel hermit crabs and Atlantic stingrays—and the two-story, 385,000-gallon Ocean Tank, the largest in North America.
Consistently ranked one of the top farmers' markets in the country, the Charleston Farmer's Market takes place Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., April through November, at Marion Square in the historic district. The market includes more than one hundred vendors selling everything from fresh produce to cut flowers to artisan jewelry, plus frequent live music and food trucks dishing up breakfast sandwiches and Lowcountry boil. Don't miss the special Holiday Market on select Saturdays and Sundays in December.
Tour Historic Homes
From the Georgian-inspired Heyward-Washington House on Church Street to the palatial 18th-century Aiken-Rhett House Museum on Elizabeth Street, Charleston is full of elegant, well-preserved historic homes that retain original furnishings, wallpaper, and other decorative details. Many of them are open to the public year-round, while the Preservation Society of Charleston offers self-guided tours of additional homes and gardens each fall from late September through late October.
Stroll and Shop Historic King Street
Once the city's main thoroughfare, historic King Street bisects the peninsula from north to south. Its colorful buildings house restaurants, bars, and shops; stores range from national retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Anthropologie to local purveyors like Croghan's Jewel Box, Robert Lange Studios art gallery, Blue Bicycle Books, and Hampden Clothing.
Sample Local Beer and Spirits
With more than 30 local breweries and distilleries, craft beer and spirits are a booming industry in Charleston. Visit taprooms like Charleston Distilling Co., Fatty's Beer Works, Highwire Distilling, and Holy City Brewing on your own. Or, book a four and a half hour tasting tour with Crafted Travel to sample beer and spirits at three different spots for $84.
Some of the best views of this coastal city are from the water, so hop on board the Morris Island Boat Tour with Adventure Harbor Tours. The three-hour excursion includes sightings of some of Charleston's most notable landmarks such as the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, the Battery, Fort Sumter, and Waterfront Park. You'll also get to 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 marsh land, and search for treasures like shark teeth and shells. You may even spot a dolphin or two!
Visit Nearby Edisto Island
While the Charleston area offers plenty of beaches, this sea island just 45 miles southwest of the city is less commercially developed than its peers and offers a more low-key coastal experience. Learn about the area's history at the Edisto Island Museum; hike or bike the trails at the oceanfront Edisto Beach State Park; and visit snakes, frogs, alligators, iguanas, and other reptiles at the Edisto Island Serpentarium.
Get Up Close with History at Fort Sumter
Originally built as one of a series of fortifications on the Southern coast after the War of 1812, Fort Sumter is where Confederate forces first fired shots at the Union Army, thus starting the Civil War. Catch a ferry from either Liberty Square Visitors Center or Patriots Point to the small island in Charleston Harbor, now part of the National Park Service. The site includes a small museum and a self-guided tour for visitors to explore the historic structure.
The city's more than 40 downtown art galleries open their doors to the public as part of the Charleston Gallery Association's monthly ArtWalk series. Typically held the third Thursday of each month, participating galleries as well as local boutiques and restaurants stay open late, offering wine, snacks, and plenty of time for shopping and browsing.
Take a Picture with the Angel Oak Tree
For your trip's most Instagram-worthy snap, head to nearby John's Island for photos with the famed Angel Oak Tree. At more than 400 years old, 65 feet high, and 25 feet wide, the tree is the largest live oak east of the Mississippi River. It's located down a long dirt road inside Angel Oak Park.
Tour Historic Graveyards and Cemeteries
Dubbed the "Holy City" due to its proliferation of church spires, many of these historic houses of worship have on-site gravesites and cemeteries open to the public. At St. Philip's on Church Street, you'll find the final resting place of DuBose Heyward, whose novel Porgy inspired the George Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess." Nearby, two signers of the American Constitution—John Rutledge and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney—are buried at St. Michael's, the city's oldest church.