Top 10 Attractions in Charleston, South Carolina

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    Historic and Elegant Charleston

    Photo of Charleston's Waterfront Park Pineapple Fountain
    ••• Charleston's Waterfront Park and Pineapple Fountain. Photo Credit: John Cardasis / via Getty Images

    Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the most interesting and lovely cities in the United States. Visitors are drawn to this historic city to explore the city's storied past and enjoy its stylish elegance, exceptional food, and Southern charm. Frequently ranked as one of America's best places to visit, Charleston has received many awards and accolades as a top destination for romantics, family vacations, and foodies. It has also been named the eighth smartest city in the world, a Top 10 Value City for Couples, and America's Most Mannerly City.

    Whether you're planning your first visit to Charleston or returning to enjoy more of the things the city and surrounding areas have to offer, these top 10 attractions and activities will help you plan a sightseeing itinerary that is tailored to your interests.

    The Charleston Visitor Center, at 375 Meeting Street in a restored 1856 railroad warehouse, is a great place to begin your sightseeing. Here you'll find maps and information about...MORE scheduling tours and be able to purchase tickets for tours and attractions. The Visitor Center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.; it's closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

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    Carriage, Walking, and Boat Tours

    Charleston carriage tours; Photo Credit: © 2007 George Alexander, licensed to About.com, Inc.
    ••• Charleston is a lovely city for daytime and evening carriage tours. Photo Credit: © 2007 George Alexander, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Charleston offers several guided tours that give you an overview of the city. There is no better way than a carriage, walking, or boat tour to learn about Charleston's past and present. 

    • Old Charleston Walking Tours: Choose from several themed walking tours that include history walks and South of Broad tour based on South Carolina author Pat Conroy's New York Times bestseller of the same name.
    • Schooner Pride Harbor Tours: Take a Charleston Harbor sailing tour on an 84-foot, three-mast schooner modeled after the classic coastal trading schooners.
    • Charleston Carriage Tours: Charleston is an enchanting city to explore by carriage. Choose from several entertaining carriage tours or enjoy a quiet, romantic evening carriage ride through the Historic District. 
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    Offbeat Tours

     If you'd like to learn about the more hidden side of Charleston, check out these two options.

    • Gullah Tours: Owner and guide Alphonso Brown, explores the places, history, and stories that are relevant to the rich and uniquely Lowcountry Gullah culture.
    • Charleston Ghost Tours: Explore the eerie past of haunted Charleston on one of these spooky adventures.
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    Charleston Dining and Culinary Attractions

    Charleston restaurants and cuisine; Photo Credit: © 2007 George Alexander
    ••• Charleston's renowned regional and international cuisine is a major attraction for many visitors. Photo Credit: © 2007 George Alexander, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Long known as a top destination for classic Southern favorites and regional Lowcountry specialties like shrimp and grits or Frogmore Stew, Charleston is also home to many fine restaurants that feature international flavors. Besides the hundreds of great dining options, there are other ways to enjoy Charleston's culinary scene, including special food-themed festivals and events, food tours, and fun markets.

    • Charleston restaurants:  Whether you're longing for Southern, French or eclectic American food, seafood or Mexican, you'll find a splendid place to eat it in Charleston.
    • Culinary tours: Culinary Tours of Charleston highlights South Carolina's rich culinary heritage with a few different options for guided cooking adventures.
    • Charleston's Seasonal Farmers Market: Open seasonally on Saturday mornings, this outdoor market at Marion Square is a great place to explore Charleston's fresh local produce, plants, herbs, and cut flowers. You can also have breakfast and lunch,...MORE check out local artisans' arts and crafts, and hear live entertainment.
    • Charleston City Market:  Find art, music, and food at one of the oldest city markets in the country, which has been serving Charleston since 1807. It's at the corner of Meeting and Market streets in the heart of Charleston's Historic District.

     

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    Charleston Area Plantations

    ••• Middleton Place gardens are among the earliest private gardens in the nation. Photo Credit: Image courtesy of The Charleston Area CVB; www.ExploreCharleston.com; (1-800-868-8118)

    Visit one or more of Charleston's plantations to explore the history of plantation life, fine Historic Landmark architecture, and some of the earliest private gardens in the nation.

    • Middleton Place: A National Historic Landmark, this 18th-century rice plantation with 65 acres of America's has oldest landscaped gardens.
    • Drayton Hall: A National Historic Landmark and a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Drayton Hall (circa 1738) is the oldest American preserved plantation house open to the public.
    • Magnolia Plantation and Gardens: This is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry and has the oldest public gardens in America. It was founded as a plantation in 1676.
    • Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens: Boone Hall's iconic drive lined by huge live oaks stands as an enduring symbol of Southern plantations. In operation since 1681, this is one of America's oldest working and living plantations.
    • The Charleston Tea Plantation: For something unique, visit...MORE the nation's only tea garden and the home of American Classic Tea, the only tea grown in America.

     

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    Charleston Festivals and Events

    Spoleto Festival USA; Photo Credit: Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
    ••• Opening ceremonies of Charleston's renowned Spoleto Festival USA. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

    In every month of every season, visitors to Charleston have a variety of annual festivals and special events from which to choose. From the renowned Spoleto Festival USA to food festivals and holiday celebrations, here are a few highlights.

    • Spoleto Festival USA: Recognized internationally as a premier performing arts festival, Spoleto Festival USA celebrates opera, theater, dance, and music every spring in Charleston. The opening ceremonies are held in late May at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. Festival performances and events continue for more than two weeks into early June and feature a program that showcases both renowned and emerging artists. 
    • Piccolo Spoleto Festival: Held concurrently with Spoleto Festival USA, Piccolo Spoleto showcases local and regional artists from many genres, including the visual arts, theater, dance, poetry, cultural performances, crafts artisans, film, and music (including classical, jazz and choral music).
    • Annual fall tours of homes and gardens: Spons...MOREored by the Preservation Society of Charleston, self-guided tours from late September to late October explore Charleston's historic neighborhoods featuring private homes and gardens, churches, and public buildings. 
    • Southeastern Wildlife Exposition: The largest wildlife art and nature event in the nation, this celebration of nature every February features hundreds of exhibitors from around the world in various Charleston venues, mostly within easy walking distance in the Charleston Historic District.
    • Charleston Food Festivals:  Check out the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, and A Taste of Charleston. (A Taste of Charleston was canceled in 2017 but as of September 2017 was expected to return in 2018.) The dates for these festivals vary; check the websites before you go.
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    Charleston's Museum Mile

    Historic Meeting Street; Photo Credit: © 2007 George Alexander
    ••• Historic Meeting Street. Photo Credit: © 2007 George Alexander, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Charleston's Museum Mile is along and near a one-mile section of Meeting Street that stretches from the Charleston Visitor Center to the Nathaniel Russell House. Easily walkable and offering plenty of public transportation options, as well as ample public parking, Museum Mile features many of Charleston's most interesting historic and cultural sites.

    Themed ticket packages, which offer admission savings for sites along Museum Mile, can be purchased online or in person at the Charleston Visitor Center.

     

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    Fort Sumter National Monument

    Photo of Fort Sumter National Monument
    ••• Ruins at Fort Sumter. Photo Credit: The National Park Service

    Fort Sumter National Monument, operated by the National Park Service, offers three sites to visit in three separate locations:

    • Fort Sumter:  Originally built by the U.S. government for coastal defense, this former fortress is best known today as the site of the initial engagement of the Civil War. Fort Sumter is on an island and can be reached only by regularly scheduled ferry service or private boat.
    • Fort Moultrie:  Situated strategically at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, the history of Fort Moultrie spans 171 years from 1776 through 1947. Located near Mount Pleasant to the east of Charleston, Sullivan's Island can be reached by car via South Carolina Route 703. The Fort Sumter National Monument Park headquarters are located here as well.
    • Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square: Museum exhibits explain the background about how the escalating division between the North and the South resulted in the Civil War. 
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    Historic Charleston Battery

    The Charleston Battery
    ••• Aerial view of Charleston mansions facing the Historic Charleston Battery. Photo Credit: Image courtesy of The Charleston Area CVB; www.ExploreCharleston.com (1-800-868-8118)

    The  Battery, located at the southern end of the Charleston peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet to form Charleston Harbor, is a popular Charleston tourist destination. Things to enjoy and explore in the Battery area include some of Charleston's grandest historic homes, several statues and informational plaques, displays of Civil War artillery, peaceful White Point Gardens shaded by majestic live oak trees, and views of Charleston Harbor.

     

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    Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum

    Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum; Photo Credit: Courtesy of Carol Giffen
    ••• Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Carol Giffen

    Allow plenty of time to explore Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, which includes the USS Yorktown and USS Clamagore, the Medal of Honor Museum, Cold War Submarine Memorial, and the Vietnam Naval Support Base exhibit, the only one of its kind in the United States. ​

     

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    The South Carolina Aquarium

    The Charleston Aquarium; Photo Credit: Courtesy of Carol Giffen
    ••• The Charleston Aquarium. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Carol Giffen

    The South Carolina Aquarium, which opened in May 2000, is at 100 Aquarium Wharf on the historic Charleston Harbor at the end of Calhoun Street. A trip through the aquarium goes from the mountains to the ocean, and you'll see fish, river otters, alligators, crabs, sea urchins, sea turtles, ocean fish, and sharks in this watery wonderland.