Your Trip to Charleston, SC: The Complete Guide

Charleston South Carolina downtown business district
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This 17th-century port city initially known as "Charles Towne," offers a bit of everything to visitors: stunning architecture, world-class dining, historic charm, natural beauty. Yes, tourists flock to the city for its role in the country's history, the candy-colored Georgian homes of Rainbow Row, the intoxicating cobblestones streets, lush landscapes, and towering church spires that give Charleston its "Holy City" moniker, but the city also has a thoroughly modern vibe, with galleries, restaurants, breweries, local shops, and recreational activities that cater to locals and visitors alike.

Here's a complete guide about when to visit, where to stay, what to do, getting around, saving money, and more on your visit to this city on the South Carolina coast.

Planning Your Trip to Charleston

  • Best Time to Visit: Weather-wise, the best time to visit Charleston is in the spring (March through May), when magnolia trees and flowers are in full bloom and temperatures are ideal. The fall (September through November) is also great weather-wise, especially the temperature cools off, and the humidity is lower, but be aware that September is also the peak of hurricane season, and evacuations could occur. Summers are long, hot, and muggy, but air conditioning is plentiful, and It's also a great time to enjoy the area's many beaches and recreational activities. Winters can be chilly and rainy, but still more mild than other parts of the country (and state), and a great time for seeing the historic homes and churches in their holiday splendor.
  • Language: English
  • Currency: U.S. Dollar
  • Getting Around: While Charleston has a bus system, public transportation is limited in the city. Parts of the historic district are easily walkable, but it's best to rent a car or take a ride share service or taxi to and from the airport or to explore attractions in the rest of the area.
  • Travel Tip: Hotel prices spike, and rooms can be scarce during high volume events like the Charleston Food & Wine Festival in March, the Cooper River Bridge Run 10K in April, and Spoleto Festival USA in May and June, so plan ahead. And pack comfortable shoes for walking on uneven cobblestone streets.

Things to Do

First-time visitors will enjoy wandering the streets of downtown, whether that's to enjoy the stately old homes, waterfront views, or to pop into one of the numerous galleries and retail shops.

History buffs will enjoy a walking tour or visit the Charleston Museum, the Fort Sumter National Monument, or Patriot's Point Naval & Maritime Museum, while the South Carolina Aquarium is a must for families. Arts aficionados will want to explore the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, and Charleston Music Hall. Outdoor enthusiasts will want to take a beach day to enjoy activities like biking, boating, and golf in nearby areas like Kiawah Island and Isle of Palms.

And don't forget to fuel up for your adventures: the city is home to several award-winning restaurants like Husk, FIG, and The Ordinary, as well as local distilleries and breweries.

  • Take a walking tour of the historic district. You can explore areas like Waterfront Park, Rainbow Row, and the Battery on your own easily on foot or by bicycle, or book a free, two-hour guided walking tour, with options ranging from the city's origins to Civil War history to notable architectural landmarks.
  • Stroll and shop along Historic King Street. From national retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Anthropologie to local shops like Croghan's Jewelry Box, Robert Lange Studios art gallery, Blue Bicycle Books, and Hamden Clothing, the street is perfect for window or actual shopping as well as people watching.
  • Eat and drink along upper King Street. The northern part of King Street is home to some of the city's best bars and restaurants. Get a real taste of the South at the James Beard award-winning Rodney Scott's BBQ, slurp bivalves at Leon's Oyster Shop, drink local beer at Palmetto Brewing Company, sip wine at Graft Wine Shop, or sample handcrafted, small batched spirits at High Wire Distillery, the city's first post-Prohibition distillery.

Explore more activities in Charleston with our guides to the city's best ghost tours and 13 Fun Things to Do in Charleston.

What to Eat and Drink

Charleston is a hot spot for seafood as well as both traditional and modern Low Country-inspired cuisine but also has its share of international fare ranging from Indian to Sichuan to Italian. With a large student population due to the College of Charleston and its recent graduates as well as the Medical University of South Carolina, the city also has a thriving nightlife and bar scene.

Located in a former 1920s era bank, The Ordinary on King Street is a haven for seafood and oyster lovers, while its sister restaurant FIG offers a tight menu of seasonally-inspired protein and vegetable dishes along with an award-winning wine program. 167 Raw and the Darling Oyster Bar are additional higher-end options for seafood aficionados, while those wanting a more relaxed culinary experience might opt for the more casual Nana's Seafood and Soul or Roadside Seafood Kitchen.

Other standout restaurants include the farm to table-focused The Macintosh, soul food classic Bertha's Restaurant, low country-centric Hannibal's Kitchen, the Asian-influenced Xiao Bao Biscuit, the hyper-local and much-lauded Husk, the neighborhood Italian spot Le Farfalle, and the elegant fare at Zero Restaurant + Bar.

For bars, King Street and the adjacent streets in downtown are home to several of the city's best. Visit the Bar at Husk for its extensive bourbon collection, The Gin Joint for its namesake spirit-inspired cocktails, Cane Rhum Bar for tiki drinks, Prohibition for jazz-era inspired tipples and The Living Room at The Dewberry Hotel for a post-dinner nightcap in midcentury luxury.

Where to Stay

Historic District: This is where you'll find city's most conveniently located hotels, like the grand Hotel Bennett overlooking Marion Square, the historic Francis Marion Hotel, and the swanky midcentury throwback The Dewberry as well as reliable chains like the Hyatt Place, Hampton Inn, and Holiday Inn.

West Ashley: This suburban neighborhood just a few miles west of the city and across the Ashley River also offers affordable, accessible accommodations like Best Western and La Quinta Inn and Suites.

North Charleston: Located near the airport, convention center, and North Charleston Coliseum, and about ten miles (20 minutes in traffic) north of downtown, North Charleston is an affordable option with standard chains like the Hampton Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, DoubleTree, and Holiday Inn and quick access to attractions like Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall.

Mount Pleasant: This suburb north of the city offers waterfront views and accommodations at reliable chains like the Wyndham Garden and Hampton Inn and Suites and provides easy access to Patriot's Point. It connects to downtown via the Arthur Ravenel Bridge.

Additional accommodations and short term rentals are available in neighboring areas like Kiawah Island, James Island, Folly Beach, and Isle of Palms, but will require long drives to the city.

For more about accommodations, see our guide to the city's best hotels.

Getting There

Charleston International Airport (CHS) offers direct flights to and from Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and other U.S. cities via major airlines like Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest.

From the airport, it's a 20-30 minute drive to downtown. Rent a car, catch a rideshare like Lyft or Uber, hail a taxi, or take the downtown shuttle, which is $15/passenger and leaves within 15 minutes of request. Also, note there is a $15 minimum charge for all taxis leaving the airport. For those traveling by train, Amtrak has a stop in North Charleston, near the airport.

Charleston is an easy drive from nearby destinations like Savannah, Georgia, (100 miles south), Myrtle Beach (90 miles north), and Atlanta (300 miles northwest). Most of the city's hotels have parking lots or valet, so driving a car into the city isn't an issue.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Pack a picnic and take advantage of the city's many parks, like Waterfront Park with its photographable pineapple fountain and White Point Garden on the southern end of the peninsula and the Battery promenade, both of which offer exceptional views of sunrises and sunsets.
  • Book a hotel in offseason. Hotel rates can skyrocket during tourist season (spring and fall), so try visiting during a less busy month like February or August.
  • Explore the city's many churches and cemeteries. The city's oldest burial ground, Magnolia Cemetery is notable for its Victorian architecture surrounded by Spanish moss, while St. Philip's Church offers free tours of its cemetery and grounds, which features some of the city's oldest wrought iron railings as well as the tombstones of some of its most notable residents.
  • Enjoy a gallery walk. Two local arts districts, Gallery Row and French Quarter, offer walking tours select first Fridays of the month from 5 to 8 p.m.
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