My Charleston Guide: What to See and Do

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


I get messages from friends from time to time asking me about what I'd recommend doing, seeing, eating, etc while in Charleston, South Carolina. Juston and I started visiting Charleston a little over ten years ago and have gone about 4 times a year ever since we fell head over heels that first visit. I have to say, Charleston stole my heart initially, but the entire Lowcountry is very special to me, not necessarily Charleston specifically, so I'll include some other things in this post that are outside of the peninsula (downtown Charleston) as well. Charleston is where we visit the most, obviously, but there are so many other gems in the Lowcountry just a short drive from Charleston, so it's worth branching out as well. Plus, as Charleston has exploded in popularity, I do feel it's losing some of the charm that made me fall in love with it to begin with. It wasn't nearly as busy when we first started going. There were lots more locally owned shops, much fewer chains and hotels populating downtown and WAY less tourists. Most people you encountered were true locals, not transplanted "locals" or tourists. That being said, I will always love and always visit the Holy City, so I want to share some of my recommendations with you. These are all places that I have visited, eaten or stayed personally, I'm not including anything I can't vouch for myself. I'm also going to include some photos taken over all the years we've visited, so some things I'm posting may not look the same now as they did when I took the pictures.

I've decided to break this up into more than one post so that it's a bit more simple to navigate. I'm going to start today with What to See and Do. Later, I'll do a post of Where to Shop and Eat and finally a post on Where to Stay. Alright, let's get to it!

What to See and do in Charleston

When you are in the Lowcountry, there is beauty at every single turn whether it's the marshes, the ocean, the rivers, the beautiful gardens and courtyards of the homes on the peninsula or the actual homes themselves, it's all enchanting. I even see the beauty in the old historic homes that haven't been so well-cared for over the years because I see the potential of what they could be as well as what they likely were. I think this is the aspect of Charleston that I most fell in love with on our first visit: the preservation-mindedness of it's citizens when it comes to maintaining the city's rich history.

I say all of this to say that the first thing I recommend seeing is Charleston itself meaning, just set aside plenty of time to walk around downtown. Meander up and down all the side streets and be sure to have your camera charged up because you'll want pictures. I'd recommend parking at or near White Point Garden (but be sure you're not in residential parking, they love handing out tickets), so that you can see the beautiful homes that stand sentinel over The Battery, looking out at Fort Sumter in the distance. If you love flowers and gardening, you'll appreciate the vibrant window boxes, the lush courtyards that are often visible behind the intricate wrought iron gates found throughout downtown and the sweet scents of Carolina and Confederate Jasmine that perfume the air at certain times of the year. Charleston is a delight for the senses.

It's hard not to walk by all of those homes without wanting a to take a peek inside and luckily, some of the homes are open for tours. You can get tickets to tour The Calhoun Mansion, Nathaniel Russell House, the Edmondston-Alston House and the Joseph Manigault House to name a few. Our favorite so far has been The Calhoun Mansion.

The Calhoun Mansion
Nathaniel Russell House
Edmondston-Alston House
The Joseph Manigault House

 While you're downtown, I'd recommend walking to Water Front Park to see the famous Pineapple Fountain (you can splash around in it, so if you have little ones, bring their suits and towels), sit on the covered pier and swing, you can often spot dolphins if you go at the right time, and walk High Battery.

Next, I'd say if you're a history buff, it's worth the ferry ride out to Fort Sumter and often this boat ride can double as a dolphin cruise as they sometimes put on a show during the ride. You hop on a boat downtown near the aquarium and it's obviously round trip, but go early in the morning when it's cooler and you don't have to rush to make sure you catch the last boat back. It's a very humbling and surreal experience to stand out at Fort Sumter and look over at The Battery and imagine what it must have been like during the Civil War, to be surrounded by such turbulence but also such beauty. Another fort worth a tour is Fort Moultrie out on Sullivan's Island. It's not in downtown, so you'll have to drive out to it, but it's close to the beach access and some great restaurants so you can make an afternoon of it. While you're there, you can check out the Sullivan's Island lighthouse.

Fort Sumter Ferry
Fort Moultrie
Sullivan's Island Lighthouse 

Something a lot of people would love that's just across the harbor from the peninsula is Patriot's Point. I've only done this twice in all of our trips. For me, it's one of those things that's definitely worth going to see but maybe wouldn't pique everyone's interest, but you can actually walk around the big ship the USS Yorktown and  learn about the ins and outs of how it all works. I'm not sure if it's still there, but the last time we toured, you could also board a submarine that was at Patriot's Point as well. They have a museum on site you can also visit.

Patriot's Point Naval and Maritime Museum

Another worthwhile trip is the drive out to John's Island to see the Angel Oak tree. It's estimated that the oak is nearly 500 years old and it's like nothing I could describe. The branches sprawl out in every direction reaching high and low. It's massive and you will not be disappointed.

Angel Oak Tree 

It's a bit of a longer drive, maybe an hour from downtown Charleston, but while you're in the area, make the drive over to Yemassee, SC and check out the Old Sheldon Church Ruins. There are grave markers dating back into the 1700's and 1800's on the grounds and you can read all about the history of the church and its ruins on some of the historical markers once you get there.

Old Sheldon Church Ruins 

A great way to see a lot of the sights while getting a history lesson on downtown is to take a carriage tour. Recently, there's been a big stink made over the carriages in Charleston, but it has to be mostly transplants complaining about it because the horse barns are open for anyone to see, the employees answer any questions and the industry is pretty transparent as a whole, so I still recommend them to people. Our favorite carriage company is Old South Carriage Company, but we have toured with Palmetto Carriage as well.

Old South Carriage Company
Palmetto Carriage Works

Another huge tourist draw is the plantations in the area that are open to the public to tour and oftentimes hold special events you can attend as well. Again, I'm only going to list and link the ones I have personally visited and would recommend, but there are others in the area. My favorite and likely the most popular is Boone Hall Plantation. Anyone who has seen the movie The Notebook may recognize the driveway lined with live oak trees and the house itself as that of Allie's parents' summer home from the movie. You can walk through parts of the house, you can learn a great deal about the local Gullah culture (so worth the time to learn what you can about this culture, it's fascinating) and take a ride around the grounds as well. Other plantations we've visited and enjoyed are Magnolia Plantation, where you'll often find yourself within arms reach of some of the pretty peacocks that roam the grounds and Drayton Hall Plantation. I haven't visited any of these in the last few trips, but if you go to their websites I'm linking below, you can find listings for special events as well as additional information about what each place has to offer. They were all beautiful and worth their respective trips out of downtown.

Boone Hall Plantation
Magnolia Plantation
Drayton Hall Plantation

There's so much to see in Charleston, but that's a good start for anyone looking to plan a trip for some of my favorite things to see. It all depends on what type of experience you are looking for from your trip. You can spend a week and never leave the peninsula and still feel like you didn't do it all there, or you can spread your time between downtown, John's Island, Sullivan's Island, etc and explore more that the Lowcountry has to offer. It's such a beautiful part of the South and one that we visit anytime the opportunity presents itself. Did I miss some of your favorites? Let me know if I need to add anything! And be sure to check back for part two of this Charleston series coming later this week, Where to Shop and Eat! I'm also including some more of my favorite Charleston snapshots just for fun.

86 Cannon Bed and Breakfast located on Cannon St., and area that's experiencing a revitalization.

You can find this pretty peachy-pink door on Tradd st. It's likely one of the most photographed doors downtown. 

 Rainbow Row on Bay Street in downtown.

 These are always my favorite window boxes! I can't tell you how many pictures I've taken of these same boxes over the years! You can find them on Meeting Street.

Charleston earned it's nickname "The Holy City" because of all the church steeples dotting the skyline. Nowadays, you see just as many cranes downtown as you do steeples, but the sound of the bells ringing throughout downtown is so special. Also, those bicycles pictures above from Holy City Spokes are a great way to get around downtown when you visit.

Even the garages are pretty downtown.

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