17 Ideas For What to Do in Charleston, South Carolina

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Looking for tips on what to do in Charleston, South Carolina? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Charleston is famous for its historic sites, 18th century architecture, incredible beaches and nature sites, and warm Southern charm.

Whether you’re a history buff or a nature lover, you’ll find there are many things to do in Charleston SC.

trailing lights at night on street in charleston
Image by Dreamstime.com Pretty Downtown Charleston

In this guide, we shared some of our top tips and recommendations for tourist attractions in Charleston, as well as suggestions for places to eat, drink, stay, and explore.

Is Charleston, South Carolina Worth Visiting?

portico columns on historic charlreson building
Charleston, SC

Charleston, South Carolina is easily one of the most charming cities in the country, if not the world.

The historic buildings that hosted founding fathers now house award winning restaurants and stores. What’s old becomes new again.

It’s also the ideal combination of beach, city and country, with all three within fifteen minutes of each other, making it one of the best weekend getaways in the USA.

For those reasons and more, it’s absolutely worth visiting. It is included in our best USA road trips list!

Things to Do in Charleston, SC

Below are some of our favorite attractions in Charleston and places to see. Make sure you add a few of these stops to your Charleston itinerary.

1. Explore Sullivan’s Island

canons at Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie on Sullivan Island

There are dozens of barrier islands and beaches surrounding Charleston, but Sullivan’s Island just happens to be my favorite. It is more family-oriented and has the small town atmosphere.

It has a unique blend of history and natural beauty. One of the main reasons to visit here is for the pristine beaches which are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing on, as well as opportunities for kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing in the surrounding waters.

However don’t miss a visit to Fort Moultrie, a national historic landmark that played a significant role in American military history.

2. Take the Kids to Splash in the Joe Riley Waterfront Park Fountains

pineapple fountain at waterfront park charleston

The Joe Wiley Waterfront Park is a large urban park with places to walk, jog, play and lounge around.

If you’re visiting on a hot summer’s day, there are two fountains that can keep children entertained and cool during the sweltering summer months.

It’s location next to Charleston harbor offers incredible views from the pier overlooking the water.

3. Check out the Stunning Architecture of Rainbow Row

Rainbow Row colorful and well-preserved historic Georgian row houses in Charleston, South Carolina, USA

Rainbow Row and the Battery are famous for a reason. Rainbow Row is the ideal photospot for a postcard, with houses painted in pastel colors.

This beautiful and historic street dates back to the 18th century and is a prime example of Georgian and Federal architecture.

Stroll along the cobblestone streets and marvel at the vibrant colors of the homes, which have been perfectly preserved.

You can also step into several art galleries, cafes, and boutique shops, making it an ideal spot for a leisurely afternoon walk or a day of shopping.

4. Pay a Visit to the Battery

Battery Park in the historic waterfront area of Charleston
Battery Park in the historic waterfront area of Charleston, South Carolina, USA

The nearby Battery, or White Point Garden, has some of the city’s most expensive homes overlooking where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet.

The Battery offers stunning views of the harbor and Fort Sumter.

The Battery is not only known for its houses, but also the fortified seawall that was constructed in the late 18th century to protect the city against naval attacks.

Take a leisurely stroll along the promenade, which is lined with palmetto trees and historic mansions, or relax on one of the many park benches and take in the picturesque views.

Some nearby monuments worth checking out for their architecture are the Confederate Defenders of Charleston monument and the Fort Sumter monument.

5. Visit the Charleston Tea Plantations

pagoda at Magnolia Plantation

Charleston is home to several historic plantations, such as Boone Hall Plantation and Magnolia Plantation, feature stunning gardens, historic homes, and educational exhibits that showcase the area’s rich history and culture.

Charleston Tea Garden (Formerly Charleston Tea Plantation) is the nation’s only functioning tea plantation on Wadmalaw Island and is a beautiful day trip activity. They host a music festival every summer

If you only visit one plantation, Middleton Place is my pick because of the gardens and grounds. The house is not too shabby either.

You can also take guided tours of the plantation homes and learn about the lives of the enslaved people who worked on these estates.

Get tours and entrance tickets to the plantations in advance:

6. Step Back In Time At The Charleston Museum

If you’re looking for things to do in Charleston on a rainy day in town, the Charleston Museum is a great place to go.

The museum was founded in 1773, making it the oldest museum in the United States.

The museum features an extensive collection of artifacts and exhibits that offer visitors a glimpse into the city’s rich history and culture, plus some artifacts from prehistory.

7. Visit Magnolia Cemetery

Instead of wasting time on the long ferry to Fort Sumter or staring into a pool of water housing the Hunley, go to Magnolia Cemetery.

This is the resting place of hundreds of American Civil War soldiers, old Charleston families and all three crews of the Hunley.

Founded in 1849, the cemetery features stunning monuments, intricately designed tombstones, and ancient oak trees that provide a peaceful and serene atmosphere.

As you walk through the cemetery, you can see the final resting place of many notable figures from Charleston’s past, including politicians, military leaders, and artists.

8. Wander Around Charleston

row of homes on street in  Historical downtown area of  Charleston,

If you really want to get to know the city, skip the horse-drawn carriage tours because the treatment is questionable.

You might also want to skip the ferry to Fort Sumter National Monument because it’s not much to see unless you’re a civil war buff.

Instead, spend time aimlessly walking around the city. This is the best way to see the authentic culture and way of life here.

Across Marion Square from Lower King lies the Upper King Design District, which has a lot of up-and-coming restaurants, vintage boutiques and bookstores.

The Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood used to be mostly low income housing, but now it’s a mix of college students, coffee shops and restaurants.

Some people might be concerned when they hear North Charleston, but Park Circle is a part of the former Naval base. It still has that 1950s vibe and has some great restaurants.

Shem Creek is Mount Pleasant’s seafood mecca, with dozens of seafood joints and boat charter companies lining the inlet.

Old Town reminds us of the time before Charleston became what it is today with an old-fashioned pharmacy and store. It was also the backdrop for scenes in The Notebook.

John’s Island is not a neighborhood as such, but an island off the coast of Charleston. It’s still very rural, but it’s worth the drive just for Angel Oak, the largest living thing east of the Mississippi.

You might also want to experience the barrier islands like Edisto, Kiawah, Johns, and Wadmalaw, which offer unreal natural beauty.

Avondale in West Ashley has a nice dining and shopping area frequented by young professionals.

9. Go For A Night on the Town in Charleston

broad street Charleston wtih night lights and full moon
Broad Street lit up at night

Charleston has a lively night life scene and is an excellent city for young (and old) travelers who love to party and enjoy a night on the town. It’s also well known for it’s speakeasy bars, which are hidden behind doors and phone booths.

Upper King is where most of the college bars are located, but that just means that they’re not overpriced.

They are all within walking distance of each other so you can wear the cute shoes instead of the comfortable ones.

Market Street has the most bars but can get crowded and charge covers during high season. Check out Mad River, housed inside a former church, and Market Street Saloon, where ladies dance on the bar Coyote Ugly-style.

Bars in Charleston

Rooftop is on the roof of the Vendue Inn and has beautiful views of downtown Charleston. The cocktail list has Southern-influenced martinis, like the Charleston Sweetini.

The Griffon is an English-style pub where it’s tradition to write your name on a dollar bill and staple it to the wall. They also serve excellent traditional English fish ‘n’ chips.

The Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka distillery is now open for tours, which means you can see where the vodka is produced and even sip on some.

Gene’s Haufbrau is a bar for beer lovers, complete with over 150 beers and as much bar food.

My favorite neighborhood bar was always AC’s Bar and Grill because they have a Beer of the Month special. Their Sunday brunch is ideal for soaking up last night’s booze.

10. Check Out the Markets & Shops in Charleston

Historic Charleston City Market in Charleston lit up at night

The epicenter of downtown Charleston is King Street, home to all the best bars, restaurants and stores. It’s also the best place for people watching. Once a month, the city shuts down part of it for pedestrians to walk freely.

King Street is a shopping haven in its own right, from Morris Street on Upper King all the way down to the end.

You’ll find a range of stores, including vintage clothing, records, books, antiques, high-end boutiques and chains.

The Historic Charleston City Market has been completely refurbished and now has permanent booths as well as temporary booths, selling the famous sweetgrass baskets and other local wares. The Charleston Farmer’s Market not only sells ready to eat food but sells local art and crafts and fresh produce.

The Tanger Outlets in North Charleston offer deals on Fossil, Coach, BCBG and other high-end brands.

11. Attend One of The Top Charleston Festivals

Charleston South Carolina

Charleston has hundreds of events throughout the year but without a doubt, the biggest and most famous is the Spoleto USA Arts Festival.

The Cooper River Bridge Run is another big event, a 10K race over the bridge from Mount Pleasant. Whilst Southeastern Wildlife Expo hosts wildlife experts and artists.

The Charleston Wine + Food Festival brings together local and international chefs for a week of fine dining.

Charleston Fashion Week hosts regional fashion designers and retailers.

11. Try Some Good Ol’ Southern Cuisine

people on the terrace of a restaurant in a suburban neighborhood
Restaurant in a suburban neighborhood

Charleston is a foodie’s city and the question most people ask when you’re hosting out-of-towners is “where are you taking them to eat?”

While there are plenty of big name award-winning restaurants, there are plenty of budget options to satiate your palate.

where to eat in Charleston South Carolina
Budget places to eat in Charleston

Budget places to eat in Charleston are…

  • Charleston Farmers Market is the hub of all Saturday morning activity, where local farmers and artisans bring their produce and crafts, respectively, to sell to the public. There are also food stalls with every type of cuisine. The longest lines are often at Charleston Crepe Company and Roti Rolls.
  • Bowen’s Island Restaurant is a landmark in its own right and has served generations of patrons, even after a devastating fire in 2006 destroyed years of beloved graffiti on its walls. They’ve since rebuilt and serve up the freshest seafood in town, which goes straight from the ocean into the fryer and onto your plate.
  • Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan’s Island pays homage to the island’s former resident, Edgar Allan Poe, who spent time as a soldier there. The front porch is very inviting on a summer day with a pint of beer in hand and a burger in front of you.
  • Jack’s Cosmic Dogs is like dining in the 1950s. Way out in Mount Pleasant is this roadside stop, known for “cosmic” dogs with special sweet potato mustard and hand cut fries.

For more upmarket places to eat in Charleston, check out the following places:

  • Husk is a restaurant owned by McCrady’s Sean Brock, who has been nominated for countless James Beard awards. Either restaurant is a sure thing for terrific food and ambiance.
  • FIG, short for Food is Good, is another award winner led by chef Mike Lata. Located on Meeting Street, it’s the ideal place to impress out of towners.
  • Halls Chophouse is known for the best cuts of steak with sides to share, best for special occasions or just a cocktail after dinner.
  • Fleet Landing is on the cheaper end of the upmarket scale and is the only waterfront restaurant downtown. The refurbished Navy dock has delicious seafood and great views at sunset.

12. Relax on Folly Island’s Beaches

coastal scenes around folly beach south carolina

Folly Island is a charming barrier island just outside of Charleston known for its laid-back atmosphere and stunning natural beauty.

The island features miles of pristine beaches, specifically Folly Beach, which is perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing.

You can also walk around the island and explore the charming restaurants, cafes, and shops, or take a stroll along the iconic pier.

With its relaxed vibe and beautiful scenery, Folly Beach is the perfect place to go when you need to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

13. Head over to Kiawah Island

wooden bridge on Kiawah Island

Kiawah Island is another barrier island that has miles of pristine beaches, world-class golf courses, and abundant opportunities for outdoor adventures.

You can take a leisurely bike ride along the island’s many nature trails, go kayaking or paddleboarding, or simply relax on the beach and soak up the sun.

14. Spend A Day At The South Carolina Aquarium

The South Carolina Aquarium is the perfect thing to do in Charleston on a rainy day.

The aquarium features several exhibits that showcase the diverse and amazing creatures that call the waters of the Lowcountry home, including sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays.

Visitors can also learn about the aquarium’s conservation efforts and participate in educational programs, and even pay a visit to the touch tank which allows you to get up close to some of the marine life.

15. Check Out Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum shp lit up at night

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is a great place to visit for anyone interested in military history and naval technology.

The museum features several exhibits that showcase the region’s military heritage, including the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, a World War II-era aircraft carrier that is now a floating museum.

Explore the ship’s many decks and compartments, learn about the lives of the sailors who served aboard her, and even climb into the cockpit of fighter jet.

16. Visit the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon allows visitors to glimpse into the city’s colonial and Revolutionary War-era history.

The building itself served as a hub for political and social activity during the 18th century and was even used as a prison during the American Revolution.

You can take a guided tour of the building and explore the Provost Dungeon, where prisoners of war were held during the conflict.

The museum also features several exhibits that showcase Charleston’s role in the American Revolution and the city’s rich cultural heritage.

17. Admire the Views from Ravenel Bridge

ravenal bridge over the water at sunset

The Ravenel Bridge is a marvel of engineering that offers breathtaking views of the city and its surrounding waterways.

The cable-stayed bridge spans over two miles across the Cooper River, connecting downtown Charleston with Mount Pleasant.

You can take a leisurely stroll or bike ride along the bridge’s pedestrian path, which offers panoramic views of the city skyline and the harbor.

The bridge is also illuminated at night, creating a stunning visual display that is not to be missed.

Where to Stay in Charleston, South Carolina

If you’re not sure where to stay in Charleston, here are a couple of suggest hotels and vacation rentals.

If you’re visiting on a budget, you may want to check out…

  • Charleston Not So Hostel is the only hostel in Charleston and even in the state of South Carolina. The Spring Street location offers both dorm and private rooms and they’ve recently opened a second location on Cannon Street that has more private rooms.
  • Embassy Suites is located in Marion Square’s former Citadel building and they have the best hotel breakfast in town.
  • The Charleston Marriott on Lockwood Boulevard has views of the Marina, is a short walk from the Charleston Riverdogs baseball stadium. The Aqua Terrace rooftop bar is perfect for a sunset drink.

If you have a little more in your budget, these are some excellent upmarket places to stay in Charleston…

  • Arguably the most luxurious hotel in town, Charleston Place has world famous restaurants, shopping and a spa.
  • The Francis Marion Hotel is the only tall building in sight, having been built in 1924 before the rule was established that you can’t build higher than the church steeples.
  • Who wouldn’t want to sleep in the same hotel that Robert E. Lee and Theodore Roosevelt stayed in? The Mills House Hotel is a Charleston landmark.

Best Time of Year to Visit Charleston

Spring is the best time of year to visit Charleston as it can be sweltering in the summer. Autumn brings with it the lush autumn foliage, and winters are also mild.

Getting To and From Charleston

aerial view of charleston at sunset

Charleston International Airport is the hub for regional flights from Charlotte and Atlanta but offers some direct flights.

Delta and Southwest are the main airlines that service the airport, but American, United and US Airways also fly there.

Amtrak and Greyhound both make stops in North Charleston. If you are driving, you will come into town from highway I-26 or I-95. US-17 also runs along the coast. Check here for rental car prices and availability.

When it comes to getting around Charleston, your best form of transport is your own two feet.

Charleston is a city made for walking, with nearly everything you need within a 15-minute stroll.

CARTA buses offer a free route from King Street to the Aquarium, but the other buses can be difficult for visitors to navigate.

Your best bet to get around town is the pedicabs run by college students or by car. Just remember, there are lots of one way streets!

Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Charleston

I love Charleston because it’s the perfect combination of new and old and it’s constantly evolving.

It’s a place where college students go to the beach between classes and where it’s not unusual to see men rocking seersucker pants.

Manners are still important but the city has as much culture and nightlife as you could find anywhere in the lowcountry.

I hope this guide helped you plan some things to do in Charleston and gave you some inspiration for your next trip.

More South Carolina And East Coast Tips

Need more inspiration for things to do in South Carolina and the East Coast? Then these other resources may be helpful…

BIO: Caroline Eubanks is a writer and travel blogger from Atlanta, Georgia. After going to university in Charleston, she spent a year traveling around Australia. You can read more about her on her blog, Caroline in the City.

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What to do in Charleston, South Carolina. An insiders guide to travel in Charleston. Great tips here!

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