Looking for tips on what to do in Charleston, South Carolina?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Caroline Eubanks who visited Charleston, SC every year when she was younger and then moved there for university when she was 18.
Caroline lived there for four years and loved every minute of it. She still visits regularly, even though she’s now based in Atlanta between her international trips.
Caroline shares with us her insider travel tips on what to do in Charleston, South Carolina for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore. Take it away Caroline.
Why visit Charleston, South Carolina?
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. It is included in our best USA road trips list!
What to Do in Charleston, SC
- 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
- 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.
- At Waterfront Park, two fountains keep children entertained and cool during the sweltering summer months and a pier overlooks the water.
- Rainbow Row and the Battery are famous for a reason. Rainbow Row is the ideal postcard, with houses painted in pastels. The nearby Battery, or Whitepoint Gardens, has some of the city’s most expensive homes overlooking where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet. The park offers views of Fort Sumter.
- Charleston Tea Plantation is the nation’s only functioning tea plantation on Wadmalaw Island and is a beautiful day trip. They host a music festival every summer
- In the off chance you have a rainy day in town, the Charleston Museum has some artifacts predating the founding of the United States.
- If you only visit one plantation, Middleton Place is my pick because of the gardens and grounds. The house is not too shabby either.
- 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, which is home to Civil War soldiers, old Charleston families and all three crews of the Hunley.
Best Neighborhoods to Explore in Charleston, SC
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.
Avondale in West Ashley has a nice dining and shopping area frequented by young professionals.
Where to Eat in Charleston, SC
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.
Budget places to eat in Charleston
- Charleston Farmer’s 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.
Upmarket places to eat in Charleston:
- Husk is the newest venture from 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.
- Hall’s 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.
Best places to Drink in Charleston, SC
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.
Social is a wine bar on East Bay Street with weekly specials like $3 glasses of champagne. They also offer pizzas and sharing plates. Upper Deck Tavern, on the other hand, is a dive bar tucked above a King Street pizza joint. If you can get past the smell, the cheap drinks are well worth it.
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.
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.
Right down the street is Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge. Be sure to try the tiki bowl, which throws in dozens of types of liquor and lit on fire.
My favorite neighborhood bar was always AC’s Bar and Grill because of the proximity to my house and the $2.25 Beer of the Month special. Their Sunday brunch is ideal for soaking up last night’s booze.
Best Place for a Night on the Town in Charleston
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.
Where to Stay in Charleston, South Carolina
Budget places to stay in Charleston
- 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.
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 Markets & Shopping in Charleston
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 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.
Best Events & Festivals in Charleston
Charleston has hundreds of events throughout the year but without a doubt, the biggest and most famous is the Spoleto USA Arts Festival.
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.
Tours, Sightseeing & Passes
Viator is the industry leader when it comes to tours, activities, tickets and passes with a list of hand-picked tours and things to do in Charleston from local insiders.
Getting Around Charleston
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!
Finding WiFi in Charleston
Local cafes like Caviar and Bananas have wireless internet, as does all three Starbucks locations. You can also get internet access on the College of Charleston campus.
Best Time of Year to Visit Charleston
Spring as it can be sweltering in the summer, but winters are also mild.
Getting There & Away
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.
Best insiders tip for Charleston
Skip the horse tours because the treatment is questionable. Skip the ferry to Fort Sumter because it’s not much to see unless you’re a civil war buff.
Instead, spend time aimlessly walking around the city. Experience the barrier islands like Edisto, Kiawah, Johns, and Wadmalaw.
I love Charleston because…
It’s new and old and 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 country.
Want More South Carolina And East Coast Tips?
- 16 things to do in Myrtle Beach with kids
- East Coast USA road tripping highlights
- Finding serenity at Lake Lure and Chimney Rock State Park, NC
- 16 Spectacular Florida vacation spots
- Essential Things to do Beaufort, SC on a short break
Plan Your Trip to Charleston
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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.