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 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.
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
- Booking.com has over 75 properties in Charleston including hotels, apartments, and hostels. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
Flights to Charleston
- Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).
Car Rental in Charleston
- RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
Tours & Sightseeing
- Viator is the industry leader in tours, activities, tickets and passes with a list of hand-picked tours and things to do in Charleston from local insiders.
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Do you have tips on what to do in Charleston?
Please share in the comments.
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.
22 thoughts on “What to Do in Charleston, South Carolina”
A complete guide to the city! Will be useful to those planning a trip! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I was in Charleston in April and would recommend a few more things – taking the 90 minute walking tour with Tommy Dew. We all enjoyed it immensely and learned a lot about the history.
I highly recommend a half day of sea kayaking out to one of the uninhabited islands. It gives you a different feel for the place.
And in March and April the Historical Society puts on a number of tours – garden and house. We did the garden tour – self guided – which was great fun, not only for the gardens but to wonder some streets and look at houses you would otherwise have missed.
Great timing! I was actually considering leaving Charleston OFF my list when I head to the USA for a month next year and doubting it, but Caroline’s post here has made me change my mind completely! I love the sound of all the old buildings (and the cheap eats, naturally)…also wondering if they’d let me dance on the bar, Coyote Ugly style, too? 😉
Also despite having looked at a map countless times, it didn’t register to me that Charleston is a coastal city, and even then I’m surprised (in a good way) that there are so many islands nearby! Sounds luvverly.
So glad this post was published then Tom! You must go! Charleston is one of our favourite US cities. We used to take all our visiting guests there from Raleigh. We have done the horse drawn carriage tour about five times now and I love it. I get something new from it every time.
I have heard so many great things about Charleston! This guide is very helpful. I like that you have provided me with a complete guide to help me plan my trip there. I have a week off in the spring, so I think I will take a road trip there from Chicago!
You know, my wife and I spend every year on our anniversary in various North Myrtle Beach hotels and we always just pass right through Charleston, but this year we are definitely stopping to check out the King Street shopping haven you mentioned here. My wife will be ecstatic! Thanks for the great blog.
Oh you must stop in Charleston! Our favourite place in America
Hi. Generally speaking, you’ve got an informative blog on a great city! One thing in particular did cause me to take pause. You mentioned skipping the horse tours because “treatment was questionable”, and I’m wondering what your source of information on this is. I have worked in two of the carriage companies downtown and would not have done so if I thought there was any possibility of poor care of the animals. I experienced just the opposite in fact.
The staff I worked with at both companies (and the barn hands in particular) doted on the horses and mules as if they were their own pets or members of the family. The city does an excellent job of regulating care, and most companies take steps even beyond the city’s guidelines to care for their animals, taking their temperature after every tour, monitoring their feed, hydration, and digestion, rotating the animals out to large land outside of town for pasture time, and ensuring the animals see both the vet and ferrier on a regular basis. In addition, the workload for these animals is much lighter than most would experience as a working farm animal.
Carriage tours are a great overview of the downtown historic district, and I’d hate for people to get a poor impression of them based on inaccurate information.
Thank you for sharing Audra. Its always great to hear different perspectives. I’m sure the author of this post has some anecdotes or sources to explain her thoughts on the topic. Craig and I have done the carriage tours before and loved it. I hope the horses were treated kindly and seemed like they were, but you just never really know I guess.
My family live in Charleston and I am currently staying with them over the summer. I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment and tips on this lovely town.
Some other tips are:
Boone Hall PLantation – somewhat pricey to get in, but all the tours inside are free (the house, the grounds, etc). The presentation on Gullah Culture is a must see.
The Charleston Slave Mart Museum – a small museum but really informative and easy to digest.
Folly Beach – by far the best waves for surfing. I took a lesson with charleston surf lessons (in a pod next to the tides hotel).
Places to eat & drink:
The Surf Bar, Folly Beach – a nice dive bar with burgers, beers & live music.
The Lost Dog, Folly Beach – a great breakfast place.
Mex 1 Canteena, West Ashley – tasty Mexican styled food in a cool surfy setting with live music.
Santi’s Mexican, Mount Pleasant – probably the best margarita I have EVER had, $5 too! Proper authentic food too.
The Early Bird Diner – independently owned diner on the Savannah Highway where the food is AWESOME.
And finally, I have spotted dolphins in the marshes of Kiwah Island (we saw them strand feeding which is quite a rare phenonemen) and in the sea from The Battery.
There is simply no place like Charleston. I’ve stayed at Charleston Inn and Mills House ( immediately overlooking Poogan’s Porch-him for lunch) but I’m very partial to The Indigo Inn. Two of my most memorable trips, Christmastime at Indigo Inn. Their service is unsurpassed and we even put up our own tree for the time.
I HIGHLY recommend 82 Queen for dining or simply drinks. Such the pleasant ambiance for a date night, my first experience there and while on my honeymoon, I asked for Charleston vs a month in Italy. 82 Queen was inspirational for a celebratory event!
The Naval Shipyard-STUNNING!
East Bay Trading Company, another wonderful eatery!
Meeting Street stays are a must for me. You can walk anywhere from there.
Highly recommend these four spots above all others!
Some faulty points with this article and also a couple facts I want to state…
1. “Charleston is a city made for walking”. LIE. I have lived here since 2008 and it is certainly not a city made for walking unless you live Downtown. You need a car to get around here.
2. The Carta bus service is very slack. You will be waiting a very long time between buses and the service routes are very limited.
3. It is a beautiful city but also an extremely racist one. If you are a minority…hispanic, asian, african american then be prepared for heavy discrimination. It may not show itself directly but it will discreetly be shown to you in different ways. After all, this is the state of “hospitality”! Everyone here wears a smiling MASK.
5. Charleston is quite conservative so if you are more on the eccentric side then you may want to consider a different state to visit/reside because you will definitely get a butt load of comments and stares!
I was thinking the EXACT same thing Megan. Several years back a friend and I, we’re both of African descent, went to one of the local museums only to be met with a very sour-faced, gray-haired, white woman who all but ignored us, even though we spoke directly to her. It’s amazing to me that people seem to ignore the history and current issues that this city is steeped in. I guess that’s easy to do when it doesn’t directly affect you.
Charleston is a great foodie city! I 100% concur with the FIG recommendation. So good! One drinking establishment I would like to add is the Gin Joint. Really top notch gin based cocktails that even non-gin lovers such as myself enjoy. Thoughtfully paired with unique snack type foods. Great for a late night nosh. Thanks for the great suggestions!
This is spot on! the only thing missing is what to do when you fall in love with the city!!! buy a home and stay of course. That is what i did. i found a great D.R. Horton home in a wonderful community and i am loving it here. I turned a vacation into my new hometown. great guide!
Awesome Millie. We have friends who recently moved to Charleston from Raleigh. And glad you found this list of what to do in Charleston to be spot on!
We just visited Charleston for the third time on our latest road trip and had no idea there is America’s only tea plantation near by. On your recommendation, we took a tour and thought it was an interesting place! Thanks for the tip. The drive out there was relaxing and we stopped at Angels Oak on the way out. It is this MASSIVE old oak tree (one of the oldest east of the Mississippi actually) that is beautiful. Anyway, thanks for the tip, I love following you guys! We were a few weeks behind you this winter near Gulf Shores, Alabama. We stopped in The Gulf, the shipping container place, because of one of your Facebook posts. Very cool place.
Oh that’s so cool! Thanks so much for taking the time to let us know. The Gulf is awesome! So glad you loved it too. I’m noting down that tree for when we go as I have mad love for trees! Thanks for the tip
Nice article it cleared all of my doubts about my future trip. I got some help from boardersguide.com and planned it well.
Enjoy your visit to Charleston!
Just got back from Charleston. Wish I had one more day. Arrived Monday evening. Stayed at the Marriott Courtyard at 125 Calhoun. Hotel was not the best but location pretty good. Very pricey for what it is. Reservations are needed for just about everything which we had none. Fig is closed on Mondays. Ate across the street at Hyman’s Seafood at the bar. Our dinners were $21.95. Pretty reasonable. Food delicious. The next day we took a city bus tour to get an overview for $15 each. That night we ate at Fig. They have a community high top table that seats 8 in the bar area. You pretty much have to make reservations a month in advance. All the plantation tours were booked for two days. Got a Lyft to the Magnolia Plantation. Talk about the slavery and seeing their houses was very interesting to me. Then took a tram thru the swamp area. Worth the $10. House tour was so so. My grandmother was born in the 1800s so really it was like being in my granny’s house. Then could not get a car to come get us. Our cell phone batteries were dying and it was getting late. Finally a nice couple let us ride back with them to town in their Lyft car. I was starting to get very nervous. Had dinner at the bar once again at High Cotton. Oh so fun. Live music. Charming restaurant. Food very good. I highly recommend this restaurant. Had a lunch at Poogan’s Porch and had to wait 45 minutes at 2:00. I had te chicken and waffles a southern staple. They took the skin off before breading so you are able to enjoy that delicious crunch of the batter and the chicken was very moist. Waffle was cooked perfectly. Beware if alcohol is a problem they put bourbon in the syrup. Airport is only 20 minutes away and on my travel day got thru TSA and to my gate in no time. I hope to get back as there are more places to see and eat at. There was one stormy day and my harbor tour was canceled. Sadly I could not reschedule.
Thank you so much Esther for sharing your experience with us. Lots of great insights here! You can never have too many days in Charleston