Did you know that Charleston, SC, was voted one of the best cities to visit in the world? What makes Charleston such a fantastic city is the diverse history, unique culture, tantalizing food, and incredible shopping.
The icing on the cake is that Charleston is breathtakingly gorgeous. And don’t worry — we’re travel experts that happen to LOVE Charleston, so we’ll show you our favorite sights and things to do.
17 of the Best Things to Do in Charleston
Charleston is at the top of the list of cities to visit for various reasons. There is a substantial historical presence, diverse culinary delights, incredible shopping, and magical nightlife, all nestled into a gorgeous waterfront setting.
However, we happen to love the other distinguishing features like the Southern hospitality and the captivating aroma of jasmine that fills the flower-lined streets.
You’ll be able to explore the streets by horse and carriage while learning about the history. You can take a ferry to forts on historical islands or book a ticket for a luxury dinner cruise.
If nightlife and culture are what floats your boat, be prepared for a flotilla of incredible opportunities. Sip champagne on a rooftop bar. Dine on exquisite cuisine by world-renowned chefs while being serenaded with live music.
Grab tickets for shows and concerts held nightly in state-of-the-art venues. Buckle up! Be prepared to book your ticket to Charleston after reading about the incredible adventures and unique opportunities waiting there for you.
1. The Battery
The Battery is iconic and one of the best-known attractions in Charleston. Once a defense point for the military as far back as the Civil War, it’s now a beautiful tree-lined promenade.
It features White Point Garden with statues and information that brings to life the valor of Charleston’s military heroes. Step back in time on a classic carriage ride. Guides will describe the history of the antebellum homes.
Enjoy the soporific sounds of hoofbeats as you view Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Sumpter from the comfort of your carriage along the promenade.
2. Magnolia Plantations and Gardens
Another top tourist attraction in Charleston, these gardens have been family-owned for over 200 years. Constructed in 1676, you will find inspiration from the gorgeous floral gardens and incredible scenery.
Wander along the tree-lined stream and throughout the botanical gardens. Discover the history of this plantation on a guided tour.
These gardens have earned the title of “America’s Most Beautiful Garden,” the only one in South Carolina awarded this honor. You will not want to miss the fascinating history and breathtaking beauty of the Magnolia Plantations and Gardens.
3. King Street
Another “not to miss” icon in Charleston is King Street. Check out King Street’s Commercial Corridor with their interactive map. Named after King Charles II of England, this used to be the main road through Charleston in the mid-1700s.
So what does it offer today? What doesn’t it offer, might be a better question? On King Street, you will find trendy restaurants and sophisticated cocktail lounges.
Named as one of the country’s top 10 shopping streets, you will discover delightful jewelry stores, chic boutiques, and art galleries. If you are an antique lover, Lower King Street is dubbed the Antique District and is a mecca for antique fanatics.
4. Charleston Farmers Market
Who doesn’t love a farmers’ market? Marion Square in downtown Charleston has the mother of all farmers’ markets from April to November. Besides the fresh produce and fragrant flower bouquets, Saturdays in Marion Square offer a cornucopia of delights.
Touted as one of the best attractions in Charleston, you will delight in the plants, herbs, and prepared foods at the historical market. Have breakfast or lunch with authentic Charleston cuisine from a street vendor.
Enjoy live music and entertainment. You are guaranteed to find the best gifts and souvenirs from the various craft booths and local artisans. Visit in December when the market becomes a holiday extravaganza!
5. Waterfront Park
When you are ready to wander from city to waterfront, you will not be disappointed with what the Waterfront Park in Charleston has to offer. Great for some relaxing downtime, this park is one of the most scenic spots in the USA.
Your view of Charleston Harbor will include parades of boats floating by, silly pelicans, and the spectacular pineapple fountain. Spend an afternoon strolling in the shaded walking areas. Bring a picnic lunch and get the best spot in Charleston for your feast.
One of the most visited parks in Charleston since 1990, this park offers incredible views, bubbling fountains, and lots of park benches to enjoy the spectacular scenery.
6. Sullivan’s Island
Are you looking for a one-stop deal with something for everyone? Then, you have to add Sullivan’s Island to your list of things to do in Charleston.
This 3-square-mile island has so much packed into one place. Just 10 miles outside the city, over a bridge, and you have arrived at a little slice of heaven. Once the home of Edgar Allen Poe, Sullivan’s Island is best known for Fort Moultrie.
Take a tour and learn about the important battles fought there between 1776 and World War II.
Visit the lighthouse, lie in the sun on their pristine beach, or grab the best BBQ in Charleston. Shopping, dining, lying on the beach, or experiencing history, Sullivan’s Island has it all.
7. South Carolina Aquarium
Let’s not forget the kids or about the kid in all of us. The South Carolina Aquarium is the place to visit for those who love and appreciate marine life.
You will surely enjoy the aquatic tanks and displays, but you will also learn about the thousands of plants and animals that are native to South Carolina.
Here is a small taste of the vast array of salty exhibits at the South Carolina Aquarium:
- Coastal Plains
- Kids Coast – with hands-on activities
- Saltmarsh Aviary
- Touch Tank
- South Carolina Coast
- North America’s two-story deepest Great Ocean Tank
- Sea Turtle Recovery
- Carolina Seas 15,000-gallon tank
- The Shallows stingray feeding tank
Of course, there’s also an extensive gift shop to take home souvenirs of your visit!
8. Charleston Tea Plantation
Take time for some southern recreation where you can visit the one-and-only tea garden in North America. See for yourself what attracted over 75,000 from all over the world last year to the Charleston Tea Plantation.
View the thousands of acres of tea bushes stretching as far as the eye can see. The best part? There is no admission charge. You can take a 45-minute paid trolley ride through the park.
Otherwise, take an educational tour of the tea factory. Make a stop at their innovative art greenhouse, and stock up at the gift shop with more tea and related items than you can shake a stick at.
Located on Wadmalaw Island, just a few miles outside of Charleston, this tea plantation is your only chance to experience an exotic tea garden in the US.
9. French Quarter Inn
We haven’t talked about accommodations yet, but if you are looking to get pampered, there is no better place than the French Quarter Inn. While Charleston has impressive hotels, this is one you won’t want to miss.
Best described as a modern-day fairytale, this is the place to stay for boutique hotel lovers. From the moment you enter the cozy lobby and sink into one of the plush sofas while you admire the elegant fireplace and breathe in the aroma of the fresh-cut flowers, you’ll be hooked.
Begin your experience with a flute of complimentary champagne or warm, fresh baked cookies and milk. Enjoy the Southern-style turndown service, seven pillow menu, or breakfast in bed.
The exquisite rooms are a taste of historic genteel quarters, melded with spacious, state-of-the-art technology and enhanced by Italian marbled bathrooms. You will feel pampered and delighted with everything this inn has to offer.
Read Next: Where to Stay in Charleston, South Carolina
10. Charleston Music Hall
When in Charleston, you don’t want to miss the opportunities for the auditory delights if you are a lover of music. Welcome to a city with some of the top musical performers in the country.
Where is the best place to see their performances? The Charleston Music Hall, of course. Not only are there great musicians here, but the Charleston Music Hall also has a distinguished history.
It began as the Tower Depot, became a retail and office space, then was closed after the Great Depression. Revived and refurbished, music legends have graced its halls. Check out who is on the schedule when you visit Charleston.
11. Charleston Museum
If history is your passion, there is no better place to fuel that fire than the Charleston Museum. It is not your average museum in that young and old alike will enjoy the experience.
Children can interact in the Kidstory section and have great experiences, like learning how to operate a lighthouse. What else will you see at the Charleston Museum?
Browse through Charleston’s varied and extensive history and its monumental importance to our country. Then, go back in time to displays from Ancient Rome to Ancient Egypt.
12. Charleston Culinary Tours
You can’t have it all, but you can certainly sample the best of the best. That is the goal of Charleston’s #1 food tour by Charleston Culinary Tours. There are five tours to choose from that will give you a small sampling of Charleston’s rich culinary diversity.
Save room because the culinary tours span several hours. You will be having so much fun that time will fly. Pick your location from downtown Charleston to Upper King Street. There are specialty tours that are very reasonably priced, starting at $25.
Your culinary tours will not only give you a taste of the cuisine from locations like the Historic French Quarter, but you get to walk along some of the oldest streets in the USA.
13. Visit the Beaches
Most of the beaches are a short drive from the Charleston city center. Here are the top five gorgeous sun-kissed beaches that are perfect for a day of fun.
- Folly Beach – 12 miles from the city and a popular beach for surfers because of the waves. If you love playing in the surf, you must go to Folly Beach. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, and it has a huge pier for fishing enthusiasts.
- Kiawah Island – This beach is 23-miles away and is a 40-minute drive. The pristine, white-sand beaches are worth the drive. Part of the beach is attached to Kiawah’s Beachwalker Park. This beach area is renowned for the beautiful park, private beaches, villa rentals, luxurious beachside hotels, and it’s dog friendly.
- Isle of Palms – Isle of Palms is a county park on a barrier island. There’s plenty of entertainment with playgrounds, a volleyball court, picnic tables, and a gorgeous beach. Just beyond the beach are several great beachfront restaurants, all family-friendly.
- Sullivan’s Island – Sullivan is adjacent to Isle of Palms. You won’t find a more quiet or quaint stretch of beach. Walk this stretch of beach and watch boats coming in and out of the river leading into Charleston. Look up and see the silhouette of Fort Moultrie as it’s perched a short walk from the beach, which is popular with kiteboarders.
- Seabrook Island – Seabrook beach is a 4-mile stretch of pristine beach. It’s on the way to Kiawah. You will only be able to visit this beach if you book a stay as it’s only available to residents and guests.
14. Fort Sumter National Monument
A trip to Charleston would not be complete without a sightseeing trip to Fort Sumpter. Discover the history that took place on the spot in our country where the first shot to signal the beginning of the Civil War got fired.
Explore stone caverns and cannons used in the Civil War, and visit the museum. The museum provides facts and details highlighting Fort Sumpter’s important role in our nation’s defense.
You will need to take a ferry to get to Fort Sumpter. The ride is not an attraction but a highly enjoyable ride through the harbor. Enjoy the views on the way to the island, and you may even be lucky enough to spot some dolphins.
15. Haunted History Walking Tour
For the adventure and thrill-seekers out there, the small-group walking tour of Charleston gets high praise as one of the best haunted city tours. A history expert will lead the 60-minute tour with a deep knowledge of the dark underbelly of Charleston’s ghostly history.
Visit houses, churches, and graveyards, and be captivated by the spine-tingling accounts of encounters from the other side. If you have a very strong constitution, you may even be up for one of the evening ghost tours.
Walking through the dark streets, hearing the stories of repeatedly occurring sightings in the cloak of darkness is not for the faint of heart.
16. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum
Patriots Point Museum opened its doors in 1976. This impressive museum is one of the best educational experiences regarding Charleston’s naval and maritime history. Stroll the massive decks of the USS Yorktown.
This aircraft carrier did her duty in World War II and Vietnam. View artifacts, exhibits, and three other historical ships. If you are a history buff and love learning about submarines, warships, and aircraft, don’t miss a visit to the Patriots Point Museum.
Visitors rate this museum very highly. They suggest taking the captain’s tour on the USS Yorktown for the ultimate maritime history experience.
17. Drayton Hall
Take a trip back in time and visit Drayton Hall to get the best of what life was like living in a historic mansion. Built in 1738, Drayton Hall is one of the oldest plantation houses in the South. It’s fun to even just wander through the main house.
It remains impressively intact from the original dwelling. To this day, it has no heat or electricity. Visitors can watch a 45-minute audio tour for no extra cost that explains the roles of the enslaved people on the plantation.
Combined with the helpfulness of the staff members, they will answer all your questions about the plantation. After finishing the tour, take a stroll through the walking trails along Ashley River. The entire experience will be a perfect addition to your Charleston trip.
Things to Consider
As with any vacation, the location you choose will require special considerations. Charleston, SC, is no exception. For your vacation to go smoothly and without a hitch, there are things to know before you go.
Take the advice of the experts and prepare in advance, so you don’t lose valuable vacation time with delays. Every city has unique circumstances that require planning. Here are some things you might want to prepare for to have the best vacation possible in Charleston’s historic and beautiful city.
- The city that does go to sleep. Many of the bars in Charleston close by 2 A.M. Friday through Sunday. Have the number of a cab company handy if you plan on staying out late.
- There are two rivers to explore in Charleston. If you are a fan of maritime activities, both the Ashley and the Cooper rivers merge to meet the Atlantic Ocean. Whether you are looking to fish, rent a sailboat, jet ski, windsurf, or charter a motorboat for the day, you will want to book before you go. You may not get a reservation if you wait until you arrive.
- Make dining reservations at least a month in advance. Some of the best restaurants have an extensive waiting list. If you plan on dining at exclusive restaurants like FIG or Husk, reserve well in advance. Although most restaurants reserve a few tables for walk-ins, book before you go to make sure you’ll find a spot.
- Don’t skip the oysters. If you love oysters, there are none better than Charleston oysters. October through March is the oyster season. It is the season to dine on the sweetest, juiciest, and tastiest oysters you will ever experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
In case you still have a few questions, here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding visiting Charleston and the answers to those questions.
What is Charleston, SC, best known for?
The historical significance of Charleston is one of the things it’s best known for. If you love museums, monuments, and historic buildings, you’ll be in your element visiting Charleston.
Are there any sections of Charleston I should avoid?
A few sections of Charleston do have an elevated crime rate. The two most notorious sections are Mount Pleasant and North Charleston.
Some other sections you may want to avoid are Hanahan, West Ashley, Summerville, Harleston Village, and Wagener Terrace. You can drive through any of these areas safely during the day.
Did the Civil War begin in Charleston?
The Civil War began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. You can learn about the battle and its historical significance if you book a boat tour. The tours take you to Fort Sumter and on a scenic trip around the harbor to see Arthur Ravenel J. Bridge and Fort Moultrie from the river.
Is there really a 500-year-old Oak Tree in Charleston?
Angel Oak is genuine and awe-inspiring. You can visit this oak tree estimated to be 500 years old, but other tree experts date it at 1,500 years old. This oak stands at 66.5 feet and is 28 feet around its trunk.
Can I go sailing in Charleston?
If you love to sail or want to learn to sail, Charleston is the perfect city. Charleston is the home to several distinguished sailing schools for you to try your hand at the tiller.
If you are an experienced sailor, you can charter a sailboat with a captain or take a boat out on your own to explore the rivers or venture out into the ocean.
So, What’s the Best Activity in Charleston?
There is so much to do and see in Charleston. The most challenging part of your vacation will be deciding what and where you’ll visit.
Their historic and tree and flower-lined parks, incredible cuisine, fascinating history, boutique hotels, and diverse shopping opportunities provide something of interest for everyone.
Take the perfect city, nestle it along a gorgeous waterfront, and you have before you the city of Charleston, SC.