Charleston is one of those cities that everyone must visit in their lifetime. Between its renowned restaurants, its immense and rich history, and its architecturally stunning buildings, it doesn’t disappoint. While there’s much to see and do, like any well planned trip it’s never a bad idea to come armed and ready with an itinerary to make the most of your time here.
Try to arrive as early in the day as possible to give you more time to enjoy in the “Holy City.” Charleston’s airport isn’t too far from the city’s famed historic district and if you don’t have a rental car, you have a couple ways of getting there. A taxi will get you to the historic district in the fastest amount of time but will also cost you the most (a $35 flat rate for two passengers). If you’re not in a hurry, there’s also a shared van which will set you back $14 pp although it does make multiple stops. However, most hotels in the historic district are not too far from each other.
Most likely your room won’t be ready so leave your bags at your hotel and head out to explore. If you’re hungry, listen to your stomach and preferably refuel at a local culinary institution that’s been around for decades. While only a few of Charleston’s original neighborhood grocery stores remain, Queen Street Grocery is one of them (it dates back to 1922) and has an amazing selection of sandwiches, salads, and crepes to order. Sit outside while you eat and enjoy the passing scenes that go by before you, but especially the city’s famous mule carriages.
Now that you’re sated and refreshed, if this is your first time in Charleston don’t necessarily go with a touring route but rather just plan to wander and take in the ambiance of the historic district. It’s one of those areas like New Orleans’ French Quarter and Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz where simply walking is the most fulfilling activity. Not to mention, it’s best to keep your lens cap off your camera because you’ll literally be taking photos non-stop. Even if it’s not a building of note in your guidebook, the majority of the buildings in the historic district are gorgeous and worth capturing on film.
A visit to Charleston wouldn’t be complete without seeing Rainbow Row, which is a series of 13 colorful houses on East Bay Street. Although you would never think it when walking in this area today, at one time this section of Charleston had deteriorated into near slum conditions and was home to individuals of ill-repute. A couple of concerned individuals purchased the buildings here and restored them, ultimately painting them a rainbow of pastel colors which you still see today. It’s one of the most photographed parts of Charleston. Supposedly the coloring of the houses helped keep them cool inside at the time before air conditioning.
Since you’re down in that part of the city, walk to Concord Street, make a left and keep walking until you get to Waterfront Park. It is teeming with beautiful flowers, gorgeous views of the harbor, and more importantly, the city’s famous pineapple fountain. The pineapple is of course a symbol of hospitality and legend has it that centuries ago, when a captain would be home from sea, he would put a pineapple out front to let people know he was home and they could come visiting. You still see pineapples outside of many Charleston homes today, they’re just not edible.
Before you make the trek back to your hotel, swing by the slightly tourist trap yet enjoyable venue, the Charleston City Market. While today it’s primarily a place for tourists to fill their suitcases with souvenirs, for centuries it served as the place where farmers and plantation owners would sell their meat and produce. The building itself (a Greek Revival –style building which dates from the 1840s) is quite striking, although once inside be prepared for massive crowds so make sure your valuables are secure. Browsing the wares at the Historic Charleston Foundation is recommended. If interested, there’s also the Charleston Confederate Museum on the second floor, although it’s only open for a limited number of hours each day.
You’ll want to head back to your hotel before dinner to freshen up and rest if time permits.
As for dinner options, Charleston is considered to be one of the best culinary destinations in the world, but whatever you do, make reservations well in advance so you get in at the place you want to. Some of the most coveted reservations include Fig, SNOB, Husk (this might be the most popular), and Circa 1886.
Once you happily enter foodie oblivion from your first day, go back to your hotel and get a good night’s sleep.
If your hotel doesn’t provide breakfast, head out to any number of the city’s locally owned establishments for a morning repast. Right in the Historic District you have places like Caviar and Bananas, City Lights Coffee, or Kitchen 208 to choose from.
Charleston is a city made for walking so it should come as no surprise that there’s a plethora of walking tours available. If food is your game, go on one of the food tours operated by local favorite Culinary Tours of Charleston. If you’re interested in learning more about the history and backstory of this gem of a city that has legends and lore dating back to the 1600s, sign up for one of the many history walking tours. There’s also the always popular horse drawn carriage and mule drawn carriage rides, but take some of the content offered on these tours with a grain of salt (they’re often “spiced” up a bit to entice listeners more).
No trip is complete without some souvenir shopping. If you only did browsing yesterday at the City Market, head back there to do some purchasing now. Just remember that the famous sweetgrass baskets made by Gullah women are on the pricier side, but if you have your heart set on them, be willing to fork over the cash (or sign your name on the credit card slip). Don’t forget about other South Carolina-proud souvenirs that cost a fraction of a sweetgrass basket, such as benne wafers (sesame seed cookies) and Carolina Gold Rice.
Another great store to check out is the Spice and Tea Exchange of Charleston which is located adjacent to the Market. It sells every spice, salt, and seasoning imaginable along with a dazzling array of loose tea leaf blends (strawberry shortcake anyone?). The best part is the packets are small and lightweight, making them effortless to transport home with you.
While history may not be everyone’s thing, you can’t visit Charleston without making it out to Fort Sumter, site of where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired 155 years ago. As it’s located far out in the harbor, you’ll need a boat to get to it and your only option is to book through the authorized concessioner, Fort Sumter Tours. Between the round-trip boat ride and the time spent at the fort, plan for this to be your afternoon activity.
If you hadn’t eaten lunch earlier, now might be a good time for an early dinner. Even though Charleston’s food scene makes national news, it’s also never a good idea to forget about the home cooking-type places either. Jestine’s Kitchen on Meeting Street is a popular, old-school eatery serving traditional Southern favorites like fried chicken and gumbo, and if you have access to a car and don’t mind driving since it’s not in the historic district, there’s also Martha Lou’s Kitchen which is considered to have the best soul food in Charleston.
If you still have some energy post-dinner, perhaps sign up for one of the city’s famous ghost tours. In a place as historic and legendary as Charleston, spirits are bound to be walking the streets, hopefully just not with you.
On your final day in Charleston, consider taking a day trip to any number of the area plantations. But first, you may want to spend some time in the historic district visiting the sites you missed out on the last couple of days.
For something different and especially gorgeous to photograph, visit the Unitarian Church cemetery. It’s deliberately overgrown as it adheres to the belief that nature should reassert itself. A stark contrast is St. John’s Lutheran Church next door whose cemetery is perfectly manicured, along with a stark white building (as opposed to the golden hued color of the sandstone the Unitarian Church has).
While there are many to choose from, you can’t fully understand the regal and luxurious life wealthy Charlestonians once enjoyed without seeing inside one of the city’s famous mansions. Depending on your geography, you have the Edmonston-Alston House by the battery. Further uptown (and at one time considered the suburbs), there’s also the Aiken-Rhett House, a prime example of a city plantation due to its immense size and outbuildings. Other worthy contenders include the Nathaniel Russell House and the Joseph Manigault House. When you tour them, prepare to be wowed that this was once how some people lived.
If you have time, a worthy stop is the Old Slave Mart. Constructed in 1859, the building is thought to be the last extant slave auction gallery in South Carolina. It’s a vivid reminder that the beauty and immense wealth of Charleston’s historic past came at the price of human slavery.
When it comes to plantations to visit, the world is one’s oyster. There’s Boone Hall which is the most popular spot due to its 3/4-mile Avenue of the Oaks and its slave heritage program. (It also was prominently featured in the 2004 film The Notebook as well as the popular John Jakes miniseries The North and the South.)
Along the Ashley River, there’s Drayton Hall, Middleton Place, and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Drayton is considered to be one of the finest examples of Georgian Palladian architecture in the United States and whose main house dates from the mid-18th century (and survived intact both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars). Middleton Place is a sprawling former rice plantation whose origins date back to the 1730s (the restaurant on-site is considered to be excellent). The legendary gardens at Magnolia Plantation are a prime reason why so many people visit. After the physical and economic losses of the American Civil War, Magnolia’s owner decided to open his gardens to the public as a means of making money since he was then financially destitute. Visitors have been flocking here ever since. All three are relatively close to one another so it’s definitely possible to visit more than one if you have a car. Otherwise, you can easily enough sign up for one of the many tours that provide round-trip transportation from downtown Charleston.
It’s your final night in Charleston, so make your last meal count. Whether you go fancy or simple, just make sure it’s memorable which in a city like Charleston, no doubt it will be.
And so wraps up your short but jam- packed time in one of America’s most beautiful cities. Charleston has wowed both visitors and locals for hundreds of years and after visiting it’s easy to see why.