Things to Do in Charleston
Smack in the middle of historic Charleston, the Charleston City Market is a central landmark for Holy City visitors. In addition to being one of the most visited historic attractions in town, the City Market—opened in 1807—is also one of the oldest continuously operating public markets in the United States.
This street of brightly colored homes in Charleston is easily the most photographed spot in the city, and it’s easy to see why. The 14 colorful Georgian row houses along East Bay Street date back to 1730, when they were built as merchant stores.
Waterfront porch swings, a giant pineapple fountain, and grassy areas perfect for lazing the day away make Waterfront Park feel like Charleston’s personal backyard. Watch the boats float by on the river, snap photos, and enjoy the park’s family-friendly amenities—they keep this park a favorite hangout spot for locals and visitors alike.
The Battery wraps around the edge of Charleston’s peninsula, providing an elegant buffer between the city and the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Stroll and sightsee along the wide pedestrian paths, which pass by antebellum homes and historic sights, or perch beneath the live oaks in White Point Garden and watch the world go by.
The Old Exchange is one of the oldest structures in Charleston, a famous city landmark, and one of the most historically significant buildings in the United States. Once the site of important political events, the building is now open to the public for fascinating tours, including a walk-through of its haunted Provost Dungeon.
A top historic attraction in South Carolina, Fort Sumter National Monument is famous for being the site where the Civil War began. Today, the sea fort, accessible only by boat, retains much of its original stone structure—plus a few lodged cannonballs—letting visitors experience a piece of American history firsthand.
Towering above surrounding Charleston, the nearly 200-foot tall white steeple of St. Michael’s signals the site of the city’s oldest church. Inside, visitors and parishioners are transported back to the colonial era: alcoves shine with Tiffany stained glass windows, the original 1768 organ still pipes tunes and creaky wooden pews have seated centuries of worshipers including notables George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The central chandelier once blazed with candles, but has since been retrofitted with bulbs. Otherwise little altered, the church has survived tornadoes, an earthquake and even civil war bombings. The pulpit still bears battle wounds suffered in the 1865 Siege of Charleston Harbor. A table in the main vestibule along the western wall details the building’s long and storied history.
Choral music still emanates from St Michael’s on Sundays, and, as a still-functioning Episcopal Church, it can be sometimes challenging to tour the inside. Still, the exterior is a highlight of many historic downtown tours. It's still possible to see the old colonial clock— though minute hands weren’t added until the mid-1800s—and tour the adjacent cemetery, the final resting place of, among several other notables, two signers of the US Constitution.
This historical church is home to the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina. The first St. Philips Church was a small wooden structure built in 1681, where St. Michael's Episcopal Church stands today. The church withstood hurricane damage in 1710, was reconstructed, burned to the ground in 1835, and finally rebuilt to the present day church in 1836. Before it burned completely, it was saved from one fire by a slave who was granted his freedom for the act. Notable South Carolinians such as John C. Calhoun are buried in the old cemetery on the grounds.
Architect Joseph Hyde incorporated some design elements from the previous structures as well as adding in new features to the stuccoed brick exterior, such as the three Tuscan porticoes and Corinthian columns. The church’s impressive steeple that towers over Church Street was added over a decade later. Today it is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
This historic museum is known for being one of the best examples of Southern antebellum architecture in Charleston. It was originally built as a private home—owned in 1820 by local merchant John Robinson and later bought in 1858 by Gov. William Aiken, whose family is responsible for the lavish interior decoration. With antique furnishings and original wallpaper, much of the period style remains intact. Many of the family’s objects and fine art, acquired for the home while touring Europe, can still be found in the rooms they were purchased for.
Walk through the grounds’ historic double side porch, stables, a carriage house, a kitchen and slave quarters. You’ll learn about the house staff, which included footmen, cooks, gardeners and seamstresses, as well as life in the pre-Civil War era. Then step inside and view the collection of sculptures, paintings and chandeliers as you tour the home and learn about the history of the home and the family.
At 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the United States. It connects downtown Charleston to the city of Mount Pleasant and the beaches beyond, plus it provides bike and pedestrian paths that lead to unobstructed views of Charleston Harbor and the city skyline.
More Things to Do in Charleston
Founded in 1681 by an eclectic group of English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians, and French Huguenots, the Circular Congregational Church of Charleston is the oldest, continuously-operating house of worship in the United States. The unique meeting hall was designed and built in a circular shape to reflect the spaces’ open and free-flowing exchange of ideas.
Charleston’s historic Aiken-Rhett House offers a rare glimpse into antebellum plantation life in South Carolina. The only surviving urban plantation, the 1818 townhouse complex remains largely intact, its rooms decorated with original wallpaper, fine art, and antique furnishings purchased by the owners more than 150 years ago.
As the last large-scale Romantic garden left in the United States, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens seek to provide an escape from the struggles and stresses of everyday life. Unlike a formal garden that seeks to “control” nature, a Romantic garden cooperates with nature to create a peaceful landscape where people and nature exist in harmony. Magnolia’s are also the oldest unrestored gardens in the United States, and the historic house is one of the oldest in the South.
The two-story brick Heyward-Washington House takes its name from its original owner, Thomas Heyward Jr., whose signature appears on the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington, who stayed at the home in 1791. The Georgian-style double house offers a veritable portal into 1700s Charleston.
The 65-acre Middleton Place, a former rice plantation along the Ashley River, has persisted under the guidance of the Middleton family, without changing hands, for more than 320 years. Visitors to this National Historic Landmark home—built in 1755 by the father of Arthur Middleton, who signed the Declaration of Independence—can explore the Middleton Place house, the lavish landscaped gardens (the oldest in the nation), and the stable yards, where staff dressed in period clothing demonstrate weaving, blacksmithing, carpentry, and other trades formerly undertaken by slaves.
American History enthusiasts shouldn't miss Charleston's Edmondston-Alston House, an 1825 home and museum steeped in Civil War stories. The home is perhaps best known for hosting confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee and today showcases a sizable collection of art, decorative objects, and family relics.
As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Charleston is known for its deep history. The Charleston Museum, which marquees itself as America’s First Museum, is a great first stop for a broad overview of Charleston’s past, featuring exhibits ranging from Lowcountry dinosaur skeletons to niche Revolutionary War artifacts.
Located in the beautiful Charleston Harbor, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is one of Charleston’s most popular museums for hands-on learning. Climb aboard the USS Yorktown (an aircraft carrier), the USS Laffey (a destroyer), and the USS Clamagore (a submarine) as you learn about American naval and maritime history first-hand.
This historic Charleston home, now part of the Charleston Museum, is a well-preserved example of Federal architecture. Built in 1803 by architect Gabriel Manigault for his brother Joseph, a Charleston rice baron, the 3-story townhouse is now a National Historic Landmark, showcasing the wealthy family’s 19th-century lifestyle.
Built in 1738, Drayton Hall is the oldest plantation home in South Carolina open to visitors. Tour the manicured grounds and admire the landscaping, see the site’s archaeological relics, take a guided tour of the house, and learn about the people who lived and worked on the estate over the years through interactive programs.
The Gibbes Museum of Art hosts Charleston’s finest collections of art in a fabulous Beaux Arts building in Charleston’s Historic District. With over 10,000 works of fine art, it is here that you can see various glimpses into not just Charleston’s past, but into the Colonial American past as a whole. Featured exhibits include Mary Whyte’s gallery entitled Working South, and Vaughn Sills’ stunning collection of photographs documenting African American folk gardens and their creators.
The Gibbes Art Museum prides itself on its fine art collection and makes an effort to assure that either the paintings displayed or the artists themselves have some connection to Charleston. Laid out chronologically, the Gibbes Museum is two and a half floors of 17th to 21st century artistry culminating in the large stained glass dome, itself worth a few minutes of seated enjoyment.
The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (CML) is a hands-on museum dedicated to allowing children the freedom to explore, discover, and learn. From racing miniature boats down rapids to climbing aboard a Lowcountry pirate ship and even creating a masterpiece in the art center, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is truly open to help let children establish a lifelong love of exploratory creativity.
While some are splatter painting in the Art Room, others are exploring the Medieval Creativity Castle or taking the wheel of the antique Fire Truck. Kids are also free to let 'er rip down the chutes and hoops of the Golf Ball Room, where they watch in wonder as they send their golf ball through a maze of obstacles. There's even a special place for the littlest tykes to explore and play together! This is the perfect place for people of all ages to let their imaginations run wild.
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