Charleston Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Situated in the state of South Carolina, Charleston is one of the most lovely and interesting cities in the United States. Charleston has previously been ranked the number one US destination as well as anointed the favorite city in the world, beating heavyweights such as Rome, Paris and London. Ranking criteria included culture, friendliness, atmosphere, restaurants and attractions among others.
Charleston Travel Guide
Table of Contents

It’s with good reason that Charleston has been voted “America’s Best City” three times over. The weather is warm, the grits are spicy and the history is as rich as a gravy-covered biscuit. Moreover, Charleston has been the recipient of numerous accolades and awards as a top destination for foodies, romantics, families and travelers of all kinds.

Whether it’s for the week or the weekend, you will find that Charleston is the sort of city that appeals to all travelers, moods and appetites. Charleston’s soul is defined by its inviting nature, the warmth of its sunny days and the ease with which you can dive into the hometown even if just for a day.

Take a step back in time and learn more about Charleston’s history by visiting a traditional Southern plantation such as the magnificent Boone Hall. Here you will be seduced by the rich history of Charleston, evident in its ancient oak trees, antebellum mansions and historic plantations.

But Charleston isn’t all wine and roses, as the famed city does have a dark past worth delving into. Visitors can tour the Old Slave Mart Museum and learn more about the fate of enslaved Africans whose labor was the foundation for America’s Southern economy. The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon offer additional insights into Charleston’s chilling slave history.

Many visitors to Charleston are drawn to explore the city’s storied past, as well as enjoy its elegant food, stylish elegance and southern charm evident in relics of Charleston’s history such as the Nathaniel Russell Home Museum.

Whether you seek nature or city lights, Charleston is full of surprises. Famed for its antebellum architecture and fine dining, Charleston is just the place to go if you’re craving some southern comfort before the winter checks in.

Charleston’s cobblestone streets, markets and parks give the opportunity of spending days exploring the classic low country city. From the centuries old flora to the historic sites and sandy shores, Charleston is truly yours to discover. And don’t worry about seeing it all this one time, as you are guaranteed to want to come back again soon!

1. Rainbow Row

Rainbow Row is Charleston’s showcase of the colors of the rainbow in architectural form. An iconic site in Charleston, Rainbow Row comprises a series of 14 houses in a row, painted in bright pastel colors and situated close to the historic waterfront. The homes on Rainbow Row are prime examples of Charleston architecture that has made the city such an appealing destination for locals and tourists alike.

Rainbow Row dates from around the year 1740 when it was situated in the waterfront district of the city. The homes stretch from 83 to 107 East Bay Street and formerly belonged to merchants who would run the stores on the ground floor, while living above them. This not only saved them money, as they owned the entire property, but it also cut down their time commuting to zero.

Following the onset of the Civil War, the neighborhood fell into disrepair, and for some time, the area was a little more than a slum. But this all changed when Dorothy Porcher Legge invested in some of the Row’s homes, painting them a light shade of pastel pink. With time, more people began to snap up the other homes of the Row, then renovating and painting them, often in various shades of pastel colors.

A look at each of these East Bay Street properties is enough to tell you that the houses are steeped in rich history. The 2-part building on 79-81 East Bay Street is the Row’s most modern building situated at the Southern tip of the Row, which dates from around 1845.

Number 83 is the William Stone House which was constructed in 1784 by a merchant who left for England during America’s Revolutionary War. The property was later restored. Number 87 was constructed in 1778 but eventually destroyed by fire. A new owner purchased and restored it in 1792, but it was sold during the 1920s.

Number 89 was known as the Deas-Tunno House and constructed in 1770 for use as a commercial building. The property is slightly unique from the other homes on the Row due to the fact that it actually has a side yard separating it from the adjoining home on the south.

Number 91 was purchased in 1774 but destroyed four years later. In 1973 it was purchased by a merchant named Nathaniel Russell, but passed on to a different owner in 1920.

Number 93 was constructed for commercial purposes in 1778 and is known as the James Cook House. It is the yellow house you will see standing proudly, 3 houses from the left. One of the mysteries of the Row is Number 95, due to the fact that no one is quite sure who built it. It was purchased in 1779 and restored in 1938. You will notice it today as the green house.

The colorful houses of Rainbow Row are situated along the west side of East Bay Street, between Elliot Street and Tradd Street. The area is known as South of Broad Street, which is not too far from the Waterfront Park. A tour of this area is not complete without a visit to the Row, one of the most historic sites in this part of the world.

The houses standing proudly on Rainbow Row are not just unique due to their colors. Each has a rich history that can tell the visitor a lot about Charleston through the ages. Amazing photo opportunities abound so be sure to bring your camera along.

2. St. Philip’s Church

In a Holy City filled with churches, its vast skyline pierced by steeples, St. Philip’s was the very first Anglican Church to be established in the south of Virginia. The Church is a historic Episcopal church situated within the French Quarter of Charleston. During the 1680s, St. Philip’s small wooden building constituted the first church built in the colonial Charles Town.

Situated footsteps from the bustling King Street, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is steeped in hundreds of years of history. Founded in 1680, St. Philip’s was built only 10 years after the colony of Charleston was settled, and was Charleston’s first congregation.

The current church building is the third structure to house South Carolina’s oldest congregation. In 1710, the church was damaged badly by a hurricane and was in the process of being rebuilt in 1713 when it was almost destroyed by a second hurricane. Even after surviving these disasters, it finally burned to the ground in 1835.

The building was reconstructed in 1836 and a spire added between 1848 and 1850. The church today comprises stuccoed brick with a single tier of windows on both sides. There are 3 Tuscan porticos, while the interior boasts a high vestibule in the style of an auditorium with high Corinthian arcades, galleries and a plaster barrel vault. There are notable gates of wrought-iron to the front of the building.

In 1870, St. Philips was dedicated and utilized as a home for widows and elderly ladies.

There is a beacon found in the church steeple that was used to guide ships into harbor. For many years, the tower of St. Philips served as the rear tower of a set of range lighthouses designed to guide mariners into the Charleston harbor. The Church is one of only two in the United States known to serve this function, which earned it the nickname “Lighthouse Church”.

Visitors can stroll through the ancient graveyard at St. Philip’s Church stepping over earthen paths on which worshippers have travelled since the 1760s. Beneath the towering spire and cluster of massive live oaks, elegant grave marks bear the names of the long deceased. All the gravestones have a story, with names engraved into a marble dedication near the sanctuary.

Also check out the massive tomb of John C. Calhoun in the east church yard which was erected in 1880. There is a white marble baptismal font in the nave that dates from 1897. During the American Civil War, a chime of 11 bells was contributed to be melted down and recast for weapons and ammunition. Four of the bells were replaced in 1976 and can still be heard today.

3. Circular Congregational Church

One of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations of the South, the Circular Congregational Church is a national historic landmark and one of Charleston’s few examples of the adaptation of the Romanesque style. The Church is a great example of the Romanesque architectural style with its massing, short tower, broad roof plane, large arched entry and ribbons of windows and openings.

Despite its name, the Church’s plan is more complex than circular, as it is shaped like a cloverleaf with 3 semi-circular parts and one rectangular part.

Situated at 150 Meeting Street, the Circular Congregational Church traces its origins to around 1681 when a dissenting congregation of the original settlement of Charles Town founded the Independent Church. The current building is the third structure to be built on the same site, and was constructed around 1892.

The initial church building erected before 1695 was known as the White Meeting House, for which Meeting Street was named. In 1732, a second meeting house was built on the site. Between the years 1804 and 1806, the church was replaced by a circular structure.

The current church is named for an earlier church that was burned down during a fire in 1861, and which stood in ruins until it was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1886. The Romanesque church was constructed as the city was in the throes of rebuilding following the earthquake. Bricks from the older church structure were reused.

The Circular Congregational Church graveyard constitutes the oldest burial grounds in the city, with monuments dating from 1695.

4. Nathaniel Russell House

Situated in Downtown Charleston close to High Battery, the Nathaniel Russell House Museum is widely regarded as one of the most important neo-Classical dwellings in America. The interiors of the House have today been restored to their original 1808 grandeur and are now surrounded by formal gardens. Visit here to explore the daily life in one of Charleston’s most exquisite dwellings.

The Nathaniel Russell House is just the place to go if you’re looking for insights into the more lavish side of Southern comfort. The historic home is famous for its landscaped gardens, marvelous spiraling staircase and detailed furnishings.

The Nathaniel Russell House was opened for public tours in 1955. The House was restored in 1995 over several years. Today, its architectural details and interior finishes reflect the original dwelling of Nathaniel Russell.

The home is furnished with an outstanding collection of fine and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Over the years, family items and a significant collection of objects with Charleston provenance have been identified and acquired for the restored home. The collection allows for an interpretation of the merchant elite of Charleston during the early days of the American republic.

In 1765, when Charleston was a bustling seaport, a merchant named Nathaniel Russell settled in Charleston. Russell’s career as a merchant involved the shipment of exported and imported cargo of staples, as well as Africans sold into slavery. Russell participated in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade both before and after the American Revolution.

At the Nathaniel Russell House, visitors will learn about the Russell family, as well as the enslaved African-Americans who lived there, while maintaining one of the grandest antebellum townhouses in the nation.

There is an exhibition in the original kitchen house highlighting artifacts that were uncovered during archeological investigations on the site. These include beads, pottery shards and part of a slave tag. The objects reveal the everyday duties that were performed by the enslaved Africans, as well as the spiritual beliefs of the enslaved women and men who maintained the grand townhouse.

5. The Battery & White Point Garden

With its historic park and scenic promenade, the Battery is easily one of the most beloved spots in downtown Charleston. A strategic point that was important to Charleston’s early history, the Battery comprises a fortified seawall at the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet.

Later renamed Fort Wilkins, Broughton’s Battery was built at this location in 1737 and remained in service until the 1780s. The Battery seawall was built during the 1750s using stone, large boulders and masonry. Although Broughton’s Battery was decommissioned and thereafter demolished in 1789, when its promenade and wall were completed in the 1820s, the area continued to be called the Battery.

The Charleston Battery is today lined with historic southern Antebellum homes, some as massive as 20,000 square feet, while its harbor-side promenade offers amazing views of Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse, Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter.

Nonetheless, the centerpiece of the Battery is without a doubt the White Point Garden, an historic waterfront park featuring large, shady oak trees and oyster shell pathways that will take you past cannons, statues and memorials.

The site became the second and permanent location of the city after the colonists relocated from their original Albemarle Point settlement. The settlers named the area Oyster Point for the massive piles of sun-bleached oyster shells that covered the white sands originally.

In 1837, the city bought a section of the land at White Point to create a public pleasure park. In 1855, the park was extended to create the grand waterfront you see today along the city’s southern front. Today, White Point Garden remains a popular spot for both tourists and locals. It is a shaded sanctuary that overlooks the harbor amid Charleston’s busy streets.

Situated in the middle of the park is the Williams Music Pavilion, gazebo-like bandstand built in 1907 that hosts concerts, picnics and weddings. The Park is also home to many Civil War and Revolutionary-era cannons and features many monuments.

6. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

The Romantic Garden movement traces its roots to the industrial revolution in Europe, which is directly tied to the empowerment of the common man. Going to work in the factories, man wanted to design gardens that would help him forget the dreary life offered by the capitalistic workday.

The Romantic garden is perhaps best described by the tag “Extravagant Liar”, as this is what the Romantic garden is designed to do: lie to you such that you forget the banality of everyday life.

The Romantic garden is designed to take the viewer to a place where emotion takes precedent over reason. Surprises await around every corner, while symmetry, balance and form are thrown to the wind as the gardens are designed to directly appeal to the soul. And Charleston’s Magnolia Gardens do just that.

The last large-scale Romantic-style Garden in America, Magnolia Gardens is a creation of beauty that has evolved over the centuries into magnificent sprawling gardens that draw tourists in droves from all around the world. Selected as one of “America’s Most Beautiful Gardens”, Magnolia Gardens is the only garden honored with such a distinction in the entire state of South Carolina.

Founded by the Drayton family in 1676, the Magnolia Gardens are part of the Plantation of the same name that has survived the centuries and witnessed the history of the nation unfold before it from the American Revolution through to the Civil War and beyond. The oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is also the oldest public gardens in America.

The establishment of the early gardens at the Magnolia Plantation during the late 17th century preceded an explosion of beauty and expansion throughout the 18th century. However, it was not until the early 19th century that the Magnolia Gardens truly began to expand on a grand scale.

Many parts of the Gardens are much older with some sections dating from 325 years ago, which makes Magnolia’s the oldest unrestored gardens of America. As the Plantation remained within the ownership of the same family for over 300 years, each generation added their own personal touch to the Gardens, adding and expanding on their variety and beauty.

Unlike most American gardens that are formal and seek to control nature, the Magnolia Gardens cooperate with nature to create a tranquil landscape like Eden, where nature and humanity are in harmony. Various types of flowers are found here including azaleas, daffodils, camellias and many other species in bloom the year round, with the climax of incredible beauty building towards the spring bloom.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens were opened to the public in 1870 to enable visitors to enjoy the thousands of beautiful flowers and plants within the famous gardens. Every year, tourists come here to experience the natural beauty of the gardens and the plantation’s rich history.

7. Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

Situated in Mt. Pleasant, Boone Hall is one of the oldest working, living plantations in America. Boone Hall spans 738 acres and consists of a plantation, home and gardens that were founded in 1681 on the banks of Wampacheone Creek in Charleston. The plantation has been continuously producing and growing crops for more than three centuries.

Open to the public since 1956, the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens today presents the history of South Carolina, covering 330 years.

In 1955, the McRae family purchased the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens, furnished the house with antiques and began to give tours. The McRae family continues to make improvements to the plantation such that visitors are able to experience life as it was on a plantation.

As you tour every site on the plantation, the knowledgeable staff will help you to understand the day to day activities of the people who lived on plantations, as well as the history of the inhabitants of Boone Hall.

The Boone Hall Farms Market is situated close to the Plantation and features a modern market open year round that carries the Plantation’s own produce grown in season right on the Boone Hall Farms. This includes strawberries, pumpkins, tomatoes among many other fruits and vegetables.

The Market also has a café that offers a diverse menu, fresh local seafood, a wine alley, a Lowcountry Butcher Shoppe and a flower and gift department. There are also Boone Hall label jellies, jams and sauces.

In 1743, live oak trees were planted arranged in 2 evenly spaced rows, offering a spectacular approach to the Boone home, as a symbol of Southern heritage. It took two centuries for the massive, moss-draped branches of the oaks to meet overhead, thereby forming the natural corridor you see today. This must-see stop makes for a great photo-taking opportunity.

But if upon leaving the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens you still haven’t had your fill of oak trees then head over to the Angel Oak Tree Park. In many areas of the southeast United States, it’s not uncommon to see large beautiful live oak trees their sprawling aged branches reminiscent of enchanted forests and fairytale trees. One of the most impressive of these live oaks is Charleston’s Angel Oak Tree.

Possibly the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi River, the Angel Oak Tree is estimated at being around 1,500 years old. The Angel Oak Tree stands at 65 feet with a circumference of 25.5 feet and an overall shade area of 17,000 square feet. The length of its largest limb is 89 feet and its circumference measures 11.5 feet.

The magnificent oak is found in Angel Oak Tree Park on John’s Island, about 12 miles from downtown Charleston. The Park has a picnic area and a small gift shop.

8. Middleton Place

Home to the oldest landscaped gardens in America, Middleton Place is a national historic landmark and popular tourist attraction in Charleston. Unlike many other similar properties, Middleton Place has surprisingly remained under the stewardship of the same family for some 320 years, and has today preserved this piece of history for visitors to enjoy.

Dubbed “the most important and most interesting garden in America” by the Garden Club of America, the Middleton Place gardens comprise 65 beautiful acres planned such that there is something blooming at Middleton Place the whole year round.

In the winter months, centuries-old camellias bloom, while in spring, azaleas blaze on the hillside above the Rice Mill Pond. During the summer months, crepe myrtles, magnolias, kalmia and roses accent the landscape creating a year-round magnificent sight.

The creation of the Middleton Gardens began in 1741 to reflect the grand classic style that remained in fashion in England and Europe well into the early part of the 18th century. The design of the Middleton Gardens followed the principles used in laying out the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Balance, geometry, rational order, as well as focal points, surprises and vistas were all part of the garden design.

The original garden was a superb exercise in geometry and logic, perfectly adapted to the contours of the land. The bones of the great garden remain intact with descendants of the Middleton family introducing color and various plantings into the already exquisite gardens. A garden interpreter will guide you through a discussion on the Middleton Place Gardens design, its history and horticulture.

The Middleton Place House Museum was built in 1755 and interprets 4 generations of the Middleton family through extraordinary exhibits of family furniture, porcelain, silver, portraits and rare books on display.

Guided tours of the House Museum will introduce you to the men, women and children who called Middleton Place their home over the last 3 centuries, including not only the Middleton family, but also the enslaved Africans and freedmen that served them.

Their story is interpreted through an extraordinary collection of original portraits, documents, furniture, silver, china and other objects that were used by or belonged to the family members.

Visitors can peruse portraits, fine London and Charleston-made silver; a pre-revolutionary breakfast table; first edition works by significant authors and artists that reflect the tastes, interests and resources of the Middleton family.
Exhibits include insights into the use of enslaved Africans’ labor for Civil War projects, as well as runaway slaves who fled the Charleston plantations for Union bases.

Middleton Place also features newly rejuvenated 18th and 19th century plantation stable yards with costumed interpreters who demonstrate the skills once performed by enslaved Africans. The stable yards bring to life the sights and sounds of a Lowcountry rice plantation. The craft artisans you find here include a blacksmith, carpenter, cooper, weaver and potter.

Numerous heritage breeds are to be found in this living history plantation stable yards including river water buffalo, cashmere goats, guinea hogs, brown Swiss and jersey cows, along with Dominique and Rhode Island red chickens.

9. Center for Birds of Prey

Wild birds are among the most illuminating sentinel species in the world. Birds are diverse, numerous, widespread, conspicuous and particularly sensitive to changes in the environment. The ecological status of wild birds directly reflects the condition of our ecosystem and biodiversity as a whole. Environmental issues that impact populations of wild birds often hold potential implications on human health as well.

Ideally located on a 152-acre campus close to Charleston is the Avian Conservation Center. This Center is dedicated to the welfare and study of birds and their habitats, as well as to engaging the public on important environmental issues that affect birds and humans alike.

Operating 365 days a year, the Avian Conservation Center has a medical clinic that treats over 500 injured birds of prey every year. Since it was founded in 1991, the Avian Conservation Center has treated and released thousands of injured birds.

The Avian Conservation Center is a non-profit founded to contribute to the fields of conservation, education and science. The Center’s mission is to identify and address important environmental issues by providing injured birds of prey and shorebirds with medical care, and through conservation, educational and research initiatives.

The Avian Conservation Center and its primary operating division, the Center for Birds of Prey operates a professional avian medical clinic for injured birds of prey and certain shorebird species. It also offers on-site and outreach educational programs to adults and students, conducts research studies and participates in and supports issues of international conservation.

The Center is a first-line responder for oiled birds in the event of a contaminant spill that affects native bird populations, as well as their fragile breeding habitats along the South Atlantic coast. The Center also serves as a primary resource that creates ongoing awareness on the ecological impact of a contaminant spill, making available proactive measures to reduce the likelihood of such events.

An experience of a lifetime awaits you at Charleston’s Center for Birds of Prey. Enjoy a flight demonstration as you watch falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, vultures and kites soar above the flying field and learn about their unique flying and hunting techniques.

10. Old Slave Mart Museum, Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon

Situated between Queen and Chalmers Streets, is the Old Slave Mart Museum. The last surviving slave auction gallery in South Carolina, Charleston’s Old Slave Mart was briefly used before the end of the American Civil War when Charleston was under occupation by Union troops.

During the antebellum period, Charleston served as the center of commercial activity for the plantation economy of the American South that heavily depended on enslaved Africans as a primary source of labor.

It was custom in Charleston for enslaved Africans to be sold on the northern side of the Old Exchange Building. However, an 1856 city ordinance prohibited the practice of public sale of slaves, thereby resulting in the proliferation of several salesrooms, marts and yards along Queen, State and Chalmers streets. One of these venues was Ryan’s Mart which belonged to Thomas Ryan and is today the site of the Old Slave Mart Museum.

When it was first constructed in 1859, Ryan’s Mart comprised a 4-story brick tenement building with offices and a slave jail in which enslaved Africans were held before being sold. There was also a kitchen and a morgue.

The open-ended building was referred to as a shed, and it used the walls of the German Fire Hall to its west to support the timbers of its roof. The interior comprised a large room with a 20-foot ceiling, while its front façade was more impressive with its octagonal pillars, high arch and large iron gate.

Before the shed was constructed, sales of enslaved Africans were carried out inside the tenement building or within the yard. When slave auctions were held in the shed, enslaved Africans were forced to stand on auction tables, 3 feet high and 10 feet long, placed lengthwise such that slave owners could pass by them during the auction.

This odious history of the building lasted only a short time before the South was defeated during America’s Civil War, leading to the end of slavery. Around the year 1878, the Old Slave Mart was renovated into a 2-story dwelling.

The Old Slave Mart is located on one of the few remaining cobblestone streets in Charleston. This is the only extant building that was used as a slave auction gallery in South Carolina. Formerly part of a complex of buildings, the Old Slave Mart building is the only structure that remains today.

Recognized for its role in the history of African-Americans in Charleston, the Old Slave Mart building today houses the Old Slave Mart Museum. The Museum was established in 1938 by Miriam B. Wilson who purchased the property and transformed it into a museum of African-American history, arts and crafts.

The Old Slave Mart Museum is today the first African-American Museum that has operated sporadically since 1938. The Museum is often staffed by individuals who can trace their history to the enslaved Africans of Charleston.

Many people today don’t realize it but at one point during slavery, as many as 35-40% of enslaved Africans were brought into the United States through Charleston. The Old Slave Mart building itself evokes an eerie feel of days gone by. There’s a lot to learn here.

Plan to spend at least one hour reading the informative posters and soaking in the history of the building. Listen to the fascinating interview with a former slave.

Situated not very far from the Old Slave Mart building is the Old Exchange. While most of Charleston’s historic buildings are residences that focus on prominent families in the city, the Old Exchange began its existence as a public building and remains as such to this day.

Charleston’s Old Exchange building means different things to different people. To some, it’s a fancy architectural jewel designed to house the assemblies of the 18th century. To others, it’s the ghoulish prison of the Revolution, in which martyrs spent their last nights. But there is no question that for generations enslaved Africans were sold next to the Old Exchange’s balcony – the very same balcony from which America’s Declaration of Independence was read.

The Old Exchange offers tours of its 3 floors which highlight the different aspects of the history of Charleston during the Revolutionary and Colonial eras, placed into the context of the people and events of these periods. The history of the Old Exchange is presented here in an informative and interesting manner.

Visitors will also be drawn to the Provost Dungeon that’s similarly found inside the Old Exchange building. Experienced docents will guide you through the eerie confines of the Provost Dungeon, all the while narrating interesting tales of pirates and patriots.

The Old Exchange building is handicap accessible, for individuals who need to access the museum at the ground level.