Charleston is one of the oldest, most storied cities in America and has developed a rich culture shaped by a number of historic events (the Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter, for one) with distinct geographic elements (the city is flanked by two rivers and a beautiful harbor on the Southern tip). And due to its small size, you’ll inevitably stumble on significant sites and the picturesque Charleston single houses, with their piazzas and lace-like facades, simply by taking a post-dinner walk. What’s more, many of the newer restaurants, bars, and shops are housed in old buildings that have been beautifully converted to accommodate modern-day needs—though they still retain the old-world charm that makes Charleston so unforgettable.
History permeates almost every aspect of the city, from the majestic homes-turned-museums to the landmarks that promote the city’s role in United States history. Civil War buffs should head to Fort Sumter, where the first shot of the War between the States was fired. Meanwhile, shopaholics looking for locally made goods should peruse the Charleston City Market. When you’re ready for a day at the beach, the city’s got you covered there, too. Several beach towns, including Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palm and Folly Beach, offer sun, sand and gentle waves. Continue reading our Charleston Travel Guide and start planning your Charleston vacation today! For more great East Coast beaches of the U.S., visit our Best East Coast Beaches review here.
Charleston Weather (When to Visit)
The best time to visit Charleston is from March to May or from September to November when temperatures are mild – but not stifling. Hotel rates, however, will be high, especially around Easter. Also, the city will be thick with crowds “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” at the blooming magnolia trees, the Southern fried food and their tour guide’s ghost stories. Steer clear of high prices and tourist swarms by visiting in the late fall or early winter.
Temperate weather accompanies blooming trees and flowers, making spring one of the best times to vacation in Charleston. The warm 60 to 80-degree temperatures usher in a colorful array of blooms throughout the city, which you can tour during the annual Festival of Houses and Gardens. But you won’t be alone in a springtime visit: Prepare for high hotel rates and hordes of tourists competing for lodging space, especially around the Easter holidays. Avoid the large crowds and steep rates with a mid-week visit instead of a weekend stay.
Best Charleston Area Beaches
Folly Beach with its mix of beachcombers and bohemians, is the most laid back of the local island scene. Spend the day watching surfers line up in the Washout, an area on the east side of Folly considered one of the best spots on the East Coast, then take a surfing lesson. Try Shaka Surf School.
Sullivan’s Island is ideal for stand up paddle boarding (SUP), with an inlet right off the beach that, in low to medium tide, makes it easier to balance on the board without fighting the ocean waves.
To see an untouched natural habitat, spend the day on Bull Island at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Perfect for hiking, this wilderness habitat houses one of the largest bird populations in the area (nearly 300 species), 7 miles of nearly untouched beach for shell gathering, and the magnificent and haunting Boneyard Beach, filled with downed trees bleached by the sun.
Isle of Palms
Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway just 12 miles from historic Charleston, the Isle of Palms features a beautiful beach, championship golf & tennis, a marina, and endless recreational opportunities both on and off the water.
Kiawah is a residential community incorporating a world-class resort and a unique, vibrant shopping village within a natural maritime setting that is being preserved and enhanced for current and future generations.
Things to do in Charleston by Viator
Charleston’s Old South Carriage Historic Tour
Experience more than 300 years of history on this guided carriage tour of Charleston. See the many mansions, churches, and gardens as your horse-drawn carriage tour covers more than 2.5 miles and 30 blocks of historic Charleston. Belgian and Percheron draft horses will you lead you through the streets while you learn about this “Holy City” and its role in the Civil War. Learn more about Charleston’s Old South Carriage Historic Tour.
Charleston Harbor History Tour
See the Charleston Harbor by boat with a leisurely sightseeing tour along the Cooper River to Fort Sumter National Monument. This fully-narrated tour focuses on Charleston history from Civil War sites to antebellum houses and landmarks, passes under Cooper River bridges, and explores a waterfront that’s home to bottlenose dolphins and pelicans. Learn more about the Charleston Harbor History Tour.
Charleston See-It-All Sightseeing Bus Tour
Charleston’s colonial history, laid-back vibe, and beautiful sites continue to steal the hearts of visitors to the Holy City. See the highlights of the peninsula in comfort on this 90-minute guided tour on a climate-controlled minibus with a maximum of 15 passengers. This narrated tour keeps you cool as you ride past must-see Charleston sights such as the Battery, the Citadel, Old City Market, and Hampton Park as well as enjoy spectacular views of Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and the Sullivan Island Lighthouse at a distance. Bonus: Admission to Charleston Powder Museum is also included with the price of your tour. Learn more about the Charleston See-It-All Bus Tour.
Charleston’s Historic Residential Carriage Tour
This one-hour tour tells the tales of Charleston’s most pivotal moments and will have travelers falling in love with the unique culture and beautiful landscapes of this southern city. Your experience begins in the stable opposite Market Street, where you’ll interact with horses before riding along in a custom carriage through the landmarks and attractions of this coastal town. The 16-passenger carriages are lighter and more comfortable that most, making them as enjoyable for the horses are they are for travelers! Learn more about Charleston’s Historic Residential Carriage Tour.
Morris Island Lighthouse Eco-Cruise
Cruise through Lowcountry tidal creeks and marshes en route to the uninhabited Morris Island on this boat cruise from the Charleston area. A private boat company launches from Bowens Island for the scenic ride through an estuary rich in biodiversity before a soft landing on Morris Island. Spend free time to taking photos the historical Morris Island Lighthouse, combing for seashells, and looking out for birds, sea turtles, and dolphins before your return. Learn more abou the Morris Island Lighthouse Eco-Cruise.
Best Charleston Restaurants
Husk $31 – 60
Chef Sean Brock’s testament to new southern cuisine, Husk sources heirloom grains, heritage animals, and classic Lowcountry produce both from area farms and from its garden. The menu changes regularly, but the dinner rolls are a constant, sprinkled with benne seeds and bourbon-barrel-smoked salt, served in a locally crafted sweetgrass basket with pork-infused butter for dredging. Telephone: 843-577-2500 Web: Husk
Fig $31 – 60
Old enough to be considered an institution, but still creative enough to wow the locals who have favored it for years, Fig is one of Charleston’s biggest success stories. Owned by Mike Lata, the kitchen is run by James Beard winner Jason Stanhope, who brings his South American background and French technique to Southern cuisine, creating dishes like fish stew provencal, made with locally caught white shrimp, squid, mussels, and Carolina gold rice. Telephone: 843-805-5900 Web: Fig
The Ordinary $31 – 60
Housed in a 1920s bank building, the high ceilings and expansive room—designed with clean white tile and black wood accents—is elegant in a simple, Parisian cafe sort of way. The website says “fancy seafood,” and this is the place for it in the city. Don’t miss: oysters on the half shell, crudo, the lobster roll, or the crispy oyster slider, since it’s something that most people who frequent get every time, no matter the choices for the rest of the meal. This bar has an impressive collection of rum, so the cocktail list is divided into “With Rum” and “Without Rum” categories, with 12 in the former. Telephone: 843-414-7060 Web: The Ordinary
Xiao Bao Biscuit $11 – 30
For a taste of something outside of fried green tomatoes and sweet tea, head to Xiao Bao Biscuit on the corner of Rutledge Ave and Spring Street. Here you’ll find a beautiful marriage of Asian and Chinese soul food, with spicy dishes like Thai yellow curry with mung bean cakes, Japanese cabbage pancakes with pork “candy,” or local snapper prepared with Chinese spices and seasoned greens. Inside a converted gas station, it’s popular for business and casual meals among the creative class. Web: Xiao Bao Biscuit
Le Farfalle $31 – 60
Although firmly in the “tourist district,” it is still firmly a neighborhood spot. You can pop in for a happy hour bite of fried mozzarella sticks, enjoy a plate of rigatoni verde and a glass of wine at the bar, or go all out with courses and spend the evening there. Standouts include the Fideos with toasted angel hair pasta and local shrimp, a filling Warm Rosemary Focaccia served with whipped ricotta, anything from the excellent vegetable selections, and Octopus Carpaccio, a fan favorite. Telephone: 843-212-0920 Web: Le Farfalle
Best Charleston Nightlife
The Cocktail Club
The Cocktail Club mixes up some of the most creative “farm-to-shaker” cocktails in town using house-made infusions, syrups, spices, roots, shrubs, bitters, herbs, and rare spirits. Telephone: 843-724-9411 Web: The Cocktail Club
In addition to dancing, many come here for infused craft cocktails, an impressive whiskey selection, seasonal beers on draft, and elevated edibles such as squid and grits and maple-bourbon hot wings. Telephone: 843-793-2964 Web: The Prohibition
An intimate nook, Proof fills with craft cocktail connoisseurs escaping the collegiate pub crawl. Telephone: 843-793-1422 Web: Proof
A classy evening and late-night cocktail lounge with towering pressed tin ceilings and black-and-white movies projected on a rear screen, The Belmont maintains a vintage vibe and devoted following. Web: The Belmont
The Bar at Husk
Next door to uber-trending restaurant Husk, the freestanding Bar at Husk is a destination in itself, thanks to an impressive drink menu. Telephone: 843-577-2500 Web: The Bar at Husk