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.
Weather (When to Go)
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.
Getting Around in Charleston
The best way to get around Charleston is on foot. You’ll probably enjoy the use of a car too. You can rent a car at Charleston International Airport or bring your own and leave it parked in one of the garages located throughout the city. Having a car is especially helpful if you’re staying in the city outskirts or if you plan on indulging in some beach time. City buses and trolleys are available too, as are taxis. From the airport, which is located about 12 miles northwest of the downtown area, you can take a cab or shuttle bus. Taxis from the airport to Charleston’s downtown area cost about $29 to $34, depending on where your hotel is located. Shuttle buses depart every 15 minutes and cost $14 per person. The price is lower than a taxi ride, but the trip will be longer due to the multiple stops the bus makes.
With its centuries-old mansion and cobblestone streets, Charleston is like a living museum. One of the best ways to learn about its history (and its ghosts) and the significance of its best-known landmarks is on a walking tour. There are a variety of options available, ranging from broad tours of the city’s historic downtown district, to more niche tours that explore the city’s paranormal presence, pirates and art galleries and studios.
Visitors have praised operators like Charleston Footprints, Oyster Point Historic Walking Tours and Two Sisters Tours. To see a more complete directory of available walking tours, check out the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau’s website.
This row of Southern-style mansions overlooking Charleston Harbor was formerly the heart and soul of the city’s maritime activity. Today, the area attracts camera-toting tourists from all over the country. This is a must while in Charleston. As you explore this picturesque neighborhood, make sure to also spend some time in the nearby White Point Gardens, where several Civil War relics and memorials commemorate the city’s role in the battle. Start your tour of the Battery at the 12-acre Waterfront Park (home to the giant pineapple fountain featured on many Charleston postcards), then follow the walking paths on East Battery Street for the nearly mile-long stroll to White Point Gardens.
If there were ever a place to stop and smell the roses, this house would be it. Built in 1755, this mansion was once the home of Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Today, Middleton Place houses an impressive collection of historic furniture and portraits (all originally owned by the Middleton family), plus a stable with heritage-bred animals. Visitors can also watch historical re-enact the skills and technology used on an 18th-century plantation, or take a carriage or specialized tour. Just make sure you save time to treat yourself to a bite to eat at the Middleton Place Restaurant, where the menu is inspired by traditional low country Gullah cuisine.
Nathanial-Russell House Museum
Constructed at the turn of the 19th century by Nathaniel Russell – a wealthy Southern merchant – this historic home is best known for its magnificent spiraling staircase, detailed furnishings and landscaped gardens. Unlike the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House has undergone an architectural and interior restoration. This is the place to go if you’re looking for insight into the more lavish side of Southern comfort. Tours, which last approximately half an hour, are docent-led and commence every 30 minutes. During the tour, you’ll learn about the Russell family and the slaves who cared for the home.
Aiken-Rhett House Museum
According to many, there’s no better example of antebellum life than the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. Originally built in the early 1800s and then expanded by Gov. William Aiken and his wife in the 1850s, much of the house’s original style has been preserved. As you wander through, pay special attention to the antique furnishings, the original wallpaper and the stunning bronze chandeliers installed by the Aikens. Also, spend some time exploring the grounds: You can visit the slave quarters, the stables and the kitchens, all of which have been preserved to satisfy any history buffs yearning for a taste of the Old South.
Things to do in Charleston
Charleston Sailing Charters
Sail year round on Charleston’s finest, private, and romantic 50ft luxury yachts, “Fate” and “Kismet”. Rated by Forbes as one of the top romantic things to do in Charleston! Enjoy the sights of this beautiful city from historical landmarks to a wide variety of wildlife as you relax and feel the ocean breeze, all while your professional captain and mate cater to your every need. Available for hourly, daily and overnight adventures. For more information call +1 843-557-7403, or visit them on the web at Charleston Sailing Charters.
Coastal Expeditions’ mission is to take people to beautiful places to experience meaningful things by kayak, SUP, canoe and powerboat. Founded in 1992, Coastal Expeditions is the original outfitter in Charleston, South Carolina and is a family business with a team of exceptional, big-hearted guides. Saltwater and blackwater tours and rentals are available year round from several wildlife-laden spots, including 4 private on-water outposts at Folly, Shem Creek, Isle of Palms and the Bulls Island Ferry. For more information call +1 843-884-7684, or visit them on the web at Coastal Expeditions.
Adventure Harbor Tours
Family fun for everyone! They offer 3 hour shell and sharks tooth hunting & history trips out to beautiful and secluded Morris Island, as well as romantic sunset and dolphin cruises. Science and eco tours for kids, and school groups that meet or exceed SC school standards as well. Definitely kid and pet friendly, too. For more information call +1 843-442-9455, or visit them on the web at Adventure Harbor Tours.
Charleston Outdoor Adventures
COA provides clients the opportunity to explore the saltwater estuaries through guided kayak tours, guided paddle board tours, charter boat tours, inshore fishing charters and kayak &paddle board rentals. With COA, you can expect to experience the Lowcountry in a way you will never forget. Their trips focus on natural, scenic and cultural areas that are not impacted by industrial tourism. For more information call +1 843-795-0330, or visit them on the web at Charleston Outdoor Adventures.
Charleston Kayak Company
They offer access to some of the most scenic waterways in the Charleston area. Naturalist guided kayak tours and rentals are offered year-round from the grounds of historic Middleton Place. Immerse yourself in the rich history, ecology, and protected waterways surrounding this National Historic Landmark site. Tours are suitable for any skill level or experience. If your more comfortable with an engine, join one of their history and dolphin boat tours exploring the salt marshes aboard our 24ft Carolina Skiff. For more information call +1 843-628-2879, or visit them on the web at Charleston Kayak Company.
Best Restaurants in Charleston
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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. For more information call +1 843-577-2500, or visit them on the web at Husk.
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. For more information call +1 843-805-5900, or visit them on the web at Fig.
$$$$ The Ordinary
Housed in a 1920s bank building, the high ceilings and expansive room—designed with clean white tile and black wood accents—is elegant in a simple, Parisian cafe sort of way. The website says “fancy seafood,” and this is the place for it in the city. Don’t miss: oysters on the half shell, crudo, the lobster roll, or the crispy oyster slider, since it’s something that most people who frequent get every time, no matter the choices for the rest of the meal. This bar has an impressive collection of rum, so the cocktail list is divided into “With Rum” and “Without Rum” categories, with 12 in the former. For more information call +1 843-414-7060, or visit them on the web at The Ordinary.
$$ – $$$ Xiao Bao Biscuit
For a taste of something outside of fried green tomatoes and sweet tea, head to Xiao Bao Biscuit on the corner of Rutledge Ave and Spring Street. Here you’ll find a beautiful marriage of Asian and Chinese soul food, with spicy dishes like Thai yellow curry with mung bean cakes, Japanese cabbage pancakes with pork “candy,” or local snapper prepared with Chinese spices and seasoned greens. Inside a converted gas station, it’s popular for business and casual meals among the creative class. For more information visit them on the web at Xiao Bao Biscuit.
$$$$ Le Farfalle
What is so beautiful about this restaurant is that it is Italian and Charleston at the same time, a bit like a rambling Italian seaside restaurant tucked just a block off King Street. 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. For more information call +1 843-212-0920, or visit them on the web at 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. For more information call +1 843-724-9411, or visit them on the web at 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. For more information call +1 843-793-2964, or visit them on the web at The Prohibition.
An intimate nook, Proof fills with craft cocktail connoisseurs escaping the collegiate pub crawl. For more information call +1 843-793-1422, or visit them on the web at 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. For more information visit them on the web at 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. For more information call +1 843-577-2500, or visit them on the web at The Bar at Husk.
Best Hotels in Charleston
The Dewberry Charleston
Experience America’s favorite city through the lens of John Dewberry, preservationist and proud Charlestonian. At The Dewberry, sincerity outshines obligation and every element is specifically designed to deliver luxury, warmth and a nod to old Charleston. Conde Nast Traveler 2019 Gold List Hotel. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit The Dewberry Charleston.
French Quarter Inn
A hidden gem tucked just off Market Street in downtown Charleston, The French Quarter Inn is an intimate boutique hotel with a singular calling: to make you feel at home. Regularly ranked among the city’s most luxurious retreats, it captivates guests with an experience akin to visiting the gracious Charleston home of a charming Southern friend. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit French Quarter Inn.
A 21-room tribute to Charleston’s gilded age, the historic Wentworth Mansion exudes the glamour and grandeur of the Holy City. Italian crystal chandeliers, hand-carved marble fireplaces, and Tiffany stained glass create a setting of gracious hospitality, further enhanced by luxurious amenities and thoughtful guest experiences – all just a short stroll from King Street’s world-class dining and shopping. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Wentworth Mansion. A Travel & Leisure World’s Best Award.
The Spectator Hotel
Offering the best address in Charleston’s bustling historic district, The Spectator Hotel evokes the exuberance of the Jazz Age and the genteel glamour of the Old South. Step inside our sleek boutique and discover why we’re #1 in Charleston, #2 in the U.S. and #61 in the world as voted by Travel + Leisure readers. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit The Spectator Hotel.
Zero George Street
Zero George’s immaculately restored circa 1804 buildings and private courtyard are the ideal ground zero for exploring Charleston’s allure. Award-winning luxury boutique hotel featuring contemporary design, Zero Restaurant + Bar, cooking school, concierge, and custom bicycles. Hospitality refined, down to Zero. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Zero George Street.