There’s a reason why Charleston, South Carolina continues to win accolades for being a great place to visit. It’s also completely understandable as to why so many people move here from around the country after visiting a few times (or just based off a few good recommendations). There really are so many things to do in Charleston, South Carolina!
At the center of the South Carolina Lowcountry, Charleston is truly a world-class city wrapped-up in a very accessible package. Check out our list of the best attractions and activities in Charleston, SC. And be sure to keep exploring The Best of Hipster Charleston site for even more recommendations on the best things to do in Charleston, SC.
The Top 10 Things to Do in Charleston, South Carolina
With a laundry list of activities to take advantage of regardless of the weather here, any visit requires prioritizing. Here are the top attractions to do on your first visit to Charleston. If you don’t get to them all, there’s always the second visit! And speaking of coming back, keep visiting this page as we continue to add more things to do in South Carolina.
1. Charleston City Market
No visit to Charleston would be complete without wandering through the Historic Charleston City Market and nearby. Though the market area is touristy, the Charleston City Market is pretty and historic. It’s also an opportunity to check-out the Confederate Museum (when open). Walking through (using the free public restrooms) and looking at the various goods is all free. You’ll find anything related to Charleston here: toys, sweetgrass baskets, jewelry, food, and much more. I would not recommend any of the restaurants on Market Street, but rather to head elsewhere after exploring.
2. The Battery and White Point Gardens
At the southern tip of Charleston, South Carolina, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean (according to locals) sits one of the most quintessential tourist attractions in Charleston: White Point Gardens. This park features a prime location at the tip of the peninsula in the South of Broad neighborhood in historic downtown Charleston and fantastic views of Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge. Missing a stroll through White Point Gardens and along the Battery would leave a visit to Charleston inadequate.
3. Charleston Tours
One of the fastest ways to see Charleston and surrounding area is through the guidance of a trained local. Charleston, SC, tours are always fascinating. All Charleston tour guides are well-trained before taking visitors out, and there’s plenty of tour types to choose: culinary, history, or ghost tours. Ghost tours in Charleston, SC, especially are a treat: as a historic city, there are more than a few great ghost stories to share with visitors. But there are also carriage rides and Charleston plantation tours to enjoy on your visit, with unique information shared according to the individual tour guide, so you’ll be sure to enjoy some variety.
4. Fort Sumter
Charleston, South Carolina was of significant political and military importance for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. And luckily, visitors are welcome to the location that marked the start of the Civil War, located right here in the Charleston harbor. Fort Sumter, SC, is one of the best tourist attractions in Charleston, and the ride out to the fort can be spectacular.
5. Rainbow Row
Arguably the most photographed location in Charleston, Rainbow Row is a line of 13 historic homes on East Bay Street. Painted various pastel colors to match a Caribbean color scheme, the houses faced the Cooper River when they were first constructed. Today, they stand between Tradd Street and Elliot Street and are right along the route from White Point Gardens to Waterfront Park.
6. Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge
Aside from Rainbow Row, the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge is what most Charlestonians associate with living in the Lowcountry. It almost seems that no matter where you are in the area, you can see the two towers of the bridge standing high above everything. A fair amount of that is probably because of how low-lying the land is here. But a walk or bike ride along the Ravenel bridge is a relaxing way to see the skyline of downtown Charleston and the harbor.
7. Waterfront Park
Another scenic location on the Charleston peninsula, Waterfront Park is one of the top tourist attractions in Charleston, South Carolina. The pineapple fountain is another one of the most famous sites to see here. But sitting on one of the swinging benches on the wharf is a great way to while away the afternoon.
8. Middleton Place
Definitely one of the most beautiful places to visit in Charleston, Middleton Place sits on the Ashley River. The house is not the most impressive of the plantations near Charleston (the original home was burned in the Civil War), but the gardens are gorgeous and framed by live oaks lining the Ashley River. Take a carriage ride, explore the house, or enjoy a meal at the Middleton Place restaurant. But definitely don’t miss a chance to wander through this former rice plantation.
9. College of Charleston Campus
Walking through the central and oldest part of the College of Charleston campus is like walking through Disneyland’s version of Charleston. The buildings and homes have been beautifully restored, and the lights and Spanish moss dripping from the limbs of the giant live oaks make nighttime at the Cistern a magical experience.
10. The Nathaniel Russell House
Charleston, South Carolina, is most famous for the beautiful (and impressive) homes on Rainbow Row and the Battery, but there are plenty of architectural gems throughout downtown to keep any avid fan interested during a visit, including the Nathaniel Russell House. While walking around town is a delight, exploring the inside of some of the most impressive homes adds another level of interest to both fans of architecture as well as those interested in interior design or just how people lived in the height of Charleston’s influence and wealth. While it’s difficult to find examples of how the vast majority of Charleston’s inhabitants lived downtown (the slaves and urban poor), the Nathaniel Russell House is one of several excellent examples of the upper crust’s lifestyle.
Even More Activities and Attractions in Charleston, South Carolina
11. The Best Beaches Near Charleston
If the history or the natural beauty of the Lowcountry are not your thing, there are some fantastic beaches near Charleston, SC, to experience, including: Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, and Edisto Beach. Find the best places to soak up the sun and enjoy your upcoming beach vacations in Charleston.
12. Charleston Plantations
Each of the Charleston plantations are famous in their own right, whether you easily recognize their names or not: Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall Plantation, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall all merit a visit (as does McLeod Plantation, a newcomer to the scene). Even the shortest visit to Charleston warrants an afternoon at one of these fantastic places. Not only are they all breathtakingly beautiful, but necessary for any history buff, especially those interested in the history of the South.
13. Hampton Park
At 60 acres, Hampton Park is the largest park in downtown Charleston (though not the largest park in all of the city of Charleston). It’s also the prettiest and most relaxing, in this writer’s humble opinion. A circular running path around the perimeter of Hampton Park compliments the interior. Stroll through the middle to find the gazebo, playground, pond with fountains and friendly ducks, and the best plantings in Charleston. To get here, head north of the Crosstown and pass Westside neighborhood and Hampton Park Terrace.
14. Shopping in Charleston
While going shopping is not necessarily for everyone, the shopping in Charleston, South Carolina, is a major draw for more than a handful of people. King Street shopping is Charleston’s version of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, Fifth Avenue in New York, or Bond Street in London. But high-end and luxury shopping is not the only thing found in this shopping area. From used book stores to thrift shops to specialty Charleston coffee shops and Charleston bakeries, there are plenty of establishments to pique anyone’s interest. For those looking to save some money, there are plenty of malls near Charleston, like the Tanger Outlets.
15. Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon
The Old Exchange and Provost Building is one of the oldest buildings in Charleston (and South Carolina) with a lot to tell about the history of the United States. The building was completed in 1771 and was the socio-cultural center of the city of Charleston from the end of the colonial era and into early Revolutionary period. The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon below the building is even older than what’s above it, and worth a visit to see how pirates and others found outside the law were treated in early America (and maybe experience a ghost yourself).
16. South Carolina Aquarium
No trip to Charleston, South Carolina, would be complete without visiting the South Carolina Aquarium. Opened in May of 2000, the South Carolina Aquarium inspires conservation with some pretty spectacular exhibits such as the two-story tank. It is home to more than 5000 animals, including birds, stingrays, a touch tank of sharks, and river otters!. This unique facility is both educational and entertaining for at least a few hours (a lot more if you’ve got kids). Be sure to come see why the SC Aquarium has been consistently voted the best tourist attraction in Charleston for families!
17. Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park
The “Joe”, as it’s locally known, is named after the former 10-term mayor of Charleston and is located downtown on the banks of the Ashley River in between Brittlebank Park and the Citadel Military College campus. Of course, baseball is a major part of the draw of the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, but that’s just a part of the story of the stadium and its draw.
10 of the Best Restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina
There’s a reason Charleston was voted North America’s Best City and second best city in the world (after Kyoto, Japan) in 2015. The weather is warm, the people are friendly, and Holy City grits are so delicious visitors may consider worshipping the local masters of the culinary arts. There is so much to see and do here, but the best restaurants in Charleston, SC, offer meals that tug at your heart-strings. Many Charleston restaurants have gained nation-wide notoriety for their ingredients, their chefs, or just their flavors. No visit to Charleston is complete without exploring as many of the fantastic Charleston restaurants as time here permits.
Seafood Restaurants in Charleston
A trip to Charleston would not be complete without savoring at least one meal of seafood fresh from the Charleston harbor and the surrounding waters of the Lowcountry. Coastal South Carolina seafood cuisine on offer at the various seafood restaurants in Charleston, SC, ranges from shrimp and grits to she-crab soup and fresh oysters.
Casual Restaurants in Charleston
As is befitting for a city with such a strong foodie culture, there are plenty of other casual restaurants in Charleston, SC, to try. A few fantastic options downtown include: Xiao Bao Biscuit, Hominy Grill, Butcher and Bee, Edmund’s Oast, the Ordinary, Two Boroughs Larder, and Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen.
Brunch Restaurants in Charleston
Before visiting all the historical attractions within Charleston, a decent brunch in Charleston, SC, is almost required. From Bloody Mary’s to flavorful fried chicken and bubbly mimosas to waffles and scrumptious shrimp, restaurants in Charleston serve, without question, the best brunch in all of the South.
Even More of the Best Things to Do in Charleston, SC: The Lists
To help curate the various things to do in Charleston according to the goal of your visit, we’ve also made lists according to who’s tagging along with you on your trip:
- your significant other
- an outdoor enthusiast
- your entire family
- a barfly
- someone very, very, cheap
21 of the Most Romantic Things to Do in Charleston, SC
Voted the most romantic city in America several years in a row, Charleston, South Carolina, is a hub of romantic attractions in the Lowcountry, brimming with fun and exciting activities for couples. There are so many different romantic things to do in Charleston, SC, for your next visit, including the Morris Island Lighthouse Trail, sailing on the Schooner Pride, or taking a cooking class at Zero George or Charleston Cooks! If you’re looking for date night ideas for an evening out with your significant other, look no further than the oak-lined and cobblestoned streets of this elegant city.
23 of the Most Fun Things to Do in Charleston, SC, with Kids
There is no more effective birth control in the world than traveling with kids (except babysitting). But traveling to Charleston can be pretty breezy with tykes in tow. Lucky for you there are plenty of fun things to do in Charleston, SC, with kids. Here’s a list of this writer’s favorite fun things for kids to do in Charleston, South Carolina, after having dragged kids around myself.
60 of the Best Free Things to Do in Charleston
Despite the aura of genteel opulence that is what many define as quintessentially Charleston, there are plenty of opportunities to find free things to do in Charleston, SC. In fact, many a Charleston local will spend weeks exploring the city and its various tourist attractions without spending much.
10 of the Most Fun Outdoor Things to Do in Charleston, SC
Did you know that Charleston, South Carolina, is in the middle of a biological hotspot? This area includes a huge number of endemic species of plants and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. And the unbridled development that happened elsewhere in the hotspot largely passed Charleston by (until recently). Now, there are still plenty of fun outdoor activities to enjoy in Charleston and nearby. You just need to know where to look.
All of the Best Things to Do in Charleston at Night
With so many opportunities to enjoy Charleston nightlife, there are rarely dull moments in town. Enjoying a night on the town is pretty easy in as lively a place as Charleston. From the best bars in Charleston, SC, to higher-end establishments, seeing a show at the Dock Street Theatre or a Riverdogs baseball game at the Joe, there’s plenty to keep visitors and locals alike busy.
Charleston Visitors Center
After exploring this list, one of the best places to visit first is the Charleston Visitors Center. It provides a great background to the history and main tourist attractions in Charleston, South Carolina. The building even has an introductory video and a replica of part of a historic home. The staff at the Charleston Visitors Center is also happy to provide information about the best attractions and activities here. You can even snag discounts on tours.
What About the Best Things to Do in Savannah, GA, or Elsewhere in the Lowcountry?
As far as the best things to do in Savannah, Georgia, be sure to check out the Presidents Quarters Inn’s recommendations. It’s a luxury bed and breakfast in downtown Savannah, so they know a thing or two about their home turf.
- Broad Street Photo By Khanrak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Courtyard on Rainbow Row Photo By John Hoey from Framingham, MA, United States (Courtyard at Rainbow Row) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons