Charleston, South Carolina is where some Civil War history, architecture, Cooper River, Ashley River, colorful buildings, and SC coast come together. As such, you can spend several days here and not see all there is to see! If you have limited time to spend in this city in South Carolina, this list of top 10 things to do in Charleston is sure to be useful.
1. Understand Charleston at the Charleston Museum
Charleston is a place with a lot of history. To get to know it well, a good place to start exploring would be at the Charleston Museum. This museum is the oldest in the state of South Carolina and among the oldest in the United States. In fact, it’s often referred to as ‘America’s Oldest Museum’ as it was founded way back in 1773 although it was open to the public only in 1824.
If that isn’t enough reason to visit Charleston Museum, this place will tell you all you need to know about Charleston from its cultural history to its natural history. It’s the place to go to learn about the Native Americans who lived in the area to the colonists who arrived later, and about the people who were enslaved in these parts. The exhibits here range from fossils to information about native birds & animals, firearms, textiles, ceramics, & Charleston Silver. There are 2 historical homes you can tour, and for kids, there’s Kidstory, a section of the museum that plays a kids museum with lots of interactive exhibits about Charleston.
2. Visit Sumter Fort
Another historical place & awesome thing to do in Charleston is to visit Sumter Fort, known for its place in the American Civil War. It’s known to be the place where the first shots of the civil war were fired. The fort was later attacked in 1863 when the union tried to take over the island-fort. This fort that bears the name of Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter was constructed on an island that was built on a sand bar. The fort was built to protect the Charleston area from invasions from the sea.
To get to the still ‘unfinished’ fort that wears signs of the ’63 attack, you’ll have to take a boat from Patriot Point or Liberty Square. The fort on Charleston Bay is now under the National Park System. When you visit, you can go see its cannons and the all destruction that the fort was met with. On this manmade island is also a museum that has records of the fort’s history.
3. Stroll through Battery District
Battery District also takes you back to the Civil War era. This area used to be the coastal defense base with a seawall, artillery et al.
Today, however, tourists can enjoy a stroll on the promenade along the seawall, and take in the grand antebellum homes that adorn the coast. You also get views of Charleston Bay, the harbor, Sumter Fort, and the confluence of Cooper & Ashley Rivers.
Another thing to see while you’re here is White Point Garden. The garden has several statues, monuments, & cannons apart from the greenery & a gazebo. This garden is a nice place to go for some shade when you’re visiting in the summer or to just relax in the evening breeze & evening light.
4. Relax at Waterfront Park
Further up the coast is another park that is one of the most popular things to do in Charleston. Called Joe Riley Waterfront Park, this park too presents you with sea views & sea air and also walkways, Palmetto trees, & lawns.
The biggest attraction here though is the Pineapple Fountain that has come to be a popular symbol of Charleston. Located alongside the Cooper River, this park is a place to sit and enjoy Charleston’s coast and to watch boats sailing by. You also get a view of the Ravenel Bridge from here.
5. Explore French Quarter
The French Quarter is another area you don’t want to miss. Walk farther inland from the waterfront and you see the architecture the area is known for. These parts made up the original walled city.
The French Quarter was once where French merchants lived. French Huguenots too are said to have taken refuge here. These days, it is also the home of the historical Charleston City Market, Confederate Museum, and a whole lot of art galleries & boutiques. There’s also Pink House — (one the oldest stone buildings of these parts) Old Slave Mart, Dock Street Theater, & a couple of churches.
6. Take some pictures of Rainbow Row
If you’re interested in architecture or are into photography, there’s another place you just cannot skip & visiting this is one of the most popular things to do in Charleston. Just outside the French Quarter is a row of 13 colorful houses. Painted in pastel colors, these historical multi-story buildings were constructed in the 1740s. They were built to be merchant homes & shops but they fell into disarray by the end of the civil war.
Later, in the 1930s, Dorothy Porcher Legge, one of the homeowners on East Bay Street, decided to brighten up the area by painting her building pink. Soon others on the street picked pastel shades of yellow, green & blue for their buildings, and Charleston had a Rainbow Row! The colorful facade is said to have gone on to inspire more colorful buildings in Charleston.
7. Revisit history at Magnolia Plantation
Another must-do in Charleston is a tour of one of the plantations in the city. One of the most visited is Magnolia Plantation. Situated beside Ashley River, Magnolia Plantation dates back to 1676. It belonged to one of the prominent families of Charleston — The Draytons.
Visitors to the plantation can now go see the main house, the Draytons’ personal belongings, the antebellum cabins of the plantation & the gardens around it.
The gardens here are said to be one of the oldest ones in the country, and for over 300 years it’s been taken care of by different generations of the same family. The garden sees a lot of visitors coming to see the colorful & seasonal collection of flowers that the garden is known for. The plantation also has a swamp tour, a boat cruise & a tram ride around the property. There’s even a petting zoo here.
8. Check out Cypress Gardens
To see some plant & animal life of the area, the place you want to go to is Cypress Gardens, around 30 miles north of the downtown area. You might remember it from The Notebook, Patriot, or the few other movies that have been shot here. This is definitely one of the more unique things to do in Charleston!
This 170-acre swamp garden with bald cypresses that was hit by a hurricane has just been reopened after a gap of 4 years. And now it’s better than ever with newly redone walking trails, swamp boat rides, and a whole lot of native & exotic plants, many of them flowering ones. That’s not all! There are reptiles, amphibians, different kinds of fish, & a butterfly house in this garden.
This swamp garden in Berkeley County was the site of a reservoir that ended up being abandoned. Later it was turned into a duck hunting reserve before it came to be a botanical garden, which in turn ended up being ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 2015.
9. Go see Angel Oak for yourself
One more natural landmark that’s highly recommended for your Charleston trip is St. John’s Island, the biggest island in the Charleston area. And the biggest attraction on the island is a huge tree better known as Angel Oak. The tree is over 64 ft. tall & its trunk easily measures to more than 28 ft. in circumference. This tree with a widely spread out canopy is said to be over 400 years old. Local lore goes that the tree is often visited by ghosts of former slaves of the area.
When you’re at St. Johns, you might also want to visit the island’s Presbyterian church & its Equestrian Center.
10. Have a Beach Day
With all the history & architecture that define Charleston, it mustn’t be forgotten that this city is not very far from sandy beaches. The recommendations for beaches around here are Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Edisto Island, & Bull Island.