Of all the cities and towns you could visit, Charleston, South Carolina belongs near the top of the list. Every moment feels stolen here. It is a place without peer; all of it splendid; a lived-in museum without admission. There are an endless number of things to do in Charleston SC.
Charleston has been voted “Best City in the USA” multiple times and it is easy to see why. Our primary objective in writing this article is to help you design and prepare the most memorable trip of your lives. This is your complete guide to Charleston.
1. A Brief Historical Nod
2. The Weather and When to Visit
3. The 25 Best Things to Do in Charleston SC
4. The 20 Best Places to Eat
5. The Best Gift Shops for Souvenirs
6. The Notebook Tour
7. City-Wide Events and Celebrations
8. An Honest Conclusion
In 1670, a ship carrying 148 men and women sailed into Charleston Harbor. They would establish the settlement of Charles Town, named after the British King Charles II. The port brought related trade, which moneyed these early residents. Charleston, South Carolina quickly became the wealthiest of all the colonial American cities.
The affluent citizens of Charleston desired culture, so Charleston became a cultural icon in the Americas. The port city is home to our nation’s first museum, (The Charleston Museum, 1773), city college (College of Charleston, 1770), golf club (Country Club of Charleston, 1786), and theater (Dock St. Theater, 1736).
Then came the slavery.
The best times to visit are March and April. Flowers are in bloom and the weather is perfect.
In October and November you can catch beach weather AND the fall color change.
If you are visiting for summer vacation, we would recommend June. July and August are insufferably hot and humid.
December is surprisingly warm. January and February have average temps in the 50’s, but it can drop below freezing at night. The trees are bare in the winter, which makes everything less beautiful.
Charleston is one of those easy to visit places where merely walking the streets will change your life. Many folks come to town without agendas and have no trouble enjoying themselves. We happen to believe we can aim a bit higher, and will guide you towards what we found to be the most interesting and memorable locations that you will not find anywhere else in the country.
Some of these ideas are obvious, like suggesting you visit Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills. Others, like Driftwood Beach on Edisto Island, or Patriots Point, might go unnoticed to a casual visitor. Which of the plantations is the best to visit? Which beach best suits your needs? Read on to find out.
Lastly, click blue links to get more detailed information. If you want to read a comparison of beaches, islands, plantations, or simply learn how to get around, we’ve got you covered.
Historic Charleston’s most impressive attraction is The Battery, a seawall built on Charleston Harbor along which stands a magnificent row of southern mansions. Any time of day you will find folks walking or jogging along the elevated walkway. White Point Garden (photo above) is a magical park full of oak trees and historical markers, a terrific place for a sunset picnic. We’ve visited a dozen times and it’s still amazing to us. Read more about the parks of Downtown Charleston.
The cultural ambitions and tastes of Charleston’s founding families have been wonderfully preserved for Charleston visitors today. The streets are from another time, lined with stunning homes, grand cathedrals, graveyards, military relics, and statues. Some streets have maintained their original cobblestone. Horse-drawn carriages are visible all throughout the day. It is as magical as Disneyland and it is real. Learn your way around Downtown Charleston’s best sites.
When you first set foot on Driftwood Beach you’ll think you’ve landed on another planet. It is the work of Medusa — the trees dead and upright like your co-workers. Spend the day climbing around the stumps and picnicking with the kids. Walk northward to the bay and admire the assortment of large, beautiful shells adorning every branch of every tree. Driftwood Beach on Edisto Island is a true wonderland and one of the best things to do in Charleston SC. Read more about Edisto Beach.
Middleton Place is considered the oldest landscaped garden in America. Located NW of Charleston on the Ashley River, Middleton Place lives beside two other famous plantations, Magnolia and Drayton Hall. The botanical arrangements are exquisite, surpassed by no other plantation, and the expanse of the yard overlooking the river is awe-striking. Spend hours wandering between formal and informal gardens, admiring azaleas beneath rows of moss-strung oaks. Read more about Charleston Plantations here.
A top-notch military museum in Charleston, SC. The SS Yorktown II Aircraft Carrier is parked on the river just outside downtown. Walk all through the ship and learn about the daily life of sailors. The top deck has an assortment of planes and helicopters, and hosts incredible views of downtown. The other half of Patriot Point is a tribute to Vietnam, which is an incredible experience not to be missed. Learn more about Patriots Point, one of the best things to do in Charleston SC.
The town of Folly Beach is terrific for shopping and eating foods. The vibe is summery, the houses large and beautiful, and the streets stroll every bit as nice as the beach. Everything here is clean and relaxed — an ideal scene for families and co-eds. If a day of sunbathing and boogie boarding fits your agenda, or perhaps a simple afternoon inspecting the swimsuits of fellow beachgoers, then Folly Beach is your kind of place. Read all about Charleston’s best beaches here.
Cypress Gardens has been a crowd-pleaser for generations, and further increased in popularity after the release of The Notebook in 2004. The gardens were originally part of the 1750 Dean Hall rice plantation, then opened to the public in 1931. The central feature of the plantation is a self-guided rowboat tour through the black water swamp. It is a magical experience for couples or families, and by itself makes Cypress Gardens one of the best things to do in Charleston SC. Read about Cypress Gardens here.
Magnolia’s claim to fame is “Charleston’s most visited plantation.” Founded in 1676, Magnolia Plantation is the oldest public tourist site on the Carolina coast, having opened its doors to visitors in 1870. Magnolia Plantion has a large, multifarious property, the highlight of which is a sprawling garden setting along the river. They have a delightful zoo of peacocks, owls, deer for petting, and scores of other interesting critters. Read more about Charleston Plantations here.
Shem Creek is a winning choice for date night. Imagine sharing a temperate evening with the one you love — or find attractive enough to buy dinner — strolling amidst natural beauty and wildlife, watching a sunset over the ocean, all commenced with a satisfying meal. There’s no need to overthink it. The next time you want to trick someone into liking you, bring them here and let Shem’s magic do its thing. Read more about a date night at Shem Creek here.
Charleston was the epicenter of slavery in the US — it is estimated 80% of African Americans had a relative arrive on a boat in Charleston. If gaining a deeper understand of this dark saga in our nation’s history is on your list of things to do, be sure to stop in at the Old Slave Mart Museum, the last slave auction house in Charleston. Read ALL the nuanced signage — the WHOLE story is told here. Learn how the slaves were transported, how they were purchased, how they were treated, how they lived, etc. This is absolutely one of the best things to do in Charleston SC.
Joe Riley Waterfront Park is found at the end of Vendue Range, one block NE of East Bay St. You will first be greeted by a splash fountain in which children love to play. Beyond that is Waterfront Pier, a long wood and concrete prominence with a series of swinging benches. To the right is Echo Rock, a tree and bench-lined shady path that leads to the Pineapple fountain. The fountain is a charismatic scene, excellent for photographs or cooling your feet. Learn your way around Historic Charleston here.
Like the Pineapple Fountain, every visitor to Charleston ends up here. Vendors sell everything imaginable, from locally inspired artwork and jewelry (including the famous sweetgrass baskets), to imported sunglasses, board games, and housewares. In the 1800’s, slaves were kept and viewed here before stepping on the auction block — you can still recognize the stalls in which they were kept, now occupied by vendors. On Friday/Saturday nights the market (link) is open late with live musicians.
The H. L. Hunley was a 40′ long submarine named after her developer and first commander, Horace Lawson Hunley. During the Civil War of America, in 1864, the Hunley took down the Union ship Housatonic outside Charleston Harbor with its narwhal horn-like torpedo. The submarine sank in the attack and all eight men died. In 1995, author Clive Cussler’s 14-year search recovered the relic. It is now on display in N. Charleston where it’s snail-like restoration process continues.
This is the oldest museum in the United States of America, established in 1773 by Charleston’s early settlers. The Charleston Museum has a very impressive collection of exhibits and artifacts. An entire day could be spent perusing the myriad collections and historical recaps. Some of our favorite things were: the massive whale and giant sloth skeletons, Charleston’s place in American history and the Civil War, artifacts from ancient Egypt, and others.
The attack on Fort Sumter marked the official beginning of the American Civil War—a war that lasted four years, cost the lives of more than 620,000 Americans, and freed 3.9 million enslaved people from bondage. Built in 1829, the fortification is located on a 22-acre island in Charleston Harbor. When the Civil War ended, Fort Sumter was in ruins. The U.S. Army worked to restore it as a useful military installation. Nowadays you can enjoy a historical tour. Adults 12 and up $32, children $19. Learn more.
One of our newer National Parks (designated 2003), Congaree N.P. is 22,000 acres of swampland between Charleston and Columbia South Carolina. From Charleston it is ~1.75 hours drive time, which makes it great day trip opportunity. The highlight of the park is a 2.2 mile Boardwalk Loop that gives a broad representation of the larger park (photo above). If you enjoy hiking the park presents 44 miles of trails. If kayaking is your thing, Canoe Creek provides 15 miles of river. Link to kayak outfitter.
On the North Side of Charleston Harbor is Isle of Palms. This is a wealthy corner of the city where the houses are extra large. A small inlet is all that separates Isle of Palms from Sullivan’s Island. Palms is a little closer to civilization and has more commerce, which draws a large crowd on the weekend. While we prefer Folly Beach for a Saturday afternoon of tossing the football around, Isle of Palms lends similar action for beachgoers. Hitting the beach is one of the best things to do in Charleston SC. Read about Charleston’s best beaches here.
Located off the coast of Beaufort, Hunting Island is the most popular State Park in South Carolina and one of the last undeveloped sea islands in the SC Lowcountry. There are two incredible reasons to drive the 1.5 hours to Hunting Island State Park: 1. A 136′ lighthouse. Although no longer a functioning lighthouse, the tower is open to visitors. 2. A spectacular driftwood beach similar to that on Edisto Island. Read more about Hunting Island S.P. and other South Carolina Islands here.
Boone Hall is the only plantation in the Charleston area to give a live presentation of the unique Gullah culture adapted by African slaves. You can learn about their crafts, language, and historical culture through storytelling, song, and dance. A working farm to this day, during its peak production the cash crop was indigo, and at another time the plantation focused on producing bricks. Many of the bricks in downtown Charleston were manufactured at Boone Hall. Learn more here.
Caw Caw was once part of several rice plantations and home to enslaved Africans who applied their technology and skills in agriculture to carve the series of rice fields out of cypress swamps. At Caw Caw there are over six miles of trails through the wetlands with elevated boardwalks. It is also known as a “birding hotspot”, where you can watch herons, egrets, and other large birds in a secluded natural environment. We really enjoyed learning about the rice production system in the Visitor Center.
The counterpart to Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island has a locals-only feel in the best possible way: Lowkey crowd, a little bit of shopping, a couple of restaurants, and a whole lotta sand. The beach at the north end of Sullivan’s Island feels almost private (but it’s not — it’s for all of us to enjoy), and is home to Fort Moultrie of Civil War fame. The history involving Fort Moultrie is cool– the SC flag is derived from it — and visiting a military fort is one of the best things to do in Charleston SC.
It makes a fine Civil War triumvirate with a tour of Ft. Sumter and the HL Hundley.
Angel Oak is a Southern live oak located on Johns Island. The tree is estimated to be 400–500 years old. It stands 66′ tall, measures 28′ in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet. Its longest branch distance is 187′. If you’ve ever been to the Redwood or Sequoia forest, you’ve seen some massive trees. Angel Oak is different. If you ask locals what a visitor to should do, many will name Angel Oak as one of the best things to do in Charleston SC.
Kiawah Beachwalker Park has a very interesting inhabitant, the river dolphin, and the river dolphin is up to some interesting things. The dolphins in these parts perform what is referred to as “strand fishing” to catch their meals. It is a rare behavior where the dolphins swim in a circle to surround a school of fish before pushing them onto the beach with a “team-effort” wave of water. Once the fish are flopping on the sand, the dolphins beach themselves and feast like armless college students at a pancake house.
The Gibbes Museum is Charleston’s only visual arts museum. The permanent collection at the Gibbes spans four centuries and provides a dynamic introduction to the visual culture of America and the American South from the colonial era to the present. The Gibbes is also home to one of the most prestigious portrait miniature collections in the United States. In addition to the permanent collection, prominent southern artist collections will rotate in and out. There are a handful of incredible pieces.
We’ve included Rainbow Row because it is one of the most widely photographed images in all of Charleston. What is it? Thirteen colorful houses on East Bay street. Honestly we find it underwhelming. The doorways are ornate and good for portraits. And its hard to go wrong with colorful houses. That said, it’s not really that awesome for the amount of hype surrounding it. Now, if taken into larger account with East Bay Street and the Battery, R.R. absolutely embellishes this part of the city.
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Of all the amazing things to do in Charleston, SC, we cannot understate how important restaurants are to the experience. Some cities have unspectacular food, and restaurants are utilized out of necessity. However, dining out in Charleston is a strategic element to enhance your vacation from something memorable to something you will gush about the remainder of your years.
We strongly recommend the following six restaurants. If you would like to see our full restaurant review, click here: The 20 Best Restaurants in Charleston, SC.
Upscale southern comfort served in a lively atmosphere.
New Chinese American cuisine unlike anything we’ve tasted.
We honestly could not get enough, and if we lived in Charleston we would be regulars.
If you like BBQ — especially Texas BBQ — Lewis Barbeque is some of the best you’ll ever eat.
The Southern comfort menu reads so seductive it is difficult to make a choice. Very popular with locals.
Delicious comfort food from a skilled, creative chef.
Everyone wants to come home with something nice for ourselves or the people we love. In a tourism-friendly town you will never have a shortage of gift shops. Still, finding a good one is often a challenge. Here are a few of the absolute best.
The Preservation Society of Charleston is packed with high-end, local gift ideas. On King St. (map).
Shop Historic Charleston is the other primo option for gift purchases. On Meeting Street (map).
Indigo Home on Vendue Range (map) near Joe Riley Waterfront Park. Lots of fun, creative items.
Sigh… How beloved is Nicholas Sparks? Many a female fan adores Nicholas Sparks’s books and movies. The guy has a talent for winding up the ladies. As for the fellas… we watch because it makes us look good (even if we fall far, far short of Noah Calhoun).
Of all the romantic stories that Nicholas Sparks has told, the Notebook is his greatest commercial success. It’s a sweet story about true love, class separation, and the expectations of interfering parents.
The Notebook was filmed mostly on location in the Charleston area in 2002-03. Many a befluttered fan has been drawn to this region by this story, and Monica Hoffmann was no different. Thank you Nicholas Sparks for introducing us to Charleston.
Hunting down shooting locations from the movie is sort of a thing. From the unmissable Cypress Gardens, to the oldest city college in the US, to one of the finest restaurants in Charleston, if you love The Notebook and want to see what Allie and Noah saw (minus the swans), you should absolutely trace the steps of Allie and Noah across Charleston. Here are the seven key locations (map).
American Theater is on King Street in downtown Charleston. In this scene Allie and Noah lay down in the middle of the street as they get to know each other.
The scene in The Notebook where Noah and Allie row the boat amongst dozens of swans takes place at Cypress Gardens. Amazingly, you can reenact this magical moment (sans the swans). This is the high point of The Notebook tour and one of the best things to do in Charleston SC.
High Cotton is a fancy restaurant in Charleston and a terrific choice for date night. Upon returning home from war, Noah jumps off a bus after he spots Allie walking into a restaurant (High Cotton). He achingly watches through the window as she’s greeted with a shower of kisses by her fiancé, Lon.
The Boone Hall Plantation Avenue of Oaks is found in the Noah and Allie falling in love montage when Noah and a friend ride bicycles with Allie and her girlfriend sitting on the handlebars.
Allie tries on her wedding dress at The William Aiken House. During this scene she sees a photo of Noah in the newspaper standing in front of a house he has restored (the house he restored for her).
The Williams Mansion is found on Meeting St. between Broad and Battery. The interior shots of the Hamiltons’ summer home were filmed in this unmissable mansion.
College of Charleston provided the backdrop for Allie’s college years at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. The beautiful campus is easy to find while wandering the historic streets of Charleston.
There is no shortage of things to do in Charleston SC. An annual calendar of commonly known major events includes: Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, Charleston Wine & Food Festival, Cooper River Bridge Run, North Charleston Arts Festival, Patriot Point 4th of July Blast, and MOJA Arts Festival.
Here are a few more that we enjoyed:
From mid-November to the end of December, the Holiday Festival of Lights draws tens of thousands of Christmas light gawkers and hot chocolate aficionados. Make a family tradition of driving the theme-lighted loop, and be sure to stop in at Santa’s Workshop for kettle corn. It is in the middle of the loop.
This is a hugely popular event and it is advised that you arrive as close to opening as possible. You can drive the loop more than once if the skies aren’t dark enough for you.
Have you ever been to a State Fair? Then you know the routine: Artwork, fair food, livestock, carnival rides, magicians, comedians, etc. But have you eaten a “cookie-dipped turkey leg”? There’s no way. Truth be told, the Coastal Carolina Fair is likely similar to what you’ve experienced in other towns.
Coastal Carolina Fair dates: October 15 – November 7.
Tourists from all over the world bask in the sights of Charleston and its surrounding areas. From the European mansions of Historic Downtown, to the sea cotton plantations along the island shores; from the songs of the gullah-geechee peoples, to the first ringing shots of the Civil War; from the highest drama in our nation’s history, to the creature habitats that have endured for millennia; Charleston is bursting and teeming with historical, emotional, and aesthetic value.
In our humble opinion, this is the best city in the USA. We lived here six months and remained busy eating and exploring the entire time. Never once did we tire of watching the sunset at White Point Garden, or body surfing at Folly Beach, or strolling down Meeting or East Bay Street in search of something fried to eat. We will be back, perhaps someday to live. Charleston is that incredible.
Thank you for stopping by our website! We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. In the meantime, God bless and travel happy!
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