Heading to South Carolina? We share the top things to do in Charleston SC including family activities and free things to do in Charleston.
If you’re planning a road trip in the southern or south-eastern US, don’t miss the pastel and cobblestoned gem of a city that is Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a city offering significant historical importance, stunning American architecture, beautiful beaches, and plenty of museums. If you’re after relaxation, sightseeing, and amazing cuisine, Charleston seriously delivers.
If you’re heading to South Carolina, here are our picks for the top things to do in Charleston. It’s the perfect place to spend a few days, especially for American history buffs and fans of architecture. Oh, and it’s also apparently very haunted…
Best things to do in Charleston SC
A free walking tour
One of the best ways to start your time in the city is to take a guided tour. This is a great introduction to Charleston’s historic area, and it can help you find the lay of the land and to learn about places you might want to come back and explore further. Free Tours by Foot is the company we went with, and I can definitely recommend them- this (almost) free tour was one of the best things we did in Charleston, and better than some of the paid tours.
I did say it’s an almost free walking tour, however, you do need to book in advance and pay a $3.00 administrative fee. After the tour, you then can tip your guide for what you feel it was worth. The tour lasted about three hours and went through some of the major highlights of the historic city center, and our guide was extremely fun, engaging, and informative, making for a perfect first morning in the city.
Old Slave Mart Museum
Charleston’s history, as with most Southern US cities, has a dark side in its history as a major site in the slave trade, which lasted from the early 1600s until the 13th Amendment officially ended slavery in 1865. Located within a former auction site for enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean, the Old Slave Mart Museum provides an important window into the slave trade in the American South, the personal stories of many African Americans, and a look into the atrocities and tragedies of the institution of slavery, but also the resilience and spirit of those brought into America through the ports of Charleston.
Visit a plantation
The American South, and especially the Charleston area, is known for its historic plantations. Plantations are large estate farms, which produced crops such as cotton, tobacco, and rice. The labor on plantations came from enslaved people, and a visit to a plantation can provide a great insight into the Antebellum South.
Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens, just outside Charleston, is a great option to visit, as it is one of the rare plantations in which the brick cabins, inhabited by enslaved African-Americans, still stand. They are now a series of museums providing insight and history on the experiences and lives of the men, women, and families who lived in the dwellings. Also, while you’re there, make time to see the presentation on the culture and traditions of the Gullah people of the coastal Carolinas and Georgia.
You can also tour the plantation home and the surrounding areas, best seen on their covered wagon tour, as the property is still a working farm, offering to pick your own fruits and veggies, seasonally.
This island fort is famous for being the starting point of the US Civil War when the Confederacy fired the first shot in 1861 on the US military base. Fort Sumter can only be reached by boat, and tours depart regularly throughout the day. A visit is an incredible way to learn more about the origins of the Civil War and US history. The fort is now part of the National Park Service.
Nathaniel Russell House
As soon as you arrive in historic Charleston, you’ll notice the unbelievably gorgeous historic homes, which are found everywhere in the city. A visit to one is one of the best ways to see the true magnitude of these homes, with the Nathaniel Russell House being one of the finest examples.
The mansion, built in 1808, is an immaculately preserved example of an American Neoclassical home and is famous for its cantilevered staircase, which seemingly appears to free–float without any support.
Visit the home on a guided tour, or via a self-guided audio tour. A top tip – if you also plan on visiting their sister property, the Aiken-Rhett House, you can buy a joint entry ticket which saves a few dollars per person.
The Charleston Museum
The Charleston Museum is a great place to spend a few hours learning more about the fascinating, and tragic, history of the city. It is also regarded as America’s oldest museum.
Their collection includes a wide range of exhibits on natural history, Charleston’s military past, and many artifacts and special exhibitions, including hands-on, interactive activities for kids.
By far the most beautiful street in Charleston, if not the entire US, is Rainbow Row. This row of heritage homes on East Bay Street is the longest street of Georgian-style homes in the US, and is painted in a range of beautiful pastel colors. Stroll up and down the street, taking in the beauty of the homes- it’s a photographer’s dream. Think perfectly manicured flower boxes, pale pinks, teals, and lavender walls, immaculately maintained, like something out of a movie. It’s unlike anywhere else.
However, be mindful that the homes are private residences, so stay on the sidewalks and be respectful of the homes and their occupants.
Sample some Lowcountry cuisine
Charleston, and nearby Savannah, Georgia, are known for their style of cuisine known as Lowcountry. This Southern coastal style of food is eating at its best- think crabs, lobster, oyster, seafood, and rice and vegetables. This results in some incredible dishes like she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, fresh oysters, fried green tomatoes, and crabcakes. Mouthwatering Lowcountry cuisine can be found all over Charleston, but a few recommendations are Poogan’s Porch, 82 Queen, or Magnolia’s.
The city is renowned as a foodie destination, so don’t miss out on sampling some of Charleston’s delicious dishes while you’re in town.
Join in on a ghost tour…if you dare
Charleston, a city with such a long and turbulent past, is known for its haunted happenings. Whether or not you’re a believer, an evening ghost tour is a fun way to learn more about the city’s history with a guide and to explore the city after dark.
Several of the tours go into some of the city’s most haunted buildings, such as the Old City Jail or the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, which are fascinating (and a bit spooky) to explore after the crowds of the day have left and the sun has set.
There is so much to see and do in Charleston, you could easily spend a week exploring the city’s history, beaches, and surrounding countryside, but hopefully the above will provide a great starting point for exploring the best the city has to offer.