You may have heard that nothing beats Southern hospitality, and Charleston can illustrate where the idea came from. As the biggest city in South Carolina, it's no surprise that there are numerous things to do in Charleston.
This metropolis is teeming with history, having been established in 1670 and named after the United Kingdom's King Charles II. This rich heritage has dark and sobering portions, often entangled with the cruel and horrific slave trade.
As such, many Charleston attractions relate, in some way, to this past, educating guests on the realities of those dark years while providing interesting information on the region's history. But, of course, there's more than just that in this teeming city! Here are our picks for the top tourist attractions in Charleston, SC.
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This historic market complex is located right where it should be - in the heart of downtown Charleston.
The market has been a fixture of the city since the 19th century, a shopping hub that continues to welcome locals and guests alike. It's one of the liveliest places to go in Charleston!
Charleston City Market is filled with locally made items. You can find leather goods, toys, art, clothes, and even souvenirs.
You'll get to see notable marks of African American influence as you browse the market.
You can also head to the stall of the Gullah artisans known as the basket ladies, who have centuries of heritage in weaving baskets, a tradition passed down from generation to generation from West Africa.
There are plenty of restaurants to check out if you work up an appetite, and this is also a great place to begin your City Walk Sightseeing.
Address: 188 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
Fort Sumter National Monument is one of the most important historic Charleston attractions. In 1861, this was the site where the Civil War's very first shot was fired.
To stand where the battle of Fort Sumter took place is to experience the goosebumps that only places of such historical significance can give you.
The fort itself can be explored, though it has deteriorated over the years on Charleston Harbor island. There are several authentic canons, thick caverns of stone, and a small, highly educational museum.
The Fort Sumter National Monument actually has three different sites, so once you see the harbor you're also encouraged to visit the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center and Fort Moultrie on Sulivan's Island.
No trip to Charleston would be truly complete without a good visit to Fort Sumter National Monument, which is only accessible via ferry. Here, you can learn all sorts of information regarding the importance of Fort Sumter in local defense.
Address: 1214 Middle St, Sullivan's Island, SC 29482
Also Read: Top American Civil War Sites To Visit
The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is among the most beautiful Charleston attractions. Whether you love nature, architecture, animals, or history, this is a great place to be.
The plantation is one of the south's oldest, founded in 1676, and its gardens were opened to the public in 1870.
Today, you can tour the main house of the Magnolia Plantation, which is not as grand as other similar mansions but boasts a beautifully decorated interior.
You can then head out to the gardens to walk paths lined with flowers and manicured hedges. The gorgeous Audubon Swamp Garden is also a refuge for waterfowl, factors, turtles, and more local wildlife.
Address: 3550 Ashley River Rd, Charleston, SC 29414
The Battery is one of the things to do in Charleston that you absolutely cannot miss!
This iconic stroll is a walk along a picturesque seawall neighborhood on the southern tip of Charleston.
This area was once the center of the city's maritime industry and activity, and it is now a famous tourist hotspot and a great place for photo opportunities.
Several attractions along the Battery are worth stopping at, some of which are on this list. Many will grant you insight into the area's history and culture.
Lined by trees, the promenade is a tranquil place to walk through, and there are special tours and rides in the area that you can hop onto.
Address: Charleston, SC 29401
Waterfront Park stretches out across close to 10 acres. Since its opening in 1990, it's been among the most popular Charleston attractions.
The park boasts a thousand-foot pier perfect for a relaxing stroll beneath trees and through a warm, soothing breeze.
It can be quite a romantic experience, especially at night! If you're lucky, you may even spy a few dolphins playing in the water.
What Waterfront Park is perhaps most iconic for is its heavily-photographed pineapple fountain, a famous water feature that welcomes waders in its shallow waters surrounding a fruit-shaped bronze creation.
There are also a few other fountains that light up when night falls!
Address: Vendue Range, Concord St, Charleston, SC 29401
The Charleston Museum is often believed to be the first museum in the United States, and as such, it's a must-see in Charleston for history buffs.
The museum was founded in 1773 and primarily focuses on the history and heritage of the low country portion of South Carolina. This is the best spot to learn about the region.
There are many galleries at the Charleston Museum, such as a Civil War exhibit, a Lowcountry History Hall display relating to Native Americans and African Americans, and a natural history gallery.
Children aren't left out, as they can learn in the Kidstory area, filled with interactive displays.
Address: 360 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29403
The South Carolina Aquarium is a relatively small but highly entertaining spot for the whole family, and it's one of the most popular places in Charleston, especially among those with kids.
Over 5,000 animals live here on this Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited Charleston Harbor attraction.
The South Carolina Aquarium is a fantastic place for animal lovers of all sorts. You'll find eels, otters, alligators, and much more.
There's a special Sea Turtle Care Center where you can view sea turtles being rehabilitated for release into the wild, and there's a great touch tank exhibit where you can reach out and "pet" the likes of Atlantic stingrays and hermit crabs.
Address: 100 Aquarium Wharf, Charleston, SC 29401
Also Read: 25 Best Aquariums in the US
If you want to get some shopping done or stretch your legs a little, King Street is one of the best places to go in Charleston.
A multi-block stretch, it is filled with a wide range of local shops, eateries, and a few more well-known chain stores.
You can find just about anything here: silverware, antiques, art, high-end cosmetics, soap, touristy souvenirs, clothing, and all sorts of bits and bobs.
King Street is named after King Charles II and has its own interactive map so you can get your bearings.
There's very little that you won't be able to find here, and you can stop for a meal or a cocktail anywhere you like!
Address: King St, Charleston, SC
Rainbow Row is one of the most iconic places to visit in Charleston. It consists of several beautiful, colorful houses, each historic and dating back to the mid-18th century.
The road sits along East Bay Street, close to Waterfront Park on The Battery. The area underwent a significant revitalization project after the Civil War, painted by homeowners in bright colors to attract locals and visitors to the site once more.
Rainbow Row is now one of the most photographic spots in the city of Charleston. For the most part, it's a place to do a little sightseeing and take a few photos or go on a walking tour.
Get here at sunset to see stunning views above the water at the same time!
Address: Rainbow Rd, Charleston, SC 29412
Sullivan's Island is just around 3.3 square miles in total, a little beachfront town right at the mouth of the harbor of Charleston.
It's filled with beautiful white sandy beaches, unique stores and shops, and outstanding eateries with great food.
There are plenty of rental properties, too, so if you're looking for good getaway spots in Charleston, Sullivan's Island should be on your list!
Even if you're not much for beaches, there's plenty else to do.
You can learn about local history by taking a trip to Fort Moultrie, made from soft logs but withstood a 1776 battle that spanned nine hours.
Fans of Edgar Allen Poe will also recognize the island as the site of his short story entitled The Gold Bug.
Charleston Music Hall can be found in Charleston's downtown area. It was built in 1849, and today, it is one of the best entertainment attractions in Charleston.
Once upon a time, its building was a South Carolina Railroad passenger station.
After Charleston's 1886 earthquake, it was left derelict, standing empty and untouched for six decades.
It wasn't until 1995 that it became the entertainment venue it is today!
Charleston Music Hall hosts various artistic, musical, and theatrical shows, focusing on local, regional, or national creations and talents.
A wide range of performers has graced this venue's stage, ranging from Ricky Skaggs to David Byrne.
Address: 37 John St, Charleston, SC 29403
The Old Slave Mart was created in 1859 to host private slave auctions that complied with tightening laws surrounding slavery.
In 1808, Congress banned international slave trade participation, but domestic trade was still permitted.
During the height of this trade, around 40% of slaves in the country passed through Charleston, often being cruelly auctioned in public displays.
These public auctions were outlawed in 1856 by the city, and thus private auction houses were built.
The cruel industry of the slave trade was eventually brought to an end, and all private auction houses were demolished except the Old Slave Mart.
In the years following these emancipation efforts, the historic structure lived as a tenement, museum, and car dealership.
Today, it is a museum again, where it stands as one of the most informative Charleston attractions that educate guests on the heavy, heavy past of Charleston and its part in this horrific trade.
Address: 6 Chalmers St, Charleston, SC 29401
Drayton Hall was constructed in 1738, making it one of the South's oldest remaining plantation houses.
It's one of the most authentic Charleston tourist attractions, primarily because it has not been structurally renovated or refurbished in any way.
This means that it doesn't have a lot of decorative items or furniture, and it's very much showing its age, especially after surviving an earthquake in 1836.
Drayton Hall is an authentic way to explore the life of 18th-century Charleston.
It has a huge main house built from red brick, which you can tour with a 45-minute audio tour that explains how the house was run and the role of the enslaved people forced to work on the plantation.
Address: 3380 Ashley River Rd, Charleston, SC 29414
Middleton Place was once the home of Arthur Middleton, who was one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.
This beautiful mansion was constructed in 1755, sadly built and operated primarily by the Middleton family's enslaved workers.
The "Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place" tour dives into this subject in detail, lasting 40 minutes and granting insight into the inhumane, cruel, and horrific treatment of those enslaved on the property.
Middleton Place is set on 65 acres of gardens monitored after French gardens and filled with magnolias, camellias, myrtle, azaleas, and more.
There is also a stable filled with animals, and the mansion itself is packed with portraits and period furniture, all owned by the Middleton family during their life here.
It's one of the most fascinating attractions in Charleston!
Address: 4300 Ashley River Rd, Charleston, SC 29414
If you're a foodie wondering what to do in Charleston, why not take a trip around with Charleston Culinary Tours?
This is a great way to learn about the city's unique history while visiting its very best bars, restaurants, and even markets.
Charleston's cuisine is unique, so a tour is a great way to learn all about it and sample the best that the city has to offer.
There are five different tours offered by this touring company.
You can go for Chef’s Kitchen, Upper King Street, Downtown, Mixology, and Chef's Showcase At The Farmer's Market! Each tour will expose you to the culinary diversity of the city.
Each tour is priced quite reasonably and is a lot of fun!
Address: 46 State St Unit B, Charleston, SC 29401
The Angel Oak Tree is one of the most stunning sights in Charleston, situated on Johns Island.
This is one of the city's most photographed subjects: a 65-foot-tall, 300 to 400-year-old tree casting shade over close to 20,000 square feet.
This oak has long limbs and a circumference of 25.5 feet. It has withstood hurricanes and more, a beacon of natural beauty.
Local folklore states that enslaved individuals who passed away in Charleston are sometimes seen as angels around the tree.
Johns Island itself is also worth exploring. It's a somewhat rustic but gorgeous island, and it's one of the east coast's biggest, as well as the state's largest.
This is a wonderful place to go for a getaway within your getaway!
Address: 3688 Angel Oak Rd, Johns Island, SC 29455
The Williams Mansion is a beautiful mansion built in 1876 in the Italianate style.
It was constructed for George W. Williams, a businessman, and boasts an impressive 35 rooms.
The mansion was purchased again in 2004, and with meticulous renovation, it offers a glimpse into the past mixed with the beauty of the present.
The mansion now displays an extensive collection of artifacts from the Gilded Age, the pride of its current owner, Howard Stahl.
You can explore the mansion and view these artifacts while taking in the high ceilings, opulent ballroom, and numerous elevators.
The grounds are equally worth checking out, boasting a koi pond, several terraces and piazzas, and even Japanese gardens.
This mansion is one of the best things to do in Charleston!
Address: 16 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
Also Read: Most Famous Historic Homes in America
The Charleston Tea Plantation is North America's only tea garden, boasting thousands of beautiful acres filled with tea bushes for you to explore.
In addition, it is one of the few free places to visit in Charleston, charging no admission fee.
If you want to pay for something, you'll be able to avail yourself of a 45-minute trolley ride that brings you through the park.
Of course, the trolley ride is not necessary, and you're instead welcome to simply tour the tea factory on an education tour led by knowledgeable guides.
You can then view the beautiful art greenhouse, an innovative structure that's a sign for sore eyes, or stock up on tea at the gift shop! The plantation is situated on Wadmalaw Island.
Address: 6617 Maybank Hwy, Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487
It's true that the French Quarter Inn is an accommodation site, not actually one of Charleston's tourist attractions.
Still, it's popular enough that lots of people consider it a must-visit or a must-stay!
Many people describe it as a fairytale in real life, a go-to boutique hotel for those seeking something both cozy and pampering.
You receive complimentary champagne upon arrival, and those who'd instead not imbibe can enjoy milk with freshly baked cookies.
French Quarter Inn offers impressive and welcoming turndown service in a Southern style, with options for breakfast in bed, a seven-pillow menu, and freshly cut flowers waiting for you.
Rooms are luxurious in appearance, a mix of historic charm, exquisite furnishings, and modern technology.
Address: 166 Church St, Charleston, SC 29401
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site is one of the most important spots in Charleston for those interested in learning about the heritage of the Gullah and Geechee people, African Americans who live in Georgia and South Carolina's Lowcountry area.
This plantation was created in 1851, and by the end of that decade, 74 enslaved individuals were forced to stay in small cabins.
For the most part, the McLeod Plantation was a cotton plantation until 1922, and you can see what it was like back in the day during tours.
You'll learn about the relationships of those who lived on the plantation, tour parts of the 37-acre expanse, and view a kitchen, dairy area, worship center, cotton gin house, cemetery, and riverside outdoor pavilion.
You will also get to view the McLeod Oak, which is thought to be around 600 years old.
Address: 325 Country Club Dr, Charleston, SC 29412
The Nathaniel Russell House was built at the turn of the 19th century by the eponymous man, a Southern merchant of considerable wealth.
It is architecturally distinguished and has become one of the most popular Charleston attractions among other historic homes.
The house has undergone some interior restoration and renovation, but this is done to provide insight into the life and times of the Russell family with greater accuracy.
Close to 20 enslaved workers were purchased by the Russell family, and the entire house was built by them under the instruction and plans of an unknown architect.
The house is known for its beautiful spiraling staircase, numerous detailed pieces of furniture, and beautifully landscaped gardens.
Knowledgeable guides will bring you through the house and grounds, providing information on the house's life and history.
Address: 51 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401
Aiken-Rhett House is a unique museum that brings you back to 19th-century Charleston life.
It was built in the early 1800s and expanded in the middle of the century.
This is an educational, unique location, with its original style very much preserved for today's guests, making it one of the most interesting places in Charleston.
The house is beautiful, filled with a period, antique furniture, bronze chandeliers, and its original wallpaper.
The grounds are also worth exploring, and you'll be able to view the stables, kitchen, and slave quarters.
The quarters, in particular, are both sobering and educational, remaining untouched to preserve their original flooring and paint condition that evokes the harsh conditions of those enslaved to work here.
Viewing the grounds before the house is recommended, as it will grant you more insight into how the home was run.
Address: 48 Elizabeth St, Charleston, SC 29403
The historic Old Charleston City Jail has a storied and haunted past that guests may now explore for its architectural and historical significance.
A trip here is sobering, but it's one of the most exciting things to do in Charleston.
The building was constructed in 1802 and used as the city jail until 1939; its remodeled appearance from 1855 remains today.
Convicts of all sorts were housed in the Old Charleston City Jail, with each floor dedicated to a different kind.
The third floor held thieves and murderers, the second held sex workers and debtors, and the first ground floor was home to "gentleman" prisoners and the jailers who worked here.
Most prisoners here would die of disease or natural causes.
During the Civil War, the jail hosted hundreds of Union POWs, many of which were forced to be held in tents in poor conditions out in the yard due to a lack of sufficient jail space.
Address: 21 Magazine St, Charleston, SC 29401
Robert Lange Studios is a warm and welcoming art gallery owned by Robert and Megan Lange.
It showcases a wide range of modern and contemporary works from talented artists across a diverse and well-vetted roster.
A lot of the work displayed borders on the surreal, despite a lot of technical realism being used, which creates a unique, beautiful collection.
The owners have their own works displayed, too!
Even if you often feel intimidated by art galleries, Robert Lange Studios should be on your list of things to do in Charleston.
This spot prides itself on welcoming everyone to view its two-story, 6,000-square-foot gallery space, including two artist studios where you can watch artists at work.
This isn't a typical studio housed in what was once a grain warehouse, aged close to 350 years old.
Address: 2 Queen St, Charleston, SC 29401
The Unitarian Church is Charleston's second oldest church, dating back to 1772 but being rebuilt later in 1854.
It is the home and sanctuary of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and the oldest church of this variety in the South.
It is well-known for its many social justice activities and programs, and it's a National Historic Landmark.
Though not typically tourist fare, the Unitarian Cemetery is among Charleston attractions.
Its pathways are easy to walk, but grave markers and tombstones are allowed to be slowly reclaimed by nature.
This creates a beautiful cemetery environment of shrubs, vines, and trees by giving the burial back to nature.
The cemetery is thought to be haunted, too.
One of the most well-known people laid to rest here is Annabel Lee, the subject of the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem.
Address: 8 Archdale St, Charleston, SC 29401
Also Read: Most Beautiful Churches in America
Charleston is full of fun and historic attractions. From museums to restored or preserved plantations and from parks to beaches, this storied city has tales to tell and things to show you. Whether you're a fan of art, history, nature, or shopping, there are sure to be Charleston attractions that suit your preferences.