Charleston, SC

Try these 10 Fun Things to do in Charleston

Rene Cizio

There are so many things to do in Charleston, South Carolina; you can stay occupied for weeks if you’d like to. I recently spent several months in the southern United States and found Charleston filled with activity, history, unique architecture and alligators than I bargained for! But it is all splendid, and I’ll happily return again and again.

Here are a few things I found to do in Charleston that are worth your while.

1 GO ON A CARRIAGE TOUR

The number one thing to do in Charleston is take a carriage tour. It may sound overly quaint, but hear me out. Charleston is known for its rare extensive collection of historically preserved homes and buildings. There’s nearly no other place in America where you’ll see so much historic colonial history in one area. The neighborhoods built in the 1670s include carriage houses, various outbuildings, and cobbled alleys with many details and hidden features for you to discover.

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You can walk or drive the neighborhoods, but nothing beats a good old-fashioned carriage ride for a few reasons.

  • One: the pace of the carriage allows you to see more area than you will if you’re walking, and if you’re driving, you’re going too fast.
  • Two: the carriage drivers have historic facts and details that would take you a lifetime to learn. Plus, you’re in Charleston, and a carriage ride is very nearly required.

Fun Fact: Because there are so many horses and carriages in the city, each time a carriage starts a tour, it must stop at a “lottery booth” where a clerk pulls a bingo ball to tell them which blocks of the city they can tour. It ensures there aren’t too many carriages on the same road simultaneously.

2 DISCOVER HISTORIC HOMES OF CHARLESTON

No matter how you see the houses and buildings, it’s a must to do in Charleston. The historic district looks much like it did 300 years ago, and the architecture is elaborate and spectacular. While each home is different, many have similar elements: floor-to-ceiling windows, big porches on multiple levels, extensive gardens, pastel colors, ornate staircases, and decorative ironwork. The houses on Bay Street that make up “Rainbow Row” are an attraction, but you’ll find even more colorful grandeur on the side streets.

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Many homes are open for tours, decorated with period furniture, and have lively guides or audio tours. Two homes I visited were the

Nathanial Russell house restoration and Aiken Rhett house preservation, but there are many others – even one George Washington stayed in. You’ll get a discount for visiting more than one, so plan accordingly.

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Fun Fact: A restoration is akin to recreating what was once there, while preservation seeks only to keep, not restore.

Look for:

  • Narrow cobblestone alleys
  • Decorative wrought iron
  • Double-sided staircases
  • Porch doors
  • Haint blue paint
  • Remains of the barrier wall around the city

3 TAKE A FREE AUDIO TOUR

If you’re an avid walker, you should try the Historic Charleston Foundations audio tour. I used it repeatedly the entire month I visited. A free mobile app offers self-guided audio and visual tours of its popular historic house museums and a city guide that tells the Charleston story. It’s great to walk the neighborhoods with the app as your guide. I learned so much about the homes, who lived there and special features I would never have noticed.

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4 SHOPPING IN CHARLESTON

If shopping is what you want to do in Charleston, you’re in luck. There are at least a few areas downtown dedicated to shoppers, but two you can’t miss.

KING STREET HISTORIC DISTRICT

It encompasses two miles of thriving retail corridor and commercial center variety of specialty shops, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and antique dealers. Small, independent businesses mix with popular retail stores to give enough variety for both young and old to find something they’ll want to browse. Plus, the buildings alone are worth a stroll down this historic streetscape. Each structure is unique, and most are attached to the next as you go down the street. The three-story architecture, detailed carvings, and coastal colors make you feel like you’re on a movie set.

CITY MARKET

It’s a long open-air market where people sell arts, crafts, and other goods. It’s one of America’s oldest public markets, filled with 300+ vendors and artisans. There you’ll see people, likely of Gullah Geechee descent, making sweetgrass baskets in and around the market, and you’ll be able to pick up benne wafer and cheese straws – two uniquely southern treats I’m now addicted to. 

5 TAKE A GHOST TOURS

You can’t go to one of the most haunted cities in the U.S. and not go on a ghost tour. Sweetie, it just ain’t done. Lucky for you, you’ll find dozens of options depending on your interest. There are haunted carriage tours, walking tours, cemetery tours and even haunted pub tours. Nearly every corner and each dwelling in Charleston has a ghost story. They used to even have a haunted jail tour, but now they’re renovating the jail into office buildings! It’s still considered one of the creepiest buildings in the south. Would you work in it?

6 VISIT A CEMETERY OR GRAVEYARD

Charleston has over 400 church steeples, and some great, historic graveyards are next to those churches. Visit the churches and walk through the graveyards to see the hand-carved headstones are a favorite pastime of many visitors. Many of the graveyards and cemeteries have an eeriness as most plots are in disrepair, the iron is rusted, the greyish pink stones have fallen, epitaphs have faded, and moss covers everything.  

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Fun Fact: When it’s attached to a church, you call it a graveyard, but if it’s independent, it’s a cemetery.

A few of my favorite burial grounds:

UNITARIAN CHURCH AND GRAVEYARD

Find it off King Street. A black wrought iron gate leads into a narrow passageway filled with tropical plants and flowers between buildings. At the end, the graveyard opens and is filled with flowering camellia, azalea flowers, trees and ornate grey headstones.

MAGNOLIA CEMETERY

It’s a bit east of downtown Charleston, but it’s worth a short drive. The area includes several cemeteries all nestled together, including St. Lawrence and Bethany Cemeteries. The boast parklike, ornate Victorian styling, live oaks dripping in Spanish Moss, and blooming magnolia, crepe myrtle, azalea and other flowers make it a most romantic, savage garden. You won’t find any perfect rows, rather large family plots with one large monument and individual headstones, most with a stone frame outlining the grave. Plots are sectioned off by lovely wrought iron fences, giving each family a little yard filled with flowers, moss and vines, with ponds and streams around them.

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Circular Church graveyard is the oldest in Charleston, with the oldest grave from 1695. It looks like an arched vault (or pizza oven, one guide said) and holds Henry Symonds and family. Other hand-carved slate headstones include images and portraits of the deceased and are among the most unique you will find anywhere.

7 GET EDUCATED AT A PLANTATION

While plantations are representations of a grim time in history, they’re being repurposed as educational centers that teach about American slavery, are being used as working farms, and give visitors an immersive glimpse of southern life of the past – good and bad. These plantations tell stories and show a way of life from the early colonial period through the Civil War era, showcasing what land used to mean to the nation.

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MIDDLETON PLACE PLANTATION

Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, focuses on the preservation and historic interpretations based on the Middleton family’s lives and the enslaved African Americans who lived and worked here. At the plantation, you’ll find 65 acres of America’s oldest landscaped gardens, including various floral allées, elaborately landscaped lawns, a pair of ornamental lakes shaped like butterfly wings and many walking trails.

MAGNOLIA PLANTATION AND GARDENS

Another of the Charleston Plantations that line the road along the Ashley River is the Magnolia Plantation. If Middleton Place has the best-landscaped gardens, then Magnolia Plantation has the most romantic gardens. They are America’s last large-scale romantic-style gardens. They include 600 acres of wildlife habitats and gardens.

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BOONE HALL PLANTATION AND GARDENS

The Boone Hall Plantation is the most affordable, fun, and diverse of all the plantations I’ve seen in Charleston and elsewhere. Plus, it’s still a working farm with plenty of community engagement. Major John Boone founded it in 1681 on the banks of Wampacheone Creek and it has been functional since. The best part was driving onto the property and seeing dozens of live oak trees in an allée that line the long driveway forming a glorious canopy overhead dripping with Spanish moss.

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8 EXCURSIONS AROUND CHARLESTON

Outside of downtown Charleston, there are many other places, activities and things to see and do, from beaches to swamp tours, markets and big trees. Here are a few I enjoyed.

MOUNT PLEASANT’S SHEM CREEK

This “pleasant” community is just across the famous Ravenel Bridge. The bridge is a sight to see and walk, bike or drive across. At 1,546 feet long, it is the third longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere! Mount Pleasant’s Shem Creek is a popular waterfront dining and drinking district, but my favorite park is the 2,200 feet of boardwalk going into the marsh. There you can see shrimpers and other fishermen amid panoramic views of Charleston Harbor.

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CYPRESS GARDENS

The Cypress Gardens Cypress Gardens is a 170-acre preserve about 40 minutes outside of Charleston, on mainly swampy, marshy land where there used to be plantations. They offer boat tours and many well-paved trails that wind their way around the acres of manicured ponds and lagoons. Tall bald cypress and tupelo trees sprung from the dark, still water while pink, red and white azaleas bloomed along the paths with fat bees buzzing in and out. It’s a splendid way to spend an afternoon.

THE ANGEL OAK

Angel Oak Park is free and hosts over 400,000 visitors each year. Why? Because it’s home to the largest and oldest live oak tree east of the Mississippi! Horticulturists estimate it to be 65 feet tall, 25.5 feet wide, covering 17,000 square feet and being up to 400 years old. This low-country treasure is on Johns Island and is a historical site worth visiting.

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FOLLY BEACH

If you’re looking for a beach day, Folly Island is the place to go. Just 30 minutes south of Charleston, it boasts the 1,000-foot Folly Beach Pier and plenty of small shops, restaurants and food trucks to keep you busy all day. Besides the beach, there are a pelican rookery, wildlife habitats, and views of Morris Island Lighthouse.

9 DAY TRIPS

BEAUFORT, SOUTH CAROLINA

This charming town, a 1.5-hour drive from Charleston, is known for its low-country charm, antebellum architecture, and quite a bit of Hollywood credit. It’s a little-known but wildly charming low-country community. On the coastline between Charleston and Savannah, Beaufort is worth visiting because it’s the quieter, lesser-known cousin of the two more famous cities but without the bustle or traffic. It’s a small, quaint and idyllic place to spend a day or maybe even a lifetime.

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BLUFFTON, SOUTH CAROLINA

Bluffton is a small South Carolina community two hours from Charleston, near Hilton Head. It has the same ocean views, a charming historic district, and a bustling downtown. There are plenty of small businesses, restaurants and outdoor activities to enjoy. You can take a carriage or golf cart tour to see the highlights. They host an excellent farmers’ market on Thursdays.

10 EAT SOUTHERN FOOD

There’s no place else in the country with comfort food like the south and Charleston is the best place area to enjoy it. I had to force myself to leave without knowing when I might have another cheese straw or southern biscuit again. It wasn’t easy! These are just a very few of my favorites.

  • Magnolia’s Restaurant on Bay Street is fine low-country dining with elevated classics like fried green tomatoes (to die for), grits with beef and seafood, and many types of fish. The chicken sandwich is incredible. I loved this restaurant so much I went twice. Make a reservation, or sit at the bar as I did.
  • 82 Queen on Queen Street also serves classic low-country cuisine and are famous for their she-crab soup, southern chicken and biscuits, and shrimp & grits. You’ll love the indoor/outdoor patio seating and old dark wood bar. I walked right up and got a seat.
  • Saffron Restaurant & Bakery on Bay Street has a massive selection of fresh bread and pastries that you’ll be hard-pressed to choose between. The pecan pie will make you cry with joy.

FOOD TRUCKS

Stop and buy something if you see a food truck; there are several. It’s all delectable. Also, make sure you try:

  • Benne wafers – made from a type of sesame seed, they a crunchy, sweet treat you’ll love
  • Cheese straws – are a type of finger-sized cheese cracker
  • Biscuits – nobody makes biscuits like a southerner. Nobody.
  • Fried green tomatoes – deep friend in breading or batter and topped with pimento cheese or various sauces I didn’t find any not to love.
  • Pimento cheese. They use it on many things, and it’s way better than I ever thought possible.

You can probably tell I loved Charleston, and this post could be twice as long. But part of the fun is finding your favorites and exploring. I hope this gives you a good start. Let me know – what’s your favorite?

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