Charleston is a fascinating city in coastal South Carolina, just a few hours by car from the larger cities of Charlotte and Atlanta. Founded as “Charles Town” (after the then-king of England) in 1670, it’s among the United States’ best-preserved colonial cities – right up there with Boston, Philadelphia, and the nearby Georgia city of Savannah.
If you’re a sucker for cobbled streets and historic architecture, Charleston should be high on your list of vacation destinations – whether it’s a single stop on a longer road trip, or the focal point of a quick weekend getaway.
Charleston is so well-preserved because its residents and politicians were among the first to embrace the historic preservation movement – way back in the middle of the 20th century. Like their counterparts in Boston, which also played a crucial role in the movement, they advocated fiercely to block the large-scale urban renewal projects then fashionable among city planners.
As a result, Charleston today looks much as it did 150 years ago, albeit with more car traffic and smartphone-toting pedestrians. The preservation impulse extended to the darkest corners of Charleston, which was once a hub of the African slave trade in the Western Hemisphere, and which today faces its at-times shameful past with unflinching humility.
But Charleston isn’t all about years gone by. It has a rapidly growing cohort of millennials, many of whom were born outside the city and state, and is renowned for a vibrant, innovative food scene that blends influences from around the world and shatters long-held notions of Southern cooking.
For frugal visitors, the best news of all is that Charleston is much more affordable than larger U.S. cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, especially for visitors who seek out casual restaurants (or pack their own picnic meals) and select accommodations from the region’s plentiful stock of comfortable vacation rentals. Unsurprisingly, Charleston’s best lodging and dining values are found outside the historic quarter, which is often overrun with tourists.
If you have the time and a reliable way to get around (probably a private vehicle or rental car), the beautiful coastal region surrounding Charleston is also worth exploring. There’s a tremendous amount of history and culture lurking in the Lowcountry, as it’s known, provided you know what to look for. Since this post only begins to scratch the surface of the broader Lowcountry, I strongly recommend picking up an authoritative local guide such as Cecily McMillan’s “Charleston, Savannah & Coastal Islands: A Great Destination,” part of the Explorer’s Guides series. It served me well during my far-too-short journey to Charleston, Savannah, and points between.
No matter what brings you to Charleston and the wider Lowcountry, good times await. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of it.
Resources and Tours
1. Charleston Convention and Visitors’ Bureau
The Charleston CVB is a great planning resource for anyone who’s not quite sure where to start their Charleston vacation. The organization’s website has an amazing wealth of detail on local attractions, and you can request a free visitor’s guide by mail if you plan far enough in advance. Discounts, deals, and insider tips abound inside, so it’s well worth the trouble.
2. Free Tours By Foot – Charleston
Free Tours by Foot isn’t a Charleston original, but it’s arguably the best (and most affordable) way to see the city with a friendly, knowledgeable local expert. In fact, my “free tour by foot” was the highlight of my stay in Charleston. I learned (and still remember) more about the city’s Civil War experience than I imagined was possible, and my guide (Scott – give him a shout if you take one of his tours) was hilarious, friendly, and formidably well-prepared.
Free Tours By Foot has three distinct walking tours that take approximately two hours at a brisk, but not hurried, pace: Charleston Architecture Tour, Charleston Civil War Tour, and Historic Charleston Tour. Each stop includes ample time for narration and photo-taking.
As per the name, there’s no admission fee for the tour itself aside from a small booking charge to reserve your spot online. However, you’re strongly encouraged to “pay what you think the tour is worth” at the end of the experience. On the tour I took, $15 to $25 per person seemed like the norm, and I definitely felt like that was worthwhile.
3. Other Tour Options
There are other tour modes available in Charleston such as minibuses and horse-drawn carriages operated by private companies. Though they’re usually narrated by experts, these can be quite pricey, so they’re not necessarily ideal for budget-conscious travelers. But if you don’t mind springing for a novelty, they may be for you. A more cost-effective, though not expert-narrated, option is the free DASH trolley system operated by Charleston’s local public transit authority.
Pro Tip: If you’re not already familiar with popular social coupon and daily deal apps like, Groupon and Living Social, check them out before you land in Charleston. Though Groupon is the larger, more comprehensive, and frankly more relevant of the two, both are useful for frugal travelers seeking discounts on activities and goods they’d purchase anyway.
Groupon and Living Social are both free to download, and they feature dozens of rolling discounts and package deals, often at half-price or better. If you’re looking for off-the-beaten-path activities or discounts at specific merchants, you’d be negligent not to take this step. Remember to bookmark Groupon’s Charleston deals page, which doubles as a secondary itinerary planner, for non-mobile access as well.
Also, I’m a big proponent of daily deal push notifications. While I’m sympathetic to folks who don’t like getting random prompts on their phones at all hours, they’re a great way to learn about under-the-radar deals without scouring your apps or web browser for hours on end. In unfamiliar places, where your local knowledge is limited at best, push notifications can help you plan your unstructured time as well. For instance, if you find a great deal on an appealing boat tour about which you’d previously been unaware, or a half-off coupon to a well-reviewed restaurant near your hotel, why wouldn’t you take advantage?
Attractions and Points of Interest in Historic Charleston
Historic Charleston is a beautifully preserved temple to centuries of American history. The following are some of the most noteworthy attractions.
Keep in mind that if you’re pressed for time or don’t want to pay admission fees at each place, you can usually get excellent views of the houses and grounds from the street (and often from public courtyards on the properties themselves). Accordingly, these attractions are tailor-made for incorporation into a self-guided Charleston walking tour. Many are included as stops in guided tours from Free Tours By Foot and other organizations.
4. The Powder Magazine
The Powder Magazine National Historic Landmark – photo by Brian Stansberry
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday, 1pm to 4pm
The unassuming Powder Magazine looks to be ripped from an earlier time. Given it is South Carolina’s oldest public building still standing today, it kind of is. The Magazine has been open since 1713, though of course it no longer stores munitions. Today, it’s a low-cost museum dedicated to colonial military history, making it a must-visit for history buffs of all ages.
5. Aiken-Rhett House Museum
- Adult admission: $12 ($18 with combined admission at Nathaniel Russell House)
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 2pm to 5pm
The Aiken-Rhett House is an unusually well-preserved mansion that housed a succession of wealthy Charlestonians, and in the 19th century, their slaves. The main house is now an archaeological and cultural museum, and the outbuildings (including the slave quarters) remain much as they were when the house was occupied. If you want an honest “upstairs-downstairs” look at what life was like in 19th-century Charleston, Aiken-Rhett is a must-visit.
6. Nathaniel Russell House Museum
- Adult admission: $12 ($18 with combined admission to Aiken-Rhett House)
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 2pm to 5pm
The Nathaniel Russell House is a handsome 18th-century structure that housed wealthy Charlestonians for about 100 years before being reborn as a private school – and, later, a private residence again. Today, it’s protected by the Historic Charleston Foundation, which operates it as a museum in the vein of the Aiken-Rhett House. It’s not wildly different from Aiken-Rhett, but you get a discount on admission when you visit both.
7. Calhoun Mansion
- Adult admission: $16
- Hours: Daily, 11am to 5pm (hours may be shorter in winter)
The Calhoun Mansion‘s heyday came a bit later than Aiken-Rhett’s, but it’s no less worthy of your time. And the house itself is quite grandiose – perhaps one of the most ornate old houses in Charleston, which is saying something: At 24,000 square feet, it has 35 rooms, 14-foot ceilings, and a 75-foot Italianate dome that allows light to stream into its central stairwell. Despite the price, the tour is eye-opening and rewarding.
8. Joseph Manigault House
- Adult admission: $12 ($18 for admission to Joseph Manigault House and either Charleston Museum or Heyward Washington House; $25 for admission to museum and both houses)
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
Operated by the Charleston Museum, the Joseph Manigault House is billed as “Charleston’s Huguenot House” – the grandest and best-preserved house once occupied by members of Charleston’s French Protestant (Huguenot) minority, who fled persecution at the hands of France’s Catholic majority in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of the furnishings are early 19th-century originals, and the exterior garden is kept in fine form.
9. Drayton Hall Plantation
- Adult admission: $12 for grounds only; $22 for grounds and tour
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 11am to 5pm
Located about 15 miles northwest of Charleston in the Ashley River basin, Drayton Hall Plantation is a sprawling estate that has been operational (now as a living history museum) since 1738. Remarkably, the structure and grounds survive largely as they were in the antebellum era, offering a comprehensive and powerful look into Charleston’s complex and problematic past.
Drayton’s highlights include “one of the oldest documented African American cemeteries in the nation” and a formidably genealogy research operation that preserves locals’ (and expatriates’) connections to South Carolina’s distant past. If you have time, catch the 30-minute “Connections: From Africa to America” program, a poignant exploration of the slave trade.
10. Middleton Place
- Adult admission: $28 (includes access to gardens and stable yards, plus a guided walking tour)
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
If you don’t make it to Drayton Hall Plantation, visit Middleton Place – or vice versa. Part working farm, part landscaped garden, part living history museum, part grandiose manor, Middleton Place is a window into South Carolina’s past. It’s a bit more eclectic than Drayton Hall Plantation, so it’s appropriate for botany and agronomy buffs (the stable yards have some interesting livestock heritage breeds), as well as for those interested in the history of slavery.
11. The Edmondston-Alston House
- Adult admission: $12
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday and Monday, 1pm to 4pm
The Edmondston-Alston House played a critical role in the early days of the Civil War. In fact, Confederate General P.T. Beauregard watched the war’s opening salvo (the attack on Fort Sumter) from the house’s sweeping veranda. Later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sought shelter in the home as a fire swept through central Charleston. Today, the Edmondston-Alston House is a living museum with an amazing collection of period furnishings, priceless silverware, and portrait art.
12. Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
Any place with “dungeon” in the name has to be pretty cool, right? The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon certainly is. Unlike Charleston’s plentiful house museums, this 300-year-old building has always been a public structure. Today, it’s a history museum and artifact collection focusing on the American Revolution, Civil War, and Charleston’s surprising (and intriguing) brushes with 18th-century pirates. Many exhibits are geared towards children, but adults will find plenty to absorb here as well.
13. Public Houses of Worship in Historic Charleston
Historic Charleston has way more than its fair share of old houses of worship. Most are free to enter and explore. However, you should be mindful of the worship schedules of active institutions. To learn more about each institution’s visitor policies and history, visit their websites.
- The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: One of Charleston’s grandest cathedrals, this still-active Catholic church is a soaring relic of the city’s colonial past located just a few blocks from City Hall. It’s at least worth an outside photo as you walk past on Broad Street, or a peek into the cavernous sanctuary during public hours.
- Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul: Located on the picturesque campus of the College of Charleston (which is worth a visit in its own right), the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul is a deceptively unadorned structure that harbors a rich history. As the College of Charleston lies outside the historic quarter, but boasts plenty of affordable cafes and bars nearby, this might be a sensible stop on your way back home from a day of sightseeing.
- Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church: Sadly, Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church is a household name for a heartbreaking reason: the senseless slaughter of nine innocent congregants by a white supremacist who wandered into an evening Bible study, sat quietly for most of the session, and then opened fire on the defenseless group. The tragedy, which took place in June 2015, now overshadows the church’s legacy as one of the most important African-American houses of worship in 19th-century Charleston.
- The First Baptist Church: Literally the first Baptist church in Charleston, The First Baptist Church of Charleston has been active since 1682. Its simple white building isn’t as flashy as the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, for example, but it’s still cool to contemplate its three-and-a-half-century history. (You can read more on that here.)
- First Scots Presbyterian Church: The First Scots Presbyterian Church of Charleston celebrates the distinctive Scots-Irish culture that’s so prevalent in the American South, including in the Lowcountry and Charleston. If you’re lucky, you might hear the unmistakable sound of bagpipes wafting from inside.
- The French Protestant (Huguenot) Church: The French Protestant (Huguenot) Church houses a lesser-known Christian denomination that played an outsized role during Charleston’s formative years. If nothing else, the arresting Old World architecture – with ornate spires and splashy whitewash – is worth a walk-by.
- St. John’s Lutheran Church: St. John’s Lutheran Church is an Evangelical Lutheran denomination that calls itself “the mother church of Lutheranism” in Charleston. With more than 250 years of history behind it, it’s not hard to see why. The soaring bell tower and imposing columns evoke a state capital more than a house of worship, making for great photo opportunities.
- St. Philip’s Episcopal Church: St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is among Charleston’s most imposing houses of worship, giving the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist a run for its money. Of particular note are the graveyards on either side of the street nearby. If you know your early American history, you’ll recognize the grave of John C. Calhoun, perhaps the U.S. Senate’s most stalwart defender of slavery before the Civil War.
- Unitarian Church in Charleston: The famously tolerant Unitarian Church has a surprisingly ornate home in the city’s historic district. This structure is tailor-made for photography inside and out, and it’s a great place to learn more about what exactly Unitarian Universalism stands for.
- Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim: One of the oldest Jewish congregations in the American South, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue is a still-active house of worship that offers insight into the important contributions of colonial Charleston’s small but active Jewish minority. Its columned home is an impressive photo opportunity as well.
Other Tourist Attractions
14. City Market
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9:30am to 6pm; Night market open daily, 6:30pm to 10:30pm from March through December
Properly known as Historic Charleston City Market, this vibrant indoor-outdoor mall boasts hundreds of vendors selling art, clothing, housewares, food, and much more. It’s the best place in Charleston to find and support local small businesses.
Most of the action takes place during daylight hours, but the warm-season night market is a great opportunity to enjoy local cuisine and crafts in a slightly looser environment. Even if you don’t buy anything here, City Market is a great place to people-watch or simply get caught up in the Charleston zeitgeist.
15. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
- Adult admission: $12 ($10 for South Carolina residents)
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
If you’re planning a family vacation to Charleston and worry that the little ones will tire of walking around the city’s historic district, Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is a must-visit. Its permanent and temporary exhibits explore science, art, and culture in kid-friendly fashion, and there’s enough to see in its relatively modest digs to keep your kids occupied for hours. If your schedule aligns, check out the occasional Free Family Fridays, when admission is waived for parents and kids alike.
16. Fort Moultrie
- Adult admission: $3 ($5 for a family pass, good for up to four adults traveling together)
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
Fort Moultrie doesn’t get as much attention as nearby Fort Sumter, but its history is no less interesting. Built in the early 19th century, the fortification was originally designed to protect Charleston and its harbor from enemy ships. In the run-up to the Civil War, Union troops abandoned Fort Moultrie for Fort Sumter, which they perceived as stronger and easier to defend. Ironically, Fort Sumter was essentially destroyed during the ensuing war, while Moultrie survived with little damage. Even if you’re not a fan of military history, Fort Moultrie offers excellent view of Charleston and the harbor – and it’s super cheap.
17. Fort Sumter
- Adult admission: $19.50
- Hours: Ferries leave the mainland between 9:30am and 2:30pm; Check website for exact schedule and tour information
Fort Sumter is famous for hosting the opening battle of the Civil War. Though it was devastated during the ensuing four-year conflict, it has been restored (nearly) to its former glory, and is now one of the United States’ most popular historical sites.
Since it’s on an island, Fort Sumter is a bit hard to reach, so you’ll need to plan ahead if visiting is a true priority. It’s also not exactly cheap – Fort Moultrie is a better bargain, though it doesn’t have quite the historic import.
18. Tradd Street
Tradd Street is arguably Charleston’s most picturesque, best-preserved street. The street itself is unremarkable – it’s just one of many narrow streets flanked by 18th- and 19th-century houses on both sides. But the sheer variety of styles and colors, as well as the fact that most houses come right up to the sidewalk, make for an unusually engaging walk with countless photo opportunities. Keep in mind that many houses are privately owned and occupied, so avoid trespassing or leering.
Cultural Museums and Institutions
Charleston has a slew of museums and institutions dedicated to various aspects of Lowcountry culture and history. These are some of the most popular.
19. The Charleston Museum
- Adult admission: $12 ($18 for admission to museum and either Joseph Manigault House or Heyward Washington House; $25 for admission to museum and both houses)
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
The Charleston Museum is a storied institution that’s perhaps the single best place to view and learn about art and artifacts from early Charleston. The museum’s exhibits do an amazing job of fitting these items into the context of Charleston’s long and complex history. Whether you’re interested in the agrarian, slave-supported economy of the rural Lowcountry, Charleston’s role in the Civil War, the free immigrant experience in coastal South Carolina, or any number of other topics, the Charleston Museum has you covered. Even if you can’t make it to either of the historic houses operated by the museum, it’s worth an hour or two of your time.
20. Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tours only, Monday through Friday, 10:30am to 3:30pm
The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture (also known simply as the “Avery Center”) is a private museum and library with a straightforward mission to “collect, preserve, and promote the unique history and culture of the African diaspora, with emphasis on Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry.”
It’s one of the best places in town to learn about the history and culture of South Carolina’s enslaved and free populations of African descent, from the early colonial days to the present. Keep in mind that this is a research institution with a library atmosphere, not a boisterous exhibition hall.
21. The Confederate Museum
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11am to 3:30pm
Housed in a handsome Greek temple replica built in 1841, when Charleston was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, The Confederate Museum is dedicated to the artifacts and memories of the losers of the Civil War. Maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the space (not to mention the subject matter) isn’t without controversy. Still, it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in a different perspective on the Old South. Note the limited hours.
22. The Gibbes Museum of Art
- Adult admission: $12
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm (except to 8pm on Wednesday); Sunday, 1pm to 5pm
Fresh off an extensive renovation, The Gibbes Museum of Art is Charleston’s – and possibly South Carolina’s – foremost art museum. The extensive collection includes American fine art from colonial days through the present, with a special focus on Southern and South Carolinian art (including the period known as the “Charleston Renaissance”). Powerful air conditioning offers welcome respite from summer sightseeing.
23. Old Slave Mart Museum
- Adult admission: $8 (discounts for Free Walking Tours participants who mention their tour guide’s name)
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm
Built in 1859, after the city of Charleston prohibited outdoor slave auctions, the Old Slave Mart shielded the despicable practice from public view for the few years during which it remained legal. After serving as a residential building for several decades, it was rehabilitated and turned into a museum.
Today, its interactive exhibits include extensive firsthand testimony from slaves, former slaves, and their descendants, along with impeccably researched background information and artifacts related to the slave trade. It’s challenging, powerful stuff. If you visit one museum in Charleston, this should be it.
Free Parks and Natural Areas
Charleston is a compact city not really known for its green space, but it does have plenty of hidden neighborhood parks, as well as expansive open spaces along its waterfront. Unless otherwise noted, parks are free to enter and explore, though access may be restricted at night.
24. Waterfront Park
Waterfront Park is probably the best place in Charleston to take in the view of the sweeping harbor that built the city and launched the Civil War, with the possible exception of the seawall along East Bay Street. It’s also a great place to catch glimpses of the hulking cruise ships that frequently alight in Charleston. If you’re into modern art, don’t miss the free City Gallery at Waterfront Park, which is open from 10am to 6pm, Tuesday through Friday; and 12pm to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday.
25. White Point Gardens
Located at the very southern tip of Charleston’s peninsula at the end of historic Meeting Street is White Point Gardens. The unusual, human-sized drinking fountain is a great place to refill your water bottle after walking around in the hot sun, and the tree canopy provides excellent cover from said sun. The playground here is a welcome sight for harried parents too.
26. Washington Square Park
Washington Square is a small, tidy park in the shadow of Charleston’s City Hall – a shady refuge in the heart of the city. The centerpiece is a miniature version of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Arrayed around it are flower beds, benches, and ancient trees that invite quiet contemplation.
Despite its central location, Washington Square Park rarely gets crowded, so it’s an ideal place to seek refuge on hot, sunny days (which, needless to say, are frequent in Charleston).
27. Marion Square
Best known as the home of the excellent, surprisingly affordable Charleston Farmers Market, Marion Square is an old military parade ground with a simple layout and picturesque surroundings. Though there’s plenty of grass here, there’s little shade to be found, so Marion Square is best experienced in transit. That is, unless you’re browsing the Saturday morning market stalls, which are the absolute best source of fresh, local, CSA-quality produce in central Charleston.
28. Hampton Park
By the standards set by other American cities, 60-acre Hampton Park isn’t particularly expansive. But it’s one of the largest contiguous features on Charleston’s cramped, heavily built-up peninsula – a welcome splash of green space amid an often-sultry sea of brick and concrete. It’s also located outside the historic district, so it’s a great place to get a sense of the “real” Charleston and enjoy the outdoors like a true local.
Regional Day Trips and Excursions
If you have some time to get out of the city and explore the beautiful Lowcountry, these regional destinations and excursion ideas should be high on your list.
29. Hampton Plantation
- Adult admission: $7.50
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm or 6pm, depending on the season
Hampton Plantation State Historic Site, also a National Historic Landmark, is a bit farther afield than the previously mentioned Drayton Hall Plantation or Middleton Place. However, with its stately mansion and exhibits devoted to “the system of slavery that helped build such plantations” and “the freed people who made their homes in the Santee Delta region for generations after emancipation,” it bears more than a passing resemblance to them.
30. Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Open daily, sunup to sundown
Part of a larger expanse of restored wetlands and forests known as the South Carolina Lowcountry Refuge Complex, Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge is a crucial habitat for a host of marine animals, reptiles, mammals, and birds. (The surrounding lands are popular with local hunters and fishermen, so wear bright colors and use caution during hunting season.)
ACE stands for Achepoo, Combahee, and Edisto, the three waterways that feed into the refuge. The land isn’t totally unspoiled – much of it was once given over to rice cultivation, and the open-to-the-public Grove Plantation House is a fine example of an antebellum manor.
31. Caw Caw Interpretive Center
- Adult admission: $2
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9am to 5pm
The Ravenel Caw Caw Interpretive Center sits on a teeming marsh once used for rice cultivation. Its dry boardwalks offer excellent vantage points to spot coastal South Carolina’s most recognizable critters, including gators, bald eagles, and various types of waterfowl. Interpretive exhibits narrate the preserve’s history, with special attention paid to the ingenious techniques employed by enslaved Africans to turn a wild marsh into a productive paddy. Visitors can also learn about the little-known Stono Rebellion, a colonial slave uprising that killed nearly 100 in 1739.
32. Penn Center
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm (museum hours; grounds may be open earlier and later)
Located on beautiful St. Helena Island, part of the South Carolina Sea Islands, the Penn Center celebrates the heritage of South Carolina’s African American population. Special attention is paid to the unique Gullah culture, a way of life forged by freed slaves and their descendants on then-remote offshore islands.
More than a dozen historic structures and outbuildings remain here, including one of the first schools open to freed slaves. If you’re interested in learning about a still-active culture about which most Americans are completely unaware, don’t miss the Penn Center.
When to Visit and What to Bring
Planning a visit to Charleston? Use this information to plan your ideal travel times and packing list.
Weather and Ideal Visiting Times
Like the rest of the coastal Southeast, Charleston has a warm, humid climate characterized by sultry summers and nippy (but rarely cold) winters. During the long summer, high temperatures routinely exceed 90 degrees. Low temperatures rarely drop much below 70 degrees, and oppressive humidity is a constant presence. Air conditioning is a virtual necessity in Charleston, and the good news is that most public spaces (including hotels and vacation rentals) have it. Summer brings regular, soaking rains, often in the form of violent afternoon thunderstorms.
Charleston’s temperate springs and autumns are much nicer. In March and April, and again in October and November, high temperatures range between 70 and 85 degrees, dropping into the 50s and 60s at night. Thunderstorm activity drops off a bit during these shoulder seasons, though rain is still fairly common. In the winter months, the weather can be chilly and gray, but true cold in the vein of Northern cities like Boston and Chicago is rare. So is accumulating snowfall, which occurs once in a blue moon.
Weather-wise, the best times to visit Charleston are definitely in spring (after spring break) and fall. Summer is unpleasant and surprisingly crowded, as international visitors tend to visit in greater numbers. If you don’t mind wearing a second layer when you venture outside, winter is an uncrowded and affordable time to visit.
Hurricane Risk and Precautions
Charleston isn’t as hurricane-prone as South Florida or the Gulf Coast region, but it’s not immune to tropical storm activity either. In 1989, it suffered a near-direct hit from Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that devastated nearby beachfront communities and killed more than two dozen people in South Carolina. When hurricanes do threaten Charleston, they need to be taken seriously, as the city’s extremely low elevation leaves it prone to widespread flooding. In fact, roughly a week after I visited Charleston, Hurricane Matthew churned past the city and flooded much of the historic district, though the damage was mild compared to that caused by Hugo.
Since the risk of a hurricane hitting in any given year is low, weather shouldn’t monopolize your trip planning process. Still, if you plan to visit during the tropic storm season, which runs from June through November and peaks in September, you should be aware of basic hurricane safety practices. For more information about hurricane safety and evacuation procedures, check with the South Carolina Emergency Management Department.
It’s worth mentioning (but not dwelling on) the fact that Charleston was hit by a major earthquake in the late 1800s. The city was badly damaged by the event, which hasn’t recurred since (aside from isolated, minor tremors). Charleston’s earthquake risk is not high by the standards of big west coast cities like San Francisco and Portland, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
What to Bring
The contents of your Charleston packing list will vary based on the timing and nature of your visit. Here is what you may need to bring:
- Light, Breathable Clothing. Unless you visit during the brief, mild Charleston winter, you’re going to want plenty of breathable clothing to stave off the relentless humidity. In fact, unless you’re staying in a rental with onsite laundry facilities, throw a few extra changes of clothing into your bag.
- Rain Gear. Rain can happen at any time of year in Charleston, so don’t visit without some sort of rain protection. During the warm season, a compact umbrella and waterproof poncho will probably suffice. During the cold months, bring a pair of waterproof boots and a heavier raincoat or jacket. It’s not uncommon for water to pool in the street after heavy rains, so high boots aren’t a bad idea either.
- Sun Protection. When the sun is out in Charleston, it can be relentless. If you’re sun-sensitive, pack accordingly – a hat, sunscreen, neck protection, and long sleeves are all advisable.
- Sturdy Footwear. If you’re sightseeing the old-fashioned way, you’ll probably spend a lot of time on your feet in Charleston. To keep your feet comfortable, bring running shoes or hiking boots with good traction.
- Backpack or Satchel. Don’t forget something to carry the various items you’ll need to stay comfortable, connected, and solvent during your Charleston trip. A shoulder bag or comfortable backpack should be sufficient to carry your camera, water, wallet, maps, and other items.
- Hydration Gear. It’s hard to forget that you need to drink water in Charleston, if only because water is everywhere and sweating is unavoidable. Stay hydrated (and limit bottled water waste) by bringing a refillable water bottle along.
How to Get Around Charleston
Many Charleston visitors from outside the immediate area arrive via Charleston International Airport (CHS), located 15 to 20 minutes north of the historic district in normal traffic. Though it’s not as big or busy as a major hub airport, Charleston has a surprisingly robust flight schedule that includes direct flights to major Southern and East Coast cities such as Atlanta and New York City. Most other U.S. cities are reachable via one-stop flights through cities like Atlanta.
Fares are comparable to what you’d expect for a second-tier airport – $150 to $400 for round-trip flights within the eastern half of the United States, and up to $500 for flights originating in major West Coast cities such as Seattle.
Once you’re in town, you can get around by:
Walking and Public Transit
Charleston’s historic district is very walkable. Though the streets are narrow and somewhat jumbled, they’re easy to navigate with a paper attractions map from Charleston CVB or a tour company – or, failing that, your phone’s Google Maps app. If you plan to see the sights extensively, you’re better off parking your car and moving about the city on foot, unless you have mobility issues. Street parking is simply too unreliable and restrictive in the historic district. Expect to pay $10 to $15 to park your car in a centrally located garage during business hours – per the City of Charleston, the daily max at most public garages is $16.
When you tire of walking, Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) comes to the rescue. CARTA’s service is pretty good in the historic district and inner neighborhoods, and its express lines do a decent job of ferrying people from Charleston’s core to outlying neighborhoods and cities too (good news if you’re staying in cheaper digs outside Charleston proper). The free DASH trolley‘s several inner Charleston routes hit many of the city’s top attractions as well.
CARTA is reasonably priced: a one-way fare is $2, transfers are $0.50, an unlimited-use on-day pass is $7, and an unlimited-use three-day pass is $14. If you plan to use CARTA heavily, a pass is definitely advisable.
Charleston is very flat. That’s a major problem during heavy rains and tropical weather, as much of the city is at or just above sea level and flooding can be widespread. However, it’s great news for bike commuters and hobby cyclists willing to brave mixed traffic to get where they need to go.
Charleston was late to adopt bike sharing and still does not have a functional system as of early 2017, but there are plenty of rental options in the area. Affordabike, which also rents watercraft and claims to have the largest selection of bikes in the Charleston area, is as good a place as any to start, with rentals starting at $20 per day. You can also find a semi-complete list of bike rental options at Charleston CVB’s website.
If you live in the Southeast or mid-Atlantic regions, driving to Charleston in your own car – perhaps as part of a longer road trip across the U.S. – could be your best financial and logistical bet.
If you’re staying at a hotel in Charleston’s historic district, check lot availability in your area. As noted, public lots in Charleston generally don’t charge more than $16 per day, which could be a bargain compared to your hotel’s prices.
If you’re staying in a rental property anywhere in Charleston, you need to pay careful attention to local parking regulations – even if street parking is free, it may be restricted to neighborhood residents. Look for rentals with off-street parking or guaranteed on-street availability.
Charleston has surprisingly good ridesharing coverage through the two major ridesharing providers, Uber and Lyft. Compared with metropolises like San Francisco and New York City, wait times are somewhat longer, especially during non-peak periods. However, it’s almost always possible to get a quick, affordable ride anywhere between Charleston International Airport and the end of the Charleston peninsula.
Due to Charleston’s relatively small size, cut-rate carpool options such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line aren’t yet available here, so UberX and regular Lyft are the two cheapest options. Within the historic district and inner neighborhoods, door-to-door rides should cost less than $15. From the airport to the city, expect to pay about $30.
Charleston attracts millions of visitors every year. It contains more than enough to support a week of leisurely sightseeing, and then some. But it’s not the only well-preserved colonial city in the Southeast. Not even two hours to the southwest lies the beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia, a slightly smaller town with a large student population and a stunningly well-preserved historic core with nearly two dozen immaculate squares and a lush canopy of live oaks.
If you’re a fan of American history and have more than a few days to devote to your southern swing, look for ways to incorporate both cities. You’ll thank yourself when you return.
Have you ever been to Charleston, South Carolina? What is your favorite thing to do there?