A Guide to Enjoying a Trip to Charleston, South Carolina
A Trip Worth Taking
As soon as I drove into Charleston for the first time, I was glad I had decided to come. It was a trip over a year in the making, one that I almost did not get to take. I went with my mother and sister for a girl's retreat, some time away for just the three of us. We had such a wonderful vacation there in Charleston; I would go back anytime.
I did quite a bit of homework before going in order to make the most of our time, and I'd like to pass along some of what I learned to you. If you have never been to Charleston, please read on to find out why you should make the trip, and some of the best things to do while you are there.
A Historic Gem of the South
Charleston is a city rich with American history. Built during colonial times, it has seen many momentous events that have shaped our nation. Anyone who enjoys history will not find themselves disappointed by a visit to Charleston. You can tell that it is a city that takes pride in its heritage. The oldest parts of the city, down by Charleston harbor, are generally well-preserved. I saw more than one historic building being restored so that it can continue to be used, rather be torn down to make room for a modern structure. There are also many natural areas around Charleston that have been preserved so that locals and tourists alike may experience the beauties of the Lowcountry.
I would advise stopping by the Charleston Visitor's Center on Meeting Street when you first arrive in town as they can supply you with plenty of helpful information concerning your stay. They also have tickets available for certain attractions in the area.
The historic part of the city is pedestrian-friendly, but it can also be viewed via horse-drawn carriage tours. There are plenty of reasonably-priced parking garages placed throughout the historic area, so I would suggest taking advantage of them rather than wasting time looking for a parking space on the street.
If budget is a concern for you and you do not mind the heat, summer is a good time to go as most lodging places are cheaper at that time of year. The added plus to going during the off-season is the city and its attractions are less crowded. We went in August, so it was pretty steamy outside during the afternoon, but being from Florida we were used to the heat. We also planned to do most of our outdoor activities in the mornings while it was more bearable outside. The other time of year that lodging seems to be a bit cheaper is late fall and early winter. The peak season runs from around mid-February to June.
A Place to Lay Your Head
Since the rich history of the city is a key part of what makes it worthwhile to visit, staying at a bed and breakfast, inn, or hotel that is in a historic building is the best way to feel a part of that history. After staying at a bed and breakfast at a couple of different places, I can say that I would choose such an establishment over the average chain hotel. A good bed and breakfast truly is like a "home away from home"; it has an ambiance that most hotels cannot duplicate.
For our stay in Charleston, I chose the Barksdale House Inn. It was very reasonably priced for being located in the historic part of Charleston, and it was a beautifully decorated, friendly establishment. The house itself is over two hundred years old, which only adds to the fun of staying there. They have rooms in the main house and in the carriage house across the back parking lot (the parking lot is another plus—some inns in Charleston do not have a designated parking area, which means you would have to park on the street or pay to park in a garage).
The inn also features a small courtyard garden and a covered back porch where guests may partake of the morning meal. Breakfast was continental-style and was good. If a hearty breakfast is what you prefer, however, you may be a bit disappointed. I personally did not mind the lighter breakfast; we ended up sampling so much of the local cuisine the rest of the day we did not really need more than we ate each morning. They will also bring your breakfast to you in your room. The room we stayed in had comfortable beds, a large wardrobe, and a writing desk. The bathroom was small but sufficient. The decor in each room of the inn is unique and tasteful.
The Barksdale House Inn is located on George Street near the college of Charleston, and is within walking distance from many area attractions like the Charleston Museum and South Carolina Aquarium. It was a pleasant place to stay and I would definitely stay there again.
A Taste of Charleston
I am the type of person that checks the reviews and menu for a restaurant online before I decide to eat there. All three of the places we went to for dinner had been chosen because they were described as having good food for a reasonable price. We were not disappointed by the quality or service at any of these establishments, so I will heartily recommend each one of them to you.
215 Meeting Street
Hyman's Seafood had been described in a few reviews I read as being too "touristy", but I was going to Charleston as a tourist, so who cared? Even though the place may be geared towards tourists, it still had great food. Try not to eat too many of the complimentary boiled peanuts before dinner, though!
The entrées were enormous, more than the average person can consume. We ordered fish with all of the trimmings, and it was all tasty. Their menu is mainly a mix of seafood dishes and Lowcountry fare at reasonable prices. They are open daily for lunch and dinner, but go early as they do not accept reservations and the place fills up quickly! They also own the deli next door (Aaron's Deli) if you want a lighter meal. (Tip: If you find a coupon for free crab dip at Hyman's, skip it—it was the only thing we had there that wasn't worth the calories.)
72 Queen Street
Poogan's Porch was the restaurant we enjoyed the most on our trip. Its delicious array of Lowcountry offerings made it difficult to choose what to have for dinner. My mother and sister both had the fried chicken served with creamy mashed potatoes, which they both enjoyed thoroughly. I had the pan-fried pork chop with macaroni-and-cheese. I do not normally care for pork chops, but this one was second-to-none.
If you want to try Lowcountry food while in Charleston, this is a place not to be missed. Open for lunch and dinner during the week, with brunch and dinner served on the weekend. Mid-range dinner prices. Reservations suggested.
39 Rue de Jean
39 John Street
For a different type of meal, we went to 39 Rue de Jean, a French café near the Charleston visitor's center. We all partook of delightful seafood dishes prepared in a distinct French style and complimented by crusty bread. The restaurant had a lovely Parisian ambiance, and I would definitely visit it again. Lunch and dinner are served Monday through Saturday, and brunch and dinner are served on Sunday. Dinner prices are $20 and up. Reservations accepted.
A Step Back in Time
There are so many interesting places to visit in Charleston and the surrounding area that it was a pity we only had three-and-a-half days to explore. This is one of the reasons I would like to go back someday: to see everything I missed! The places we were able to visit were all worth the time to see.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a well-kept historical building that was constructed by the British a few years prior to the Revolutionary War. The tour of the sub-level dungeon is one of the best parts of the place, and it gives a fascinating peek into the struggles the colonists faced as they fought for their freedom. The first and second floors feature displays relating to the early days of the American republic. The second floor is also home to the elegant Great Hall, where George Washington was fêted when he visited the city in 1791 as the nation's newly-elected president. Admission to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon includes all exhibits
Fort Sumter National Monument
Located on an island in the mouth of Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter is only accessible by ferry or private boat. Admission to the monument and the ferry ride are covered under one price when you purchase the tickets at one of the ferry launch sites. The main launch is from the visitor center at Liberty Square in Charleston, and the other launch is from Patriot's Point in Mt. Pleasant. The ferry ride out to the fort is a treat in and of itself because it gives you spectacular views of old Charleston as you travel across the harbor. If you love taking photos, it is a prime opportunity to take some great pictures!
During the ferry ride, some of the history of the fort is given over the intercom on the boat. Pay attention while you ride, and it will save you some time. I say this because once you get to the island where the fort is located, you only get one hour to explore. After getting off the boat, you will be encouraged to stand and listen to a presentation given by a park ranger. This eats fifteen to twenty minutes of your time, and basically is a repeat of what was said over the intercom on the boat.
Most of the information not given on the boat can be found in the museum at the fort. So, in my opinion it is better to skip the presentation completely and take the whole time you are given to do your own looking.
Charles Towne Landing
A state-run park on the site of the original European settlement that was built in 1670, Charles Towne Landing features nature trails, a zoo, replica sailing boat, replica cabin, visitor's center, and a historic house. We went on a weekday afternoon and the park was not too crowded, though I am sure it would be busier during the week when school is in session. We stopped by the visitor's center first. The visitor's center gave a good overview as to what life was like when the Carolinas were first settled.
Since the information is presented in a way that makes it interesting to children as well as adults, it is worth taking the time to go through the center. We walked the nature trails and viewed the replica crop garden, house, and boat. Kids will like the boat in particular since people are permitted to climb aboard it whenever an attendant is present. The zoo on the property features a variety of native wildlife. The historic Legare-Waring house is open when events such as weddings are not scheduled to take place at the house.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens was my favorite place out of all the spots we visited while in Charleston. The garden, which is the oldest public garden in the country, was absolutely beautiful, even in August. While most of the azaleas, which are the featured plant in the garden, were not blooming, the garden's grounds were a delight. I can only imagine how much more spectacular it is in the springtime when more of the flowers are in bloom!
We spent an entire morning in the gardens, walking the trails and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. The plantation features a petting zoo that is enjoyable for children as well as adults. There is also an hour-long nature train tour that is available if walking is difficult for you. Four other activities available on the plantation are a boat tour through a wetland area, a self-guided walk through the Audubon Swamp Garden, a tour of the restored slave cabins, and a tour of the house on the property. The house is the third one to sit on the property; it is a pre-Revolutionary structure that was moved to the plantation after the former house was burned down during the Civil War. If we had had more time that day I would have loved to go through it, but we were already scheduled to go to Drayton Hall that afternoon.
Tickets to the property include the gardens and the petting zoo; the house, boat, train, swamp garden, and slave cabin tours all require separate tickets.
Just down the road from Magnolia Plantation is Drayton Hall, the oldest-standing original plantation house along the Ashley River. This house has been beautifully preserved by the National Trust. The difference between a preserved house and a restored house is that the preserved house is unfurnished and kept in the state in which it was received rather than being restored to how it may have looked at the time it was occupied.
The house is maintained in order to prevent further decay, but it is not "spruced up" in any way. Drayton Hall featured some lovely molded-plaster ceilings that are hundreds of years old, as well as intricately carved embellishments on the stairs, mouldings, and mantlepieces. The guided tour of the house presents details of the former occupants' lives and the era in which they lived in addition to facts about the structure and why it was built the way it was.
It was an interesting way to step back in time and learn more about life in the old South. Also on the property is a marsh walk and river walk along the Ashley River which offer views of the local plants and wildlife. A picnic area is available if you want to bring your lunch along with you. Tickets to the property include the house tour and the nature trails.
The Charleston Museum and The Joseph Manigault House
The Charleston Museum, the oldest museum in the nation, first opened in 1773. The museum was a wonderful way for us to pass the time on a warm summer afternoon. It includes a fascinating exhibit on South Carolina history, a gallery of antiquities and natural history, and a section dedicated special exhibits which are rotated on a periodic basis. Next door to the museum is the historic Joseph Manigault House. Tours of the house run throughout the day and are somewhat interesting as they give you a slice of Charleston history; however, if you are short on time, I would skip it in favor of one of the other historic homes in the city as it was not the best house-tour I have ever taken. Tickets for the tours of this house and the Heyward-Washington House on Church Street (both are operated by the Museum) are available at the Charleston Museum.
Old City Market and Local Shops
The Old City Market, built in 1841, runs down the center of Market Street and houses a variety of shops and stalls where one may buy everything from tourist trinkets to exquisitely-made handicrafts. At the entrance to each section of the market one may also find handwoven baskets made by the local Gullah ladies. If you are wanting unique items to take home for yourself or as gifts, the Old Market is an excellent place to look.
I found a beautiful pitcher made by a Charleston-area potter while walking the through the market. There are also many interesting shops along the sides of Market Street and the on neighboring avenues, so if you cannot find something you like at the Old City Market, there are plenty of other options. If you have children, make sure to stop by Charleston's Candy Kitchen on the corner of Market and East Bay Street for a sweet treat. They have gelato and a large variety of candy, including homemade saltwater taffy, pralines, and candy apples.
One thing I would definitely recommend buying while in Charleston is a tin of American Classic Tea. This tea is grown at the Charleston Tea Plantation, which is located south of the city and is the only tea garden in the United States. I bought the peach-flavored tea for my father, who is a tea enthusiast, and he enjoyed it greatly. This tea can be found in quite a few of the shops around Market Street.
Battery Park/White Point Gardens
White Point Gardens extends along the tip of the peninsula on which Charleston sits and offers gorgeous views of the spot where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers converge at Charleston Harbor. The Gardens include a lovely lawn shaded by giant oak trees, which offer a shady spot for children to run off some energy or adults to sit and relax. The Battery area of the park features Civil War cannons and mortars.
Too Many Places to See in One Visit!
There are dozens of places in and around Charleston to visit, and as we were only there for a few days, we were only able to see a limited number of them. In the "Places to Visit" set of links below I have included links to the spots that are on my "must-see" list if I am ever able to return to Charleston. It is a vacation spot that my mother, sister, and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I heartily recommend you take the time to visit this living piece of American history.
Places to Stay
- Charleston Bed & Breakfast : The Barksdale House Inn
A Charleston bed & breakfast. A lovely little place tucked away on George Street.
- Find Bed and Breakfast Inns
A good website with hundreds of listings for bed and breakfast establishments. Search for Charleston, SC listings on this website. Visitor reviews very helpful.
- Charleston Area CVB
Visitor's Bureau site with plenty of listings for places at which to stay, eat, or visit.
Places to Dine
- Hymans Seafood, Aarons Deli, Hymans Restaurant, Charleston, SC
Quirky restaurant serving a variety of seafood and Lowcountry dishes. The associated deli is located next door.
- Poogan's Porch Restaurant
Delicious Lowcountry-style food. A restaurant every visitor to Charleston ought to visit.
- 39 Rue de Jean
French brasserie cuisine served in an establishment reminiscent of a Parisian cafe.
Places to Visit
- The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
Built in 1777, the Old Exchange is a unique piece of American history.
- Fort Sumter National Monument (U.S. National Park Service)
Visit the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
- Charles Towne Landing
Nature trails, zoo with native animals, replica boat and house, visitor center, and the historic Legare-Waring house.
- Magnolia Plantation and Gardens | Charleston, SC
Beautiful plantation, gardens, and swampland habitat.
- Drayton Hall: Southern Plantation House in Charleston SC
Well-preserved colonial mansion house and grounds.
- The Charleston Museum
Founded in 1773. Extensive collection of local and state artifacts, plus other antiquities.
- Historic Charleston City Market
A market in the heart of the historic district of Charleston featuring many locally-crafted items.
- Charleston Tea Plantation
Located south of Charleston on Wadmalaw Island, Charleston Tea Plantation is the only tea garden in the U.S.
- Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum - Charleston Harbor, SC
Located in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Home of the USS Yorktown.
- South Carolina Aquarium on Charleston Harbor
Aquarium packed with exhibits showing the different ecosystems that exist in South Carolina.
- Calhoun Mansion, Charleston, SC
Beautifully restored Victorian-era mansion.