Best Plantations to Visit in the Charleston, SC Area
I have lived in Charleston for more than a decade and have worked at two different historic attractions in the area. One of the most common questions I received everywhere I've ever worked in the city is "Which plantation should we visit?" This is a tricky question and it always necessitates a long answer.
Tara, Gone with the Wind, and Charleston
When many people arrive in Charleston, they almost expect to see Rhett Butler step out to greet them. Carriage tour riders ask which house he lived in and people want to visit Tara. As die-hard Gone with the Wind buffs know, Tara was not in Charleston and, technically it was built on a sound stage. Very sad, yes, I know, but it's better you know the truth now. Part of the slave row cabins at Boone Hall have been used in filming, but you will not see Tara on your visit. Part of this is because the War Between the States (that's the Civil War for you Northerners) was, and remains, very real here. The Union Army burned most of the plantation homes in the surrounding area, so even if Tara had existed outside of Charleston, chances are really good it would not be standing today.
Drayton Hall's official website
Drayton Hall boasts that it is the best extant example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States. Construction began on the house in 1738 and surprisingly few 'updates' have ever occurred. For example, the house was never wired for electricity. Today, the house has been preserved and is open for visitation. Preserved does not mean restored. Do not visit Drayton Hall expecting to see lots of 18th century antiques - there is not a single stick of furniture in the home. It does, however, give you a fantastic feel for the architecture and an unparalleled feel for the era. It is also the only 18th century plantation home still standing and open to the public in the Charleston area.
Magnolia Plantation's official website
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
To confuse matters, Magnolia Plantation was the first Drayton family property in South Carolina. The first Drayton immigrant arrived in the 1670s, the decade during which the colony was formed, and received the land that became Magnolia from his father-in-law. The home on the property today is the plantation's third house and is a unique combination of a relocated hunting cabin built before the Revolutionary War in Summerville and an 1890s addition. Magnolia's claim to fame is its beautiful gardens that are the oldest public gardens in America and have been open every single year since the early 1870s. Magnolia is unique because it is still owned and operated by direct descendants of the first Drayton in Carolina. It is also home to a row of original antebellum slave cabins. For an in-depth look at the site, visit my guide to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
Middleton Place's official website
Middleton Place, a few miles further away from town, but along the same road as Drayton and Magnolia, has its own unique story to tell. Today, many Charleston antiques, including pieces owned by Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, are viewable on the house tour. The house tour takes place in the South Flanker, the only one of a three part residential complex to survive the ravages of time. On site you can also see heritage breeds of livestock and artisans like blacksmiths, coopers, weavers and spinners. The property also has a restaurant and a critically-acclaimed inn.
Boone Hall's official website
Boone Hall Plantation
Boone Hall Plantation is a great place to go if you are looking for lots of activity and the potential for picking your own strawberries, seeing a Civil War reenactment, catching an oyster roast, etc., but it may not be the best place for people looking for a calm day of serious history. It does have a beautiful avenue of oaks that is around 3/4 of a mile long and contains about 90 live oaks that are older than our country. Unfortunately, this avenue of oaks leads right up to a 1935 reconstruction of the 'Big House.' It's a pretty house and it fits in well enough, but, in a sense, it is the least 'authentic' plantation home in the area. I don't know how it is today, but the last time I went on the house tour a family still lived on the second floor and it, therefore, was not on the tour. All of the period slave cabins have been outfitted with exhibits and even some (slightly frightening at times) mannequins. I really wish at least one of them were left exhibit free instead of having lights, TV's, audio tours, and random signs.
Uniquely, since it is still an operational farm, Boone Hall is one of the oldest operating plantations in the nation. They also usually have a small cotton patch growing so, if you're not from the South, Boone Hall presents a unique opportunity to see the famous plant in action.
Map of Charleston Plantations
If you could only see one, which plantation would you pick?
- Walking Tours in Charleston
If you're looking for a tour of downtown Charleston, Oyster Point Tours is the only company I recommend. The guides are very knowledgeable and the owners are invested enough in their company to personally give tours of their home city.
So Which Plantaion Should I Visit?
It really depends. You should pick the plantation that best meets your time, budget and expectations. Honestly, I think people should visit all of them, if they have the chance. I have been to every one of these sites multiple times. It is only by visiting each that you can really get a feel for antebellum Charleston. Piece by piece, you can assemble memories a historic house, antique furniture, period gardens and the feel of a working plantation.