15 fun and unique things to do in Charleston, South Carolina
Southern charm, cobblestone streets, and hip Lowcountry cooking are calling.
Whether it’s immersing yourself in the city’s rich history or experiencing the vibrant charm of the South, there are plenty of reasons to plan a trip to Charleston, SC. Entertaining tourists and residents alike, Charleston’s exciting activities and breathtaking sights offer plenty of fodder for a packed itinerary. To help you plan your next trip, we’ve narrowed down 15 fun and unique things you can do only in Charleston.
1. Spend a day on Sullivan’s Island
For beaches, restaurants, and a piece of literary history, plan a visit to Sullivan’s Island. The backdrop of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Gold-Bug,” the island was also the author’s home while he was stationed at Fort Moultrie. Sullivan’s Island is also home to the Charleston Light, a unique, modernist lighthouse that’s been guiding mariners into the harbor since it was built in the ‘60s. Away from the city bustle, spend the day lounging or kiteboarding—and afterwards saddle up at Poe’s Tavern, a local watering hole just off the beach.
2. Get a lay of the land in downtown Charleston
While horse-drawn carriage tours, like the Palmetto Carriage Works tour, are a popular way to explore downtown Charleston, Tripadvisor travelers have voted this 2-Hour Historic Charleston Guided Sightseeing Walking Tour as a Travelers’ Choice Best of the Best winner. As you explore the downtown historic district, you'll walk past gargantuan mansions, fragrant gardens, historical churches, and lush parks, learning about the history and architecture that make up South Carolina’s oldest town.
3. Snap your Charleston ‘gram
There are two main spots to visit if you’re on the hunt for a photo op. Start at Waterfront Park, a Charleston fixture known for its spunky pineapple fountain. Overlooking Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River, it has 1,000 feet of coastline, making it the perfect place to people-watch (and also pelican-watch). Then, head to the famous Rainbow Row. There, more than a dozen historic homes have been restored and painted in a beautiful array of pastel hues that make for the perfect backdrop.
4. Say boo(ze) on a haunted walking tour
Want to take a historic walking tour of Charleston with a spooky twist? These old cobblestone streets have stories to tell. With Nightly Spirits, a pirate guide—yes, you read right—takes your group on a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour that begins and ends at a bar. You’ll get to imbibe libations while learning about the city’s most famous haunted tales.
5. Take a ferry ride to Fort Sumter
Known as the place where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, Fort Sumter National Monument is a must-visit for history buffs. Starting with a relaxing ferry ride, where you can even spot a dolphin or two. Once you get to the fort itself, explore its thick stone caverns and Civil War-era cannons. Be sure to stop by the fort’s small yet informative museum; the knowledgeable volunteer guides there are equipped to answer all your questions.
6. Get a taste of the South in a small-batch distillery
For almost a decade, High Wire Distilling Co. has been serving its award-winning drinks to tourists and locals alike. Be sure to try cocktails featuring the house-made Hat Trick gin and New Southern Revival whiskey. If you have time, tour the distillery and witness the entire distillation process, from milling and mashing to fermentation and barrel aging. Then, get a front-row seat with a drink in-hand overlooking the production area after taking a tour.
7. Treasure hunt at Charleston City Market
Open every day of the year except December 25, Charleston City Market is a shoppers’ oasis. One of the nation’s oldest public markets, Charleston City Market has more than 300 craftsmen and artisans. From jams, grits, and teas, to sweet-grass baskets, trinkets, and candles, this three-and-a-half-block market is a popular destination. Set in 200-year-old brick market buildings, this shopping sanctuary is surrounded by restaurants to keep you fueled for your adventure. And if you plan on visiting from March to December, there’s live music every weekend.
8. Experience Southern hospitality at French Quarter Inn
The French Quarter Inn, a boutique hotel located right off Market Street in downtown Charleston, gives guests and visitors a taste of the Historic District’s finest. Combining Southern charm with modern touches, this hotel makes you feel right at home with personable touches like a Champagne welcome, warm cookies and milk, turndown service, and a pillow menu.
9. Taste fresh Lowcountry seafood
What’s a trip to the coast without fresh seafood? 167 Ray Oyster Bar serves some of the freshest catch Charleston has to offer. The New England–style oyster bar has seafood sourced from the local waters of Charleston to New Brunswick, Canada, and beyond. Besides the obvious, the oyster bar also serves shrimp, caviar, ceviche, tuna tataki, fish tacos, and po’ boys. No reservations are taken at this pearl of a restaurant, so be prepared for a wait.
10. Visit the Nathaniel Russell House Museum
History buffs, as well as architecture aficionados, will find the Nathaniel Russell House Museum supremely interesting. This opulent, neoclassical home is recognizable by its spiral staircase, detailed furnishings, and manicured gardens. Be sure to take the guided audio tour of the home, which delves into the lives of the nearly 20 enslaved men and women who lived and worked here in the mid-1800s.
11. Set sail to Morris Island
Escape the bustle of downtown Charleston with a boat ride to the uninhabited Morris Island with Charleston Outdoor Adventures. The boat cruise is a fun-filled voyage with marine life and lighthouse sightings, inlets, salt marshes, and estuaries. Go shell-seeking at this old battle site or just relax on the 840-acre island.
12. Walk along the Charleston Peninsula at the historical Battery
What was once a civil-war coastal defense artillery battery is now a fortified seawall and promenade. The battery parallels stately antebellum homes and is famous for its spectacular views of Fort Sumter, the USS Yorktown, Castle Pinckney, and the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse. The harbor-side promenade has oyster-shelled pathways and borders White Point Garden, surrounded by oak trees draped in Spanish moss, with a picturesque gazebo.
13. Go all in at tea time
Make a day trip out of the 40-minute drive to Wadmalaw Island, home to the Charleston Tea Garden, the only working tea garden in the U.S. (now part of the Bigelow Tea Company). Book the trolley tour for a highlight reel of the grounds, which opened in 1963, with stops at the greenhouse and factory. Meanwhile, within the Charleston city limits, Camellias, the ultra-Instagrammable pink champagne bar at Hotel Bennett, serves up a stellar afternoon tea on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Expect assorted finger sandwiches, scones, and at least a dozen teas to choose from.
14. Experience Southern culture with a Charleston Harbor Cruise
Charleston Harbor Cruises offer various themed cruises that combine great music with great food on the scenic waters of the Charleston Harbor. The Sunset Blues & BBQ Dinner Cruise features live music from local musicians, a Southern-style BBQ buffet, and close-up views of some of the city’s most famous and charming sights—at sunset no less. See Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, the USS Yorktown, St. Michael’s Church, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, with a state of the art span that accommodates the largest shops in the world, and many of the most stately homes on the Battery.
15. Have a proper drink
Ready for a nightcap? The mixologists at The Gin Joint have a lengthy list of handcrafted classic, creative, and seasonal cocktails, as well as bar bites to keep the night going. But we recommend requesting the bartender’s choice. You state two adjectives to describe your craving, which they transform into your ideal treat.