What to See, Do, and Eat in Charleston, South Carolina

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By Mike DuBose with Debra and Blake DuBose

Charleston, SC is a fun, historical city filled with southern charm and warm hospitality. It is one of our favorite destinations to visit because of its unique personality, lively atmosphere, historical perspectives, delicious food, and shopping opportunities galore. New things to see and do pop up frequently—although we have visited many times, we keep hearing about places we missed! Whether (like us) you live a short drive away, or will need to make a longer trip, we encourage everyone to visit the place that TripAdvisor.com says, “feels a bit like it’s suspended in time, thanks to its antebellum architecture and surrounding plantation landscapes.”

A fascinating history: Charleston is the second largest metropolitan area in South Carolina, and it served as the state’s capital until it was moved to Columbia in 1786. Charleston’s name originates from English settlers who arrived in 1670 and named the area “Charles Town” after King Charles II. As the years passed, people of many different backgrounds (including French Huguenots, Jewish settlers, and Africans taken to the city by slave traders) came to Charles Town, and by the 1750s, it was a bustling trade center, home to the third-oldest library in the United States. Its name was changed to Charleston in 1783, following the Revolutionary War and America’s independence from the British crown.

Since its beginning, Charleston has played host to many important historical figures and happenings. In 1718, the feared pirate Blackbeard sailed into its harbor with four ships, captured the city, and took hostages for ransom. Charleston served a major role in the American Revolution, and local citizen Henry Middleton was the first president of the Continental Congress. (His plantation, Middleton Place, has also been home to many prominent Americans.) The now-Medical University of South Carolina opened along with The Citadel military college in 1842.

Charleston is also known to many as the place where the American Civil War began. In 1860, a convention of southern delegates met there and voted to secede from the United States; in 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War. As the war drew to a close, Union forces blockaded the Charleston harbor and the CSS Hunley, one of the first metal submarines, rammed and sank the union ship US Housatonic, marking the first sinking of a vessel by a submarine. The original, intact CSS Hunley—still holding the remains of its crew—was recently found buried in the ocean off Charleston, and is being restored. A replica of the submarine is displayed in front of the Charleston Museum at 360 Meeting Street. Fortunately, although Union General William T. Sherman ravaged Savannah during his famous march to the sea, he decided to spare Charleston, and as a result, much of the city’s rich housing and history have survived.

As a side note, Charleston sits above one of the largest and most dangerous earthquake zones in North America. It experienced a devastating 7.3 level earthquake in 1886, and afterward, many homeowners placed steel pins through their homes to hold them together in the event of another quake. If you take a tour while visiting the city, be sure to ask your guide to point out some of these pins to you.

Planning your trip: This article will give you some ideas of places and attractions you may want to visit on your trip. However, we encourage you not to over-structure your visit and try to see too much in a short period of time. The best part of any vacation is often spent just wandering around and enjoying the smells, sights, and people! Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, since you will probably want to do plenty of walking. For even more detailed information about the greater Charleston area, visit the Charleston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website at www.charlestoncvb.com.

When to go: We prefer to travel to Charleston in April-May and September-October since public schools and colleges are still in session and the crowds are smaller. The temperatures during these times are excellent but can vary a good bit from warm days to cool nights, so bring appropriate clothing. Check the local news or the Weather Channel right before leaving on your trip to determine what the weather will be like and if there are any major events going on (like the Spoleto Festival, which is held in late May to early June). Early to mid-December is also a good time due to holiday decorations, festivities, and gifts.

Getting there and around: If you are planning to fly there, Charleston has a major international airport. If you are driving, plan to arrive and leave before heavy “rush hour” traffic. The weekends get very busy as the locals venture into town and out-of-town visitors swoop in for a few days of fun. Parking in Charleston is very limited, and you will have to rely on garages and open-air paid parking lots.

Where to stay: Although the closer you are to Charleston’s historic center, the higher the costs, we recommend finding a hotel, inn, or bed and breakfast in the area because of numerous shops, restaurants, and fun activities. It’s possible to arrive at your hotel downtown and walk or take bicycle taxis everywhere you want to go, eliminating the need for driving around and finding parking (a big hassle). Our preference is the Hilton Doubletree Hotel, located at 181 Church Street in the middle of the district, since it’s within easy walking distance to the most popular locations. Embassy Suites on 337 Meeting Street is also a good hotel about one-half mile from the district since it has free happy hour and appetizers from 5:30-7:30 PM each night. The nearby Hampton Inn at 345 Meeting Street was rated 4.5 stars by TripAdvisor at a reasonable price. A free shuttle runs every 20 minutes from 8 AM to 8 PM from the hotels to the downtown City Market.

Rates also increase the further you get into the summer months (but during the week of July 4th, the city does put on some excellent firework displays!). We recommend visiting Tripadvisor.com, a very good resource that rates hotels and provides detailed customer reviews. Study the reviews carefully to obtain an accurate picture and decide where you would like to stay in Charleston.

Safety tips: The main streets of the historical district are usually full of people and are pretty safe. If you continue traveling along some of the major streets that head westward, however, you will enter poverty-stricken areas with higher crime rates. The area traveling east towards the battery and bay area, though, is fairly safe. If you are situated in a hotel outside of the historical district, consider taking an automobile or bicycle taxi at night as a precaution.

Shops to frequent: Charleston is loaded with a wide variety of shops. Some of our family’s favorites are:

  • Charleston City Market: Located across from the Charleston Place Hotel at 188 Meeting Street (nestled between Meeting and Church Streets), the market was constructed in the early 1800s and originally used as a meat, vegetable, and seafood marketplace. Today, more than 100 vendors set up booths year-round with all sorts of handmade wares, arts, crafts, and foods for sale. You will also see some sweetgrass weavers using techniques handed down throughout the ages to craft their famous baskets. The weekend is the most crowded, with the many vendor booths and visitors, but it is a fun, interesting place to visit. Most vendors tear down their booths around 5 PM, so plan to shop midday to early afternoon. Shops are located on both sides of the City Market along North and South Market Streets. There are four garages near these locations, including Church (across from the Doubletree Hotel), Hassel, Cumberland, and Hayne Streets (near Bank of America). www.thecharlestoncitymarket.com
  • Shops at Charleston Place: On the bottom floor of the Charleston Place Hotel at 208 Meeting Street, this air-conditioned indoor mall between King and Meeting Streets offers shops such as Chico’s, Tommy Bahama, and Godiva. The boutique of Belmond and other luxury stores are also located here. It’s a good spot to take a break from the heat, and it has a great bar and grill! www.belmond.com/charleston-place/shopping_charleston
  • One of a Kind Gallery: If you are seeking very unique gifts, this is the store for you. It’s situated on the corner near the Doubletree Hotel at 74A North Market Street. It’s worth going in to just see the place, even if you don’t buy anything! www.facebook.com/oneofakindgallerysc
  • C’est La Vie of Charleston: This store is fairly new and is located at 108 North Market Street with all sorts of home décor, clothing, jewelry, and gifts for sale. www.facebook.com/cestlaviecharleston
  • Lowcountry Olive Oil: From its location at 272A Meeting Street, this store serves up a variety of creatively flavored olive oils and vinegars. You can taste them all to find the ones you like! www.lowcountryoliveoil.com
  • King Street: Away from the busy City Market area is nearby King Street, which parallels Meeting Street and is littered with all sorts of shops and eateries. You can access the street by going through the Shops at Charleston Place Mall. www.charlestonsfinest.com/sc/exclusking.htm
  • Tanger Outlet Mall: As you are leaving Charleston on I-26, on your left is Tanger Outlet Mall at Montague Avenue (exit 213). It contains more than 100 restaurants and discount shops carrying mostly major name brands. www.tangeroutlet.com/charleston

Places to Eat: There are hundreds of restaurants in Charleston, all with their own personalities, and the city’s talented chefs and booming food scene have gained nationwide attention in recent years. Because it’s such a popular tourist destination, almost all restaurants have a relaxed dress code, but if you are planning on eating at a five-star restaurant, double check the dress requirements just to be sure.

To narrow down a place to dine, you may want to begin at TripAdvisor.com, where you can see what restaurants are recommended by others and filter the selections based on location, the amount of money you want to spend, and the type of food desired. (Don’t base your choices solely on the lines you see outside of restaurants, since some have been known to limit seating to create lines and give the impression of popularity.)As of press time, these were the top 15 Charleston restaurants, according to TripAdvisor reviewers’ ratings:

  1. Hall’s Chophouse
  2. Peninsula Grill
  3. Charleston Grill
  4. Cru Café
  5. 167 Raw
  6. FIG
  7. Sugar Bakeshop
  8. Grill 225
  9. Magnolias
  10. Five Loaves Café
  11. Slightly North of Broad
  12. Pearlz Oyster Bar
  13. Brown Dog Deli
  14. Swig and Swine
  15. Butcher and Bee

Wherever you choose to eat, be sure to make your reservations well in advance, since spots fill up fast (especially at highly-rated restaurants during popular dining times, such as the weekends). You can always change or cancel them later if necessary. Reservations can be made online at opentable.com, tripadvisor.com, through many of the restaurants’ websites, or by telephone. Here are some of the DuBose family’s favorite places to eat:

  •  Magnolias and Blossom restaurants:These five-star restaurants are located beside each other and are owned by the same company. Blossom is located at 171 East Bay Street (843-722-9200)and Magnolias is at 185 East Bay Street (843-577-7771), and there is free parking available in a lot between the two. They both have some fine Charleston “down south” cuisine with excellent seafood, steaks, soups, salads, and desserts. Each restaurant has a lengthy menu, so we suggest reviewing your options online beforehand. When making your reservation, ask for a booth in the back to avoid the noisy crowds. Full meals can be pricey, so if your budget is limited, we recommend just ordering a drink and an appetizer. www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com
  • Thoroughbred Club:Located in the Charleston Place hotel at 205 Meeting Street, this upscale restaurant and grill opens into the connected mall and is a great, romantic place for a cocktail, appetizer, and some good piano playing. Ask for a spot near the piano but far enough away to hear your companion talk. No reservations are needed. www.belmond.com/charleston-place/charleston_restaurants
  • Hall’s Chophouse: This five-star restaurant is expensive but offers an excellent variety of seafood, veal, and steak. It is located at 434 King Street (843-727-0090). http://hallschophouse.com
  • Tommy Condons: This is a three-star open air bar and grill in the historic district on 160 Church Street. It has low-priced but delicious salads, sandwiches, and seafood appetizers. Try it for lunch or to take a break between touring and shopping and enjoy a little Irish spirit. No reservations required.www.tommycondons.com
  • FIG: The fare at this five-star restaurant, located at 232 Meeting Street (843-805-5900), comes straight from local farms…and you can tell by the crisp freshness of the salads! Portions are on the smaller side, but filling, and you’ll want to savor every bite. www.eatatfig.com
  • Poogan’s Porch Restaurant: The home at 72 Queen Street that now houses Poogan’s Porch was built in 1888. When it was sold to the owners of the now-restaurant in 1976, the former occupants left behind a dog, Poogan, who used to like to lay on the porch. The new owners named the restaurant “Poogan’s Porch” in honor of the friendly pooch, who passed away in 1979 (although some say his spirit still hangs around, greeting visitors!). The restaurant is open 365 days a year and serves southern and Lowcountry cooking specialties such as shrimp and grits and fried chicken. www.poogansporch.com
  • High Cotton: This popular establishment is located at 199 East Bay Street (843-724-3815) and provides a variety of Lowcountry cuisine. www.mavericksouthernkitchens.com/highcotton/charleston
  • The Variety Store: Check out this local’s spot on the Ashley River for a less-expensive way to enjoy some great seafood and visit the local marina. www.varietystorerestaurant.com
  • Rue de Jean: This upscale French cafe located at 39 John Street boasts incredible cuisine at reasonable prices. www.holycityhospitality.com/39-rue-de-jean
  • Wild Olive: Located about 20 minutes from downtown on John’s Island, this restaurant serves great Italian cuisine. www.wildoliverestaurant.com
  • The Fat Hen: This Lowcountry restaurant with a French influence serves an excellent brunch from 10 AM to 3 PM on Sundays. www.thefathen.com
  • Coast Bar and Grill: We enjoy the fresh, locally sourced fish and seafood at this casual 39 John Street eatery. www.holycityhospitality.com/coast-bar-and-grill
  • Shem Creek area of Mount Pleasant: Looking for some scenery with your drink? Try one of these local bars or grills and watch the fishing boats go by! http://shemcreeksc.com

Wherever you go to eat, consider trying an iconic Lowcountry specialty: shrimp and grits. In early June 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a feature declaring Husk, Early Bird Diner, Red Drum, Nana’s Seafood and Soul, and The Swamp Fox as the top five places to eat the dish, with writer Adam Gollner ranking Husk’s version as his favorite. Husk chef Sean Brock has worked for 12 years with Columbia, SC-based Anson Mills to bring back traditional varietals of corn used to make outstanding grits, a dedication that shows in Gollner’s article when he laments, “Lots of places do grits with no soul.” So, you may want to make a reservation at Husk (www.huskrestaurant.com) on your next Charleston trip!

Things to do: There are plenty of things to do and see in Charleston, many of which are little- or no-cost.  Consider these activities:

  • Shop City Market: This is a prime spot for people-watching, and it’s fun to browse the variety of products for sale. You might even pick up a few souvenirs! www.thecharlestoncitymarket.com
  • Take a walking or carriage tour: Several different companies operate out of the historic district near Charleston’s City Market. We really enjoy the horse-drawn carriage tours, which are shaded, especially in the hot summer months. Whether you walk or ride, your tour guide will be very knowledgeable on Charleston history, so feel free to ask questions! However, note that each driver or company may take a different route through the city, so if there’s anything specific on your must-see list (like the Battery, for example), make sure you ask in advance if the tour will go there.
  •  Experience the Battery, Waterfront Park, and White Point Gardens: Go for a lovely walk along the Battery (www.sciway.net/sc-photos/charleston-county/charleston-battery.html), the waterfront promenade at the southeastern tip of the city and look at the beautifully maintained antebellum mansions. Take a seat on one of the many benches and family-sized swings at Waterfront Park (www.charlestonparksconservancy.org/our_parks/view_park/waterfront_park), and check out the cannons used in the Civil War that are located at White Point Gardens (www.charlestonparksconservancy.org/our_parks/view_park/white_point_garden). On nearby East Bay Street, look for the famous pastel-colored homes of Rainbow Row (www.sciway.net/sc-photos/charleston-county/rainbow-row.html). Another favorite sight, the Pineapple Fountain, is located in Waterfront Park (kids love playing in it to cool off!).
  • See the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge: Even if you don’t drive over the bridge, which arches over the Cooper River to connect downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant, this architectural marvel is worth seeing, especially at night. It’s one of the largest cable-stayed bridges in North America, and thousands of people walk it every year to take in the terrific views. www.sciway.net/sc-photos/charleston-county/ravenel-bridge.html
  • Visit a plantation: There are several plantations in the area, the most popular of which are Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, built in 1676 (www.magnoliaplantation.com); Middleton Place, built in 1755 (www.middletonplace.org); and Drayton Hall built in the 1750s (www.draytonhall.org). All are located along the Ashley River. Admission prices vary, as do the prices for additional guided tours that you can purchase at each plantation.TripAdvisor reviewers consistently rank Middleton Place as one of the 10 most popular things to do or see in Charleston.
  • Come aboard the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point: Called “The Fighting Lady,” this aircraft carrier participated in several campaigns in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II, including the Battle of the Philippine Sea and raids on Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima. You must buy a ticket to enter. Visit https://www.patriotspoint.org/ for more information.
  • Tour the South Carolina Aquarium: Tickets for this smallish facility, which can be purchased online at www.scaquarium.com, are a little pricey at $24-$29. However, TripAdvisor rates it four out of five stars, and it offers a scenic break during the heat of the day. Allocate 1-2 hours for the visit. 
  • Visit churches and cemeteries dating back hundreds of years: The “Holy City” has many beautiful old churches featuring magnificent architecture, gorgeous stained glass windows, and marvelous interiors. If you’re a history buff (or simply love historic buildings), two must-see places of worship are St. Michael’s Church (www.stmichaelschurch.net) and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (http://charlestoncathedral.com). The graveyards are worth seeing as well. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Rutledge, two signers of the United States Constitution, are buried in St. Michael’s churchyard.
  • Take a boat tour: Riding a boat around the harbor allows you to view the city from a different perspective. Google “Boat Tours in Charleston, SC” to compare the many tour providers.
  • Ride on a bicycle taxi: Also known as a “rickshaw,” these bicycle-powered taxis are a little expensive, but fun for taking short trips back to the hotel at night. Several different companies operate downtown.
  • Visit Charleston Museum: This museum, located at 360 Meeting Street, offers a snapshot of Charleston’s history through exhibits as diverse as a whale skeleton, Native American artifacts, and a replica of the submarine CSS Hunley. You can usually tour the museum in about an hour, and there is a charge to enter. www.charlestonmuseum.org
  • Take a stroll: Beautiful examples of architecture aren’t just limited to the Battery. Obtain a map of the city and walk along the streets to view some breathtaking mansions and homes. If you choose to drive rather than walk, be cautious of the many one-way streets!
  • Rent a bike: Basic bicycle rentals are only $20 per day at Bildabike Bicycle Shop, located at 573 King Street in the historic district. This is a neat way to get around and see the city! www.bildabike.com
  • See the Aiken-Rhett House and Museum: US News and World Report said of this 48 Elizabeth Street mansion, “According to many, there's no better example of antebellum life than here at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. Originally built in the early 1800s and then expanded by Gov. William Aiken and his wife in the 1850s, much of the house's original style has been preserved. As you wander through, pay special attention to the antique furnishings, the original wallpaper and the stunning bronze chandeliers installed by the Aikens. Also spend some time exploring the grounds: You can visit the slave quarters, the stables and the kitchens, all of which have been preserved to satisfy any history buffs yearning for a taste of the Old South.” There is a charge to enter the museum. https://www.historiccharleston.org/house-museums/aiken-rhett-house/
  • Stand in awe of the Angel Oak: This 1500-year-old live oak tree is located in the countryside of John's Island, about a thirty-minute drive from downtown Charleston. See www.charleston-sc.gov for more information and directions to the tree.
  • Sip some local wines and spirits: Another great way to see the countryside, Irvin-House Vineyards is located on Wadmalaw Island about 45 minutes south of Charleston. They are best known for their wine made of muscadines, a sweet, locally grown type of grape. Firefly Distillery, which is where the popular sweet tea-flavored vodka is made, is located in the same complex. Tours and tastings are available; see www.irvinhousevineyards.com and http://fireflyvodka.com for more information.
  • Tour Charleston’s craft breweries: The Charleston area is home to several breweries that produce craft beer varieties popular in South Carolina and beyond. Westbrook Brewing Company (located in Mount Pleasant; http://westbrookbrewing.com), COAST Brewing Company (located in North Charleston; https://www.facebook.com/COASTbrewing), and Holy City Brewing (North Charleston; http://www.holycitybrewing.com) all have tasting rooms where you can sample their offerings. Check the websites for schedules and hours of operation.  
  • Visit Folly and other beaches: Folly Beach is the nearest beach to Charleston, about 20 minutes away. Folly Beach (www.follybeach.com) offers many laid-back bars and restaurants to enjoy, places to surf, and a 1,045-foot long pier to walk. Two other nearby beaches include Sullivan’s Island (www.sullivansisland-sc.com) and Isle of Palms (www.iop.net).
  • See history preserved at Fort Sumter: Now a national park, this fort is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Set aside a half-day for the boat ride and tour to this national treasure. Visit www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm for more information. There are also combination South Carolina Aquarium and Fort Sumter tickets available through providers like SpiritLine Cruises (http://spiritlinecruises.com) and Charleston Harbor Tours (www.charlestonharbortours.com).
  • Charter a fishing boat: If you are a fan of fishing, there are many private boats available for nearby and deep sea fishing. Just Google “Fishing Charters Charleston SC.”
  • Get creeped out on a ghost tour: With its deep history and war-torn past, Charleston is known for its hauntings! There are many companies that will guide you around “haunted” areas as part of a ghost tour. We have heard good things about Charleston Ghost Hunt (http://charlestonghosthunt.com).

The bottom line: Located in the heart of the south, Charleston is a “must see” city offering fun experiences too numerous to count. Go for a visit, and you’ll find yourself entranced by its fascinating history, unique sights, delicious food, and friendly people!

About the Authors:Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the world in the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 44 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2017 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com