Charleston is a special destination year-round—but there’s no denying that come the holidays, it shines a little brighter. Horse-drawn carriages making their way down cobblestone streets and sparkling lights hanging on palmetto trees set a magical scene for family memories.
Here, it’s easy to find the local holiday spirit with a diverse range of must-do experiences that are fun for everyone. Listen to traditional Gullah Christmas stories. Check into a hotel that has been decking the halls since the 19th century. Savor a hearty Southern feast during a soul-stirring gospel concert of Christmas carols.
Better still? With daily nonstop flights to more than 37 cities in the United States and the United Kingdom and quick connections to international hubs in Atlanta and Charlotte, the renovated and expanded Charleston International Airport (CHS) makes it more enjoyable and easier than ever to get here.
Reconnect with loved ones in the Holy City with these activities and events.
1. Go on a sleigh (or carriage) ride
Old South Carriage Company offers expertly narrated tours of Charleston’s most beautiful and historic sites year-round. Come Christmas time, climb aboard their specially decorated carriage driven by one of Santa’s caroling elves. After a festive 20-minute ride through downtown Charleston, stop by Santa’s workshop for cookies and cocoa—and a photo op with jolly old Saint Nick in his sleigh. Available on select dates until December 23.
2. Marvel at millions of lights
Open nightly from November 11 to December 31, the annual Holiday Festival of Lights returns for another year of magic. This vibrant light show is one of Charleston’s most cherished holiday traditions, featuring an estimated 2 million dazzling lights and more than 750 light displays, including the refurbished and rebuilt Cooper River Bridge display. Families cruise their vehicle along a three-mile display of glimmering lights throughout James Island County Park. In addition to the driving tour, guests can park their car and explore family attractions, shopping, dining, and more.
3. Check off your gift list with local souvenirs and crafts
Open daily, the Charleston City Market is a dazzling, vibrant hub of Charleston’s city center. If you’re looking for some last-minute holiday shopping, you can’t do much better. Take a stroll through the historic halls and browse for locally made woven baskets, jewelry, clothing, sweets, and artwork. Come nightfall, the Charleston City Night Market also showcases the work of more than 100 talented artists and craftspeople as live music plays and the party starts.
4. Go on a Christmas photo safari
Explore Charleston installs decorations, like the four larger-than-life JOY light displays around Charleston, perfect for your holiday Instagram post. There’s also a large light display in Marion Square of a giant Christmas tree. Happy hunting!
5. Discover Charleston’s holiday traditions
Tour the lavishly decorated Edmondston-Alston House, the oldest mansion along Charleston’s high battery, by candlelight accompanied by the angelic sounds of the Charleston Caroling Company. Then warm up in the courtyard with a cup of hot cider or wine while listening to traditional Gullah Christmas stories by local storyteller Fouché Sheppard. To learn even more about the city’s colorful history and holiday heritage, book Charleston Strolls’ Holiday Walking Tour of the historic district’s most beautifully adorned homes and landmarks.
6. Listen to the spirit of the season
Charleston’s longest-running musical production, the Sound of Charleston at the historic Circular Congregational Church takes guests on a journey through the musical history and heritage of the Lowcountry. Experience the music that helps define Charleston’s 350-year history, including gospel, tunes from the Civil War, jazz, light classics, and favorites from one of the city’s best known composers, Gershwin. Local tip: Buy your tickets in advance as these shows sell out during the holidays.
7. Find your home for the holidays
From charming boutique hotels to luxury beach resorts, Charleston boasts a plethora of options for cozying up this season.
Belmond Charleston Place
Book now: Belmond Charleston Place
Perhaps the best time of year to check into Belmond Charleston Place is during the holidays. In the lobby, you’ll be greeted with twinkling Christmas trees and grand wreaths. Check off your Christmas list at the on-site shops like L’Occitane and Louis Vuitton, and fuel up at the lobby’s Thoroughbred Club, which boasts a festive holiday menu and offers live entertainment. The Midnight Chai cocktail, which features chai-infused vodka made in South Carolina, is a perfectly indulgent after-dinner beverage to toast to the season.
French Quarter Inn
Book now: French Quarter Inn
The French Quarter Inn—more like the southern home of a dear friend than a hotel—goes all out with holiday decorations, including a 15-foot Christmas tree and offer complimentary cider, hot chocolate, and gingerbread cookies. For the full VIP experience, book the Sleigh Bell Suite, where you can enjoy bourbon-spiced eggnog and freshly baked cookies with milk near the fireplace in a suite showcasing garland and mistletoe.
Book Now: Hotel Emeline
Are you naughty or nice? This newly renovated 212-room boutique hotel is a great holiday getaway, whether you are looking for a little nightlife to spice up your festivities or days filled with family-friendly cheer. Located right on the historic Charleston Market, you can shop all day and come back in the evening to indulge at Hotel Emeline’s on-site wood-fired eatery, Frannie & the Fox.
The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island
Book Now: The Sanctuary
Trade snow for sand at this luxury beach resort where you can roast s’mores and sip hot cocoa under the stars and spend your Christmas dinner surrounded by wraparound views of the ocean. Don’t miss a traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, the Sanctuary’s official tree lighting, and craft-making workshops.
8. Have an unforgettable family feast
The holidays are an occasion for true indulgence, so it’s the perfect time to visit Charleston, a city known for its thriving food scene. Here are the best places to gather around the table with your loved ones.
Want to feel at home while you’re out of town? Halls Chophouse is a must-book reservation serving the finest USDA prime steaks, an extensive wine list, and hearty sides like shrimp and grits and lobster-and-smoked-bacon mac and cheese.
Charleston Crab House
No trip to Charleston is complete without a boatload of fresh seafood. Get your fill at one of Charleston Crab House’s three locations, which have been family-owned and operated for over 27 years.
You can’t come to Charleston without having some succulent Lowcountry barbecue. Pull up a chair at this popular smokehouse and dig into home-cooked meals featuring crowd-pleasing favorites like pulled pork, brisket, and cast-iron cornbread.
From bucatini alla norma and octopus carpaccio to classic staples such as chicken parmigiana and meatballs, this decadent Italian eatery has everything your palate could ever want.
Looking to get fancy? Get in the holiday spirit at one of Charleston’s top fine dining restaurants where the chef is cooking up a festive last course worthy of the season. Opt for the Dickens Dinner, where storyteller Tim Lowry gives a retelling of A Christmas Carol. The performance accompanies a four-course dinner inspired by the novel, prepared by chef Marc Collins.
This article was originally published on December 9, 2021; it was updated on November 8, 2022, with current information.