10 Best Things for Travelers to Do in Charleston, South Carolina

Find out what makes the Holy City so captivating.

Pastel-colored buildings line a street.

Do as the locals do to find out what makes Charleston so special.

Photo by f11photo/Shutterstock

A city full of history, Charleston might initially come off as a little ye olde. But if you look more closely, the more than 350-year-old harbor city actually lives in the present. Bars reinvent Southern spirits, boutiques showcase new spins on cotton, and the annual Spoleto Festival draws world-class actors, dancers, and musicians.

Charleston’s Lowcountry peninsula is made up of a variety of neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive character and unique history. The city’s natives are friendly, the local cuisine is mind-blowing, and the weather is divine. Every stroll down a street south of Broad or chat with a shopkeeper can reveal a new local truth, a fresh epiphany about the charms of this old town. Figure out how the city became such a hot spot with one of these locally loved things to do in Charleston.

Oak tree with its lower trunk submersed in water at sunrise

A walk along these eerily beautiful beaches reveals the encroaching ocean tides.

Photo by Randall Vermillion/Shutterstock

1. Visit a boneyard beach

The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by barrier islands with fascinating coastal geography. Subject to erosion and accretion, some of the islands have become home to “boneyard” beaches where the ocean has breached the dune line, overtaking the maritime forest. The resulting ghostly expanse of petrified trees is ripe for exploration at low tide and perfect for photography as the tide shifts and waves flood the former forest with briny water.

Seeing a boneyard beach gives a new perspective to the sandy stretches of Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, or Folly Beach—were it not for the houses, seawalls, and groins fortifying these fragile islands, they’d look like Bulls and Botany Bay islands do today.

The most accessible boneyards are on Bulls Island and Botany Bay Island. The latter can be reached in just over an hour by car, then a short walk (follow signs to Edisto Island, then to Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Reserve).

As part of the 66,000-acre Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Bulls Island and its boneyard beach are accessible only by a 30-minute boat ride. Take Coastal Expeditions’ $55 ferry to this pristine wildlife refuge, where you’ll see alligators and birds galore on a hike from the landing through the island’s interior before emerging on the scenic beach. (You can swim here, too, so bring a suit and a towel.)

People in military uniforms holding guns stand in formation on grass

Military parades are a weekly occasion in Charleston.

Courtesy of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina

2. Watch a Citadel parade

The Citadel military college in Charleston’s Marion Square is a key thread of the city’s fabric. Many of South Carolina’s figures, like former U.S. senator Ernest Hollings and novelist Pat Conroy, are Citadel graduates who share a unique camaraderie forged by four years of studying together.

When college is in session, the students parade every Friday afternoon at 3:45 on Summerall Field at the school’s center (what other colleges would call a “quad”). You’ll hear barking commanding officers and troops’ rhythmic chanting as they march and handle their fake guns in unison. It’s a grand tradition and free to the public. Arrive by 3:15 to park and secure a good view. (Note: The parade does not take place if the weather’s bad.)

Pastel pink building with arched entryways

Do-it-yourself walking tours get you close to the city’s landmarks.

Photo by Cvandyke/Shutterstock

3. Take a walking tour with a local

A ghost tour and a carriage ride are almost mandatory on a first visit to Charleston, and in a city this charming—and with some seriously scare-inducing history—each is worth the time and expense. But if it’s your second visit, or you’d like to go deeper into a particular neighborhood or aspect of the city’s past, take a self-guided walking tour with the Historic Charleston Foundation’s free app (it’s one of the best free things to do in the city).

If you’re simply not the stop-and-listen tour type, there’s an option for digging into the city’s rich history: Charleston Steeplechase conducts three- to four-mile running tours of the city, which allow you to multitask by seeing various sites while getting in a workout.

Wooden table with two beer-filled cups and a bucket of oysters on top

Get a briny taste of Charleston with a bucket of steamed oysters at Bowens Island Restaurant.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

4. Participate in an oyster roast

As the rule of thumb goes, oyster season spans the months whose names contain an “r,” although in Charleston, September’s waters are still so warm that most locals wait to host their first oyster roast until October. From Halloween until beach season, any gathering you attend with friends outside is likely to be beside a table piled with steaming oysters, with you holding a rag in one hand and a knife in the other, saltines and cocktail sauce at the ready.

Lowcountry oysters grow in clusters of at least a half-dozen shells, all stuck to one another as they emerge from the pluff mud exposed during low tide. These aren’t pretty Massachusetts singles, served raw and chilled with a pinch of lemon. Charleston oysters are meant to be eaten by the cluster, lightly steamed and warm. You stand outside around a homemade plywood table and talk, flinging the discarded shells into a bin.

At Bowens Island Restaurant near Folly Beach, this experience is re-created every day in the humble ground-floor oyster room, where oysters are sold by the bucket. If you visit during winter, check the The Post and Courier or the Charleston City Paper to see if there’s a charity event listed for Bowens Island that week. For a reasonable ticket price, you can attend for access to a flowing keg of local beer, all-you-can-eat oysters, and the good conversation of locals gathered to support a cause they’re passionate about.

Palm tree in front of a gray building with a light-brown awning

The quaint, historic King Street is lined with local shops.

Courtesy of Croghan’s Jewel Box

5. Shop small businesses

King Street is the hub of Charleston retail, although many of the local shops have been pushed out by high rents and replaced by national chains that use the high-profile storefronts as a billboard. Still, legacy holdouts like Croghan’s Jewel Box and Berlin’s Clothing survive, along with independent high-end fashion boutiques like Ibu Movement and Hampden.

To see the local shops on full display, visit on Second Sunday each month, when King Street is closed to cars and transforms into a European-style pedestrian thoroughfare, with street performers and food vendors complementing the sidewalk sales.

That hometown buzz is nearly equaled every Saturday between mid-April and Christmas at the Charleston Farmers’ Market. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Marion Square has stalls selling produce, cheese, seafood, and meat, plus local craftspeople and artists, food trucks, and live music. (Find souvenirs at the stands of local makers like jewelry designer Jen Cruitt and fragrance creator The Contents Co.)

Side view of a band playing on a stage in front of a crowd

The music is not the only magic during concerts at the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard.

Photo by Julie Lynn

6. Listen to music at Spoleto USA

For two-and-a-half weeks in late May and early June, Charleston comes alive during Spoleto USA, an international arts festival that attracts some of the world’s best operas, stage actors, dance troupes, and singers.

Of all the venues and performances, the outdoor concerts held in the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard summon a special magic. Spanish moss hangs low from the live oaks in this urban courtyard oasis, setting an idyllic mood to the tunes of Old Crow Medicine Show and Amos Lee. Get tickets early, and know that there’s not a bad seat in the small, walled yard. (If your Charleston trip doesn’t fall during the Spoleto USA festival, visit the Cistern in the evening anyway to experience its tranquility.)

Schooner sailing by a bridge at sunset

Getting some distance from land can get you a closer understanding of how Charleston was settled.

Courtesy of the Schooner Pride

7. Cruise around Charleston Harbor

Charleston is pretty from street level, but to fully appreciate its location on a narrow, marshy peninsula, you should see it from the water. A cruise around Charleston Harbor offers a perspective on the city’s military history and unique geography and landmarks—the steepled skyline, the Battery, Fort Sumter—that you just can’t experience on foot.

The dreamiest way to see the harbor is under sails. The 84-foot Schooner Pride—a replica tall ship of an 18th-century trading vessel—offers two-hour sunset sailings each evening for $75 per person. If you can round up six people, it’s not too much more to charter Fate, a 50-foot yacht from Charleston Sailing Charters, for a private two-hour tour.

Man serving food from a pan in a busy kitchen

Get your hands dirty to figure out some local cooking secrets.

Courtesy of Zero George

8. Enjoy the restaurant scene (and maybe even learn a thing or two)

Eat out a few times in Charleston and you’ll notice it’s a city of open kitchens. Restaurant owners—who double as the chef in many cases—are proud of their cooking staff and wood-fired grills, so they show them off by opening views of the kitchen to the dining room.

You can learn a lot from the seasonal dishes at Basic Kitchen or even by dining with the chefs themselves at R Kitchen, but to take home some new skills, sign up for a cooking class. Set in an early 19th-century carriage house, the eight-person classes at Zero George led by chef Vinson Petrillo set a high bar for the genre. Class includes a three-course meal and wine pairing for $195.

Nearby on Market Street, In the Kitchen with Chef Bob Waggoner offers a similarly intimate experience for 12 students each night. Waggoner, who led the kitchen at Charleston Grill for 12 years (attracting Michelin stars and nominations from the James Beard Foundation), built this kitchen classroom to share his passion. The $175 classes/dinners sell out months in advance.

Church interior with multicolored books in front of the pews

Attend a service and learn how the Holy City got its nickname.

Courtesy of Explore Charleston

9. Visit the churches

The Holy City earned its nickname for more than just its steeple-specked skyline—this is a devout population. Seeing the important sites in Charleston usually involves visiting at least a few houses of worship, so why not get a true taste of the community by attending a service?

The big players are the Anglicans and Episcopalians. St. Michael’s white pillars dominate the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets (check out the Tiffany stained-glass windows behind the altar). On aptly named Church Street, St. Philip’s iconic spire lords over the French Quarter, up the block from the French Huguenot Church, which serves one of the last remaining populations of its denomination in the country.

Catholics can attend mass at the Gothic revival–style Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which finally got its steeple in 2010, a century after the construction of the rest of the building. In the center of town on Calhoun Street, Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, the first AME church in the South, has become a symbol of forgiveness and resilience for its response to the horrific 2015 shootings there.

Left, white pillows with blue lining; right, a table with a record player and a mirror behind it

Stay at Emeline for thoughtful details like record players and Charleston guides in every room.

Courtesy of Emeline by Lindsey Shorter

10. Experience Southern hospitality at a beautiful hotel

Charleston has plenty of stays offering a local feel, with options ranging from historic mansions to boutique hotels. The city has added quite a few accommodation options over the past few years, including Emeline, opened in 2020. At this historic district hotel, guests can enjoy wood-fired dishes from on-site restaurant Frannie & the Fox before retreating to the music of a Crosley record player in their rooms.

Another choice is the 26-room Elliott House Inn, which predates the Civil War. The stay combines past and present with heirloom armoires and oriental rugs alongside flat-screen televisions and room service. Not to mention, the statue-filled garden courtyard is the best place to take in the warm Carolina nights.

This article was originally published in 2019. It was updated on February 3, 2024, with new information.

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