Photo by Leigh Webber
Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA brings world-class art and performances to town.
Can’t decide when to visit Charleston? Our month-by-month rundown of annual events—highlighting everything from jazz to oysters to dogs that like to leap off docks—can help you plan your perfect itinerary.
During some of Charleston’s banner events—like the Spoleto Festival USA (and its modest but fantastic sibling Piccolo Spoleto) and the Charleston Wine + Food Festival—the whole world seems to come to town, with celebrity chefs and big-name talent strolling Marion Square and the sidewalks of Lower King Street. Smaller events, though, like the Lowcountry Oyster Festival and Boone Hall Fright Nights, feel purely local and full of just-Charleston flavor.
Other cities’ event calendars slow down during cooler months, but Charleston’s social schedule really ramps up after summer, with everyone heading outside to enjoy live music, oyster roasts, arts festivals, and celebrations of South Carolina Lowcountry culture. In summer, Charleston is busy with tourists, but if you want to find locals, you'll have to head to busy, breezy Folly Beach where they go to escape the heat and crowds in town.
To help you time your visit just right, we’ve rounded up a month-by-month guide to the best annual events celebrated in Charleston:
Charleston’s 26.2-mile run offers some of the best marathon conditions U.S. runners can hope to find in January (although there’s always the chance of a cold snap). The route travels around the peninsula to North Charleston, offering a full tour of the city. There’s also a half marathon, a Shrimp & Grits 5K, and a Health and Wellness Expo. The finish-line celebration features live music, beer and mimosas, and shrimp and grits, too.
Lowcountry Oyster Festival
Billed as the world’s largest oyster festival, this celebration of briny bivalves is held in February at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant. In addition to buckets of steamed oysters to enjoy, the event offers contests for oyster eating and shucking. There’s also a food court featuring local restaurants for the seafood-averse, plus live music and a kid’s play area.
Southeastern Wildlife Exposition
Downtown Charleston fills in with camo jackets during this weekend-long celebration of the hunting and sporting life. Outfitters exhibit their latest gear, while the country’s best wildlife artists display their sculptures and paintings depicting ducks, dogs, and wild beasts. Highlights include raptor flight presentations in Marion Square and the Dock Dogs jumping competition, where anyone’s dog is eligible to compete in this show of canine aquatics.
Festival of Houses & Gardens
There’s always been a certain appeal to seeing how the other half lives, but in Charleston, where the South of Broad neighborhood’s lovingly maintained mansions date back centuries, it’s a spectator sport. This annual event, hosted by the Historic Charleston Foundation, offers guided tours through many of the city’s most significant and lavish homes and gardens. It’s accompanied by a series of lunch lectures and musical performances of Gullah spirituals and baroque compositions.
Charleston Wine + Food Festival
Charleston is a food town above all else, and this annual fête helped cement that reputation. The best chefs and sommeliers from around the world descend on the city for a long weekend of carefully curated culinary events, most of which feature live entertainment. The heart of the festival is the Culinary Village in Marion Square, where attendees can sample and sip from a wide variety of vendors.
Lowcountry Cajun Festival
Charleston is a long way from New Orleans, but the two distinct Southern cultures definitely share some similarities. Each April, Louisiana-style food, music, and culture are celebrated at James Island County Park with a day of zydeco music, Creole food, and kids’ activities. There’s jambalaya, étouffée, alligator, and, of course, plenty of crawfish (including a crawfish-eating contest).
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High Water Festival
Local musical darlings Shovels & Rope began this festival of indie and alt-country bands in 2016, and it’s gained national attention since. Major acts from around the country perform over two days, along the Cooper River at Riverfront Park: The 2019 lineup includes Leon Bridges, The Head and the Heart, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Food and drink are more than an afterthought, too, with a curated array of Charleston restaurants on hand, as well as trendy beers and craft cocktails.
Sperry Charleston Race Week
Charleston Harbor offers consistently ideal conditions for sailing, making the city a Newport or Annapolis of the Southeast. For four days each April, the best skippers from around the country descend on Charleston to race each afternoon and party each night. Watch the action from the Charleston Battery, and then attend the daily debrief and awards presentation, where rum is the drink of choice.
Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival
Charleston’s shrimping and fishing fleet was once at the core of the city’s economy. (Today, these hardy seafaring workers need all the blessings they can get to keep their trade profitable.) The annual Blessing of the Fleet features a parade of shrimp boats through the harbor, while spectators ashore at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park enjoy live music, crafts, shag dancing, and seafood.
Spoleto Festival USA
Charleston’s marquee festival—born from a sister event in Spoleto, Italy—often centers around the U.S. debut of major operas and plays. The world’s most celebrated dance and acrobatic groups cycle through every few years, while jazz and bluegrass dominate the musical lineup; don’t miss the always-stunning outdoor performances in the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard. The festival finale includes fireworks and a concert by a storied or rising artist. Past Spoleto performances have featured Del McCoury, Mavis Staples, and the U.S. premiere of the opera Monkey: Journey to the West.
Running in tandem with Spoleto Festival USA, Piccolo gives local and regional artists the opportunity to debut and share their work during Charleston’s two-week art blitz. Piccolo includes over 500 events, ranging from dance and theater to poetry readings and children’s shows. Marion Square, in the center of Charleston, becomes a makeshift gallery district for the event’s duration, filling with tents displaying visual art. Bonus: Piccolo events are generally less expensive and more accessible than their Spoleto Festival counterparts.
North Charleston Arts Fest
A few weeks before Spoleto kicks off, North Charleston sets the mood with its annual arts festival that includes jazz, dance, opera, and children’s puppet shows, hosted at various businesses and venues around the city. Of special note are the outdoor “Marsh Jam” concerts and vocal performances of Gullah spiritual songs. There are also poetry readings and book signings, plus a contra dance and a block party.
Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival
Sweetgrass baskets are a distinctly Lowcountry art, and the Gullah Geechee crafters who create them may spend weeks on a single basket. This annual event at Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park brings the area’s best basket makers together for a day of cultural celebration. In addition to baskets, other arts and crafts are for sale, while entertainment includes singers, drummers, dancers, and Gullah storytellers.
Charleston Farmers’ Market
Although this Marion Square market sets up every Saturday morning from mid-April through the end of November, early mornings at the Charleston Farmers’ Market are just about the only time you’ll see crowds gathering in town during the months of July and August. Come browse the farm stands of fresh South Carolina produce and the stalls selling local crafts and Charleston-made products, and enjoy live music, bouncy castles, and food trucks, too.
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Lowcountry Jazz Festival
This annual event celebrated its 10th birthday in 2018. The Labor Day weekend gathering highlights jazz of the smooth variety, meaning you can expect lots of atmospheric saxophone and plenty of big moments that bring the music-loving crowd at the Gailliard Center to their feet.
MOJA Arts Festival
Each fall, Charleston celebrates the major influence of Caribbean and African American culture on the city, which was once a primary arrival point for slaves brought from Africa. Dance performances, concerts, and plays by local and national artists highlight the week-and-a-half schedule. There are also visual artists, book readings, and a new focus on healthy living and outdoor recreation. The finale, held in Hampton Park, is a massive celebration that includes wares from craftspeople, traditional food, R&B and reggae music, and African dancing and drumming.
Charleston Restaurant Week
For 11 days each September, more than 50 Charleston restaurants offer a prix fixe menu that allows diners to try fine dining spots they may not otherwise be able to afford. Even if you’re a frequent diner, it’s a great excuse to explore new spots on a reasonable budget.
The Lowcountry’s LGBTQ community and supporters come together each September to celebrate. And 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of Charleston Pride, so expect an even more expansive mood. The weeklong event includes comedy acts, drag shows, church services, book readings, guest speakers, and happy hour get-togethers. The week culminates in the Charleston Pride Parade, a joyful march down King Street, before gathering at Brittlebank Park for the festival, which features vendors and live bands.
Boone Hall Fright Nights
In the fields of Boone Hall Plantation each fall, this haunted house and village appear, beckoning drivers along Highway 17 to face their fears of zombies, mummies, and ghosts. There’s a “Cemetery of Lost Souls,” a 4D experience called “The Gateway,” and a haunted hayride through the “Wicked Woods.” Just keep in mind that these aren’t PG ghouls—it’s all a lot scarier than you might expect and isn’t recommended for children under 12.
Charleston’s oceanside neighbor Folly Beach claims a strong community of locals, who since 2007 have banded together to raise money in support of local cancer patients. In the past decade, Follypalooza has donated over $50,000 to 35 Folly residents in need. But the day itself is all about the party, including several stages of live music, jump castles, and craft and food vendors. Center Street is closed to traffic for the day, so arrive before 10 a.m. to avoid a hike from your parking spot.
Charleston Scottish Games & Highland Gathering
South Carolina’s residents of Scottish descent (and those who wish they were) gather at Boone Hall Plantation each year for a day of bagpipe music, feats of strength, and whiskey drinking. Pipers and drummers set the tone before strongmen compete in traditional contests, followed by festive dancing. There’s a beer game and plenty of Scottish-themed merch for sale, plus a kid’s play area with crafts.
Holiday Festival of Lights
James Island County Park transforms into a winter wonderland each holiday season, as thousands of massive light sculptures are put up along the perimeter road that circles the park. The driving tour—which syncs to an on-site AM station playing holiday music—is the main attraction. There’s also a huge sand sculpture created each year, holiday train rides for little tykes, a Sweet Shoppe, carousel, and Santa Claus.
Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures. Please continue to check government websites for the latest policies and restrictions.
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>> Next: The AFAR Guide to Charleston
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