Charleston’s Top Attractions

From its historic homes and plantations to its meandering creeks and rivers, Charleston’s legendary charm is multifaceted. The city’s dining and cultural scenes continue to boom, thanks to a growing number of festivals and marquee events.

Highlights
3550 Ashley River Rd, Charleston, SC 29414, USA
A visit to a Charleston historic plantation is typically on every traveler’s itinerary, but choosing which one can prove difficult. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens makes its case with Lowcountry wilderness rather than tamed rows and hedges, introducing guests to the area’s true colors (and teeth). Open to the public since 1870, Magnolia claims to be the oldest tourist attraction in Charleston. It still looks much as it did 150 years ago, especially in the Audubon Swamp Garden, where close-up encounters with alligators are nearly a given. Explore the boardwalks, bridges, and hard-packed walking trails year-round, or visit when the azaleas are in bloom and experience striking purples and pinks. It’s easy to fill a full day here, particularly if you indulge in the train and boat tours. Take time to view the Ashley River from the observation tower, and end your day with a meander through the impressive and challenging topiary maze.
40 Patriots Point Rd, Mt Pleasant, SC 29464, USA
Charleston Harbor’s most visible landmark is the USS Yorktown, a World War II–era aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific campaign from 1943 to 1945 as well as in the Vietnam War. Its massive interior is open for exploration, and the flight deck is home to more than two dozen aircraft, including an F4F Wildcat, an F-14 Tomcat, and an N-2 Stearman Kaydet biplane—not to mention stunning views of the Charleston skyline and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. The sprawling museum also houses the USS Laffey, a hands-on “Vietnam Experience” exhibit, and the Medal of Honor Museum, which pays tribute to America’s most valiant servants. In addition to welcoming day trips, it hosts an environmental-education field trip program and overnight camping visits for scouts and school groups.
101 East Arctic Avenue
Officially named the Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier, this landmark extends 1,045 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, making it the second-longest pier on the East Coast. It’s also 25 feet wide, allowing ample room for walkers, fishermen, and families enjoying a day at the coast. At its base is a full-service restaurant, Pier 101, with an open-air bar over the beach (drinks are allowed on the pier), as well as public restrooms and a gift shop selling bait, tackle, and ice cream. The two-story gazebo at the end of the pier is the perfect place to catch the sunset or watch surfers tackling one of the most consistent wave-breaks in the state. If you’re visiting Charleston during the summer, head to the pier for a Moonlight Mixer (held once a month on Friday nights), when DJs entertain with beach music classics by The Drifters and the Chairmen of the Board.
188 Meeting Street
Once the center of commerce in Charleston, the City Market is now the heart of tourism. Although its location near the cruise terminal can make it feel like a kitschy open-air market in the Caribbean, the tackiness is part of its charm. Yes, you’ll find Christmas ornaments painted with Rainbow Row and enough cutely packaged pralines to give you a stomachache, but you’ll also see Gullah artisans weaving the finest examples of sweetgrass baskets available. Peak season brings 140 different merchants, and weekends include live music and food vendors. The market’s a requisite stop for any visitor and a one-stop gift shop for loved ones back home.
142 Church St, Charleston, SC 29401, USA
Nicknamed the Holy City for its abundance of churches, Charleston’s most notable house of worship is St. Philip’s. The Anglican parish was constructed in 1680 and rebuilt in 1835 after a devastating fire. Since then, it’s persevered through hurricanes, a major earthquake, and even shelling by the Union Army during the Civil War. Today, its sand-colored steeple rises prominently against the city skyline, serving as a symbol of dignity and determination. The churchyard—home to Vice President John C. Calhoun’s gravesite—is a popular spot on historical and ghost tours. To get inside the church, attend weekly services on Sunday and Wednesday mornings, or tour the offices and sanctuary during weekday business hours.
21 E Battery, Charleston, SC 29401, USA
Thanks to its views across Charleston Harbor, the Edmondston-Alston House is one of the city’s most popular historic homes open to the public. Its hyphenated name joins that of its builder and of the rice planter who purchased it from him just a decade later. The mansion, with its Corinthian columns and rooftop piazza, is a prime example of the Greek Revival architecture popular in the early 19th century. The house was at the center of several key Civil War events: as a lookout spot for Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard during the siege on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and as a refuge for General Robert E. Lee on the night of the Great Charleston Fire of 1861. The mansion is owned by the Alston family, and its interior is preserved to look much as it did 150 years ago.
1214 Middle St, Sullivan's Island, SC 29482, USA
Located on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie was a key defensive position in controlling Charleston Harbor during the Revolutionary War. In June 1776, the Royal Navy of Britain attacked what was then called Fort Sullivan, firing cannonballs directly into its walls. Colonel William Moultrie and his patriot regime were able to hold the British off, however, since the walls were constructed from the soft trunks of the island’s palmetto tree and could absorb the cannonballs rather than break apart. Eventually renamed for Moultrie, the fort was rebuilt in 1798, then “modernized” in 1870 to include two massive cannons that still stand today. Dive deep into the history at the National Park Service’s museum before touring the armaments and taking in the unparalleled views of Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
1235 Long Point Rd, Mt Pleasant, SC 29464, USA
The magnificent avenue of oak trees that greets visitors at Boone Hall Plantation is, on its own, a Charleston must-see. After taking it in, guests can walk through the plantation mansion or take a driving tour of the grounds, which cover 738 acres. If the car feels too restrictive, opt instead for a garden tour, which highlights a collection of antique roses and a striking butterfly pavilion. Depending on the season, you can visit the U-Pick Fields to harvest your own strawberries or stock up on tomatoes and peaches at an adjacent farm stand. At Boone Hall’s Gullah Theater, historic reenactors recount the dark days of slavery and celebrate the African American culture that marked plantation life in centuries past. .
161 Calhoun Street
What began as the College of Charleston’s on-site gallery has grown into a world-class institution featuring exhibitions by renowned artists like Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns. The museum is also known for discovering unknown sculptors and painters, as well as hosting international artists for residencies, bringing them into the college community and displaying their work alongside student exhibitions in the two-story gallery space. In addition to regular lectures, screenings, and discussions, the Halsey presents five to seven exhibitions each year. It’s free to the public, and tours are available on request.
420 King St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Independent bookstores are practically endangered species, but Blue Bicycle Books continues to thrive thanks to owner Jonathan Sanchez’s curatorial skills. Sanchez took over the former Boomer’s Books in 2007, filling the cozy interior with a children’s room, a collection of military history tomes, and perhaps the world’s most comprehensive collection of books written in or about Charleston. Today, the shop also plays host to a summer writing camp for kids, as well as YALLFest, an annual festival that attracts the country’s top YA authors.
37 John St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Despite its central location, superb acoustics, flawless sight lines, and status as the only true theater in downtown Charleston, the Music Hall flew under the radar for years, only occasionally hosting concerts by independent promoters. Everything changed in the early 2010s, however, when a new generation of music lovers revitalized the space by building relationships with a booking agency and marketing it as an active venue. Today, the Music Hall is busy multiple nights a week with national touring acts like NeedToBreathe, Gillian Welch, and Chris Robinson, as well as film screenings, symphonies, orchestras, festivals, and conferences. Whatever you go to see, know there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Angel Oak Rd, Johns Island, SC 29455, USA
When it comes to the Angel Oak’s age, estimates range wildly from 300 to 2,000 years. What everyone can agree on, however, is the tree’s immense beauty—its sprawling canopy shades 17,000 square feet of ground, its trunk measures 25 feet around, and its giant limbs reach up to 90 feet long. Located in a small, city-owned park that’s open daily and free to visit, it’s a perfect spot for a picnic or a welcome detour en route to Beachwalker County Park on Kiawah Island. While the Angel Oak’s heavy branches descend invitingly to the ground, resist the urge to climb them—it’s against the rules, and locals are serious about protecting this natural treasure for centuries to come.
498 Bulls Island Road
If Bulls Island were far from Charleston, it would still be surreal in its wildness and biological diversity. It’s only a 30-minute ferry ride away, however, making it all the more magical to visit. The only way to reach the island is by private boat or the official Bulls Island Ferry, and the most qualified, dedicated naturalists in the state run the latter. There’s nothing touristy about boarding the ferry at Garris Landing and heading across Bulls Bay for a day of exploring Boneyard Beach, pedaling across grassy roads on a bird-watching tour, or searching for alligators in the freshwater lakes and marshes. Just be sure to bring sunscreen, bug spray, and a sense of adventure.
1500 Old Towne Rd, Charleston, SC 29407, USA
Just across the Ashley River from the Charleston Peninsula, Charles Towne Landing marks the site of the forerunner to Charleston, Charles Towne. Settlers from Barbados founded the town in 1670, though after ten years—and a series of attacks by French, Spanish, Native Americans and pirates—they wisely decided to move to the easier-to-defend Charleston peninsula and start over. A recreation of a 17th-century trip, the Adventure, and replica of a colonial home provide insights into life in the earliest years of colonial America.
135 Meeting Street
The Gibbes Museum of Art has been around since 1905, but it’s far more than a repository of dusty oil paintings. In fact, after a $13.5 million renovation in 2016, it now ranks in the upper echelons of American art museums. The permanent collection includes a miniature portrait gallery; the Mary Jackson Gallery, showcasing exquisite Gullah sweetgrass baskets; and the Campbell Rotunda Gallery, featuring 300 years of American Southern art. Watch for special exhibitions of works created on-site, like the one devoted to environmental sculptor Patrick Dougherty during his 2017 residency here. Don’t miss the classical Lenhardt Garden, and the groundfloor café, a branch of the Daily, is a good spot for gourmet sandwiches, soups, salads, and a glass of wine in a quiet, contemporary setting.
4300 Ashley River Rd, Charleston, SC 29414, USA
Middleton Place exists because of slavery—a stark reality that’s acknowledged in exhibits throughout the sprawling plantation. Today, however, the site is a beautiful place to spend a day or a weekend. Just stroll through the 65 acres of landscaped gardens (the oldest in the nation) and you’ll quickly understand why this is one of the South’s most sought-after wedding venues. During your visit, tour the house museum and learn from costumed actors who teach the crafts once practiced here by slaves, including pottery, blacksmithing, and weaving. Then, head to the on-site restaurant, which serves upscale Southern cuisine, or the adjacent inn, where you can escape the modern world in view of the Ashley River.
340 Concord St, Charleston, SC 29401, USA
Taking a trip to Fort Sumter gives visitors a chance to explore a little Civil War history (the first shot of that long bloody war was fired here in 1861) through an orientation in town at the education center, followed by a ferry ride out to the fort itself, built on an island at the mouth of the harbor, for a brief park ranger introduction and a self-guided tour. In addition to being a fascinating experience for the site’s historical significance, the excursion offers water views of Rainbow Row, the homes along The Battery, and the Holy City’s many steeples.
122 E Bay St, Charleston, SC 29401, USA
Among the most important buildings used during the American Revolution is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Today, the upper floors house period antiques and clothing, while the dank dungeon offers a window into the conditions American patriots once had to contend with. The dungeon itself is a marvel of design, with impressive structural arches that have withstood all kinds of damaging weather. Learn from guides in period costumes, and be sure to check out the pieces of the original 18th-century Charleston Harbor wall that were revealed during recent excavations.
More From AFAR