Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the United States and easily among the most charming. This historic city is known for both bright and brick architecture, its location on the water, sprawling gardens and parks, great food and even some ghost stories. Even if you only have one day in Charleston, it’s certainly worth a visit. This guide will show you what you need to do, see and eat on your visit.
Everything in this guide can be done on your own, but if you prefer to book a tour, links are provided (there are mystery walking tours of the city!).
To make things easy for you, everywhere mentioned in this post is ALREADY PINNED in the embedded Google Map below!
Getting into Charleston
Charleston International Airport is located in North Charleston. There are shuttles that will take you to several area hotels. Steps from the doors of the airport is a pick-up location for ride-sharing and taxis. The CARTA bus offers an express route between the airport and downtown Charleston. At $3.50 each way, it is an inexpensive way to get downtown if you’re not staying at one of the hotels with a shuttle.
The Amtrak Silver Meteor line runs through Charleston with the depot south of the airport on Gaynor Avenue.
Getting around is easy as the city is incredibly walkable. But you can also use both Uber and Lyft to get around.
First time using Uber? Sign up with this link for a discount on your first ride.
What to do in Charleston
The area around Charleston is known as the Low Country and with a fairly flat city, the downtown can easily be explored on foot. This means you’ll be able to see many of the historic houses, hidden lanes and secluded gardens that you would miss if you were driving. It is not a large city and a short car ride can take you most places.
To make things easy for you, everywhere mentioned in this post is ALREADY PINNED in this Google Map!
The Historic City Market
The Historic City Market in Charleston is the oldest public market in the United States. The market consists of a collection of low buildings that stretch along Market Street and are filled with vendors where you can purchase all kinds of crafts made by local artisans, including the ubiquitous sweetgrass baskets that Charleston is famous for.
The park is close to the market and is the home of the Pineapple Fountain. It is common to see pineapples around Charleston as it’s the symbol of hospitality. Wading in the fountain is allowed and is a welcomed way to cool off in the heat. There is also a splash pad in the park for children.
Rainbow Row and nearby gardens
Walk along the seawall on Bay Street between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers and you’ll see a row of houses painted bright pastel colors. This is known as Rainbow Row and is one of the popular destinations to see the style of architecture that is characteristic of Charleston homes.
Close to Rainbow Row is The Battery and White Point Gardens. Here you can look out over the water to Fort Sumter. This point was an important defensive position for the city and some of the canons still stand in place. Today large oak trees provide welcome shade to enjoy a brief rest at one of the many benches.
If you are interested in Civil War history, make sure to take a tour of Fort Sumter. As the fort is part of the National Park Service, you will need to take the ferry from the docks next to the aquarium. The entire trip is approximately two hours and is well worth it as this was where the first shots of the civil war were fired.
Charleston is known as “The Holy City” and with churches seemingly on every block, it’s easy to see why. The cemetery at the Unitarian Church is worth exploring with its tangle of live oaks and Spanish moss.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
My favorite place to visit in Charleston is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. The gardens are not as well-manicured as they are in other places which means that it is more welcoming to wildlife. You can enjoy seeing several different bird species as well as plenty of alligators in the former rice ponds. They are also dog-friendly and I even saw someone walking their pet pig through the gardens. Just be aware that it does get hot during the warmer months and if you’re traveling with a dog, it may be hard to cool them off as it is not safe to let them swim in the ponds.
There are beaches on the outskirts of the city including some that are dog-friendly and some that allow dogs to run off-leash.
If you have energy after all that exploring, there is an active bar and club scene north of the downtown area. In fact, downtown seems to shut down in the evening, making it enjoyable to wander the empty streets.
What to eat in Charleston
Breakfast and brunch in Charleston
Charleston is a foodie’s paradise. For breakfast, a stop at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit fulfills the need for true Southern biscuits. The line-up can stretch out the door of this tiny space but the fresh biscuits are well worth it, especially the breakfast biscuit. Or go to Toast! on Meeting Street. The French toast is some of the best I have ever had.
No visit to Charleston would be complete without shrimp and grits, also known as Sherman grits, and every restaurant has their own take on it. I highly recommend the shrimp and grits at Hominy Grill. Not only are they delicious but they sure are fast which is a bonus if you are short on time. Page’s Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant has some incredible shrimp and grits and they are dog-friendly so if you travel with dogs like I do, they can join you on the patio.
Seafood in Charleston
With the city being on the Atlantic Ocean, fresh seafood is available everywhere. The she-crab soup is a popular Charleston dish and you can easily get your fix of oysters. Lowcountry Bistro has award-winning she-crab soup and the crab sliders are fantastic.
Pizza and beer
If you’re in North Charleston, EVO on East Montague Street has some of the finest pizza you will ever eat paired with a fine selection of beer to wash it down. The best part is that you can watch the pizzas being made, which is a show in itself.
If you have a sweet tooth like I do, there are plenty of places to get your sugar fix. Market Street Sweets are quick with the free samples so don’t be surprised if you leave with something. There are plenty of places for cakes like Carmella’s and Kaminsky’s. When it gets hot, go to Peace Pie for an ice cream sandwich.
Where to stay in Charleston
If money is no option, there are plenty of nice hotels downtown. I found that staying in North Charleston and then making the drive into downtown was more economical even if it wasn’t as convenient. There isn’t as much to do in North Charleston so have a plan to get around the city.
If you’re looking for a bed and breakfast, try 27 State Street. If you want something with more of a historic and luxury feel, try Belmond Charleston Place or the Francis Marion Hotel. And if you want something fancy and filled with Southern charm, go with Zero George Street.
Airbnb in Charleston: Charleston has a ton of Airbnb options, from apartments to treehouses to rooms on a boat! Save $40 on your first booking with this link.
Charleston day tours
If you prefer to do any of the above with guides, or book in advance, here are some great options.
- I thoroughly enjoyed the tours run by Bulldog Tours. They offer all kinds of walking tours from culinary and dessert tours to ghost and graveyard tours. They are the only company to have access to the inside of the Old City Jail for the Haunted Jail Tour. Once you have taken a tour with them, all subsequent tours have a 20% discount.
- Viator offers Charleston tours starting at $11, and also have a range from scavenger hunts, day and night activities, to full day tours.
- GetYourGuide has boat tours, historical tours, tours by carriage and even ghost and jail tours.
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