Charleston, SC is one of those vibrant cities that no matter how many times I visit, I’m always excited to come back. With so much American history mixed with today’s global fashion and cuisine, old plantations right next to brand new mansions, and cobblestone streets in the middle of the city, everywhere you look the old and new meshes together.
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With so many options in one place it can be hard to decide what to do, where to stay, and all the other logistics. I have been visiting Charleston for at least one long weekend every year since 2015. I’ve planned many trips to the city, some multi-generational, some with family, and some with friends. No matter who you go with there are amazing things to see and do in this city that will keep you talking for years.
I love sharing my secrets about Charleston, it’s one of my favorite vacation spots since it’s only four hours from me. This guide is meant to help you plan your dream vacation to Charleston, SC and if you have any questions about things in this guide I’d love to hear from your either by email or on Facebook or instagram!
How to Get to Charleston
Car – Coming from anywhere in the southeast I would recommend driving a car to Charleston. Many major highways converge on the city and driving in the area is not too bad. Definitely not like driving in Atlanta or NYC.
If you’re staying anywhere outside of downtown you will want to have a car anyways. If you’re staying in the city, there are many parking decks you can keep your car in for the duration of your stay.
The last time we went it was about $16 per day to park a car in the deck that we always use. Even if you are staying downtown, there is so much to explore outside the city that I recommend having a car
Related: How to Find the Best Flight Deals
Plane – Charleston does have a regional airport that you can fly into. Prices are about average for a regional airport so you’ll likely pay $300-$400 if traveling from a major US airport. The airport is in North Charleston and approximately 20 minutes from downtown.
If you do end up flying and are staying outside the city or staying downtown and want to explore the surrounding area then I strongly recommend renting a car. You will not find great public transportation so the only other option would be Uber or Lyft.
General Tip: Public transportation is lacking in the US, but especially in the Southeast. Buses, trains, metros, and trams are not common. If they are available they aren’t places you’d usually like to be.
Where to Stay in Charleston, SC
Wyndham Garden Mt Pleasant – This hotel is right across the Cooper River in Mt. Pleasant. It’s clean and comfortable and a short drive across the Ravenel Bridge to the city. I have stayed here once and while I prefer to stay downtown sometimes the budget won’t allow it.
Best Western Patriots Point – This is the most budget friendly option. If fancy accomodations aren’t important and you’ll be out on the town most of the time then book here. Depending on when you visit you may be able to take the water taxi into town if you don’t want to drive. Just be sure to check the schedule here.
Days Inn – If you want to be downtown, but don’t want to pay the price of a fancy hotel then the Days Inn is an option. I have never stayed here, so I can’t give a personal review but the online reviews are good. The outside doesn’t look like much but it’s in a great location and a clean place to sleep. There’s so much to do in the city that you won’t be spending much time in the room anyways.
The Mills House – This adorable pink hotel in the French Quarter is just a short walk from the City Market, Battery Park, and shopping on King Street. Fantastic restaurants surround it so you’ll be sure to never go hungry. We stay here anytime we can when visiting the city. Fun fact: Supposedly it’s haunted.
Airbnb – There are many carriage houses and Inns to choose from for a unique experience. These come with extra charm and personal touches instead of a hotel. If you would prefer a place to yourself, click the “Type of Place” filter and select “Entire Place.”
John Rutledge House Inn – This historic home turned bed & breakfast is perfect for a romantic getaway. The higher price comes with more amenities like deluxe continental breakfast, nightly turndown with chocolates, morning newspapers, and tea & light hors d’oeuvres every afternoon. John Rutledge wrote multiple drafts of the US Constitution in this house and later signed it.
Planters Inn – Sitting on the corner of Market & Meeting streets, Planters Inn is in a prime location near restaurants, shopping, and a short walk to the Battery. This hotel was voted the #1 Best US Boutique Hotel by Travel + Leisure Magazine. The Peninsula Grill is on the ground floor of this hotel.
Related: How to Plan Your Dream Vacation
What To Do in Charleston, SC
Walking Tour of Downtown – You know how much I love guided tours. In Charleston there are more tours offered than you could ever take in a lifetime. They offer tours on architecture, history, food, ghosts, you name it. I could dedicate a whole section to food and ghost tours, but this post is going to be long enough as it is.
You can’t go to Charleston without taking at least one food and ghost tour though. My favorites are the Pleasing Terrors Ghost Tour with Old Charleston Tours and Downtown Charleston Food Tour with Charleston Culinary Tours. For just a general tour you can’t beat Free Tours by Foot where you pay whatever you think the tour was worth at the end.
South Carolina Aquarium – Many people save an aquarium for a rainy day, but this one is good enough to visit even when the sun is shining. My family visited the aquarium and had a blast. My brother, sister, and I were all college age or older. We even lucked out and got a behind the scenes tour.
I’d recommend spending 3 hours to half a day here. You can get a deal on tickets occasionally on Groupon. They also usually have coupons in Charleston visitor’s magazines.
Plantation Tours – These plantations are absolutely gorgeous. Some of the most popular ones are Magnolia Plantation, Drayton Hall, and Boone Hall Plantation. Each one has unique characteristics that people visit them to see.
For example, Magnolia Plantation has the oldest English Gardens and a petting zoo. Drayton Hall is a beautiful estate preserved as it was found. Boone Hall is home to the avenue of long-reaching oak trees.
It would be easy to spend a full day at any of these plantations. If you are in a hurry though you can do it in 4-5 hours. If you’re staying downtown you will need a car to get to the plantations or you can take Uber. This is another activity that you can find cheaper tickets on Groupon sometimes.
City Market – This is an incredibly touristy activity, but you shouldn’t miss it especially if it’s your first time in town. Local vendors set up to sell different crafts and souvenirs. There are also a few food vendors.
Watch out for kids or women walking around the area outside the market trying to hand out roses made of grass. They will hand these out and then ask for money.
Churches – Charleston isn’t called The Holy City for nothing. A few hundred years ago Charleston’s religious tolerance caused people to flock to the area and is the reason there are so many churches of different denominations built there today. You can go inside and tour many of these buildings or take a guided tour.
Downtown Graveyards – Somber, I know but there are many famous people buried in Charleston, SC! Plus the graveyards are stunning in a surreal way. While you’re there you might forget that you’re in the middle of a major city. Take some time to read the headstones that are still legible. Could be very interesting what you find.
The Battery/White Point Gardens – No matter how many times I visit this beautiful city, I always love walking down the Battery and looking at all the huge mansions. White Point Gardens is also the perfect shady place to rest for a minute during a crazy day of sight-seeing.
Right before the Battery begins on the East Bay Street end, you’ll find the famous Rainbow Row. It’s nice to see once, but I haven’t bothered to go back since the first time.
Folly Beach – I’ve never been to the beach when I’ve been in Charleston, but supposedly this is the one you have to visit. It can get crowded during peak months, so another good option is Sullivan’s Island.
Related: Charleston Photo Book
Shopping on King Street – You can’t come to Charleston and not take a walk down King Street. There are so many adorable clothing boutiques and specialty stores. There are tiny alleyways that lead to other stores and stairways so be sure not to miss those! Look for hanging signs above the alleyways or doorways that lead off the street.
Patriot’s Point – This one’s for all you history lovers. This is where the USS Yorktown, USS Laffey, USS Clagmore, Medal of Honor Museum, Cold War Memorial and the Vietnam experience are located. The whole ship (Yorktown) is a museum that you can tour and it’s basically like a floating town.
They also have a submarine that you can walk through, but this isn’t for anyone even mildly claustrophobic. There is an entrance fee of $24 as of March 2020 and you can spend anywhere from a couple hours to all day here.
Angel Oak – This tree on Johns Island is a sight to behold. The age of the tree is up for debate, but there’s no denying that these winding branches are at least a few hundred years old. Pack a picnic and have lunch in the shade.
Explore an Island – James Island, Kiawah Island, Daniel Island, Morris Island. There are so many to explore that have their own vibe. Pick one and spend a day exploring.
Fort Sumter – There is a ferry that leaves from downtown Charleston (right next to the aquarium) and Patriot’s Point that will take you to Fort Sumter. This is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
The ferry ride takes about 30 minutes and once you get there you have about an hour if you want to take the next boat back to town. There are exhibits set up so you can learn about what happened at the fort and what life was like for the men who lived there.
Where to Eat
Toast ($$) – This little spot is a block or two from The Mills House where we usually stay. On our first trip to Chalreston we were not prepared and had no idea where to eat. We stumbled into this place and holy cow. You absolutely have to get the french toast. But they also have amazing cathead biscuits so it’s a tough choice.
Pages Okra Grill ($$) – Chicken and waffles. That’s the one thing you need to remember when visiting for brunch. Oh AND they have a Bloody Mary/Mimosa bar outside for those waiting to get a seat. Is there anything else you need?
Poogan’s Porch ($$) – Poogan’s is located in a Victorian style house where you can dine on the back porch in all seasons. In spring or fall their front porch cascades with slithering green vines and flowers. You can’t go wrong with the fried chicken or shrimp & grits.
Brown Dog Deli ($) – This is where you’ll find locals and tourists alike. Compared to other downtown eateries this one is relatively cheap and they serve creative sandwich options.
The Rarebit ($$) – We stopped here on a hot summer day and the black & white retro themed restaurant is the perfect spot to cool off. Order a drink from the bar and rest your legs from a day of shopping on King Street.
Halls Chophouse ($$$$) – This is one of the most expensive restaurants I have ever been in but worth every single penny. The service is unmatched and the steaks are out of this world. They offer dry-aged and the typical wet-aged steaks and serve side items like pepper-jack creamed corn or sweet potato mash family style. Definitely the place to go if you are celebrating but go ahead and budget for $100 per person.
Tavern & Table ($$) – If you love small plates, then this is the place for you. For those of you who aren’t familiar with small plates, you are truly missing out. These are similar to appetizers that you can order and split with friends for your meal. I love it because you can try multiple different foods at one meal. Pair that with a back deck that has a view over Shem Creek and it’s the perfect place for dinner in Mt. Pleasant.
Anson ($$$) – Located in a New Orleans style industrial building, this steakhouse is the perfect spot for a romantic dinner. Try to get a spot by the windows if you can.
Husk ($$$) – Husk is the only one on this list that I haven’t been to because each time I visit Charleston, I never make my reservations soon enough. Tucked away on Queen Street right down the road from Poogan’s Porch, Husk offers an intimate dining experience in another Victorian style home. The menu changes frequently based on meats and produce from local farms. Make your reservations early.
The MacIntosh ($$$) – The friendly service combined with interesting entrees like Grilled Triggerfish or Pork Schnitzel makes this a great spot for a casual night out. And the truffle fries, do yourself a favor and order those.
Christophe Artisan Chocolatier ($$) – I discovered this spot while on a food tour in Charleston on my first visit and return each time I’m in town. Chritophe’s is a French style chocolatier that sells macarons and specialty coffee in addition to hand-painted chocolates. Don’t miss their chocolate drink.
Kaminsky’s Dessert Cafe ($) – A bakery and bar combined. Need I say more? Kaminsky’s offers many different flavors of cakes, cheesecakes, and ice cream as well as specialty coffee, milkshakes, and hot drinks. This is where you’ll find the best desserts in Charleston, SC!
Other Restaurants: Peninsula Grill ($$$$), Circa 1886 ($$$$), Millers All Day ($), The Darling Oyster Bar ($$), Leon’s Oyster Shop ($$), Edmund’s Oast ($), Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit ($), Butcher & Bee ($$)