Though we absolutely love this gorgeous coastal city now, it wasn’t always that way. Our first visit to Charleston was a complete disaster.
It was Christmas break, and we were visiting family in the US. We decided to do a short road trip up the coast from Florida to Charlotte, to visit a few friends. On our way back, we stopped in Charleston.
Now, this was long before having internet on our phones. So, we didn’t know about the freak winter storm following us down to the coast. Honestly, we didn’t even consider Charleston could be cold, let alone freezing!
We wandered the city, looking for something interesting to do and a way to warm up. Instead, we were met with empty streets, and a lot of shut businesses. The city was deserted. Partially due to the time of year, but mostly due to the plummeting temperatures. Smart folks.
Needless to say, we didn’t have a great time. With not knowing what to do, and no one around to help us, we headed back to Florida.
It was only after we moved to Charlotte several years later that we visited Charleston again (and again and again since). Always in warmer weather, of course. Much better! The streets are always packed and lively; the shops open and welcoming. It’s a completely different experience.
We want you to have a fantastic first visit to Charleston, so here’s what we wish we would have done on our first trip.
Where to Stay in Charleston
If you’re going for the full Charleston experience, we recommend staying in the historic downtown.
- Charleston Place, A Belmond Hotel – The full luxury experience with the best location in town.
- Grovernor’s House – Enjoy the city in true southern comfort at this luxury B&B.
- Church Street Inn – Offers great value in the heart of the city. Rooms include kitchens.
However, we rarely stay in Charleston proper because it’s just a bit on the pricey side. Instead, we tend to stay in Mount Pleasant, just 20 minutes outside the city.
- Homewood Suites Mount Pleasant – We love this area of Mount Pleasant. The prices are better value, and it has several great dining options within walking distance.
- Inn at I’On, Ascend Hotel Collection – If you’re looking for something with a pretty bed-and-breakfast feel, but the convenience of a hotel, look no further. The I’on is perfect and reasonably priced.
Books on Charleston
- Fodor’s InFocus Charleston: with Hilton Head & the Lowcountry – For a popular tourist destination, there aren’t that many good tourist guides. However, Fodor’s guide is quite up-to-date and includes a wealth of information on what to see and do.
- Historic Charleston and the Lowcountry – Full of beautiful imagery of Charleston. If photos are what inspires your travels, look no further.
- Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City – Packed to the brim with historic details on this important trade center.
Learn About the City's Past
To really understand the city that Charleston is today, you should understand a bit about its past. On a first visit to Charleston, it’s worth going to at least one of the city’s local museums.
- Charleston Museum – Two story museum focused on the history of Charleston. There are also several Natural History displays and a small mix of ancient civilizations.
- Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon – This building has been an exchange, military headquarters, customs house, even a post office. Tour the creepy dungeons where the British kept prisoners of war. Then come upstairs to learn about its political significance and its role in the slave trade.
- Old Slave Mart Museum – Housed at the location where enslaved people were once sold, this small but impactful exhibit dives into the history of slavery in Charleston. However, there are very few artifacts. The display is mostly informational posters and takes about an hour to go through the material. We highly recommend speaking with one of the staff while you’re there. Most staff can trace their lineage back to Charleston’s enslaved.
Wander the Historic Streets
The best thing to do on a first visit to any historic city like Charleston is to just wander around. Not only is it a free way to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot to discover.
We like to start at Rainbow Row’s painted houses for morning photos. Then we do a loop around the historic district, taking in sites like the Historic Charleston City Market and the U.S. Custom House.
Take a Walk Along the Harbor
While you’re walking the city, head to the harbor for Joe Riley Waterfront Park. You’ll get beautiful views of the harbor and Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge. Also, keep a lookout for dolphins, we always see them in the harbor, especially at sunset.
In the middle of the park is Charleston’s most famous attraction. Stunning in the dawn or dusk light, the three-tiered Pineapple Fountain is a Charleston icon. Representative of the city’s famous Southern hospitality, you’ll notice lots of pineapples around the city.
If you have a bit of extra time, make your way to The Battery and White Point Garden Park at the end of the peninsula.
Indulge in Southern Comforts
One of the first things you’ll notice on your visit to Charleston is all the local restaurants. Famous for Southern comforts, be sure to grab a plate of cornbread, fried okra, and of course, some fried chicken while you’re in town.
Our favorite spots include 82 Queen and Poogan’s Porch in the historic downtown. However, if you find yourself across the bridge in Mount Pleasant, you’ll find great value on Southern fare at Vicious Biscuit and Page’s Okra Grill.
Of course, the area is also known for seafood. There’s no place fresher than the Wreck of the Richard & Charlene at Shem Creek.
King Street is the main street for shopping. It’s a mix between standard mall brands and fancy local boutiques.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, head to the corner of Market and Meeting Streets. The Historic Charleston Market is one of the country’s oldest public markets. Its covered buildings run for four blocks and include over 300 vendors. It’s a must see for any first visit to Charleston.
Explore the City's Defenses
Charleston played a key role in both the Revolutionary and Civil War, so there are a few cool battle sites to check out. The two most interesting sites sit on the harbor.
- Fort Sumter National Historic Park – It was here that the first shots of the Civil War rang out. To reach this island refuge requires a 30-minute ferry, and visiting the fort takes roughly an hour. The fort is free, but there is a charge for the ferry. The America the Beautiful National Park Pass is not valid for the ferry.
- Fort Moultrie National Historic Park – Located on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie played a role in both wars. The National Park Service does a great job recreating the transformations the fort went through in each period of its history.
Visit a Patriot
On the Mount Pleasant side of Charleston Harbor is one of our favorite attractions, Patriots Point Navel and Maritime Museum.
It’s very easy to spend a full day here. We recommend reserving at least 3 – 4 hours to wander the decks of the USS Yorktown (CV-10) while peaking inside the 28 historical aircraft on board. Also, check out the submarine and the destroyer.
Don’t forget to speak with the volunteers before you leave. Many of them once served on carriers like the Yorktown and lend fascinating stories and explanations to the exhibit.
With a full day, you could also tour the three-acre Vietnam Experience and browse the Medal of Honor Museum.
Listen to the Waves
Being on the coast has its perks. Though Charleston doesn’t have any of its own beaches worth noting, there are plenty nearby.
Isle of Palms – This is probably our favorite beach in the area. It’s just north of Charleston and has always been quiet on our visits. Plus, there’s plenty of paid public parking.
Sullivan’s Island Beach – In addition to Fort Moultrie, you’ll also find the historic Sullivan’s Lighthouse on the island. The island has a lot of free parking. However, only a few spaces at each parking area.
Folly Beach – Just south of Charleston, Folly Beach also makes a great day trip. There’s plenty of paid public parking. At the south end of the island there’s also a small county park with a lot of paid parking.
Driftwood Beach – Though this one is a little over an hour from Charleston’s Historic Center, we wouldn’t feel right leaving it off. The name pretty much says it all. As the beach erodes, it leaves behind the gnarly remains of the trees. Not such a great place for sunbathing but bring your camera. There’s a 1/2-mile walk to reach the beach.
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