Did you know Charleston is one of the oldest settlements in the U.S.? The city is full of unique old-world architecture, and of course, Southern charm. There’s no better way to see this historic city than just walking it. This 1.5-mile self-guided walk of Charleston’s historic French Quarter winds its way through the city’s most famous 17th, 18th, and 19th century buildings. It takes around 30 minutes to walk, but of course you’ll want to stop for lots of photos.
If it’s your first trip to Charleston, you may want to also check out our other posts on the area.
Start Your Walking Tour at Rainbow Row
Technically, this little spot on East Bay Street is just outside Charleston’s French Quarter, but it’s worth adding to the walk.
Built by merchants around 1740, these thirteen colorful houses, known as Rainbow Row, were originally on the waterfront before the land was filled in.
The story goes, after the Civil War, this area of the city became a slum. However, around 1931, Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge bought a few of the houses and started renovating them. She painted them pink, which really brightened up the area. Then, other homeowners started painting their houses in bright Caribbean colors. It’s been a tradition ever since.
Quick Stop at the Tavern at Rainbow Row
Almost directly across from Rainbow Row, at the intersection of East Bay and Exchange, is the oldest liquor store in the country.
Serving Charleston since 1686, it’s a fun place to pop in and do a few tastings. They pride themselves on rare finds. Plus, if you’ve been after some South Carolina Moonshine, this is your place to get it.
Learn Some History at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
Next door to the Tavern is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.
Over the centuries, this building was once an exchange, a military headquarters, a customs house, and even a post office. Today, visitors can tour the creepy dungeons where the British kept prisoners of war.
After touring the dungeon, visitors are welcome to go upstairs to learn about the building’s political significance and role in the slave trade.
Take a Peek Down Gillon Street
Before heading down Broad Street, it’s worth taking a moment to go next door to Gillon Street.
One of only eight cobblestone streets left in Charleston, it’s a picture-perfect spot full of old-world charm.
Admire the Intersection of Meeting and Broad Street
Arguably one of the prettiest intersections in Charleston is at Meeting and Broad Street, also known as The Four Corners of Law.
On the southeast corner, Saint Michael’s bright white spire stretches to the heavens. Built between 1752 and 1761, it is the oldest church building in the City of Charleston.
Across the street, on the northeast corner, Charleston City Hall exemplifies an elegant Adamesque style of architecture. Built between 1800 and 1804, the building was originally only one of eight branches of The First Bank of the United States.
The magnificent gray brick and granite building on the southwest corner is the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse built in 1896. With a square tower and balustraded balconies its design is meant to resemble an Italian Renaissance palace.
Finally, on the northwest corner, is the Charleston County Courthouse, first built in 1753 and then reconstructed in 1792. Look carefully, does it look familiar? The architect, James Hoban, also designed the White House. His original design was very similar to the courthouse. However, on George Washington’s guidance, he amended the design into a two-story house with eleven windows across.
From the intersection of Meeting and Broad, take a stroll through the peaceful Washington Park, before walking down Meeting Street to Hibernian Hall.
With the look of a Greek Temple, it’s quite an unusual find. Built in 1840, the “temple” is an historic meeting hall and social venue. It’s mostly used for weddings today.
In 1860, the Democratic Party held the Charleston Convention here and failed to agree on a presidential candidate. The lack of agreement in the party most famously led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republican party.
Chalmers to Church
Next, walk down another of Charleston’s tree-lined cobblestone streets, Chalmers Street.
A little past the intersection with Church St., at 17 Chalmers St., is one of the oldest buildings in South Carolina, and the second oldest residence in Charleston. Built between 1694 and 1712, Pink House is now a private residence, but it’s worth seeing while you’re in the area.
Next, follow Church St. north. You’ll spot the tall spire of St. Philip’s straight away. Founded in 1680, it is the oldest congregation south of Virginia. It’s often considered the “Westminster Abbey of South Carolina,” as many founding fathers are buried here.
Before you reach St. Philip’s, you’ll pass the historic French Huguenot Church. The current building is from 1845, but the original building stood on this spot in 1687.
Historic Charleston City Market
Continue north on Church St. to S Market St. Then follow the shop-lined street west for one block, to the intersection of Meeting and Market.
At the head of the Historic Charleston City Market is a replica of the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens, Greece. Built in 1841, the building was originally a Masonic Hall. Today, it sits above the entrance to the popular city market and serves as a Confederate Museum.
The city market’s covered buildings run for four blocks and include over 300 vendors. It’s one of the most popular attractions in the city and worth a browse.
U.S. Custom House
At the end of the market, on S Market Street, is the US Custom House. In our opinion, it’s one of the grandest buildings in the city. Construction started on the federal building in 1852. However, in 1859, construction halted due to the concern of South Carolina’s possible secession.
Construction didn’t restart until 1870, and finally finished in 1879.
Joe Riley Waterfront Park
End your tour of Charleston’s historic French Quarter with a walk along the harbor at Joe Riley Waterfront Park.
In front of the park is the Waterfront Park Pier, which is great for views of the Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge. We always tell folks to keep a lookout for dolphins here, they are a common sight.
The elaborate Pineapple Fountain in the center of the park is a local and visitor favorite. You’ll actually notice pineapples all over the city and decorating many of the souvenirs. Over the years, it has become a symbol of Charleston’s welcoming Southern hospitality.
Looking for more on the South Carolina coast? Here are a few other posts you may be interested in.