Steeped in rich history, Charleston has that charming and laid-back vibe of an old South Carolina town. It has beautiful cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, picturesque houses from the pre-Civil War era, and wide green spaces for the public to enjoy. The seaport city is also known for its low-rise skyline, a cause of a city ordinance strictly imposing height restrictions to its buildings. As a result, great city views remain unblocked while the church steeples and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge remain a prominent sight.
For three straight years, Charleston was voted as Travel + Leisure’s best city in North America. You will understand why when you set foot in this amazing place.
Here’s a list of some of the best things you can do in Charleston, also known as The Holy City:
1. Join a historic carriage tour
One of the most popular ways to learn about Charleston’s rich history is by joining a historic carriage tour. Such tours last for an hour, highlighting important information about the Civil War era and about the famous families that lived in the city. This is also an opportunity to catch a glimpse of Charleston’s famous single houses, characterized by a long and narrow structure with covered porches. Different guides accompany every tour and each one has his or her own style of relating the city’s history to the visitors. Meanwhile, tour operators use three different routes and there’s a lottery system that decides which route a particular carriage will take. It is indeed a unique experience that one shouldn’t miss when coming to Charleston.
2. Visit Middleton Place
Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark District, offers a glimpse of the old plantation life in South Carolina. Overlooking the Ashley River, its three original buildings date back to the 1730s. Two of these were burnt during the Civil War and only the South Flanker remained. It was once used as guest quarters and has now been turned into a museum featuring an array of antique items owned by the Middleton Family. Another thing to look forward to on your visit to Middleton Place is the oldest landscaped garden in the country, which has blooms all year round. It is recommended for guests to take a tour with a guide to make the most out of the plantation visit. For more insights about the local plantation life, visit Magnolia Plantation and Boone Hall Plantation.
3. Devour delicious lobster rolls
Charleston, being a seaside city, is well-known for its string of restaurants serving the best and the freshest seafood dishes. There’s 167 Raw for instance, a casual seafood eatery that serves a variety of dishes including oysters, fish tacos and ceviche. Locals also recommend this place for its delicious lobster rolls, a sandwich filled with lobster meat and butter. This particular menu item is so popular that by mid-afternoon, 167 Raw has usually already run out of fresh lobster meat to serve. Come here early if you want a bite of those sought-after lobster rolls. Other Charleston restaurants worth trying are The Park Cafe, Leon’s Poultry & Oyster Shop, The MacIntosh, and Trattoria Lucca.
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4. See the Edmondston-Alston House
Located on East Bay Street, the Edmonston-Alston House is a late-federal-style house built in 1825. It was first owned by shipping merchant Charleston Edmonston, who later sold the house to Charles Aston in 1837. Shortly after, it was renovated and the design changed to the Greek revival style. Today, it serves as a historical museum where 19th and 20th century antiques are kept. Everyday, there are 30-minute tours you can avail yourself of to gain a deeper understanding of the life in the 1800s, including politics and business. Other old houses worth visiting in Charleston are Calhoun Mansion and the Nathaniel Russell House.
5. Have a picnic at Charleston Waterfront Park
Charleston has plenty of public spaces where families and groups of friends can gather or have a picnic. There’s the Charleston Waterfront Park for instance, a 12-acre (5-hectare) park along the Cooper River which features spray fountains, sitting areas and bench swings. It is dotted with oak trees, providing ample shade on the benches. Meanwhile, near the riverfront, there’s a line of palmetto trees that add charm to the walkway. In 2007, the waterfront park was recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects for its original design and also for its contribution to the public realm. The award was presented in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
6. Enjoy the views from Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
If there’s one landmark that you wouldn’t ever want to miss when in Charleston, it is the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Spanning 1,546 feet (471 meters), it acts as the main passageway of downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. The bridge is located over the Cooper River and is considered as the Western Hemisphere’s third-longest cable-stayed bridge. More than just a passageway, it also offers beautiful views of Charleston harbor and the surrounding communities. Every first weekend of April, the bridge becomes busy with the annual Cooper River Bridge Run. An average of 50,000 people attend this sporting event each year.
7. Go for a walk at the Battery and White Point Gardens
The Battery and White Point Gardens, a 5.7-acre (2.3-hectare) public park featuring military relics, offers visitors a walk through history. “Battery” is a southern term for a defensive seawall. Included in the artifacts you will find here is the 11-inch (28-centimeter) Dahlgren gun placed on the Battery’s east side. It came from the USS Keokuk, an ironclad steamer of the US Navy. Another must-see inside the gardens is the Fort Moultrie Monument, nestled at the central walkway. This memorial is also known as Sergeant Jasper Monument because it features the statue of this man who was a hero of the Revolutionary War.
8. Pay a visit to Charleston’s oldest church
The oldest surviving religious building in Charleston is St. Michael’s Church, located at Broad and Meeting Streets. Constructed in the 1750s, it is now considered as a US National Historic Landmark. Its walls are made of stuccoed bricks, while its two-storey portico has Tuscan-inspired columns. It is also popular for its bells that have been tolling on the hour since 1764. Adjacent to the church is St. Michael’s Churchyard, where two signatories of the US Constitution were buried, along with other historical figures. Other places of worship that you can visit in Charleston are the Circular Congregational Church, French Huguenot Church, and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
9. See rare creatures at South Carolina Aquarium
For 16 years, the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston has brought kids and kids at heart closer to the country’s marine creatures. To date, the facility is home to more than 10,000 plants and animals, including a rare albino American alligator, stingrays, sharks, and sea turtles. One of the aquarium’s main features is the Touch Tank, where visitors are allowed to touch horseshoe crabs and other animals. Meanwhile, its largest exhibit is the Great Ocean Tank which holds more than 385,000 US gallons (1,460,000 liters) of water. Other activities you can look forward to during your visit at South Carolina Aquarium are the interactive dive shows and animal programs.
10. Explore a 200-year-old brick market building
In Charleston, a simple local shopping experience can turn into a valuable history lesson. Regardless of the season, you would only need an hour or so to visit the Charleston City Market, a commercial center built in 1841. It currently features a Greek revival style building, which is a replacement for the previous market that was burnt down in 1796. More than just a place for buying and selling local produce, it was also where people gathered and socialized in the past. Today, it is a bustling area where you can find stalls selling souvenirs, clothing, arts, and crafts, as well as spices and other food items.
11. Appreciate architecture at the Rainbow Row
A postcard-perfect view awaits you at the Rainbow Row, a series of colorful historic houses in Charleston. With a total of 13 residences, it is considered to be the longest group of Georgian row houses in the United States. Don’t forget your cameras because this is one of the most photogenic corners of the city. The houses, which survived a fire that happened in 1778, were restored in the 1930s and 1940s. They were painted in different pastel colors, thus the name Rainbow Row. You will easily find these architectural gems to the north of Tradd St. and south of Elliot St. on East Bay Street.
12. Relax at Folly Beach
Good news for beach lovers! Charleston has a nice public beach where you can relax during your stay. Folly Beach, a small coastal community with a laid-back feel, is usually uncrowded during the early mornings and weekdays. The waters are warm and the sands are white and clean. It is ideal for the whole family, including pets! In case you get hungry, there are plenty of shops and eateries in the area. Chairs and umbrellas are also available for rental. For the best sunset views, head to the fishing pier, which is located right beside the beach. The best time to go here is from late spring to early fall. Meanwhile, if you want a more upscale beach experience, go to Sullivan’s Island or the Isle of Palms instead.
13. Witness a performing arts festival
From Memorial Day to mid-June, both established and emerging artists come together in Charleston to celebrate their love for the performing arts. This 17-day event is called the Spoleto Festival USA, and it is one of the most popular art festivals in the US and a counterpart of Festival dei Due Mondi in the city of Spoleto, Italy. Composer Gian Carlo Menotti spearheaded this festival along with other people who have a passion for the arts. They chose Charleston because they thought it resembled the beauty of Spoleto, including the theaters and the churches. Some of the things you can look forward to during the event are operas, classical music shows, and jazz performances, among others.
14. Browse through thousands of fine art collections
If visual arts is your cup of tea, then the Gibbes Museum of Art is somewhere you shouldn’t miss. This repository was established in 1858 by the Carolina Art Association and now holds over 10,000 pieces of art. Most of the art collections you will find here are by American artists, including Henrietta Johnston, Charles Fraser, Jeremiah Theus, Mary Roberts, and William Melton Halsey. Many of the art pieces also have a connection to Charleston and South Carolina’s history. Since it underwent a five-year renovation project in 2011, the museum now has new features. Gallery lightings have been improved and a public space was created on the first floor. Other things you will find here are lecture rooms and reception rooms, as well as a cafe and a gift shop.
15. Catch a glimpse of a full dress parade
If ever you find yourself in Charleston on a Friday afternoon, you should drop by The Citadel. It is a historic military college where a full dress parade is conducted every Friday. It’s free and open to the public! There are varying themes for the parades, which usually include marching bands and firing cannons. In case you can’t come during the parade, the school is open for visitors during other days of the week. You can even arrange tours around the campus in coordination with the Admissions Office. Meanwhile, if you are into films and TV shows, it is also worth noting that a bunch of American productions used this school as a filming site. Some of the most popular ones include Nicholas Sparks’ Dear John in 2010 and the TV show Road Rules in 2002.
Charleston, a sight to behold
Charleston is the kind of destination that leaves a lasting impression on its visitors. If you love antiques, great seafood, and wide public spaces, there’s no doubt you will have a wonderful time in this city.
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