For your first visit you need about two full days to be able to appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are all walkable in the city center, except when going to see plantations (for which transport is necessary).
Love its intimate streets with colorful architecture.
Worthy attractions: St John Baptist Cathedral; St Michael’s Church; Nathaniel Russell House; Edmonston-Alston House; Historic City Market; Middleton Place (further afield).
Left for another visit: Magnolia Gardens (further afield); Drayton Hall (further afield); Aiken-Rhett House and a few other historic mansions; a number of churches; Charleston Museum.
Last visit: December 2015.
Charleston is a very attractive town, with many quaint streets and pretty houses, adorned with side porches, gas lamps, courtyards, fountains, and narrow passages. American South history greets you at every corner.
Things to See
Walking around is the best way to enjoy Charleston. While doing that, you will undoubtedly linger at the Waterfront Park ♥, a comparatively quiet pleasant oasis by the river, headlined by a couple of fountains, or stroll on one of the Battery ♥ pedestrian walkways, fronted by stately houses. Nearby, you will come across a popular photo-spot called The Rainbow Row ♥ – the provenance of the term is very easy to guess. Among the streets in the core historic area, Tradd ♥ is a can’t-miss, but there are others just as atmospheric.
Mansions built by prominent residents in 18-19th centuries are key points of interest, offering not only a look into Southern architecture but also a good narrative of the history of the region. Nathaniel Russell House ♥♥ boasts several impressive rooms with remarkable furnishings and architectural details, plus a pleasant garden. The tour is quite informative.
Edmonston-Alston House ♥♥ is no less interesting or impressive. During the tour there, you get a chance to step out on a piazza, a side porch of the house which is one of the defining features of Charleston architecture. Young kids enjoy visit to this house a bit more as they get a “treasure hunt” booklet to keep them occupied.
We limited our mansion-going to two, but there are several other houses that merit a visit.
There are also quite a few interesting churches, of which we also chose only two major ones to step into. St John Baptist Cathedral ♥ is big, but not exactly huge, airy, with some stained glass and not too much ornamentation. St Michael’s Church ♥ is beautiful in a reserved way, with a brilliant mahogany pulpit and some nice newish stained glass behind the altar.
Historic City Market ♥ is at the northern edge of the city core, housing many arts, crafts, and souvenirs stalls, but also some clothing, and only a couple of food stations. We have seen more impressive ones, but it is still a worthwhile diversion.
The city is full of art galleries, and interesting arts and crafts and antique shops (large concentration is along King St). One of the most impressive galleries is Ella Richardson Fine Art, on Broad Street, focused on a couple of artists who paint in a modern impressionist manner.
When you are tired of walking – or at the start of your visit to get a feel for the land – a horse-drawn carriage tour is an excellent activity (if not exactly cheap, at $25 per adult and $15 per child for an hour-long ride). There are several carriage companies headquartered near the market on Anson Street and they are all seemingly adequate. We used Palmetto Carriage ♥ on the strength of a discount offered by our hotel. Good commentary by a personable guide, and the route goes by many atmospheric parts of town (there are actually 3 standard routes assigned to carriages randomly but they differ mainly in sequential order of the sites visited).
We were not able to get on a river cruise – they are only offered on weekends in the off-season. Another seasonal note is the fact that after dark in the off-season, the town seems mostly deserted – there are only a couple of clusters of mild activity, and most shops close their doors around 6pm as well. Plan your time accordingly.
Hazel Parker Playground, off East Bay Street, is an agreeable place to get a break from sightseeing – invaluable when you travel with young’uns.
Several historic sights are located up Ashley River, 20-25 minutes away from the city center by car. We only had time to visit Middleton Place ♥♥♥, a huge plantation that can sustain more than a half day of sightseeing. It offers different landscaped gardens, large open areas, wooded walking paths, stableyards, ponds, several traditional craft shops, as well as a number of guided tours focused on different aspects of plantation life, and an interesting main house that can be visited with a guided tour only.
Places to Eat
TripAdvisor nowadays makes finding restaurant recommendations quite easy, so these vignettes are meant to offer no more than a starting point for your research. All places visited in the late fall of 2015 as a party of two adults and a child.
On a general note, there are literally no places to eat in the most historic South of Broad area. While it will take at most 10-15 minutes to walk from there to a location north of Broad, lunch planning becomes slightly more important.
Eli’s Table ♥ on Meeting St – reasonable menu, pleasant service, good food. There is seating both inside and in the courtyard; we did not sit outside because of an active construction next door. Our damage: $55 including tips for lunch.
Blossom ♥♥ on East Bay – very good menu, excellent service, very nice food, modern clean ambience. On offer there is a mix of seafood and meat dishes. Our damage: $160 with a bottle of wine and tips.
Gaulart & Maliclet ♥♥ on Broad – a random choice that turned into a great lunch. Fun ambience, semi-communal sitting, fast and friendly service, nice French-centric menu. Lunch specials include a choice of half a dozen soups, there are also sandwiches, pate, etc. Our damage: $47 with a single glass of wine and tips.
Barsa Tapas ♥♥ on King Street. This place is some distance from the historic core; technically, it is within walkability limits, but most people with drive there. It is quite popular, busy, and loud. On Thursday night, there was a pretty good live jazz band. The menu has good selection of tapas; some of our selections could probably be less spicy, but they were all pretty tasty (we chose 8 different items). There is also paella on the menu – huge portions by the look of it at neighboring tables. Our damage: $115 with a bottle of wine and tips.
Andrew Pinckney Inn ♥♥ is located at the edge of main historic area, practically next door to the City Market, within walking distance to major sights. Very good room, clean and with all amenities; maybe, a bit tight in the washroom area. There is a business station on the ground floor that you can make into a closed-door office for those who need it. Valet parking at the reception, which is located across the road from the main hotel building; cookies and tea can be had at the reception. One of the major features is the nice open terrace on the 4th floor, with pleasant rooftop views. Happy hour with wine and cheese is served on the terrace between 4-5pm daily. Breakfast is also served there; it is not exceptional but sufficient, with only quiches for hot food, otherwise cereals, fruit, pastries, etc. Seating appears limited enough to possibly cause shortages in busy periods but we had no problems; additional seating is available in the atrium on the second floor. Last stay: 2015.