I have always loved the South.
When I read Gone with the Wind for the first time in 7th grade, I was utterly captivated by the southern charm and gentility that Margaret Mitchell brought to life in her novel. Obviously, a lot has changed (for the better) since the Civil War, but many southern ways of life have stayed the same – and are a big part of making Charleston a simply delightful place to visit.
Having visited many different cities in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, this wasn’t my first foray into the lower United States, but it was definitely my favorite. There is so much beauty and history to soak up, and it doesn’t take long to see why Charleston is consistently voted one of the friendliest cities in America.
We spent five days there, and I think it was a perfect amount of time. Many of the highlights can be fit into a long weekend, but I would recommended giving it an extra day or two if you can, because there is so much to do and see! Here are my recommendations on the top five things you absolutely must do when visiting the enchanting city of Charleston:
Visit the City Market
Still utilizing almost all of the same buildings (more like open-air sheds) that were built to house the city’s public market in the early 1800s, this is a fun place to go to shop for souvenirs of all kinds. Locals bring in their handmade items like sweetgrass baskets, paintings, jewelry, and candles to sell. There are also many other vendors offering the usual t-shirts, food items, etc.
If you start your visit from Market Street, the building you first enter (pictured above and below) was re-built in 1841, after the original was destroyed in a fire. This building is unique because it was refurbished in 2011, and is now enclosed and air conditioned (none of the other buildings are). On the top floor, you will find the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum.
Recognized as one of the oldest markets in the country, the City Market is definitely worth a visit. We actually ended up walking through it a few times throughout our stay in Charleston.
Take a walking tour with Tommy Dew
So, honestly, this was my favorite part of our trip (well, aside from all the phenomenal food we ate). I had read about Tommy Dew prior to leaving, and based on all the great reviews he receives, I knew I wanted to take his tour.
The group meets in front of the City Market building I mentioned above. It lasts just under two hours and covers a distance of only about ten blocks – ending at The Battery. The pace is quite leisurely, since Tommy will stop often to point out and talk various things of interest. We saw the Dock Street Theater, the Pink House (which is the oldest building in Charleston), the Old Slave Mart Museum…and so much more.
For me, the best part was the wealth of interesting information that Tommy shared. He is a born and bred Southerner, and his passion for the South and for Charleston is evident. As a Northerner, all I really know about the South’s history and the Civil War was learned from text books (and Margaret Mitchell, of course). Tommy does a wonderful job of going far beyond common teachings and sheds new light on things from his personal perspective. He brings to life deep-rooted Southern beliefs, customs and ways of life, as well as the evolution of Charleston and its people.
Tommy is extremely personable and funny, and welcomes questions throughout the tour. He’s the kind of guy you can easily see yourself hanging out with and having a beer or two (or five, I don’t judge).
Advanced reservations are a must – and it will be the best $25 ($12 for kids) that you spend during your visit to Charleston. Do yourself a favor and take this tour!!
Take a harbor boat tour
If you’ve read my blog posts about Florida, you know that I love being on the water, so it was a given to take a boat tour around the harbor while in Charleston. After stopping in one of the visitor information centers across from the City Market, we decided to take a tour with Charleston Harbor Tours aboard the Carolina Belle, a comfortable double-decker vessel.
Depending on the time of year you are in Charleston, they offer anywhere from two to four 90-minute tours a day. The cruise is narrated well, and you will get to see the houses along the Battery, several Forts including Fort Sumter, and the imposing Arthur J. Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
While all of these things were great to see, the absolute best part of the tour for me, was when about ten dolphins joined us and swam along the bow of the boat.
We bought tickets ($24 per person) onsite right before the cruise, but you can also get them online in advance. Tip: if you are planning on doing a carriage tour, ghost tour, visiting the aquarium or a few other things, you can purchase a combo ticket, which will save you a few dollars per person.
Visit Magnolia Plantation
Visiting Magnolia Plantation on your own will require a rental car (or a very expensive taxi ride). It’s about a 25-minute, super easy drive from downtown Charleston and is a wonderful place to spend half a day or more.
We arrived at about 11:00 a.m. on a Thursday, and it was already quite crowded. We stood in line for entrance tickets for about 30 minutes…I think mostly because everyone had questions on what to buy tickets for when they got up to the ticket windows. There are different components to the plantation, and everything aside from just wandering around the grounds requires a separate admission ticket. For example, if you want to take a nature train ride, a boat tour, a tour of the plantation house, the Audubon swamp tour, or the Slavery to Freedom Tour…they all cost extra (we did everything but the last two because we didn’t have time).
I was hoping that the magnolia trees would be blooming when we where there, but unfortunately they weren’t. However, many other bushes, flowers and trees were in bloom, and it was simply beautiful. We saw lots of wildlife, including many different birds and lots of gators.
The guided tour of the plantation house was very interesting and worthwhile (no photos allowed inside). You should also spend some time just wandering around…there’s even a petting zoo for kids. And if you get hungry during your visit, there is an outdoor cafe that offers a big selection of food and drinks.
Walk along the Battery
Walking along the Battery, you will see some of the most beautiful antebellum homes in Charleston. This is where high society still lives, and you can easily picture them sipping sweet tea on their balconies while looking out over the water at Fort Sumter.
I also enjoyed the walk down East Bay Street (which leads to the Battery), where you will see the oft photographed Rainbow Row.
There are also lots of restaurants and shops, as well as the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. We walked around this area several times during our trip.
While these were my top five favorite things that we did, I also want to give an honorable mention to the Aiken-Rhett house. If history interests you at all, spend a very worthwhile hour at here. A good audio tour is included in price of admission, and you will get a very interesting glimpse at high-society life in the 1800s.
All of these things barely scratch the surface of what you can see and do in Charleston. There are many islands and beaches to visit, other plantations, ghost tours, the aquarium…the list goes on and on.
Charleston is so walkable and utterly enjoyable. We saw all types of vacationers there…couples, young families, college-aged kids, senior citizens….this is definitely a city for everyone! I absolutely plan to return, and if you haven’t been there yet, you should make sure it’s on your list of future destinations!
In my next post, I’m going to talk about the great hotel we stayed in as well as the absolutely fabulous (and one decidedly NOT fabulous) places where we dined. If you like good food (and if you don’t, we can’t be friends anymore), you won’t want to miss it, because the cuisine in Charleston was simply amazing!