Charleston, South Carolina is a truly charming southern city. From strolling through the colorful colonial houses downtown to hiking around a plantation to paddling through the picturesque Cypress Gardens, you’ll have plenty to do and see while visiting Charleston. We really enjoyed our time exploring Charleston. This ‘What to do Charleston South Carolina’ guide, compiled from tips and recommendations from our personal experience as well as from countless locals and seasoned travelers, will help you enjoy your time there as well. Read on for all of our best ‘What to do Charleston, South Carolina’ tips.
Take a Guided Tour of Downtown
Our top ‘What to do Charleston’ recommendation is to take a guided tour upon arrival, whether that be a walking tour or horse drawn carriage tour. A guided tour is a great way to get a lay of the land in any new city. Ideally, take this tour the first day you arrive so that you have your bearings and can figure out what you might want to do for the rest of the trip. Further, on one of these tours, you will be able to gain insight from your local guide. They will likely make you attune to something you otherwise would not have known about.
Visit Rainbow Row and the Waterfront
The Rainbow Row houses located in the heart of downtown are iconic and one of the most recognized spots in Charleston. These homes are beautiful and well preserved. If you take a guided tour of the city, you are sure to pass by them. To buy one would cost you a very pretty penny and it is neat just to see them from the outside. Our daughter really liked seeing the ‘colorful houses’ and asked to go back to see them several times throughout our time in Charleston.
After you visit the houses on Rainbow Row, be sure to head down to the waterfront. There is a cool pineapple fountain down there as well as a nice path along the water. The waterfront is particularly pretty during golden hour/sunset so if you can, visit then!
Visit City Market
This outdoor shopping market is really neat. Here, you can buy many unique handmade items including toys, clothing and souvenirs. In particular, you can get the popular souvenir sweetgrass baskets, originally used on local plantations to separate rice seeds, made by one of the 50 local Gullah artists at the market. This market is open daily from 930a-530p. We were visiting during Christmas time and the market was festively decorated for the season.
If you have seen the famous movie ‘The Notebook’, you’ll certainly recognize the setting at Cypress Gardens. This is where the famous rowboat scene (“I wrote to you everyday for a year!”) was filmed. Here, you can paddle around the same swamp where Allie and Noah paddled (included with your admission). On the day we visited, we were the only boat out on the swamp at the time, and we saw several turtles while out on the swamp. Beyond paddling around the swamp, you can go for a hike around the swamp as well as visit an aquarium and enclosed butterfly exhibit. There is also a large playground to keep children entertained. For a relatively small admission fee, there really is a lot to do here. We could have easily spent almost a full day here exploring.
Cost: $10/adult, $5 dollars/child, Free less than 6 years old
Tip: Arrive early. We were visiting during the off-season (on a more chilly than normal day). We were only one of five cars in the parking lot and were told this is a very atypical experience here. Typically, there are hundreds of cars, and there is even an overflow parking lot. On a normal day, you would have to wait to use one of the paddle boats. To avoid long lines, get there early and visit during off-season.
This is an impressive plantation with almost 3 miles of trails/gardens you can walk on. Walking through these trails makes for a peaceful morning or afternoon stroll. There is also a short guided tour (included with your admission) that takes you to where the slaves, who worked on the plantation, were housed. This is a good way to get a little bit of history about the plantation.
There is also a small petting zoo you can visit (included with your admission). This was certainly the highlight for our toddler. There are deer, goats and chickens roaming freely throughout the petting zoo, and she thought this was very cool.
Further, you can tour the home and take a train ride throughout the plantation. However, neither of these things are not included with your general admission ticket and cost extra. This is a neat place to see but, in our opinion, it is a bit overpriced. You get so much more at the Cypress Gardens for a third of the cost. So if you only have time for Cypress Gardens, or the Magnolia Plantation, be sure to go to the Cypress Gardens.
Cost: $29 per adult, $15 per 6-12 years, $3 per 5 or younger
Try out a Local Restaurant
Charleston has a really hopping food scene. There are so many unique local restaurants! You really can get any type of food your heart desires. We loved the southern comfort food and seafood. A couple places we really enjoyed included Charleston Crab House and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit.
Visit Sullivan Island
Sullivan Island is located about 15 to 20 minutes outside of downtown Charleston. This island is a laid-back escape from the hoopla of downtown. The beach is very pretty and the homes on the island are absolutely gorgeous. We loved just looking at the different homes on the island and even though it was chilly during our visit, our daughter loved watching the waves crash at the shoreline as well as collecting shells. The vibe on the island was very chill, and it felt very local. We really enjoyed chatting with several locals we met during our time on the island.
Beyond the beach, we really enjoyed dining at Sullivan’s Fish Camp. The food here was probably the best food we had on our trip. There is also a cute ice cream shop, Republic Ice Cream, right downtown with homemade ice cream that you will not want to miss. The ice cream was delicious and the staff was so kind to our kids. Further, there are also several parks on the island. We were particularly pleased because we were able to find a park that seemed to be geared towards toddlers, J. Marshall Stith Park, right outside of the main strip of downtown. See our Charleston with a Baby or Toddler guide for more Charleston baby and toddler tips.
Where to stay near Charleston, South Carolina
We highly recommend staying at the Park Circle Cottage Airbnb while exploring the Charleston area. The location, family friendly amenities and host make this Airbnb the perfect place for anyone to stay when visiting the Charleston area. See our Where to Stay Near Charleston, South Carolina post for a full rundown of why we found this Airbnb to be the perfect spot for our family to stay near Charleston, South Carolina.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Charleston. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
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