15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Charleston
If you want to see a well-preserved "Southern belle" and breathe the atmosphere of the old South, Charleston is just the place. In 1773 Charleston was described as the wealthiest town in the American South. Today it retains, perhaps more than any other town in the southern states, the almost aristocratic ambiance of plantation society. A walk or a drive in a horse-drawn carriage through the Historic District, with its Georgian mansions fronted by verandas and its slender church towers, makes it easy to see why the heroine of "Gone with the Wind" preferred to live in Charleston. Tourism is now a major element in they city's economy, with attractions ranging from aquariums and museums to the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and Fort Sumter.
See also: Where to Stay in Charleston
1 Historic District
A walk or carriage ride through the Historic District feels like traveling back in time to the old days of Charleston. Magnificent historic homes, churches, and other structures line the streets. Area museums exhibit artifacts from families who once lived in the bustling port city, one of the country's founding towns. If ghosts and legends interest you, uncover Charleston's spookier side with haunted tours.
Location: Meeting and Market Streets, Charleston
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Charleston - TripAdvisor.com
2 South Carolina Aquarium
The South Carolina Aquarium isn't just home to underwater creatures. Birds, land-dwelling mammals, plants and reptiles also call the popular attraction home. Jellyfish, loggerhead sea turtles, and sharks greet visitors from a two-story, 385,000-gallon tank. And during daily interactive shows, divers also jump in to give visitors a wave. To get a feel for the behind-the-scenes animal care, visitors can take a tour of the aquarium's Sea Turtle Hospital - South Carolina's only hospital for sick and injured sea turtles.
Address: 100 Aquarium Wharf, Charleston
3 Charleston Harbor Boat Tours
There are a variety of different boat tours available to take guests on a tour of Charleston Harbor. The trips take sightseers on a cruise past historic Fort Sumter, the massive Ravenel Bridge, and Patriots Point, where visitors can tour the USS Yorktown. Some companies also offer package deals that could combine a boat trip with local tourist attractions, carriage rides, or haunted walking tours.
4 Charleston Museum
Known as "America's First Museum," Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 under the Charleston Library Society and quickly began assembling its collections. Notable figures such as Thomas Heyward, Jr and John J Audubon participated in the early history of the museum. In 1852, Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz declared the collections to be among the finest in America.
Address: 360 Meeting St, Charleston
5 USS Yorktown & Patriots Point
Just across Charleston Harbor from the Historic District is Patriots Point, home to the USS Yorktown. This immense vessel was the tenth aircraft carrier to serve in the United States Navy, receiving the Presidential Unit Citation and earning 11 battle stars for service in World War II as well as five battle stars for service in Vietnam. She was also the vessel selected to recover the Apollo 8 astronauts, and even made a film debut in 1944's documentary "The Fighting Lady."
The Yorktown retired to Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in 1975. Also at Patriots Point, visitors can tour aircraft, submarines, and other maritime exhibits.
Address: 40 Patriots Point Rd, Mt Pleasant
6 Waterfront Park
Boasting 12 acres of relaxing, waterfront property and an expansive view of Charleston Harbor, Waterfront Park is a favorite among tourists as well as locals. The old-fashioned park benches are favorites for enjoying a good book or watching sailboats (and sometimes large ships) cruise through the harbor. Visit at night to admire the unique Pineapple Fountain when it's lit up.
Address: 1 Vendue, Charleston
7 King Street
Shoppers will feel right at home on King Street, Charleston's premier shopping district. The thoroughfare offers up designer brands, handcrafted jewelry, art galleries, bookstores, antiques dealers, and many other retail options. Varied dining spots also pack the street, serving everything from burgers to seafood. And if you're looking for an evening out, there are some entertainment options available too.
8 Fort Sumter National Monument
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, when the Confederacy pummeled the federal fort in Charleston Harbor. The structure, along with other sites around Sullivan's Island, tell the story of Fort Sumter and how it helped shape the U.S. today. Visitors can catch a ride to the island from the Visitor Education Center located downtown at Liberty Square, or from Patriots Point.
Address: 1214 Middle St, Sullivan's Island
9 Boone Hall Plantation
According to NBC Daytime, Boone Hall Plantation is a must see for anyone visiting the Charleston area. Visitor's can stroll down the estate's signature Avenue of Oaks before taking in exhibits throughout the grounds. The plantation reflects the life of a southern plantation and black history in America. And since the Boone Hall Plantation is known as "America's Most Photographed Plantation," you will definitely want to have your camera ready for a multitude of photo opportunities.
Address: 1235 Long Point Rd, Mt Pleasant
10 Magnolia Plantation
If gardens are your interest (or even if they're not), the beauty at Magnolia Plantation captures the attention of sightseers year-round. In addition, to a Biblical Garden and an Antebellum Cabin, this pre-Revolutionary War plantation features America's oldest gardens (circa 1680). There are many things to do on the grounds, with guided house tours, a nature train, boat tours, a black history exhibit, zoo, and nature center. For kids, the petting zoo is home to whitetail deer and pygmy goats.
Address: 3550 Ashley River Rd, Charleston
11 Drayton Hall
The elegant Drayton Hall is the oldest unrestored plantation house in America still open to the public. Similar to other local plantations, Drayton Hall offers guided house tours, nature walks, an African-American cemetery, and an interactive landscape tour. But where it differs is that the house itself (its walls, floors and fireplaces) remains virtually undisturbed, taking you back in time to yesteryear.
Address: 3380 Ashley River Rd, Charleston
12 Middleton Place
The elegant 65 acres at Middleton Place are home to America's oldest landscaped gardens. The grounds show off symmetrical, 17th century European design with sculpted terraces, parterres, and reflecting pools. Like Magnolia Plantation, the gardens at Middleton Place bloom year-round with rare camellias in the winter and azaleas in the spring. In the Plantation Stableyard, guests can find blacksmiths, potters, carpenters, and weavers working away to recreate the self-sufficient life of a Low Country plantation.
Address: 4300 Ashley River Rd, Charleston
13 Battery (White Point Gardens)
A seawall promenade, The Battery displays cannons and other war relics from Forts Moultrie and Sumter. White Point Gardens, established at the southern tip in 1837, became Battery Ramsey when the Civil War began.
Address: 2 Murray Dr, Charleston
14 Historic Churches
Remarkable historic churches are scattered throughout Charleston, and each has an interesting past all its own. Among the city's most interesting are the brownstone Cathedral of St John the Baptist, St Michael's Episcopal Church dating to 1751, and a church that's home to oldest continuously active Huguenot congregation in the United States.
15 Historic Houses
Like its churches, all of Charleston's historic homes have a story. Many houses have artifacts available for viewing, allowing guests to peek into the past of a certain family or a long-gone way of life. Among the most notable historic homes are the Aiken-Rhett House (part of the Charleston Museum), the 1876 Calhoun Mansion, and the 1803 Joseph Manigault House that's furnished with 18th and 19th century pieces.
Where to Stay in Charleston for Sightseeing
The main attractions in Charleston are clustered around the Historic District, and staying in this area of downtown will allow you to experience the best of the city. History buffs will want to base themselves in the heart of the Historic District; families may choose to stay to the northeast, closer to the aquarium; and budget seekers will find themselves five to seven miles out, and across the river to the west. The free DASH trolley operates three routes in the downtown area. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: The elegant French Quarter Inn offers exemplary service, luxurious accommodations and amenities, and is located in the center of the Historic District, just steps from the Charleston City Market. A five-minute walk from the beautiful Waterfront Park, The Spectator Hotel is a stylish new boutique hotel that assigns a butler to each guest. A luxury option, perfect for those who prefer to have full kitchen amenities, is The Restoration. This newly reopened property is on trendy King Street, Charleston's premier shopping area.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Close to the South Carolina Museum, the boutique Indigo Inn features 41 rooms in an 1850s era restored warehouse. Steps to the interesting shops of King Street, the King Charles Inn has an outdoor pool and terrace. The new Hyatt House Charleston is a large hotel in the Upper King District, about a 15-minute walk from the heart of the Historic District and about a mile from the South Carolina Aquarium.
- Budget Hotels: The Comfort Suites West of the Ashley is on Highway 17, five miles out from downtown. This hotel has large modern rooms at an attractive price. In the same area and offering a large outdoor pool, the Holiday Inn Express is a good option for families. A few miles closer to downtown is the newly renovated Sleep Inn, with cozy rooms and an outdoor pool.
Other Points of Interest
Gibbes Museum of Art
Built in 1905, the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston houses a collection of more than 10,000 pieces of art and objects reflecting American fine arts and the Charleston perspective. The museum focuses on art of the American South, and visitors can explore stories of the Low Country as seen through painting, miniature portraiture, sculpture, and photographs.
Address: 135 Meeting St, Charleston
In 2000, scientists finally recovered the world's first successful combat submarine the Hunley, after it had been lost at sea for over a century. Restoration work is ongoing to reveal the mystery behind its disappearance. Public tours are available, but only on weekends.
Address: 1250 Supply St, Charleston
Festival of Houses and Gardens
Organized by the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Annual Festival of Houses and Gardens features tours and educational programs specifically geared toward architectural and gardening enthusiasts. Held during the peak of the historic port city's blooming season, the Festival offers guests the rare opportunity to see inside the private residential interiors and gardens. The festival's scope is wide, with approximately 150 of America's most distinctive historic houses spread throughout 12 colonial and antebellum neighborhoods.
Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
The Avery Research Center in Charleston collects photographs, letters, organizational records and minutes, newspapers, family albums, diaries, and church records for its archives. With these collections, the center strives to document the history and culture of African Americans in Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country.
Address: 125 Bull St, Charleston
Charles Towne Landing
Charles Towne, founded in 1670, is the site of the first permanent English settlement in South Carolina. The 665-acre park showcases animals indigenous to the state in 1670, such as alligators, bobcats, bison, foxes, pumas, white-tailed deer, and bears. A guided tram tour is available for visitors.
Address: 1500 Old Towne Rd, Charleston