Charming cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, antebellum homes and Lowcountry eats…you’ll love these fun things to do in Charleston SC. Sure, there are great things for weekend getaways for families, but we wanted to embrace the romantic side of the Holy City.
Dan and I visited on a romantic getaway….Follow our plan for the best things to see and do, where to eat and where to stay when you’re traveling with the one you love in this amazing South Carolina town. We’ve also incorporated notes from Sue who visited without kids on a Girlfriends Getaway….not “romantic” but still packed full of even more ‘adult’ fun things to do in Charleston South Carolina.
FUN THINGS TO DO IN CHARLESTON SC: ATTRACTIONS WORTH YOUR TIME
Charleston Tea Plantation. This is North America’s ONLY tea plantation, and it’s right in Charleston County! We pulled into the 127-acre farm to see rows and rows of beautiful tea shrubs. A stop inside the gift shop allowed us to taste (for FREE) several cold and hot teas, plus tons of cute souvenirs.
Follow your taste-test with a quick factory tour to learn how the tea is made (Did you know green tea, oolong and black tea are all made from the same plant??) and then grab a seat on the trolley for a tour of the grounds, including the greenhouse.
Angel Oak. On your way in and out of Charleston Tea Plantation (heading toward the Historic Charleston area) you’ll pass a small sign giving notice of a big tree! Angel Oak is over 300 years old. It’s 25 ft in circumference, and offers 17,000 sq ft of shade! In fact, it’s the largest tree east of the Mississippi!!
Making a short stop to ogle the massive tree and the various painters set up around her is a FREE side trip you do not want to miss.
Middleton Place. A trip about 30 minutes inland from the Historic District to Middleton Place is certainly worth it! The gorgeous grounds and homes are a National Historic Landmark – they are the oldest landscaped gardens in America, dating back to 1741.
I mention them below under Tours and Restaurants, so let’s just talk about the gardens here. We visited in November and you’d never know it was “off season” in the garden. From the rows and rows of camellias in the Inner Garden to the gorgeous Live Oaks along Mill Pond, every vantage was breathtaking.
We also caught site of the set up for a wedding, with stunning views of the now-flooded rice plains. Our tour guide mentioned that the previous week included an Indian wedding with the bride wearing a magnificent red gown, and a groom arriving on a white stallion. What a sight that must have been!
Waterfront Park. Twelve acres of greenspace, fountains and walkway line Cooper River. It’s a popular park in the Historic area at all times of the day, but we visited one evening before dinner.
Along the pier we found a series of swings, which we snuggled on as we listened to a sax player down at the other end, and as we watched the river light up with vessels including the USS Yorktown. FREE.
Battery Park & Rainbow Row. As a visitor, it’s hard to detect what part of this area is Battery Park and what part is White Point Garden, but the fact remains that you have to visit! It offers views from the southern-most tip of the landmass on which Historic Charleston sits, where Ashley River and Cooper River merge before flowing into the ocean.
It’s called The Battery because it was a defensive seawall, as is evident by the large cannons on display. It’s also famous for the majestic Antebellum mansions adorning colorful facades – the very picture of Charleston. We noticed on our Sunday morning walk that it was filled with tourists as well as local runners and walkers – very peaceful and friendly and beautiful.
Charleston City Market. If you can dream it, you can probably find it here! The market has been here in Downtown Charleston -in spirit- since 1788, but the current structure was erected in 1841 after a fire took the original. In fact, the hall and sheds are recognized as one of the oldest structures in the country.
You can tour the market’s unique shops with a group or on your own as we did, seeing local artisans and tasting delicious nibbles. Don’t miss a chance to see sweetgrass basket weavers at work. Their ancient traditions are an incredible site to behold, and a bouquet of palmetto leave roses are the perfect take-home piece. We didn’t make the night market, but on the weekends you can shop the vendors with live music.
Charleston Farmers Market. If you want to hang with the locals, then do what we did and visit the Farmers Market in Marion Square. It’s open April – November on Saturdays, and it is a treat. We picked up deep fried peanuts, gawked at the most colorful veggies you’ve ever seen, and nibbled on a few samples from the food trucks and vendors.
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a great stop, especially if it’s your first visit. Upstairs is the room where George Washington was entertained, while down in the basement many suffered in shackles with little food. Such contrasts are common in the South.
Tour the Joseph Manigault House. It’s amazing the reincarnations of a once grand home just to keep it going. At one time the home had an Esso gas station on the site, was divided up for apartments and even served as a USO during World War II. The guide told us about legendary parties in the basement, but that area isn’t part of the tour.
The tour was interesting, but not quite worth $12 a ticket, and I’m a history nerd. It could have been that we were the last tour, or maybe it was a new guide. She talked so fast and was so sterile in her delivery that we were afraid to interrupt for fear she’d forget the whole thing. When she stopped spieling and became more conversational, it made a huge difference. Next time I might try the Nathaniel Russell House.
MORE PLACES FOR YOUR BUCKET LIST
We didn’t make it to the following points of interest, even though they were on our wish-list of places to visit. You always have to have a reason to return!
Fort Sumter. A Civil War sea fort, visitors can take a ferry to the fort at Liberty Square or Patriots Point.
Looking for online tickets to attractions or cool tours offering insider info? Get Your Guide is our family’s go-to resource for online purchases. Find Fort Sumter tickets here.
The Citadel. Open to the public year-round, you can tour on your own or take a campus tour. A Friday parade is a must-see event.
Magnolia Plantations and Gardens. It’s Charleston’s most visited plantation, and dubbed by T&L as one of America’s Most Beautiful Gardens.
Charleston Museum. The American Alliance of Museums named this the first museum in America.
Folly Beach Sunrise. We learned from a local that Folly Beach offers the most spectacular place to watch the sun rise is on Folly Beach. We partied too much to see it on this trip – but it’s high on the list for the next trip.
South Carolina Aquarium. This gem opened in 2000 along the harbor and has quickly gained accolades, especially for the Sea Turtle Care Center which rescues, rehabilitates and releases injured sea turtles. But that’s not all – there are over 5,000 animals, multiple exhibits, and tons of great programming opportunities.
CHARLESTON TOURS YOU CAN’T MISS
Schooner Pride. Want to know a secret? This was my FAVORITE part of our visit!! We sailed aboard a gorgeous schooner with masts reaching 84 feet into the air! Our 2-hour excursion left right at 5pm. We sailed into the Charleston Harbor with a gentle breeze, enjoying views of Ravenel bridge, Ft Sumpter and more. Drinks (including champagne – my fave!) were available for purchase on board, and if you need to nosh you can bring your own snacks.
While on board, we watched the crew hoist the sails – and I even had to opportunity raise the forward main sail!! It was really cool – and not too easy! About 90 min in, the sun began to set over the city. It was gorgeous! I cannot recommend this tour more highly – the crew, the captain, the atmosphere – two thumbs up!
Looking for a dinner cruise option, instead? Get Your Guide is our family’s go-to resource for online purchases. They’ve got a highly-rated relaxing dinner cruise tour on the Spirit of Carolina. Find tickets and info here.
Middleton Place. We mentioned Middleton Place above because the gardens and grounds are a wonderful point of interest, but if you are there don’t skip a tour! You can take a self-guided tour if you’d like, but there are also guided excursions of the gardens, the nature walks, the stableyard, the plantation sites on the grounds…and the house museum, which is what we did.
Middleton Place Estate was built in 1755 and houses great artifacts from the Middleton family, including a copy of the Constitution signed by one of the family members. There is also a carriage ride of the property, which I wish we had time to take. It’s a great way to better understand the role this plantation held during the Civil War.
Palmetto Carriage Works. The best way to get acclimated in Charleston is to take a carriage ride through the city. There are five different carriage companies. We took a tour from Palmetto Carriage Works. You’ll know them by the red barn door. Funny thing about carriage tours in Charleston, you never really know what tour you’ll be taking. That’s because the city regulates the tours to spread the carriages out. Each carriage must stop after boarding to pick up their route, which is done at random.
Charleston Culinary Tours is billed as a food tour, but somehow the star of the show ended up being cocktails. How very Charlestonian of us. There are so many places to eat in Charleston SC that it’s hard to decide where to go, especially when you’ve ditched the kids. Best to start your trip to the Holy City with a guide. They’ll give you the lowdown on the hot spots, with a little history and humor, and of course show you where to get a darn good drink.
The couple with us on the tour was from Minnesota and enjoying the warm southern sunshine, by the end of the evening we were old friends. Our tour guide Susan was super knowledgeable about the restaurants, the food and Charleston in general. In fact, in addition to Culinary Tours, she gives ghost tours, historical tours and works at the local theatre company. And she shared knowledge from all of those places with us as we noshed on Charleston specialties.
MORE WAYS TO EXPLORE
Tours are so difficult because they take up a lot of your vacation time (boo) but I almost never regret it because they give way more than I bargain for – on history, insight and making new friends. So next time, we’ve got these on our to-do list.
Charleston Footprints Walking Tours. “The tour route can vary, and will wend approximately 16-18 blocks through the French Quarter, South of Broad, White Point Garden, and The Battery.”
The History of Charleston Walking Tour. I feel like the thing our visit lacked was more history about the city. This tour will cure that. “Walk with a local and discover Charleston’s pivotal role in American history.”
Charleston Pirate Tours. Love that there are tours for kiddos, too!! “You’ll feel like you’re right in the middle of the action, as he shares the stories of Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read, along with the fascinating, true facts of pirate life.
Ghostwalk Tour. “ Stories and legend of the unusual and supernatural are combined with the fun and fascinating history of our city.”
CHARLESTON SC RESTAURANTS YOU’LL LOVE
BREAKFAST, LUNCH OR BRUNCH
Middleton Place Restaurant. We’ve mentioned them in Points of Interest and in Tours…and now again in Restaurants. Middleton Place has it all! And as we spoke with locals, I was shocked at how few of them knew about the lunch gem. I know, I know…lunch at an attraction usually isn’t much to speak of. Not true here – we thought it was great!
Middleton Place offers several “typical” lunch items like soups and salads, but we tried their Traditional Southern Entrées because, we were embracing the southern feel of the plantation. We each picked a main course and two sides, and shared a skillet of cornbread. I had incredible chicken and dumplings with collards and corn pudding. Hubby went for his favorite, meatloaf with whipped potatoes and Hoppin’ Jon.
They are also open for dinner, if you happen to visit later in the day!
Le Farfalle. Imagine all the love of hand-made pasta dishes in the quaint Italian village; that’s the feel you get here. I loved it from them moment I entered, with dark wood floors and chairs, white table cloths, dark blue highbacks, vintage mirrors and lighting. They perfectly marry “posh” with “comfort” – and they make a mean Bloody Mary to help a girl through a night in Historic Charleston.
From the Nutella waffles to the octopus carpaccio, it was difficult to make a decision. Our waitress told us to start with the whipped ricotta. I’m still dreaming of this dish – ricotta mixed with honey and served with cracked black pepper. We had a sliced baguette to scoop it up, but I wanted to lick the bowl. We also shared the lasagna Verde – a HUGE slice of piled homemade noodles, Bolognese, béchamel and mozzarella. It was fabulous.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. My fellow Atlantan’s will know that a Callie’s just opened in Virginia-Highlands, but like The MacIntosh, Callie’s home base is Charleston. Knowing that, we had to stop here for breakfast, of course!
You will not find a better, more flakey biscuit. Just like grandma use to make! We tried it with blackberry jam and with pimento cheese – both were to die for. The line was a little long, but it was lightening quick, so don’t be deterred. The delicious goodness is no longer a secret.
And if you get the munchies after a night on the town, think of Callie’s then, too. They’re open until 2am on Friday and Saturday nights…and with a location right on King Street, this is a no-brainer.
DINNER FOR FOODIES
The Macintosh. If you’re in Atlanta then you might be familiar with The Indigo Road restaurants we have here: Colletta, O-Ku, Oak Steakhouse…some of our favorites. Well, Indigo Road is based out of Charleston. The Macintosh is one of their restaurants we don’t have in Atlanta yet…but I hope to all that is good that that changes soon because it was DYNAMITE!
Chef Jeremiah Bacon (yes, bacon…you already love him, right??)- a JB semi-finalist – creates creative Southern dishes with a unique twist. We started with Ricotta Gnudi – think gnocchi but with cheese instead of potato. Pillows of tasty love…that’s what they should be called. But then Chef sent out his Butter Beans. Boring? NO WAY. This plate was filled with tarragon, muscadines, watercress and croutons. I can’t believe how much flavor was in each little bite.
For dinner I had the Seared Grouper with collards and sweet potatoes…in a coconut potlikker. Hubs went with the Deckle, which Sean our waiter (who was awesome also) said is something they are known for. Deckle is part of a ribeye steak…this was the melt-in-your-mouth part, obviously because I’ve never tasted anything so great.
Finally, we finished off with Maple Pecan Bread Pudding. Yes, bacon ice cream is served on top! Heaven in a little dish. The angels were singing around our table.
I know I’m gushing…but this food was among the best we’ve ever enjoyed (You remember I write for a national food magazine, too, right?? I’ve been around the block on the food scene. This place is IT!) Don’t go to Charleston without stopping here.
Husk Restaurant. We first learned about Sean Brock and Husk on Mind of a Chef, but after some research I knew this was a place we wanted to visit. This JB Award Winner’s first restaurant is located in a genteel southern home in the historic district. You’re going to need a reservation…and not just the week before.
We dove into fresh oysters in chili miso butter, and country ham (think prosciutto) with biscuits and house-made pickles. That would have satisfied us most days…so much food…but I was determined to try ALL THE THINGS on our visit. For the main course, I noshed on duck leg confit with cabbage, mushrooms, ham and peanuts. It was unbelievable. Hubby went for the chicken with Brussels sprouts, spätzle and jus.
Take note that on the menu (and on the wall as you walk in) they tell you the local farms from where they are procuring food. Love that. They even feature suppliers on the website if you want to learn more.
There is a building next door where you can belly up to the bar and grab a drink or a light bite, stay for a while or wait for your table. Just be prepared for a crowd…but who can pass up a barrel-aged Manhattan served with a perfectly spherical ice cube? Sound good? Wait until you taste it!
The Belmont. We were sent to The Bellmont by our waiter at The Macintosh, and we are so glad we went. There’s only seating for a few either at the bar or on intimate benches along the wall. Classic black and white films show on wall and creative cocktails abound.
The Cocktail Club. Another Indigo Road favorite, this sits above The Macintosh. House-made infusions and rare liquors are what they’re known for. I recommend grabbing a seat at the gorgeous bar made of reclaimed wood, chatting with the bartender for a bit about your typical favorites, and letting him make the call for the night. Then, head to a leather couch by the fireplace for an intimate evening of creative delights.
FROM SUE’S CULINARY TOUR
Prohibition. The next stop was Prohibition, where the house made cocktails took first prize, and the smokey shrimp and grits, made with local ‘adluh’ smoked gouda grits and sprinkled with crushed frozen popcorn, had us considering a second helping the next evening. The bacon maple old fashion, with double smoked bacon bourbon, maple syrup, bitters, and citrus zest was top notch, and looked pretty too. The Itty Bitty with Tito’s vodka, cocchi Americano, lemon, honey, and basil was sweet and feminine in its old fashion champagne glass. I’m a wine drinker, but this place has me re-thinking that and considering switching to cocktails. Come to find out, they have free swing lessons on select nights too. I love this place.
Jeni’s Ice Cream. We finished off our tour at Jeni’s ice cream. What can I say? I had five taster spoons before it was all over and still had a hard time deciding on the pralines and cream. We ended the evening with a glass of wine in the Carriage House at Husk.
Vincent Chicco’s. The next evening we dined down Hutson Alley at Vincent Chicco’s, an Italian restaurant with a great back story. Like many Charlestonians, Vincent Chicco, an immigrant from Italy, disagreed with prohibition. His fight to repeal it, as well as his illegal drinking establishments, led to his arrest, which lead to instant fame. When prohibition ended, Chicco found himself on the right side of the law and served consecutive terms as a City Councilman. His namesake restaurant does his colorful history proud.
The Ordinary. We had primed our palette with a glass of wine at The Ordinary before heading to Vincent Chicco’s. The warm Charleston air made the walk down King Street part of the fun. Vincent Chicco’s is down a vibrant alley, which seems an appropriate nod to its prohibition roots. The restaurant itself is beautiful with two story ceilings, exposed brick and dark wood beams.
Our perfect evening continued with a great, yet affordable wine suggested by our waiter Parker, who is studying to be a sommelier and all too happy to assist us in our wine selection, as well as steering us toward a fantastic dinner. We started with the bruschetta appetizer, which is toasted twice to keep it firm under the tomato topping. It was delicious and I’d go back again just for this dish.
My friend ordered the Chicken Piccatta and said it was the best she’d ever tasted. I tried the Sunday Gravy, which was a meaty tomato-based dish with house made ricotta. We finished off with the Zeppole, a basket of Italian donuts, which was ok, but a little bland. I’d opt for the tiramisu, the dark chocolate crème brulee or maybe the carrot cake deconstructed next time. After dinner we headed next door to the Victor Social Club, which was buzzing with patrons and activity.
MORE WAYS TO EXPLORE WITH YOUR TASTE BUDS
Toast. Each morning we drive by here around breakfast time, the line was around the block. The locals must know something we don’t – and we want to try next time we’re in town.
FIG. We learned about this place while chatting up some locals at a bar. Sounds like another great place for southern eats.
Fleet Landing Restaurant. Another recommendation from a local as well as a Facebook fan. It sits right on the water with super views of the lighted harbor.
Artisan Meat Share. According to Sue’s Charleston Culinary tour guide Susan, this place has the best Ruben in Charleston.
The Grand Bohemian. According to Susan, our culinary guide, they do wine making classes. I looked online but didn’t see anything mentioned, maybe you need to call and ask.
SHOPPING IN CHARLESTON, SC
There are so many places to shop in Historic Charleston! I found Christmas gifts and Birthday presents on every corner – and yes, a few things for myself. Here are a few places you have to stop in.
Candlefish. I’ve always liked candles, but Candlefish sent me over the edge. They have 100 different scents, and everything is made by the ladies who own this shop. I’ve ordered a monthly candle subscription for my stepmom…if you have time, be sure to sign up for one of their BYOB candle-making classes!
Charleston Mix. The best Bloody Mary mixer. Ever. No joke. No need to make the drive just for a drink…you can find it here in Atlanta!
George C Birlant & Co. Birlant is an upscale antique shop that’s been serving SC for 90 years. You’ll see furniture, silver, crystal and more…but here’s why you MUST go. They are the maker of the Charleston Battery Bench – the quintessential Lowcountry garden accessory. Make room in the car, this is the ideal souvenir from your trip!
Charleston Art Walk. Charleston’s Historic District is brimming with art galleries. It’s a veritable museum collection. We arrived to Charleston on a Friday night – and lucky for us it was the first Friday night of the month. We enjoyed the First Friday On Broad Gallery Stroll, peeking into galleries as late as 8pm…meeting artists, sipping on wine and feeling just like one of the locals.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHARLESTON
Fulton Lane Inn. Dan and I stayed at Fulton Lane Inn, right on King Street in the Historic District, and smack among everything fabulous about Charleston. We could easily walk to stores, restaurants, bars, parks and more. It’s nestled secretly in a series of historic buildings, retaining the charm of this amazing city. It’s not too fancy, perfectly intimate and ideally located. I’d stay here again and again when visiting Charleston, SC.
Our room was HUGE, with tasteful matelassé spreads, cottage-like furnishings. We had a mini-fridge, cable, and more in the room, including free Internet.
We adored the evening Sherry in the lobby and the evening cheese and wine reception next door, at the sister restaurant. Continental breakfast is included and delivered to your room each morning (just leave your selections hanging on the door the night before,) or if you prefer, you can head to the same sister restaurant to enjoy breakfast with other Charlestonians.
Looking for something uber-romantic? Try one of their suites with whirlpools and fireplaces! Even a four-poster canopy bed.
The charm and location of this hotel is perfect, in my opinion. I adore it. But if you are looking for something else (or Fulton Lane Inn is booked) then consider one of their other properties:
Cottages on Charleston Harbor. Sue stayed here during her Girlfriend Getaway. Here’s her story:
This family friendly retreat, feels more like a community than a hotel, and is perfect for a group of friends too. There is a cluster of two bedroom homes with living area, full kitchen and full-length screened
wine rocking porch. Check-in is at the clubhouse, which has a pool and hot tub just outside the doors.
Our cluster of homes, affectionately called Sweet Blessing, Glorious Morning, Summer Rain, and our abode Bountiful Hearts, had their own private beach area too, so go ahead and bring the bikini. Each morning I was awaken by a breathtaking sunrise of orange, yellow and pink. I’d open the French doors that lead to the screen porch and marvel at the quiet beauty outside.
Our hostess for the weekend was Kim. She welcomed us with a cheese and fruit tray she made herself, and her hospitality didn’t stop there. The Cottages brochure says it includes a continental breakfast and afternoon treats. When I think continental breakfast, I think a muffin and coffee. At the Cottages, Kim made us French toast and quiche one morning and eggs and sausage the next. We didn’t have to lift a finger or clean anything up.
There was also coffee, tea and hot chocolate, assorted breads, oatmeal, granola bars and yogurt. I’d say it’s more like a breakfast buffet, with whatever you needed to quiet the grapes of wrath from the evening before. Since we were headed into Charleston for the day, Kim brought us out yummy jar made cakes to take back to the room for later. Of course I ate mine as soon as the door shut. As beautiful as the facilities are at the Cottages, it was Kim’s Southern hospitality that made it feel like home.
During our trip the weather was a bit too cold for swimming, although we could have brought suits for the hot tub, which invited us in with it’s rising steam. We did partake in the free bikes and took a ride down to Patriot’s Point where we toured the USS Yorktown Aircraft carrier, and walked through the Vietnam Experience. As my friends said, I’m not sure anyone wants the ‘Vietnam Experience,’ but it was interesting, and sobering all at the same time and I’m glad we went. It was also free. Afterwards we continued on to the Mount Pleasant memorial Waterfront Park which is a beautiful public park underneath the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
What a fantastic use of space. There is a kid’s playground, pier with fishing (rent rods at the gift shop), and sturdy chairs and tables, as well as a bench swings. During certain times of the year they offer dance lessons on the pier and other special events.
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