Charleston, South Carolina is one of America’s most popular travel destinations for its historic buildings, its award-winning food, and overall charm. But most visitors never make it out of the historic district and experience what makes the Lowcountry so unique.
It doesn’t take much more effort to cross out of the main tourist zone of the city and learn about the original inhabitants of the Charleston area, the arrival of colonists, slaves and the Gullah people, and modern life in the area. After many years of living in the city, I’m happy to share my insider tips.
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Eating and Drinking
Stay away from Market Street for local, authentic food.
Charleston, South Carolina is known for its restaurants and food scene. But there are some places you won’t catch locals, mainly in the Market Street corridor. A number of these restaurants are big chains like Bubba Gump’s and Ruth’s Chris. There are a few exceptions including Hank’s and Peninsula Grill but they predate the chains.
Instead, locals tend to dine in other neighborhoods like Upper King, Elliottborough, and across the river in Avondale and Shem Creek. In fact, Shem Creek has the best seafood in town as it’s right on the water. Why not get it straight from the source?
Get out of the historic district.
Some of Eater’s top restaurants in the city aren’t within the confines of the historic district. The Glass Onion in West Ashley, Bowen’s Island Restaurant on James Island, and The Fat Hen on Johns Island are three standouts.
There are exceptions, of course. Steps away from the “Four Corners of the Law” is Fast and French, a popular French eatery, especially for the working lunch crowd. The Charleston Farmer’s Market is where tourists and locals combine in line for crepes from April to November.
Make reservations or go during off-times.
Do you want to dine at restaurants you’ve seen on TV or read about online? Trying to get into Husk or FIG during your visit? Make reservations, especially for dinner, with Resy and OpenTable. You can also go for lunch or appetizers and drinks to experience it without breaking the bank.
Weekends mean cover charges and lines.
The bars of King Street can be tame on weeknights but they become bachelorette party central on weekends. Expect to wait in line to get in and pay covers, even at dive bars. You will be sure to pay upwards of $10 for a drink anywhere with a rooftop like Stars, Market Pavilion, or The Rooftop Bar at The Vendue.
Skip the wheels.
Charleston is a city best explored by foot. Leave those pedicabs behind and put on your walking shoes. We don’t recommend the horse-drawn carriages because of the animal injuries and deaths that have taken place due to collisions with cars and overheating.
Driving is only necessary when you explore the outer areas so park once and leave it until you need it. Few visitors know about the water taxis that connect Mount Pleasant and downtown including stops at Patriot’s Point, the Charleston Harbor Marina Resort, Waterfront Park, and the South Carolina Aquarium. A ferry is also in the works between downtown and Daniel Island.
Things to Do
Snap photos early in the morning.
Everyone and their mother wants photos of Rainbow Row but don’t expect to get a picture of the colorful homes without cars or other people unless you’re up with the sun. Prepare with a wide-angle lens since it’s hard to fit them all in the frame. Adgers Wharf or Vanderhorst Wharf are two good spots to take it from. And for God’s sake, do not block the sidewalks and traffic or stand in the road.
Search for the green spaces.
While the Charleston area is known for its beaches, there are also some lovely public parks rarely visited by tourists (apart from Marion Square). Off Broad Street is Washington Square, a cozy park with a statue of George Washington in the middle. It’s the perfect place for a picnic from one of the neighboring delis.
Colonial Lake in Harleston Village is nicknamed “the concrete lake” but has benches and a nice running path a few blocks from the Ashley River. Further afield, check out Hampton Park, a favorite of residents of the namesake neighborhood.
Get off the peninsula for the most beautiful and interesting places.
The historic homes in downtown Charleston and the plantations of the surrounding areas bring in a high number of visitors but they aren’t the only places worth visiting. The city was founded in 1670 so there’s no shortage of landmarks.
In North Charleston, Magnolia Cemetery is a stunning marsh front cemetery that has the graves of notable Charlestonians and the crews of the Hunley Confederate submarine. The North Charleston Fire Museum is one of the lesser-known museums with antique fire engines and interactive exhibits.
In West Ashley, Charles Towne Landing honors the site where colonists arrived in the area with recreated ships and forts as well as reenactments. Across the river in Summerville, Colonial Dorchester features the remains of an early trading town.
Few tourists make it to the towns at the top end of Charleston’s borders in Monck’s Corner. Here you can see the stunning swamp at Cypress Gardens that was featured in The Notebook. Nearby is Mepkin Abbey, home to Trappist monks that grow mushrooms featured in area restaurants.
Angel Oak is a five-hundred-year-old live oak tree on Johns Island that is considered to be the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi River. On Wadlawaw Island, the Charleston Tea Plantation has operated one of the country’s oldest tea production facilities. And the Edisto Island Serpentarium is one of the namesake island’s quirky attractions.
Catch a show.
People think of places like Nashville and New Orleans for live music but Charleston also has entertainment every night of the week. Pick a bar around town and you’re likely to find it. If you want to catch a bigger name act, try the Charleston Music Hall, the Music Farm, or the North Charleston Coliseum.
But that’s not all. Theatre 99 has “Laugh for a Lincoln” where visitors can enjoy an improv show for $5. The College of Charleston hosts chamber music, ballet, plays, and other performances. There are even more during the Spoleto Festival USA. The Charleston Gallery Association hosts regular art walks that are free and open to the public.
Looking for a Charleston hotel? Some of our favorites include the Charleston Harbor Marina Resort and the Vendue Inn. Airbnb is another option. There’s no shortage of things to do in Charleston, including tours and museums, so check out our weekend guide for more information.