top of page

Charleston & ME

6 Best Plantations to See in Charleston SC (2024) | From a Local

Charleston’s storied past of wealth and slavery add to the allure of its plantations of the 17th century and beyond. Today, these vast acres of land are open to the public—having been transformed into public gardens and places of teaching about the past. Whether looking to understand and gain a glimpse into this former life or simply stroll through the gorgeous gardens the area now offers, the Charleston area offers six distinct properties worth the visit while in town (or on the regular if you are a local). These are the 6 best plantations to see in Charleston SC in 2024 (and my top five).


a row of six slave cabins on McLeod Plantation in Charleston
6 Remaining Slave Cabins at McLeod Plantation in Charleston


 

1. Middleton Place Plantation & Gardens in Charleston

Towering Oak tree with live moss at Middleton Place Plantation in Charleston
Middleton Place Gardens & Plantation in Charleston

Middleton Pace, a national historic landmark and museum, located along the Ashley River, is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States of America and was once part of a large rice plantation owned by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Arthur Middleton.


The land was granted in 1675. The gardens were envisioned and began by Henry Middleton in 1741. Today you can stroll through 65 acres of gorgeously restored formal gardens along the Ashley River complete with paths, terraces, ponds, fountains, sculptures, and too numerous plants and flora to name (including over 100,000 azaleas), plus the myriad hundreds-of-years-old towering live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Oh, and don’t miss the two swans in the lake—or, the sheep roaming throughout. A gorgeous site at every turn.


The property also includes a House Museum, gift shop, a restaurant, Eliza's House—with an exhibit titled Beyond the Fields and the Stable yards (in addition to an Inn). The museum house is the remnants of the circa 1755 three building complex that made up the living quarters for the family and guests. The original house was burned by Union troops at the end of the Civil War leaving this remaining building intact after renovation. This building, once the men’s guest quarters, would become and remain the Middleton family home on property until 1974.


Take a guided tour or meander on your own with a self-guided tour—and get lost—in the maze of spectacular gardens along the Ashley River. Bring a picnic or have one made or enjoy lunch in the restaurant. There are tours and talks, guided and self-guided, that explore the Museum House and the life of the enslaved who worked there. The Stable yards showcase living history demonstrations of the African American culture (first opening as a museum in 1970).

Located about 25 minutes outside of Charleston on the Ashley River



2. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens (and Audubon Swamp Garden)

White bridge at Magnolia Plantation and Garden
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston

Originally founded by the Drayton family in 1676 as a rice plantation, with a house and small formal garden, it would become famous for its gardens. The gardens were largely developed beginning in the 1840s and would be opened to the public in the early 1870s, following the Civil War, making it the oldest public garden in America.


Prior to the Civil War, the property encompassed some 1,872 acres with all but 390 acres being sold after the War. The main gardens today cover about 66 acres and include pathways, statues, bridges, nature trails and river views. Magnolia's romantic-style gardens (more wild and natural in nature) are especially known for their live oaks, azaleas and camellia garden, blooming in the spring. It is referring to this time of year no doubt that influenced Travel and Leisure to cal Magnolia “One of America's Most Beautiful Gardens.”


Other draws to the gardens include the famed 1840s Long Bridge, one of seven bridges on the property; the extensive wildlife, including alligators; and the Audubon Swamp Garden, a 60-acre cypress and tupelo swamp.


The original Plantation House was burned by Union troops during the Civil War and a replacement was built in 1873 and is open for tours. Also on the property are five remaining cabins—4 original slave cabins and 1 built in 1900 for freedmen. These cabins among others were occupied after slavery by freedmen who lived and were employed on the grounds (including many who were enslaved prior). These cabins have been preserved and are open today for tours representing different time periods to tell the stories of the enslaved and free workers’ lives on the property through the years. The Tour, From Slavery to Freedom, is included in admission.


The property remains in the Drayton family today and is reported to be the most visited plantation in the area.

Restaurant and gift shop on location.


Located about 23 minutes outside of Charleston on the Ashley River



3. Drayton Hall —Plantation in Charleston SC

Drayton Hall Plantation in Charleston with towering live oak and Spanish moss framing
Drayton Hall Plantation in Charleston

Built between 1748 - 1752, Drayton Hall is the oldest unrestored plantation home in America open to the public. It is also the oldest surviving example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the US and the only plantation home to be spared by Union troops in Charleston during the Civil War.


It sits on 630 acres that would have been part of the original rice and indigo plantation. The property is said to have been primarily used as a home and as the headquarters for John Drayton’s plantation empire, which totaled 76,000 acres across Georgia and South Carolina.


Drayton Hall was owned and occupied by the Drayton descendants up until 1969. Remarkably the family choose a preserved approach to maintaining the house and thus modern conveniences such as electricity, indoor plumbing or climate control were never installed.


The grounds at Drayton Hall offer a lovely walk to the Ashley River from the rear of the house. Another highlight are the giant live oaks with hanging moss and large magnolia trees. Tip: Look for the large magnolia tree just to the right of the rear or the house—when in bloom you can reach the lower blooms and enjoy its incredibly sweet fragrance.


The home is open for guided tours and the grounds are open for self-guided tours. There is also a lovely gift shop on location.


Located about 21 minutes outside of Charleston on the Ashley River



4. McLeod Plantation on James Island in Charleston

Love Oak trees with Spanish moss and McLeod Plantation House in background
McLeod Plantation on James Island in Charleston

Land now known as McLeod Plantation dates to 1741 as first used for crops and livestock and was eventually acquired by William W McLeod I in 1851. The current main house was then built between 1854 - 1858. The plantation would go on to become a major grower of Sea Island Cotton plus a large producer of crops and cattle.


During the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 the property was occupied by Confederate soldiers and the main plantation house served as a hospital. Near the end of the Civil War, after the evacuation of Charleston, in 1865, the site was occupied by the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army, made up of free African American soldiers. It would later then be occupied by the Freedman’s Bureau and is said to have housed freed African Americans who camped on the property.


It was not until 1878 that William McLeod II, son of William W McLeod I would be allowed to reclaim the property as his inheritance. The property would then be passed to his son, William “Willie” McLeod, who would occupy the property until his death in 1990.

The property once included as many as 23 cabins where the enslaved lived on property. These cabins would go on to house freedmen and would eventually be used as rentals all the way up to 1990 to African Americans, some being of direct decent to once enslaved on the property. Six of these cabins remain today as well as a detached kitchen, dairy building, barn, carriage house and a pre-civil war gin house.


Tours at McLeod are titled and focused on a “Transition to Freedom” theme—telling the story of the McLeod Family with a focus on the enslaved and then freedman and their ties to the Gullah Geechee culture who lived on and worked the land, sought freedom and would eventually be buried on the land. This history spans the early years through 1990.

The site is owned and operated today as a historical Gullah / Geechee Heritage site by the Charleston County Park Foundation. Located just 4 miles outside of Charleston on James Island.



5. Cypress Gardens — Plantations in Charleston, SC

This 170-acre preserve and garden is renowned for its blackwater bald cypress trees and tupelo swamp. Numerous movies have been filmed here including, The Notebook, where the couple paddles in a boat across the swamp. Visitors can do the same via boat tours or can walk the area on the extensive walking paths. Expect alligator sightings as well as other wildlife and flora.


Located about 30 - 40 minutes outside of Charleston in Moncks Corner.


 

6. Boone Hall Plantation: Not one of my Top 5 Picks

Drive lined with live oak tress with draped Spanish moss at Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston
Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston SC

While not one of my top five picks, Boone Hall deserves a place on the list of Plantations. You may be asking why it is not on my list of the top gardens and plantations to visit in Charleston. In my opinion the best part of Boone Hall is the drive in, the Avenue of Oaks. The remainder of the property is not as well taken care of, impressive or delightful. All things considered, I recommend the other 5 on this list as first choices.


Founded in 1681 by Englishman Major John Boone, Boone Hall was a working plantation that has continued to produce crops to this day, making it the only remaining working farm of all the Charleston Plantations. The plantation ownership changed hands may times over the years.


This is the plantation with the infamous “Avenue of Oaks,” the long drive of moss draped towering live oak trees leading to the house. First planted in 1743 by the son of Major Boone, the avenue was completed by new owners in 1843.


The house on the property was not built until 1936. The property was opened to the public in 1956 and today is the most commercialized “plantation” open to tourists in the area, boasting numerous large events, movie filmings and weddings.


Most notable is the Avenue of Oaks and the row of slave cabins, both on the way in. The numerous original slave cabins were built between 1790 and 1810 and would have housed the enslaved, then free sharecroppers through the 1940s. Today, these cabins are used on tours to tell the stories of the enslaved and their impact on this way of life.


As a personal note: this is my least favorite and one I would leave to last. The drive in is gorgeous, but the home and surrounding property is not up to par with the other plantations and gardens in Charleston.


Located about 28 minutes outside of Charleston in Mount Pleasant

 

6 Best Plantations to See in Charleston SC in 2023

People visit the gardens and plantations for differing reasons. Thus, picking the best Plantation to visit in Charleston is a akin to picking the best beach in Charleston, it is partly up to the visitor and what they hope to experience. Some will be searching for the historical relevance, while some for the modern day gardens and swamps to stroll and enjoy. Whatever your intent, enjoy!

  1. Middleton Place

  2. Magnolia Gardens

  3. Drayton Hall

  4. McLeod Plantation

  5. Cypress Gardens

  6. Boone Hall

 

Closing Note: Do Charleston's Plantations Really Tell the Story of Slavery?

Yes. Each of the above mentioned plantations in Charleston all tell the story of slavery and the enslaved. Is it a complete, in-depth study of slavery and its effects? No, of course not. It is the most thorough and real life explanation and attempt to portray an understanding of the time period, the atrocities, and the humanizing of the enslaved one might encounter in an informal atmosphere.


This information is presented in the guided home or garden tours, and even though not specific to the subject, also include information on slavery and the enslaved (African slaves as well as others) as part of telling the intertwined story of the plantation owners, their homes, grounds or work that this way of life required and forced. In addition, Middleton, Magnolia, McLeod and Boone Hall all offer specific tours on varying aspects of the enslaved and theirs lives.


I have not found any of these tours to be lacking. Is there more information, yes of course, just as there is more information on any subject not received in a formal setting. Will you come away much more informed than before if you choose to take the specific slavery tours? Most definitely.

 

You Might Also Like:

Comments


Monica Edwards ME Shop

ME Shop

Bring the Charleston Lifestyle home and elevate your everyday.

Broad Street-Charelston-SC

Charleston Guide

All you need for a Charleston  visit... what to see, eat and do.

free downloads

What to do and see in Charleston SC Guide by Monica Edwards

A Quick Picks Guide to Charleston: Made by a Local. Quick, Easy (and made for mobile) 

Charleston Google Map by Monica Edwards

Charleston Picks: Google Maps: All of the best in one map.

Monica Edwards ME Shop

THE ME SHOP

A curated collection to bring the Charleston Lifestyle home.

visit

Charleston local Monica Edwards Photographing at Sullivans Island Beach

hey there!

I'm Monica Edwards

Your new local connection  

to Charleston

I'm a writer, photographer, explorer and serial entrepreneur. And, I’m always in search of ways to turn everyday routines into treasured experiences. 

 

You're likely to find me exploring Charleston, antiquing, living large and helping others to do the same.

bottom of page