Charleston is undoubtedly known for all things Southern. For its architecture, history, food, live oaks, waterways and its charm. There are about 17 sites, categories or themes that are considered iconic and must sees in Charleston. Here we will explore them all and see which are worth the visit and which can be missed.
1. Charleston Charm
This one you will not have to go looking for. You will see it and feel it from the time you arrive. From the genteel slower pace of life to the friendliness exuded with greetings and smiles to strangers, there is a sense of hospitality in the very nature of the people of Charleston. Then there is the colorful window boxes bedecking homes, moss draped live oaks lining the cobblestone streets, lush gardens, secret alleyways, historic homes and buildings, waterways and parks all adding to the charm of this city.
You can’t miss these—and will see these throughout your visit as long as you venture south of Market St.
2. Pineapple Fountain
Although only added to the Charleston landscape in 1990, the fountain has become an iconic element of the cityscape and dots all of the must-see lists. The fountain is located inside Waterfront Park, located on the east side of the peninsula with a northern entrance at the end of Vendue Lane.
3. Waterfront Park
Waterfront Park is a gorgeous redevelopment of land historically used as wharfs and shipping terminals that had fallen in disrepair and remained unused from the 1950s until the start of the park in 1988. The 8-acre park running 1/2 mile along the Cooper River was completed and unveiled in 1990. It has a large pier with covered seating and areas to view Charleston Harbor, Ravenel Bridge and several military historic points of interest.
One of the favorite aspects of the park, to locals, is the shaded tree lined path dotted with numerous benches and groupings (perfect for a shaded lunch, reading a book or catching up with friends). There is also a sun soaked walking path adjacent to the water and parallel to the shaded path that runs the span of the park. In the middle of this park, you will see the now famed pineapple fountain, mentioned above, where tourists flock daily for photos (and, a favorite of professional photographers alike). A favorite time to visit is at sunrise.
Add Waterfront Park to your must-see list and stop at the Pineapple Fountain on your way through.
4. Charleston City Market
This area was first established as a city market in the 1790s and was used primarily for the sale of meat, seafood and produce. It was also used as a gathering place for the city’s lower and middle class to drink and play games.
The Market stretches 4 city blocks beginning at Market and Meeting St with the “great hall” followed by a series of covered open air sheds ending at East Bay St. Today the Market houses some 20+/- permanent vendors in the air conditioned “hall” portion and hosts over 300 vendors in the open air area.
It is open daily through the year, except Christmas and hosts a separate “night market” spring to fall whereby all 100 vendors are said to be local with locally-made items for sale. The area is known for its souvenirs, artists, and craftsmen.
Add or Not to Add: Definitely worth a walk through and peruse. Note, it Is a heavily trafficked tourist area so expect crowds.
5. The Battery
Most famous for the antebellum mansions lining the surrounding streets, The Battery is located at the southern most end of the peninsula and once served as a military protection and sea wall. Today it functions as the latter. As such it provides a large promenade next to the water spanning 1.2 miles and luring visitors and locals alike with its cool breezes and exceptional views. In addition to sailboats, dolphins and myriad sea birds, Forts Sumter and Moultrie as well as Castle Pickney and the USS Yorktown can be seen from the High Battery (area facing East Bay Street and main point of attraction).
6. White Point Garden
Anchored at the southern most tip and just before the street and promenade is “Battery Park” (aka White Point Garden, the official name), a 5.7 acre park. When a local mentions The Battery they could be referring to the walkway next to the water or the entire area encompassing the park. The park itself is filled with towering live oaks and benches throughout providing a shady respite from the heat and making it a perfect spot for picnics, reading and lounging. In addition, the park has numerous monuments and relics throughout.
Add: The Battery is a must-see and peruse and is included on most tours. As a visitor to Charleston, The Battery was always my first and last stop. As a local, I walk along The Battery nearly every day. Stepping inside the park itself, underneath the live oaks is other-worldly.
7. Holy City
There are over 400 churches in Charleston, with many dating back to the 1700s. You can see their stately steeples all across town and from the approaching harbor. It is said Charleston’s nickname as the “Holy City” dates back to their religious tolerance as a founding colony in 1670 and even today. Ornately designed and beautifully preserved, plan to attend a service, peek inside or admire from the street.
Add or Not: You can not help but to see the many churches as you wander around town. Many notable churches will be included on tours. And, you can even take a tour specifically geared toward the churches. In this latter case add to your itinerary, otherwise see them along your your way.
8. Low Country, Southern, and Coastal Food
Known for its Southern meets coastal cuisine, Charleston has a burgeoning food scene. Many area restaurants build their menus around the flavors of Charleston and the local availability of the freshest seafood, produce and farm offerings. Expect to dine in historic homes or buildings with staples like Shrimp and Grits, She Crab Soup, fresh Oysters, Shrimp, Fish and Crabs, fried Chicken, Collards, Fried Green Tomatoes, Okra, Boiled Peanuts, BBQ, Pimento Cheese, Hoppin John, Grits and a Low Country Boil. Charleston also has no shortage of international fare with new American influences readily available.
9. Historic Homes and Architecture
With over 2,500 historical buildings in the Charleston area—73 pre-Revolutionary War buildings, 136 more from the late 1700s and 600 additional predating the 1840s—its no wonder Charleston is synonymous with its storied Architecture and Historical homes and buildings. Thanks in large part to active preservation and conservation organizations and individuals through the years who sought to preserve this beautiful city, tourists and locals alike can take in this beauty and charm at every turn. There are historic museum homes to tour for an understanding of design, furnishings and lifestyle of the wealthy owners as well as the enslaved who made it all possible.
Add or Not: Much like the churches, you can not visit Charleston without seeing these gorgeous specimens of history and architecture. For a more in-depth look, take a tour or two or three of the museum homes, Or, take in the history from a walking tour around town—guided or self guided. There are also placards located outside many homes and buildings with a brief history.
Don't miss the Best Museums and House Tours in Charleston
10. Rainbow Row
Encompassing 14 homes, #83 - 107, along the West Side of East Bay Street between Tradd and Elliot Streets is the famed and perhaps most Instagrammed area of Charleston: Rainbow Row. These homes date to the 1740s when, originally being located directly across from the wharf, they were owned and occupied by merchants who used the bottom floors as retail space and lived above. These homes fell in disrepair after the Civil War and in 1931 Judge Lionel Legge and Dorothy Porcher Legge bought a portion of these and began restoration. It was at this time the first house was painted a pastel pink. Other owners followed suit in the 1930s and 40s as restorations were made and varying pastel colors were added to each home. Today, it is a city ordinance that the pastel colors must be maintained.
Add or Skip: Another spot you can not miss simply ambling around Charleston. Do remember, most of the photos you see online cut the cars lining the streets. Expect cars, trees, tourists and locals. If you walk down East Bay from Broad Street or from Waterfront Park, heading to The Battery, you will pass Rainbow Row on the right. Note: I often overhear visitors standing right in front them asking where they are.
On the outskirts of town are a handful of gardens open to the public that were once plantations. Charleston area plantations and the enslaved who worked them were responsible for the wealth the city saw from Colonial days up to the Civil War. Charleston was the wealthiest city in the nation at one time due to its exports of rice, indigo and sea island cotton. Today, these vast lands offer visitors an opportunity to walk the restored gardens with towering live oaks, formal and romantic gardens with plants and trees predating the 1600s, tour the remaining historic homes and structures. You will learn about life of the wealthy owners as well as the enslaved. People flock to these plantations turned gardens for the history and the current beauty of the gardens lining the Ashley River.
Add or Not: Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens and Drayton Hall sit in succession to each other along the Ashely River about 20 minutes outside of downtown. They are well worth the trip. Expect an hour at minimum in each location (one could easily spend an entire afternoon at each).
Don't miss these Best Plantations & Gardens in Charleston
12. Live Oak Trees & Hidden Gardens
While the trees and gardens of the Plantations beckon, tourists and locals alike take to the streets of downtown daily to walk amongst the Spanish draped live oaks waving over South of Broad streets. Charleston is also famous for its hidden or gated gardens belonging to homeowners all along this area. As you walk the streets look just beyond the gates to catch glimpses of beautifully maintained gardens throughout town. Just remember, these are people’s homes so please be respectful.
Add or Not: Another charm of Charleston you will undoubtably see by simply strolling the streets South of Broad (and also as part of many walking tours).
13. Sweetgrass Baskets
These baskets were once made and used by African slaves brought to the Colonies in the 17th century to work on plantations. These baskets were at that time used for utilitarian purposes in the rice fields. Today, the Gullah ancestors carry on this craft weaving these baskets from natural Low Country grasses. Many see it as a way of carrying on their history. These baskets are primarily made and used as collectable works of art today.
Add or Not: Basket weavers will be seen on the streets of downtown and inside City Market. Stop and talk to the makers and purchase a basket for a unique and authentic Charleston souvenir.
14. Ravenel Bridge
A relative newcomer, at less than 20 years old, to the Charleston skyline and yet already takes its place on the Iconic Charleston list. Ravenel Bridge (aka Cooper River Bridge) connects downtown Charleston to Mt Pleasant and thus Sullivan's Island (and beach). The bridge, opened in 2005, has a main span of 1,546 feet, the third longest among cable-stayed bridges in the Western Hemisphere. It also has a walking / biking lane spanning its entirety with views of the Charleston Harbor along the way. The bridge can be seen from various vantage points throughout downtown and offers myriad spots to catch a gorgeous sunrise or sunset with it in the background.
Add or Not: You will see the bridge as a backdrop to the scenic outlook all through your stay. If you want to catch a few gorgeous photos at sunset or walk, bike, or run its entirety, by all means add it to your itinerary.
15. Revolutionary & Civil War Sites
Charleston was a pivotal city in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There are numerous sites on land and off to learn more about this history. There are buildings, monuments, houses and sites of importance dotted all through town. Look for placards outside buildings and houses and take in the monuments at White Point Garden (The Battery). A guided tour (walking or by carriage) will also point out significant areas of interest along their routes. Specific areas open to tour are Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum, Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and the USS Yorktown. The Charleston Museum also has an extensive history display ranging from Colonial through the Civil War era and beyond.
Add or Not: A tour will highlight many of the sites. For a deeper look, visiting most of the sites listed above will need to be planned and scheduled into your itinerary as many of the sights are located off the peninsula. Each one is worth a visit—depending on your area of interest and time in the city. You could easily spend an entire day dedicated to the exploration of historic sites.
A major draw to Charleston is its waterfront location. It is a peninsula flanked by the Ashley & Cooper Rivers, culminating in the Charleston Harbor and leading to the Atlantic Ocean. There is no Charleston without the water—it is a Coastal city; a Southern Coastal city at that. This brings with it all things coastal—boating, fishing, sailing, canoe and kayak exploring to name a few.
In addition to the waters surrounding the peninsula, Charleston boasts several area beaches. The closest three of the five are Folly, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s. Folly and Isle of Palms beaches are more densely populated and see the most tourist traffic. Sullivan’s Island Beach is a less crowded, quiet beach that can sometimes take on a solitary feel, in a good way. Folly is known for its traditional small beach town feel and the its pier that spans some 1,049 feet over the Atlantic.
17. Rivers and Marshland
Shem Creek is another notable area, located just over Ravenel Bridge, as the primary home to fishermen and shrimpers and boasts flanking boardwalks some 3,000 feet long. It is lined with several restaurants as well as vendors selling their fresh catches. In addition to being where many water, creek, marsh and neighboring island tours begin, it is a fantastic place to catch the sunset with views of the Harbor and marshes. You are also likely to see dolphins and herons.
To add or not: If time permits most definitely add some sort of water activity to your itinerary. Even it is a simple sunrise (or sunset) walk along one of the beaches or at Shem Creek. If time permits, there are fantastic tours that depart and explore neighboring islands and the marshes and will leave you with an unforgettable experience.
The List of 17 Must Sees in Charleston
Charleston City Market
White Point Garden
Low Country, Southern, Coastal Food
Historic Homes & Architecture
Plantations / Slavery
Live Oak Trees & Hidden Gardens
Revolutionary & Civil War Sites
Rivers and Marshlands
BONUS: Charleston Boasts Several Firsts for the US: first public college, museum, playhouse and golf club.
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