Charleston Bucket List 2020
March 31, 2020
Sitting right in the middle of the Southeastern coast, Charleston is a globally treasured tourist hot spot. Over seven million visitors flocked to the Holy City in 2019, and the numbers keep rising. But for many, it takes several trips to Charleston, or even living there, to get everything you can out of the city. Based on years of visiting and now as a local myself, I’ve created this Charleston bucket list, which has the most essential activities that you should try to incorporate into your next Charleston trip, whether you’re here for 24 hours or a few years!
While in many of my Charleston travel guides I try to give y’all unique suggestions of things to do, there are several things that are classic Charleston recommendations for a reason. Check this list to see how many you hit on your last trip and what you need to do next!
Charleston Bucket List
Take a picture in front of Rainbow Row
Charleston’s colors are quite iconic, and are on wonderful display on Rainbow Row. Grab your camera and head out EARLY to get a snap without fighting the crowds. The row of houses on East Bay Street weren’t always the pretty pastels you see now; they were actually painted during renovations in the 1930s and 1940s. There are several theories as to why the homes got their colors, from easy identification for merchants and sailors to keeping the interiors of the houses cool, but Dorothy Legge was the first to start the trend when she painted the house she and her husband bought pastel pink in 1931. If you’re looking to admire the architecture yourself, put 83 East Bay Street in your GPS. The houses line the west side of East Bay Street, facing the Battery, from Tradd Street to Elliot Street. It’s in the heart of downtown Charleston, close to Waterfront Park, so it’s perfect to combine with your other Holy City sightseeing plans! For a complete guide to the history and houses on Rainbow Row, check out this blog post all about Rainbow Row.
Walk the Battery
The Battery, a defensive seawall on Charleston’s southern coast, is home to grassy areas, Civil War canons and monuments, and gorgeous antebellum architecture. Walking along the Battery, you can appreciate several of Charleston’s defining characteristics all at once! Located on the southernmost tip of Charleston’s peninsula, The Battery also marks the spot where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet. Looking further inland, you can see rows of antebellum and Georgian houses. Look towards the water for views of Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and Sullivan’s Island. Bring a picnic from any one of the incredible restaurants near The Battery and find a grassy spot in the shade of an oak tree at White Point Garden, at the southern end of The Battery.
Shop on King Street
King Street runs right down the middle of the peninsula, and has some of the best dining and shopping options in Charleston. Wondering what specific shops you should add to your Charleston bucket list? My favorites are Beckett Boutique, The Skinny Dip, and Kate Spade! Today, King Street is a shopping and dining mecca, but it wasn’t always the commercial hub we know it as now! The street was named for King Charles II, king of England when “Charles Town” was founded in 1670, and the street was a main highway transporting people and goods in and out of the city.
Splash in the Pineapple Fountain
Located within Charleston’s Waterfront Park, the Pineapple Fountain is a symbol of the Southern hospitality that oozes out of every cobblestone in the Holy City. There’s plenty of green space here for kids and families to run around and cool off on a hot summer’s day! Wading is both allowed and encouraged for kids and adults alike! The fountain was originally built in 1990, when Waterfront Park opened. The combination of the water cascading down the metal pineapple serves as a reminder of two of Charleston’s signature traits – Southern hospitality and its waterfront location. It’s a great spot for photos during the day, and at night the fountain lights up to cast an ambience over a peaceful evening stroll.
Browse the Historic City Market
Home to a variety of vendors, the Historic Charleston City Market stretches four blocks long. Come here for souvenirs like the famous Gullah sweetgrass baskets and my absolute favorite place to get pralines, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen of Charleston! All of the vendors at the City Market are 100% local, selling 100% locally made products, so it’s the perfect place to find unique Lowcountry souvenirs. The history of the City Market began in 1788, when Charles Cotesworth Pinckney ceded the land to the city with the stipulation that the land must always be used as a market. The sheds that stretch from Market Hall to the waterfront were the first buildings to house products sold at the City Market, built in 1804.
The iconic building that you see at the front of the Historic Charleston City Market was completed in 1841, and after a 2010 renovation, is now enclosed and air-conditioned, offering the perfect respite from the Holy City heat. You can shop the market either day or night, and there’s almost always some sort of event happening at the City Market. As Charleston’s number one most visited attraction, the Historic City Market is a must for any Charleston Bucket List.
Shuck oysters at Bowens Island
This local spot is a well-hidden favorite. One of the few remaining places where you can shuck your own oysters, Bowens Island Restaurant is authentic and unassuming. Bowens Island is known for their authentically local seafood, including locally harvested oysters, delicious hushpuppies, and Frogmore stew, also known as Low Country Boil, served with sausage, shrimp, corn and potatoes. The restaurant has been standing on the 13-acre island since 1946, and has become a Charleston institution. Just 5 minutes from Folly Beach, escape the tourist crowds and add something unique to your Charleston bucket list with this locally loved eatery.
Bike around with Holy Spokes
If you’ve ever tried to walk on cobblestones, you know it’s not always the easiest, especially if you’re wearing nice shoes or anything with a heel. Biking is definitely easy, and Holy Spokes has drop off locations all over the city, so you can rent a bike and drop it off at your next location! Holy Spokes also offers a variety of different pass and payment options, which is perfect for locals and tourists alike. If you just need a quick ride, the pay-as-you-go is $8 an hour with 24/7 access to any of the 25+ corrals across the city. The Day Pass is one of the best options for most vacation visits to Charleston. For $20 per rider, you get 24 hours of unlimited ride time to help you zip around to any of the other locations on your Charleston bucket list. Locals can take advantage of the monthly and annual membership passes, which offer certain amounts of unlimited ride time per day. Another great feature of Holy Spokes bike share is that you can place a “hold” on the bike if you need to pop into a shop quickly. As long as you return to the bike within 30 minutes, your ride is still ongoing, and another user won’t be able to rent the bike while the “hold” is placed. Their mobile app makes getting around Charleston super fast and user-friendly!
Catch the sunset at The Watch
The Watch Rooftop Bar and Kitchen is part of The Restoration Hotel in downtown Charleston. The rooftop bar offers sweeping views of Charleston, from the church tops to the Ravenel Bridge. This is always my favorite spot to watch the sunset in Charleston, and y’all loved it too, choosing it as the 3rd best rooftop bar in the Holy City in my Best Businesses of Charleston 2020 voting. The highest of the city’s rooftop bars, The Watch has a great selection of drinks and food, including Lowcountry specialties like shrimp and grits. One of my favorite drinks at The Watch Rooftop Bar and Kitchen is the Starburst Pouch, which has vodka, pomegranate, blueberry, vanilla and lime. It’s like a Capri Sun for adults!
Beach picnic at the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse
One of the best Charleston beaches, Sullivan’s Island is famous for its lighthouse. Commonly known as “Charleston Light,” the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse has a distinctive slim triangular structure and is painted in two black and white color blocks. Fun fact: when the lighthouse was originally built in 1960, it was painted white and bright orange, but complaints from the local community resulted in the current black-and-white design. The Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse was actually a replacement lighthouse built after the lighthouse on Morris Island was in danger of being destroyed by erosion. Finished in 1962, the lighthouse is one of the newest lighthouses in the United States. It contains an elevator for easy access to the top, and the triangular design helps it withstand hurricane-force winds.
My family loves grabbing to-go food from any one of the Island’s amazing restaurants, like Obstinate Daughter, and sitting in front of the lighthouse for a beach picnic while the sun goes down. If you’re looking for the perfect beach chairs for your picnic, check out my blog post on summer outdoor essentials.
Eat Leon’s Fried Chicken
Leon’s Oyster Shop might be more known for its fried chicken than the oysters for which it’s named, but both are good. Pair your perfectly seasoned and cooked fried chicken with Leon’s famous Brussels sprouts. I always end with their soft serve ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. The restaurant is actually located inside an old body shop owned by Leon Ravenel, which is where the joint got its name. The current owners have included artful nods to the building’s former life, keeping the concrete floors and functioning garage doors as well as outfitting the space with cheerful retro decor. In addition to Leon’s amazing food, they also have a wide selection of beverages, including rosé on tap!
Wander under the Angel Oak branches
Stretching to 65 feet tall, the 400-year-old tree is one of the oldest and biggest trees in the Lowcountry. Again, getting here early is key to getting good pictures, but you should also note that admission to the Angel Oak is free! Located on John’s Island, the Angel Oak is a little bit outside of the main hub of the Holy City, but it’s worth a morning drive to stand under its mystical, gnarled branches. As a bonus, the tree’s shade covers over 17,000 square feet, so you can be sure to find some respite from the Southern summer sun underneath its leaves. The Angel Oak gets its name from the estate of Justus Angel, who owned the land on which the tree now stands. Some rumors speculate that ghosts of the lands former occupants even appear around the tree from time to time.
Take a carriage tour at Middleton Place
We had our rehearsal dinner at Middleton Place, and it’s one of my favorite Charleston attractions. You can tour the grounds of the plantation and garden on one of their open-air carriage tours, to get the charm of riding in a carriage while also seeing the gorgeous plantation! From the moment you enter the gates from Ashley River Road, you’ll be enveloped in the bubble of old-timey European style and the romance of live oak-lined drives. Everything about Middleton Place is a fairytale adventure, and suits any kind of tourist, from the history buff to the animal lover. Middleton Place even has a restaurant that’s perfect for a romantic date night. You can take your pick of areas to explore at Middleton Place: the main house, the gardens, the stables, and more. Guided walking tours provide further insight into the lives of the people who lived on the plantation and experts can point out all of the gorgeous greenery throughout the grounds. Middleton Place is not to be missed, especially if you’re visiting in the spring. You just might be able to catch the window when both the camellias and azaleas are blooming; it’s truly magical!
See the turtles at the SC Aquarium
The South Carolina Aquarium is home to the Sea Turtle Care Center, which works with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured sea turtles. The aquarium recently added a new exhibit called “Monsters: From Micro to Mega” with interactive experiences along the way with the so-called “monsters” that play a vital role in our ecosystem. The sculptures and photo stations were totally cool, and Harper had such a fun time exploring them. The South Carolina Aquarium also has everything you would expect from an aquarium experience, with a touch tank of rays and horseshoe crabs. All of the staff are super knowledgeable and will help the whole family have an incredible experience. A trip to the aquarium is a great way to build in some time for the kids and some time out of the heat if you’re visiting Charleston during the summer.
Sip & Sing at Halls Gospel Brunch
Every Sunday, Halls Chophouse puts on its Sunday best for a Gospel brunch, where a local Gospel choir sings as you dine on incredible brunch dishes. Halls has my favorite sweet tea EVER, so I always get that with my brunch. Every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., a local Gospel choir performs at the entrance to Halls Chophouse, offering incredible accompaniment to your brunch. The local group is so talented, and their performance elevates the Sunday brunch to something truly memorable. Halls is a recommendation no matter what when you visit Charleston, but if you can book their Gospel brunch in advance, it’s absolutely worth it. You don’t have to skip out on the steak either. Halls Chophouse’s brunch menu includes steakhouse classics like filet mignon as well as traditional breakfast dishes, all as delicious as you would expect.
Macarons at Christophe Artisan Chocolatier
The macarons from Christophe Artisan Chocolatier are so delicious, and they’re comparable to ones you could find in Paris. All of their delectable desserts are made fresh everyday. Pair your sweet selection with The Stella, their chocolate iced coffee. Christophe Artisan Chocolatier is my favorite coffee shop in Charleston, so you know it had to go on my Charleston bucket list! Located off of King Street, Christophe Artisan Chocolatier is the perfect place to stop for a little afternoon pick-me-up. Plus, in addition to their case of delicious pastries, which you absolutely must sample, they have a wonderful selection of chocolate truffles. Served in a cute little box, these chocolate confections make an ideal souvenir.
Catch a wave at Folly Beach
Folly Beach is home to some of the best waves on the South Carolina coast! At an area called The Washout (AKA “Hollywood”) is a stretch of beach where Hurricane Hugo washed out several homes. Now, the wind blows unimpeded to the water, creating great waves to surf. Folly Beach Pier stretches over 1,000 feet out into the ocean and offers some great photo opportunities. The Folly Beach County Park has picnic areas perfect for a beach day snack, and the beach is close to a strip of souvenir and surf shops that give off a classic beach town vibe. From the shore, you can also see the historic Morris Island Lighthouse. It was originally constructed in 1876 on a much bigger island, but over time the island eroded, and the lighthouse was functionally replaced by the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. The Morris Island Lighthouse still stands as an iconic landmark of Folly Beach, though.
Take the Schooner Pride out for a tour
The Schooner Pride is actually Charleston’s only 3-mast tall ship, and it’s modeled after an 18th-century coastal trading schooner. They offer a bunch of different tours throughout the day, and you can even book a private charter for a special event, but my favorite Schooner Pride tour is the sunset tour. Seeing Charleston in the golden glow and watching the sun sink into the water is an incomparable experience. You can often see dolphins from these tours, too! The Schooner Pride sets sail out of the Aquarium Wharf, to the left of the South Carolina Aquarium and offers gorgeous views of the Charleston Harbor. It’s the perfect throwback to the sailing history that put Charleston on the map.
Walk over Ravenel Bridge
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge spans the Cooper River to connect downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant and is the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the United States. The bridge has a dedicated pedestrian lane you can walk across (4 km)! Unlike a lot of the items on this Charleston Bucket List, the Ravenel Bridge is actually a rather new feature to the Holy City. The Ravel Bridge, also known as the Cooper River Bridge, opened in July 2005. The large bridge allows modern ocean freighters to pass in and out of the Charleston Harbor with more ease. Every year, the Cooper River Bridge Run is held on the Ravenel Bridge. Thousands of people gather for the 10K one-way road race. Nearly wherever you are in Charleston, you can see the two diamond shape towers of Ravenel Bridge, and it’s there to welcome you every time you enter the city.
Golf the Ocean Course on Kiawah
The Ocean Course is the most famous golf course at Kiawah Island and gives golfers views of the Atlantic while subjecting them to the strong ocean winds. It’s been named the most challenging course in America and has been home to many major golf tournaments, most recently the Senior PGA Championship in 2007. This might not make the Charleston bucket list for everyone, but even an amateur golfer can appreciate the beauty of this course!
Grab a scoop at Off Track
Handmade ice cream is the perfect way to cool off on a warm day in Charleston, and Off Track has flavors that will please any palette, like chocolate honeycomb, barrel-aged maple cinnamon roll, and key lime pie. Off Track also makes a variety of vegan flavors. All of their ice cream is made from simple, fresh ingredients and tastes delicious! I love how cute the inside of the shop is, and the fact that it’s a local business through and through is something to celebrate! They have the perfect combination of ice cream classics, fun twists, and nods to the Southern surroundings with flavors like sweet tea and key lime pie.
Look for alligators on Bulls Island
The Bulls Island Ferry Tour will take you away from the civilization of Charleston into a wild unknown, where you can spot alligators and several species of shore birds on Bulls Island, part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. When we went, we were even lucky enough to see a bobcat on the island.
Visit the Charleston Tea Plantation
The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only remaining original tea plantation in North America. The Charleston Tea Garden, where the tea is grown, is located on historic Wadmalaw Island in the heart of the Lowcountry just a few miles south of Charleston. The grounds have acres and acres of tea bushes spreading out. The garden was purchased by Bigelow Tea Company in 2003, and together with local partner Bill Hall, the plantation and garden remains as an interactive monument to the history of tea in America. There are a variety of tours to introduce you to the various parts of the operation, including a tea factory tour to see how the tea plants become what we’re familiar with as tea!
Biscuits at Callie’s
If you’re looking for a quick biscuit in Charleston, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit is the place to go. At their two counter-serve locations (one on King Street and one in the City Market), Callie’s serves up fresh and flaky buttermilk biscuits. Their breakfast biscuit sandwich with pimento cheese is beyond compare! Whether you prefer your breakfast more savory or sweet, Callie’s has something for everyone, with a variety of innovative biscuit flavors. Some of the options include black pepper, cheese and chive, cinnamon, and blackberry, each one more delicious than the next! Of course it wouldn’t be the perfect Southern meal without sweet tea, and you’re in luck; Callie’s stocks plenty to go along with your biscuit. The store is so cute inside, and they do a great job with getting people in and out quickly!
Revisit history at Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie was the first fort built on Sullivan’s Island. It was built during the Revolutionary War and gave the state its nickname of “The Palmetto State,” as it was built from palmetto logs. Today, Fort Moultrie is part of the Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter National Historical Park. Visitors can trace the entire maritime history of the Eastern coast through this one location.
And that’s it for my Charleston bucket list! Did I miss something? It’s difficult to sum up the entirety of Charleston in one list of recommendations, but I think this list is a great place to start!
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