The Ultimate Charleston Travel Guide
March 4, 2020
Charleston is well-loved across the world, being named the Top City in the World by Conde Nast Traveler nine years in a row. From the sweet Southern charm to the centuries-old gorgeous architecture, Charleston is the crown jewel of the South. You have access to the best of the old and new, with history on every street and a mouth-watering restaurant just around the corner. Add in Charleston’s proximity to dreamy beaches and there’s plenty to keep you occupied no matter how long you’re in town. To get the most from the Holy City, I’m finally sharing my ultimate Charleston travel guide, packed full with my top things to do, places to stay, and where to eat.
Charleston Travel Guide
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to plan the perfect trip to Charleston, including my favorite time to visit, the rundown on all the top tourist attractions, and my personal picks for some of the best restaurants. I’m also finally answering one of my MOST asked questions: where should I stay in Charleston?!
The Best Time To Travel To Charleston
Charleston is fairly warm for most of the year. The coldest month is January, with average highs of 57°F. It doesn’t usually snow, so if you’re looking for a temperate winter destination, Charleston is a good bet! The summer definitely gets hot and humid; temperatures peak in July and August and the city can get a bit crowded with kids on summer vacation. But, that means it’s the perfect time to head to one of Charleston’s beaches!
My personal favorite time to travel to Charleston is spring. The weather hasn’t gotten too hot yet, and all of Charleston is abloom with flowers and bright colors. All the greenery coming back to life over the city perfectly compliments the brightly painted buildings and seaside accents. Spring in Charleston is also perfect sundress weather!
Things to Do in Charleston
Rainbow Row is probably one of the most iconic parts of Charleston. Located between Tradd and Elliott streets on East Bay Street, the name refers to a block of 13 colorfully painted houses. Decked out in pastel pinks, yellows, blues, and greens, the houses were restored in the 1930s and ‘40s and make for a perfectly Instagrammable shot of your Charleston vacay!
This half-mile stretch of waterfront open space overlooks the Cooper River and the Charleston Harbor. Lowcountry life is all about slowing down and enjoying life, which is definitely celebrated in this park. The wide walkways of the Waterfront Park are perfect for taking a stroll. Trees and benches placed along the way offer visitors to the park a nice rest in the shade. At the center of the park is the next destination on our list…
Located in the Waterfront Park, this iconic pineapple-shaped fountain has become a must-see for any visitor to Charleston since the park’s opening in 1990. The pineapple has long been a symbol of the kind of hospitality you can find throughout the South, and especially in the Holy City. Water cascades from the top fronds of the metal pineapple and splashes over its multiple layers, creating a dynamic reminder of Charleston’s iconography, Southern hospitality and its oceanfront sights. The Pineapple Fountain is impossible to miss and strikes joy in everyone who sees it!
Named for its former use as an artillery battery, The Battery is a defensive seawall and promenade located on the lower shores of Charleston’s peninsula. It’s famous for its rows of gorgeous antebellum houses. At the southern point of the Battery is White Point Garden, offering grassy areas shaded by old oak trees perfect for a midday picnic. You can see Fort Sumter in the distance and check out some of the Civil War canons, monuments, and statues.
Historic Charleston City Market
This Greek Revival-style building stretches four city blocks from Market Hall to East Bay Street and is a domineering feature of Charleston’s streets with its thick columns and tall facade. First built in 1804, the City Market now features a wide variety of vendors selling souvenirs, jewelry, art, and the famous Gullah sweetgrass baskets. You could easily spend an hour or so just wandering the market and browsing the wares. The market is great for finding local souvenirs to bring home with you!
Shopping on King Street
Sprawling down the middle of the Charleston Peninsula is King Street. What used to be a thoroughfare to bring traffic further inland is now a central hub for all things shopping and dining. When you hear most people talking about King Street, they’re usually talking about middle King, the fashion district. Here you can find stores like Kate Spade, Anthropologie, and J. Crew next to local boutiques like Skinny Dip Charleston and Beckett Boutique.
Charleston Carriage Tour
Take a walk back into time with a carriage tour through Charleston’s historic district. Old South Carriage Company has been owned and operated by the same family since 1983 and offers a variety of tours, including a one-hour narrated carriage tour that covers 30 blocks of the Holy City. Narrated tours are a great way to experience the historic district of Charleston and get some inside information that you can use to impress your friends and family back at home. Plus, the horses are always a perk if you’re traveling with kids!
The Angel Oak isn’t the most central of spots on this list, but it’s still a Charleston icon! At over 400 years old and stretching 65 feet tall, the legendary tree is one of the oldest and largest oak trees in the Lowcountry. Visit Angel Oak park to explore every angle of its wide-spreading branches and you might feel compelled to whisper with the charm of its haunting beauty.
Founded in 1676, the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is a wonderful way to spend a fun and peaceful day outside of the hubbub of Charleston. Their gardens are some of the best around and I’ve never seen such a display of azaleas like it. They offer several different tour options, including a tour of the main house, a tram tour around the property, and a rice-field boat tour. I especially like this plantation because it has an outdoor food stand to take a snack break during your explorations.
Middleton Place is another plantation option for visitors to Charleston, and though it shares similarities to Magnolia, it’s a totally different experience. The building at Middleton Place has a distinctly European feel with its brick facade and gorgeous greenery. Middleton has more of a romantic feel to me, especially with its nice sit-down restaurant and an inn you can book a night in. If you’re in Charleston around Easter, Middleton is the place to go! They have tons of fun activities for kids, including hiding and dyeing real eggs the old school way.
Of all of Charleston’s beaches, Folly Beach is arguably the most picturesque. Capture unique angles with a photoshoot under Folly Beach Pier, enjoy fresh seafood from any of the nearby restaurants, or take a sunset stroll along the beach with your family. Saltwater marshes stretch for miles around Folly Island, adding to the natural beauty of the coast.
For a more pristine beach experience, head on over to Sullivan’s Island. Due to strict preservation rules, there’s very little commercialization of the beach, leaving 3 miles of smooth sand for your enjoyment! Just a 20 minute drive from downtown Charleston, you could easily spend quite a while on Sullivan’s Island. Take a walk to see the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse and search for the sand dollars that regularly wash up on the shore. If you get tired of the beach, pop in to any one of the amazing restaurants on the island. I love grabbing a margarita at Mex 1 Coastal Cantina or stopping into Obstinate Daughter for a delicious meal.
Kiawah Beachwalker Park
Located on the west end of Kiawah Island, Kiawah Beachwalker Park is my favorite secret tip for the Charleston beaches. The park is the only public access to Kiawah Beach, which features 10 miles of gorgeous sand, which also means there’s usually fewer people on the beach. We also love Kiawah Beachwalker Park because it has INCREDIBLE amenities: bathrooms, changing rooms, showers, snack stand, chair and umbrella rentals, you name it! Get there early in the summer to snag a spot, but it’s totally worth it! After your beach day, go for a stroll around Freshfields Village to do some open-air shopping.
Where to Stay
The Mills House
The Mills House is the perfect culmination of all things Charleston charm, and the best part is that it’s pink! Beyond the tons of photo ops you can get in this beautiful hotel, Mills House is just such a wonderful place to stay in Charleston. Located in a historic building in downtown Charleston, the hotel is in a central location near King and Broad streets, with a pick up spot for the local bike share program, Holy Spokes, nearby.
Parking for the hotel is convenient and connected to the hotel, which can be difficult to find in downtown Charleston. As for amenities, the hotel has a rooftop pool, an outdoor patio with a fountain, along with everything you’d expect from a 4-star hotel.
Charleston Harbor Resort
What I love about Charleston Harbor Resort is that it’s actually on the water. They actually have two separate properties right next to each other, both of which are incredible. Harborside is what I’d recommend for families. The rooms are super nice and it’s at a great location right at the bridge, so it’s an easy drive to downtown Charleston or to Mount Pleasant. It’s not walkable from the hotel, but it’s perfect if you rent a car or drive to the area, plus it’s a cheap Uber ride pretty much anywhere you want to go, and the Charleston Water Taxi stops by the resort as well!
The resort always has fun events going on that we loved to go to even if we weren’t staying there, and it’s a great way to be close to Charleston and get some time near the water, too! Charleston Harbor Resort’s other hotel, the Beach Club, is perfect for a more luxury waterfront experience, but you can’t go wrong with either one.
This luxury hotel is RIGHT in the middle of everything in downtown Charleston. Just one block away from the heart of King Street, you have everything you could need within walking distance. The Restoration used to be a condo building, but now offers different short-stay options with hotel room and “residence” offerings that are more of a home away from home. All of the rooms are so spacious, and I love all the amenities available. You get breakfast delivered to your room in a basket every morning, and there’s lemonade, cheese and wine available in the lobby.
The Restoration has their own bike rental service, as well as a coffee bar and a rooftop restaurant, all in the same building! You can also get a chef to come and cook for you if you want a more exclusive experience. The Watch Rooftop Kitchen and Bar is my favorite view of Charleston, and The Rise Coffee Bar is one of my favorite coffee shops! If you’re looking to treat yourself during your stay in Charleston, The Restoration is the place to go.
Best Restaurants in Charleston
Leon’s Oyster Shop
Ask 10 Charlestonians where the best fried chicken is, and 8 of them will probably say Leon’s. Named for its oyster offerings (the chargrilled oysters are NOT to be missed), Leon’s fried chicken sandwich brings soul to the South and is pretty much perfection. The restaurant is inside an old body shop owned by Leon Ravenel, and it brings that old-school charm back in its retro decor, retaining concrete floors and functioning garage doors. Leon’s brightens up its indulgent menu of chicken and oysters with incredible vegetable sides – I love the Brussels sprouts – and a wide selection of beverages, including rose on tap and plenty of cocktails.
Xiao Bao Biscuit
Xiao Bao Biscuit is a combination of all things Asian for the perfect fusion food stop located in the Cannonborough district. The artsy shop is simple and unassuming, but they put out a menu of delicious dishes inspired by Chinese, Taiwanese, Thailand and Vietnamese cuisines. The dishes vary by season and are served family-style, so grab a friend or two and post up outside on a nice day.
My favorite meal is the Pad Kra Pow, which has Thai-style minced beef, green beans, chili and basil over rice, topped with a farm egg. It is so delicious! The spices and flavors are super well combined and I absolutely love it. They also have a gluten-free option available.
Uncork Charleston is my go-to for small plates and good wine. While I probably wouldn’t eat a full dinner there, it’s the perfect spot for a drink or two and some absolutely drool-worthy charcuterie boards. The chic brick space has plenty of seats and a wall for the Enomatic wine machine, which can allow you to sample nice wines by the glass instead of having to commit to a full bottle. Uncork’s chef cooks up a variety of delicious items, some of which you can try for just $7 during their daily Power Hour. On Wednesdays – Sundays, at 6-7 p.m. and 9-10 p.m., Uncork offers $7 plates, half-off craft cocktails, and 15% off Enomatic wines. One of the best happy hours in town!
Wood shutters and white tablecloths bring a level of class to this Charleston staple. Magnolias serves up upscale Lowcountry classics with modern twists on East Bay Street. Appetizers like the Down South Egg Roll and Fried Green Tomatoes with white cheddar and caramelized onion grits show off the restaurant’s innovative takes on Southern cuisine. Their dinner menu is sure to please and perfect for a nice night out, or stop by for lunch for a more wallet-friendly selection.
I’ve gone on plenty about how much I love Félix, but it’s truly deserving of a spot on this list. This Parisian-inspired cocktail bar brings a French twist to Southern classic, serving up small plates in a modern, art-deco space. Pops of cobalt blue stand out against classic white subway tiles and gold accents. Félix’s menu has everything from omelettes and french toast to pasta and raclette burgers. I’m partial to Félix’s brunch with a delicious champagne cocktail or Bloody Mary, but everything they serve is delicious!
Home Team BBQ
Home Team BBQ is everything you would expect from a classic barbecue joint. Wood and industrial accents flesh out the downtown Charleston space with a full bar and plenty of room to pull up a seat and chow down on some Texas-style barbecue. With sandwiches, tacos, and meat boards aplenty, the real stunner here is the dry-rubbed chicken wings served with Alabama-style white barbecue sauce. The cool, tangy sauce perfectly offsets the smoky wings. Home Team’s side dishes are also phenomenal; their pork cracklins with pimento cheese are seriously next level.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit is probably the best grab-and-go biscuit around. With a location on King Street and one in the City Market, you can get your fluffy buttermilk fix wherever you are in downtown Charleston. Grab a breakfast sandwich with pimento cheese or pick up an assortment of their favorite flavors, including cheese and chive, sharp cheddar, black pepper bacon, and cinnamon. These biscuits are soft, fluffy, deliciously flavorful and totally melt in your mouth; ideally suited for a good start to a long day exploring the Holy City.
This stately restaurant is THE steakhouse in Charleston. Halls Chophouse is classically decorated with dark, moody tones, and leather and wood everywhere. The place is elegant and sophisticated, but it’s not just a facade – Halls does some of the best steaks in Charleston, along with other elevated Lowcountry dishes. This is definitely a meal to book ahead, as it does get busy, but it’s totally worth it! If you’re looking for brunch in Charleston, Halls Gospel Brunch on Sundays is a little bit different and a lot of fun.
Recruiting crowds that turn into long waits, this tiny oyster bar is a seafood giant in the Charleston food scene. The raw bar menu at 167 Raw lists the different types of oysters by size and salinity level, so it’s easy to understand and hone your tastes. They also offer a selection of seafood favorites like their lobster roll, and the not-seafood star, the pork carnitas tacos. 167 Raw lives up to the hype and is worth the wait. If you’re a solo traveler, a single seat at the counter might be fairly easy to find!
Venture outside of downtown Charleston for an Italian feast at Wild Olive. Located on Johns Island and opened in 2009, Wild Olive brings rustic dishes made from local ingredients to the people of Charleston. The menu changes seasonally, but you can rely on fresh pasta and deliciously flavored starters, with well-paired wine selections to boot. We love the outdoor patio, where you can play outdoor Jenga while waiting for your meal.
This Italian restaurant is just off of King Street with an open and airy osteria vibe. Chef Michael Toscano brings high-quality dishes to downtown Charleston with innovative starters like octopus carpaccio and my personal favorite, a fried chicken piccata. Give Le Farfalle’s squid ink pasta a try to really shock your Instagram followers.
Millers All Day
If you’re looking for a breakfast fix at any point of the day, look no further than Millers All Day! Decked out in a retro bistro-style, Millers is as picturesque as it is delicious. Perhaps best known for their pink “unicorn” grits and top-notch biscuits, Millers also serves up amazing sweet breakfast options, with their Bananas Fosters waffles and chocolate-hazelnut cream cheese-topped banana bread.
Serving up elevated, seasonal Southern classics, FIG stands for Food is Good, and theirs certainly is. Between fresh fish and pasta and a selection of creative yet classic creations, there’s plenty to excite any diner at FIG. This Charleston institution has garnered a few James Beard awards, but the only thing betraying its revered status is how many people will recommend it and the weeks-out booked reservations. Simple but sublime sums up FIG.
Located on Sullivan’s Island, this Charleston staple has been serving up Southern cuisine with French, Italian, and Spanish influences since 2014. The restaurant has a casual coastal feel without being kitschy, and you know you’re in for a good meal from the moment you sit down at Obstinate Daughter. Gnocchi and wood-fired pizzas stand alongside fresh seafood offerings for a true showcase of local Charleston culinary talent.
More Charleston Travel Guide Resources
For more Charleston tips, tricks, and recommendations, check out these blog posts: