The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Charleston, SC
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I’ve had a decades long love affair with Charleston, South Carolina and it seems like I’m not the only one; it was recently named #1 city in the world by Travel + Leisure! There are many reasons why Charleston is so beloved, one of them being it’s the perfect location for just about any type of trip– girls’ weekend, romantic getaway, or mom/daughter bonding session. I’ve visited the city over half a dozen times and each was magical in it’s own way. However, I knew I couldn’t write an Ultimate Charleston Visitor’s Guide until I’d tackled the Holy City with one specific and highly dubious group: my kids.
Would the walkable city of rooftop bars and bourbon tasting be as incredible when you have kids along for the ride? Turns out that YES, they loved it– and when the kids are happy, everyone’s happy. Watching them instantly fall in love with Charleston was one of my favorite things to happen last year.
With more years than I care to admit under my belt visiting with a variety of people– my mom, husband, girlfriends, and kids included– I’ve pulled together the ultimate visitor’s guide to Charleston for just about any type of trip including favorite places to stay, eat, shop, drink, stroll, and play. Whether this will be your first visit or you are a seasoned Charlestonian, I hope you’ll find this ‘insiders’ guide comprehensive and helpful!
When to Go to Charleston
It’s hot here, and if you’re not prepared for the heat and humidity then summers can be rough. Charleston is considered semi-tropical and if you’ve ever visited in July I’m sure you’ll agree! The most popular and seasonal times to visit are the spring and fall, when you get the full experience of the beauty of the gardens and windowboxes with less of a chance of it being sweltering. I’ve visited as early as March and as late as November, and the temperature was totally bearable which made getting around easy and comfortable.
Where to Stay in Charleston
I’ve actually only stayed in three different places recently, in extremely different budget categories as you’ll see below. You will pay dearly to stay in the actual historic district, with prices falling the further out you get. If budgets are tight, consider hotels across the bridge that offer transportation to the downtown area. Yelp and TripAdvisor are good ways to get the scoop on other places to stay, and don’t forget to check out VRBO or AirBnB for non-hotel options. Here are two places I’ve personally enjoyed:
Don’t stay here, you’ll hate it. Okay just kidding it’s amazing, but I don’t want my secret favorite place to get out. Wine and cheese on the rooftop, M&M dispensers in the lobby, and the location can not get any better. It’s expensive but in my opinion worth every penny. Great for girl’s weekends or romantic getaways.
View from the Rooftop at the HarbourView, with a view of The Vendue Inn
Hampton Inn- Charleston Historic District
Location, location, location! This is directly across from the Vistor’s Center and the shuttle pick-up which makes it extremely convenient. Plus King Street is just steps away, offering some of the best eating and shopping the city has to offer. The rooms are a little outdated but clean. They gave my kids teddy bears upon check-in and offered cookies and a free breakfast. This is a great hotel for mid-range budgets or traveling with kids. I’m a hotel snob (can’t help it) and can rarely relax enough to sleep anywhere but the most pristine hotel but did fine here. Note that there is a pool, though I did my best to hide it from the kids because I didn’t want to be stuck there all day. #MomHack The staff is extremely friendly and welcoming, too.
The Vendue: I can’t speak to what it’s like recently, as I stayed here about 5 years ago and it’s undergone a huge renovation and overhaul from ‘old money’ to ‘Charleston’s Art Hotel’. I can say the rooftop is one of my favorite spots in the entire city, though, and there’s a coffee shop attached. It’s rated the #1 hotel in Charleston by Travel and Leisure and has great recent reviews.
Where to Eat in Charleston
Charleston is an eating and drinking city. The food is so spectacular, the list of where NOT to eat would be shorter then the list of where to eat, quite frankly. The competition is tight and the restaurants bring their ‘A’ game. Many people rave about Poogans Porch and Hymans Seafood but popular tourist restaurants aren’t my jam, however that’s not to say you won’t love them. I prefer any of the following tried and true Charleston eats:
Husk: hands down one of my favorite places to eat in Charleston, and everyone else’s too. The setting is quaint and the food farm-to-table and delicious. Get your reservations ASAP otherwise it’s tough to get a table.
Husk’s Shrimp and Grits
Cru Cafe: tucked away on a side street, you might give this one a pass if you didn’t know about the deliciousness waiting inside. The food here is incredible. The atmosphere is like a little cafe in someone’s home so seating is limited. Get the truffle fries and whatever else tickles your fancy and buckle up for a wonderful meal!
Halls Chophouse: my oh my, I’m so happy I found Halls and their Sunday Gospel Brunch! This was one of the highlights of my last trip. It books up super fast, so snag your Sunday reservation as soon as you know you’ll be there. Billy Hall personally welcomes guests at the door, and sometimes sends over apertifs for special occasions. The gospel music will fill your soul and the food will fill your belly. Just do this one, trust me!
Brunch at Halls:
Stars Grill and Rooftop: Definitely the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll often see Stars as the background in a certain reality show set in Charleston. 😉 We took a large party and the food was delish and they accommodated our kids as well. You can eat dinner here and then head up to the rooftop for drinks, or skip the food and enjoy the atmosphere upstairs!
Jenni’s Ice Cream: This was within walking distance of our hotel when I took the kids and woo-boy it is DELICIOUS as evidenced by the line out the door. With many unique flavors of ice cream, it was hard to choose just one!
PawPaw: PawPaw gets great reviews and kindly accommodated our large party (which included 6 kids and two spilled drinks) without blinking an eye. I love restaurants that don’t make you compromise good food and drinks just because you have kids with you. The location is fab as well, it’s on East Bay St. between the waterfront park and City Market. As you can see, this happy crew enjoyed it and the wait staff were especially awesome.
Magnolias: Magnolias is a mainstay in Charleston, and it’s a good place to get a meal but it hasn’t been my favorite. My meal that consisted of mostly veggies was loaded with cheese and cream. However, it’s always packed and gets great reviews so perhaps I was there on an off-night.
82 Queen: The courtyard has a wonderful atmosphere and this was the first place I ever tried shrimp and grits 15 years ago! Go for the She Crab soup, it does not disappoint. 82 Queen will always have a place in my heart for nostalgic reasons and the courtyard is a gorgeous spot to dine al fresco. There’s a cheeky little shop next door as well that I love to browse.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit: YUM. Is it really the south if you don’t have at least one biscuit on your visit?
167 Raw: I haven’t dined here (yet), but 167 Raw always has a line out the door and a fantastic reputation for not just some of the best food in Charleston but the rest of the country as well. If you love raw food, put this one on your list and expect a meal that is worth the wait.
Justine’s: Justine’s is authentic southern cooking and the pimento cheese dishes get rave reviews. Expect okra, black eyed peas, cornbread, fried chicken, and other southern staples. It’s unassuming and homey, perfect for lunch.
FIG (Food Is Good): I think this is another restaurant I really wanted to love but we must have been there on an off-night because for my group it didn’t live up to the hype. Again, it’s consistently one of the top spots in Charleston with impeccable reviews and James Beard level food, but personally I prefer Husk. With elevated dishes like suckling pig and sticky sorghum cake, this is one place I would not take my kids because truly I don’t think they would eat anything on the menu. With 4.5 stars on Yelp however, it’s on my list to try again.
A Charleston mainstay, Slightly North of Broad (also known as SNOB) 😉
Where to Drink in Charleston
Oh the places you’ll drink! You can have a great time in Charleston without consuming alcohol, but it’s easy to get into the schedule of having nice mimosa at breakfast, an afternoon cocktail with lunch, and then a glass of wine with dinner and possibly a nightcap on the rooftop deck. Not that I would know anything about that. 😉
With that in mind, The Rooftop at the Vendue and Stars are two top rooftop spots to enjoy. I’ve heard The MacIntosh is a fantastic place to grab a drink as well. Prohibition serves dinner but turns into a nightclub vibe if you stay afterwards. Cypress had amazing lavender martinis but they have since closed; hopefully whatever opens in that space will continue the tradition. Charleston is a city that runs on alcohol, so pretty much anywhere you go will have craft cocktails, beer, and top shelf whisky, bourbon, and scotch if you care to enjoy it. Plus, you can visit distilleries such as Firefly for tastings and tours (see Side Trips, below).
Rooftop at the Vendue
What to See in Charleston
This could take up a dozen blog posts, so I’ll try to keep the list to the bare minimum of what you should see, with a few suggestions for day trips at the bottom if you happen to have a little extra time in town.
Across from HarbourView Hotel at the end of Vendue Range is the Waterfront Park and Fountain. Take a walk out and watch for dolphins in the water! There’s giant swings to sit and enjoy the view if you can snag one, plus a fountain often filled with kids enjoying the cool water. Do yourself a favor and walk a few feet to the right (if you’re facing the harbor) and check out the Pineapple Fountain to get your requisite photo in front of it.
If you keep walking along East Bay towards White Point Gardens, you’ll come across the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeons. Take a tour if you have time, it’s great for young and old alike. The dungeon, believe it or not, is gorgeous with its brick arches. You can also see a section of the original wall that surrounded the city they uncovered during excavations. Great history lesson on this little tour!
The second floor of the Old Exchange
Turn left out of the Old Exchange, and keep walking down East Bay. If you have kids, there’s a little playground called the Hazel Parker playground. It’s nothing fancy but a good way to get energy out. We sat and watched our kids make new friends and invent games under the shade of the live oak and my heart about burst wide open.
Continue on, and you’ll soon reach The Battery and Rainbow Row. This is always worth a visit, you can just imagine the ships in the harbor and the grand ladies on the porticos hundreds of years ago.
Spend some time at White Point Gardens, which isn’t so much of a garden but rather a stunning copse of live oak trees and cannons to check out.
From here, you can make your way up any of the stunning side streets. My favorite is Church Street because it’s so quaint, but really you can’t go wrong. Wonder and marvel at the gates, gardens, and architecture! There’s lots of historic homes to tour in this area if you enjoy that.
From here, you can cut left and do some shopping and eating on King Street or head up to The City Market via shuttle (or if you have the energy it’s a bit of a hike to walk but worth it to see the sights along the way.)
The City Market is a 4-block market filled with gifts, authentic southern crafts, and more. It’s crowded and can be overwhelming, but I gave my kids a few dollars and let them pick something out so they loved it. We sipped lemonade as we made our way through the market and some of the same stands have been there since I first visited 20 years ago! This is where you will find the stunning seagrass baskets being woven and sold. There’s also a lot of places to eat in this area and Market Street if it’s time for lunch.
The Custom House, which is near the market
Carriage Rides: One way to see the sights without walking is to take a carriage ride. I found Old South Carriage Company to be responsible when it came to the care of its horses. I realize opinions will vary here, but the horses were well taken care of, happy, and treated fairly. Be aware that if you do choose to do a carriage ride, you can’t pick your route. Charleston only allows a certain number of carriages on the streets at one time and has divided the city into three zones to reduce traffic issues. Any of the routes you get will be informative and interesting, but just a heads-up there’s no guarantee you’ll be getting a view of Rainbow Row via carriage!
Fort Sumter: A ticket to Ft. Sumter includes a ferry ride to the island and some time there to explore the grounds and museums. We found it well worth it to make the trip out, the kids loved being on the boat and exploring history firsthand. They finished seeing everything a little before the boat was scheduled to depart so they enjoyed exploring the beach and looking for treasures.
Aquarium and Kids Museum: On rainy days or if you’re there for longer than two days, the Aquarium and Kids Museum offer other options to entertain kids.
Shopping in Charleston
If you enjoy shopping, Charleston is your city! King Street is filled for miles with exclusive boutiques, retail chains such as Lily Pulitzer and Kate Spade, art galleries, photography galleries (make sure you visit Ben Ham Galleries to see stunning large-scale photos of local landscapes), antiques, shoes, and home decor.
City Market is touristy but you’ll find your grits and seagrass baskets here along with souvenirs for the kiddos. Savannah’s Candy Kitchen on the corner of Market and East Bay is a dream come true for those with a sweet tooth.
Side Trips in and Near Charleston
Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place are large enough to spend almost the entire day immersed in exploring gardens, history, and the mansions.
Sullivans Island and Isle of Palms are popular places to slow down the pace a bit and enjoy the beach and southern hospitality.
Firefly Distillery on nearby Wadmalaw Island has tours and tastings. There is a small petting zoo but the distillery is not open to kids, so plan to switch off with another adult if you would like to bring them. Beautiful scenery and low-key environment.
The Citadel Dress Parade is impressive and worth a visit if you happen to be there on a Friday afternoon. Check the schedule as it varies throughout the year.
Getting Around Charleston
Charleston can be crowded and it’s tough to find parking because of the narrow streets; therefore, park outside of the downtown area or in a lot at your hotel when possible and take advantage of these other modes of transportation:
Walking- by far my favorite way to get around the city. There’s so much to see and do and smell and experience! Charleston is famous for it’s hidden gardens and gorgeous gates and architecture, so slow is often the way to go. Keep in mind that the sidewalks are uneven and sometimes contain bricks and cobblestones so comfy shoes are a must. Plus, truth be told I prefer walking off all the thousands of calories I’ll invariably consume in a single visit.
Uber: Ubers abound in the city, and it’s a great way to get around when your feet are tired or late at night. Don’t be surprised if someone pulls over and asks, “y’all need an uber?” (yes, this actually happened!) This is a handy way to get from hotels outside the historic district to the downtown attractions.
Shuttle: There’s a complimentary shuttle that takes you throughout the downtown. The main pick-up is at the Visitor’s Center, and it takes you in a loop of popular destinations throughout the historic district. The downside is sometimes it takes 15 minutes to catch the next one, and they get crowded. This is a great FREE option if traveling with (tired) kiddos, though.
Pedi-cab: Pedi-cabs are another way to get around, and you can often find them around the city market area.
What to Wear in Charleston
Believe it or not, this is the question I get asked the most! You can be as dressed up or down as you wish, you’ll see everything from t-shirts and shorts to high-end designer frocks. Truthfully, it depends on why you’re there and who you are with. Plan to sightsee all day with kids, go super comfy! Want to shop up and down King St? Dress up a little to make it extra fun as you pop into the high-end shops. Hitting the rooftops? Don’t overdo it, but skinny jeans and a nice top work great.
My goal is cute & chic but comfy. Case in point:
poncho (no longer available, here’s one I adore that is!) // leopard flats // tassel clutch (no longer in stock, but I LOVE this one! // leggings no longer in stock but these got rave reviews or go for a moto legging for extra on-trend style
my son thought this would be funny…
Saucony sneakers // sub_urban tee (similar) // light sweatshirt (similar) // hat (similar) // black leggings
This is the only recent one I have of us out at night and there’s a photobomber in the background, ha! This was as fancy as we got, and it was great.
Don’t forget the most important thing: your shoes. The streets and sidewalks can be uneven and often consist of bricks and cobblestones. I lived in my Sam Edelman flats and Saucony sneakers during the day, and kicked it up a notch at night with wedge sandals since we Ubered it and I didn’t have to worry about walking long distances.
Bottom line: the crowd ranges from college students to retirees, and everyone is there to eat good food and have a great time. Don’t worry about what you wear, as long as it makes you feel happy!
That about wraps it up: the guide I’ve literally spent months writing and years researching. 😉 Amazing places are always opening up in Charleston, yet it feels frozen in time just the same. I’m due for a visit,who’s up for a road trip?!
What are your favorite places to eat, drink, shop, and stroll while in Charleston? Share in the comments so this will be the ULTIMATE of the Ultimate Charleston Visitor’s Guides!
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