Things to Do in Charleston
This post is our guide to things to do in Charleston, with tips on free things to do, suggested nighttime activities, things to do with kids, top attractions and other points of interest. We also include links to our posts on things to do by month or season. Also be sure to check out our pay-what-you-wish walking tours.
There really is so much to do in Charleston that doesn’t cost anything that you could spend an entire visit visiting free attractions, museums, and events. Several can be visited by day, some by night, and even a few can be visited at both times. Below is our list of what we feel are the top 10 free things to do in Charleston. If you plan to visit many of the house museums, then consider purchasing a Charleston Heritage Passport.
For more money-saving tips, read our post Charleston on a Budget.
The beautiful homes at the tip of the peninsula are a must see. Not only are Charleston’s houses gorgeous, but the harbor view is breathtaking. These homes are not the oldest you’ll find in the city, but they’re still old. All of them were built from 1820 on and they have aged gracefully. These houses were built by some of the wealthiest families in the area and are quite large. The largest home in the battery is 20,000 sf (1850m) One question we’re often asked is how many people live in them. All of these homes are single-family houses with just one normal size family in each.
Read our post on Rainbow Row to learn more.
Completed in 2005, the Cooper River Bridge was the longest cable stay bridge in North America at the time. The bridge boasts a walking and biking path whose views (and height) will leave you breathless. Every April 45,000 people walk and run over it during the legendary Cooper River Bridge 10k Run & Walk. The race often kicks off the racing season and world-class runners are always at the front of the line. The path over the bridge is 2.6mi in one direction and will take you from downtown to Mount Pleasant. Try it out while you’re here!
This is a beautiful park, voted one of the Top 25 public parks in the U.S. by Trip Advisor, and the fountain is a pretty place to cool down (the fountains are wading fountains). The park is conveniently located just a few blocks from the market and some of our tours end here. The park sits at the mouth of the Cooper River and offers a terrific setting for a picnic with a view! The entire inner harbor is laid out before you. There is a sunny side, but if it’s too bright for you just go to the benches under the trees on the other side of the park – the view won’t be obstructed and the foliage will block the rays.
4. The Houses of Worship
The houses of worship, from KKBE Synagogue to St. Michael’s Episcopal and the Unitarian Church, will stop you in your tracks; their history and beauty are unmatched in our country. If you went to Europe you’d go on a cathedral tour, so what’s stopping you from going into the houses of worship in one of the oldest (and wealthiest) cities in our country? People spent money on the houses of worship and many of them here will leave you in awe – organs, carved mahogany, Tiffany windows… Come and see it for yourself!
The oldest living thing east of the Mississippi River is a sight to see! You won’t believe your eyes. Photos do not do it justice. It’s just a short drive from downtown Charleston and is definitely worth the trip. The attraction just asks for a donation to help secure the health of the tree. No one is quite sure how old it is – anywhere between 400 – 1000 years old! The tree is a sight right out of a storybook and everyone from any age will be amazed.
Read our post comparing bus tours in Charleston to see which ones visit Angel Oak.
6. Shem Creek
Hop over the bridge to Mt. Pleasant and enjoy the shrimp boats, restaurants, and a public park at Shem Creek. Locals love this place! There are six restaurant/bars along the creek, as well as a beautiful park with a very long pier winding through the marsh. Bring a fishing pole or cast net and see if you can’t catch dinner! Blue crabs love the marshland and all different kinds of fish swim up and down the creek. There’s even a few neighborhood dolphins (including a baby) that cruise the creek and swim amongst the paddle boarders and kayakers.
Go on an adventure and you’ll find yourself meandering down quiet, hidden alleys. The city is safe and always camera ready! What are you waiting for? Pictured below is Philadelphia Alley – one of the last legal dueling alleys in the city. There are several small streets and alleys that are public and ready for you to discover. They are also a great place for you to see the beautiful foliage and blooming plants in Charleston. The sub-tropic climate, combined with areas that are less traveled, means that these are the areas where Mother Nature really shows off. Have fun!
Follow our free self-guided tour of Charleston to make the most of your time!
8. Folly Beach
Folly Beach is a fantastic family-friendly beach located just a 20 minute drive from downtown Charleston on Folly Island. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the beach, or choose from one of the many seaside restaurants or bars for a meal. Though summer is the best time of year to relax on Folly Beach, smaller crowds and slightly cooler weather make the spring and fall equally enjoyable. Alternatively, if you’re in Charleston during the month of January, check out the annual Bill Murray Look Alike Polar Plunge where participants are encouraged to ‘freeze their Bill’s off!”
Rainbow Row is one of the most iconic attractions in Charleston. The series of Georgian row houses were restored in the 1930s, during which time they were painted their iconic pastel colors. This tradition began when one of the homeowners of the time decided to restore her property to back to the colonial Caribbean color scheme and soon other follow suit. Today the homes are still privately owned, and though they are not regularly open to the public, some do open their doors during annual Festival of Houses and Gardens during the month of March.
Read our post on Rainbow Row to learn more.
The City Market is a must-do for any visitor to Charleston. Established in the 1790s, the City Market was initially a beef and produce market for the local people of Charleston. As it gained in popularity, the market became a place for people to socialize and trade other goods. Today it features a wide range of merchandise, including traditional Gullah sweetgrass baskets and jewelry.
Read our post on the Charleston City Market to learn more.
Though it might not be known for its nightlife, Charleston is a city that really comes to life after dark! From ghost tours and pub crawls to theatre shows and comedy performances, there is a wide range of things to do at night. Below are a few of our favorite nighttime activities.
1. Ghost Tour
Considered one of the most haunted cities in the United States, Charleston is a great place to take a ghost tour! Choose from a range of haunted tours, including ghost carriage tours, the dark side of history tours, pirate ghost tours, and more traditional ghost walking tours. These tours run year around, though you can obviously expect many more in the lead up to Halloween. If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to check with each company beforehand to see if the tour is family-friendly.
Read our post comparing the best ghost tours in Charleston to learn more.
2. Comedy Night
Looking for a laugh during your visit? There are several different comedy club venues in Charleston that feature comedians from all over the country. Some of the most popular include The Black Fedora Comedy Mystery Theatre and Theatre 99 — the second of which exclusively features improv and costs just $5 on Wednesday nights, $12 on Friday nights and $12 – $14 on Saturday nights.
3. Carriage Tour
The historic carriage tours of Charleston are a favorite amongst visitors! Beat the heat and opt to take a tour at sunset or just after dark.Evening tours prove to be popular with those hoping to explore the city as the sun is setting or with those who want to see the city lights lit up.There are currently 2 different companies offering nighttime carriage rides. Both are 30-35 minute tours and cost between $15-$16 per adult.
Read our post comparing the best carriage tours in Charleston to learn more.
Catch a show at this beautiful theater. This building was beautifully restored in the 1930’s as a result of the new W.P.A. efforts introduced to get the nation back on its feet after the market crash of the The Great Depression. The original theater opened in 1736 and the building was subsequently turned into a hotel, so in the 1930s a colonial style theater was recreated in the space. This is the home theater of the Charleston Stage Company. If you don’t have tickets to see a show, don’t worry! Both Diana and Scott include the Dock Street on their tours, so even if you don’t catch a show you’ll still steal a sneak peek!
5. Charleston’s Famous Restaurants
You can’t visit Charleston without dining at one of the many fantastic restaurants. From seafood to soul food, Charleston is renowned for its incredible food scene. Some of our favorite places to dine are Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, Fleet Landing Restaurant and Bar, andMartha Lou’s Kitchen. For inspiration on what to order, check out list of Lowcountry foods to try.
If you would prefer a guided experience, then read our comparison post of the best food tours in Charleston.
6. TGIF Friday night Wine Tasting at Crushed Fine Wine
Wine lovers should consider checking out Crushed Fine Wine for their TGIF Wine Tasting on Fridays. For $10, you will be able to try 6 different wines from their selection. If you decide to purchase a bottle, $5 will be rebated from the price. Located in Shelmore Village, Crushed Fine Wine is just a short drive over the Ravenel Bridge from downtown Charleston.
If you’re looking for a bit of adult fun, why not opt for a pub crawl of Charleston! For a more traditional pub crawl experience, join Bulldog Tours on their Upper King Street Pub Tour which shares the history of prohibition, pirates, and pubs in Charleston. Alternatively, you can go on a Mixology Tour with Charleston Culinary Tours and visit 3 different bars that are highly regarded for their exquisite cocktails.
Click here to read a comparison of the pubs crawls offered by Bulldog Tours and Charleston Culinary Tours.
8. Dinner Cruise
Though Charleston Harbor is beautiful at all hours, nighttime is one of the best times to relax on the water and enjoy the city lights. From the harbor, you can see Fort Sumter and Ravenel Bridge lit up, in addition to several other sights from afar. SpiritLine Cruises offer a nightly, 2.5-hour dinner cruise with 3-4 courses and special amenities. These are extremely popular with visitors, so be sure to book in advance.
9. King Street Shopping District
King Street is a bustling retail corridor with many boutiques for those looking to do a bit of shopping during their visit. However, it also hold great historical significance: “At more than 300 years old, King Street is the second most historically and architecturally significant street in downtown Charleston.” Once the shops close, you can check out one of the many art galleries, bars, or restaurants — all of which promise to keep you occupied late into the night!
10. Charleston City Night Market
Every Friday and Saturday evening between April – December there the Night Market runs at the Charleston City Market. Open from 6:30 – 10:30pm, it is completely free and open to the public. The Night Market showcases more than 100 talented artists and craftspeople, and features live music and entertainment.
Charleston is a city that truly has something for everyone! Below we list some of our favorite things to do with kids, though most (if not all) of these suggestions are equally enjoyed by adults. All of our name-your-own-price walking tours are also kid friendly, so be sure to check them out!
1. Sample Free Pralines
During your visit to downtown Charleston, be sure to pop into one of the many praline shops to try out a few of their free samples! Both children and adults love to indulge in this special Southern treat. You’re not expected or required to purchase any pralines after taking a sample, but we must warn you that it’s difficult to resist!
The South Carolina Aquarium is a very popular aquatic center located in the heart of downtown Charleston. Open 9am-4pm daily, the aquarium features marine animals traditionally found in the coastal waters of South Carolina and beyond. Two of their most popular creatures are a rare albino alligator and a bald eagle named Liberty. Admission is $29.95 for adults and $22.95 for children.
Read our post on the aquarium for more information.
3. Charleston Museum
Described in many reviews as a ‘must-see’, the Charleston Museum is a small but powerful natural history museum featuring exhibits that highlight the city’s long and complex history. Children are encouraged to participate in the museum’s scavenger hunt, which includes questions about each of the permanent exhibits. Visit the Charleston Museum website to learn more.
Charleston Museum is included on the Heritage Passport.
What kid wouldn’t love to go on a ferry ride and explore a historic fort with cannons?! Most families that write reviews on their experience visiting Fort Sumter seem more than happy with their decision. Though a Fort Sumter Cruise is a good idea all year round, visitors during the month of January will enjoy fewer crowds and shorter lines — two things that often plague the memorial due to its popularity!
Check out our post comparing all Charleston Harbor tours for more information.
5. Isle of Palms
Located just a 15-minute drive from the heart of the Historic District of Charleston, Isle of Palms is a great place for families to visit! The beach at the Isle of Palms is probably the most kid-friendly beach around Charleston thanks to the ample space, safe waters, and clean environment. Either bring a picnic or choose between one of the many beachfront restaurants for lunch!
Located a short drive from downtown Charleston, Frankie’s Fun Park is an extremely popular destination with families with kids of all ages. They have mini golf, a road course, batting cage, bumper boats, and a number of other fun games and attractions. You pay per activity, so families don’t have to worry about paying a big up-front entrance fee.
Learn more about Frankie’s Fun Park on their website.
7. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “spark imagination and stimulate curiosity through the power of play.” The museum features several different interactive spaces, such as the art room, idea factory, medieval creativity castle, and kids garden. It welcomes kids of all ages, though the museum especially caters to those under the age of 10.
- Children Under 12 Months: FREE
- SC Residents – Children & Adults: $10.00
- Non-SC Residents – Children & Adults: $12.00
8. Cypress Gardens
This is another historic property to visit. The popular attractions here for families are the butterfly house, hiking trails and boat rides through the swamp during which you can search for wild life like alligators, birds, and turtles. Check out their website to learn more about Cypress Gardens.
- Adult: $10.00
- Senior: (age 65+) $9.00
- Children: (ages 6-12) $5.00
- Children: (ages 5 and under) Free*
9. The USS Yorktown and Patriots Point
This is a must see for any war history buffs, wannabe shipmates, airplane fanatics, and, of course, kids! The Yorktown is deceivingly big and is truly a small city, filled with maze-like pathways, a dentist’s office, jail, and more! Not only is the “town” interesting, but there are all different kinds of airplanes and even a flight simulator for you to try. In addition, the view from the deck of downtown Charleston will allow you to see why we’re known as the Holy City; check out all of the church steeples!
There are 4 big plantations near downtown Charleston — each of which is very family-friendly, despite the dark history that shrouds them. Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation, and Middleton Plantation are just west of the city, and Boone Hall is over in Mount Pleasant. The plantations west of the Ashley River were mainly rice plantations, whereas Boone Hall and many of the plantations east of the Cooper were known for producing bricks. You can learn about each plantation’s black history and culture, as well as the effects of the Civil War on the plantation owners and their homes. Kids will love exploring the labyrinth of gardens at each plantation. Magnolia even has a petting zoo! And, if you’re here at the right time, you can pick your own fruit at veggies at Boone Hall. Sure you need a car, but you cannot go to the South and miss going to a plantation! The trip is worth it and we hope you have fun!
- Aiken-Rhett House Museum
- Charleston City Market
- Charleston Museum
- Drayton Hall
- Edmonston-Alston House
- Fort Sumter
- Isle of Palms
- Magnolia Cemetery
- Magnolia Plantation
- Marion Square
- Middleton Place
- McLeod Plantation
- Morris Island and Lighthouse
- Nathaniel Russell House
- Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
- Old Slave Mart Museum
- Patriots Point & Maritime Museum
- Rainbow Row
- South Carolina Aquarium
- Sullivan’s Island
- The Citadel
We have also created guides based on the time of year. Click on the links below for the corresponding time that you plan on being in Charleston. These also include monthly weather expectations to help you plan how to dress.
- Things to Do in January
- Things to Do in February
- Things to Do in March
- Things to Do in April
- Things to Do in May
- Things to Do in June
- Things to Do in July
- Things to Do in August
- Things to Do in September
- Things to Do in October (Weather)
- Things to Do in November (Weather)
- Things to Do in December
- Things to Do for Christmas
- Seasonal Flowers in Charleston