Charleston, South Carolina downtown city King street in southern town evening with colorful buildings multicolored in blue and red pastel colors with windows, palm trees and nobody

Charleston Travel Guide

By Lydia Mansel
March 01, 2021

Several convincing reasons have placed Charleston, South Carolina on Travel & Leisure's World's Best List year after year. The Southern port city offers a variety of food, art, and entertainment that rivals larger destinations and features a walkable downtown with charming architecture and hidden treasures everywhere you turn. 

While Charleston has its centuries-old cobblestones and horse-drawn carriages, the city is far from stuck in the past. Creativity and innovation are as synonymous with Charleston as the humidity and Spanish moss. Yes, you'll find Southern staples (Rodney Scott's James Beard award-winning whole hog barbecue is a must) and the views Charleston is famous for (the Pineapple Fountain in Waterfront Park), but it's also home to a variety of new sites and up-and-comers that have made names for themselves in the past few years. Stop by Babas on Cannon, just a block off King Street, for European-inspired dishes, espresso, and maybe an aperitif or two. If you've reached the point where you can't eat another bite—which isn't hard to do in a town like this—venture to Mount Pleasant, where Charleston Artist Collective houses art by a number of local talents across a range of price points.

If you're returning to Charleston after a few years away, make room in your itinerary to discover new favorites while revisiting those places you can't get enough of. If you're planning your first trip to Charleston, this T&L Charleston travel guide will help you get the most of your visit to the Holy City—whenever you choose to go. 

Time Zone

Eastern Standard Time

Best Time to Go

With an international airport just a 20-minute drive from downtown Charleston, the Southern city attracts both international and domestic tourists all year round.

January and February, the coldest months in Charleston, offer relief from the summer heat and holiday crowds. The city is far from empty this time of year as oyster roasts, camellia blossoms, and Charleston Restaurant Week attract many visitors. 

Come February, excitement builds as Charleston sets up for the Southeastern Wildlife Exhibition (SEWE), a weekend celebration of all things outdoors—including art, sporting exhibitions, and the can't-miss dock dog competition. Think Barbour jackets, camo hats, and the greatest appreciation of man's best friend.

The peak of wisteria season ("wisteria hysteria") falls in mid-March, right after the Charleston Food and Wine Festival, when the Lowcountry shows off its diverse, world-renowned culinary scene.  April ushers in warmer weather and the intoxicating jasmine blooms as tourists and residents experience the magic of the fleeting Charleston spring—which includes the opening of the Saturday Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square and the Festival of Houses and Gardens. Spoleto, a 17-day performing arts festival runs from late May to early June. Summer in Charleston features outdoor concerts and performances at the historic Dock Street Theatre, with around 60,000 tickets sold each year.

The Holy City attracts millions of visitors each year to some of the best beaches on the east coast. For those who aren't intimidated by the Lowcountry heat and humidity (which peaks in July), the summer months are perfect for lazy days on the beach. Just a 15 to 30-minute drive from downtown, Sullivan's Island, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach bring their unique appeal for beach-goers. Add Kiawah Island to your summer beach bucket list if you're prepared to drive a little further. As the Charleston summer extends through September, tours of downtown's art galleries, brewery tastings, and all-you-can-eat barbecues offer respite from the sun and heat. 

In early October, oyster season begins and house tours return. Social media listings are your best bet for oyster roasts, but you'll need to purchase tickets in advance for the Preservation Society of Charleston's Fall Tours. Choose from guided tours through private homes, self-guided strolls through Charleston's most beautiful gardens, or virtual tours that bring the Southern architecture and design inspiration directly to your phone or computer.

December is a magical time in Charleston. Historic homes lining lower King, Meeting, Legare, Church, Broad, and South Battery Streets are dressed to the nines in breathtaking magnolia garland, cheerful wreaths, and flickering candles in the windows. The annual Holiday Festival of Lights, a three-mile driving tour through James Island County Park, is a favorite family-friendly evening activity. 

Things to Know

If a meal at Husk or FIG is on your agenda, be sure to make reservations months in advance.

Pack your sunscreen, bug spray, and an umbrella.

If you plan to visit during  August through November, be aware that "hurricane season" is a real thing. 

Downtown Charleston is home to both the College of Charleston and The Citadel

A stroll on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge provides a stunning view of the city.

How to Get Around

CARTA is Charleston's bus service with a variety of routes throughout the city as well as several Park and Ride locations.

Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) offers three routes on the peninsula. (free)

Charleston is a walkable or bikeable city. If most of your excursions and explorations are downtown, bring walking shoes or keep an eye out for pedicabs—an enjoyable way to get back to your hotel after dinner or a round of drinks. 

Renting a bike to explore the Charleston area is also possible. There are several Holy Spokes bike share locations around town with the option to pay as you go or purchase a day pass.

Car services like Uber and Lyft are common and relatively affordable in Charleston;

View through a window to the water at HarbourView Inn, in Charleston, SC
Credit: Courtesy of HarbourView Inn

Best Hotels

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The Dewberry, Charleston, South Carolina
Credit: Courtesy of The Dewberry

The Dewberry

Address: 334 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 558-8000
Website

The Dewberry, which describes itself as “offering old-world charm with a distinctive modern edge,” is downtown, just a block from King Street. On the main floor, you’ll find the cozy Living Room, where you can refresh with coffee or cocktails or grab a bite to eat. The rooftop Citrus Club, which requires reservations from non-hotel guests, offers unparalleled views of Charleston and equally-as-photogenic tropical drinks. 

Large hotel room with bed, hat, and leather duffel bag
Credit: Hotel Emeline/Lindsey Shorter

Emeline

Address: 181 Church Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone:(843) 577-2644
Website 

Emeline is set in the heart of historic Charleston and home to Frannie and The Fox, an Italian eatery that has hotel guests and locals alike flocking to the wood-fired pizza and outdoor dining options. After brunch, take one of the custom Emeline bikes out for a spin—or a Countryman Mini Cooper house car, if the weather is less than ideal. 

Post House Inn

Address: 101 Pitt Street, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464
Phone: (843) 203-7678
Website

Guests at the boutique inn and tavern enjoy Southern hospitality in the heart of the Old Village in Mount Pleasant, a 10-minute drive from downtown. The Post House Inn is the definition of a bright, photogenic escape—and only a block away from the waterfront.

Classic Charleston exterior of the Zero George Hotel
Credit: Courtesy of Zero George

Zero George Street

Address: 0 George Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 817-7900
Website

Three restored historic homes and two brick carriage homes house 16 luxurious rooms that define rest and relaxation. After a long bike ride around the neighborhood (complimentary beach cruisers, of course), begin your evening with a cocktail on the outdoor courtyard before tucking into the seasonal fare offered at the on-site Zero Restaurant.

View of the rooftop pool at The Restoration hotel, with views of Charleston, SC
Credit: Andrew Cebulka/Courtesy of The Restoration

The Restoration

Address: 75 Wentworth Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 518-5100
Website

Set in the heart of downtown Charleston,  The Restoration features both a rooftop bar, The Watch, and a rooftop pool. The Wentworth Street staple also has its own coffee shop, The Rise Coffee Bar, and relaxation heaven, Amethyst Spa.

Guest room at the John Rutledge House Inn in Charleston, SC
Credit: Courtesy of John Rutledge House Inn

John Rutledge House Inn

Address: 116 Broad Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 723-7999
Website

Dating back to 1793, John Rutledge House Inn is a historic landmark steps away from King Street’s best shopping and several can’t-miss restaurants. Afternoon tea is offered each day, and there’s a complimentary cooked or continental breakfast. While the main building includes several rooms, those looking for a bit more privacy can opt to stay in one of the carriage houses at the back of the property.

Aerial view of Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, SC
Credit: Courtesy of Wentworth Mansion

Wentworth Mansion

Address:149 Wentworth Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 853-1886
Website

If you’re looking for glamour and luxury, look no further than the A-list experience of Wentworth Mansion. Fun fact: Blake Lively and Reese Witherspoon have both stayed in the Grand Mansion suite while visiting Charleston. Gas fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, and full breakfast at Circa 1886 elevate the entire experience. The Spa at Wentworth Mansion is available for a variety of treatments, including hot stone massages and facials.

Belmond Charleston Place
Credit: Courtesy of Belmond Charleston Place

Belmond Charleston Place

Address: 205 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 722-4900
Website

This elegant hotel features a lobby with Georgian staircase, Italian marble floors, and stunning chandelier. The Club Level offers a two-floor collection of rooms and suites with private elevator access. The concierge can arrange excursions that include the Charleston Museum, Old Slave Mart Museum, and Magnolia Plantation & Gardens.

View through a window to the water at HarbourView Inn, in Charleston, SC
Credit: Courtesy of HarbourView Inn

Harbour View Inn

Address: 2 Vendue Range, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 853-8439
Website

Sweeping views of the Charleston harbor and Waterfront Park are one of guests’ favorite amenities. The inn’s Rooftop Terrace is the best place to enjoy the vista, especially at sunset with a cocktail in hand. Complimentary bikes are available for exploring the area.

Dining at Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston, a table full of food
Credit: Angie Mosier

Best Restaurants

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167 Raw

Address: 193 King Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 579-4997
Website

They don’t take reservations and you might see a line out the door, but don’t let that keep you from the fresh seafood and local-favorite hot-spot. The wait is worth it for the crispy oysters, scallop po’boys, and ever-changing menu of “frozie” cocktails. While a majority of tables are inside the restaurant, there is a patio for optional outdoor dining.

Leon’s Oyster Shop

Address: 698 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 531-6500
Website

Charleston restaurateur and entrepreneur Brooks Reitz is the mastermind behind Leon’s Oyster Shop (as well as Little Jack’s Tavern, Monza Pizza Bar, Melfi’s, and Jack Rudy Cocktail Company). Set in a former body shop, Leon’s features a relaxed atmosphere with top-of-the-line fried chicken, char-grilled oysters, cocktails, and soft-serve ice cream. While a reservation is advised, last-minute diners can probably find space either inside or on the spacious outdoor patio.

Dining at Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston, a table full of food
Credit: Angie Mosier

Rodney Scott’s BBQ

Address: 1011 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 990-9535
Website:

The South Carolina-born pitmaster rose to barbecue fame after winning Best Chef  Southeast at the 2018 James Beard Awards and appearing in the Netflix show, “Chef’s Table: Barbecue.” Complete with a drive-through and bright blue picnic tables, Rodney Scott’s BBQ is home to every Southern delicacy you could possibly imagine: collard greens, hush puppies, banana pudding, and crunchy pig skins.

Xiao Bao Biscuit

Address: 224 Rutledge Avenue, Charleston, SC 24903
Phone: (843) 743-3880
Website

Xiao Bao Biscuit, a Chinese, Thai, Thaiwanese, and Vientnamese restaurant offers a rotating menu of daily specials and family style dishes. They’re famous for the okonomiyaki, a Japanese cabbage pancake, and they don’t take reservations—so be prepared to wait for a seat inside or at one of the picnic tables out front.

The Ordinary

Address: 544 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403

Phone: (843) 414-7060

Website: https://www.eattheordinary.com

 

Booking a table at The Ordinary is highly recommended as the raw bar and libations are in high demand. Inside dining is the only option in the former bank building, which sits smack dab in the middle of King Street. Even if you decide to opt for a variety of starters—the local peel-and-eat shrimp are unforgettable—you’ll leave full, satisfied, and in complete admiration of sheer genius of the chefs at The Ordinary.

Hannibal’s Kitchen

Address: 16 Blake Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 722-2256
Website

More than 40 years old, Hannibal’s Kitchen prides itself on not being “one of those fancy restaurants.” Ribs, gizzards, Hoppin’ John, oxtail, lima beans, and pigtails all pair well with a glass of sweet tea from this Charleston mainstay. Save room for dessert—your choice of lemon cake, strawberry cake, or bread pudding. Eat inside or pick up a to-go box; reservations are not on the menu.

Basic Kitchen

Address: 82 Wentworth Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 789-4568
Website

Healthier options are aplenty at Basic Kitchen, a vegan-friendly brunch, lunch, and dinner spot on Wentworth Street. If a beet margarita followed by roasted squash and farro salad is up your alley, this is the place to go. If you’re with a larger party, definitely make a reservation, and if al fresco dining is your preference, Basic Kitchen has an outdoor patio in the rear.

Chez Nous

Address: 6 Payne Court, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 579-3060
Website

Reservation and outdoor dining options? Yes to both. A stagnant menu? Not at all. Chez Nou, found on Instagram @cheznouscharleston, posts its lunch and dinner menu each day: two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts.

The Darling Oyster Bar

Address: 513 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 641-0821
Website

Depending on availability, you can sit at the 14-seat raw bar facing King Street to tuck into freshly shucked oysters or grab a table in the bustling main room. The Darling is one of those restaurants where any item off the menu is a win—just wash it down with the strong and fruity Basil Daisy cocktail. Reservations are helpful, especially for larger groups.

Babas on Cannon

Address: 11 Cannon Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 284-6260
Website

Babas on Cannon is part-cafe, part-cocktail bar, part grab-and-go lunch spot. Elevating the basics, like their grilled banana bread or truffled grilled cheese, Babas updates their app and Instagram daily to reflect the offerings—including specials created with local bakeries and barbecue spots.

Pink Cactus

Address: 100 Spring Street, Charleston, SC
Phone: (843) 764-9343
Website

This hip Oaxacan-style cantina brings Mexican cuisine to Charleston with menu items ranging from tacos and quesadillas to whole local fish. Visit for lunch, happy hour, dinner or weekend brunch.

Angel Oak Tree On Johns Island, South Carolina
Credit: Martina Birnbaum/EyeEm/Getty Images

Things to Do

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Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms

Going to the beach while visiting Charleston is a no-brainer; the pristine South Carolina coast can’t be beat. Most locals prefer Sullivan’s Island, with its access to a variety of restaurants and bars just a few blocks back from the beachfront, while the neighboring Isle of Palms is family-friendly with relatively easy parking. The crowds of Folly Beach can be intimidating, but just keep driving further down E. Arctic Ave; you’ll find more parking and more room on the beach as you move away from the center of town.

Charleston Sailing Adventures

Address: 10 Wharfside Street, Charleston, SC
Phone: (843) 277-9019
Website

Take in the Charleston skyline from the water by booking a sunset sail around the harbor. Don’t forget your phone or a camera—you won’t get better views of the Battery or the majestic Ravenel Bridge anywhere else.

Coastal Expeditions

Address: 514 Mill Street, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464
Phone: (843) 884-7684
Website

Across the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor lies Shem Creek, where you can rent kayaks or paddle boards to paddle alongside dolphins and explore the surrounding creek and marsh. Once you’re done for the day, follow up your adventure with a drink or meal at one of the many restaurants in the area.

Palmetto Carriage Works

Address: 8 Guignard Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 723-8145
Website

Call it touristy, but taking in the Charleston history from a horse carriage is one of the most popular tours in the area. Choose from a personal ride with just your party or join in the larger tours as your guide takes you around the quaint Charleston streets.

Angel Oak Tree On Johns Island, South Carolina
Credit: Martina Birnbaum/EyeEm/Getty Images

Angel Oak

Address: 3688 Angel Oak Road, Johns Island, SC 29455
Website

The surrounding Lowcountry, filled with live oak trees and Spanish moss, is just as picturesque as the historic homes downtown. Twenty minutes from downtown is Angel Oak, a hundreds of years old live oak that shades over 17,200 square feet. The best part? Leave your wallet at home; it’s free for all guests.

Canons From Fort Moultrie Near Charleston, South Carolina
Credit: Getty Images

Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie

Address: 1214 Middle Street, Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482
Phone: (843) 883-3123
Website

History buffs flock to Charleston, which played a key role in both the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars. Fort Sumter can only be accessed by boat, but Fort Moutrie is a quick visit after a day exploring Sullivan’s Island.

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens

Address: 3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414
Phone: (843) 571-1266
Website

The centuries old plantation, the oldest public gardens in America, is home to thousands of beautiful flowers and plants creating a tranquil landscape. Year-round beauty is provided by camellias, daffodils, azaleas, and of course magnolias. A variety of tours are available.

Middleton Place

Address: 4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414
Phone: (843) 556-6020
Website

This National Historic Landmark includes gardens, buildings, a restaurant, inn, and more. Tours and educational opportunities focus on the contributions of the Middleton family as well as those of the enslaved Africans and African Americans who lived and worked there, illustrating its history from the colonial period through the Civil War and beyond.

Gold lockets from Croghan's Jewel Box in Charleston
Credit: Courtesy of Croghan's Jewel Box

Best Shopping

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Preservation Society of Charleston

Address: 147 King Street, Charleston, SC 
Phone: (843) 722-4630
Website

The Preservation Society of Charleston brings you the best from local artisans and brands, including Brackish Bow Ties, Smithey Ironware, and J. Stark. They can be found alongside books from Charleston authors and other unique items that make memorable gifts for loved ones or tokens for yourself.

Croghan’s Jewel Box

Address: 308 King Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 723-3594
Website

Family-owned jewelry store Croghan’s appears on just about every Charleston list you’ll read, and for good reason. Entering the King Street store is like entering another world—diamond rings, antique lockets, and pewter keepsakes are just some of the treasures you’ll find around the shop.

Hampden Clothing

Address: 314 King Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 724-6373
Website

Designer names run rampant at Hampden Clothing, a luxury store flanked by its sister shops, James and Small, on King Street. Go in with an open wallet and you’ll leave feeling seriously stylish; Carolina Herrera, Mansur Gavriel, and Golden Goose are just some of the familiar brands stocked at Hampden.

Cigar Factory

Address: 701 E Bay Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: (843) 723-3685
Website

The Cigar Factory, which is on the National Historic Register, features a number of shops along East Bay, including textiles at Fritz Porter, non-toxic nail salon The Water Room, and gourmet food emporium Mercantile & Mash. One of the best parts? Unlike King Street, parking at the Cigar Factory is painless and free.

Burbage’s Grocery

Address: 157 Broad Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 723-4054
Website

Located on Broad Street, right below Colonial Lake, is Burbage’s Grocery, a family-run specialty grocery store locals return to again and again. You can pop in for lunch— there’s a fully functioning deli in the back—or stop for locally brewed beer, hot sauce, and freshly baked goods.

Charleston Artist Collective

Address: 414 Whilden Street, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464
Phone: (843) 936-2022
Website

Downtown Charleston has numerous galleries, but you’ll find a more curated selection of art at Charleston Artist Collective in Mount Pleasant. From smaller, more affordable pieces, to larger scale works, the studio strictly showcases local artists and their original creations.

Neighborhoods to Know

Downtown Charleston: Otherwise known as the peninsula, downtown Charleston includes several distinct neighborhoods, each with its own history pick of restaurants, shops, and iconic Charleston landmarks. South of Broad, the area below Broad Street, is where you'll find The Battery; Harleston Village is mostly filled with locals and College of Charleston students who frequent Colonial Lake. Cannonborough/Elliotborough is alight with creativity and delicious treats; pick up a cupcake from Sugar Bakeshop while walking along Cannon Street. The French Quarter is a classic stop for Charleston first-timers; Charleston City Market, the Gibbes Museum of Art, and the South Carolina Historical Society are all in the area. 

Mount Pleasant: Crossing the Ravenel Bridge leads you to Mount Pleasant. Equal parts suburb, shopping destinations, bars, restaurants, and outdoor activities, Mount Pleasant is the largest town in South Carolina. While there, head to Old Village Historic District to catch the unparalleled views from Pitt Street Bridge—which used to connect the town to the adjacent Sullivan's Island. 

Sullivan's Island: A two and a half-mile long barrier island, Sullivan's Island is more than just a beach town. Besides the sandy shore, there are several popular restaurants (including Poe's Tavern, The Obstinate Daughter, and Home Team BBQ), bike paths, and some of the dreamiest beach houses you'll find in the Charleston area. 

Isle of Palms (IOP): Alternating houses of residents and renters can be found along the main road on Isle of Palms, Palm Boulevard. Connected to both Sullivan's Island and Mount Pleasant, IOP extends in the other direction to include the Wild Dunes Resort and Golf Course. 

Daniel Island: Between the Cooper and Wando Rivers, Daniel Island is one of Charleston's best places for outdoor activities. Golf courses, parks, and trails are easily accessible and can be reached in just 20 minutes from downtown. 

Johns Island: The largest island in South Carolina, Johns Island is flanked by James Island, Folly Beach, Kiawah Island, and Seabrook Island. Here you'll find the famous Angel Oak tree and several golf courses, both private and public. 

James Island: Take in the marsh views and iconic trees on James Island, an area once used as mostly farmland. For travelers looking for slightly lower accommodation prices than what you'll find downtown, James Island features several more budget-friendly hotels and Airbnbs to choose from. 

Folly Island: Beach bars, cafes, souvenir shops, seafood markets, taco shacks, and golf cart rentals—what else does a beach town need? Folly Island is one of the most popular South Carolina beach destinations due to its proximity to downtown Charleston and the sheer amount of entertainment for all ages of beach-goers. 

Kiawah and Seabrook Islands: Privacy and quiet are two things you'll find upon venturing further out to the gated communities of Kiawah and Seabrook Islands. The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Course, a five-star hotel with unbeatable ocean views, is pure luxury and relaxation—a must-stay for special occasions and celebrations. Remember, you can't get on either island without a pass, but Kiawah's Beachwalker Park is open to the public. 

North Charleston: Many Charleston travel guides make the mistake of leaving out North Charleston—which is continuously adding new places to eat, drink, and stay. Restaurants like Jackrabbit Filly and EVO Pizza are worth the trek when the peninsula becomes overcrowded by the influx of summer tourists. 

Weather

Rain is relatively common in spring, but it's one of the more pleasant times of the year in Charleston when Southern blooms like wisteria, jasmine, and azaleas come out in full force.  During summer, thunderstorms and humidity accompany the heat, with temperatures reaching the low 80s and coastal breezes providing some relief.

Fall is slightly warmer than spring, with moderate days followed by crisp evenings. Hurricane season peaks in August and September, lasting through November. Winters in Charleston are typically mild and occasionally rainy. Temperatures rarely drop low enough for snow flurries. 

The following are average Fahrenheit lows and highs by month.

January 39 - 60
February 41 - 63
March 47 - 70
April 54 - 77
May 63 - 84
June 71 - 89
July 74 - 91
August 73 - 90
September 69 - 85
October 57 - 77
November 48 - 70
December 41 - 63

Apps to Download

Uber: transportation 
iOs | Android

Lyft: transportation 
iOs | Android

Resy: restaurant reservations
iOs | Android

Social Bicycles: Charleston bike share
iOs | Android

Historic Charleston Foundation: photos, oral histories, maps, and videos of Charleston
iOs