Charleston waterfront

Charleston is home to one of the largest historic districts, one that is rich in history, cultural attractions, and amazing architecture. Tourists come from all over the world to photograph the gorgeous colorful buildings, explore the various museums, tour plantations & mansions, and learn more about the history of South Carolina’s oldest (founded in 1670) and largest city (thanks to rapid growth, the city just surpassed Columbia in 2017).

A trip to Charleston is an excellent bucket list contender for any photographer or history buff. Take a look below at some must-do’s while touring the Charleston historic district.

Horse-drawn carriage tours

Horse drawn carriage ride through downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston’s historic district is pretty massive with so much to explore, particularly for enthusiastic history buffs. One of the best ways to cover numerous sites within a short time frame is by taking a carriage ride. There are numerous carriage companies, and not surprisingly, all are busy, all day long. The best-of-the-best, Palmetto Carriage Works, also happens to be the oldest in town.

Because the carriage rides are so popular, the city of Charleston operates the tours on a lottery based system, in which tour guides randomly pick from 1 of 4 designated routes. This helps to cut down on traffic a bit and makes the tours more enjoyable for everyone. Sights of interest on your tour could include Charleston’s historic churches, Rainbow Row (a block of gorgeous pastel colored rowhouses), historic mansions, and lovely gardens.

The Holy City

Our tour focused on Charleston’s beautiful old churches. Charleston is nicknamed “The Holy City,” due to the city’s long history of tolerance towards religious freedom and settlement by people of various religious denominations.

From St. Michael’s (founded in 1750), the oldest church in Charleston, to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (founded in 1749), the oldest synagogue still in use in the US, the diversity is quite impressive and includes over 400 places of worship.

Here are a few of the gorgeous churches you will see if you randomly get this tour.

Pretty historic church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina
Beautiful historic church in Charleston, South Carolina
Historic church in Charleston, South Carolina

Regardless of which tour you end up on based of luck of draw, you are going to want to explore more via a self-guided tour. Prepare for lots of walking and wear comfortable shoes!

King Street

American theater - The Notebook scene in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Fans of Nicholas Spark’s classic The Notebook will definitely want to take a stroll down King Street. The American Theater is where Aly and Noah had their first date. The scene where they lie down on the road and watch the traffic lights (definitely not to be repeated today due to the immense traffic!) was also filmed down this street (at the intersection of King & Mary).

Notebook filming location - The American Theater on King Street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

King Street is a gorgeous historic street, filled to the brim with interesting architecture. The street is more than 300 years old, making it the second oldest in town after Meeting Street. Today, most of the buildings stand as restaurants or shops. From name brands, to antique shops, you will find just about everything here. If you visit on an early Sunday morning, it’s crazy how deserted everything is – this is a great time to enjoy the beautiful views all to yourself!

Beautiful architecture lining King Street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston’s Museum Mile/Meeting Street

The Powder Magazine in Charleston, South Carolina
The Powder Magazine was used as a gunpowder store during the American Revolutionary War. Built in 1713, it’s the oldest surviving public building.

Charleston’s oldest street is home to 6 museums, a Revolutionary War powder magazine, beautiful old churches, 5 historic houses, and the Charleston City Market.

Here are a few interesting attractions to check out!

Charleston Museum – America’s first museum focuses on the history of Charleston and the Lowcountry region.

Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry – Features 9 hands on exhibits.

The Powder Magazine – Established in 1713, The Powder Magazine is Charleston’s oldest building. Today, you can explore exhibits dedicated to Charleston’s Revolutionary War history.

Gibbes Museum of Art – The South’s oldest museum building showcases American art, with a focus on the Lowcountry region.

Old Slave Mart museum – This is the only remaining portion of Ryan’s Mart – where hundreds of slave auctions took place from 1856-1863.

Rainbow Row

Rainbow Row in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Another must-see downtown is beautiful Rainbow Row aka Painters Row, a gorgeous strip of brightly colored rowhouses. This is the premier site for photographers and anyone else who appreciates classic architecture. While many streets in the historic district feature brightly colored buildings, this street is considered to be the premier architectural marvel.

The Battery

Mansions lining The Battery in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

The Battery is a defensive seawall named for a civil war defense artillery battery at the site. It’s located along the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula, bordered by the Ashley and Cooper rivers. The scenic waterfront and historic park draw visitors all year-round, making it a tourist favorite.

The Battery is a gorgeous area to enjoy a refreshing stroll, especially after you tire of exploring historical sites for hours on end. Breathtaking multi-million dollar mansions (some in the 16 million dollar range!) line the coast. A quaint park lined with trees and pretty fountains create a totally relaxing setting to take a breather.

Serene views of the Charleston Harbor
Beautiful tree lined path near the waterfront in downtown Charleston, South Carolina
Beautiful fountain near the waterfront in downtown Charleston, South Carolina
Beautiful mansion at The Battery in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

The Charleston City Market

The historic Charleston SC City Market

The Charleston City Market, located on Meeting St, was established in the 1790’s, and today, it is listed on the National Historic Register. Originally referred to as the Centre market, it was originally a place where nearby farms and plantations could sell beef and produce. Also, the space was used for social gatherings.

Today, you can shop for all sorts of unique specialty goods. Handmade crafts, souvenirs, gorgeous art, jewelry….you really cannot walk out of here without seeing something that spikes your interest. Notably, the Gullah sweetgrass baskets are one of the oldest African cultural products.

Stop by the City Market after your carriage ride as it is located just across the road.

Old Charleston Jail & Ghost tours

Historic haunted jail in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

If your visit falls around Halloween (or really anytime of the year), you may want to take a haunted tour of the Old Charleston Jail. The jail, which operated from 1802-1939, housed many infamous criminals including Lavinia Fisher and Civil War prisoners.

This creepy building has been the site of many paranormal sightings. Eerie sounds have been heard by many visitors, with some reporting doors slamming and chains being dragged on the floor. Various ghost hunting groups continue to explore the grounds with EVP monitors in hand. You may have seen the jail featured on popular TV programs like Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. And, if you are not up for a fright, you can still take a regular history tour.

More info on Charleston Jail tours

Local dining options

Charleston is famous for its’ low country cuisine, whether it be Shrimp and Grits, She-Crab soup, or Fried Green Tomatoes. If you are a fan of seafood, check out Fleet Landing or Charleston Crab House.

For anyone seeking something a bit off the beaten path, Gaulart & Maliclet French Cafe is a nice relaxing choice. Not nearly as busy as more popular restaurants in town, this cafe maintains a charming old fashioned ambiance. They offer a terrific lunch special, where you will get a soup, sandwich, and drink (coffee or tea) for just 15 bucks.

Gaulart & Maliclet French Cafe in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Downtown tour

And finally, here’s a brief little tour of the entire historic district. A trolley or carriage ride is the best way to explore the area due to the heavy traffic!