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Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is the largest and oldest city in the state of South Carolina in the United States of America. Its historic downtown is on a peninsula formed by two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, flowing into the Atlantic, and protected from the open ocean by surrounding islands. Charleston was captured in the American Civil War without much property damage, so the historic part of town has buildings that are hundreds of years old. The current downtown skyline, with practically no tall buildings due to the city's height restriction ordinance, is dominated by church steeples and the stunning Arthur Ravenel cable-stay bridge over the Cooper River. The city is a major port on the eastern seaboard of the US and a popular destination for domestic and international tourists.

Charles Towne, as it was first called, was established in 1670 by Anthony Ashley Cooper on the west bank of the Ashley River, Charles... Read more

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is the largest and oldest city in the state of South Carolina in the United States of America. Its historic downtown is on a peninsula formed by two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, flowing into the Atlantic, and protected from the open ocean by surrounding islands. Charleston was captured in the American Civil War without much property damage, so the historic part of town has buildings that are hundreds of years old. The current downtown skyline, with practically no tall buildings due to the city's height restriction ordinance, is dominated by church steeples and the stunning Arthur Ravenel cable-stay bridge over the Cooper River. The city is a major port on the eastern seaboard of the US and a popular destination for domestic and international tourists.

Charles Towne, as it was first called, was established in 1670 by Anthony Ashley Cooper on the west bank of the Ashley River, Charles Towne Landing, a few miles northwest of the present downtown. By 1680, the settlement had grown and moved to its present peninsular location.
Around 1690, the English colonists erected a fortification wall around the small settlement to aid in its defense. The wall sheltered the area, in the present French Quarter, from Cumberland St. south to Water St., from Meeting St. east to East Bay St. The wall was destroyed around 1720. Cobblestone lanes and one building remain from this colonial English Walled Town: the Powder Magazine, where the town's supply of gunpowder was stored. Remnants of the colonial wall were found beneath the Old Exchange Building.
Luckily, Charleston was re-captured in the Civil War without much property damaged, and it was the first city in the U.S. to pass a historical preservation ordinance. Thus, much of the beautiful architecture, from early Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate to Victorian, remains for future generations to see and enjoy.
Charleston is also known as The Holy City due to the numerous church steeples, which dot the city's low-rise skyline, and the fact that it was one of the few places in the original thirteen colonies to provide religious tolerance to the French Huguenots as well as to Jews.
Charleston is, in general, a laid-back but sophisticated city and has an old-South feel, just like its neighbor, Savannah. Most people in Charleston are helpful when approached in a polite manner. If a traveler speaks little English, Charlestonians are still generally willing to help as best they can. It is advisable, however, to at least learn a few key English phrases, and perhaps carry a traveler's phrasebook.

  • Charleston Visitor Center, 375 Meeting St, toll-free: +1-800-774-0006. Nov-Mar: 8:30 AM-5 PM; April-Oct: 8:30 AM-5:30 PM.

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Charleston, South Carolina: Port Information

Cruise terminal is a 20-minute drive from the airport. One can take a public bus or a taxi at the airport.
Parking at the port is available.
The port is in the city's historic district. One can easily get to everything he/she needs on foot.

Get around Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of downtown, which is best explored on foot, Charleston is a city that is best traveled by car. Several rental car services are available at the Charleston International Airport. Some area hotels also provide transportation to and from the airport.

By public transportation

The public transportation system in Charleston consists primarily of a fleet of buses run by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) and privately run taxi services. The bus system is not widely used by the upper-class residents of the city and would be rated as fair by the standards of most larger urban areas. Bus Route 11 serves the Charleston International Airport and the downtown area. The most useful service for tourists CARTA offers are the three free trolley lines (Routes 210, 211, 213), called DASH (Downtown Area SHuttles), which carry riders around downtown and can cut down on the amount of walking you need to do. 
Taxis are generally safe and inexpensive in Charleston but are sometimes difficult to find unless they are prearranged by calling one of the taxi services in advance or you are in the downtown area, where it is easy to flag one down. If a taxi to the airport is required, it must generally be arranged in advance. Expect at least a half-hour wait for a taxi to arrive; if staying in a hotel, hotel staff can help arrange for a taxi. Another option is to take a shuttle van from the airport - this may be cheaper. However, upon noting that one is leaving the city for the airport, transport will generally arrive with undue haste.

By tour bus or carriage

Gray Line of Charleston offers a choice of guided mini-bus tours of the historic, charming city of Charleston, designed to give you a fun and informative look into the city’s well-preserved past.
A great way to tour the city is by a carriage drawn by horses or mules (many vendors available at the Market in downtown Charleston), although one might prepare oneself for some derisive comment and exasperation from locals inconvenienced by such quaint methods of transit.

By foot

Luckily for visitors to Charleston's peninsula, the historic district is accessible on foot. If staying in one of the many hotels on the peninsula, a visitor could easily explore most of the city's major historical sites without the benefit of a car, either by foot or with the help of the DASH trolley lines. Unfortunately, the plantations — a significant part of Charleston's history — are not located within walking distance of the peninsula. If you are driving into the historic downtown, the first thing to do is to find someplace to park. Garage parking is available at the Visitor Center; metered street parking is also available throughout the city.
The streets in historic downtown Charleston are more or less parallel and perpendicular to the Cooper River waterfront, forming a warp grid pattern, with a major shift in the angle of the grid at the east-west "fault line" of Beaufain/Hasell Street, just north of the old Market Area near the waterfront. The major east-west street, Calhoun Street, was once known as the Boundary Street, separating the then-suburbs north of it from the urban area south of it. The major north-south street, King Street, is the main shopping street in downtown, from the Upper King area north of Calhoun around the Visitor Center south to the upscale anchor, Charleston Place, at Beaufain/Hasell.
Several blocks south is a major east-west street, Broad Street, which divides two areas in historic downtown, aptly named North of Broad and South of Broad. Those South of Broad were nicknamed SOBs, and those Slightly North of Broad were SNOBs. The French Quarter, founded by the French Huguenots, is just south of the Market Area along the waterfront. The area near the southern tip of the peninsula, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet, is known as The Battery.
There are many walking tours, which give you the opportunity to see more than just driving past in a bus or carriage. There is a walking tour for virtually every interest. You will find Pub Tours, Civil War tours, culinary tours, ghost tours, Gulla tours, architecture tours, art tours, and even pirate tours. Some of the walking tour companies offer tours with guides in period costume. Charleston Pirate Tours even has a costumed guide whose parrot, a blue and gold macaw, accompanies the tour.

What to see in Charleston, South Carolina

A good place to start a tour of Charleston is the Visitor Center at 375 Meeting St. (between John and Ann Sts.) (tel: 1-800-774-0006), not far from the terminus of I-26 northwest of downtown. At the Visitor Center, a traveler can find maps and guides, tour a small museum dedicated to the history of Charleston, book sightseeing tours, and view an introductory film to Charleston. All the free DASH trolley routes serve the visitor center, so it's also a handy place to park your car and start exploring downtown.

Historic attractions

Charleston's primary attraction to visitors is its historical setting and landmarks. A list of some sites to visit includes:

  • Charleston Museum

    , 360 Meeting St (across the street from the Visitor Center). Open daily. Start with this museum to learn about Charleston's history. 
  • Fort Sumter. The island site of the start of the Civil War, now a National Monument. One must board a ferry for an additional fee at either Liberty Square in downtown or Patriot's Point in Mt. Pleasant. The ferry ride is about 30 minutes. Fort Sumter is in ruins, but there are markers telling you where things used to be, as well as a museum.
  • French Quarter. Between S. Market and Tradd, Meeting and the waterfront, where the English colonial Walled Town once stood. Known for its art galleries, St. Philips Church, French Huguenot Church, and historic architecture.
  • The Market. An old shopping district at the foot of Market St. where vendors still sell wares. Contrary to popular legend, the Market was never a slave exchange. However, the remnants of an old slave market are located a few blocks away.
  • Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site. Off US 171 on the west bank of the Ashley River, about 3 miles northwest of downtown.
  • The Citadel. Historic military college founded in 1842. Full dress parades generally occur every Friday afternoon while school is in session and are free to the public. The campus is typically open to visitors and tours can be arranged by calling the school or stopping by the Admissions Office located in Bond Hall.
  • The College of Charleston. Founded in 1770, the College of Charleston is the oldest institution of higher education in the state of South Carolina and the thirteenth oldest in the United States.
  • Randolph Hall. At the College of Charleston. Built in 1828. Popular civil war movie-making site.
  • Longitude Lane (Longitude Lane), off E Bay St. Colonial cobblestone lane built on a longitude line.
  • Fireproof Building, 100 Meeting Street, ☎ +1 843-723-3225. M-F 9 AM-4 PM. A National Historic Landmark constructed in 1827 and believed to be the oldest building of fireproof construction in the United States. The work of Robert Mills, the first native-born American to be trained as an architect, and a Charleston native who worked with other important early American architects such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe. Mills was responsible for the Washington Monument and many other public buildings. The building consists primarily of solid masonry in a simple Greek Doric style. An oval hall contains a cantilevered stone staircase lit by a cupola. The building serves as the headquarters for the South Carolina Historical Society, a private non-profit organization founded in 1856.

Parks and gardens

  • The Battery and White Point Gardens. A park located at the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula with beautiful views, especially along the Battery Promenade by the Cooper River. Don't miss the elegant historic mansions along the Promenade, some of which have sold for nearly $20M.
  • Liberty Square, at the east end of Calhoun St. fronting the Cooper River. Has the South Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Sumter National Monument Visitor Center, both offers views of the Ravenel Bridge. This is also where you may take a boat tour to Fort Sumter.
  • Waterfront Park, from Vendue Range south to Water St. along the Cooper River. A popular park with plenty of lovely fountains and benches for people-watching. A couple of the fountains are designed for wading, including one shaped like a pineapple. The Wharf at Vendue Range offers views of the cruise ship terminal and the Ravenel Bridge.


  • Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting Street, ☎ +1 843-720-1682. Since 1905, this striking Beaux Arts building has housed a premier collection of over 10,000 works of fine art, principally American works with a Charleston or Southern connection.
  • South Carolina Aquarium, 100 Aquarium Wharf (at Liberty Square at the end of Calhoun St.), ☎ +1 843 577-3474. Daily 9 AM–5 PM (until 6 PM in summer); last admission one hour before closing. 

Historic places of worship

One of Charleston's nicknames is "the Holy City," owing to its many historic churches which dot the downtown peninsula, but also because the city provided religious tolerance to many who fled persecution, including the French Huguenots, Church of England dissenters, and others. The first places of worship organized in the late 17th and early 18th century were located around the old walled town, the present French Quarter. As the town grew outward, later places of worship were mainly located towards the upper wards north of Boundary Street, the present Calhoun Street. Colonial Charleston was the wealthiest English town in America, which is reflected in the sophisticated architecture of many of the churches. If visiting over the weekend, consider attending a service at one of these places to see them up-close.

  • Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St. Congregationalists, Scotch and Irish Presbyterians, and French Huguenots of the original settlement of Charles Town founded this dissenting congregation, known as the Independent Church, around 1681. They met at the White Meeting House, for which Meeting Street is named.
  • French Huguenot Church, 44 Queen St (at Church St.). Organized around 1681 by Huguenot refugees from the Protestant persecutions in France; first church at present site built in 1687.
  • St. Philip's Episcopal Church, 146 Church St. Organized around 1681 at site now occupied by St. Michael's.
  • First Baptist Church, 61 Church St. Organized around 1683; present site donated in 1699. Oldest Baptist church in the South, and often referred to as the "Mother Church of Southern Baptists".
  • First Scots Presbyterian Church, 53 Meeting St. Organized in 1731.
  • Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, 90 Hasell St (near the Old Market). Organized in 1749. The oldest surviving Reform synagogue in the world.
  • St. Michael's Episcopal Church, 71 Broad St. Organized in 1751.
  • St. Mary's Catholic Church, 89 Hasell St. Organized in 1789. Oldest Catholic church in the Carolinas.
  • Trinity United Methodist Church, 273 Meeting St. Organized in 1791.
  • Second Presbyterian Church, 342 Meeting St. Organized in 1809.
  • Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, 120 Broad St. Organized in 1821.
  • St. Matthews Lutheran Church, 405 King St. Organized in 1840.
  • Citadel Square Baptist Church, 328 Meeting St (at Calhoun St.). Organized in 1854.
  • St. John's Lutheran Church, 5 Clifford St. Organized 1742.

What to do in Charleston, South Carolina

  • Carriage tours. Several groups operate horse-drawn carriage tours of the historical sites in the city. Most of these tours leave from stands on Market Street, next to the Market itself. While reservations are not required for these tours, they are run on a first-come-first-served basis, so plan to wait during peak tourist season. Luckily, most of the tour services assign a departure time, rather than making customers wait in line, so tourists waiting for a carriage can take the opportunity to visit the Market shops. Discount coupons are available in free tourist maps and guides.
  • Walking tours. Equally, fun walking tours include guided history tours and scary ghost tours through the streets of Charleston. Because the historic downtown is relatively compact, self-guided walking tours can be found in many guidebooks. An interesting DIY walk is to do the Charleston Museum Mile along the Meeting Street corridor, which includes historic sites, historic places of worship, and related points of interest; a brochure can be found at the Visitor Center.
  • Baseball can be seen at Riley Park where the Charleston Riverdogs, an affiliate of the New York Yankees, play ball.
  • Soccer fans may want to take in a Charleston Battery match at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island. It's a 5,000 seat stadium with a nice little English-styled pub.
  • Angel Oak. For lovers of nature, Angel Oak is a sprawling oak tree purported to be over 1000 years old and provides a great place for a picnic and a visit off the beaten path (John's Island). If you are looking for a laid back younger (surfer) crowd, check out events at the Daily Dose.

What to eat and drink in Charleston, South Carolina


Charleston is considered a great restaurant town in the Southeast U.S., especially for seafood.


  • Five Loaves Cafe, 43 Cannon St, ☎ +1 843 937-4303. A local favorite offering soups, salads, sandwiches and more. No reservations allowed so expect to wait at peak times. There is also a Mt. Pleasant location.
  • The Kickin Chicken, 337 King St; also locations in West Ashley and James Island, ☎ +1 843 805-5020. Great sandwiches and wraps and a great atmosphere.
  • Moe's Crosstown Tavern, 714 Rutledge Ave, ☎ +1 843 641-0469. Incredible bar food and a great venue to watch your favorite sports team. Also offers an incredible Sunday brunch.
  • The Mustard Seed, 1970 Maybank Hwy, ☎ +1 843 762-0072. Has homemade bread and chips.
  • Shuang Xi, McCall Center, 5070 International Blvd, North Charleston, ☎ +1 843 747-6147. Excellent freshly cooked Chinese food. Eat in or take out. 
  • Sticky Fingers, 235 Meeting St, ☎ +1 843 853-7427. Memphis styled BBQ chain restaurant. 
  • Sunflower Cafe, 2366 Ashley River Rd (in West Ashley), ☎ +1 843 571-1773. The food is incredible. Service is sweet and sincere.
  • Wild Wing, 36 N. Market St, ☎ +1 843 722-9464. Chain restaurant.
  • 39 Rue de Jean, 39 John St, ☎ +1 843 722-8881. Refined French cafe in Upper King. Lunch and dinner served daily. 
  • The Barbadoes Room, 115 Meeting St (in the Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel), ☎ +1 843 577-2400. Has a stunning atmosphere and offers a great dinner date setting. Don't forget to come by after Church for their superb Sunday brunch.
  • Basil Thai Restaurant, 460 King St, ☎ +1 843 724-3490. Lunch, M-F only. Dinner nightly after 5 PM. Elegant Upper King alternative to Lowcountry cuisine. First come, first serve; no reservations. 
  • Coast Bar & Grill, 39 John St, ☎ +1 843 722-8838. Good seafood in Upper King. Dinner nightly. 
  • Cru Café, 18 Pinckney St, ☎ +1 843 534-2434. Lunch and dinner, Tu-Sa. Small cafe in the Market Area serving upscale comfort food. 
  • FIG, 232 Meeting St, ☎ +1 843 805-5900. Dinner served M-Sa after 6 PM. Local contemporary bistro in the Market area.
  • Gaulart & Maliclet Fast & French, 98 Broad St (near King St.), ☎ +1 843 577-9797. Closed Sundays. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and take out).
  • Hank's Seafood Restaurant, 10 Hayne St (and Church St.), ☎ +1 843 723-3474. Good seafood in the Market area. Dinner nightly.
  • Hyman's Seafood Restaurant, 215 Meeting St, ☎ +1 843 723-6000. Excellent seafood, casual atmosphere, reasonable prices, very popular, near Charleston Place. Lunch and dinner daily. 
  • Jestine's Kitchen, 251 Meeting Street, ☎ +1 843 722-7224. Offers some of the best Lowcountry food for the money. Very popular and has been featured in many national food publications. A must have is the "table wine" (sweet tea), fried okra, and a slice of homemade pie (choose from over 10 kinds).
  • Virginia's on King, 412 King St. (at Hutson St.), ☎ +1 843 735-5800. Upscale Lowcountry Southern cuisine.
  • 82 Queen, 82 Queen St, ☎ +1 843 723-7591. Some of the best she-crab soup in town. 
  • Husk, 76 Queen Street, ☎ +1 843 577-2500. Led by award-winning chef Sean Brock, Husk focuses on both exploring and creating playful variants of traditional Southern food. 
  • Magnolia's, 185 East Bay St, ☎ +1 843 577-7771. Southern infusion cuisine.
  • Slightly North of Broad, 192 E Bay St (slightly north of Broad Street), ☎ +1 843 723-3424. The restaurant serves traditional Southern cuisine, and its menu selection varies with the seasons.


Bars are not difficult to find in Charleston. Charleston has two favorite liquors of choice FireFly Sweet Tea Vodka (produced from locally grown tea) and Grand Marnier (a French orange liquor). All downtown bars and clubs have to close by 2 AM and Charleston has an enforced open container law.

  • Blind Tiger, 36-38 Broad St, ☎ +1 843 577-0088. An old speakeasy from the Prohibition era that is a local favorite.
  • Burns Alley, 354 King St, ☎ +1 843 723-6735. Another local favorite, tucked amongst all the college bars on King Street.
  • Henry's House, 54 N Market St, ☎ +1 843 723-4363. Has a lively 40's crowd.
  • Rooftop, 19 Vendue Range (in the Vendue Inn). Atop the Vendue Inn; an excellent place to enjoy a drink outdoors.
  • Southend Brewery, 161 E Bay St, ☎ +1 843 853-4677. A more sedate atmosphere and great microbrewed beer with dinner.
  • Tsunami, 215 E Bay St, ☎ +1 843 965-5281. Uptempo atmosphere and good sushi.
  • Wet Willie's, 209 E Bay St, ☎ +1 843 853-5650. Cruise ship crowd and fruity, daiquiri-style drinks. 
  • The Gin Joint, 182 East Bay St, ☎ +1 843 577-6111. Pre-prohibition style drinks made with top-shelf liquor and house-made mixers.

Shopping in Charleston, South Carolina

The Market and the shops lining Market street are a popular shopping destination for tourists. The Market itself is a large gathering of small vendors that sell everything from blankets to candy. Baskets and other sweetgrass crafts can also be bought at the Market. While the Market is full of the usual kitschy knick-knacks, if you look closely you will find some nice things. Gel candles filled with seashells make for a nice souvenir. Reptile and eel skin wallets are another nice item that you will have a hard time finding in other places. More traditional shops line Market Street and most of these sell merchandise that is aimed at tourists. There are a string of candy and confectionery shops along Market street where you can buy fudge, saltwater taffy, and pralines.

Upscale shopping in downtown Charleston can be found at the shops lining King Street. These shops are known for selling high-quality merchandise but are not known for bargain prices.

A popular souvenir in Charleston are sweetgrass crafts. Sweetgrass weaving is a Gullah specialty and done by hand to produce a wide range of crafts from coasters to child-sized baskets. It's interesting to see the weaving process and it can be viewed for free wherever sweetgrass crafts are sold. The seller will typically be working on a craft wherever he or she is selling them. For the larger baskets, they will sit inside of it while weaving. Sweetgrass crafts are quite expensive. The Market is the most convenient place to buy baskets as there will typically be several weavers there on any given day. If you want more of a bargain or a little more selection, there are roadside stalls on Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant. If you'd like an affordable sweetgrass souvenir, look for young children downtown selling sweetgrass roses that they've woven. These will typically cost a few dollars and make for a nice gift but may be hard to find because police chase the children away if they're seen selling them.

Safety in Charleston, South Carolina

A word of caution, it is illegal in South Carolina to be 'grossly intoxicated' in public. The police can arrest you and charge you with public disorderly conduct if they believe this is the case, and there seems to be no legal definition of grossly intoxicated for a pedestrian. This is a misdemeanor offense, resulting in a court hearing. You can get your charge expunged within the state by entering a Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) program. This involves fines, community service, drug tests, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and homework assignments and typically takes about 2 months to complete. However, the PTI program is not recognized by the Federal Government.

Most of the areas visitors would normally visit in South Carolina are relatively crime-free. However, some residential areas like northern Charleston may be somewhat dangerous after dark for non-locals.

Language spoken in Charleston, South Carolina

The dialect here varies from standard American English, having a "Southern Coastal Accent" that contains British influences. For those who learned Standard English, some speech may be difficult to comprehend here. Generally speaking, one can easily get by with Standard American or British English, though. The inhabitants of Charleston are, to a large degree, transient (due to several military installations, port labor, rail labor, and other factors), and therefore many other languages are inherent in a minority role.
A minority dialect spoken here is Gullah, a dialect of English almost incomprehensible to most English Speakers. If you are familiar with "Porgy and Bess", you are familiar with Gullah. Gullah has West-African influences mixed with pidjin French and English. The dialect originated around John's Island. If you travel south of the city (to the islands, or towards Ravenel), the dialect becomes somewhat more prevalent (although still in a minority context).
Alternate languages include Spanish and Portuguese, brought to the city and its outskirts by its large Latin American population. One may encounter "Spanglish" here, which is an odd combination of Spanish and English.
Place names in and around Charleston are often very Americanized versions of French (Lagare Street, for example, is pronounced luh-GREE) or other languages.


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