When it comes to Downtown Charleston in South Carolina forget sky high tower blocks because they are few and far between. This downtown district has retained many of its historic features and is a veritable time capsule with elegant colonial-style buildings lining its cobbled streets.
The district was founded as a port in 1670 on a peninsula which juts out between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers into the North Atlantic Ocean. Now covering a total area of around five square miles, Downtown Charleston encompasses James, Johns and Daniel’s Islands as well as the Cainhoy Peninsula and the neighborhood of West Ashley.
Downtown Charleston is steeped in history, but it has a modern side too. Read on to discover fifteen of the best things to do in Downtown Charleston which will make any visit to the district both fascinating and fun.
1. Charleston Walking Tour
Exploring beautiful Downtown Charleston by foot is the best way to uncover all its hidden secrets. Join a walking tour and stroll around the district accompanied by a knowledgeable local guide to find one surprise after another.
See Fort Sumter where the American Civil War began, be impressed by the grandeur of antebellum mansions and discover concealed courtyards and gardens while listening to informative snippets of history and amusing anecdotes about past residents of the district.
Recommended tour: Charleston Historical Walking Tour
2. Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is Charleston’s modern landmark and a superb place from where to view the downtown district and Charleston harbor.
The two and a half mile long cable-stay bridge spans the Cooper River and carries eight lanes of traffic plus a pedestrian walkway and cycle path.
Walk out to the middle of the bridge or hire a bicycle and cycle across. The vistas from the bridge are sensational in the daytime but even more impressive at sunset.
Related tour: Charleston Harbor 1.5-Hour Narrated Cruise
3. McLeod Plantation Historic Site
The cotton industry played a big part in Downtown Charleston’s past. Visit the McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island’s Country Club Drive to see first hand what life was like in those bygone days for both wealthy owners and their enslaved workers.
The site, which covers a total area of thirty-seven acres, has a 19th-century mansion surrounded by centuries-old oak trees hung with Spanish moss, six clapboard constructed slave houses and many more restored buildings pertinent to the cotton industry era.
4. Saltwater Cycle
The Saltwater Cycle is a fun way to see Downtown Charleston, meet new friends and have fun all at the same time.
Board the sixteen-seater floating cycle at Ripley Light Marina at 8 Ashley Pointe Drive and be ready for one hour and forty minutes of pedal-powered maritime diversion along the shoreline.
The Saltwater Cycle is BYOB, bring your own booze, though coolers, ice and plenty of lively party music are provided.
Need something faster? Try the Charleston Harbor 2-Hour Speedboat Adventure
5. Gibbes Museum Of Art
The Gibbes Museum of Art, on Meeting Street, houses a variety of exhibitions including a world-renowned collection of over six hundred miniature portraits.
The museum has seven individual galleries each one dedicated to artworks from different periods. Three galleries are devoted to eighteenth and nineteenth-century paintings and sculptures and another to the Charleston Renaissance period.
The museum has extensive collections of modern and contemporary works plus hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
6. Poogan’s Porch
Indulge in some real Southern hospitality at Poogan’s Porch on Queen Street.
The restaurant, housed in a fully restored Victorian mansion with porches on the first and second floor, has been serving up Southern delicacies for four decades.
Don’t miss out on tasting the house specials of shrimp and grits or their crispy fried chicken with a side of biscuits and gravy. It’s wholesome, hearty food just like grandma might have made.
7. Historic Charleston City Market
The Historic Charleston City Market is the cultural hub of Downtown Charleston and has been in operation since 1807.
The market hall itself is a national landmark which houses over twenty retail outlets and eateries plus many artisan studios producing traditional sweetgrass basketry and artwork.
The Charleston City Market is open seven days a week and holds extra night markets on Fridays and Saturdays.
8. Charleston Harbor Cruise
Board the Carolina Belle at its mooring on Wharfside Street for a leisurely cruise around Charleston harbor.
The eighty-foot cruiser has a main salon and two observation decks, one in the stern of the boat and the other at the prow plus a bar serving drinks and snacks. During the ninety minute cruise, the captain narrates interesting historical facts about the landmarks being seen while navigating.
Take a camera and some binoculars. Dolphins and pelicans are often sighted during the sailing.
Book online: Historic Harbor Cruise
9. Pub and Brewery Tour
Combine sightseeing of historic locations with a few drinks on an a trip with a local.
Meet up with the guide and fellow pub enthusiasts before setting off to explore several of the district’s historic taverns.
The two hour tour include a chatty history lesson on Charleston’s pub culture plus snacks to soak up the beer.
Book online: History and Hops Tour: Bar and History Walk
10. The Calhoun Mansion
See the opulent luxury of the late 19th century in all its vintage glory at the Calhoun Mansion on Meeting Street.
The twenty-four thousand square foot mansion is the biggest single-family residence in Charleston and still used as a family home even though it’s open daily for public viewing.
Take a tour through its three magnificent floors with thirty-five rooms full of period furniture. The entrance hall alone measures sixty-five feet and has a fourteen-foot high ceiling. The house has twenty-three antique fireplaces plus an enormous music room and stunningly beautiful landscaped gardens. It is seriously grand.
11. Hydrofly Watersports Charleston
Head to Hydrofly on Lockwood Drive for a water-themed adrenaline thrill.
Whatever watersport rocks your boat, you’ll find it at Hydrofly. From wakeboarding and tubing to jet ski rentals, parasailing and paddleboarding plus the latest Flyboard. Never done any of those? Don’t worry; there are qualified instructors giving lessons before you take to the water.
If all that’s just too much, then chill out at Hydrofly’s two-story Tiki Hut, the floating base for the watersports, and enjoy the incredible views from the sun deck while catching some rays.
12. Haunted Jail Tour
Get spooked on a tour of Charleston’s most haunted building, The City Jail. The castle-like building on Magazine Street housed many of Charleston’s infamous criminals, from pirates to serial killers, over a period of one hundred and fifty years.
Head inside after dark to explore the warden’s quarters and cells listening for the eerie rattle of chains and the slamming of cell doors as the spirits make their presence known.
If after dark is just too scary, try the daytime history tour, but no-one is guaranteeing the ghosts won’t still be there.
Related tour: Haunted Evening Horse and Carriage Tour of Charleston
13. Charleston Crab House
Surrounded by water as it is, it’s hardly surprising seafood features on many restaurant menus, but it’s The Charleston Crab House who really know how to make a meal of it.
For a great seafood dinner, check out either of their two premises. One is centrally located on Market Street and the other is in a waterfront spot on Wappoo Creek Drive on Johns Island.
Indulge in the Crab House Crab Pot, a Lowcountry Shrimp Boil or She Crab Soup. They’re all traditional Charleston dishes which no-one should leave Downtown without tasting.
14. Waterfront Park
The Waterfront Park is a ten-acre green space on Concord Street with fantastic views of Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River.
The park has a seaside-style pier jutting into the river which is a great spot for viewing wildlife, passing sailing yachts, cruise boats and the Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge.
Don’t miss getting a photo of the Pineapple Fountain. It’s fun by day, even more spectacular at night when illuminated and definitely Instagrammable.
15. Henry’s on the Market Bar and Restaurant
Head up to Henry’s Rooftop Bar on North Market Street to watch the sun go down.
Henry’s restaurant-bar, open since 1932, has it all — great food, live music and a lounge for dancing plus a rooftop patio for chill out drinks.
Rock in a rocking chair or swing in a hammock while sipping on a Silver Rickey or a Sweet Tea Cosmo as a palette of vermilion streaks the skies. The bonus? The same as in the rest of Downtown Charleston, there are no skyscrapers to spoil the view.