The following itinerary for 3 days in Charleston comes to us from Caroline Eubanks. All photos are by Caroline.
Founded in 1670, Charleston was named for King Charles as an English colony. It was settled by French Huguenots and trolled by pirates like Blackbeard. The city also served as an entry point for the Middle Passage from Africa, bringing slaves to the downtown market to be sold to nearby plantations. Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, was the site of the first shots fired in the Civil War.
Today it’s known for its historic buildings, many dating back to before the Civil War, and its events. Charleston Food + Wine Festival, Spoleto Festival, and Southeastern Wildlife Expo are a few favorites. The restaurants have also earned acclaim, boasting many James Beard award-winners.
Here’s how to spend 3 days in Charleston.
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Day 1: Downtown Charleston
Charleston is a very walkable city so it’s easy to visit many places in one day without moving your car. Start at the Charleston Museum, which is conveniently located across the street from the visitor’s center and its parking deck.
It’s America’s oldest museum and has a collection including Egyptian artifacts, a whale skeleton, and antebellum clothing. The museum also manages one of the adjacent historic house museums.
The Charleston City Market has been open since the 1800s and is the commercial hub of the city. It was renovated a few years ago and now features open air stalls as well as permanent booths with food, gifts, and crafts. Don’t miss the Sweetgrass baskets made by the Gullah people, a group of African-American people that inhabit the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.
Charleston Culinary Tours visits restaurants around the market, sampling some of the city’s most famous dishes like shrimp and grits. The company also has a tour that goes into the kitchens with chefs to learn how to replicate dishes at home.
The Gibbes Museum of Art opened in the 1900s through the personal collection of a local philanthropist. Exhibitions have ties to Charleston and the region. The permanent collection ranges from colonial portraiture to modern works.
End the day with sunset photos at Rainbow Row, the multicolored row of homes that are among the oldest in the city. Walk a bit further to The Battery, a park with cannons and a pavilion. It was here that pirates were hung for their crimes, but these days locals relax in the grass.
Toast to your first day in the Holy City with drinks at a rooftop bar. The Rooftop Bar at Vendue is a favorite, just down the street from Waterfront Park. The Pavilion Bar at the Market Pavilion Hotel is also in the City Market area.
If you have time today, check out Firefly Distillery. This company makes the original sweet tea vodka, brewed and distilled onsite. They offer tours and tastings of their facility.
Day 2: Mount Pleasant, West Ashley, and James Island
One of the popular ways to spend a visit to Charleston is to tour one of the plantations that line the surrounding areas of Mount Pleasant and West Ashley. You’ll need a car to visit them full, unless you’d rather book a tour that spends a short time in multiple homes.
Boone Hall, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall have dramatic oak trees and grand columns from their days growing rice, indigo, and cotton.
But keep in mind that these beautiful homes are also the site of great suffering. McLeod Plantation on James Island does a great job of telling the stories of both the enslaved and free residents.
Once you’ve toured the historic homes, spend the rest of the day at one of Charleston’s beaches. Folly Beach is popular with students and has plenty of bars, restaurants, and shops to get out of the sun. Isle of Palms is home to resorts and private homes, but nice beaches. Sullivan’s Island is the local’s beach with a Civil War fort and a lighthouse station.
For the best seafood around, head to Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. Here, the shrimp boats line up along the restaurants to provide the freshest ingredients. Grab a seat on the deck for sunset views and maybe even a dolphin sighting.
Day 3: Johns Island and Wadmalaw Island
Use your final day in Charleston to visit the further barrier islands. Start at Angel Oak on Johns Island, the “oldest living thing east of the Mississippi,” an estimated 400 years old. The massive oak tree is now held up with metal pylons because of the weight of the branches. It’s a great place for a picnic.
Keep driving to Wadmalaw Island, and check out the Charleston Tea Plantation, the only tea plantation in North America. Tea was first grown successfully in the 1800s and was transplanted to Wadmalaw Island in the 1960s.
The plantation was purchased by the Bigelow Tea Company in 2003 and continues to make the American Classic tea blend. They offer trolley tours of the grounds and the tea fields.
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When to Go
As one of America’s most popular destinations, there is no “off season” in Charleston. Spring is busy with festivals and events, but pollen can affect the comfort of travel. Summer months are very humid so visitors may not be used to the temperatures. Fall and winter are ideal as they are both mild in the city.
Where to Stay in Charleston
There are dozens of chain hotels, boutique properties, and historic inns throughout the peninsula, but don’t expect to pay less than $200 per night. You’re paying for the convenience of being able to walk to downtown.
Some have free breakfast and parking, which is an added perk. If you’re looking to save a bit, stay in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and West Ashley, all of which are a short drive away.
Getting Around Charleston
Most travelers will be able to see what they want to see in downtown Charleston by foot. But there’s the CARTA bus network that runs throughout the surrounding communities. It also has a free downtown DASH shuttle that loops around to the South Carolina Aquarium. Taxis, rideshare, and pedicabs also service the area.
I hope this helps you plan your 3 day itinerary for a trip to Charleston!
About the author: Caroline Eubanks is an award-winning writer from Atlanta and the author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States. Her work has been published by Afar, BBC Travel, USA Today, and Fodor’s, covering the food and travel of the Southeast USA. Check out her site This Is My South.
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