Rich in tradition and overflowing with historic charm, Charleston, South Carolina remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Deep South. Spend leisurely days wandering down storybook-style streets, sailing around the picturesque harbor, and learning about the city’s enthralling history. As you plan your trip, consider these exciting attractions located within easy driving distance of many Charleston vacation rentals.

Harborview on the Ashley River
Source: Flickr/John Hoey

1. Historic Carriage Tour

Settle into the Southern vibe with a historic carriage tour around downtown Charleston. Climb aboard one of Palmetto Carriage Works’ horse-drawn carriages, and then sit back while a professional guide delivers an entertaining introduction to the city. Look out for the Gothic Revival Huguenot Church and the classic courtyard-facing balconies of the Italianate-style Patrick O’Donnell House.

2. Patriots Point

Get up close and personal with the United States’ military might at Patriots Point. Walk across the flight deck of the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, and check out the guns on the USS Laffey destroyer. This naval museum also features a submarine, a variety of military aircraft, and an excellent Vietnam Experience exhibit.

3. Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

Step into the past at the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens. Follow the sweeping Avenue of the Oaks to the main mansion for a view of how wealthy plantation owners lived. Don’t miss the sobering slave quarters, a series of tiny cabins packed with exhibits about slaves’ lives, cultural traditions, and emancipation.

4. Charleston City Night Market

Enjoy cool evening breezes as you shop the Charleston City Night Market, which operates on weekends from April through December. Browse goods from local artists and craftspeople — vendors here sell everything from handmade sweetgrass baskets to activated charcoal sugar scrubs. Live musical performances create a festive atmosphere perfect for a date night or family outing.

5. Fort Sumter National Monument

Spend a warm afternoon on a ferry to Fort Sumter National Monument, the site where the Civil War erupted in 1861. Once you land on the island, head to the fort to touch historic cannons, walk across the parade ground, and look over the sea where warships once sailed. For an in-depth explanation of the tensions that led to the war, join a ranger-led tour.

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6. Battery Park

One of Charleston’s must-see destinations, Battery Park serves as a hotbed of year-round activity. Leave your car near Waterfront Park, where you can take a photo with the city’s iconic pineapple foundation. Then, stroll down East Battery street to marvel at the sprawling Southern mansions and ocean views. End your trip with a visit to the Civil War exhibits at White Point Gardens.

7. Stroll King Street

Join locals and tourists with a day of shopping on King Street, one of the city’s busiest commercial areas. Stop into the charming Blue Bicycle Books, or hunt for the perfect antique at the venerable George C. Birlant and Co. Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit makes the perfect spot for a break. Grab a cheese and chive biscuit here, or go big with country ham or black pepper bacon filling.

8. South Carolina Aquarium

Take a break from the heat at the South Carolina Aquarium — a fun attraction for both for adults and kids. Learn about sea turtle recovery and rehabilitation, spot a ghostly albino alligator in the Coastal Plain exhibit, and head to the Touch Tank to feel starfish, sea urchins, and stingrays. Interact with divers in the Great Ocean Tank, and see the aquarium’s enormous resident sea turtle.

9. Folly Beach

Enjoy complete relaxation on Folly Beach, where a long white-sand beach attracts sun-seekers and swimmers. Take a dip in the waves, or rent a beach chair for a day of sunbathing. At sunset, walk down the Folly Beach Pier for beautiful views, live music, and ocean fishing.

10. Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist

When you need a breather during a day of sightseeing, check out the grandeur of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Street noises fade away as you enter the sanctuary, which features a dramatically soaring ceiling and beautiful stained-glass windows. For a special treat, visit during a choir rehearsal to experience the building’s heavenly acoustics — check the church’s website for dates and times.

11. Rainbow Row

Bring your camera to Rainbow Row, one of Charleston’s most iconic attractions. Lined with candy-colored Georgian row houses that date back to the 1700s, this street makes a stunning photo backdrop. Grab an iced tea, and enjoy the beautiful 15-minute walk from downtown to this scenic area of East Bay Street.

12. Charleston Harbor Boat Tour

For a sailor’s view of Charleston, take a boat tour of the historic harbor. Charleston Harbor Tours offers daily trips aboard the adorable Carolina Belle boat. Along the way, keep your camera ready to capture shots of St. Michael’s Church, Fort Moultrie, and the enormous USS Yorktown. Don’t bother with a guidebook — the company’s USCG licensed captains provide fascinating commentary as you sail.

13. Old Slave Mart

Glimpse Charleston’s heartbreaking past at the Old Slave Mart, where slaves were auctioned off as they entered the United States. A series of fascinating exhibits gives a visceral look into the slave trade and its eventual downfall. Allow at least an hour for this museum.

14. Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon

Surround yourself in Charleston history at the Old Exchange Building. Walk through the Great Hall, where George Washington visited in 1791, and stand on the site of slave auctions. The star of the show, Provost Dungeon has held slaves, pirates, and patriots over the centuries. Join a docent-led tour for fascinating stories and an interactive experience.

15. Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

Burn off a few calories with a bike ride across the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which soars across the Cooper River. Rent a bike from Affordabike Bicycle Shop in Charleston, and pedal along the water to the bridge. Early morning or evening are the best times to tackle the 2.7-mile ride.

 
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