Charleston, South Carolina is one of the most popular cities along the East Coast for good reason. Oozing with southern charm, Charleston is the place to visit if you love picture-perfect houses, shopping at local boutiques, great food and American history. It’s big enough to spend a long weekend in and still have things left to see on your next trip, but small enough that you don’t have to wake up early every morning to squeeze everything in. In short, it’s the ultimate weekend getaway.
If you’re planning a long weekend, here’s how to spend three perfect days in Charleston. You’ll want to start each day around 9 or 10am, as most of the attractions in the area close by 6pm. Most importantly, make sure your camera is fully charged before setting out for the day, because you’ll definitely want to fill your memory card with snaps of this beautiful city!
How to spend 3 perfect days in Charleston
Tour Nathaniel-Russell House
Start your trip with a tour of one of Charleston’s best house museums. The Nathaniel-Russell House belonged to one of the city’s wealthiest merchants and has been meticulously refurbished to reflect how the house would have looked upon its completion in 1808. Unlike the majority of homes in the area, the Nathaniel-Russell House was built in the Federal style and lacks the two-story porch Charleston houses are known for.
During the 45-minute tour, you’ll have a chance to admire Charleston’s most famous staircase — a three-story, free-flying feat of engineering (the secret is that each step rests on the previous step, which holds the entire structure up!). After the tour, take time to explore the formal gardens. Although small, they’re incredibly beautiful.
Suggested time: 1 hour
Walk along the battery
Just 10 minutes south of the Nathaniel-Russell House is the lovely White Point Garden. Walk through the garden to Murray Boulevard and head left onto the battery. Here, you’ll see cannons that were used to defend the city from invaders and you’ll get a good look at the French Quarter’s most expensive mansions as you walk north along the water’s edge. Take your time, as there are often dolphins in the bay. You’ll need a good eye to spot them though!
Suggested time: 30 minutes
Admire Rainbow Row
Keep walking along the battery until you hit Rainbow Row, a collection of pastel-coloured houses that no trip to Charleston is complete without seeing. Rainbow Row dates back to the early 1700’s when the houses used to sit near the waterfront (Charleston’s city limits have since expanded and the houses are no longer on the water). Merchants used to do business on the bottom floor of these homes and would live above their shops to save money. No one is completely sure why these houses were painted in such bright colours but one popular theory is that the colours were meant to help drunk sailors find their way home.
Suggested time: 20 minutes
Shop up for unique souvenirs at City Market
Charleston’s Historic City Market is one of the oldest markets in the US and is open every day except Christmas. While there are plenty of normal touristy souvenirs for sale here, there are also lots of one-of-a-kind watercolor paintings of Charleston’s famous landmarks, homemade spice blends, homewares, and more. Sweetgrass baskets are a particularly popular souvenir and are handmade in Charleston by Gullah artisans. The Gullah people are descendants of enslaved Africans and their language and basketry skills are unique to South Carolina.
Suggested time: 1-2 hours
Lunch: Brown Dog Deli
Brown Dog Deli is a fast casual restaurant five minutes from the historic market that serves a variety of wraps, sandwiches, and salads. They have a large selection of vegetarian options as well and their service is fast. This is a homey, budget-friendly lunch spot that’s perfect for refueling before the afternoon’s adventures.
Suggested time: 45 minutes
Spend the afternoon on Sullivan’s Island
Although quite small, there’s lots to do on Sullivan’s Island. If the weather is nice, bring your swimsuit and spend the afternoon on the beach. The waves aren’t big near the beach, so you can go swimming with younger kids here if you’re travelling with family. If you’re a history buff, a visit to Fort Moultrie is a must. When the British attacked in June 1776, the men at Fort Moultrie (then Fort Sullivan) beat them back and saved the city from invasion. After the nine-hour battle, the fort was renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of its commander, Colonel William Moultrie.
Suggested time: 2-4 hours
Dinner: Poe’s Tavern
End your day at Sullivan’s Island’s beloved burger joint, Poe’s Tavern. American poet Edgar Allan Poe was briefly stationed at Fort Moultrie when he was 18 years old and this popular restaurant is named in honor of him. In addition to burgers, Poe’s Tavern dishes up some of Charleston’s best tacos and has a large beer selection. If you have room for dessert, walk down the street for a scoop of ice cream from Republic Ice Cream.
Suggested time: 1-1.5 hours
Stroll around Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
The most visited plantation in Charleston, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is truly spectacular. It was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family and is a private home to this day. The entrance fee is a little steep ($20 for just the grounds, plus additional fees for more activities), but it’s well worth your money. You’ll want to arrive early so you can tour the house and gardens before too many visitors arrive.
Magnolia Plantation is good for both solo travelers and families, as it has a variety of tours and programs, including a nature train and a swamp tour. Give yourself lots of time to properly explore the gardens around the plantation. Just keep a lookout for alligators, as they like to hide in the water. (They’re small, don’t worry! But you shouldn’t touch them.)
Suggested time: 4-6 hours
Lunch: at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
You’ll need the entire morning to see Magnolia Plantation, so save yourself some time and eat at the Peacock Café onsite. The food is nothing fancy — hot dogs, chips, sandwiches, and such — but it’s reasonably priced. Claim one of the nearby picnic tables and have fun watching the peacocks strut about the yard. They roam freely and are incredibly entertaining!
Suggested time: 30 minutes
Window shop on King Street
You didn’t think I’d let you visit Charleston without window shopping along its most famous street, did you? King Street is lined with a variety of stores ranging from high-end boutiques to local thrift shops. Avid readers should visit Blue Bicycle Books and jewellery lovers will swoon over the Peyton William Jewelry shop. If you’re looking for less expensive souvenirs, the Savannah Bee Company sells a range of local honeys that adhere to TSA’s liquids rule.
Suggested time: 2+ hours
Dinner: Jestine’s Kitchen
There’s no need to look at the menu when you sit down, because Jestine’s fried chicken is the only thing that should be on your mind. Perfectly crispy on the outside and moist in the middle, this fried chicken beats KFC by a long shot. Wash it all down with a big cup of sweet tea and be prepared to roll yourself back to your hotel after dinner.
Suggested time: 1 hour (possibly more if there’s a wait)
Tour Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter was the site of the first battle of the American Civil War. The only way to get to the fort is by boat, which you can catch from Liberty Square in downtown Charleston. On the 30-minute ride to the fort, you’ll learn about the events that led to the Civil War. The fort now houses a museum, and you’ll have about an hour on the island to see where one of America’s best known battles took place.
Suggested time: 2.5 hours
Lunch: Hominy Grill
You might want to loosen your belt a bit before sitting down to lunch at the Hominy Grill. Although slightly out of the way, you simply can’t miss your chance to visit this beloved Charleston eatery. It’s only open until 3pm, so make sure to give yourself time to enjoy your lunch. The Hominy Grill serves up dozens of classic Southern dishes like gravy smothered biscuits, shrimp and grits and fried chicken. For a simple yet filling meal, go for the fried green tomato BLT.
Suggested time: 1-1.5 hours
Swoon over Calhoun Mansion
The Calhoun Mansion was built in 1876 and is the largest single-family residence in Charleston. It’s a whopping 24,000 square feet and has 35 rooms, all of which are stuffed with an array of antique furniture, priceless paintings, and Louis Comfort Tiffany lighting fixtures. Because someone still lives in the house, no photos are allowed inside. The best I can do to explain what the interior looks like is tell you to imagine the genie’s cave of wonders in Aladdin. Except that instead of being buried under a pile of sand, the treasure is all sitting in an ornate Gilded Age mansion in Charleston.
Suggested time: 1.5 hours
Stroll around the French Quarter
The French Quarter is chock-full of million-dollar homes that are mostly used as summer houses. Because this area is residential, there’s not much to do here except meander around taking photos of all the gorgeous mansions. During the off-season, the French Quarter is basically deserted, which makes it easy to get great shots of the houses. There are also quite a few art stores in this area, so pop in and see if there are any pieces you’d like to take home with you.
Suggested time: 1.5 hours
Take it easy at Waterfront Park
After being on your feet all day, you’ll definitely need a rest. Take a load off at Waterfront Park near Charleston’s iconic Pineapple Fountain. The pineapple is a symbol of hospitality and can be seen on signs all over the city. Find a bench near the fountain and enjoy the people watching; cruise ships dock near Waterfront Park and there’s always a crowd of people coming and going. If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, hit up Belgian Gelato for a refreshing scoop of artisan gelato.
Suggested time: 30-45 minutes
Dinner: The Darling Oyster Bar
If you haven’t tried any of Charleston’s fresh seafood yet, now’s your chance. The Darling Oyster Bar is housed in a 115-year-old restored storefront and has a chic vintage vibe. Grab a seat at the raw bar or squeeze around a table on one of their plush green couches and order from the main menu. Entrees are a little pricey, but their seafood is some of the best in town.
Suggested time: 1.5 hours
Although smaller in size, Charleston is one of those cities that you can visit over and over again and always find something new to do. Other sites you might want to visit on your next trip include the College of Charleston’s campus, Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, and the Aiken-Rhett House. Just remember to take it easy and enjoy yourself; you’re on vacation, after all!
A big thanks to Claire from Tall Girl Big World for her post today on The Department of Wandering!
Looking for more travel guides to inspire your trip to the USA? Check these out next:
- Most Charming City in the South: A Photo Tour of Downtown Charleston
- 6 of the Best Southern American Cities to Add to Your USA Itinerary
- 10 Things to Do in Orlando, Florida (That Aren’t Theme Parks)
- Why Raleigh in North Carolina Should be on Your Travel Radar
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