The best things to do in Charleston

Here’s what to do in America’s ‘favourite city’

Cathy Adams
Monday 30 September 2019 11:01 BST

Charleston, a port town set on a peninsula in the low-lying South Carolina flatlands, is the city of the moment.

There’s plenty to explore: whether that’s by wandering through the birthday cake-coloured historic downtown streets; swaying gently on a rocking chair on a porch of an old clapboard house; exploring layers of history and its pencil-thin church spires. The beach is just 20 minutes away and downtown Charleston is very walkable.

In spring 2019, British Airways launched twice-weekly direct flights to the South Carolinan city, departing on Thursday afternoon and returning Monday morning, offering the intoxicating opportunity for a weekend break.

Here are the best things to do in the city.

See the pineapple fountain

The pineapple is an emblem of Charleston
The pineapple is an emblem of Charleston

A sweet, if rather odd, icon of Charleston is the pineapple fountain frothing in the Waterfront Park. In the hot summer months, it’s also a good place to cool off, and local kids enjoy splashing about in it. The pineapple is the de facto icon of Charleston: it’s believed that on one of his voyages to America, Christopher Columbus discovered the fruit and brought it back to Europe.

Wander Rainbow Row

Charleston’s Historic District is where you’ll spend most of your time
Charleston’s Historic District is where you’ll spend most of your time

Ground zero of Charleston’s cutesy Historic District, which stretches down to oak tree-shaded White Point Park, is the pastel row of houses that make up Rainbow Row on East Bay Street. A stretch of 13 fondant fancy-coloured townhouses, the longest stretch of Georgian houses in America, line up prettily with white shutters and historic plaques. Just follow the gaggle of Instagrammers taking selfies.

Visit the Old Slave Mart Museum

This city, like many in the American south, has a complicated relationship with slavery. This history is examined to some degree at the Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street in the Historic District. It’s built on the site of the former slave mart, believed to be the last slave auction facility in the state. Open Monday to Saturday, 9am-5pm; entry US$8.

Snoop around a historic house

The Historic Charleston Foundation maintains a number of historic houses in downtown Charleston. There are plenty to choose from, but perhaps the grandest are the Nathaniel Russell houses, the Georgian double-style Heyward-Washington house and the buttermilk yellow Aiken Rhett mansion, where governor of South Carolina William Aiken Jr once lived.

Explore the surrounding Lowcountry

Montage Palmetto Bluff, where alligators prowl the waters
Montage Palmetto Bluff, where alligators prowl the waters

The Lowcountry – the coastal, marshy lands that stretch from South Carolina into Georgia further south – is picture-perfect with dripping Spanish moss, forests of oak trees and heat like an electric blanket.

Palmetto Bluff, two hours’ drive south from Charleston towards Savannah, Georgia, is set in the midst of this marshland and home to the upscale resort of Montage Palmetto Bluff, where alligators prowl the waters and “porching” is a local sport.

Clop around town in a horse-drawn carriage

The quintessential Charleston thing to do is to be pulled around the shaded historic streets in a traditional horse-drawn carriage. In an hour-long narrated tour, carriages set off from Anson Street and go on a random route chosen by a bingo ball. Tours cost $25pp.

Check into The Dewberry

Henrietta’s brasserie in the mid-century Dewberry hotel
Henrietta’s brasserie in the mid-century Dewberry hotel (The Dewberry)

What is a dowdy former federal building from the outside is a whirr of mid-century flair inside: think burgundy leather banquettes and armchairs, period features and a giant metal-worked map of South Carolina on the wall. There’s a boutique outpost of beloved Southern magazine Garden & Gun on the ground floor and Henrietta’s brasserie serves reimagined Lowcountry cuisine.

Eat shrimp and grits

Slightly North of Broad (or Snob for short) does a decent line in fun Southern cuisine on the well-trodden East Bay Street in the Historic District. The shrimp and grits, a quintessential Southern dish, comes with giant prawns and creamy local grits (a sort of minced corn) packed with plenty of flavour. Brunch is popular, so book ahead.

Have a cocktail at Citrus Club

Citrus Club has the best views in the city
Citrus Club has the best views in the city (The Dewberry)

Eight floors above the Dewberry is playful cocktail lounge Citrus Club, serving look-at-me concoctions such as the frozen pina colada and the Polynesian pearl diver. You can only get up here either by being a guest of the hotel or by booking in advance. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 2-10pm.

Visit the Charleston City Market

Crossing four blocks in the Historic Quarter is the fan-cooled Charleston City Market, which first opened in 1804. Today it sells trinkets such as local art, ceramics, coffee and clothing – if you need a souvenir, this place is the first place to look. For fresh produce and local art, visit the Saturday morning farmers’ market in Marion Square.

Gawp at ‘single houses’

There’s a riot of architectural styles in Charleston, ranging from Art Deco and Queen Anne to Italianate and Gothic Revival, but the one defining style is the “single house”, which are all over the Historic Quarter, usually hiding under the shade of an oak tree. They are narrow, single-room houses that date back to the 1800s.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways runs a twice-weekly direct service from London Heathrow to Charleston, which takes nine hours. Fares start from £500 return.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in