There is a reason why Charleston consistently ranks among the top U.S. vacation destinations. There is so much to do in the Holy City; and, since Charleston is a small city surrounded by rivers and beaches, you can pack a lot into a weekend (or even 24 hours).
But, what should you do during your vacation in Charleston? Even if you are renting a beach house for a week, you still probably won’t be able to pack everything in. So, which Charleston vacation “must dos” are worth it—and which ones aren’t?
10 Popular Charleston Vacation Activities—Should You Go?
We’ll start by saying that everything on this list is worth doing on your Charleston vacation. But, we recognize that not everyone has the time, or the budget, to fit everything in. Different activities will be more or less appealing to different people as well. With this in mind, while all of the activities on this list are worth doing in general, we’ll highlight some reasons why you choose (or not choose) some of them if you are on the fence:
- Eating Out in Downtown Charleston
- Going on a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride
- Going to Charleston City Market
- Shopping on King Street
- Visiting Rainbow Row in the French Quarter
- Visiting Fort Sumter
- Visiting the Angel Oak
- Walking Along the Battery
- Taking a History Tour in Downtown Charleston
- Taking a Charleston Harbor Boat Tour or Taxi
Plus, keep reading for 10 activities that might not be on your Charleston "must do" list (but maybe should be).
1. Eating Out in Downtown Charleston
Whether you’re staying in downtown Charleston, planning a beach vacation, or visiting Charleston as a port of call, there’s a good chance that eating at one of the city’s famous restaurants is on your to-do list.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: Charleston’s most well-known restaurants like Husk and Basic Kitchen have certainly earned their reputations. For many vacationers, dining at one of these restaurants is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you can get a reservation, you won’t regret it, and your meal will almost certainly be one of the highlights of your stay.
Why You Might Skip It: If you don’t have a reservation, dining at one of Charleston’s most famous restaurants might not be an option. Or, maybe you’d rather use your vacation budget for other things. Even if you don’t go for the fine dining experience, you can still enjoy a Lowcountry meal you won’t soon forget in downtown Charleston, on Sullivan’s Island, or on Shem Creek.
2. Going On a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride
Going on a horse-drawn carriage ride is one of the quintessential Charleston vacation experiences. There are tours on the peninsula daily, and you can book online in advance or walk up for a ride just west of the Charleston City Market.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: Charleston’s horse-drawn carriage tours are really quite good. Your guide will tell you all about the historic buildings you pass by. Plus, rather than simply taking a picture of a horse-drawn carriage, you can take pictures from a horse-drawn carriage with a much more unique perspective.
Why You Might Skip It: If you really want to take a horse-drawn carriage ride, you should do it. But, if you are just thinking about it because you know it is a popular thing to do on vacation in Charleston, you can explore the city by foot instead. On foot, you can go at your own pace, and you can stop in many of the historic buildings that pique your interest.
3. Going to Charleston City Market
The historic Charleston City Market is close to the Holy City’s cruise terminal and within walking distance of many downtown hotels. There is plenty of parking nearby as well.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: The Charleston City Market is popular among residents and visitors alike. Spanning four city blocks, the semi-enclosed market has numerous local vendors, from artists and sweetgrass basket weavers to glass sculptors and stalls that sell Charleston souvenirs. Whether you spend half an hour or multiple hours browsing, a visit to the Charleston City Market is definitely worth it if you’re in the area.
Why You Might Skip It: If you’re not in the area, it might not be worth planning a trip downtown just to go to the Charleston City Market (although many people would disagree). You can find souvenirs in plenty of other places, and you can spend your time (and money) on other activities instead of looking for a parking space or paying to park in a garage downtown.
4. Shopping on King Street
King Street is the main thoroughfare on the Charleston peninsula. It is home to numerous shops and stores, including local businesses as well as well-known luxury clothing and home goods brands.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: Shopping (or even just window shopping) on King Street is another quintessentially Charleston experience. If you happen to be here on the second Sunday of the month, you can take part in Second Sunday from 1:00pm to 5:00pm. King Street closes to vehicle traffic during this time, and many stores and restaurants set up displays or tables on the sidewalk. There is usually live music as well.
Why You Might Skip It: During the peak vacation season, King Street’s sidewalks can get a bit crowded. If you’re not interested in shopping, you can explore other parts of the city instead.
5. Visiting Rainbow Row in the French Quarter
Located on East Bay Street just a few blocks south of Charleston City Market, Rainbow Row is a section of Charleston’s French Quarter with pastel-painted rowhouses (accentuated by palmetto trees) that predate the Civil War.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: There are lots of reasons to visit Rainbow Row. You’ll get postcard-worthy photos, plus it’s free. Rainbow Row is close to many other Charleston vacation must-visit locations as well (like Charleston City Market, King Street, and Waterfront Park), and it’s an easy one to check off while exploring the Holy City.
Why You Might Skip It: If you’re in the area, there aren’t many reasons not to take a stroll past Rainbow Row. But, if you’re planning a beach vacation instead of spending your week (or weekend) on the peninsula, you might decide to explore downtown Charleston on a separate trip to the Holy City.
6. Visiting Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a historic fort located in the Charleston harbor that is now managed by the National Park Service. A private tour boat service authorized by the NPS takes visitors to Fort Sumter daily.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: Visiting Fort Sumter is a Charleston “must do” that accomplishes several goals all at once. Not only do you get to visit the historic fort where the American Civil War began, but you also get to take a boat ride to an island, and you’ll have the opportunity to photograph the Battery and South of Broad with the Ravenel Bridge in the distance.
Why You Might Skip It: While Fort Sumter is well worth visiting for its history, tickets for a family of four cost a little over $100. So, some families might prefer to visit the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center instead. You can also visit Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island for free.
7. Visiting the Angel Oak
The Angel Oak is a 300 to 400-year-old live oak tree with a trunk nearly 25 feet in circumference and a shade canopy of approximately 17,000 square feet. It is located in a small state park on Johns Island.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: Visiting the Angel Oak is free; and, if you are headed to the beach at Kiawah Beachwalker County Park, it is right on your way. The easiest way to explain why you should visit the Angel Oak is to say that you will understand once you’re there. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling experience, and you can get lost in the Angel Oak’s details while marveling at its age and beauty.
Why You Might Skip It: Once again, it’s hard to say that you should skip any of the activities on this list. They are all Charleston “must dos” for a reason, and this is certainly the case with the Angel Oak. But, if you only have a limited amount of time in Charleston, then making the drive to Johns Island might be another one that you save for another time.
8. Walking Along the Battery
The Battery is located at the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. A defensive seawall, the Battery has a sidewalk on the edge of the water, and you can relax or let your children play in the shaded White Point Garden if you need a break from the sun. The park also has several historic wartime monuments, and the waterfront sidewalk continues past the antebellum mansions in South of Broad.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: The view from the Battery is incredible. You will have a direct view of Fort Sumter with the Morris Island Lighthouse and the Charleston Light on Sullivan’s island in the distance. Walking on the seawall with the waves crashing against it has a unique feel; and, with its Civil War monuments and palmetto trees, there aren’t many spots that feel more “Charleston” than the Battery.
Why You Might Skip It: The only real reason to skip visiting the Battery is if you are unable to make the walk down King Street or from the French Quarter and Waterfront Park. While there are parallel parking spaces on Murray Boulevard and E. Battery Street, these can be tough to get. Even if you don’t plan to get out of your car, driving along the Battery is worth the time.
9. Taking a History Tour in Downtown Charleston
Several tour companies offer walking history tours in downtown Charleston. These tours pass through the Historic District and South of Broad, passing buildings and monuments from Charleston’s historic pre- and post-Civil War era.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: If you are a history buff, taking a walking history tour in downtown Charleston is an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up. Choose a highly-rated tour operator and you won’t be disappointed.
Why You Might Skip It: While taking a guided tour is an option, you can also explore Charleston’s historic buildings and monuments at your own pace. If you aren’t sure where to go, you can do some quick research for self-guided walking tours of historic Charleston online, and you’ll find resources like this one from Condé Nast.
10. Taking a Charleston Harbor Boat Tour or Taxi
There are also several companies that offer Charleston harbor boat tours. These include everything from daytime and sunset tours onboard catamarans to dinner cruises and cruises on the city’s pedal bars. There is a great pirate cruise for families with young children as well.
Why You Should Definitely Do It: Getting on the water is another Charleston “must do,” and taking a boat tour (or simply taking a water taxi from downtown Charleston to Patriots Point) is a fun, easy, and safe way to do it. Depending on your budget and what you want to get out of your experience, you have lots of options to choose from. If you aren’t interested in going with a group, there are private charter options as well.
Why You Might Skip It: Price is a factor for some families; and, if you are prone to getting seasick, the water in the Charleston harbor can get choppy on windy days. Otherwise, seeing the Holy City by water is an unforgettable experience that is absolutely worth it.
10 Activities That Might Not Be On Your Charleston Vacation To-Do List (But Maybe Should Be)
While those are the 10 Charleston “must dos” that are on many vacationers’ to-do lists, there are many other things to do on vacation in Charleston as well. Here are 10 more activities that are popular among locals that you can also enjoy on your Charleston vacation:
1. Having a Waterfront Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner
While dining at one of downtown Charleston’s famous restaurants is an experience not to be missed, so is having a waterfront breakfast, lunch or dinner. There actually aren’t that many waterfront restaurants in Charleston, since the city’s beaches are much less commercialized than those in other areas. But, you can find oceanfront restaurants like Blu and Pier 101 on Folly Beach, and there are several very good waterfront restaurants on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant.
2. Going to a Charleston RiverDogs Baseball Game
The Charleston RiverDogs are a minor league baseball team that plays at Joe Riley Stadium (“the Joe”) in downtown Charleston. Parking is easy, the games are fun to watch; and, if you go to an evening game, you can watch the sun set over the Ashley River behind the outfield fence during the later innings. The RiverDogs play from April through September.
3. Going to Charleston Battery Soccer Game
The Charleston Battery are a professional soccer team that plays at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. Like RiverDogs games, parking is a breeze, and tickets start at eight bucks. These are general admission tickets; and, if you get to the game about 20 minutes early, you can usually get a front-row seat. The stadium has food trucks instead of traditional stadium food, and there are usually kids’ activities before or after the game as well.
4. Renting a Kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP)
If you are interested in exploring Charleston’s inshore waterways, you can rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard during your vacation. While this is a Charleston “must do” for many outdoor enthusiasts, you don’t have to be an expert to hit the water. Paddling is a great activity for families and couples, and there are outfitters on Folly Island, Shem Creek, and Isle of Palms.
5. Taking a Guided Tour to an Uninhabited Sea Island
There are several uninhabited sea islands in Charleston that are only accessible by boat. If you don’t have your own boat, you can take a guided tour. Tours go to Morris Island and Capers Island regularly, and Bull Island’s “boneyard beach” is a photographer’s dream.
6. Taking a Dolphin Tour
If you are interested in a nature tour but would rather stay on the boat, you can take a dolphin tour instead. While there are no guarantees, there are lots of dolphins in Charleston, and tour operators know where to go to give you the best chance of spotting one (or several) during your two to three-hour tour.
7. Going to Folly Beach or Isle of Palms County Park
Most vacationers look for parking on the street at Folly Beach or on Isle of Palms, or they simply walk out onto the beach from their vacation house or hotel. But, Folly Beach County Park and Isle of Palms County Park both have tons of parking plus public amenities. These parks also tend to be less crowded than the main beach areas—especially Folly Beach County Park, which is located on the southern tip of the island.
8. Walking Up the Ravenel Bridge
The Ravenel Bridge connects downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. While many vacationers drive across the bridge during their stay, far fewer walk up to the middle. The walk up is about a mile or two depending on which side you come from (the walk from Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park is shorter); but, either way, the view is well worth it.
9. Running (or Walking) a Race
There are lots of running races in the Charleston area, from 5k races all the way up to ultramarathons. Running (or walking) a race is a great way to see an area of the city that you might not see otherwise. Plus, you’ll get some swag to bring home with you.
10. Going Rock Climbing
The Lowcountry isn’t known as a rock climbing destination. But, there is a unique climbing opportunity at James Island County Park. This sprawling park is full of amenities, including a 50-foot outdoor climbing wall. The climbing wall is staffed during park hours, and you can either take a lesson on belaying or use one of the wall’s auto belays. You can visit the Charleston County Parks and Recreation website to learn the hours and fees during your visit.