Traveling to Charleston, SC | The Ultimate Vacation Guide

Traveling to Charleston, SC

Planning on traveling to Charleston, SC? From navigating the airport to choosing the right restaurants and beaches, here’s everything you need to know.

If you’re planning a trip to Charleston, SC, you’re not alone. The Holy City has become a top vacation destination in recent years, and with good reason. Regardless of when you’re traveling to Charleston, SC, you will find plenty of things to do—whether you’re into the outdoors, shopping and fine dining, or digging into the city’s rich history.

Like any vacation, when traveling to Charleston, SC, you’ll want to make your trip as smooth as possible. This will allow you to get as much out of your trip as you can—so you can spend more time relaxing and less time figuring out what to do or where to go. To help you, we’ve prepared this guide covering everything from travel and lodging to activities and events, along with some insider tips for getting the most out of your vacation in Charleston.

10 Things to Know When Traveling to Charleston, SC

So, what do you need to know as you get ready for your vacation? Here are 10 things to know when traveling to Charleston, SC:

1. Navigating Charleston International Airport (CHS)

If you are flying to Charleston, you will be arriving at Charleston International Airport (CHS). While navigating the airport can be a challenge in big cities, in Charleston it’s a breeze. From all gates, the rental car parking lot is no more than a five-minute walk; and, if you’re taking an Uber, Lyft, or shuttle, your walk is even shorter.

As soon as you get off of the plane you’ll be greeted with images of the Holy City and advertisements for local seafood restaurants. If you could use a pick-me-up after your flight, there are a few options right near the exit from the security area. There is also a coffee shop outside of the security area near the baggage carousel; so, if you decide that you want something for the drive, it’s not too late once you pass through the glass doors of no return.

2. Getting from the Airport to Your Hotel or Vacation Home

From the airport, you’ll follow the road to Aviation Ave., which will take you to I-526. This is the main highway that connects the Charleston Peninsula to Mount Pleasant to the north and West Ashley to the south. Don’t worry, though. While there can be some traffic at rush hour, most times of day you will be able to quickly sail to your destination.

While you don’t strictly need a car when traveling to Charleston, SC, we recommend it. Having a car allows you to be on your own schedule, and it gives you the flexibility to explore all areas of Charleston. Even if you plan on spending most of your time downtown, it will be well worth making a trip to Shem Creek for dinner or going to the beach for sunrise; and, if you’re staying at the beach, having a car gives you more options for branching out from your hotel or vacation home.

With that said, many people rent golf carts—and this gives them plenty of mobility to get to restaurants and shops at Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, or Isle of Palms. Alternatively, if you’re staying downtown or at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, you can take the Water Taxi to get from one side of the harbor to the other. This is an experience in itself, and it provides fantastic photo opportunities of the Ravenel Bridge and the Charleston peninsula.

3. Choosing Where to Eat in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC is known for its restaurants, and you certainly have no shortage of options regardless of what you’re in the mood to eat. While many of Charleston’s most famous restaurants are on the peninsula, there are also great options at Shem Creek, on Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, and in some out-of-the-way spots with incredible waterfront views.

Rather than recommending any specific restaurants, we’ll recommend going with your gut. Decide what you want to eat, and then pick somewhere to go. Don’t stick to one location. If you eat at a downtown Charleston restaurant one night, try Shem Creek or take a trip to Folly Beach the next—and, if you’re staying at the beach, definitely plan to have at least one dinner out on the peninsula. You won’t regret it.

4. Choosing Between Charleston, SC’s Beaches

Speaking of Charleston’s beaches, which one should you choose? Here, too, you are spoiled for choice. Charleston has three main beaches nearby, all of which offer their own unique flavor—Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms. You can read our guides to these beaches here:

If you’re looking for a more out-of-the-way beach experience, you can also check out Kiawah Island or Edisto Island. Both are about an hour’s drive south of downtown Charleston—but the drive is totally worth it. Both see less traffic than the beaches closer to the city (although Kiawah’s Beachwalker Park can get crowded on summer weekends); and, while Kiawah Island is known as one of the area’s more upscale beaches (several notable celebrities and politicians vacation here), Edisto Island is better known for its stuck-in-the-past vibe.

5. Which Tours and Activities in Charleston, SC Are Worth It?

If you are interested in taking a tour or doing an activity like kayaking, paddleboarding, or parasailing while in Charleston, it’s hard to go wrong. There aren’t a ton of local operators, and those that are here are generally well-known and highly reputable. In downtown Charleston, walking tours and horse-drawn carriage tours are both good options, and several good boat tours leave from the peninsula as well.

Shem Creek and Folly Beach are two of the best places to rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards (SUPs). There are also some great options for taking a guided tour by kayak or boat to one of Charleston’s uninhabited sea islands. If you’re into fishing or golf, there are several charters and courses in the area, and there’s a new Topgolf near the airport as well.

6. Rush Hour Traffic, Beach Traffic & Other Logistics

When you are traveling to Charleston, SC (or anywhere for that matter), the last way you want to spend your time is stuck in traffic. Fortunately, while Charleston is growing, traffic still isn’t much of an issue most of the time.

With that said, you can find yourself sitting in rush hour traffic on I-526 or Route 17; and, if you’re traveling to Charleston, SC in the summer, you’ll want to go early if you are planning to drive to the beach. Each beach only has one main road in, and these roads can grind to a standstill as people look for parking on summer weekend days.

7. What to Bring (and What Not to Bring) When Traveling to Charleston, SC

What do you need to bring when traveling to Charleston, SC? Other than your clothes, flip-flops, and yourself, the answer is “Not much.” While it’s always good to pack what you think you’ll need, you can find everything nearby regardless of where you are staying, and packing light makes your travels that much easier.

With that said, if you’re planning on doing certain activities, you will want to pack accordingly. For example, while you can rent chairs at the beach, this is getting fairly expensive—especially when a beach towel from home will do. If you’re interested in walking or running across the Ravenel Bridge, be sure to bring your shoes; and, if you’re interested in taking a boat tour or going on an excursion, bring a waterproof case for your phone and a jacket in case it’s windy on the water. Otherwise, just plan to relax and have a good time—you’ll be fine.

8. Weather Considerations When Traveling to Charleston, SC

What about the weather? It’s no secret that summers in the southeastern United States can get pretty warm. In July and August, it’s not unusual for the heat index to climb into the three figures during the hottest part of the day. Thunderstorms can pop up as well, so a light rain jacket is a good idea almost any time of year. In the summer, it’s always a good idea to check the weather before heading out for the afternoon.

During the offseason (which is a great time to visit Charleston, SC), the temperatures start to cool down, and you can be comfortable in shorts and a sweatshirt just about any time from September through April. Winters can get chillier, so bring a puffy coat if you’re traveling to Charleston, SC for the holidays, but you definitely don’t need to go overboard with the winter clothing.

9. Special Events in Charleston, SC

One of the great things about Charleston is that there are special events in and around the city year-round. Since most people vacation in Charleston during the summer, we’ve prepared a Charleston Summer Festival & Event Guide that you can use to find a unique and memorable experience. Charleston Race Week offers a spectacle on the water in April, and there are Nutcracker performances at Charleston’s historic Sottile Theatre during the holidays.

Another great option is to take in a baseball game or soccer game. The Charleston RiverDogs are a minor league baseball team that plays its home games on the peninsula, within walking distance of many downtown hotels (and with $5 parking just a block from the stadium), and the Charleston Battery play their home matches at Patriots Point with the Ravenel Bridge in the background. Games at both venues are casual, family-friendly affairs, and the Charleston Battery host food trucks instead of serving up traditional stadium fare.

10. Free Activities in Charleston, SC

If you’re looking for free things to do on your vacation (and who isn’t), you have plenty of options here as well. All of Charleston’s beaches have free public access, and you can park for free at most of them (as long as you get all four tires off of the road—just follow the signs to make sure you’re good). Other good free options include strolling downtown Charleston, walking up the Ravenel Bridge, and visiting either Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park or Charleston Waterfront Park. Both offer incredible views of the harbor, and Charleston Waterfront Park is where you’ll find the famous pineapple fountain statute.

If you’re a fan of Netflix’s Outer Banks or HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, you can also spend an afternoon (or an entire day) checking out some of these shows’ filming locations in Charleston. Both shows have several publicly accessible filming locations throughout the area, and we have prepared lists and maps you can follow:

Morris Island is a place to see when traveling to Charleston, SC


FAQs: Traveling to Charleston, SC

Is Charleston, SC a Good Place to Travel?

Charleston, SC is a great place to travel. It is consistently ranked the No. 1 City in the U.S. by Travel and Leisure Magazine. There are lots of reasons why, from its famous restaurants, world-renowned golf courses, and pristine beaches to its endless list of vacation activities ranging from kayaking and fishing to visiting historic sites and taking a sunset sailboat cruise.

What is the Best Month to Travel to Charleston, SC?

It’s hard to say what is the best month to travel to Charleston, SC—it really depends on what you want out of your vacation. You can definitely visit the Holy City year-round. The summers get hot and the winters get chilly, but the beaches, pools, and restaurants never close, and you’ll always find plenty of things to do.

Do You Need a Car When Traveling to Charleston, SC on Vacation?

You don’t need a car when traveling to Charleston, SC. You can certainly take a rideshare or shuttle from the airport to your specific vacation destination—and you should be able to walk, bike, or golf cart wherever you want to go. With that said, having a car definitely gives you more options, and we recommend it so that you can explore as much of the city as possible.

How Many Days Do You Need to See Charleston, SC?

This also depends on what you want out of your vacation. You can definitely get a feel for all that Charleston has to offer with a weekend trip. With that said, if you’re only staying for the weekend, you’ll most likely wish that you were staying much longer. The Charleston lifestyle is special, and there is a reason why many people who travel to Charleston, SC end up coming back and calling the Holy City home.

Where Should You Stay in Charleston, SC on Vacation?

This is also entirely up to you. If you’re most interested in the city’s history, shopping, and dining, then you’ll probably want to stay downtown. If you are coming to Charleston, SC to go to the beach, then you’ll want to rent a house at Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, or Isle of Palms (unless you want to venture farther out to Kiawah Island or Edisto Beach). For more budget-friendly options, you can stay somewhere like West Ashley or James Island. While you won’t be within walking distance of downtown or the beach, you’ll be within a short drive of everything.


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