Rich history, gorgeous vistas, and world-class food have made Charleston one of the top tourist destinations in the country. It’s easy to find on a map and even easier to get there. But what do you do once you’re there? Where do you park? Which neighborhood should you explore? This first timer’s guide to Charleston, SC will give you the lay of the land before you visit for the first time.
Getting to Charleston
Getting to Charleston is pretty easy. You can fly, ride a train or Greyhound, or drive your own vehicle. Here are the different options and how to explore Charleston with each form of arrival.
Charleston International Airport Flying into Charleston is getting easier every month with airlines offering new non-stop destinations across the country. I’ve flown in and out of this airport a couple of times now and find it easy to navigate.
The airport is located 14 miles from downtown Charleston. There are a large number of business and tourist travelers coming through the airport so chances are good the car rental service will have something you want. The drive into Charleston along I-26 takes about 20-30 minutes.
If you’re going without a car for your visit you have three options for getting downtown. You can grab a taxi or Uber, but they tend not to start to early or run too late. You can take the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) public bus. Or you can pay $15 to ride the Downtown Shuttle directly from the airport to downtown where it makes a few routine stops.
Amtrak The small Amtrak train station is located not too far from the airport. It’s a pretty simple building and relatively safe. My brother has hopped on trains at this station plenty of times and always enjoyed the experience. The station is part of the Palmetto Line that connects Washington, DC with Miami with additional stops in Savannah, Jacksonville, and Orlando.
The only catch with coming into Charleston on a train is there are no rental cars or public bus stops here. The only way to get into downtown or to your hotel is to call a taxi or Uber.
Greyhound I met a Russian woman traveling through Charleston a few years ago and dropped her off at the Greyhound station that night. I have to admit I was a little disappointed: the building looked pretty rundown and most of the lights seemed to be nonfunctional. I haven’t gotten on a Greyhound bus in over fifteen years now but they are still a popular way for traveling long distances.
You’ll need to call a taxi or Uber to get from the Greyhound station to downtown. It’s about a 15 minute ride along I-26.
Driving If you have your own personal vehicle getting into Charleston is really simple. Interstate 26 leads directly into downtown Charleston and connects with I-81, I-40, I-85, I-20, I-77, and I-95, so it’s pretty easy to get to Charleston from just about anywhere in the country by driving.
If you’re coming from north or south of Charleston near the coast you can take US Highway 17, locally known as Kings Highway. The route is a four-lane divided highway that passes through a few small towns along the way.
Charleston Area Beaches and Towns
Okay so you’re in Charleston. Great! Now where do you go? There are so many amazing places to visit just around Charleston, a few great beaches, and dozens of neighborhoods to explore. This is a very brief description of each with a few links to help you decide where you want to go with your first visit to Charleston.
Mt. Pleasant Kind of a sister city to Charleston it sits across the Cooper River and is home to Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum (that’s where you can see the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier). The Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge spanning the river is a source of pride for people in the area and also a great place to go for a walk, jog, or bicycle along Wonders’ Way. Visit Boone Hall Plantation and the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site. Shem Creek has always been my favorite place to find wonderful restaurants and watch the dolphins and pelicans navigate the waterway.
Sullivan’s Island This small island community is about ten minutes from Mt. Pleasant. It’s a great beach destination with a few public beach accesses and free parking. There are a couple of really great places to eat just as you arrive on the island like Poe’s Tavern, Dunleavy’s Pub, and The Obstinate Daughter. At the south end of the island is Fort Moultrie, part of the greater Fort Moultrie & Fort Sumter National Historical Park.
Isle of Palms About a fifteen-minute drive north of Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms is another quiet beach community. There are several great public beach accesses here. The parking at the county park usually goes fast but you might be able to find a place along Ocean Boulevard.
West Ashley As far as tourism goes there isn’t too much to do in West Ashley, the suburb of Charleston across the Ashley River. The only shopping mall in Charleston is located here and you’ll find plenty of big box retailers. My favorite place to visit in West Ashley is Ye Olde Fashioned Ice Cream at their original location.
Folly Beach Drive across James Island to reach Folly Beach, my favorite sandy destination in Charleston. It can be a long drive, especially if you wait until about mid-morning to head that direction in the summer months. Center Street has a lot of great local places to eat like Woody’s Pizza, Snapper Jacks (with rooftop seating), and Rita’s Seaside Grille. Take a walk along the Folly Beach Pier or enjoy some time on the beach. The north end of the island is a short walk to where you can view the Morris Island Lighthouse.
Johns Island and Wadmalaw Island Getting just a little further away from Charleston now, these two islands are about a 20-30 minute drive. Johns Island is home to the Angel Oak Tree, a local favorite and frequent contender in the “oldest tree in the country” competition among writers. Wadmalaw Island is one of those hidden destinations that people often pass because they don’t know what’s there: take a tour of the Charleston Tea Plantation, visit the Firefly Distillery where they make sweet tea-flavored vodka, and enjoy the beautiful scenic views.
Plantation District About a thirty-minute drive from downtown Charleston, through West Ashley, leads to the Plantation District. This district includes Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, and Middleton Place along a 5-mile stretch of Highway 41. Take a tour of the oldest unrestored house in South Carolina at Drayton Hall, spend a day hiking trails or riding the train at Magnolia Plantation, or explore the beautiful grounds at Middleton Place.
Alright that’s enough with all the things that keep you out of Charleston. Now let’s delve into the Charleston Historic District. If you arrived in Charleston without a car these will be the best options for you anyway.
South of Broad Since the beginning of Charleston in 1680 anyone living in this area was known as an SOB. No, not that kind of SOB! To Charlestonians it means South of Broad and has always been known as where the upper elite of local society lived. Today this area is still residential and features some of the most beautiful house museums like the Calhoun Mansion, Edmondston-Alston House, and Heyward Washington House. Rainbow Row, The Battery, and White Point Gardens are all part of this neighborhood.
Broad Street The Broad Street corridor is mostly home to law offices to support the nearby county and federal courthouses. At the intersection of Broad and Meeting you’ll find the Four Corners of Law. You’ll find the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon at the end of the street. It’s also a great way to get into downtown Charleston: take Lockwood Drive to bypass the traffic and follow the curve into Broad Street. You’ll be downtown in minutes.
East Bay Street This is the most common route into the downtown area so it gets a little crowded at times. The southern section passes through the French Quarter, an area developed by French Huguenot immigrants. The Charleston City Market and Waterfront Park are popular areas to visit along East Bay Street.
Meeting Street This street runs parallel to King Street and together they are the main arteries in and around downtown Charleston. The Charleston Museum Mile is a one-mile section of Meeting Street with six museums to explore: The Charleston Museum, The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the Joseph Manigault House, the Confederate Museum, The Powder Magazine, the Gibbes Museum of Art, and the South Carolina Historical Society Museum.
King Street Corridor The area of King Street between Calhoun and Broad Streets is the most popular place for shopping in downtown Charleston. Commercial retailers like Apple, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Pottery Barn. The southern end is a bit quieter and I strongly recommend visiting the Preservation Society of Charleston; they have an excellent giftshop with really great books about the city.
Calhoun Street This is the main cross-town traffic route in Charleston. It connects directly with the James Island Expressway and Lockwood Drive, making it the perfect way to get into the center of the city from that side of town. You’ll see lots of college students walking this street with the College of Charleston near Marion Square. At the other end of the street you’ll find Liberty Square, the South Carolina Aquarium, and the Fort Sumter & Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.
Upper King Street The stretch of King Street north of Calhoun is locally referred to as Upper King. It has become a hot spot for fantastic restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Some of my favorite places to east in Charleston are along this stretch including Smoke BBQ, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, and Benny Ravello’s where I can order a slice of pizza as long as my arm for a few dollars. Charleston Distilling Company is a great place to try some local flavors and Cupcake DownSouth turns fresh cupcakes into thick milkshakes.
Just give me a hole-in-the-wall local eatery and a slice of pizza as long as my arm and I’ll be a happy guy.
Where to Eat in Charleston
In the past decade Charleston has become a melting pot of culinary experiences that rarely disappoint. New restaurants pop up monthly and old restaurants change menus weekly. So how is it I never have an answer to the question, “Where do I eat in Charleston?”
Anyone who follows me knows I’m a simple guy when it comes to food. Paper plates, cheesy checkerboard tablecloths, mismatched furniture, it doesn’t matter to me so long as the food is good. Here are a few locally-owned restaurants that will give your taste buds a good introduction to Charleston.
READ MORE: 17 Free Things to Do in Charleston, SC
Benny Ravello’s Benny’s is a small chain of pizza parlors with a local franchise on upper King Street. The whole-in-the-wall eatery offers pizza by the slice at a whopping 14” long! Each slice is cooked to order in less than five minutes.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit The first time I ordered a breakfast biscuit from their City Market location I scoffed at the fork the gentleman offered me. Take the fork. This local eatery, with another location on King Street, makes the softest buttermilk biscuits I’ve ever eaten.
Cupcake DownSouth Ready for dessert? Cupcake DownSouth bakes up fresh cucpakes every morning with a rotating menu of flavors. But when you buy a cupcake they throw it into a blender and mix it into a thick and delicious milkshake!
El Jefe Texican Cantina Home of the “Super Taco”, which is just a really big taco, this Mexican-food joint on King Street is a great place for lunch or dinner.
Fleet Landing Restaurant The only restaurant in downtown Charleston located on the water, Fleet Landing has some of the best seafood in the city. The large portions are more than enough to fill you up while you enjoy the gorgeous views.
The Griffon The dark wood interior is usually covered in dollar bills signed and stapled to the wall by patrons. It’s a local thing. Their fish and chips are pretty amazing and the beer is always cold.
Monza If you would rather order a whole pizza pie head over to Monza. Their farm-to-table ingredients make for some delicious pizzas. They also serve salads and pastas.
Smoke BBQ One of the first smoked barbeque joints to open downtown still has the best barbeque downtown. The owner smokes meats behind the small restaurant every day. I’ll give you a hint about what to order: anything, because it’s all great.
Sweet Belgium The owner at Sweet Belgium wanted to bring authentic Belgium desserts to America but realized it was lacking the sweetness we are accustomed to, so she created some new flavors to add to the waffles.
If you want something a bit more sit-down and a bit more dress-up, here are a few classic restaurants in Charleston to enjoy.
Husk This slightly upscale Charleston restaurant has some of the best seafood in the historic district. It’s right next door to Poogan’s Porch giving you two great options to choose from. Be sure to check out the lounge in a small restored brick building.
Poogan’s Porch This mainstay on Queen Street offers some pretty good southern food in a gorgeous restored historic house. When you go be sure to ask your waiter/waitress about the story of Poogan!
Prohibition One of the newest restaurants in open on Upper King, Prohibition’s excellent chef creates interesting meals that are as gorgeous as they are delicious. Never thought I would call a meal gorgeous. The rustic interior is homey and perfect in this area of Charleston.
Slightly North of Broad The locals lovingly call it SNOB and that’s okay cause the restaurant staff does, too. This staple on East Bay Street serves up some pretty good American food in a beautiful space right in the heart of the French Quarter.
Where to Stay in Charleston
You will always spend more money on lodging than just about anything else while traveling (airfare might be the exception to this). In the Charleston Historic District it’s possible you might spend more on lodging for your trip than you do your mortgage for the next five months.
Hotels in downtown Charleston are pricey. Sometimes it’s worth the expenditure because of the location and amenities. I have always recommended Belmond Charleston Place, HarbourView Inn, and Embassy Suites because it’s a pink castle (seriously). The Hotel Bennett is the latest addition to the Charleston skyline overlooking Marion Square.
Just fifteen minutes from downtown, Mt. Pleasant hotels are within easy striking distance and will save considerable money. I recommend the Best Western, Hotel Indigo, and Holiday Inn Express. Each of these is located along Highway 17 near the end of the Ravenel Bridge.
In North Charleston you’ll find lots of great hotels around the Tanger Outlet shopping center. North Charleston still has a pretty good size military population with a naval training center and Air Force base at the airport so there are plenty of rooms. The Aloft, Quality Inn, and Hilton Garden are great places to stay.
10 Things to Do for First Timer’s in Charleston
I always recommend stopping at the visitor’s center first when visiting a new destination. The one in Charleston is pretty awesome with a great staff that will help you find where you need to be, help you make reservations, and give you some great guides to the city.
But after that, what do you do during your first visit to Charleston? This list will cover the board pretty good to give you a great experience into what Charleston is all about.
- Tour The Charleston Museum and Joseph Manigault House
- Shop at the Charleston City Market
- Take a walk along the High Battery Wall to Rainbow Row
- Visit Magnolia Plantation & Garden
- Take a guided walking tour with Bulldog Tours
- Tour Fort Moultrie and walk on the beach on Sullivan’s Island
- Visit Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
- Eat breakfast at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit
- Get dinner along Upper King Street
- Visit the iconic Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park
Parking in Charleston
Charleston is a walking city. You won’t find parking spaces near many of the attractions, museums, and restaurants you want to visit. There are parallel parking spaces on most streets but I have always found the best place to park is a parking garage.
Each of these parking garages charges a rate of $1 per every half hour with an $18/day maximum. All garages accept cash or credit/debit card for payment. Some of the garages have kiosks while others use toll booths.
Here is some info on the parking garages to make it easier to find which one you should use for your activities.
Aquarium Garage 24 Calhoun Street
Liberty Square, South Carolina Aquarium, Fort Sumter & Fort Moultrie National Historical Park
Concord/Cumberland Garage 1 Cumberland Street
Waterfront Park, Charleston City Market, East Bay Street dining
Cumberland Street Garage 82 Cumberland Street
Charleston City Market, Confederate Museum, The Powder Magazine, Gibbes Museum of Art, South Carolina Historical Society Museum
East Bay/Prioleau Garage 25 Prioleau Street
Waterfront Park, East Bay Street dining, Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon, Rainbow Row
Gaillard Garage 32 Alexander Street
Majestic Garage 211 King Street
King Street Corridor, Marion Square
Marion Square Garage 399 King Street
Marion Square, King Street Corridor, Upper King Street
Queen Street Garage 93 Queen Street
Preservation Society of Charleston, Washington Square, Four Corners of Law, Gibbes Museum of Art, South Carolina Historical Society Museum
Visitor’s Center Garage 63 Mary Street
Visitors Center, Upper King Street, The Charleston Museum, Joseph Manigault House
Wentworth Garage 81 Wentworth Street
King Street Corridor
Murray Boulevard Parking
The parallel parking along both sides of Murray Boulevard is the only free parking in downtown Charleston. However, it comes with a few catches.
First of all there is a time limit of three hours. I’ll admit I have never seen that limit enforced but you don’t want to be the first person to find out if they do. Three hours is plenty enough time to walk along the High Battery wall to Rainbow Row and back along Meeting or King Street to White Point Garden.
Second of all because it’s free and in a great location at the tip of the peninsula it is insanely popular. You may not find a parking spot between about 10am-5pm each day.
Finally, watch out for residential parking areas. Stay on Murray Boulevard to find free parking. But if you wonder off onto any of the side streets you’ll see parking signs for residential parking only. You will be ticketed and towed if you park on any of these streets.