Charleston offers the perfect mix of Old World culture and contemporary flare in a small package. Founded in 1670, this South Carolina spot is one of America’s best colonial-era cities, exemplified by its well-preserved Historic District, which is chock-full of grand manors, cobblestone streets, and church steeples. Furthermore, an extensive collection of museums and monuments showcase the city’s prominent role in the American Revolution and slave trade. Meanwhile, Charleston’s burgeoning reputation as a culinary and nightlife hub complements its cultural and historic prowess, solidifying it as a top vacation destination in the U.S.. A proper trip to Charleston merits a long weekend at minimum to take it all in at an unhurried pace – it’s the south after all. To help jumpstart your planning, read on for the best 72-hour Charleston itinerary.
Traveling to Charleston
Charleston International Airport can be easily reached from a variety of major east coast and midwestern cities, like New York, D.C., Detroit, and Chicago. Additionally, European travelers can take advantage of British Airways’ direct flight from London Heathrow. Taxis and car services from the airport usually complete the 12-mile journey downtown in 30 minutes. Another option is the $2 public CARTA bus, which departs approximately every half-hour from the airport to downtown Charleston. Though it’ll double your travel time, you’ll save some cash, leaving you to splurge on more oysters and rooftop cocktails.
Charleston’s compact Historic District, narrow streets, and network of alleyways are best explored on foot. However, numerous carriage tours offer some respite while you admire the city’s diverse architecture and pristine homes. A day trip out to one of the surrounding plantations or beaches can be arranged with your hotel or car service. On the other hand, renting a car is worthwhile if you plan on extending your trip with a stay at one of the nearby beach towns, such as Folly Beach or Isle of Palms.
Best Hotels in Charleston
The immaculately restored Jasmine House Inn has a prime location on a side street in Charleston’s Historic District. Additionally, the historic mansion’s front porch, courtyard, and spacious rooms offer sanctuary from the muggy heat and a glimpse back into the 1840s, when the property was built.
Located toward the east end of bustling Market Street, the luxurious Market Pavilion Hotel delivers comfort and solace in the heart of the Historic District. The property’s pool provides respite after navigating the city’s cobblestone streets, while the rooftop bar and steakhouse restaurant grant superb views of the city.
Located across from Marion Square, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Charleston is advantageously located within short walking distance of King Street’s strip of restaurants, as well as the Historic District. The property features suite-style rooms, free breakfast, and a pool, making it a perfect stay for families with kids.
Day One: Charleston’s Museum Mile
After settling in, recharge at Brown’s Court Bakery or Kudu Coffee before embarking on a self-guided walking tour along Meeting Street. Dubbed the Charleston’s Museum Mile, this one-mile stretch features an impressive selection of museums, historic homes, parks, houses of worship, and even a Revolutionary War-era powder magazine and museum. The latter is the state’s oldest public building, and it includes interpreters and exhibitions detailing the city’s colonial and Revolutionary War history.
If you plan on touring just one or two of Charleston’s grand estates, the Aiken-Rhett House Museum is a must. Built in the 1820s, the well-preserved house and its outbuilding bring visitors back in time to antebellum life. The slaves’ quarters have remained virtually untouched since the 1850s, thus providing a unique glimpse into the reality and hardship of household slaves. Another notable mansion – the Nathaniel Russell House – is a National Historic Landmark worth visiting for its fine art collection, English gardens, and magnificent, self-supporting staircase. A more harrowing side of Charleston’s past is on display at the Old Slave Mart Museum, which is housed in a portion of the original structure used for slave auctions. The museum’s exhibits offer perspectives from enslaved African Americans and maintain their legacies.
Where to Eat in Charleston:
After you’ve had your fill of history, grab dinner at Husk, which is conveniently located at the southern end of the Museum Mile. Housed in a refurbished Victorian-era home, Husk is known for its innovative Southern dishes and use of local ingredients. Then, make the short walk over to The Vendue hotel’s rooftop bar to enjoy the breeze and superb views.
Day Two: McLeod Plantation and Folly Beach
Especially if visiting during the summer, head out in the mid-morning to beat the heat and tour the McLeod Plantation Historic Site. The 37-acre property is located just a few miles west of Charleston on James Island. The McLeod family founded their cotton plantation in 1851, shortly before the abolition of slavery. However, emancipation did not alter the McLeod plantation as dramatically as one might expect. Freed slaves and their descendants continued to work and inhabit the original slave quarters until 1990. During the McLeod’s tenure, the plantation was occupied multiple times, including by the Freedmen’s Bureau, Confederate Army, Union Army, and the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (a regiment comprised of free African Americans). The property was opened to the public in 2015, and is primarily focused on giving a voice to all of the plantation’s inhabitants, especially the lowland Gullah culture, and their struggle for freedom and equality.
If you’re visiting from more frigid territory during the spring, a day trip to one of Charleston’s nearby beaches is well-warranted. Continuing on from the McLeod Plantation, Folly Beach is a solid choice in terms of geography and range of experiences. Expect temperatures around 75 degrees if visiting in the spring, while summer highs can creep well above 90 degrees. Much of the action occurs adjacent to the wooden pier and beach bars on Center Street. Activities abound, including stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and surfing. On the western end, the Folly Beach County Park features a pelican rookery and one of the best swimming spots on the beach.
Where to Eat in Charleston:
Housed in a former church on Market Street, 5Church’s offers delicious cocktails and innovative cuisine in a dramatic setting. Allot some time before or after dinner to browse the works from local artisans and artists at the Charleston City Night Market, which runs from April through December.
Day Three: Architecture Tour and Fort Sumter
Grab a hearty biscuit breakfast at Millers All Day before venturing south of Broad Street to explore Charleston’s oldest section of stately homes. The neighborhood’s most iconic section, Rainbow Row, features 13 pastel-hued row houses on East Bay Street. Built in the mid-1700s, these homes were owned by leading traders and merchants before the neighborhood fell into disrepair after the Civil War. The Preservation Society of Charleston began renovations in the 1920s to create the charming area seen today. After snapping the requisite Rainbow Row photo, wander into the neighborhood’s narrower lanes and pedestrian-only alleys to admire the immaculate gardens, airy piazzas, and picturesque facades. Continue on to the city’s southeastern tip, known as the Battery, where some of the cities grandest homes line the seawall promenade and White Point Garden. This spot also provides excellent views over Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter, a pentagon-shaped fort that served as the first battle site of the Civil War. Make your way up to Liberty Square for the 4 p.m. departure with Fort Sumter Tours for the national monument. The scenic 30-minute cruise provides a narrated history of Fort Sumter, while park rangers give tours of the fortress. If you have time beforehand, stop by the South Carolina Aquarium, which is conveniently located beside Fort Sumter Tours’ dock. Exhibits are oriented around various ecosystems, such as coastal plains and mountain forests.
Where to Eat in Charleston:
Situated a short walk from the boat dock, 167 Raw is one of Charleston’s hippest seafood eateries. Beyond the raw bar, the menu includes po’ boys and lobster rolls. Later, stroll over to bustling King Street and peruse the local boutiques and broad selection of bars. Stars Rooftop and Felix are perfect for a nightcap.
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