Travel Stories: Top Must-See Attractions of Charleston, SC

My recent memorable journey through Charleston, SC with stops at the Charleston City Market, the Charleston Museum, Fort Sumter, a city tour and some damn good food!

Travel Stories: Top Must-See Attractions of Charleston, SC

Throughout my extensive travels, I somehow managed to overlook the Carolinas. Without any connections to family or friends in that region, it simply never crossed my mind. I always went to Florida or upstate New York, or even Delaware and Virginia for family vacations. Surprisingly, it wasn't until ten years ago when a close college friend relocated to Georgia that I finally set foot in that state. However, the Carolinas always seemed to be left out of my adventures, almost as if it’s an East Coast "flyover country." However, I've come to realize that there is an abundance of rich history waiting to be discovered in this region, all within a laid-back atmosphere. In December of 2023, I decided to finally take the plunge and visit the city of Charleston, South Carolina. As is often the case, this destination was highly recommended by friends who had previously visited. But the question remains: Will I find the same enjoyment exploring this city on my own?


Walk and Wander

On the first day of any city I visit, I like to “walk and wander”, starting with a particular stop in the city and going from there. It's a bit risky because you might accidentally wander into a sketchy area, but it's still an exciting way to discover a place for the first time. Before embarking on this adventure, I usually check Google Maps to find interesting places to visit. While moving through, I came across the Charleston City Market and the Charleston Museum, which caught my attention. I checked the distance between the two on the map and realized it was just a short walk away. So, I decided to use this opportunity to wander around and soak up the city's atmosphere.

What really caught my attention was the city's character and architecture. It has this charming old-fashioned vibe, yet it feels so laid-back. Even though I visited during the "offseason" between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the town was still bustling with activity. The sidewalks are mostly made of stone and the streets are narrow, but surprisingly, it doesn't feel overcrowded or too touristy. They've done a remarkable job preserving the city's overall character while ensuring smooth traffic flow. The layout and colors of the buildings left me in awe, as they transport you to a different era while still maintaining a modern touch. Just by strolling through the streets, you can sense the rich history that has been beautifully preserved.


The Charleston Museum

This spot is located near the Visitors Center on Meeting St. It's conveniently close to the bustling city center, yet it maintains its own unique charm. Being the oldest natural history museum in North America, it has gone through several relocations before settling in its current spot. The building itself is around 45 years old, and unfortunately, its age is evident in the interior. Nevertheless, it's still fascinating to witness the city's transformation into what it is today. What struck me was the stark contrast between the city's violent history during the American Revolution, the Civil War, and subsequent periods, and its current relaxed atmosphere. The museum showcases the early days of Charleston as a port city for the Spanish, British, and eventually the Americans. Additionally, there's an impressive exhibit that delves into the city's involvement in the Civil War, from South Carolina's secession to its eventual readmission into the Union. Lastly, there's a captivating natural history exhibit that highlights the diverse fauna and animals that have thrived in this region up to the present day. They've got some exciting plans for the future, including exhibits on Reconstruction and the 20th century. It's impressive how well they've written these exhibits. Although the museum may not be in its prime, it's definitely worth a visit. Supporting museums like this by visiting and showing your patronage is the best way to ensure their growth and development

Charleston City Market:

During my first two days in the city, I made sure to visit this marketplace. It became almost a tradition for me to start my day here, exploring the vibrant atmosphere. Spanning four city blocks, this market is a unique blend of open-air and closed-air sections. Local artisans showcase their craftsmanship, offering a diverse range of products from jewelry and shirts to art prints. As I walked through the open-air area, I appreciated the absence of pushy salespeople. However, they were always ready to answer any questions I had. The market is brimming with creativity, even boasting a cigar merchant who infuses Dominican-made cigars with bourbon and moonshine. Inside the enclosed section, I discovered a mini general store and a cozy coffee shop, all run by local merchants. Some of them even sell delicious food. It's truly a wonderful place to walk around, and I made sure to collect business cards from a few merchants, planning to order some of their incredible art prints in the future for my home. This marketplace also serves as a fantastic introduction to the city of Charleston.

City Tour:

On the second day, I took tour of the city using the Gray Line Tour Bus. This tour was quite comprehensive as it went beyond the downtown area and showcased the rest of the city. The tour guide providing a synopsis of the history of the city (wars and even earthquakes galore!), with some interesting facts that you may not know about Charleston (it is the second most bombarded in war besides the nearby Fort Sumter, and did I mention they had a bad earthquake too?). In addition, most of the land is filled, similar to another colonial type city - Boston. The tour lasted for about 90 minutes and was definitely worth it, although I was surprised they didn't offer "hop on/hop off" tours. If you prefer a carriage tour, there are plenty of options available too.

Fort Sumter Tour:

Part of the package that I purchased for the tour also included a tour of the Fort Sumter National Park. At the conclusion of the city tour, I was dropped off at Liberty Square. Some people on the tour were also touring the site as well, so it was nice to see some semi-familiar faces. After listening to a brief explanation of the history of Fort Sumter’s historical significance to the city and the nation at the time of the American Civil War, we proceeded to get in line to enter the ferry. The ferry had plenty of seating on the lower and upper deck. As the upper deck was fairly packed, I proceeded to move to the lower deck where I found a seat I liked near one of the windows. I opened the windows to let the fresh air in. After a 30 minute boat ride, we landed at Fort Sumter.

What amazed me about Fort Sumter was how much of it still stands after all these years. I'm sure they've reinforced some parts, but it's mostly in ruins. However, it's perfectly safe to explore. This particular tour is managed by the National Park Service, and there’s usually a park ranger that gives a talk on the existence of the fort, with the build up and eventual destruction. There’s also a museum that gives an explanation of the history of the fort in case you miss anything (like I did!). I was on the last tour of the day, so I got to see the flag lowering. You have an hour on the island, which is plenty of time to hold your interest and you leave wanting to learn more. It was fascinating to see in person, and well worth a visit.

Topgolf:

OK, so this is a popular attraction found in many cities, but unfortunately, it's not available in my area (New England). However, whenever I go on a trip, I always make sure to visit the nearest location for a morning session. This specific spot is located in North Charleston, SC, right by the airport (so close you can see the planes taking off from the bays!). It's essentially a driving range with a fantastic bar and restaurant attached, and they even assign a server to assist you at your bay. Here's a pro tip: if you go before 12pm on weekdays, you'll get a significant discount. I've taken advantage of the $15 unlimited play offer multiple times, and it's definitely worth it. The main difference between this place and a Topgolf Swing Suite is that here, you're playing real golf. You'll be using clubs, swinging, and hitting a golf ball that will travel quite a distance (anywhere from 10 to 150 yards). Once you're done, you can also grab lunch there, making it super convenient.

Breweries:

I wrapped up my time in Charleston by exploring a distillery and two fantastic breweries for the afternoon, after lunch.

  • First, I made a quick visit to Firefly Distillery to sample some of their whiskey and bourbon, and subsequently I purchased a bottle of small batch bourbon to take home.

  • Then, I headed over to Holy City Brewery, which is not only a brewery but also a lively bar. They had some intriguing brews, and I enjoyed a light appetizer to ensure I was fit to drive afterwards. I had the following for small pour beers, and i’ll give my ratings:

    • Empire Oyster Saison (4 out of 5 stars): This was a dry hopped oyster saison that had a slight bite with the citra hops. Very good!

    • Flannel Pants (4.25 out of 5 stars): This is a pumpkin spice flavored white ale. I recall it having a very light color with a nice blend of spice flavors with that slight infusion of pumpkin spice.

    • Self-Explanatory (4.25 out of 5 stars): This was a kolsch beer that had a slight infusion of honey malt, which gave it a nice smooth flavor.

  • I made a final stop at Munkle Brewery. Known locally for their Belgian beers, Munkle offers flavorful brews that can pack a punch, so I opted for the smaller pours, as I like to sample different beers before committing to a larger serving. Belgian beers are my favorite of all of the craft beers out there, so I will be biased in my opinions!

    • 3rd Floor Tripel (4.25 out of 5 stars): This is their “beligian tripel”, it has a medium body, bright fruit finish with a peppery hop flavor. It smelled and tasted wonderful.

    • Oud Brune (4 out of 5 stars): This is what is called a “flemish inspired brown ale”. It had a strong fruit flavor but also a chocolate flavor as well, very very good.

  • Unfortunately, I had no luck with Edmond's Oast as both locations were closed for a private event. I did buy some beer at a nearby grocery store to take home for future consumption.

When it comes to breweries, distilleries, and wineries, it's crucial to be responsible while enjoying yourself. The last thing you want is to experience a terrible and completely avoidable incident during your vacation. Each place usually provides water and snacks, but I made sure to bring my own bag of pistachios and a big bottle of water. It's always a good idea to bring snacks or grab some food at these places. Some establishments even offer takeout delivery, so don't hesitate to ask. And if you find yourself in a situation where you've had too much to drink and snacks aren't helping, remember to call an Uber, Lyft, or taxi as a last resort. I can't emphasize this enough - please be responsible.

Food and Cocktails:

  • Virginia’s On Main: Looks to be a nice lunch spot. I had the Flounder BLT, which was much better than I expected it to be. It has bacon on it, which already means it’s going to be good, but add the flounder and tarter sauce and it actually makes for a good sandwich. Fries were the shoestring kind. For lunch, this is a great stop.
  • The Loutrel Hotel: Located near Charleston City Market, this charming bar featured an outstanding bartender named Kevin who effortlessly managed the place all by himself. I spent a good four hours there, indulging in a fantastic Manhattan with Woodford Reserve, an delicious Jalapeño Mule, and a refreshing Bourbon splash cocktail. It was a great experience to be in a vibrant yet not overly crowded venue. Kevin was not only incredibly nice but also very approachable. We had a fantastic conversation about the Packers (I happened to be wearing my Green Bay Packers hat, apologies to anyone reading who follows the rest of the NFC North!) and he generously provided me with numerous local recommendations for the area.
  • Rodney Scott BBQ: I'm not sure if it's because I went on a Monday night, but I wasn't really impressed. The brisket had a good flavor. However, the whole hog pork lacked any taste, so much so that I almost considered drowning it in sauce, which is usually a sign of mediocre barbecue for me. The Collard Greens were ok, and the hush puppies were only enjoyable with the honey butter (although strangely, the cornbread didn't need it). Overall, it was fine, but not impressive.
  • Oyster House: This was one of the best dinners I had in Charleston. I was in the mood for crab cakes and they did an excellent job. The portion was just right and it had a great flavor. To accompany my dinner, I had a Kentucky Mule and it was an excellent compliment. I also bumped into a couple that recognized me from the Fort Sumter tour earlier that day, they noticed my Packers hat and they stated they were from Kansas City, which was funny at that moment as the Packers had just defeated the Chiefs in a recent game. We had a good laugh and great conversation prior to the dinner, and I asked them about Kansas City as well (possibly a future Travel Story? Hmmm!).
  • Culver’s: I can’t resist a good burger and fries, and this place delivers. Just like I mentioned earlier about Topgolf, the same applies to chain fast food. Culver's is unfortunately not found anywhere in the northeast, especially not in New England, so it's always a pleasant surprise when I come across one. It has high quality service similar to a Chick Fil A service but with burgers, fries, shakes, etc. It is also as consistent as it gets with fast food. And while I love Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Shake Shack, a “value basket” costs about 2/3 and even half of that.
  • Lewis BBQ: This place is definitely a contender for the best dinner of the entire trip, right up there with Oyster House. The BBQ here is simply amazing. You know it's good when there's a line out the door even on a weeknight after 7pm. I decided to go for a half pound of brisket, a green chile Texas sausage, and a side of Mac and Cheese and Coleslaw. Let me tell you, it was all absolutely outstanding. The brisket was so flavorful and tender, and the sausage had an amazing taste with just the right amount of heat. The sides were equally delicious. The amount of delicious food you get here is worth every penny, even though it may be a bit pricey. This is a MUST stop, and come hungry. You won’t be disappointed.

Accommodations:

Home2Suites in Mount Pleasant, SC

The hotel is exactly as advertised. You get a clean, comfortable room that has the amenities of a suite. When you walk in, there’s a kitchen area with a small refrigerator, sink and dishwasher. To your right, there’s a bathroom with a shower. As you continue into the room, there’s a small living room with couch and large screen television, and finally there’s a nice king sized bed. The room was clean, comfortable and relaxing. They have an outdoor pool, and an exercise room with a Peloton exercise bike, elliptical and treadmills, along with weights. Adjacent to the exercise room is the laundry room, which comes in handy for those times you need to pack light! They do a free breakfast in the morning, mostly pre-made breakfast sandwiches and omelets, but they also have cereal, bagels, English muffins, and a waffle maker available. My only issue was that the walls were thin, so you could hear some noise below and to the side. However, for the most part, everyone is respectful of each other. This hotel is primarily marketed at those who are on extended stays, and is considered an “economy” type hotel. It’s similar to Holiday Inn Express, so if you have stayed there before, you’ll know what to expect.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car:

Knowing that I would be traveling around the area and potentially going on a road trip, I made the decision to rent a car. I conveniently booked my rental through the Enterprise app at the airport. I've been doing this for quite some time now because it's so convenient to simply walk to the rental car area and pick up or drop off the car. Yes, it may be a bit more expensive, but the time saved and convenience are well worth it. Plus, you can always count on getting a high-quality rental car. I originally reserved a midsize car, but ended up with a speedy Nissan Altima.

The Final Verdict:

Charleston is a very charming, relaxing city that is perfect for solo travelers. Throughout the year, you'll have plenty of opportunities to strike up conversations with both locals and fellow travelers. If you're looking to save some money, consider visiting during the "offseason" months when prices are generally more reasonable. However, keep in mind that certain restaurants can be a bit pricey. While the barbecue scene may be hit or miss, the seafood options are abundant and delicious. It is close to the great Fort Sumter National Park, and there’s all kinds of tours for whatever you want to do. As I always say with solo travel, it is whatever you want it to be. Perhaps you want to explore the area parks, and even National Parks. Perhaps you want to explore just the city itself. Perhaps you want to use the city to go on a road trip through the area. Whatever you decide, it is a fantastic place to go. I’ll be back someday for sure.