Charleston, South Carolina, was founded in 1670, making it one of the oldest cities in the United States. It is also one of the most well-preserved; visitors will feel like they've taken a step back in time while strolling the quaint cobblestone streets and admiring the colorful antebellum houses.
A perennial winner of the 'Best City in the United States' and even 'Best City in the World' titles, Charleston packs a huge punch for such a small city. A delicate balance has been achieved between maintaining its historical identity while at the same time establishing a modern-day reputation for its culinary, arts, and entertainment scene. Oh, and don't forget the beautiful surrounding beaches just a few miles away!
When To Visit Charleston
There really is no bad time of year to visit Charleston, but there are a few points to consider when choosing travel dates. The most ideal time to go will be mostly a matter of personal preference, depending on how travelers feel about the heat and what specific activities are on the bucket list.
Spring and Fall
Speaking from a strictly-climate perspective, these are perhaps the best seasons to visit Charleston. The weather is warm, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, and only a sweater or light jacket is needed at night. Even the ocean is a pleasant temperature to jump in and enjoy in the spring and fall, but with much thinner crowds on the beach (and much less time sitting in traffic to get there).
Summertime is lively and full of fun in Charleston, but be warned: it is sweltering during the day. Temperatures are consistently in the 90s and above, with an even higher heat index due to the humidity. Those planning to explore the city by foot should consider heading out early in the morning or in the evening once the sun is on its way down. Luckily, Charleston is literally surrounded by water, and there are plenty of places to cool off!
Winter temperatures tend to stay fairly mild and pleasant up until around December. January and February are generally the coldest months of the year, but temps rarely fall below the 40s at night, and daytime highs are in the 50s and 60s. Crowds are light, and there are tons of off-season discounts available on accommodations and attractions. Winter is also a great time to snag an extended stay vacation rental in one of the surrounding beach communities. Monthly deals can often be worked out with owners or property managers at a huge discount.
Avoid College of Charleston graduation weekend (May) or Cooper River Bridge Run weekend (April) unless actively participating in either one. Traffic is heavily impeded, and accommodation prices are at a premium.
What To Do In Charleston
Strolling around historic downtown Charleston is a draw in itself. Visitors can shop till they drop with the endless rows of art galleries and boutiques that line Lower King Street and the surrounding side streets. Here are a few other noteworthy shopping suggestions:
- Charleston City Market: Sprawling several city blocks, the historic market dates back centuries and is one of the leading local attractions. Open daily from 9:30am - 6:00pm
- Charleston Night Market: On Friday and Saturday nights from March - December, over 100 talented artists selected via the application process showcase their creations. All items are local and handcrafted.
- Charleston Farmer's Market: located in Marion Square in the middle of downtown Charleston, the farmer's market offers fresh local produce, prepared food, arts, textiles, and more. Runs every Saturday from April - November, plus the first three weekends in December as a holiday market.
Charleston is also known for its thriving music and arts scene. There are multiple venues that host both emerging local artists and well-known headliners. Check online and be sure to purchase tickets in advance, as the venues are small and often sell out.
- Music Farm: located downtown, an intimate venue that often brings in big names across many genres.
- Charleston Pour House: laid-back local favorite located on James Island.
- Charleston Music Hall: a downtown historic building that hosts concerts, theater, and dance in a formal setting.
- Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina at Patriot's Point: a fun, waterfront sand bar venue; check out the happy hour concert series every Friday from May - July.
Brush Up On Some History
The first shot of the Civil War was fired from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, so the city is teeming with history. There are tons of informative walking tours (be sure to choose a licensed tour guide), or you can opt to hear their history lesson perched atop a horse-drawn carriage. Visitors should also consider visiting at least one of the historic plantations to tour the homes and gardens while learning about African American history and slavery.
Take Advantage of Charleston's Beautiful Weather
With its mild climate and proximity to the water, Charleston is a wonderful place to enjoy the great outdoors all year round.
- Hop on a boat: With so much water surrounding the city, exploring by boat is a great option. Charleston Sailing School offers hourly and daily yacht charters and powerboat rentals; view the colorful historic homes while cruising through the harbor or head over to Shem Creek and drop anchor at one of the many waterfront bars.
- Watch a baseball game: Charleston is home to its own much-loved minor league baseball team called the Charleston Riverdogs. Offering cheap beers and tons of fun, the season runs from April - September. Bill Murray is a co-owner of the team and often pops up at home games.
- Hit the beach: There are three main Charleston beaches, each with its own unique vibe and personality. Explore the barrier islands of Isle of Palms, Sullivans Island, and Folly Beach, and decide which one is your favorite!
Where to Wine and Dine in Charleston
This entire article could easily be devoted to the incredible culinary scene in Charleston, as the city has long been a foodie haven. Food and drink are a staple of any Charleston vacation. While there is far too much to even begin to scratch the surface on, below are a few top picks for various tastes and budgets that have withstood the test of time. Oh, and be sure to go to a local oyster roast if visiting during the oyster season (September - April)!
Classic Upscale Staples
- Hall's Chophouse: a local institution known for its prime steaks.
- FIG: southern dining with a twist in an upscale setting by a James Beard Award-winning chef.
- Muse: cozy Italian restaurant and wine bar in a historic Charleston home.
- Husk: rotating menu of upscale southern cuisine in a restored Victorian-era home.
- The Ordinary: a former bank makes for a dramatic backdrop for this high-end seafood establishment
Hip and Trendy
- Xiao Bau Biscuit: Asian fusion cuisine in a converted gas station.
- Leon's Fine Poultry and Oyster Shop: award-winning and affordable cuisine in a converted garage.
- 167 Raw: New England-style oyster bar in the historic district.
- Barsa: Spanish tapas in a stylish lounge setting.
- Warehouse: industrial-chic cocktail bar serving up a rotating menu based on fresh, local ingredients.
Favorite Local Dives
- Recovery Room: quintessential dive boasting the unusual title of the world's top seller of PBR beer.
- Moe's Crosstown Tavern: located downtown but north of the 'crosstown', Moe's is a local favorite, especially on 1/2 price burger night (Tuesdays).
- ACs: cheap drinks and cheap food served late at night and early for brunch too.
- The Griffon: English-pub style dive located in the French Quarter. Loved by locals and tourists alike.
- Salty Mike's: located on the waterfront at Charleston City Marina, this dive bar comes with a view!
Getting To And Around Charleston
Charleston International Airport (CHS) is located about 20 minutes from downtown, so flying is a convenient option. The city is also serviced by Amtrak, with trains arriving in North Charleston. Passengers can easily get to downtown Charleston via rideshare, taxi, or local bus.
For those driving to Charleston, be sure to check with the vacation rental or hotel ahead of time about parking. Space is not always provided, and as with any city, parking downtown can be an issue. Charleston is full of one-way streets, so be sure to read the signs carefully before making any turns. Rickshaws and bike taxis are a cheap and efficient way to get around the city. The guys (and gals) who ride them are a great source of local insight too!
Lastly, be aware of high-tide flooding. As Charleston is a peninsula and sits barely above sea level, the city streets often flood at high tide, even on sunny days. If it's raining, it can be even more severe. Locals are accustomed to this scenario - follow their lead and don't stress, and definitely don't drive. The water will receed fairly quickly, so just grab a drink and relax!