Charleston is a charming Southern town. While 2 days is hardly enough time, this Ultimate Guide 2 Days in Charleston offers some highlights.
Charleston, South Carolina combines Southern charm with great food, fun tours, and tons of history. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time. So, when I knew I’d be visiting the state’s capital city of Columbia, I decided to spend a few days in nearby Charleston. At first, I thought a day and a half would be enough to see the city’s highlights. But there’s so much to do I saw only a fraction of it in my short time there. Here’s the ultimate guide to 2 days in Charleston and what not to miss.
Historical Sights in Charleston
One of the oldest cities in America, Charleston drips with history. And since I love history, I focused on those attractions and museums during my visit. Even so, I didn’t come close to experiencing everything Charleston has to offer when it comes to history. But these are worth visiting.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
A must for any visitor, this National Historic Landmark originally served as a customs house before becoming a post office, city hall, military headquarters, and museum. Self-guided tours of the first and second floors focus primarily on the Revolutionary War with some information on the enslaved community in Charleston. Downstairs, a guided tour takes you through the dungeon that held political prisoners during the Revolutionary War.
I found the jail fascinating. It’s worth the price of admission alone. While the rest of the museum has a ton of information, it highlights a recurring problem with many of the area’s history museums. Few are interactive in any way. You read signs and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a few artifacts. Kids and young adults who expect things they can touch, videos to watch, or hands-on opportunities will be disappointed.
Old Slave Mart Museum
For seven years, from 1856 until 1863, traders sold men, women, and children within the four walls of the building that now holds the museum. Tours are self-guided and begin on the first floor, which focuses on the domestic slave trade. Upstairs, the displays explore slavery on a larger scale. Although there are some artifacts, you’ll mostly read as you move from one sign to the next. I spent about a half-hour here, but depending on how much you want to read, you could spend an hour here.
Fort Sumter National Historic Park
See where soldiers fired the first shots of the Civil War on a visit to Fort Sumter. To get there, you’ll need to book passage on the park’s authorized ferry, which costs $32—the park doesn’t charge admission, but you must arrive on the authorized ferry. After a 30-minute ride, you’ll spend an hour at the fort. That’s about all you need there. Other than the fort’s walls and a few cannons, there’s not much else to see at Fort Sumter other than what’s on display in the museum. Unfortunately, you’ll see very little. While there are a few artifacts, the museum mostly consists of signs telling the fort’s story.
Tip: If you don’t want to pay for the ferry, you can visit the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square for free. Like the museum at the fort, it tells its story mostly through signs on the wall.
The Charleston Museum
The very first museum in America, the Charleston Museum dates back to 1773 and focuses primarily today on the city’s history. On display are Native American artifacts, early settlers’ household items, and plantation-era agricultural equipment. You’ll also see exhibits on Charleston’s role in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Continue further to see some of the museum’s original exhibits, including a mummy.
Friends of the Hunley
On February 17, 1864, the H. L. Hunley completed the first successful combat submarine mission when it sank the USS Housatonic. Then, it mysteriously vanished. More than 130 years later, it was discovered and, in 2000, raised to the surface. Today, you can see the actual Hunley on weekends at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at Clemson University. The exhibit displays the story of that fateful night as well as the submarine’s retrieval and restoration efforts. This was one of my favorite stops in Charleston.
Tours in Charleston
Tours are big in Charleston. Throughout the day, crammed carriages navigate city streets, and hungry tourists follow guides to restaurants. At night, groups huddle around a storyteller with a flashlight to learn about pirates, lost love, and murder. Tours give you an overview of the city’s history, and I recommend taking one the day you arrive.
I didn’t take a carriage tour, but there are advantages to taking one. First, you can cover a lot of ground in an hour. Second, you don’t have to walk, which is a big deal on a hot, humid day. And finally, the guides give you a solid overview of Charleston. Tours are pricey though, costing $50 per person. Depending on the company you choose, you may be able to add a 90-minute walking tour to your itinerary for $20 per person or a harbor cruise for $30 per person—the pricing is fairly standard regardless of the company you hire.
Because Charleston is considered one of the most haunted places in the US, the city’s sidewalks fill with ghost tours at night. These range from family-friendly to adults-only tours. I went on two during my stay.
The adults-only Death and Depravity Ghost Tour offered by Ghost City Tours packs a lot of history into approximately two hours. I enjoyed the stories of pirates, prostitutes, Edgar Allen Poe, and even George Washington. Don’t expect to see a ghost, though. If you want a paranormal encounter, consider Bulldog Tours’ Spirits of Magnolia Cemetery Tour. Our guide for this tour was such a great storyteller that I actually left a little unnerved. As for actual paranormal activity, none of us experienced anything during our tour.
Charleston has great food, and what better way to discover its best dishes and restaurants than on a food tour? I took the Downtown Charleston Culinary Tour offered by Charleston Culinary Tours and had a blast. We started at Poogan’s Smokehouse where we sampled mini pork sandwiches, cornbread, and collard greens. Next up, we had a mini burger and fried chicken drizzled with chile honey at Church and Union. The food was great, but I enjoyed reading snippets from The Art of War, written in its entirety, on the restaurant’s ceiling.
After that, we continued at the Oyster House for she-crab soup, hush puppies, pimento cheese, and shrimp and grits—the she-crab soup was amazing! Finally, we stopped at Carmella’s Café & Dessert Bar for dessert.
Plantations Near Charleston
Before the Civil War, hundreds of plantations stretched across Charleston County. Today, four are located in the Charleston area, each with its own personality. Three of those—Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall—line Ashley River Road, just a few minutes apart. I don’t recommend trying to visit all three in one day. The fourth is in the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Open to the public since 1870, Magnolia Plantation is known for its gardens. General admission includes access to the gardens, petting zoo, nature center, conservatory, maze, and trails. It also includes the tour “From Slavery to Freedom,” which focuses on the experiences of enslaved people on the property. For additional fees, you can add a house tour, 45-minute nature tram, boat tour, or visit to the Audubon Swamp Garden.
I stuck to the general admission experience and enjoyed the historic gardens along the river. But at times, Magnolia felt a little busy for me with its school groups and trams.
The manicured gardens of Middleton Place stand in sharp contrast to the more free-form gardens of Magnolia Plantation. Its Versailles-like gardens feature a canal, gravel walkways, sculptures, and a rice field. Compared to Magnolia Plantation, it seemed quieter and more relaxed.
General admission covers the gardens as well as a live blacksmith, carpentry, pottery, and textile demonstrations. You can also visit Eliza’s House, a Reconstruction-era African American dwelling with a permanent exhibit on slavery. Additionally, general admission includes guided garden tours, an enslavement tour, and a historic livestock breeds tour. Tours of the property’s house are an extra $15.
As the oldest preserved plantation house in the United States, Drayton Hall focuses more on the home than the property’s gardens. Most visitors experience Drayton Hall on a self-guided audio tour. However, if you arrive when the gates open at 8:45 am, you can take the interpreter-led house tour at 9 am. In addition to the home, the property includes the caretaker’s house, the Lenhardt Garden, an 18th-century African American cemetery, and the Stephen and Laura Gates Gallery.
Tip: Drayton Hall closes at 3:30 pm. If you plan to see two Ashley River Road plantations, make Drayton Hall your first stop.
Boone Hall Plantation
Founded in 1681, Boone Hall Plantation is known for its Avenue of Oaks, said to be the inspiration for the tree-lined drive to Tara in Gone with the Wind. General admission here includes everything on the property, from covered wagon tours of the property to the first floor of the plantation home. It also includes live presentations on the Gullah people, descendants of West Africans enslaved in coastal communities from North Carolina to northern Florida.
Other Places to Check Out in Charleston
There’s even more to see in and around Charleston. If you have the time, add one or all of these attractions to your itinerary.
Charleston City Market
Contrary to what you might first think, the Charleston marketplace never held slave auctions. It started as a farmers’ market, and today, its open-air stalls sell everything from handmade seagrass baskets to local food products.
Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum
Patriot’s Point consists of more than the readily visible USS Yorktown. It’s also home to the USS Laffey, 3-acre Vietnam Experience Exhibit, Medal of Honor Museum, and Cold War Memorial. Plan to spend at least half a day exploring all it has to offer.
Charleston Tea Gardens
Although it’s a 40-minute drive from Charleston, this tea plantation was one of the highlights of my trip. The trolley ride is fun and informative, and you can take a free factory tour to see how the company produces its tea. Charleston Tea Gardens serves free hot and cold tea you can sip in a rocking chair on the gift shop porch.
Where to Stay in Charleston
I normally don’t include a suggestion on where to stay, but Charleston warrants it. Hotels are expensive, especially if you want to stay in downtown Charleston. To save money, you can stay in chains on the city’s fringes, but you will have to drive a half-hour or more for significant savings.
One option is to stay at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina in Mount Pleasant, SC. Harborside, the waterfront hotel is away from the bustle of downtown and has a large resort pool and tiki bar. I liked that it was minutes from Patriot’s Point, and the Charleston Harbor Fish House has amazing views of the USS Yorktown.
Even better, you can take advantage of the Charleston Water Taxi, which leaves from the marina and crosses the harbor to downtown Charleston. Harborside also offers a shuttle that picks up and drops off in front of Key West Hats on North Market Street.
How to Explore Charleston
The easiest way to get to Charleston is by flying into Charleston International Airport. You can also visit on a road trip by flying into Savannah, GA, and driving two hours north to Charleston. The city does have a port that serves as the beginning and end for Carnival Sunshine’s cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean.
If you want to avoid the crowds and score a deal on a hotel, the low season runs from December through February. The high season is March through May and September through November. June, July, and August are considered the shoulder season. But be prepared for the heat. During the summer, temperatures can reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity hovers around 75 percent throughout the year.
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Getting Around Charleston
Depending on where you stay and what you plan to do, you can avoid renting a car. Downtown is condensed and walkable, and you can arrange for tours to outlying attractions. Rideshares are accessible but may not service the area you plan to visit. For example, you may have a hard time getting one to pick you up at the distant Charleston Tea Garden.
Because there is so much to see and do in Charleston, take some time to plan out what you want to see. We hope this ultimate guide to two days in Charleston will give you some insights into the best the city has to offer. Let Wander help you plan your next getaway whether it’s in South Carolina or beyond.
The Ultimate Guide to 2 Days in Charleston