1. MARION SQUARE
This large park was named for Revolutionary War Hero Francis Marion, and has a variety of monuments and memorials, and even an original part of colonial fortifications. The surrounding cityscape is breathtaking, and an area where dirigibles flew in 1909 has a multi-steepled skyline, featuring the city’s highest spire at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, one of its oldest in Second Presbyterian Church, and one of its most beloved in Emanuel AME Church.
Framing Marion Square on one side is the Old Citadel, a crenelated fortress once home to the South Carolina Military Academy, and now a bustling hotel, bordered by two spectacular new lodgings, The Dewberry and The Bennett, as well as the grandeur of yesteryear in 1920’s Francis Marion Hotel.
This midtown area is highlighted by the colorful boutiques and lively restaurants along busy King Street, and it doesn’t cost a thing just to wander and enjoy the displays, the overflowing music, and the always popular people-watching.
2. WHITE POINT GARDEN & BATTERY ROW
There is no better view in Charleston than along the historic quarter-mile promenade down Battery Row to White Point Garden. On one side, an array a grand antebellum mansions with towering columns and spectacular details, and on the other, fabled Charleston Harbor and a shimmering estuary filled with sails and ships as well as fins and feathers. The 1854 stone and brick walkway known as the High Battery offers excellent views of Fort Sumter, Castle Pickney and the surrounding sea and barrier islands, as well as a good place to catch glimpses of diving pelicans and tail-splashing dolphin. Throughout the year, there are boating events, as colorful sails and spinnakers flash across the waters, as well as the steady stream of huge commercial ships in one of America’s busiest harbors. At the foot of the peninsula and Battery Row, White Point Garden is an idyllic park filled with massive oak trees and military monuments from the Revolution and Civil War, and a wonderful picnic area for enjoying sea breezes and swaying moss and feeding the omnipresent gray squirrels.
3. SULLIVAN’S ISLAND
A short drive across the Cooper River and through the village of Mount Pleasant is the delightful barrier island that got its name from lighthouse keeper Florence O’Sullivan way back in 1694. Sullivan’s Island is compact - only 3 miles long and less than a mile wide - but in this small space is packed lots of history, beauty, flavor and fun. Driving down to the South end of the island, there is ample parking near historic Stella Maris Church and Fort Moultrie. The early 19th-century fort is part of the Fort Sumter Nationa Historic Site, and features a museum and cannon-rippling walls overlooking the sea. A short path from the fort leads to a stunning beachscape, with Fort Sumter clearly visible above the pounding waves, and intricate sea shells and driftwood scattered in the sand and dunes. After an exhilarating stroll along the Atlantic shore, a good choice is to drive past some of the amazing island residences, such as the old officer’s quarters on I’on Avenue, a grand row of 19th century structures shadowed by sculpture-like oaks. The small restaurant area back in the middle of the island is very lively with popular eateries such as Poe’s Tavern, named for Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed at Fort Moultrie in the 1820’s. Many of the menu items are named for Poe’s writings, but the burger plate called The Tell Tale Heart eats better than any read.
4. CITY MARKET
The City Market was created in 1807 as a meat, vegetable and fish market, and although you can still get those at this location, it would have to be in one of its many restaurants. Today, the long row of historic sheds house a giant flea market, and open-air vendors offer everything from jewelry, artwork, hats and mementos. bordering the market on either side are North and South Market streets, filled with shops and eateries to please any palate. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, this is the place to be, with Market Street Sweets, Kilwin’s Chocolates and The Fudgery all a dessert-lover’s dream. Among the family-friendly restaurants around the market is Five Church Street, which was once home to a sailor’s chapel distinguished by its stained glass windows and pointed gable roof. At the North end of the market, the 1850’s Custom House stands majestically in the style of Greek temple, and is one of the most photographed locations in the city, while at the South end, 1840’s Market Hall is a Roman-style temple now home to a Civil War museum.
5. THE FRENCH QUARTER
This 14-block area encompasses much of the original city created here in the 1670’s, and among its numerous picturesque locations are some of the oldest structures in town. The adorable Pink House Tavern on Chalmers Street was a hangout for pirates in the early days, and The Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street, is now a museum with displays of early cannon and other weapons, as well as some of the stocks and pillories used for colonial punishment. The two oldest burial grounds in Charleston are at the Circular Congregation Church and St. Philips’s Church, and both are typically open during the week. Famous graves include Declaration and Constitution signers and other notable men and women, and historic grave markers are fascinating with symbols such as soul effigies as well as skulls and crossbones. Philadelphia Alley is one of the most picturesque passageways in the old city, and a popular location for evening ghost tours. One of the best daytime tours in the city -Charleston Footprints Walking Tours - starts in the French Quarter at the charming Historic Charleston Foundation shop. Host Michael Trouche is a 7th-generation Charlestonian, and treats guests to such fabled sites as The Dock Street Theatre, The French Huguenot Church and Washington Square.
6. SOUTH OF BROAD
Charleston is as walkable as any city in the world, and there is no more visually enjoyable stroll than in the famous South of Broad area. This section of the old city at the base of the Charleston peninsula is almost completely residential, and the houses and gardens are stunning in their detail and very easy to enjoy from the sidewalk. A good start is at St. Michael’s Church and the storied “Four Corners of Law”. The corner church is the oldest on the peninsula and is usually open for visitors to marvel at its classic architecture and Tiffany windows. The three other corners feature wonderful historic structures at City Hall, the County Court House and the Federal Court House, thus city, state, federal and God’s law. One great walk is down Legare Street, featuring the amazing ironwork of Christopher Verner’s 1840-era Sword Gate, as well the awe-inspiring architecture of the antebellum houses with bursting French-style gardens and moss-draped oaks. Turning at Lamboll Street it’s likely you’ll see the colorful guinea hens that roam this section of the city, then a turn back up King Street and the countless grand facades such as the opulent Patrick O’Donnell House, or down South Battery Street and the inspiring John Ashe Alston House. Four of Charleston’s six museum houses are located South of Broad, the most intricate being the early 1800’s Nathaniel Russell House with its amazing display of furnishings, colors, and free-flying staircase - all for $15 a head.
7. HAMPTON PARK & THE CITADEL
Hampton Park is Charleston’s largest public ground at 250 acres, and was historically home to one of America’s most famous horse-racing venues, Washington Race Course, and in 1901 was transformed into a panoramic “Ivory City” of white palaces built for a world’s fair called The Charleston Exposition. The race track and buildings are mostly long gone in an area now most popular for roaming, running, biking or picnicking amid its natural beauty, with rows of towering trees and banks of colorful flowers surrounding a expansive fountain-splashed lake filled with ducks and geese.
Across the street is the famous campus of The Citadel, South Carolina’s Military Academy, statuesque with its rows of crenelated buildings surrounding a parade ground where cadets march to bagpipe bands in colorful grandeur on most Friday afternoons. The Citadel features a wonderful museum filled with military history, and the parade ground is decked with a variety of ordnance that includes cannon, tanks and jets from various wars. The streets around Hampton Park and the Citadel are very quiet and scenic and offer a peaceful stroll to such popular eateries as Harold’s Cabin on Congress Street, which has the relaxed feel of a coffee shop/corner grocery, or Leon’s Oyster over on King Street, a lively local seafood location created from an old gas station, as well as Little Jack’s Tavern, also on King, whose specialty burger was named nation’s best by Bon Appetit Magazine.
8. OLD VILLAGE, SHEM CREEK & PITT STREET BRIDGE
The town of Mount Pleasant was founded in 1837 along bluffs overlooking the Cooper River, and many of the grand old houses from that era still stand as showcases in the original section of town called The Old Village. It is a very pleasant walk or bike excursion, feeling the breezes of Charleston Harbor and wandering past centuries-old oak trees. At Alhambra Hall a public ground offers magnificent sunset views of Charleston across the majestic harbor.
To the east, Pitt Street leads to a common area that was once the bridge connection to Sullivan’s Island, and is now a park, with bike and hiking lanes and a fishing dock built on the old bridge pilings, where it’s easy to catch a red drum or go crabbing, or just admire the natural beauty of herons, egrets, oyster catchers. and other creatures wading through the acres of unspoiled marshes, or watch sailboats ply the intracoastal waterway. Stargazers come to this pristine spot in the evenings to get great views of the constellations while listening to the soft rustling of breezes through the tidal creeks.
To the west, the Old Village borders historic Shem Creek, once the heart of the local shrimping fleet. Shrimp boats still do their work, as the distinctive vessels with their net-filled outriggers chug past a waterfront now dominated by restaurants. A boardwalk offers a chance to get terrific waterfront views of the boats and the ever-present pelicans that swoop and dive from overhead, or you can just pull up a chair on outdoor decks at creekside restaurants such as Vickery’s, Red’s Ice House, Water’s Edge, or the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene all popular for both victuals and views.
9. CHARLESTON MUSEUM & MAZYCK-WRAGGBOROUGH
The area known as Mazyck-Wraggborough was one of the early suburbs of Charleston, and offers a variety of easily-accessible and moderately-priced venues. The Charleston Museum on Meeting Street is a 1980’s building, but it houses a collection that was begun in the 1780’s, and has a wonderful chronological display that includes the city’s best depiction of the lives of the enslaved and their tools, creations and stories. There is ample military on display in the forms of flags, uniforms and weapons from the battles throughout Charleston’s history from pirates to patriots, as well as the mechanisms of yesteryear with such rare items as spinning jennies and rice gates. The museum also boasts an extensive display of the area’s natural history, from giant reconstructed dinosaurs to unusual reptiles, birds and mammals.
There are two museum houses in Mazyck-Wraggborough, the 1800-era Joseph Manigault House on John Street, known for its exquisite detail and as a jewel of the Adamesque style, as well the 1840’s Aiken-Rhett House on Elizabeth Street, which has been preserved to offer visitors a realistic glimpse of what the house looked like in its day, with another interesting relic from the slavery era in the form of its intact outbuildings.
Just across Calhoun Street to the south is the imposing Gaillard Center, rebuilt in 2015 to replicate an opulent antebellum performance hall, and where tickets are available for as little as $20 for many shows that include orchestral favorites, brass ensembles, jazz, Broadway music, and chorusses.
Across Meeting Street on Ann Street is the city’s Visitor Center and Best Friend of Charleston Railroad Museum. The Visitor Center was built inside an 1850’s railroad station, and this part of the city was the first in the South to have passenger rail service as far back as the 1820’s with the famous Best Friend, a locomotive that plied what was then the longest section of track in America. The neighboring museum has a wealth of railroad paraphernalia as well as a full-sized replica of the Best Friend.
Just a block farther on King Street, this section of the city is as lively as it gets day or night, with a wealth of restaurants and taverns, with some of the more reasonably-priced for comfort food and pub grub at The Brick, Basil Thai Restaurant, The Rarebit and The Little Biscuit.
10. BROAD & EAST BAY STREET - THE OLD EXCHANGE
A great place for a variety of tastes is the area around The Old Exchange, where history, architecture, folklore, food, drink and art offer a compelling combination.
The Old Exchange is a colonial-era masterpiece of Palladian architecture and a popular museum. This landmark was once used as a fortification, custom house and dungeon, and where pirates were imprisoned, the Constitution ratified and George Washington presided over a grand ball.
Across the street, the equally exquisite One Broad Street is a charming antebellum brownstone built by the man for whom the character of Rhett Butler was copied in Gone With The Wind. Today, it pays to visit the old bank for the wonderful aromas of fresh pressed coffees and hot baked pastries and breads, now home to a Normandy Farms restaurant with one of the best views in town.
Next to the Old Exchange is fabled Coates Row, a pre-Revolutionary tavern that still serves up concoctions as one of America’s oldest purveyors of spirits that include such local libations as sweet tea vodka and white corn moonshine made by area distilleries.
At the other end of Coates Row, the W. Hampton Brand art and artifacts shop features amazing scenes of Charleston painted on old slates and bricks, as well as rare collections of historic treasures such as unique slave badges.