Charleston in 4 Days: a guidebook for getting the most out of your visit

Charleston is a compact city, where most of the tourist attractions can be visited quickly. Here is a four-day itinerary where you can get to know the historical, aquatic and economic side of this wonderful southern U.S. city.

Ana Caballero

Ana Caballero

17 min read

Charleston in 4 Days: a guidebook for getting the most out of your visit

Charleston, Rainbow Row | ©Don Sniegowski

Four days in a southern U.S. city? To some, this sounds like a nightmare. But I am quite convinced that, if they think so, it is because they do not know the wonders of this region and especially of Charleston, a city where there is plenty to see and do at any time of the year. If you have the option of visiting Charleston for four days, I promise you won 't be bored.

This southern city has different waterfronts that you can get to know, walking and by boat. There are also a lot of historical buildings that make you think and reflect. Not to mention the important plantations that surround the city and that marked the slave-owning past, but today are a haven for nature. Want to know what to do in Charleston? Read on and I promise you a full agenda for the next four days.

1. Day City tour by foot and by tourist bus

Charleston Tour Bus| ©Viator
Charleston Tour Bus| ©Viator

Let's get started! You may arrive in the city by plane or by car. If you arrive by car, there is no problem: you will only have to take it to the hotel parking lot that you previously booked and start your day or even take it with you to the itinerary of the first day. On the other hand, if you arrive by plane, I recommend you to book a transfer from the airport so that you are comfortable.

This first day, starting in the morning, you will be able to do many things in this beautiful city. My advice is that you try to discover the most dynamic part of the city, with its commercial, gastronomic and cultural parts through a walking tour. For this, I will guide you step by step.

Transfer from the airport to the hotel

Welcome to Charleston! If you arrive in the city by plane, there will be no problem in arranging your hotel pick-up. For starters, remember that you are in the United States, so without a car it is difficult to get around outside the city. However, it's also not a huge problem if you're in downtown Charleston, so when you arrive at Charleston International Airport, you'll have several options.

The first one is, as I suggest, to rent a car from a car rental company for the four days you are going to stay and that will drop you off in 20 minutes in downtown. This will be useful to get to know the surroundings of the city, but it can be an obstacle if you stay downtown.

If you don't want to drive or can't drive during your stay, then the best thing to do is to take a bus from the airport to the city center or its surroundings, where your hotel will probably be.

In that case, I suggest the Charleston Area Regional Authority bus, which stops right outside the airport. Among the other options are cabs, but also shuttles offered by different hotels in the city.

Start with a sightseeing bus tour

Once you have settled in, I recommend that you start your day getting to know Charleston on foot. It all depends on what time you arrive. If it's early, then you'll have to settle in for breakfast first, for which I recommend you try eating at your hotel or an ideal toast restaurant before heading out.

Anyway, if you arrive late, it doesn't matter: I recommend that you start with a tour with a tourist bus in Charleston that will serve as an introduction to the city.

You can often book these tour buses in advance or your hotel will provide you with specific information. During the morning you don't have to worry, as they leave every few hours, but if you arrive after noon, you can take one that runs through the southeastern part of the city.

The tours usually start in the north, near the Ashley River, passing by The Citadel, one of the most important military universities in the country. Also, several of these routes pass through the Old City Market and along the entire southern waterfront of the city, especially the French Quarter, one of Charleston's most picturesque.

This entire sightseeing bus tour will take you no more than two hours. Once you're done, you'll have the opportunity to explore King Street in depth, as well as enter museums and stores.

Book a sightseeing bus tour of Charleston

Lunch on King Street

King Street| ©Warren LeMay
King Street| ©Warren LeMay

It is possible that the bus tour will drop you off at the top of King Street, which is undoubtedly the most famous street in the city of Charleston.

In total, it measures 3.22 kilometers and is one of the economic centers of the city, because you will find restaurants, clothing stores and stores, as well as private businesses. If you start at the top of the street it will be perfect because you will be in the restaurant area.

Although there are Spanish, Vietnamese, Mexican and fast food restaurants, my advice is to look for something local to Charleston and before that, the seafood restaurant is what stands out, particularly the oysters. One of the best known restaurants in the area is The Ordinary, which has great tastings to delight your palate.

If you prefer something more touristy, then it would be great to go to the Stars Rooftop & Grill Room, an American restaurant, although with an international menu and a notable presence of meats. Here you can go up to the rooftop and have a magnificent view of the city.

Continue shopping on King Street

Ready for lunch? Then I suggest you spend the rest of the afternoon on King Street. This is a street worth walking from end to end, because it has so many things to see.

If you like shopping, don't think you can't do it in Charleston, because King Street is the place to be. In the middle part of this street, you can find all the clothing franchises and many of them show great prices.

But we're not just talking about clothing. As you get closer to the waterfront, in the lower part, you will find an area that has different businesses dedicated to antiques.

Many of them are large pieces of furniture that will be hard for you to take home, but there are some amazing little things you can see in these stores, especially if you or someone in your family is a collector.

Enter the Gibbes Museum of Art

Before you end the day, there is one more stop I suggest. This is the Gibbes Museum of Art, also known as the Gibbes Museum of American Art.

It is one of the most important institutions of its kind in South Carolina and its exhibitions, focused on the past and present of the United States, are really fantastic and varied, having more than 10 thousand works of art.

The museum opens between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., so be sure to arrive before closing time. To get there, you can't miss it: as you walk along the middle part of King Street, you will cross to the east along Horlbeck Alley and immediately go down Meeting Street, where a few steps further on you will find the museum.

Finally, you can close the day by walking to the end of King Street to reach Murray Boulevard, where you can watch the sunset, the immensity of the sea and rest after a busy day.

  • Gibbes Museum of Art Location: 135 Meeting St, 29401
  • Price: about 12 € general admission and 10 € for university students and over 62 years old. Admission for ages 4-17 is half price and children 3 and under are free.
  • Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Day 2: Plantation tour

Boone Hall Plantation| ©Gvanbriesen
Boone Hall Plantation| ©Gvanbriesen

For you to be in Charleston and not go to a plantation would really be a sin. I advise you to dedicate a whole day to a visit to a plantation or at least half a day.

The plantations occupied a transcendental part in the history of Charleston and all of South Carolina, due to the fact that they were positioned as the main sites with the presence of slaves in the region.

The history of the south of the United States is very marked by slavery and the plantations are an essential site to understand these hard times. That is why I recommend you to dedicate a day to them that will be quite relaxing. In the morning, you can go to a plantation and in the afternoon, to another one.

Start at Middleton Place

There are different plantations that are quite far from Charleston, but Middleton Place is one of the closest.

Despite this, getting there can be a bit complicated, because you will have to cross to the west shore of the Ashley River and drive along the Ashley River Road. If you go by car there will be no loss, just go straight until you get there, but if you don't have a car, then the best thing to do is to hire one of the tours to the plantations that leave from Charleston.

What makes Middleton Place so special? This plantation has National Historic Land mark status and is a mix of relaxation, nature and a history that is still very hard to face today. The best way to be here is through a guided tour that includes transportation and lunch. When you arrive, you will be contextualized about the site and its significance.

But the most beautiful thing about the plantation is its gardens, chapel and museum. This property belonged to Henry Middleton who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence. There were more than 800 slaves here and your tour of the museum will make that clear.

Before you leave, be sure to have lunch at the plantation's incredible restaurant that serves the best southern food and whose dish may be included in the package you buy. Also, if it is to your liking you can go into the museum store.

  • Location: 4300 Ashley River Rd, 29414
  • Price: 100 ¤ approximately if you hire a tour with transportation and lunch, but general admission is usually about 30 ¤.
  • Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Visit Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Charleston Plantations| ©AnubisAbyss
Charleston Plantations| ©AnubisAbyss

Very close to Middleton Place is the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

It is also a plantation located west of the Ashley River and is steeped in history and can be reached within a ten minute drive from Middleton Place. This is a beautiful garden, steeped in history and ideal for visiting Charleston as a couple, because in addition to knowledge there is a lot of tranquility.

After lunch, this is a fantastic place to spend the rest of the afternoon. Once you pay the entrance fee, you can access the beautiful gardens and take a walk through all of them. I recommend that you do not miss the narrated streetcar that will be a kind of historical tour of the plantation and lasts about 40 minutes.

Also, if you are interested in history, you can pay the entrance fee to the house museum and learn about the past of the entire region and this specific plantation. You can leave close to closing time, at 5 pm, and have dinner in Charleston to close your day.

  • Location: 3550 Ashley River Rd, 29414
  • Price: general admission about $30, but access to the historic house, narrated streetcar, historic garden, the marsh and the narrated boat costs about $10 each, so in total it can cost about $70.
  • Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Book a Magnolia Plantation tour from Charleston

3. Beach, waterfront and ferry day

Pineapple fountain in the Park| ©charlee955
Pineapple fountain in the Park| ©charlee955

In Charleston converge several rivers, streams, marshes and an immense sea. All this geography that looks like a delta by the number of islands and channels that have formed and is something you can not miss in any case.

That is why I recommend that you dedicate the entire third day to get to know the aquatic bodies of Charleston, enjoy its landscapes and travel through them.

When you are in this beautiful city, you can take a ferry ride, walk along boulevards and even travel to islands where you can see wonderful fortifications, such as Fort Sumter. Are you up for a day dedicated to the shores of Charleston?

Stroll through Waterfront Park

I recommend starting your water tour with a stroll through Waterfront Park. This is one of the most beautiful parks in Charleston and although it is not too big, it has a vegetation that will dazzle you and you can take the best pictures.

This park looks like the eastern shore of the French Quarter, so it shares some of this architecture among some phenomenal gardens.

Once you are in the park, I recommend you not to miss the Pineapple Fountain, where you will surely find many tourists taking pictures. This fountain is one of the icons of Charleston and you can't miss it.

You can also stop to take pictures of the Cooper River, as well as the entire coastline, bridges and boats. My advice is to stay in this park until about 11 am, enjoying the good atmosphere and the tranquility.

Take a ferry across the Cooper River

Do you have enough pictures of the Waterfront Park? Wait for the ones you can take directly on the Cooper River, when you take a boat ride around the area.

I recommend that you go to the end of the park's pier and take a ferry that will take you northbound on the Cooper River to the edge of Daniel Island, where you will disembark.

This trip takes about half an hour one way and half an hour back and costs about 25 € each way, although it depends on the company you hire. Although it is true that there are many things to see in this river, when you go north you will be able to see different small islands, such as Drum Island.

My advice is that once you get to Daniel Island, you should go down to eat in a traditional restaurant and that way you can have lunch. One of the options I highly recommend is The Kingstide restaurant, which combines the best of the region's seafood with fast food of large proportions.

At the end of the tour you can also visit the Wando River. On the way back, the tour will leave you at the same point of the Waterfront Park.

Traveller Tip

Many of these tours tend to be done in very fast boats that splash a lot of water and can cause seasickness. If you have a problem with this, it is best to avoid them and look for a more stable boat to take the tour.

Take a tour to Fort Sumter and watch the sunset

Fort Sumter| ©Bubba73
Fort Sumter| ©Bubba73

I hope you didn't get tired of the boats, because there's still one more to go. If you've rested your lunch and are back at Waterfront Park, then I recommend that in the afternoon you don't miss the tour to Fort Sumter, one of the best known forts in the entire southern United States.

To get there, you will have to take a boat, as this fort is located on a small island in the Cooper River.

If you walk 20 minutes north to Liberty Square you will be at the spot where these boats sail to Fort Sumter. My advice is to leave this excursion for the late afternoon, because there are different tours and private packages focused on watching the sunset, beyond seeing what is at Fort Sumter.

This military fort is today just a bucolic space where you can breathe peace and tranquility, but it enjoys an unparalleled importance in the United States: it was in this fort where the American Civil War began, between Confederates and Unionists.

Once you finish the tour, you will return to the starting point and you only have dinner, for which I recommend you go to the East Bay Deli - Downtown restaurant that is a mix of American food, healthy and many soups with seafood flavors.

Book a sunset cruise in Charleston

4. Historic Charleston Day Tour

Night Carriage| ©Ryan Johnson
Night Carriage| ©Ryan Johnson

From the first day of touring the city, you've been able to tell that Charleston's history is everywhere. However, my advice is to spend your fourth and final day in Charleston getting to know the institutions and museums that are now historic sites, as well as buildings that date back several centuries.

If you dedicate a day to learning about Charleston's history, you will be able to do activities as varied as a carriage tour, visit prisons and also markets. Sign up and read on.

Don't miss a historic carriage tour

Have breakfast at your hotel or nearby so that early in the morning you can start your first activity: a historic carriage tour of Charleston.

History isn't just about seeing museum exhibits and reading legends, you can emulate it and feel like you're in the 19th century on this tour.

Although there is quite a variety in Charleston to do these tours, I recommend starting in the northwest part of the city. From here, you will be taken to the French Quarter and the south shore, where some small spaces remain cobblestone and where the experience will be more authentic.

These carriages are very photogenic because they are pulled by horses. You will be taking pictures and therefore it is one of the fantastic activities to do with children in Charleston who will be fascinated by the animals and the decoration of the carriages.

This tour usually costs about 60 €, although there are family plans. The final stop is often on Bay Street, from where you can continue your tour.

Book a historic carriage tour of Charleston

Visit the Old Charleston Jail

Ready for your carriage tour? You know how people were transported in the city in the 19th century. Now it's time to visit one of the oldest jails in the region, now known as the Old Charleston Jail. You can be here mid-morning and enjoy this place for a couple of hours.

To get to this street, you will have to cross at Beaufain Street and then to Wilson Street, in about ten minutes of walking. You can't miss it and the architecture of the building is truly impressive.

In addition, many know it because there were very famous prisoners, mainly pirates, but it also played an important role in the Civil War, first in Confederate and finally Union hands.

Apart from the history there are the legends and, if you are interested, there is a lot to know. Mainly it is said that ghosts appear in this jail and it is one of the sites included in the best ghost tours of Charleston. Some say that different inmates reappear in their cells. Would you like to try to check it out?

  • Location: 21 Magazine Street
  • Price: for tours, the cost is usually between 50 and 70 ¤.
  • Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but it will also depend on the time of the contracted tour.

Book a ghost tour of Charleston

See the Museum at Market Hall

Keep walking, a little further east and up Logan Street. At the second intersection, turn right and you will be on the fantastic Market Street, another of the city's iconic streets.

As you walk along, you will first come across the Museum at Market Hall, an important museum in the city dedicated to the American Civil War, specifically the Confederate side.

My advice is to enter this museum for a brief one-hour visit, so you can be free by 1 or 2 p.m. and have lunch. The main attraction of this museum is the flags and insignia, so if you like vexillology or flags in general, this place is for you. The entrance fee is quite cheap, because it is around 7 €.

  • Location: 188 Meeting St, 29401
  • Price: usually around 7 €.
  • Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Taste the best flavors at the Charleston City Market

Charleston City Market| ©Historic Charleston City Market
Charleston City Market| ©Historic Charleston City Market

Once you're out of there, it's time for lunch, and what better than a short walk to the Charleston City Market?

This is one of the most charming places in the city, because since the 19th century it has functioned as a food market, mainly for vegetables and meats. Today it is not so popular among locals because it is more dedicated to tourism, so I invite you to come and see its beautiful architecture.

This is also a place where you can have lunch. If you want to have a snack and continue on your way, you can buy bread at Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, located on the second floor. But it's not the only thing they sell: there are also fantastic sandwiches and different shortbreads that you can eat as part of your lunch.

Here, you can enjoy the best of the local bakery. On the other hand, if you want to eat something stronger, I recommend leaving the market and going halfway down the street to Toast All Day, a southern food restaurant.

Learn at the Old Slave Mart Museum

Once lunch is ready, I invite you to keep walking for a bit. Just cross at Church Street, walk about five minutes south and cross at Chalmers Street, where you will come across the Old Slave Mart Museum.

This is the oldest museum of African-American history in the country and that is why it is so significant, having rescued an old slave market, the most important in the city.

Today it seems incredible that in the middle of the 19th century human beings were sold in such a building and that is partly what makes you reflect during a visit to the Old Slave Mart Museum. The best thing is that the entrance to this remarkable site is quite inexpensive, costing about 8 €, although there are reduced tickets of about 5 or 6 € for seniors, students and children.

  • Location: 6 Chalmers St, 29401
  • Price: usually around 8 €.
  • Hours: Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Closed on Sundays

End the day at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

By now it should be around 3 or 4 pm and it is time to make the last stop on this historical tour that will close your Charleston itinerary with a flour ish. I recommend ending the day at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.

To get there, you only have to walk about three minutes down State Street and turn left on Broad Street, so you can't miss it.

This building dates back to 1771, a few years before America's independence. Throughout its history it has been a historic home to the city's government institutions, including the post office, town hall, military barracks and even a museum, which is its current use.

In addition to its architecture, you can learn about the independence part of the history of the United States and its name Provost Dungeon refers to a dungeon used by British forces to imprison the pro-independence military.

The entrance fee is around 12 € and you have time until 5 pm to visit the place. Once you finish, you can return to the hotel to pack your bags and plan your return trip.

What to bring when touring Charleston?

Preparing your luggage| ©Marissa Grootes
Preparing your luggage| ©Marissa Grootes

Charleston is not exactly a big city and that is a huge advantage if you are going to visit it in four days, because everything in the downtown area of the city is quite close and you can walk. Therefore, it is essential that you bring a good pair of sneakers that will make you feel comfortable during the whole trip, so that there is no inconvenience or discomfort.

On the other hand, if you are going to rent a car to go to the plantations, it is important that you have your driver's license up to date and that you are aware of the traffic laws of the area.

You don't have to worry about the season, because even if you go in winter it is important that you have a sweater, but coats are probably not necessary. I recommend you also bring an umbrella if you go to the city in spring and plenty of hydration for the hike.