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A First-timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

After my First-Timer's Guide to Savannah, Georgia, made some waves, I figured that the time was right for me to impart my knowledge about my beloved hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. I was born here, and other than an eight-year-gap when I lived elsewhere in South Carolina, I've called Charleston my home my entire life.

From school field trips to my own wanderings, I've seen most of what the Holy City has to offer. If you're heading this way on a trip, here are a few ways to make the most of your stay.

Where to Stay

If you're staying in downtown Charleston (aka the Peninsula), there are plenty of options for every budget.


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What to Eat

Charleston has so many great places that I don't think you can really go wrong no matter your budget, tastes, or style. I've broken down some of my favorite restaurants into a few different categories, and then suggested favorite dishes at each (since I'm allergic to shellfish, any recommendations for seafood have come from family and friends). Note that not all of these are in the historic district!

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Fuel Restaurant


Trendy
  • The Ordinary (downtown): oysters on the half shell
  • O-ku (downtown): sushi, chicken teriyaki
  • Red's Ice House (Mt. Pleasant and Seabrook Island): fish and chips
  • Husk (downtown): the menu rotates seasonally since all of the ingredients are locally sourced
  • Fuel (downtown): braised pork tacos, hoe cakes
  • Poe's (Sullivans Island): blue cheese coldslaw, any of their burgers
Classically Southern 
  • Poogan's Porch (downtown): fried green tomato BLT, crab cakes, ham macaroni and cheese
  • Jestine's (downtown): pecan fried chicken, fried okra, sweet tea
  • Sewee Restaurant (Awendaw): fried flounder, potato salad, any dessert
  • Virginia's on King (downtown): pecan fried chicken, macaroni and cheese
Cheap
  • Groucho's (downtown and West Ashley): mushroom cheese melt or the Pink Moose
  • Fire Grill (downtown): chicken teriyaki
  • Tzakiki's (downtown and Mt. Pleasant): traditional gyro
  • Andolini's (Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley, North Charleston): standard cheese pizza or calzone
Fancy
  • Eli's Table (downtown): filet mignon, pimento cheese and tomato appetizer
  • Peninsula Grill (downtown): the coconut cake
Breakfast
  •  Hominy Grill (downtown): omelet, biscuits
  • Acme Cantina (Isle of Palms): the Southerner (sweet tea fried chicken on a biscuit)
  • Charleston Cafe (Mt. Pleasant): waffles, Amber's Choice (egg-topped crab cake)
What to See

Charleston has some tried and true attractions--I'm a firm believer that some things are popular because they're good. So, while you're here, try out a few of the big attractions, but don't forget to mix in a few hidden favorites as well!

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Hampton Plantation, McClellanville

Plantations are a part of Charleston's history, so if you'd like to learn more, you need to head out to see the Ashley River Road plantation district. The big three are Middleton Plantation, Drayton Hall, and Magnolia Plantation. Of the three, Magnolia is my favorite since there's a great petting zoo, extensive gardens, a butterfly house, and restored slave quarters in addition to a tour of the main house. If you're willing to drive further away from downtown, Hampton Plantation in McClellanville is never crowded and, with its wide front porch and classical architecture, looks more like a stereotypical antebellum plantation.

Many of the rich planters also had fashionable "city" homes in downtown Charleston, so you can get the full story by visiting both the plantations and the houses in the historic district. The Edmonston-Alston House, the Nathaniel Russell House, and the Aiken-Rhett House are all within easy walking distance of the rest of the historic district.
A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
My husband and our dog on Isle of Palms

If you'd like to see more of the Charleston area, I highly recommend renting a car or taking a cab out to one of the beaches. Isle of Palms, Sullivans Island, and Folly Beach are all barrier islands just off the coast of Charleston, and each has its individual charms.

Visiting Fort Sumter circa 1994. I'm the cool kid in the middle, while my sister's rocking her rainbow bike shorts.

There's a lot of military history in the Charleston area as well. Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, is located in the middle of the Charleston harbor; you can get a ferry over to this national monument from Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant or from the pier near the South Carolina Aquarium downtown. Patriots Point is more than just a ferry departure point--it houses the U.S.S. Yorktown, the U.S.S. Clamagore submarine, military aircraft and much more.

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
King Street when it's closed to vehicles during the seasonal 2nd Sundays on King

If you're into shopping, King Street will be your best friend. Start just above Marion Square and work your way towards Lower King, where you'll pass all sorts of shops: Urban Outfitters, Lush, Louis Vuitton, the Body Shop, and Forever 21 are just the start! If you'd rather take home a painting, head over to East Bay and Broad Streets to the art district.

For kids, a trip to the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry and to the fountain at Waterfront Park are great breaks between historical tours.
Britton on one of our many trips to the kids' museum.
Want even more suggestions? See my 101 Things to Do in Charleston post!

What to Know
A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Residences on lower King Street

  • The horse and buggy tours are actually a pretty good way to get to know the city. As a resident, I detest these things because they clog up traffic downtown (which isn't the greatest to begin with) and make the streets smell like horse pee. While they are kind of hokey, the tour guides are extremely knowledgeable (all Charleston guides have to take a ridiculously rigorous test before leading a solo tour), and you'll be able to cover more ground than a walking tour. 

  • The City Market never sold slaves. This is one of the biggest mix-ups I hear about Charleston attractions. While slaves did sell their wares here, and they did shop here for their masters, there wasn't any human trafficking going on at this location. That sordid portion of our history did occur elsewhere in our city (in private auctions,  near the Exchange Building, and in the actual slave market), and you can learn more about it at the Old Slave Mart Museum. While the Slave Mart Museum provides a detailed look at this horrific chapter in Charleston, the City Market sells souvenirs, t-shirts, pictures, and sweetgrass basket. Yes, they sound alike, but they are very different places. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Upper King has been undergoing a revitalization over the last 15 years. While this area (up to Ann and Mary Streets) is safe during the day, be cautious about venturing away from the main thoroughfares at night. The areas around America Street (just a few blocks away from Upper King) can be violent when it's dark, and tourists are easy targets for muggings. Lower King, East Bay, and Meeting Streets are all safe no matter the time of day, so strap on those walking shoes, grab your guidebook, and head out the door! 

  • Get great views of Charleston from the top of the Ravenel Bridge. The bridge has an awesome biking and walking path, and you can access it from downtown or Mount Pleasant. Make sure to lock your car and stow valuables from sight (especially on the downtown side) when you leave to walk up the bridge. 

  • Make time to meander. From the Battery and Rainbow Row to Queen Street, Charleston is best enjoyed on foot. Take your camera, wander the streets, and explore down the residential alleys. While the South of Broad area houses the most expensive houses, you can find gorgeous architecture on everything from St. Phillip's Church to the houses on Tradd Street. 

  • Explore even further with my 101 Things to Do in Charleston post! There's always something new to learn, do, or see in the Holy City. 

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This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book a hotel through the above links, I will receive a small percentage with no added cost to you.

Have you visited Charleston? Tell me what you loved and what you'd rather have skipped!

If you liked this post, you'll love my other first-timer's guides! Check out the guide the each city by clicking on the image below:

First-Timer Travel Guides First-Timer's Guide to St. Augustine, Florida First-Timer's Guide to Savannah, Georgia First-Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach, Florida First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina
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