Travel Guide for a Weekend in Downtown Charleston, South Carolina

If you haven’t heard yet, Charleston is one of the most desired cities in the U.S. right now. It frequently gets attention for its historic downtown with cobblestone streets, vibrant food scene and gorgeous nearby beaches. I knew I needed to spend a weekend in downtown Charleston and see what all the fuss is about.

I included Charleston as a major part of my East Coast Road Trip Itinerary. It was the city I was most excited for and it didn’t disappoint! I actually had a flood of messages when I asked for tips to this city so I went in having an idea of what I wanted to do, see and eat.

Charleston’s nickname is the “Holy City” known for it’s acceptance of many religions and abundance of churches.

Where is Charleston?

Charleston is located on the East Coast of the U.S.A. It’s the largest city in South Carolina faces out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Best Time to Visit Charleston, SC

Summer is hot, hot, hot! Even when I was there in June, I was sweating just standing in the shade. The best time to go would either be the spring or the fall. I can’t even imagine the humidity come July and August and warm temperatures consistently throughout the day. Unless your planning on spending all your time at the beach, I’d avoid the summer months.

Spring hotel rates will be the highest as it tends to be peak season, especially around Easter.

Hurricane season is June 1 to November 30.

How much time do you need in Charleston?

A long weekend should be just enough time for you to get a good feel for Charleston. Three full days and 2 nights would work, but I’d do 3 nights if possible, so you can fit everything in! Believe me, you won’t run out of things to do! When in doubt you can always visit one of the nearby beaches as they have a top notch reputation.

Is Charleston, SC Expensive?

Out of all the Southern cities I’ve visited, Charleston definitely felt like the most expensive. Some spots were even teetering close to NYC prices for food and cocktails. Meals out and drinking were what took up most of the budget, though you can certainly find some good happy hour deals.

There is a lack of budget options for accommodation in downtown, most are boutique and luxury hotels. You’ll have to decide whether to splurge on the hotel(some hotels do offer rooms with two double beds), stay a bit outside the city or stay in a basic chain hotel.

 

Downtown Charleston houses

 

Getting There

Fly

The closest airport to Charleston is Charleston International Airport. It’s about 14 miles outside of the city. Myrtle Beach International Airport and Savannah International Aiport are the next closest at about 94 and 107 miles away. If flights are looking pretty expensive into Charleston you may want to check Myrtle Beach or Savannah and drive the extra distance if the deal is much better. If you have time I would certainly reccommened doing a dual city trip and going to Savannah too.

Getting to downtown Charleston from the Airport:

If you traveling solo or with just one other person, I usually find that public transportation is the best. If you’re with a group and splitting it, transfers and taxis can actually make more sense.

  • Taxi – Usually the fastest option, but also the most expensive. Taxis leaving from the airport have a $15 minimum charge. It usually ends up costing around $35.
  • Rideshare – Usually costs a little bit less than taxis unless on a surge.
  • Bus – The bus is only a couple of bucks, but you could end up waiting awhile. The two bus lines to consider are the CARTA Route 11 and the XP4. The XP4is the express option, but only comes once per hour while Route 11 is every 45 minutes.  Both of the bus lines will connect with DASH, the city’s free trolley.
  • Hotel Shuttle – check if your hotel provides a shuttle and whether or not it’s included in the stay.
  • Airport Shuttle – Book a shuttle to downtown on arrival. Cost is $15 per person and the shuttle should leave within 15 minutes of booking.
  • Private Transfer

Drive

Luckily, you shouldn’t hit too much traffic if you avoid rush hour coming into the city (8-9am and 4:30-6pm). Once you’re downtown you’ll actually probably face more pedestrian traffic than cars!

Parking Downtown

There are a few parking garages in the downtown as well as on street parking with meters.

Getting Around Charleston, Is it walkable?

The downtown area is very walkable, but if you’re going from one end to the other you may want to jump in an uber or on the trolley. The city is longer than it is wide, from the top of King Street to the bottom is around 3 miles.

CARTA

CARTA is the Charleston Public Transportation system. Purchase a single or multi pass online.  One ride is $3.50.

DASH is a trolley line run by CARTA and is FREE.  Here is a link to the DASH route map.

HOBA

HOBA or Hop on a Boat Anywhere is a local app. It’s like uber on the water!

Pedicabs

Cab on a bike! I didn’t take one while in Charleston and I couldn’t find pricing info so that worries me a bit.. In other cities they are usually quite pricey, but can sometimes go where cars can’t and get you there faster.

Bikes

“Holy Spokes” are Charleston’s version of City Bikes. They have docks around the city. and cost $8/hour. Longer term deals are available at the Holy Spokes Website.

Car

Honestly, a car in Downtown Charleston is kind of pointless. It’s a pedestrian friendly city, and you’ll want to walk around to take everything in. Hopefully, you park your car in a local garage and enjoy Charleston by foot for the weekend.

You can pick your car back up if you want to do any excursions outside of Downtown.

Where to Stay for the Weekend

Historic homes turned accommodation are my idea of a perfect place to stay in a city like Charleston. There are boutique hotels and inns galore downtown.

If you prefer stay outside the city, check out some of the beach resorts nearby such as The Beach Club at Charleston Harbour, Wild Dunes Resort or Kiawah Island Gold Resort.

Francis Marion Hotel

The Francis Marion Hotel has a convenient location in the center of the city on Kings Street. The hotel opened in 1924 and was renovated in 1996 so is clearly a historic property. The lobby area is absolutely stunning and the bell staff couldn’t have been friendlier.

I will say that the beds were really comfortable and the black out blinds and mini fridge were key for the weekend. The only fault was that the bathroom was pretty small, but having a vanity and desk in a double room definitely helped make up for it.

Francis Marion Hotel Charleston

Francis Marion Hotel

Market Pavilion

This is where I hope to stay next time I’m in Charleston! The classic looking pool absolutely says it all. This is ultimate old school glamour.

Spectator Hotel

A luxury 5 star hotel intersection of the City Market and the historic French Quarter.

86 Cannon Historic Inn

A fully restored three story home from the 1860’s. Fireplaces, nightly wine and cheese service, elegant porch and complimentary bike are a few amenities that caught my eye.

Zero George Street

This boutique hotel claims to have Old World authenticity with contemporary upscale hospitality. Sounds like a perfect match to me!

Palmer’s Pinckney Inn

With only 5 rooms, this budget hotel in the historic district is a rare find. Book well in advance to snag this value!

 

Where to Eat and Drink: The Best Bars and Restaurants in Downtown Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is one of the USA’s  top foodie destinations. It’s culinary scene has exploded in recent years and you’ll find here a delightful mix of coastal cuisine and southern soul food. 

Some iconic foods to try in while in this popular South Carolina city, include hush puppies, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, sweet tea, fried chicken, oysters and BBQ.

 

Leon’s Oyster Shop

The decor at Leon’s Oyster Shop is super cute! I actually am not a huge oyster person, but Si had a selcetion which he very much enjoyed and as we were with a group we shared the whole fried chicken too, which was very yummy. The chicken coating was super crispy and had a bit of a kick, it comes with a choice of two sides – we chose the black eyed peas with pickles, peppers olive oil and chives as well as the marinated cucumber salad which had sesame oil and champagne vinegar.

We also had the whole cooked red snapper. This was enjoyable and came with  chimichurri sauce but the fish was a little overcooked for my liking.

Their frozen rose’ and gin and tonics were a fun option, but pretty small for the price. I’d try one of those then go for a bottle of rose or choose from their selection of domestic and international beers!

They’ve got plenty of indoor seating as well as outdoor seating in front of the restaurant which catches the sun in the evenings.

High Cotton

Daily live music and low country fare at this elegant restaurant with a menu dominated by classic seafood and meat dishes such as the New Bedford Scallops, Chilean Sea bass or the 16 oz. Ribeye with a truffle-Madeira sauce. High Cotton is run by local hospitality family, The Halls, who pride themselves on service and quality.

Magnolia’s

This classy Charleston restaurant has been creating innovative Southern dishes since 1990. Specializing in upscale Southern cuisine combining traditional techniques and a modern approach.

Poogan’s Porch

Poogan’s Porch has been open since 1976 making it the oldest independent run culinary establishment in Charleston.  I popped in here for a quick lemonade to get me through the rest of the day in the South Carolina sun. I loved their little porch and their hidden location on Queen Street. They serve casual Southern fare with a ‘Traditional’ and a ‘Contemporary’ section on their main menu; traditional featuring dishes like shrimp and grits and contemporary featuring dishes like pan roast duck breast and bbq Mahi Mahi.

Hall’s Chophouse

Another location by the Hall’s family.  Go for the steaks, stay for the cocktails at this fine dining establishment. A huge variety of steaks to choose from like any chophouse should, including Tomahawk Ribeye,  Porterhouse and Japanese A5 Wagyu. Try and make it in time for happy hour!

Baker and Brewer

Artisans pizzas on the outskirts of town. Lots of outdoor space and seasonal salads.

We had the Pork Trifecta pizza, the Pistachio Pesto pizza and the peach salad. The peach salad had Bibb lettuce, peaches, roasted corn, pickled jalapeños, toasted almonds and a gorgonzola vinaigrette. The Pork Trifecta has bacon, sausage, pepperoni as well mozzarella and parmesan. The Pistachio Pesto pizza  had fromage blanc, creme fraiche, mozzarella, parmesan as well as pistachio pesto and ground pistachio nuts.

We hit this spot for lunch on our way out of downtown Charleston, there’s lots of space to sit indoors or out and a huge bar in between the indoor and outdoor seating. There also a Holy Spokes bike dock and plenty of parking on site!

 

Lewis BBQ Charleston

Lewis BBQ

Market Pavilion

A rooftop bar at a gorgeous hotel. Fairly pricey for the South, but could be worth it for the pics and their big selection of mojitios and martinis!

Uncork

A wine and cheese bar with self serve wine machines. I actually made it here for Friday happy hour which was from 5pm-7pm. They had 15% off wines from the machines and half off their craft cocktails. From a place that seems from the outset very wine focused, the cocktails here were excellent and getting to choose various smalls pours of wine is very enjoyable too!

Lewis BBQ

Out of all of the places I went to in Charleston, Lewis Barbecue really stuck out.  Absolutely incredible BBQ food. You must try the beef rib if you go on a Saturday when they have it on special and the corn pudding which is one everyday.

You order most of the meat in 1/2 lb. portions, which was perfect for us as a group of four, meaning we tried a few of the different options including beef rib and turkey breast, plus a brisket bun and Texas Hot Guns links sausage which are paid for as a per item price.

Lewis Barbecue was started by John Lewis in 2015 after he honed his craft at two of Texas’s best BBQ joints; Franklin’s and La Barbecue.

5 Church

A bar and restaurant located in an old church with the interior decorated from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Unfortunately the food was mediocre, with all four of our poached eggs being overcooked and a general lack of seasoning in the dishes. However, they had just reopened and having been very well reviewed online may be worth checking out for yourself, if only to grab a cocktail or mimosa flight and appreciate the interior and artwork.

 

Henry's on the market

Henry’s on the Market

Tattooed Moose

Sadly, this dive was closed when I arrived but I hear their parmesan fries are incredible.

Darling Oyster Bar

Another spot known for it’s happy hour and beautiful interior. Select oysters are only $1 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. during the week.

Nightlife

As soon as I arrived in Charleston I could feel the young and vibrant atmosphere. So many places to eat, drink, party and plenty of 20 and 30 somethings to mingle with. To top it off, it’s one of the most popular cities for bachelorette parties!

You’ll find an abundance of spots on King Street, but here are a few recommendations.

Star’s Rooftop

A popular spot to mingle while enjoying the views of the historic district. The dress code is elegant casual, be aware beach clothes are not permitted.

The Watch

They had fun cocktails to share and amazing views! Just make sure you get a seat at the right part of the roof. There are two outdoor areas, one with less of a view.

The Cocktail Club

One of my favorite stops in Charleston! A funky bar with exposed wood through out hosting nightly live music.

A local bartender recommended this spot and it’s definitely a fun vibe catering more to a cooler, hipster scene. Very good cocktails made from scratch, and a laid back, chill environment inside.

Revolution

The late night spot. Not totally my scene, but good to know about it. I’m sure all the bachelorette parties go here for dancing and bottle service!

Henry’s

A multilevel bar and club with different themes on each. We had so much fun at Henry’s! When your mood changes or you need a break from dancing head to one of the other floors or the rooftop. The picture below is the second floor (I came back to take the photo in the day) which had a jazz vibe and vintage decor.

You could easily spend the whole afternoon into the late evening here. Whilst we were there, a live band played downstairs, a saxophonist played on the second floor and the third floor rooftop remained for mingling and watching the sun go down.

Map of my Favorite spots in Downtown Charleston

What is there to do Downtown?

Cool off at the Pineapple Fountain.

Believe it or not, you actually do feel a bit cooler standing by the fountain!

The Pineapple Fountain is the centerpiece of the Charleston Waterfront Park, which spans for 8 acres.  Pineapple motifs are used across the city and are a sign of hospitality.

Walk down Rainbow Row.

Don’t miss seeing these 13 pastel colored Georgian homes located on East Bay Street. Get there early for clear streets and cooler temperatures to photograph in.

Admire the harbour and Cooper River.

Walk along the harbour or jump on a harbor cruise for some sightseeing. You’ll get a glimpse at the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, St. Michael’s Church and Fort Sumter.

Have a beach day at Folly Beach or Sullivan’s Island .

Take a drive out to Folly Beach or Sullivan’s and spend the day lounging and eating seafood! Leave before 9am to avoid beach traffic.

Take a Sunset Boat Cruise.

Charleston Downtown

 

Enjoy a tasty Weekend Brunch.

Plenty of brunch in Charleston to choose from like The Darling Oyster Bar, Husk or Hall’s Chophouse famous gospel brunch.

Shop at the boutiques on King Street and at City Market.

I loved bopping in and out of the shops and boutiques downtown. King Street and Calhoun street by Marion Square is a great starting point.

King Street is one of the main streets in Charleston. It’ runs through the city and is the perfect shopping street with plenty of sidewalk space, boutique shops, antique stores and even your go to staples. Upper King is known as the Design District, Middle King is the Fashion District, and Lower King is the Antique District.

Visit Fort Sumter.

Accessible only by boat, Fort Sumter is a National Historic Park of America. Learn about the history of where the Civil War began.

See a performance at the Charleston Music Hall.

Discover the Nathaniel Russel House on Meeting Street.

Take a peak into history while walking through this restored landmark. See what it was like to live in the 1800s as an elite mercantile.

Take a Walking Tour or Horse Drawn Carriage Tour of downtown.

If you want to get a good overview of the city and it’s history, a tour is always a good way to do so. The experts know best!

Charleston, SC Travel Video

What to pack for a Weekend in Charleston

The style in Charleston is somewhat preppy, coastal casual, chic and classic. You can tell that this city is filled with people who care about what they look like.

Some restaurants and bars may have a dress code so be sure to pack a few outfits that are up to par. This is what I think you will need in your weekender bag:

  • Cute + comfortable walking shoes – Many of the streets in the historic district are cobblestone so keep that in mind. I always bring my converse with my custom insoles in them when I travel.
  • 2-3 Sundresses
  • Wedges
  • Sandals
  • Breathable, light colored clothing for the day time. Think khakis or a light romper.
  • Light sweater – depending on time of year.
  • Swimsuits – for the hotel pool or nearby beaches.
  • Hat + Sunglasses + Sunscreen – The sun can be very strong in Charleston!
  • Tote Bag or Day back pack

 

Which city is better Savannah or Charleston?

On my East Coast road trip I  happened to visit both of these incredible, historic Southern cities! I loved both of the cities for different I’d highly recommend trying to get to both. They both have around the same population size, though Charleston’s square mileage is larger. They both have amazing food,  good nightlife and plenty to do.

Full Charleston vs. Savannah blog post coming soon!

 

 

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