One year on: The best things to do in Charleston, SC

We discovered historic buildings, cobblestoned streets, Gothic churches, a thriving foodie scene and a heritage that combines its antebellum status…

Note from BGTW Chairman Simon Willmore, 10 April 2020:

In a world where everything seems uncertain, the BGTW has been thinking about the value of travel — how it brings us together, fulfills us, educates us and makes us more aware and in tune with the world around us. That’s one of the reasons we partner with destinations for our Annual General Meetings — to explore and get better acquainted with the world around us. Here, BGTW Comms Director Jennifer Howze recaps our experiences of our 2019 AGM destination, Charleston in South Carolina – a destination with a complicated past but a sparkling future.

On 11 April 2019, 80 members of the BGTW joined the latest wave of British visitors to Charleston, flying on the new direct route from London to attend our Annual General Meeting.

Gardens of Charleston. Picture: Peter Ellegard

We discovered historic buildings, cobblestoned streets, Gothic churches, a thriving foodie scene and a heritage that combines its antebellum status as one of the wealthiest cities in the country per capita and one that was built on slavery. Visitors these days can expect a beautiful, thought-provoking, complex experience that’s meaningful as well as fun and exciting.

I loved its Southern hospitality, sunshine, sailing and plantation houses — Petra Shepherd

So how do you pick what to do? Here, the things that some of the UK’s top journalists, bloggers, and photographers have handpicked.

Explore Patriot’s Point

This Naval and Airtime Museum in Charleston harbour is a major attraction/mega museum in the city and once you start exploring it’s easy to see why. It features the aircraft carrier the USS Yorktown (her importance in the military stretched from WWII to Vietnam, and she even hosted Ann-Magret in 1966), a Flight Academy featuring flight simulators, a virtual reality Space Mission – there are even events like readings, films and memorials as well as the opportunity for groups to sleep onboard the Yorktown. Tip: Book your ticket ahead of time – this is a popular stop for visitors.

Admire the city’s houses and gardens

Charleston has distinctive single houses (the long narrow houses with 2-storey covered porches, called piazzas) as well as gorgeous private gardens. You can wander the various neighbourhoods on your own on in guided tours but if you can correspond your visit to the annual Festival of Houses & Gardens, you can get access to local family houses. For architecture buffs it’s an opportunity to see a distinctive regional building style, but anyone who enjoys admiring graceful and beautiful homes will relish the unique opportunity the city provides.

The Nathaniel Russell House Museum is a great place to start. It was once home to a prosperous trader and is now a fascinating museum that’s dedicated to the preservation this neoclassical gem.

The sweeping intricate staircase in the Nathaniel Russell House Museum. Picture: Jennifer Howze /

Enjoy the beach

Charleston has an array of beaches to suit your interests. Simply pick what you want to do:

  • Go with the family to Folly Beach – The closest beach to downtown Charleston is kid-friendly and is great for surfing, pier and surf fishing, plus restaurants and live music.
  • Seek serenity at small Sullivan’s Island – This 3.3 mile stretch of beach in the mouth of Charleston Harbour, where you can watersport and relax
  • Enjoy island lifestyle at Isle of Palms – This is host to a residential and resort community. Kayak, charter a boat, paddleboard, tennis and more.
  • Golf at Kiawah – Kiawah Island has 10 miles of beaches including maritime forests, sand dunes, wildlife as well as world-class golf. 21 miles from downtown Charleston
  • Visit the island community of Seabrook – A bit further afield is this private beachfront community 30 minutes from Charleston. Look for 2 championship golf courses, a top-shelf tennis centre, unspoiled beaches and horseriding.  

Explore the roots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter

The Civil War started here, with Confederate soldiers firing the very first shots at Federal troops. The destination-cum-museum is only accessible by boat. Park Rangers tell stories of the troops who fought and the conflict that shaped the country. You can even adopt a cannon — not as cuddly as adopting a tiger but a lot older!

Learn about the Plantation system

Cecil B. de Mille has probably created the most enduring ideas about planation life – Gone with the Wind is inevitably the phrase people say when they hear about and see these grand houses set in verdant farms. The absolute must-do in our book for anyone interested these houses and their legacy is the McLeod Plantation. This isn’t a fancy house filled with fine antiques. McLeod – actually a national park – is focussed on social justice and the lives and experiences of the enslaved people here. The tours, which last about 2 hours, are led by guides eager to discuss how Charleston’s history affects modern economics and race relations. Our guide encouraged questions on everything from the original McLeod family to how guests respond to the bursting of their Scarlet and Rhett fantasies. The tiny ramshackle cottages where the enslaved lived are within a stone’s throw of the main house – and shockingly were still inhabited by local Charlestonians through the 1980s, despite having no running water. It’s a state of affairs that says a lot about the enduring impact of slavery. It’s great for kids because of the open and engaged conversations with the staff.

The Middleton Place is a plantation that illustrates the close ties the region had with England – the family came over from Essex to make their fortune. One of the male members, Arthur, signed the Declaration of Independence, and the first building was built in 1705, just 13 years after statehood. There are live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, a Jacobean style building – once guest quarters but later home to the family after the Civil War. Several of the rooms are arranged as they would have been for the family and there are some fascinating objects on display, including a pass for one of the Middleton men (fighting for the Confederacy) to cross battle lines, signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Eat & drink the Charleston way

pimento cheese sandwich on dark rye bread on Charleston map
Pimento cheese, here served on dark rye, is a local classic. Picture: Susan Schwartz / A Lush Life Manual

You can’t visit Charleston without trying some of the bona fide regional foods, including Carolina Gold rice, a specialty rice (and one of the crops that propelled slavery). Then there are grits. Most people not from the South don’t understand this cheap staple, which is kind of like porridge and often made using bacon fat or lard and topped with cheese or shrimp. Other specialties include chicken-fried steak (beef pounded flat, breaded and pan fried), pulled pork, oysters and pimento cheese. Some of our favourite eating spots? Rodney Scott’s BBQ (just…everything), Miller’s All Day for heritage grains and reimagined classics, and Husk (it’s all amazing but particularly known for the burger with bacon ground in). Susan from A Lush Life Manual has a guide for all your tippling needs in town.

The food was great, but overall, it was nice to be reminded that the US can be generous and hospitable with a sense of humour — Timothy David Bird

Indulg your love of art

The Gibbes Museum bills itself as Charleston’s only visual arts museum and houses over 10,000 works of art and presents special exhibitions annually. It’s a must-visit. Guild Chairman Simon Willmore recommends the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston School of Arts. It’s a non-collecting museum, which means it features a rolling calendar of exhibitions. It’s dedicated to creating meaningful interactions between adventurous artists and diverse communities within a context that emphasizes the historical, social, and cultural importance of the art of our time

Get out of town

Charleston is surrounded by some amazing destinations in their own right – top holiday spots in the U.S. Head out to Myrtle Beach for its beachfront boardwalk. Go to Hilton Head for the breathtaking beaches and an awesome zipline adventure as Geoff Moore discovered. Shafik Meghji discovered the rich cultural and historical significance of Gullah culture here. Other popular destinations include Beaufort, the surrounding Low Country, the state capital Columbia and more.

Zooming over the zipwire in Hilton Head. Picture: Geoff Moore / The Travel Trunk

More about Charleston from BGTW members:

My article on #Charleston in today’s @heraldscotland. Great city & handily @British_Airways now fly direct. Lots of intriguing Scottish connections too. @TravWriters @ExploreCHS— Robin McKelvie (@robinmckelvie) May 18, 2019

Jennifer Howze
By: Jennifer Howze Blogger, Editor, Travel Writer