When you visit Charleston, the list of things to do is almost endless. This guide will help you plan what fun things you want to do when you visit. You can view over 10,000 aquatic animals at the Charleston Aquarium, see where the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter or visit one of the many art and history museums.
The Charleston Aquarium is located on the Charleston Harbor at Aquarium Wharf. The aquarium has over 10,000 aquatic animals from across the state of South Carolina with 60 displays and exhibits along with a touch tank that allows you to interact with star fish and horseshoe crab. As you enter the aquarium you will see The Great Ocean Tank which holds over 385,000 gallons of water and 10,000 species of marine life. From my experience, the aquarium is usually a very fun place for small children and adults but it may not be as exciting for older kids and teens. The staff and volunteers are friendly and helpful and the aquarium is fairly small so you can view all the exhibits in about an hour. Admission is about $25 for adults and $18 for children, and for an additional fee you can watch a movie in the 4-D theater or tour the hospital for sick and injured sea turtles. I highly recommend buying advanced online tickets to avoid waiting in long ticket lines or missing the hospital tour which often sells out early. The aquarium also has a gift shop and a cafe that serves pizza, sandwiches, ice cream, chips, and cold drinks. A deck that projects out over the Copper River provides awesome views of boats and dolphins in the Charleston Harbor. You can park in the city parking garage at 24 Calhoun St for $2 an hour or metered parking is offered along Washington St and Concord St. The CARTA Dash Trolley also stops at the aquarium.
Forts and Military Sites
The USS Yorktown at Patriots Point is one of the largest museums of its kind in the world and one of my favorite places to visit. The USS Yorktown was the tenth air craft carrier to serve in the United States Navy. The carrier was commissioned in 1943 and participated significantly in the Pacific offensive that began in late 1943 and ended with the defeat of Japan in 1945. YORKTOWN received the Presidential Unit Citation, and earned 11 battle stars for service in World War II. The Carrier was later used off Vietnam and then recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts and capsule before being decommissioned in 1970. Just about the entire ship is open for you to tour. You can walk up to the top and see the huge flight deck and then you can go down and sit in the captain’s chair. There are lots of pictures and exhibits that will give you a true glimpse into what life was like on the ship. There are also several other small planes and a submarine for you to tour. You should expect to spend about 3-4 hours to tour everything and you should also plan to do a lot of walking and climbing steep stairs. Hot lunch is served in the aircraft carrier's C.P.O. Mess Hall and there are also two snack bars. Admission is $22 for adults and $14 for children. Free parking is provided at Patriots Point.
On April 12th, 1861 the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter which led to the outbreak of America’s bloodiest war. Fort Sumter is a historic, interesting place to visit and is only accessible by taking a 30 minute boat ride through the Charleston Harbor. Once you arrive at the fort, you will learn about the major events which led to the outbreak of the American Civil War. At Fort Sumter National Park, historians will provide detailed information about Fort Sumter and its pivotal role in the War between the States. There is a museum with fascinating exhibits and a small gift shop for your enjoyment. After one hour at the Charleston Fort, you will cruise back to port, enjoying panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Charleston's bustling harbor. The Fort is quite large and requires a significant amount of walking and climbing stairs so make sure you wear a comfortable pair of shoes. You should allow a minimum of one hour travel time and another hour to tour the fort. I highly recommend buying tickets in advance either online or at the departure locations. Fort Sumter Tours departs from Liberty Square next to the Charleston Aquarium and also from Patriots Point Maritime Museum. Admission is $20 for adults and $12 for children.
Fort Moultrie is accessible by driving to Sullivan’s Island. It is not as big as Fort Sumter but it’s still an interesting place to visit if you are a history buff. The fort has a visitors center that shows a short film and features a small museum detailing Moultrie's history. For a small fee, you can then tour the fort itself as five different sections of Moultrie are preserved to look as they did in five different historical eras. Fort Moultrie is not as popular as Fort Sumter so you will not have to deal with the large crowds. Admission is $3 for adults and children get in free.
The Gibbes Museum of Art, located in Charleston’s historic district at 135 Meeting St, opened its doors to the public in 1905. You can explore Charleston through paintings, sculptures, photographs, and miniature portraits. The museum houses over 10,000 works of art and presents special exhibitions annually. Admission to the museum is $12 and with the paid admission you get a complimentary cell phone audio tour. You should allow about two hours to tour the entire museum. Parking is not available at the museum but on-street metered parking is offered throughout downtown. You can also park in the parking decks on Cumberland St and Queen St for a fee.
The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and is America’s first museum. The Museum tells the history of Charleston and the Lowcountry by showcasing hundreds of items ranging from ancient fossils to Civil War artifacts. The museum also owns two historic houses, the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward Washington House, that are open to the public. Admission for each is $12 and you can save money by purchasing combo tickets. Free parking is available on a first come first serve basis and paid public parking is available across the street. You should allow approximately 2 hours to tour the entire museum.
The Karpeles Manuscript Museum has the largest private collection of original documents and manuscripts. Over 1 million documents are rotated between 13 libraries across the country. The exhibits change four times a year so check the libraries website to see what is currently being displayed. The library is located on the outskirts of the historic district and offers free on site parking. The library offers free admission and is not as crowded as other museums and attractions in Charleston. If you are a history buff then you will really enjoy this library but I do not recommend it for young children.
The Unites States Constitution had a provision that banned the import of African slaves after 1808. Since slaves could no longer be brought in, a domestic slave trading system was organized and Charleston was a major slave collecting and reselling center. The Old Slave Mart Museum is likely the only building still in existence in South Carolina that was used for slave auctioning. The museum has photos, artifacts, and interactive exhibits that recounts Charleston’s role in this inter-state slave trade. The museum is located on a cobblestone street a few blocks from the battery and admission is $7. You should allow about an hour to tour the museum depending on the crowds and how much reading you do. On street metered parking is available and there are several parking decks within walking distance that charge a fee.
The Powder Magazine is the oldest public building in South Carolina. Built in 1713, the building was used as storage for gunpowder during the colonial days and the American Revolution. The Powder Magazine is the only standing structure of the original fortification that once surrounded Charleston. The building is now a National Landmark with exhibits that focus on South Carolina’s colonial military history. The building is very small but the exhibits are informative and well presented and the staff is always friendly and helpful. The museum is child friendly and the admission is $5. You should allow about 30 minutes to tour the museum and gift shop. Street parking is available or you can park in one of the nearby parking decks for a fee. The parking decks are located on Cumberland St. and Queen St.
The Old Exchange was built from 1767-1771 and was originally used as a customs house. Around 1780, the British began using the building as a prison during the Revolutionary War. In later years, the building was the site of the ratification of the Constitution of 1788 and was also used to host a ball attended by George Washington. The building is now open to the public and you can tour the museum on the top two floors and the dungeon. Admission is $10.
The Postal Museum is a small but interesting museum located in the post office at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets. In 1896 the post office moved to the new Post Office Building which was erected over the old police station when it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1886. The building is the oldest continuously operated post office in the Carolina’s. The museum tells the areas postal history and how 18th and 19th century mail was handled. The museum is free and since it is only one room, you should only allow about 20 minutes.
The Confederate Museum exhibits Confederate memorabilia from the Civil War including uniforms, flags, swords, diaries, and cannons.The museum is located inside Market Hall above the Historic Charleston Market. The museum is owned and operated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the admission is $5. Street Parking is available and you can also take the free Trolley that stops at the Historic Charleston Market.
The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry has nine different exhibits including a two-story Medieval Castle, a pirate ship and an art room. The museum is self guided and allows children to explore with hands on exhibits. Admission is $12 and you should allow about two hours to explore all the exhibits. Metered parking is available around the museum or you can park in the two parking decks on either side of the museum for a fee.
The Hunley was a Confederate submarine and was the first submarine to sink a warship. The submarine was on one of its first training missions on August 29, 1863 when it sank, killing five crew members. The submarine sank again two months later, killing eight more crew members. On Feb 17, 1864 the Hunley sank the USS Housatonic, a Union ship in the Charleston Harbor. A short time later the submarine sank killing all eight of her crew members. The sub was lost and was not recovered until 2000, 136 years after she sank. The remains of the crew were laid to rest in a large ceremony in 2004. Tours are only offered on Saturday and Sunday so scientists can continue to work on preserving the Hunley during the week. Tickets are available at the entrance on a first come first serve basis, so I highly recommend buying tickets online in advance. Admission is $16, free parking is offered on site, and you should allow about an hour and a half to tour everything.