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One Day in Charleston from a Local’s Perspective

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Welcome to Charleston, South Carolina! This historic town on South Carolina’s coast has been a destination for visitors from across the world for decades, but there’s so much more to it than the typical tourist stops of the Battery, the City Market, and the Pineapple Fountain.

Explore the Southern charm of downtown Charleston and the surrounding areas to live as the locals do for one day in Charleston. In the itinerary below, Charleston visitors will eat, shop, and explore their way through downtown Charleston and beyond. You’ll be treated to some of the best of what makes Charleston special and what makes locals proud to call the Holy City home.

How to Spend One Day in Charleston from a Local’s Perspective

Advice on how to spend one day in Charleston from a local’s perspective. Go beyond the best things to do in Charleston and discover the local favorites.

Morning of Your One Day in Charleston

Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River Charleston , SC as Viewed form Remleys Point (one day in charleston)
Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River Charleston, SC as Viewed form Remleys Point

Wake up in the Holy City, and prepare for a wonderful day out. Start your adventure by grabbing coffee and a pastry from Kudu Coffee at 4 Vanderhost Street in downtown Charleston. As the coffee house is just around the corner from the College of Charleston, you’re much more likely to stand in line with college students than you are out-of-towners.

After finishing your breakfast in their tiny but adorable courtyard, head back out onto Meeting Street and make your way to Marion Square.

If it’s Saturday, the Charleston Farmers Market will be in full swing, so you’ll want to grab some local honey, artwork, spice packets, and pecans–all of which make great souvenirs. If you need another snack, there are always several food trucks near the corner of Meeting and Calhoun. While you eat, you can watch one of the usual buskers as they sing, play music, or do tricks for the crowds at the fountain.

Afterward, head down Meeting Street to peruse the ever-changing collection at the Gibbes Art Museum. The garden out back is a wonderful place to sketch or simply relax before heading to your next destination.

This area is known as the French Quarter in downtown Charleston, and it is filled with small boutiques, restaurants, and side streets. Meader through this area, and you might be surprised by what you find!

The graveyard at the Circular Congregational Church is a macabre history book of what early Charleston settlers succumbed to. Even if cemeteries are creepy to you, the property is worth a walk-through for its lovely live oaks, and the church’s unique design.

The Powder Magazine on Cumberland is tiny but fascinating; because it’s off the beaten path, you likely won’t have too many other visitors here except for the busiest days of the year. St. Philips Church on Church Street has beautiful columns out front and an iconic steeple, which you can see from just about everywhere in this area.

If you have a bit more time before lunch, duck into one of the many antique shops on King and Queen Streets. Here, you can find everything from heirloom jewelry to entire bedroom suites!

Afternoon during Your 24 Hours in Charleston

For lunch, stay in the French Quarter to make the most of your one day in Charleston. While other tourists might flock to places like Hyman’s on Meeting Street, you’ll want to eat at a small, locally-owned place for that live-like-a-local feel.

Fast and French is in a narrow historic storefront on Broad Street, but the freshly made, European-inspired soups, salads, bread, and sides are worth the trouble of finding it. There are a few small tables in the back of the restaurant. Grab one of those if you can. If they’re all full, the bar area serves the same food. Keep in mind that Fast and French is tiny, and there’s only room for one person to walk next to the bar at a time. If you’ve got any large packages from your shopping and exploring earlier, stop by your hotel room to drop those off before you stop for lunch.

Another great option for lunch is the Queen Street Grocery, where you can get sandwiches, crepes, and smoothies in a 100-year-old corner store. On a nice day, wait for one of the small cafe tables out front. That way, you can people-watch while eating your panini!

After lunch, we’re heading over the Ravenel Bridge to Mount Pleasant on Highway 17. If it’s nice, you can park at the Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park and walk the Ravenel Bridge, one of the best hikes in Charleston. For your efforts, you’ll be treated to unparalleled views of the Charleston Harbor and downtown skyline at the top of the bridge. Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park has free parking, so don’t feel the need to rush back to your car.

Then, walk the pier in Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park to the end, where you will see huge container ships, tug boats, and more sailing in and out of the harbor. Grab an ice cream or milkshake from the River Watch Cafe onsite if you need an afternoon snack.

See the intricate work required to make the area’s iconic sweetgrass baskets at the park’s Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion, and purchase one of these handmade souvenirs to support the local artists.

If you’d like to rest a moment before moving on, the War Memorial near the base of the pier is a perfect place to do so. Listen to the cascading of the waterfall-style fountain as you read the names and ranks of the local men and women who served in World War II the pavers.

Next, take Coleman Boulevard to Ben Sawyer Boulevard and head onto Sullivan’s Island. This quaint barrier island is the least trafficked of the Charleston area’s three barrier islands, so you’ll see plenty of locals and not many tourists.

Sullivan’s Island, thanks to its military past, has stations, not streets. Look for the small concrete markers at each intersection to tell you which station you’re near. Walk to the quiet beach near Station 16 to see seagulls, piping plovers, pelicans, and even dolphins. You’ll likely see a few local families here, but the majority of the tourist crowd will be to your north on Isle of Palms.

Fort Moultrie -- Sullivan's Island (SC) 2012
Fort Moultrie — Sullivan’s Island (SC) 2012

A little further south on Sullivan’s Island is Fort Moultrie National Historic Park. Most Charleston visitors flock to Fort Sumter in the mouth of the Charleston Harbor, but Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island has a much longer and more interesting history. Unlike Fort Sumter, which is known mostly for its pivotal moment in starting the Civil War, Fort Moultrie dates to the American Revolution. In fact, the reason why South Carolina has a palmetto tree on its state flag is because of a decisive battle at Fort Moultrie!

The fort was made of palmetto logs, which absorbed the blasts of cannons instead of being destroyed by them. Beyond that, Fort Moultrie also served South Carolina through the Civil War and both World Wars. The World War II underground bunkers are one of the most interesting places to explore on the property.

Evening of Your One Day in Charleston

Shem Creek Park (one day in charleston)
Shem Creek Park is a great place to spend time during your one day in Charleston

As the sun heads down, you’ll want to head back into Mount Pleasant to finish out your day in the Charleston area.

Park at Shem Creek Park, then meander down the half-mile boardwalk for the perfect place to watch the sunset. The pier at the end of the park has a covered sitting area, so relax there and watch as the shrimp boats come in with their catch.

For dinner, you don’t need to go far!

There are several excellent restaurants on Shem Creek and within easy walking distance of the Shem Creek Park boardwalk. Vickery’s on the Creek has the best views of the harbor and a menu filled with modern takes on Southern cuisine. Red’s Ice House has a relaxed party vibe with a double-decker porch, live music, and a delicious grouper sandwich. The Shelter Kitchen and Bar has a great outdoor area overlooking Coleman Boulevard, excellent cocktails, and huge, delicious appetizers.

After dinner, head back downtown. If you’d like to do some late-night shopping, head over to the City Market, which offers up a series of vendors selling soaps, shirts, candy, and artwork. End the perfect one day in Charleston with a nightcap at the buzzy Church and Union, a unique bar inside a beautiful old church at the corner of East Bay Street and North Market.

Tips for Spending One Day in Charleston

On Rainbow Row, 79-81 / 83 East Bay Street, Charleston, SC
On Rainbow Row, 79-81 / 83 East Bay Street, Charleston, SC

The larger Charleston area isn’t walkable, so you’ll need a rental car to get around if you plan on doing anything outside of the historic peninsula during your 24 hours in Charleston.

If you’re arriving in Charleston via plane, the Charleston International Airport is located in West Ashley near the intersection of the area’s 2 major interstates: I-26 and I-526. While the airport is centrally located in the larger Charleston area, you’ll need a car, taxi, or ride share to get from the airport to downtown Charleston or any of the surrounding towns.

Keep in mind that downtown Charleston was built during the horse-and-buggy area, and so, driving down there can be a bit of a challenge for the uninitiated. Watch out for the many one-way streets. Your best bet for parking is a garage, so look for a hotel that has a garage attached.

Even with these considerations, the downtown area is the best place to set up your home base while in town. It is an easy 20-30 minute drive to everything in the area from downtown, including the beaches and historic homes.

That being said, downtown Charleston hotels are pricy. For a more budget-friendly option, consider staying just over the Ravenel Bridge in Mount Pleasant where you’ll find many clean, comfortable chains like Hampton Inn and Days Inn.

The best time of the year to visit Charleston is late April and early May. The weather hasn’t gotten hot yet, but it would still be warm enough to go to the beach. If you plan to come between June and November, keep in mind that this time period is hurricane season–you might want to get travel insurance just in case a hurricane decides to visit Charleston then.

If you are willing to take that gamble, September and October can be good months to visit Charleston as there are fewer tourists and hotels are (slightly) less expensive. When visiting Charleston any time between April and October, keep in mind that the heat and humidity can be tough. Drink plenty of water, and take plenty of breaks in the shade. If you’re visiting the beach, or if you’re spending time outside, use sunscreen and a hat to further protect you.

If you like to attend local festivals, Charleston has several. In late spring, the Blessing of the Fleet occurs in Mount Pleasant. Here, local religious and city leaders launch the upcoming summer seafood harvest: visitors can see a parade of the local shrimp and fishing boats, eat delicious snacks from food trucks and enjoy live music at the beautiful Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park.

For lovers of the arts, Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto bring world-class musicians, dancers, sculptors, artists, and singers to the Holy City. This festival which started in 1977 runs in late May and early June each year. Plan ahead if you’d like to attend as tickets to the most popular events sell out quickly.

For the holiday season, Charleston goes all out, making December an excellent time to visit. Don’t miss out on the James Island County Park Festival of Lights, where visitors can cruise through miles of inventive light displays, visit Santa, and shop for Christmas gifts. There are also Christmas parades in downtown Charleston, West Ashley, and Mount Pleasant.

Happy Traveling!

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