How to Spend Three Days in Charleston, South Carolina

With beautiful architecture, an incredible and tragic history, along with mouthwatering restaurants, Charleston, South Carolina, is a top travel destination. The downtown area is perfect for walking around and catching glimpses of historic buildings that played a role, for better or worse, in the story of the United States.

There are many urban parks to explore, forts from the Civil War, plus islands and beaches to kick back on and enjoy the warm Southern sun. Charleston enjoys a modern culture but has done an exceptional job preserving its past, which is on full display for you to discover.

Thinking about a trip to the ‘Holy City’? Our 3 days in Charleston itinerary will guide you through the best spots to visit and top eats to enjoy. Let’s get started.

Charleston’s beautiful Rainbow Row. Photo credit: Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock

Where to Stay

You’ll be presented with some great districts in Charleston to base yourself on your travels. Staying in the Historic downtown area, aka the French Quarter, is the perfect option, especially for first timers.

You’ll have many attractions, museums and parks within walking distance, along with the best restaurants and nightlife.

Budget travelers should explore their options on the West Side. Still close to the city center, you’ll find some great options that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. 

Historical downtown area of Charleston. Photo credit: f11photo/Shutterstock

When to Go

The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are the best times to visit Charleston, South Carolina. The spring brings ideal temperatures for walking around town, enjoying the coasts and sipping a cocktail on the city’s many rooftops.

When the temperatures begin the dip, fall offers a milder experience perfect for morning walks and getting out on the harbor. To escape the crowds but still have the sun on your back, fall is to time to visit Charleston.

If you’re looking to visit the city on a budget, then winter provides excellent opportunities to save money. There are several holiday-themed festivals that are enjoyable, but be sure to pack a sweater or two.

Summer brings high heat and crowds, which isn’t always the most enjoyable combination. Having said that, with the sun out and atmosphere at its peak, summer is an exciting time to be in Charleston, South Carolina.  

Historic King Street shopping district. Photo credit: lazyllama/Shutterstock

Day 1: History, Markets, and Parks

After arriving for your three days in Charleston adventure, get your bearings by exploring the trendy King Street. Downtown Charleston is the focus of day one, with many historical buildings, boutiques and restaurants to discover along the way.

King Street has risen to become a favorite hangout among locals, with a hearty focus on entertainment and fun. But with over 300 years of history, the stretch of road has been immensely important through every era.  

If you’re looking to get your shopping fix in early on your travels, then you will love window shopping along King Street. There are several eye-popping boutiques and if you’ve time your run nicely, King Street closes to vehicles every second Sunday of the month. Opening up the space to more outdoor dining, pop up markets along with live music and entertainment.

Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Photo credit: meunierd/Shutterstock

After stretching your legs out and gathering your sense of direction, it’s time to begin your journey through the storied past, both good and bad, of Charleston, South Carolina. Begin your historical adventures by visiting the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.

This ancient building has a consequential history. Once the building opened in 1771, it began as a customs house, before becoming a military prison during the American Revolution.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon was both a place to host prominent members of US society, including the first president, George Washington. While also being used as a public auction site for slaves. Lastly, the building is one of just four that remains where the US Constitution was signed.

To gain a greater understanding of the many uses of the Old Exchange, along with the tales of its past, you must explore the insightful museum. Guides in period costumes will help you take a journey back in time.

The Old Slave Mart Museum. Photo credit: Joanne Dale/Shutterstock

From the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, enjoy a short walk back through downtown Charleston on your way to the Old Slave Mart Museum. Both buildings are linked through an ordinance. When a law passed that banned the sale of slaves in the open, ‘marts’ opened up around Charleston and South Carolina. One of the best preserved examples of the slave trade and an important educational experience is the Old Slave Mart Museum.

Auctions were held here between 1856 and 1863 and the museum helps to tell the stories of the victims and their families. The jarring experience will help you understand not just local history but the power of the slave trade in South Carolina. It’s estimated that 40% of enslaved people who were taken to the United States arrived in the city of Charleston.   

Historic old city market. Photo credit: LouieLea/Shutterstock

Just a quick stroll away from the Old Slave Mart Museum is the Charleston Old City Market. Since the 1700s, the market has been the center of commerce and trade. The market remains a prominent historical landmark in the downtown district and is one of the top things to do in Charleston, South Carolina.

Now catering more towards the tourist crowd, you can still explore the beautiful building while also stumbling across a gorgeous memento. Over 300 local vendors sell their handmade wares inside the market, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Vibrant and colorful, the market is simply a fun place to be, whether you walk away with a cherished item or not.

Waterfront Park’s Pineapple Fountain. Photo credit: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

As the sun falls over Charleston, make a beeline for the stunning Waterfront Park. A haven for locals and travelers alike, the park is on 12 acres with a long stretch directly on the harbor. Stroll along until you spot an old-fashioned park bench and simply enjoy the beautiful late afternoon scenery.

Kids can roam the playground, the several gardens bloom adding fresh colors to the park, and on the harbor, yachts bob up and down as the horizon flashes with orange and reds.

Leons Poultry and Oyster Shop. Photo credit: StacieStauffSmith Photos/Shutterstock

Where to Eat

If you didn’t find a spot to eat on King Street, then you can’t go wrong with Leon’s Oyster Shop. The local favorite isn’t just about delicious oysters, as it serves up classic southern-style chicken and Asian-American cuisine.

End your first down in the city at Chez Nous. Each day, the head chef writes a new menu by hand, meaning the experience is different every time. Enjoy scrumptious European comfort food in a beautiful setting.

Day 2: Plantations, Forts, and Aquariums

With a full day exploring Charleston, South Carolina ahead, start off with a rejuvenating trip through the Charleston Farmers Market. Enjoy some crisp morning air as you browse the fresh produce and experience local culture. Beyond the regional fruits and vegetables, you’ll discover over a hundred local artisans and designers who are backed by some vibrant live music, all morning long.

Located downtown in Marion Square, the city’s farmers market is considered one of the best in the South. As the locals descend upon the market, the atmosphere rises, making it an exciting way to start the morning. The Charleston Farmers Market is open every Saturday from April to November! 

Middleton Place Plantation. Photo credit: Roger de Montfort/Shutterstock

With some fresh ingredients and produce for a delightful midday picnic, jump in the car and make your way to the Middleton Place Plantation. Charleston is home to several historic plantations that have been well preserved to show both sides of early South Carolinian life. 

One of the most beautiful plantations around the city also offers a chance to explore the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States. The well-appointed home comes from a 17th century European design surrounded by stunning terraces, hedged gardens and pools. 

Regardless of the season, there is something blooming with azaleas in the springtime and rare camellias in the winter. The Stableyards have guides recreating everyday life from blacksmithing, to carpentry, weaving, pottery and what life was like for slaves on the rice plantation.  

Touring the home is the top attraction at Middleton Plantation and a chance to learn more about the slaves that lived on the property and the generations of Middletons who lived in the home. Discover rare books, period furniture and portraits and the untouched rooms of the family who lived here for centuries. 

Fort Sumter. Photo credit: Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock

After returning to South Carolina, head out to the harbor and visit the famous Fort Sumter. You likely would have spotted the historic fort while relaxing at the Waterfront Park, but today you’ll set foot inside the place where the Civil War began in 1861.

On April 12th of that year, the Confederacy attacked the fort beginning what would be a four-year war between the Confederates and the Union. At the end of the Civil War, the American flag was raised over the remains. To this day, park rangers tell the tales of the fort and how it created the snowball that changed the path of American history.

With so much to see and experience when it comes to history in Charleston, South Carolina, why not sign up for a walking tour? Alongside an expert guide, stroll between the important historical sites in the city, from mansions, to museums, gardens and Fort Sumter while learning the full story from the 18th century to the modern day. 

Sunset view of South Carolina Aquarium. Photo credit: JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

One of the top things to do in Charleston, South Carolina with kids is to visit the state’s top aquarium. The South Carolina Aquarium isn’t just home to marine life either, with exhibits featuring mammals, birds, reptiles and plants that help you discover the natural world around Charleston.

The aquarium is all about being hands on, which is why young and old will have a blast exploring the attraction. Here you can touch sharks, stingrays and starfish while enjoying a series of interactive shows. 

However, the most popular part of the South Carolina Aquarium is the Sea Turtle Hospital. It’s the only one of its kind in the state and is home to Caretta, the famous loggerhead turtle that weighs 220 pounds (100kg).

Where to Eat

Keep things simple and delicious by starting your morning at Millers All Day. With cute interior decor, you’ll know you’re dining out in the South, and you can enjoy a delectable Southern-style breakfast without breaking the bank.

On your way back from the Middleton Plantation stop by Hannibal’s Kitchen for lunch. The unassuming orange building is essentially a hole-in-the-wall, but serves up amazing local soul cuisine. Expect some quality soul-style seafood and, of course, some bona fide epic chicken.

For date night, make a reservation at Husk. In a building from the 1800s, enjoy ‘new South’ cuisine that elevates the well-known favorites into a different stratosphere. Under the inviting lights, this is the perfect end to a great day in Charleston.

The Sand Dunes of Station 18 Beach and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. Photo credit: Billy McDonald/Shutterstock

Day 3: Lighthouses, Food, and Boats

Just 20 minutes from Charleston is one of the most beautiful parts of South Carolina. Sullivan’s Island is home to a historic lighthouse and several beautiful beaches, perfect for some early morning sun and a quick dip in the refreshing water. 

Begin your morning on the island by exploring Charleston Light, aka the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. The storybook lighthouse is one of the more modern installations in the US. After opening in 1962, only the beacons in Texas are younger.  

Slim and triangular, the lighthouse is white on the bottom and black on top and owing to its new age design; you don’t have to walk to the top. Instead, you can enjoy an air-conditioned elevator ride to the observation deck at the highest level. 

After soaking up the views, it’s time to head to the beach. Sullivan’s Island is home to many, but Station 18 is the closest. If you feel like doing more than sun baking and swimming, then grab all the gear you need at Sealand Sports. Whether that be surfboards, SUPs or even a bicycle, they’ve got you covered.

Prepare yourself for delicious fresh oysters! A Charleston classic. Photo credit: Walter Maria Russo/Shutterstock

Once you’re back in the city, explore a different side to ‘Chuck Town’ with Charleston Culinary Tours. Their main tour will take you to all the top spots in the Historic District along with the City Market, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the best eats in the city.

With your three days in Charleston, South Carolina, coming to a close, there are still a few activities that are well-worth experiencing. Our top picks are the Schooner Pride, The Charleston Museum and Battery Park.

If you’re itching to get back out on the harbor, the Schooner Pride is a stunning 84-foot (26m) sailing vessel. With so much history within the city streets, it’s only fair that the boat itself is historic. With a trio of masts and a classic look, the Schooner Pride is right out of your history books.  

With Charleston Harbor Tours you can not only set foot on the magnificent vessel but also explore the harbor in depth, with the chance to spot dolphins! From the boat, you’ll also have memorable views of the city skyline and a chance to reflect on your amazing time in Charleston.

If you haven’t yet had your fill of history, then explore America’s First Museum. Founded in 1773, the Charleston Museum features a vast collection of permanent exhibits featuring Native American culture and the original European settlers. 

Discover a world of weaponry used in the Revolutionary and Civil War. While another exhibit showcases the quirky collection of a 19th century world traveler.

Battery Park in the historic waterfront area of Charleston. Photo credit: f11photo/Shutterstock

Lastly, if you just want to relax and enjoy the sights, then end your trip to Charleston at The Battery. This picturesque urban park was once the sight of a major Civil War battle. Just beside the park is Rainbow Row, home to stately, colorful mansions.

Where to Eat

If you’re feeling down about beginning your last day in Charleston, then Daps Breakfast and Imbibe will put a smile on your face. The all-day breakfast joint comes with delightful breakfast wine, fluffy pancakes, generous vegetarian dishes and the popular Big Meaty.

Before leaving Sullivan’s Island, dine at the Obstinate Daughter, one of the top restaurants in Charleston. The restaurant is influenced by Spanish, Italian and French cuisine and offers a worldly take on your favorite southern classics. Book ahead, as the restaurant is always in high demand.

Final Thoughts

Charleston, South Carolina, is a fantastic option for a three-day vacation. The diverse city has something for everyone, whether you’re a fan of history, southern food or amazing architecture.

With markets, museums, parks and restaurants creating a vibrant downtown area, you could spend all three days walking the beautiful streets. But with the harbor, islands and plantations waiting to be explored, balancing the two will help you make the most of your short, but sweet three days in Charleston, South Carolina.

About the author

Lauren Juliff

Lauren Juliff is a published author and travel expert who founded Never Ending Footsteps in 2011. She has spent over 12 years travelling the world, sharing in-depth advice from more than 100 countries across six continents.

Lauren's travel advice has been featured in publications like the BBC, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan, and her work is read by 200,000 readers each month. Her travel memoir can be found in bookstores across the planet.

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