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Best Things To Do in Charleston

AOL PICK from our Editors
Charleston is a city for watching and wandering, for strolling and sitting on verandas, for stopping and smelling the gardenias. You could easily spend a week in the city without doing anything in particular, just soaking up the atmosphere. But there's certainly plenty to do, sight-seeing wise. There are top-notch art and culture museums, historic homes open for tours, picture-perfect churches and tree-shaded back alleys, not to mention horse-drawn carriage tours of the Historic District. If you need a break from the city, escape to off-peninsula destinations like Fort Sumter, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, and the beaches of Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms. Sights can get crowded during high season (April through June), so don't be surprised by lines. Early risers can often beat the crowds. But whatever you do, don't forget your camera—Charleston is undoubtedly one of America's most photogenic cities. 

Fort Sumter

Neighborhood: Sullivan's Island
On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops began shooting at this Federal fort in Charleston Harbor, officially beginning the American Civil War. It would be four bloody years before Union forces re-took control of the island. Today, visitors can ride a SpiritLine boat from Aquarium Wharf or from Patriot's Point in Mount Pleasant to tour the ruins. After a ten-minute ranger talk, visitors are free to wander the island. There's not a whole lot to see, so if you're not a history buff you may get bored after an hour or so. Luckily, the ferry ride itself is worth the admission, with great views of the city and its bridges.

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Fort Sumter  

Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

Neighborhood: Historic District
By the water on East Bay Street, this imposing white building has served as a customs house, a post office, and a military prison. Today, it's a museum of Charleston's Colonial-era history, with costumed guides leading tours of its three floors. Its highlight is, unsurprisingly, the dungeon. Stede Bonnet, the infamous "gentleman pirate", was imprisoned here in 1718. The story goes, he tried to escape by dressing up as a woman, but he was caught and hanged in the Battery. The dungeon's clammy brick walls are enough to elicit a shiver even from firm ghost-deniers.

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Historic Churches

Neighborhood: Historic District
Charleston's godless side (pirates, rum-runners, slave-owners) was always tempered by a staunch faith. The city has so many houses of worship, it's earned the nicknamed "City of Churches." Many of these churches are architecturally significant and open to the public. Our top three favorites are: the Circular Congregational Church, which has one of the city's oldest cemeteries, the towering white French Huguenot Church, and the Greek Revival-style Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, America's second-oldest synagogue.


Circular Congregational
150 Meeting St.
843-577-6400

French Huguenot Church
44 Queen St.
843-722-4385

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
90 Hasell St.
843-723-1090

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Historic Churches  

City Market

Neighborhood: Historic District
When Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Revolutionary War hero and South Carolina politician, deeded a chunk of land in the middle of the Charleston peninsula to the city in 1788, he had one stipulation: the land must be used as a public market. Forever. That's why, 220-odd years later, visitors to Charleston can buy commemorative Confederate flag shot glasses and overpriced sweetgrass baskets in the heart of the Historic District. OK, I'm being a bit snarky here. Yes, the City Market's covered stalls are crowded and full of what might be charitably called "junk," but they're still fun to visit. Just use the power of your imagination to visualize what the market looked like in the 19th century, a riot of colors and smells, fishmongers hawking baskets of crabs, butchers hauling whole piglets on the backs of wagons. Just don't be tempted to buy too many souvenirs here—there are better, more authentic goods to be had elsewhere in the city.

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Gibbes Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Historic District
This awe-inspiring Beaux Arts palace houses one of the South's finest art collections. Highlights include works from the early 20th century "Charleston Renaissance," when famed American artists like Childe Hassam came to paint its cobblestone streets and Spanish moss-dripping oak trees. The paintings, sculptures and decorative objects of the Colonial collection are also impressive, many of them hailing directly from the insides of Charleston mansions. Changing exhibits range from Picasso to 20th century wood block posters (check the website for details on what's up and when). The museum also co-sponsors a neat walking tour, which takes visitors through the city streets to see the places where some of Charleston's most famous artists were inspired.

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South Carolina Aquarium

Neighborhood: French Quarter
Good news for shark aficionados: the South Carolina Aquarium's Great Ocean Tank has just doubled its number of sharks! Four sandbar sharks and a black tip shark recently arrived to join the 700 other animals living in this 385,000 gallon viewing tank, a highlight of this massive aquarium. Their neighbors include loggerhead turtles, jellyfish and scalpel-tailed surgeonfish. The aquarium, which is housed in an impressive contemporary building on a ledge overlooking Charleston Harbor, showcases the various aquatic environments of South Carolina and beyond. Another highlight is Penguin Planet, where you can watch Magellanic penguins waddle and play.

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The Battery and Rainbow Road

Neighborhood: Historic District
The fattest cats of 19th century Charleston—mostly sea captains and shipping merchants—built their ornate mansions at the tip of the city peninsula known as the Battery. A stroll through the area is a definite must, as it has some of the most impressive architecture in town. Houses looks like wedding cakes, complete with ruffled trim, and curliecued wrought iron fences. Overlooking the water, White Point Gardens has stately oak trees, antique cannons, and a monument to the notorious pirate Stede Bonnet, who was hanged here in the early 1700s. A few blocks away, the multi-hued town houses of Rainbow Row are a classic Charleston photo-op. Legend has it that the houses were painted in different colors so drunk sailors would remember where to return home at night.

Gateway Walk

Neighborhood: Historic District
One of the best ways to see Charleston is simply to wander the gardenia-scented back alleys. Unfortunately, in high season the "back alleys" become clogged highways as visitors descend upon the city. Escape the crowds with this little-known walk, which connects several of Charleston's most historic churches. Along the way, you'll see hidden gardens, ancient cemeteries, and painfully cute cobblestone streets. Don't forget your camera. The walk starts at St. John's Lutheran on Clifford Street, which offers a brochure detailing the walk's sights, and ends at St. Philips on Church St.

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Ashley River Plantations

Neighborhood: Ashley River
North of Charleston, three splendid Antebellum plantation houses are open to the public. If you only have time for one, the nearly 500-acre Magnolia Plantation is your best bet. It's got a little something for everyone, with a house tour, boat and tram rides, a zoo, a swamp walk, a cafe, and several reconstructed slave cabins. Drayton Hall is pretty much the opposite. The austere 1742 plantation house, empty and unreconstructed, is the sole focus of history-heavy guided tours. It may not be fun for the kids, but it's definitely the most affordable way to get your plantation-history fix. Middleton Place is best-known for its splendiferous gardens and jarringly contemporary on-site inn. Check out the terraced rice paddies, which look just as they did 200 years ago.

Magnolia Plantation
3550 Ashley River Rd.
800-367-3517

Drayton Hall
3380 Ashley River Rd.
843-769-2600

Middleton Place
4300 Ashley River Rd.
843-556-6020

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Ashley River Plantations  

Aiken-Rhett House

Neighborhood: Historic District
Of several Charleston historic homes open to the public, the Aiken-Rhett House is the most interesting. Built in 1818, it was once owned by 19th century South Carolina governor William Aiken Jr., one of the richest men in the state. Aiken furnished the house with opulent furniture and tapestries from his trips overseas, many of which remain in the house today. Visitors can tour the fully furnished rooms, marveling at carved French chairs and ornate crystal chandeliers. Aiken was one of South Carolina's biggest slave owners, and one of the most fascinating (if disturbing) parts of the house tour is the former slave quarters.

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