A Charming Charleston Destination Guide

Charleston travel and packing guide

Charleston, South Carolina evokes images of another time, of the genteel South and its past. Dating back to 1670, the town was first settled by groups from Europe, including British loyalists and French Huguenots. The first shots of the Civil War were fired at nearby Fort Sumter and both earthquakes and hurricanes have plagued the city. But thanks to a thriving culinary scene, Charleston has become one of the country’s most popular destinations.

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Charleston Travel Expenses Tips

It’s easy to spend money in Charleston, between the King Street boutiques, award-winning restaurants, and luxury hotels. But there are a few easy ways to save on your stay.

Splurge on lunch.

If you’re a foodie whose main MO is to dine at as many amazing restaurants as possible, use lunch as your splurge meal. You’ll find similar menus at the top restaurants, namely Husk, Poogan’s Porch, and 82 Queen. Make reservations on OpenTable to avoid waiting. Food trucks are another good way to eat delicious food on the cheap. Find where they are on social media.

Stay outside the historic district.

Downtown hotels start at around $150 USD per night and go up from there, especially depending on the season and location. There isn’t much of a low season in Charleston, but you can find deals sometimes if you travel during the winter months. Other options to consider are the inns and bed and breakfasts, hostels, AirBnBs and the hotels on Lockwood Drive and across the river in West Ashley and Mt. Pleasant.

Charleston travel and packing guide
Keep an eye out for alligators if you visit Magnolia Plantation!

Get around by foot.

If you’re staying downtown, you can walk just about everywhere in 30 minutes. It’s a fairly safe city, but if you need a ride late at night, Uber is your best bet. There are plenty of taxis and pedicabs as well, but for a higher rate. The DASH shuttle is free as well, running to the Aquarium.

Keep your wallet in check.

I’m not going to lie, the shops on King Street make it easy to spend a small fortune. You’ll find both boutiques and luxury brands in a matter of blocks. To save a bit of cash, check out the outlet malls in North Charleston.

Take advantage of free attractions.

The Holy City is named for the high number of church steeples that create the skyline. These are some of the free attractions you can see. Rainbow Row, The Battery, and Marion Square are also free to visit.

Charleston travel and packing guide
The Battery is one of Charleston’s free attractions.

Essential Gear to Pack for Charleston

The weather in Charleston is hot and humid nearly year-round so be sure to pack accordingly. The dress code is fairly casual but slightly dressier for nice restaurants.

>>Check out our female packing list for road tripping the southeast USA.

Layers– Your clothing should be comfortable and light, especially in the humidity. I tend to wear sundresses and comfortable sandals in Charleston, which can be dressed up with accessories for dinner at night.

Body Glide or baby powder for chafing– There’s nothing worse than your legs rubbing together when you’re trying to enjoy your destination.

Comfortable shoes– If you’ll be walking a lot, be sure to wear comfortable shoes that won’t give you blisters.

Sun protection– Whether it’s hats, sunglasses, or sunscreen, make sure you’re covered. Sunburn can easily ruin your trip.

Books to Read Before Visiting Charleston

The city of Charleston has inspired writers over the years, many of whom write exclusively about the Lowcountry.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy– The late author is perhaps the most notable writer that focuses on the Holy City, starting with his book about his time at The Citadel. This novel was named for an area of town about a man’s life through the years. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd– This novel is set in the early nineteenth century about the relationship between a slave and the wealthy family’s daughter in Charleston. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Sullivan’s Island by Dorothea Benton Frank– Named for my favorite beach in the city, the first in her Lowcountry series tells of one woman’s struggles with her unfaithful husband. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Charleston travel and packing guide
The South of Broad area in Charleston that is the setting for the book by Pat Conroy

Movies to Watch Before Visiting Charleston

The draping oaks and historic homes have become a popular backdrop for movies over the last three decades.

The Notebook– Perhaps the most well-known movie set in Charleston, memorable filming locations include the American Theater, Old Town Mount Pleasant, and Cypress Gardens. It’s the love story between a wealthy girl vacationing in South Carolina and the local boy who wins her heart. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Prince of Tides– Based on the book by Pat Conroy, the film is about a man’s troubled childhood in South Carolina and his relationship with his therapist. Grab a copy on Amazon.

O– A modern day spin on Othello, this take involves prep school students and a jealous basketball player’s plan to take down the star athlete. The College of Charleston served as the main filming location. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Patriot– A peaceful farmer goes after the British soldier that killed his son during the Revolutionary War. A number of local plantations were used as filming locations. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Top Things to Do in Charleston

Charleston has a number of tourist attractions to teach you about the city’s history. Roam the cobblestones and tour historic homes or see where the country’s most horrific war began.

Fort Sumter– If you’re a Civil War buff, this is an essential stop. Take the ferry from downtown and Mount Pleasant to the island fort. It has cannons and displays on the war.

USS Yorktown– Tour the aircraft carrier that served in the Navy from World War II to Vietnam but is now permanently docked in the harbor. They have a maritime museum popular with school groups and scout troops.

Rainbow Row– This pastel colored row of houses is one of the most photographed places in town. The Georgian homes are on East Bay Street were restored in the 1930s and are still private homes.

Carriage tours– A popular activity is horse-drawn carriage tours. While I personally don’t endorse these, it’s a way to learn more about the city’s history.

Charleston travel and packing guide
Carriage rides are a popular activity in Charleston, SC.

South Carolina Aquarium– Located in Liberty Square, families will enjoy this indoor activity, which emphasizes local species as well as conservation.

Charleston City Market– Dating back to the earliest days of the city, today the market is completely renovated selling souvenirs, local crafts, sweetgrass baskets, and food.

Gibbes Museum of Art– Recently reopened after a massive renovation, the collection features works by mostly American artists dating back to the 18th century.

Beaches– And, of course, what’s a trip to Charleston without a day at the beach? Isle of Palms, Folly Beach, and Sullivan’s Island are your main options, but further out there’s Seabrook and Kiawah islands.

Book a Viator Tour Before You Go

Charleston Historic Walking TourHistoric Downtown Walking Tour – $20.00
This 2 hour walking tour winds its way through the streets of the French Quarter and the area South of Broad Street in the heart of Charleston’s Historic District. Get to know the historic churches, horticulture, unique architecture and story of our beautiful city from its beginning settlers to the friendly residents of today. This tour provides a good, broad overview of Charleston’s past and is a good starting point for visitors to Charleston.

Charleston travel and packing guide
The South Carolina Aquarium is a fun place to visit, especially if you’re traveling with kids.

Where to Stay in Charleston

Charleston has more hotel properties than most destinations, ranging from budget-friendly hostels and hotels to luxury accommodations. Here are a few we recommend, but be prepared to pay at least $150 per night.

  • NotSo Hostel is the only of its kind in town and is, best of all, downtown. They also have an annex with private rooms.
  • AirBnB has options mostly across the river in West Ashley and Mount Pleasant, but allows you to have your own space.
  • Zero George is a sleek luxury hotel downtown in a former home.
  • The Restoration is above the shops of King Street.
Charleston travel and packing guide
A little outside of Charleston, you can visit Firefly Distillery and try true southern spirits, including the first sweet tea vodka.

Food and Drink in Charleston

Now let’s talk about why you really came to Charleston: to eat! Dishes are influenced by African, French, and British traditions with as many products taken from the ocean as possible. Make reservations if you want to dine at the city’s more notable restaurants.

Shrimp and grits– Sure, you can find this dish throughout the South, but you haven’t really had it until you’ve had it here. Locally roasted Anson Mill grits and fresh-caught seafood make it that much better.

Benne wafers– Made from the humble benne seed, these are simple sesame cookies found only in Charleston.

She crab soup– This creamy soup is the unofficial dish of Charleston, made with blue crab and sherry. Go to 82 Queen for the best version of it in town!

Oysters (and basically all seafood)– What’s better than fresh seafood? There are plenty of restaurants serving it in all varieties, including the Market area, but my personal favorites are basically everywhere on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant as well as Bowen’s Island Restaurant on James Island.

Charleston Travel Destination Guide

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Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

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