Charleston consistently ranks as one of the world’s best cities, bringing nearly 4 million visitors to the Holy City annually. For as many articles that have been written trying to uncover the formula behind Charleston’s appeal, there are parts of its charms that you can only discover by living there. I grew up visiting Charleston and have called it my home since 2016, totaling over 25 years of curating my favorite parts of the city. Keep reading to discover my top Charleston travel tips.
Local Tips for Visiting Charleston, S.C.
Over 300 years old, Charleston offers some of the most beautifully preserved architecture alongside innovators in dining and shopping, all just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean. Between the rows of colorfully painted houses, cobblestone streets, serene beaches, and entertainment delights, there’s plenty to keep any visitor occupied, but to experience Charleston like a local, here are a few lesser-known tips and tricks to get the most out of the Holy City.
1. Skip a pricey river cruise and get an all-day pass on Charleston’s water taxi service
The Charleston Water Taxi is a reliable and affordable way to get a waterway experience in the Holy City without shelling out for premium “cruises.” The ferry service runs in a loop from Mount Pleasant to Downtown Charleston, departing hourly from four locations from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Spot iconic Charleston sights like the Ravenel Bridge and keep an eye out for dolphins as you travel between your destinations.
The biggest appeal to the water taxi is definitely its affordability. For $12 you can get an all-day pass, considerably cheaper than many of the other water transports. Plus, it’s a great way to avoid dealing with Charleston road traffic.
2. Snap a photobomber-free shot of the Angel Oak by arriving before opening hours
Some tourist must-sees are favorites for a reason, and the fabled Angel Oak on Johns Island is just one example of that. The tree stands over 60-feet tall and is more than 400 years old. You’ll feel almost compelled to listen for some quiet whispers underneath its branches, but that might be hard to do if there are crowds of other people swarming around you.
The Angel Oak Park opens at 9 a.m. daily (1 p.m. on Sundays), but if you arrive a few minutes before it opens, you can be one of the first people to stand under the tree, leaving you free to take unobstructed photos or just enjoy the full haunting beauty of the tree in peace.
3. Join the Lunch Bunch at Slightly North of Broad for extraordinary cuisine at ordinary prices
Slightly North of Broad, or SNOB, as most Charlestonians refer to it, is a local staple and the pinnacle of fine dining in the city. Operating for 27 years, SNOB has guided the direction of the Charleston food scene. To taste what you might be missing at a more budget-conscious price point, sign up for the “Lunch Bunch” to get the daily lunch specials emailed to you. SNOB’s $14 weekday lunch special includes iced tea or coffee, soup or salad, and an entree. It’s hard to beat that deal.
4. Dip your toes in the water at Kiawah Beachwalker Park
As much as everyone loves Folly Beach (I do too, so much so I named my dog after it!), Kiawah Island is much quieter and so gorgeous. Kiawah Beachwalker Park is the only public beach access on the island, giving you access to 11 miles of unspoiled beach with a winding boardwalk and beautiful plant life. The park has clean bathrooms and showers, spacious changing rooms, and a snack stand – perfect to sustain a day at the beach. At just $10 to park on weekdays, it’s one of the best and most convenient ways to spend time at the beach in Charleston.
Between the clean bathrooms and fully stocked snack stand, you’ve got everything you need for a day at the beach, including a chair and umbrella rental service. You hardly need to pack to go to the beach, just show up with your towel and swimsuit and let Kiawah Beachwalker Park take care of the rest. You’ll feel like a local Charlestonian in no time!
5. Travel back in history with a stroll down Chalmers Street
There are plenty of picturesque streets in Charleston, with Rainbow Row being the most talked-about, but there are only eight remaining cobblestone streets in the city. Chalmers Street, connecting Meeting and East Bay streets, is the best known of these eight yet still overlooked by many tourists coming to Charleston. Iconic colorfully painted houses and palmettos line the street, while the cobblestones give it that extra bit of charm without the crowds of Rainbow Row.
6. Eat oysters the local way at Bowens Island Restaurant
Located on James Island, this enduring icon of seafood is a local favorite for a reason. Bowens Island Restaurant serves up ridiculously fresh seafood and oysters in a casual setting that’ll make any visitor feel instantly at home. Sidle up to one of the patio picnic tables and shuck your own oysters for a truly authentic experience. It’s a restaurant without frills but that’s part of what makes it so good. Take a step away from the cuisine of King Street for a Lowcountry experience worthy of locals.
7. Get a panoramic view of the city from the top of The Restoration Hotel
Get your drinks with a side of views at The Watch, the rooftop kitchen and bar attached to The Restoration Hotel in Downtown Charleston. The bar offers a selection of Southern eats and signature cocktails that are absolutely delicious. Plus, it’s one of just a few rooftop bars in Charleston that offer such a stunning view. You can see everything from the Ravenel Bridge to Charleston’s iconic church steeples. It’s a perfect place to watch the sunset!