Charleston is one of our favorite U.S. cities and is well-worth a 3-day visit. Spending 3 days in Charleston SC is an enjoyable experience for couples, families, or friends as Charleston has so much to offer from its rich history, southern charm, culinary delights, beautiful beaches, boutique and antique shopping, and more.
Day 1: Explore Charleston Historic District
Take a horse carriage ride and tour
In the morning, take a one-hour Charleston Historical Downtown Carriage Tour daytime horse carriage ride and tour through South of Broad, the Residential District of Historic Charleston, to learn about buildings, history, architecture, flora and the people that make up the “Holy City”.
Take a historic Charleston guided walking tour
We highly recommend taking an informative 2-hour Historic Charleston guided sightseeing walking tour at 10AM (or 2PM) for the highlighted sites and history of Charleston’s Historic District. This tour covers Charleston City Hall, French Quarter (inc. Dock Street Theatre, St Philips Church, The Slave Mart Museum, The Powder Magazine, the French Huguenot Church, and the Pink House), Rainbow Row, and Battery & White Point Gardens.
Or, explore historic Charleston self-guided at your own pace
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a must-visit. Don’t forget to sign your name on the “Declaration of Independence” on a table upstairs. A guided tour of the Dungeon runs every 30 minutes. Make sure you plan your time around that.
The Old Exchange is one of the earliest and most significant places in Charleston’s history. The staff here is very informative and will give you a lot of history on the city. Pay an early visit to the Old Exchange on your trip and walking tour so you understand how Charleston was established.
We didn’t get to visit the Old Charleston Jail, as it was temporarily closed. We were told that no one knows if it will open to the public again.
Walk to the French Quarter to visit Dock Street Theatre, St Philips Church, the Old Slave Mart Museum, the Powder Magazine, the French Huguenot Church, and the Pink House. You can get the combo ticket to the Old Slave Mart at the Old Exchange for a small discount.
Rainbow Row, one of the most photographed sites in Charleston, is a must-visit. The Rainbow Row is located in the “South of Broad” neighborhood which includes many historically significant homes including the antebellum mansions located along the famous “Battery”.
Find the Pineapple Fountain at the Joe Riley Waterfront Park.
Explore the residential area “South of Broad” including The Battery with views over the harbor to Fort Sumter.
Make your way back to the French Quarter and end your day at the Historic Charleston City Market to shop for souvenirs and local delicacies to take home with you.
Dine in Style
You walked a lot today. Treat yourself to a Low Country fine dining experience at one of our favorite restaurants in Charleston Historic District: HUSK, Peninsula Grill, or Anson. Or head further north on King for Chubby Fish, The Ordinary (in a 1920s bank), or The Grocery. There are many choices but we recommend making reservations early for all top-rated restaurants in Charleston.
Day 2: Visit Fort Sumter for Civil War History
Visit Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a must-visit for history lovers. Fort Sumter is a significant historical site as it is where the Civil War started. Plan half a day for this tour even though the tour itself lasts just 2.5 hours.
Enjoy the pleasant 30-minute ferry ride to Fort Sumter and see Charleston on the water from distance. Once arriving at Fort Sumter, spend about an hour to explore.
Dine waterfront at Fleet Landing
Enjoy an early dinner at Fleet Landing Restaurant and Bar for a waterfront view and some yummy fried oysters and calamari before your evening ghost walk and tour. Nearby Gru Cafe offers great food for a medium budget. 167 Raw Oyster Bar offers a casual environment and fresh seafood. Then, head for the evening ghost tour to walk off those calories.
Take an evening ghost walking tour
When you are in Charleston, you cannot miss taking at least one Charleston ghost walk and tours. Most tours run between 6PM or 9PM and last around 1.5-2 hours. We took Charleston’s Pleasing Terrors Night-Time Walking Ghost Tour and had a great time with Michael who has also a podcast on Charleston ghost stories. This tour is popular and likely to sell out. You can also take an evening horse carriage tour if walking after dinner doesn’t sound appealing.
Or, take an evening horse carriage tour
If ghost stories don’t interest you much, instead, take a 35-minute evening horse carriage ride through the Commercial District. We recommend tours offered by Old South Carriage or Palmetto Carriage.
Have a nightcap at one of Charleston’s unique bars
If you feel hungry and still have energy after the ghost walk, head to one of Charleston’s unique bars. The Church and Union was renovated from a church into a restaurant and wine bar. The setting is so unique and impressive. Another option is to see the Holy City’s evening skyline from The Rooftop at the Vendue bar.
Day 3: Visit A Historic Plantation or Two
To fully appreciate Charleston, you cannot miss visiting at least one of Charleston’s historic plantations dated back to the 17th century. These plantations will give you a glimpse into layers of history through the lives of early settlers and families.
We recommend touring one or two plantations on your way into or out of Charleston, and even spend a night near the plantations to fully appreciate the beauty of the Lowcountry. It is up to you to visit a plantation at the beginning or end of your Charleston visit.
Angel Oak Tree
On your way out of Charleston to the plantation, take a 30-minute detour to Angel Oak Tree for an iconic photo opportunity of a giant oak tree covered in Spanish moss. Angel Oak tree in the Angel Oak Park is considered to be the largest live oak tree east of the Mississippi estimating to be 300 to 400 years old. The tree is 65 feet high with a circumference of 25.5 feet, shading an area of 17,000 square feet.
You really need to be there to grasp the size and age of this tree. What you will see if only half of the tree as the missing half has to be cut due to disease.
The Middleton Place
One of our favorite plantations is the Middleton Place just 30 minutes north of Charleston. Two of America’s Founding Fathers called Middleton Place home – Henry Middleton, a president of the First Continental Congress, and son Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
If you are not planning on having dinner at the Middleton Place Restaurant, make sure to have a three-course Lowcountry lunch at the restaurant. It offers traditional Lowcountry favorites made from fresh, local, organic ingredients, harvested from the onsite organic farm and gardens. In my opinion, the restaurant lived up to its fame made by chef and cookbook author, Edna Lewis.
After lunch, walk off some lunch calories on this beautiful 65-acre plantation. It takes around 2.5 hours to see the most significant places.
- Take a 30-minute self-guided tour of the gardens and grounds
- Followed by a narrated 45-minute House Museum tour (runs every 30 minutes and costs $15 in addition to the $29 property ticket)
- Take 15 minutes for a break and visit the Plantation Chapel, Parterre, and the Butterfly Lakes
- Take a one-hour self-guided tour of Eliza’s House and the Plantation Stable Yards
Spend the night at The Inn at Middleton Place which offers a blend of modern design, sweeping river views, and stunning natural surroundings. Guests of the Inn receive complimentary access to the Middleton Place’s 65 acres of America’s oldest landscaped gardens, house museum, working stable yards, and organic farm. That is a saving of $29 to visit the Middleton Place in 2022. Be sure to go to the Inn before visiting the plantation so the hotel staff can give you the ticket.
If you are staying at The Inn, be sure to make a dinner reservation for the Middleton Place Restaurant. Take note that the restaurant may not be open on Mondays for dinner. Check latest schedule before you go.
Optional: Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
If you are an early riser, enjoy a bike ride along the beautiful Ashely River imagining visitors approaching from Ashley River to enter the Middleton Place in the old days.
After breakfast at The Inn at Middleton Place, head to Charleston’s most visited plantation, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens sits just 5 minutes down the Ashley River from the Middleton Place.
Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family. It is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry, and the oldest pubic gardens in America.
Visiting Magnolia Plantation & Gardens can be expensive if you want to explore more than what general admission covers. However, the ticket covers 7 days of visit, so spend more time here when your schedule allows longer stay.
We recommend visiting Magnolia Plantation & Gardens during spring and fall when most flowers bloom in order to fully appreciate the beauty of one of “America’s Most Beautiful Gardens” rated by Travel + Leisure Magazine.
How many days in Charleston for first-time visitors?
For first-time visitors who want to hit the higlights and get a taste of Charleston, we recommend 3 days or a long weekend. Charleston is a city you can pay many visits to and never get bored.
If you want to have some beach time, add another day or two to relax on a beach outside Charleston.
When is the best time to visit Charleston SC?
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit Charleston although Charleston is good to visit year-round. Pollens can be severe in mid to late spring and may bother people with strong seasonal allergy reactions. The summer can be hot and very humid to make outdoor experience less pleasant.
A warm window in late winter offers a great opportunity to head to Charleston for less crowds and lower hotel rates. We jumped on a mid-February trip when the highs reached almost 80 degrees and the lows were in 60s for pleasant evening walks.
How to get to and around Charleston?
Most people visit Charleston by plane or by car. For those who fly into Charleston, hiring a taxi or Uber for a short ride from the airport to the Historic District is better than renting a car during your stay in the Historic District. You can get around the Historic District on foot easily. Parking is also expensive in the Historic District.
In our suggested itinerary, you will spend two days in the Historic District and don’t need a car. The best way to explore the Historic District is on foot or by bicycle. So, comfortable shoes are your best friends on cobblestone streets. You can pick up a car rental for a day to do activities outside of the Historic District or follow a guided tour for a plantation.
Where to stay in Charleston SC?
We recommend sprending at least 2 nights in Charleston’s Historic District. For the 3rd night, you can remain in the same hotel or move to The Inn at Middleton Place.
If you have a car, you may not need to move it for the two days you explore the Historic District and Fort Sumter. Keep in mind that parking could cost 20-40 dollars per night.
Best places to stay in Charleston Historic District:
- The Mill House Wyndham Grand Hotels is in a desirable location on King’s Street with easy access to most attractions, the shopping district on King, and many restaurants and bars.
- The Vendue is in the heart of all actions and right by the Waterfront Park in French Quarter. The hotel also has a rooftop bar attract many people to visit for a view of the Holy City’s skyline and beautiful Waterfront Park.
- 20 South Battery is a splurge in a historic house beside the White Point Park in The Battery. The location is a little further away from the touristy area so it is perfect for someone seeking a natural surrounding.
- The Inn at Middleton Place is a romantic retreat as we mentioned earlier. Spend a night or two here to visit the plantation, enjoy the nature, and eat at The Middleton Place Restaurant.
There is so much to see and do in Charleston SC. You can easily spend a week in Charleston to add many historic and natural sites to your itinerary. But we hope this 3-day Charleston SC itinerary gives you a taste and important highlights of Charleston that will draw you back in the near future.