One of the hottest travel destinations in the world, Charleston, South Carolina, has so much to offer its visitors, from a top-notch culinary scene to unique historic sites. However, if you’re like most travelers, you’re probably planning to fly into Charleston, leaving you without a vehicle to get around. Luckily, the downtown area of Charleston itself is fairly small, which makes it easy for active visitors to walk from place to place. If you’re traveling with small children or seniors on the other hand, you may want a quicker way to get around. If you’re not interested in renting a car, don’t worry–there are plenty of modes of transportation while staying in Charleston.
Getting Around Charleston Without a Car
Most people who live in downtown Charleston actually prefer not to own a car since it’s easier to get around, and there’s no need to pay for parking. If you’re moving to Charleston, you may want to consider the fact that your car could be a bigger burden than a convenience in the downtown area. However, if you’re moving to another area like James Island or Mount Pleasant, you’ll probably want a car to get around. If you’re just visiting the area and you have a place to stay downtown, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that you are within walking distance of most downtown attractions. Before figuring out which types of transportation you’ll need to use, it’s helpful to plan out all the places and sights you’d like to see. Then, you can determine the best way to hop from place to place.
Charleston Transportation Options
When walking around downtown Charleston, you’ll notice a number of trolley buses cruising through the streets with the words “FREE” painted across the sides. You’re not imagining that—the downtown trolley service is actually free for visitors and locals! This DASH trolley service stops at some of the most popular and frequented places on the peninsula, making it easy for you to see all the sights you want to without needing a car. You can stop by the Charleston Visitor Center to pick up a map and find out more, or simply look for the CARTA signs that line the streets.
CARTA Public Transportation
The Charleston CARTA is a larger public transportation system that can be useful if you need to get on or off of the downtown peninsula for any reason. CARTA has routes that run between downtown, North Charleston, James Island, West Ashley and Mount Pleasant. This is a great and affordable way to get to and from the airport, but be sure to catch a bus that leaves well in advance of your flight just in case of unexpected delays. Although CARTA is a great way to get around, it does not have as many stops in neighborhoods aside from downtown, so you have to carefully plan how you will get from your stop to your destination. If you’re looking to visit attractions like the Angel Oak on Johns Island, you may have to opt for a different mode of transportation.
Downtown Charleston has a handful of different bike taxi options. Although these pedicabs will only bring you to locations on the downtown peninsula, this is a fun, cheap and convenient way to get around. Each pedicab can fit two to three people, but you can request multiple bikes if you’re traveling in a large group. These pedicabs will often post up in popular areas to make catching a ride even more convenient, but you can also contact the company directly and have a cab pick you up and drop you off at any desired downtown location.
Always a viable transportation option, taxis are available throughout the Charleston area. However, unlike other larger cities, you won’t often see taxis driving around that you can simply hail down for a ride. Instead, it’s easier to call the company ahead of time and arrange for a ride. While this a great secondary option, there are several more convenient ways to get around Charleston.
Using a ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft is a more efficient way to get from place to place over a traditional taxi in Charleston. Uber and Lyft drivers can be found most times of the day and night, with wait times usually being under ten minutes. Ride-sharing services can be more useful than public transportation as they will pick riders up from any destination and bring them exactly where they need to go. When using public transportation, you’re a bit more limited because of the specific stop locations.
When exploring downtown Charleston, you can walk to nearly any attraction easily. The entire downtown area covers about three miles in each direction, meaning you never need to go too far on foot. There are some areas that would be inconvenient or dangerous to walk because of traffic, but for the most part, all of the shops, restaurants and parks are within walking distance. You can even embark on a Historic Walking Tour of the city to learn more about its history and witness the many beautiful neighborhoods.
One of the top ways for locals to get around downtown Charleston is by bicycle. If you’re moving to the area and wondering about transportation options, purchasing a high-quality bike is a great option as you can quickly and easily navigate the streets of downtown without having to stress about parking. For visitors, biking through the city is a great option. Throughout downtown, you’ll find many different Holy Spokes bikeshare stations where you can rent bicycles and pay simply for the time that you’ve been using the bike. Just download the app, enter your payment information and you’re off! You can rent the bikes whenever you’re done at any of the stations around town, but keep in mind that even if you park the bike, you are still being charged for the time. You may want to return your bike at your destination. Then, start another rental period when you want to move on to another area.
Places to Visit by Foot
Waterfront Park is one of the most popular outdoor areas for visitors to walk or bike to. Located off Broad Street near The Vendue hotel, this area features a grassy park where you can sit and enjoy a picnic, as well as a pier that extends out into the harbor. Spend some time looking for dolphins passing by while relaxing on one of the large swings on the pier. If you have kids with you and you’re visiting in the summertime, you can also bring along their bathing suits and let them wade in the two fountains at Waterfront Park! Be sure to snap a picture in front of the Pineapple Fountain before you leave, as this is one of the most recognizable areas in Charleston.
Located on East Bay Street near The Battery, Rainbow Row is a series of thirteen houses that are painted in beautiful, bright colors. This is one of the most photographed areas in the city, and it’s easy to walk to from other popular destinations like The Battery, Waterfront Park and the market. If you’re going to walk to this attraction, try planning a route that will take you to several other nearby sites at the same time. This is also a great area to bike. You can round the corner after viewing the houses, and ride along the water while admiring the mansions that line the Battery.
King Street Shopping District
King Street is the main street that runs through the city and features many of the most popular bars, restaurants and shops. You can easily walk the entire length of the street to view beautiful Charleston-style buildings while shopping and eating to your heart’s content. If you’re in the area on the second Sunday of the month, you can walk here for the King Street Second Sunday celebration when the city closes the lower part of the street to traffic. Restaurants and shops will bring their business out to the sidewalks as visitors and locals walk through the street for a relaxing Sunday outside.
The Charleston City Market
Potentially the most popular tourist attraction, The Charleston City Market is located on Market Street between Meeting and East Bay Street. You can walk here from nearly anywhere on the lower peninsula, but be sure to consider what time and day you’re planning to visit as it can get very busy on weekends. The market itself features dozens of local artisans selling handmade goods, as well as food purveyors and artists. The market runs between South and North Market Street, both of which are also lined with individual shops. This is a great place to go to find unique souvenirs or gifts, and you can pop in to one of the restaurants if you start to feel hungry during your shopping trip.
On the corner of King and Calhoun Street, Marion Square is one of the most popular parks to spend time in. Bring a picnic and eat your lunch right here in this beautiful park or stop in to the Hotel Bennett, which overlooks Marion Square, to have a drink on the rooftop and get one of the most breathtaking views in the city. Between the months of April and November, Marion Square has a farmers market on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. You can purchase fresh, local produce, browse local art and jewelry and indulge in some of the best food truck food around. Live music and a kids’ play area act as additional entertainment for the whole family.
Before booking a trip to Charleston, be sure to check the city’s schedule of events. Marion Square often hosts some of the most highly anticipated events of the year. Charleston Wine + Food’s annual culinary village is held right in this park, and attendees can walk around trying gourmet food samples, as well as sipping on a variety of wines and local beers. The Spoleto Festival, Charleston Fashion Week and SEWE (Southeastern Wildlife Exposition) are three other major events hosted in this park each year.
White Points Garden
White Points Garden is at the tip of the peninsula, connecting East Bay Street to Murray Boulevard. This is the start of what locals refer to as The Battery. Murray Boulevard runs along the tip of the peninsula with gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean and beautiful multi-million dollar mansions. Hang out in the park and then explore The Battery to witness the exact location where the first shots of the Civil War rang out. This is the perfect place to visit during a bike ride through the city. Start your ride by renting bikes by Colonial Lake and then head towards The Battery. Ride along the water until you reach the park and continue up East Bay Street to see Rainbow Row and visit the Charleston City Market.
College of Charleston Campus
Voted the Most Beautiful College Campus in the U.S. by the readers of Travel + Leisure, the College of Charleston is located in the heart of downtown. If you find yourself exploring the city by foot, you should definitely take some time to walk through the campus, and get a glimpse of the gorgeous live oaks covered with Spanish moss and historic Charleston homes converted to offices. The Cistern is a large, open area where graduation takes place and is filled with beauty and history.
Explore the Best of Charleston
Whether you’re planning on moving to Charleston or just heading down for a vacation, this is one of the greatest cities in the country. If you’re staying downtown, you can easily walk or bike to many of the most exciting areas. You can also hop on and off the free DASH trolley to get to locations like the South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston City Market and Waterfront Park. If you need to travel further distances, you can easily grab an Uber or Lyft from nearly any area in the city–or, for short distances, hop on a bike and enjoy the ride. However you choose to get around Charleston, just be sure to explore the best of the city’s food, history and outdoor activities.