You’ll find no shortages of answers to this question: What is there to do in Charleston, SC? Located along the coast of South Carolina just two hours south of Myrtle Beach and two hours north of Savannah, GA, this charming little city has something to offer every kind of traveler–from world-class cuisine to outdoor adventures. When visiting the area, most people like to rent beach houses in Charleston, SC, because the weather is moderate year-round and the three different beaches in the area are absolutely beautiful. Although there have been huge changes to the city and there are differing attitudes toward tourism development in Charleston, there are still plenty of things locals love to do. Before making your trip to Charleston, check out some of these non-touristy ideas to help you experience the city on a deeper level.
Visit the Angel Oak Tree
Perhaps one of the most unique natural sites in the Charleston area, the Angel Oak Tree is located on Johns Island, about a 30-minute drive from downtown. But, believe us, the short journey is worth the drive. This oak tree is said to be one of the oldest live oaks in the entire country and considered the oldest living tree east of the Mississippi, with most experts estimating its age at around 500 years old. Supported by large, wooden beams, the tree’s limbs extend to cover roughly 17,000 square feet of land. There’s no doubt when you visit this site that it has an ethereal atmosphere that only something that old can seem to possess.
Take Yourself on a Brewery Tour
Charleston has an impressive number of breweries for a city of its size, with more than 30 breweries as of 2020. Plus, the use of renewable energy sources in breweries allow you and them to keep everyone’s thumbs green while still drinking delicious beer. You don’t need a tour guide to experience a taste of the Lowcountry’s best brews. Simply create your own map and start checking places off your list! Start with the downtown area and grab a drink from the rooftop at Revelry before moving on to Fatty’s Beer Works for a game of corn hole and a cold one. Downtown is also home to breweries like Holy City Brewing at Baker and Brewer, Palmetto Brewing Co. and Edmund’s Oast Brewing. Head off the peninsula to try other great options like Tradesman and Holy City Brewing.
Drive Out to the Mepkin Abbey Monastery
This unique place to visit is appropriately located in Moncks Corner, which is about an hour from downtown Charleston. Although it takes a bit of a ride to get out here, you’ll see why people make the trek. Most locals haven’t even visited this corner of their community, so you’ll surely be able to skip the crowd of tourists on this one. Formerly a plantation, the land at Mepkin Abbey was donated and converted into a Trappist Monastery in 1949. Now, the monks still live and work on the land, but open it to the public during certain hours.
Visitors can walk around the truly enchanting grounds that make you feel as though you’ve stepped through Alice’s looking glass yourself. The most intriguing part about this monastery? The monks procure and sell their own mushrooms that are grown on the property. Known as Mepkin Abbey mushrooms, you’ll find some of these delectable little fungi on menus throughout Charleston.
Go for a Hike Through the Francis Marion National Forest
Charleston itself is known for being unusually flat, which ordinarily is not ideal for hiking, but the nearby Francis Marion National Forest offers plenty of opportunities for you to explore the Lowcountry’s unique marsh landscape. There are dozens of miles of hiking trails, including part of the Palmetto Trail that stretches for 500 miles from Charleston all the way through the Upstate into North Carolina. Currently, only 350 miles have been completed, but the project is working to complete the last 150 miles.
Float the Edisto River
The next time you find yourself wondering what there is to do in Charleston, SC, look no further than the Edisto River. This is a great activity locals love during the summer (and even the beginning of fall) because it’s an easy way to enjoy the area’s local beauty and take some time for yourself to just relax. Pick up your own tube on the way or rent one once you get there. There are several different routes you can take if you’re going to venture out there on your own, but most people park at Givhans Ferry State Park and float the three miles down river to end at Messervy or Boat Landing Road. When the river is high, this entire trip takes about four hours, but expect it to be closer to six when the water is low.
Spend Time with Animals
Although historic Charleston, SC, itself is a bustling city, the surrounding areas can be rather rural, giving you the opportunity to visit animals and explore some farms. If you want to have some truly unusual experiences during your trip, you should make time to visit Bee City located in Cottageville, SC. About an hour from downtown Charleston, Bee City is a great place for children and adults of all ages with an adorable petting zoo and animal sanctuary featuring unusual species like lemurs, porcupines, sloths and capybaras.
Visit the Caw Caw Interpretive Center
Another great way to learn more about the Lowcountry landscape and the many species of animals that are native here, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center is just 30 minutes from downtown. Here, you’ll be able to explore the many walking trails and raised boardwalks through the gorgeous marshlands. Bird watchers will love keeping an eye out for swallow-tailed kites, warblers, osprey and more.
Check Out the Parks
There are dozens of beautiful parks throughout the Charleston area. If you’re spending time downtown, you can head to Hampton Park, a large outdoor area designed for people to walk, exercise or just relax by the pond. There are also plenty of beautiful, shady spots here where you can enjoy a picnic. Although many of the parks in the area are worth the visit, Melton Peter Demetre Park, also known as Sunrise Park, on James Island is definitely one of our favorites. From here, you’ll get one of the most unique views of downtown Charleston with both the mansions at the tip of the peninsula visible alongside the iconic Cooper River Bridge. Walk around the park or bring a few towels and set up on the sandy shore here.
Walk the Bridge
Although every tourist who has ever passed through Charleston undoubtedly has a picture of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge on their phone, actually walking over the bridge is a very local thing to do. If you’re starting from the downtown side, park in the public lot on East Bay Street and then cross at the crosswalk to get to the entrance to the walking and biking path on the bridge. The entire bridge stretches 2.6 miles to Mount Pleasant, so be prepared for the walk back if you want to make it all the way to the opposite side. (Don’t be fooled—the climb from the Mount Pleasant side towards downtown is more strenuous than the other way.) Most people walk to the middle, admire the aerial view of the water and head back down.
Tour the H.L. Hunley Submarine
The history behind the H.L. Hunley is still one shrouded in mystery. The submarine was launched in February of 1864 with the mission of destroying the USS Housatonic during the Civil War. Interestingly enough, the Hunley completed its mission, making it the first submarine ever to be used in battle. But immediately after the attack, the Hunley went missing—and would remain missing for more than 100 years. The last known location of the Hunley was just off the coast of historic Charleston, SC, but after years and years of extensive searching, the submarine was never recovered. That is, until 1995 when Clive Cussler, a New York Times bestselling author, found it. Now, you can head to North Charleston to see the real submarine and learn more about its mysterious past.
Explore the Bridge to Nowhere
If you’re looking for more things to do outside, you should check out what locals have dubbed the Bridge to Nowhere. In the Wagener Terrace area of downtown Charleston, you’ll find a bridge at the end of Petty Street that seemingly leads to, well, nowhere. The bridge itself was originally built in an attempt to connect the peninsula to an area of private land known as the Magnolia property, but when the project fell through and the property declared bankruptcy, the unfinished bridge remained. It’s become a symbolic place for local Charlestonians and you’ll find people here riding bikes, walking or simply enjoying the view.
Take a Day Trip to Botany Bay
Getting to Botany Bay will take about an hour from downtown Charleston, and while Charleston itself has three gorgeous beaches, none are quite the same as this one. Located at the Botany Bay Plantation, this stretch of beach is known for its truly unique landscape of washed up driftwood. You can spend the day exploring the landscape or just catching some rays, but before you head out there, double-check the tides as the beach is inaccessible during high tide.
Get Out on the Water
One of the greatest aspects of renting one of the beach houses in Charleston, SC, is your proximity to all the amazing water activities. Paddleboarding and kayaking are regular activities enjoyed by locals to help avoid tourist crowds and experience Charleston by water. You can choose to rent kayaks or SUP on Shem Creek and then stop for a bite to eat or a drink on the water afterwards. You can also head out to Bowens Island (just off Folly Road on James Island) to have some fun in the water, followed by the meal of a lifetime at the Bowens Island Restaurant.
Check Out the Art Exhibits at Redux
An art gallery with a true passion for its surrounding community, Redux is one of the best places to visit for artists. While there are certainly other art galleries and museums in town, Redux has built a reputation for itself as the place for the local art community, which means you’ll get a unique view into this world. Check out what exhibits they have going on while you’re in town and keep an eye out for other art-related events here.
Tour the Historic Cemeteries
With so much history behind the city, Charleston has an unusually long list of ghost tales, which is why so many people that visit flock to the ghost tours. Although ghost tours may be kind of touristy, they can be informative and entertaining. But, if you’re looking to skip the tour altogether, you can simply visit some of the alleged haunted cemeteries in town to see if you experience anything paranormal. Even if you’re not interested in ghost stories, a visit to the city’s oldest cemeteries is a unique way to see the city’s beauty and experience its history. One of our personal favorites is the cemetery behind the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street.
Spend the Day at the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve
With Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island at your disposal, you’ll find plenty of gorgeous beach areas to spend your time. But, if you’re looking for a more unusual shoreline to explore, you should check out the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve located all the way at the end of Folly Beach. This area tends to be more secluded and free of tourists, but you do have to make a short walk from the street through a graffitied area before you’ll reach the ocean. Here, you’ll find eerily beautiful driftwood decorating the beach and an unparalleled view of the Morris Island Lighthouse.
Explore Charleston Like a Local
Whether you are an actual local or you’re just renting one of the beach houses in Charleston, SC, and you’re looking for a unique experience, we’ve got a whole list of great ideas for you. With such a unique landscape, the Holy City has a nearly endless list of outdoor activities available–from water sports and hiking to animal petting zoos and historic sites.