In a town that's been rated on so many top visitors' lists throughout the country and the world, Charleston is a unique space that deserves exploring.
Deciding what to visit and what to skip when you're on a time crunch, though, can be painful. We've outlined some of our favorite 80-minute trips for the adventurer who's short on time and looking to pack it all in during their Lowcountry travels.
East Bay Street
Those with limited time in Charleston—say, about an hour and a half in “The Holy City"—can get a quick fill of history with a walk along East Bay Street at the downtown peninsula’s southeastern tip, which is adjoined by watercraft-laden Charleston Harbor. It’s here that visitors can get their fill of Colonial and Revolutionary War history at the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, marvel at the residences along Rainbow Row and the Battery, and then top off the looping jaunt with a trek around White Point Garden.
This self tour starts at the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, completed in 1771 as an exchange building but also used as a custom house, a market, a meeting place and a jail. The British later made it a barracks and a military prison. Docents at the Old Exchange lead visitors daily ($10 for adults) through its three floors including the eerie first, with tales of ghosts, pirates and patriots.
Keep heading southward and take in the sights along Rainbow Row, a series of pastel-colored Georgian row houses built in the latter part of the 18th century. Today, they’ve been restored and are representative of city preservation efforts.
Next: The Battery and its sea wall; here people watched in glee in 1861 as early Confederate forces fired shots at Union-held Fort Sumter. Walk just a bit farther to see such cannons and mortar on display at Battery Park and the adjoining White Point Garden, the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
Look east across the harbor, and you’ll see military vessels posed as if they are ready to defend the city. What you’re seeing is actually Patriots Point, the home of an impressive naval museum and retired Navy vessels. If you find yourself short on time with, say, only 80 minutes to spare, you can still get a head start on exploring Charleston with a visit to the point.
Located in the Mount Pleasant area, Patriots Point (40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant) is a great place to explore, even if you don’t have time to take in a full tour of the naval museum and accompanying vessels including the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier.
Though a full tour of the USS Yorktown, USS Laffey (a World War II destroyer), USS Clagamore (a Cold War-era submarine) and the Vietnam Experience Exhibit ($20 for adults; $5 extra for an audio tour) will typically take between three and four hours, you could squeeze in a tour of the USS Yorktown flight deck and its array of military aircraft if you act quickly. Better yet, bring the your own flight crew and just pay the $5 parking fee and enjoy the manicured grounds, the cannons facing the harbor and the picnic areas.
Want to step it up even more? Take the Charleston Water Taxi over from Charleston proper; it traverses the channel every hour and an all-day pass is only $10. Ready for the ultimate experience? Add on a helicopter tour of the area from Fly-In Helicopters; the heli tours depart on site.
Old Slave Mart Museum
Isn’t it the Socratic paradox that states “I know that I know nothing?" For 21st-century folk, far removed even from the time of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it’s hard to know what it must have been like to be a slave in colonial America. Visitors to Charleston can get some answers to one of the blights of this nation’s history at Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum, a former slave auction in a city that played a role in early 19th-century interstate slave trade. Today, this shed-like edifice has earned a place on the National Register and is a museum dedicated to the African-American legacy. Docents and informative exhibits educate those wishing to learn more about slavery, Charleston’s antebellum period and the building’s more recent past.
The Historic District
If you have a penchant for architecture, I wholly recommend joining one of the city’s fab tours, but if you’re short on time and have the DIY spirit, don comfy shoes and hit the residential streets.
Begin with a stroll down Legare Street; it has a great mix of many common architectural styles to be found in the historic residential area, but make note of the Charleston Single House. It’s an architectural style recognizable today when you spot porches (sometimes double- or triple-decker porches) on the side of the house, rather than the front. (Tip: In Charleston, these porches are called piazzas.) Faced with narrow urban lots, designers created a false front door that actually led into a courtyard (or a porch), while the actual front door would be found inside on the piazza. The classic version of the house is just one room wide at the street, hence the “single” descriptor.
Marion Square was established as a parade ground for the state arsenal. Today, it serves as a cultural hub for the upper peninsula. Large festivals such as Charleston Wine + Food, Fashion Week and the Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Exhibition are held in the green space between King and Meeting streets. From 8 am to 2 pm on Saturdays through Nov. 25, Marion Square is host to the Charleston Farmers Market. During the first three weekends of December, the Holiday Market is open 9 am to 3 pm Saturdays and Sundays. The city of Charleston hosts a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the square Dec. 3 and a Hanukkah celebration Dec. 12. If you’re visiting on a Saturday or Sunday in December, start your day strolling through the Farmers Market, where you’ll find local food vendors and arts and crafts, as well as activities for children.
Afterward, spend the afternoon browsing the national and local shops along King Street, including the independent Blue Bicycle Books. There are several great options for dinner, including Halls Chophouse, The Macintosh, The Darling Oyster Bar, 492 and The Ordinary. But be sure to make reservations in advance. Later, catch a show at Music Farm, the Charleston Music Hall or The Gaillard Center. Want a nightcap? Have a drink at one of the nearby rooftop bars and restaurants, including Eleve Restaurant and Rooftop, The Watch Rooftop Kitchen & Spirts or Stars Rooftop and Bar. Marion Square, 329 Meeting St., 843.724.7305