Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the best places I’ve lived. And I spent years bouncing around like a tumbleweed. As of last year, Charleston, SC, is where I have lived the longest since I lived at my parents’ full-time in high school.
Like a lot of other people that live here, I visited a couple times, loved it, and decided to move here. The steady influx of outsiders has changed the traditional delineation of Charleston society between locals and outsiders, or people “from off”.
There are still some Charleston travel tips and tricks to know before you step foot here to help you blend-in. Follow the below (and be conscientious) and you’ll avoid being one of those tourists that people here hate.
Read on for tips to fit in and experience the Charleston area more like a local. All advice is from someone living here. If you are thinking about moving to Charleston, SC, be sure to read my list of things I wish someone had told me before I moved here.
18 Top Charleston Travel Tips from Someone Who Lives Here
To start this article, I brain-dumped everything I could think of. After that, I procrastinated from actually writing by categorizing my Charleston travel tips.
First, some general Charleston, SC, society and community tips.
Charleston is more casual than you’re expecting, though manners are expected
Flip flops are not frowned-upon here. While sneakers won’t get you into more than a few King Street bars and clubs, you’ll go pretty far with a nice pair of shorts and a polo shirt. In the warm months, anyway, of which there are a lot.
That said, you’ll be rewarded for your politeness. Throw a nice, “yes, ma’am” or “no sir”, and Charlestonians will be a lot more helpful to you than the guy who brusquely behaves as if he’s the most important person in the city.
Curious how polite Charlestonians get across their distaste without being blunt? The most common tactic includes saying terms like, “bless your heart”. A classic Charleston insult will leave those untrained to not realize they’ve been slighted until a good 10 minutes later.
You’ve been warned.
2) People here are just friendly. They have no ulterior motive. Embrace it.
I moved here from the New York City area. There, you typically only talk to people you’ve gone out with for the night.
Adapting to the fact that strangers are legitimately being warm and friendly was a transition. But when someone wishes you a great day, they genuinely mean it.
Don’t get nervous if a stranger on the street makes eye contact and smiles. They’re not trying to hit on you, and you’re not about to get mugged. At least while you’re in Charleston, throw cynicism aside and reciprocate!
3) There are a few topics that may be uncomfortable to bring up with strangers and acquaintances
I grew up in a WASP-y New England household that followed the traditional rule of taboo topics with non-blood relatives:
The above topics are good ones to avoid here as well.
Charleston is one of the most progressive cities in the Carolinas (it vies with Asheville, NC, for the title). That said, you still don’t necessarily want to get into a heated conversation about Trump or what church you attend with a stranger, do you?
A couple other topics to throw on the list here include the following:
Anything related to slavery and racial topics
It’s been 150 years since the end of the War Between the States (to quote a local, as the Civil War was definitely not civil). And the South, including Charleston, is still grappling with a past that was ugly for most of its inhabitants. Ask too many questions, and most locals will start to get uncomfortable.
There are some great places to get all your questions answered, though. The former Slave Market and McLeod Plantation are 2 historic sites managed by the city of Charleston. Both are more focused on the African-American experience than the storied white planters’ lives.
What do you do for a living?
As Charleston’s economy diversifies, this question isn’t as taboo as it used to be. It stems from recent days where everyone who lived in Charleston worked in hospitality, especially food and bev. It was just a boring topic for most, more than anything.
4) Be careful behind the wheel
There’s really no way around it: people here are scary drivers. As the majority of people here learned to drive somewhere else, no one seems to know what to do in relation to others on the road. Or maybe defensive driving is just a foreign concept here.
Either way, driving can feel like dealing with anarchic mayhem.
Avoid driving whenever there’s any sort of inclement weather: rain and snow especially.
Drivers here also seem to sit in the passing lane for some reason. In case you’re wondering, it’s illegal here too, but people either don’t learn that in driving school or don’t care. On the plus side, the lane farthest from the passing lane in a 3-lane highway usually flows the easiest.
5) A Southern city, Charleston society does still revolve around church
I remember learning in a study of Southern Baptism in college that the South largely only has one center for community activity: the church.
And I would say that applies in the Holy City.
Even if you’re visiting for a long weekend, checking out a local church congregation is often a pleasant way to get a more local experience. Avoid some of the older churches that feature more traditional locals that aren’t welcoming to newcomers. Instead, check-out some of the open and affirming churches, or just one that’s used to visitors (and young people):
Circular Congregational (where I go, open and affirming, and they offer free tours after most 11 am services)
Unitarian Church in Charleston (open and affirming)
Grace Church Charleston (open and affirming)
There are also Catholic churches throughout Charleston if you’re Catholic. St. John the Baptist downtown is a beautiful cathedral. Non-Catholics are welcome to attend, and you can follow along with the standing up, sitting down, and kneeling cycles. Just be sure not to go up for communion if you’re not confirmed. Or cross your arms and put your hands on your chest and the priest will bless you instead.
And now, on to Charleston travel tricks and tips specific to Downtown Charleston:
6) Ditch your car when you’re downtown
Charleston, SC, is one of those few Southern cities that developed before the advent of cars. As such, everything downtown is easy to reach walking. I can walk from my house up by Hampton Park all the way to White Point Gardens and the Battery in about an hour. Pretty much everything is an easy walk from everything else.
7) Free parking is easier to find here than most American cities
You may need to drive around the block, or be ready to add another 5-10 minutes walking to your trip, but free parking is free parking. Pay attention to the signs, though, as they all clearly say how long you can leave your car in a spot before you get a ticket. And the city is a stickler for those rules, so ignore them at your own risk.
If you don’t feel like playing the find free parking game, including remembering to move your car every 1 to 4 hours depending on what neighborhood you’ve parked, just find a garage. Almost all parking garages downtown are owned and managed by the city, so they’re inexpensive as far as downtown parking garages go.
I like a challenge, though.
8) Know how to pronounce streets before you ask someone for directions
I told a friend about this rule, and he snorted and told me how pretentious I sounded.
But it’s not about being pretentious, it’s about knowing what the heck someone just said to you when they’re giving you directions.
Below are a list of attractions and street names that largely stem from French Huguenot family names. The Huguenots that settled here eventually lost their language and distinct identity in the community. But the names survived. They’re just not pronounced in the French, or American way.
They’re distinctly Charlestonian.
That said, there’s some disagreement even among Charlestonians as to proper pronunciation. Whatever.
Barre: BARE – ee (street)
Beaufain: BYOO – fain (street)
Clemson: CLEM – zun (local university)
Gaillard: GILLY – yard (performing arts center, an old lady actually yelled at a friend for mispronouncing this one)
Hasell: HAY – zul (street)
Huger: u – GEE (street)
Legare: le – GREE (street)
McLeod: muh – CLOUD (plantation)
Prioleau: PRAY – low (street)
Sumter: SUMP • tur (monument and town)
Vanderhorst: VAN – dross (street)
9) Take a tour or two, but be sure to explore on your own
Walking tours are informative, and carriage tours cover a lot of ground in an hour. But you’ll never get a feel for the city just by taking a tour. Get lost downtown. The parts of Charleston you’ll be focusing on are all very safe, so wandering around is encouraged.
10) Don’t stand in line for any of your meals
I don’t care how many New York Times articles were written about a restaurant, or how many ads in the airport you’ve seen. There are so many great options here in Charleston, it’s a waste of time to go anywhere with a line. Feel smug about those tourists standing, waiting, in front of those famous restaurants on Market and Meeting street. Instead, continue on to any of the fantastic Charleston restaurants scattered nearby and throughout the area.
The only downtown Charleston restaurant I can think of that’s actually worth a wait time is Hominy Grill. They don’t take advanced reservations, which explains the typical wait for brunch. But that place is amazing.
11) Watch out for flooding
If you’re in downtown Charleston, flooding is a real thing. The city was settled for its prime location on the water, not for how high above sea level it is.
No matter what anyone says, flooding in downtown Charleston is getting worse. And a perfect storm of a lot of rain coinciding with high tide consistently means driving through flood waters.
Swing by the Preservation Society of Charleston shop on King and Queen Streets and find a map in the store. The one I’m thinking of shows the streets of Charleston overlaid on the natural layout of the peninsula. Look it over and take note of streets and neighborhoods that are built on filled-in marsh, or that used to be creeks and streams.
You could also skip that and check out The History Behind Flooding in Charleston, South Carolina story map in the NOAA GeoPlatform Map Gallery.
My recommendation sounds more like a scavenger hunt, though.
Well-known downtown streets and areas that used to be streams and now consistently flood include but are not limited to:
Market Street (they keep people from parking here now, after too many cars suffered serious damage from flooding seawater)
Water Street (the name should give that one away)
Around Colonial Lake
Between East Bay Street and the Charleston harbor
Calhoun Street near MUSC
Most of King Street follows a ridge that is the highest point of the peninsula if you’re out when it starts to flood. That said, Huger and King Street is typically the first place to flood in my neighborhood when it’s really bad.
12) Leave Bill Murray alone
Yes, Bill Murray spends a lot of time in Charleston.
And he’s invested in more than a few businesses in the area, including:
The Charleston Riverdogs baseball team that plays at the Joseph P Riley baseball stadium
Harold’s Cabin, a downtown Charleston casual restaurant in my neighborhood
Rutledge Cab Company
And pretty much everyone who lives in Charleston has a story of a run-in with him at some point. And the stories of him crashing weddings, photo opportunities, and whatnot are all (mostly) true.
But leave the guy alone.
He’s just trying to live his life, like everyone else around here. Try to empathize and think about how annoying it must be to get constantly recognized and asked for autographs or selfies.
If he starts talking to you or gets in your photo, fantastic. But don’t force it. It’ll make for a better story, anyway.
And on to the rest of the Charleston area, including the nearby sea islands and beach towns near Charleston. Because there’s a lot more to the area than just downtown Charleston.
13) Don’t buy sweetgrass baskets in the City Market, or even downtown
The sweetgrass baskets for sale are beautiful, and have an interesting history. Enslaved Africans brought to what is now the United States carried the tradition of making baskets of grass from West Africa. These people found similar materials in Lowcountry marshes and continued the tradition here.
But sweetgrass basket sellers in the Historic Charleston City Market have to pay for that prime real estate, and they pass that cost onto their buyers. Head across the bridge to Mount Pleasant and drive along Route 17 towards Georgetown. You’ll pass a long stretch of sellers with more variety and better prices.
14) There’s so much more to Charleston than the peninsula
Most tourists come, explore downtown for the weekend, and leave. But there are so many more unique aspects to Charleston and the Lowcountry that make it so special.
Getting around once you’re off the peninsula is harder if you don’t have a car, but renting a car to explore the area is well worth it.
And bicycling around the Charleston area is pretty easy. Because there’s not a ton of elevation. You’ll still need to watch out for all those crazy drivers.
Cross the Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River to Mount Pleasant to explore:
Old Town Mount Pleasant
The Pitt Street Bridge
Isle of Palms
Or cross the Ashley River to check out:
The Avondale neighborhood
The Ashley River Road plantations: Magnolia Plantation, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place
Or go north to spend some time in:
Or the parks further north of town
Speaking of which…
15) There are a lot of bridges here. Go over them whenever you can.
A colleague mentioned the other day that one of her favorite parts of living in Charleston is being able to see the water so often. And she’s right: even just a typical commute to work offers splendid views from bridges of Charleston harbor, or any of the rivers that separate various sea islands from each other and the mainland.
There’s also more than one bridge to nowhere here in Charleston. If you have the time and the transportation, check out the one on the Upper Peninsula of Downtown Charleston. The more well-known (and arguably more romantic point of interest) is the Pitt Street Bridge in Old Town Mount Pleasant.
16) There are more beaches than just Folly Beach
For some reason, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms are the most well-known beaches near Charleston for tourists. And on those beaches, tourists seem to think they need to cluster at certain points.
But all the area beaches are public. Usually parking is the hassle, but even that’s not that bad. Just make sure that you find a spot that keeps your tires off of the tarmac. And that there’s not a “No Parking” sign or something like that, obviously.
17) Charleston gets stupid expensive during event weekends
Unless you’re coming for an event, avoid Charleston like the plague during them. Check out a list of annual events in the article regarding the best time to visit Charleston. Don’t get me wrong, the events are fun to attend and they’re typically at the best non-beach weather times of the year here. But hotel rates especially go through the roof during those weekends.
18) Is this your first weekend visit to Charleston? Don’t visit Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is big for history buffs, especially anyone interested in Civil War history. And even if you’re not into the history of it, the ride to and from Fort Sumter on the ferry is a pleasant and relaxing way to see the Charleston harbor.
Between the ride out to Fort Sumter, the hour or so scrambling around rocks, and the ride back to Charleston, you’ve got the majority of an afternoon eaten up right there. And there are so many other things to experience in the short time you’re here.
Fort Sumter’s (probably) not going anywhere. Go see it on your second visit, and check-out Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island instead. Then, you can head straight to the beach afterwards.
19) Don’t want to drop a fortune visiting plantations? Find some inexpensive alternatives
The plantations are worth a visit. Each of the famous ones are worth the money to visit once:
Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens
Except it’s not absolutely necessary, if you want to save some funds for your next visit.
Instead, check out some Charleston plantations run by the city of Charleston or the National Parks service that are much cheaper to visit:
That said, you get what you pay for. I quite like McLeod, personally.
20) Leave the wildlife alone (especially the gators)
The Lowcountry is part of a huge biosphere that includes the coastal plains of the United States. It’s rapidly disappearing, and enjoying any number of Charleston outdoor activities can help you get a glimpse of the fascinating ecosystems that make up our area.
But please, leave the wildlife alone. Animals that get fed by people often lose their ability to find their own food, and risk starvation when that source is cut-off.
Even worse, gators should have no reason to get accustomed to humans.
Because they’re scary.
Speaking of which, don’t get close to alligators. They may not move as you inch closer, but they can run faster than you if and when they decide to grab you.
Gotcha. Now What?
Hopefully this list of Charleston travel tips will help you feel more prepared for your visit.
If you want someone to tell you what to do next to plan your visit to Charleston (you’re welcome), start with:
Figuring out how to get here
Check out the best things to do in Charleston and the Lowcountry
Decide on what restaurants you definitely want to experience. Some of the most famous ones book up well in advance, like FIG and Husk.
And you should be good to go.
Besides packing, obviously.
Welcome in advance to Charleston!