Some would argue that Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC, is a tourist trap.
And maybe it is.
But it’s still worth a visit.
One of the oldest plantations in the country, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens was founded in 1676 by Thomas and Ann Drayton. And 15 generations later, their descendants, the Drayton family, still own the plantation. This beautiful and extensive plantation was the site of many firsts in Charleston, and the country, over the centuries. As such, it should be at the top of your list when visiting Charleston, South Carolina. While the history of the plantation is fascinating, the gardens are world-renowned and worth a visit in their own right.
The Most Fascinating Parts of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens History
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is one of the first plantations in America. Its history stretches back to the colonial era of Charleston (back when locals called it Charlestowne). And yet, it didn’t become famous until Reverend John Grimke-Drayton inherited the property and went to work on improving the gardens.
Grimke-Drayton’s wife was an abolitionist, and found slavery abhorrent. The couple’s plan was initially for the couple to settle in her hometown of Philadelphia. But when his older brother passed, plans changed.
As was typical of second-borns, Grimke-Drayton trained as an Episcopal minister. But Grimke-Drayton inherited the plantation and became a Southern planter. That was, on the condition that he adopt the Drayton family surname.
Local legend holds that Grimke-Drayton worked on the garden to draw his bride down from up North. She did eventually join him, and perhaps the gardens were a consolation. Even if they weren’t, the family has still done an amazing job of preserving it for the millions of visitors to the plantation each year.
Union troops burned the original manor house in the Civil War. The current main house on the property was built after the Civil War and expanded over several decades of renovations.
In this writer’s opinion, it’s not as impressive as some other Charleston plantation homes. It is still gorgeous with wide porches and fantastic gardens surrounding it.
The plantation was originally opened to the public after the Civil War to help raise funds and has remained open ever since.
The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
So aside from hearing ghosts (more on that later), what are the best reasons to visit Magnolia Plantation of South Carolina?
First, the gardens are spectacular. They are a highlight of the property and are considered some of the most beautiful in the South.
The gardens have been in existence since the early 1700s, and today they cover more than 70 acres. The gardens are made up of a variety of different styles, including the formal gardens, the romantic gardens, and the nature gardens.
The formal gardens
The formal gardens are located in front of the main house. They feature a wide variety of flowers and plants, including azaleas, camellias, and roses.
The romantic gardens
The romantic gardens are located at the back of the main house and feature winding paths, bridges, and a pond with a waterfall. The nature gardens are located throughout the property and feature a wide variety of plants and animals, including:
- And plenty of birds
The gardens at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens are also home to several historic structures, including:
- A gazebo
- A tea house
- And a summerhouse
Take a guided tour of the gardens to learn more about the different types of plants and flowers in each garden. You’ll also get to learn the history of the gardens themselves.
The gardens are open year-round. And the best time to visit is either:
- In the spring when the azaleas and camellias are in bloom
- Or in the fall when the garden is ablaze with fall colors
And speaking of azaleas, this is the first site on which gardeners grew them in America. From here they spread throughout Charleston, the South, and eventually America. There are varieties of azalea not seen anywhere else in America, and possibly the world. And azaleas, camellias, and live oaks scattered in the swampy terrain, mixed with white bridges, make ideal photo opportunities. This is, after all, a highly romantic Charleston attraction.
Audubon Swamp Garden
For those looking for more of a hike, there are trails through the Audubon Swamp Garden. Be sure to bring bug spray in the warm parts of the year.
There’s also a petting zoo, for visitors looking to be chased around by pushy goats. Actually, this one is likely the most child-friendly of the plantations. The petting zoo and tourist focus makes this a great family friendly Charleston attraction as well.
Historic Buildings at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
The plantation is home to several historic buildings. First is the main house, built in 1873. Visitors can also explore the slave cabins and the plantation’s original kitchen, which date back to the early 1700s. The property also features a blacksmith shop, a smokehouse, and a dairy used by the plantation in the past. Take a guided tour of the main house and other buildings to learn more about the history of the plantation and the life of those who lived and worked there.
Wildlife at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
The property is home to a variety of animals such as alligators, deer, and a wide variety of birds. Take it all in with a Nature Train tour. It travels around the plantation to help visitors catch a glimpse of the various local wildlife.
Nature lovers can enjoy bird watching on the property. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is home to a smorgasbord birds, including egrets, herons, and ibis. You can also take a boat tour on the Ashley River to see the alligators and other wildlife that call the area home.
Gilliard Garden Center
Visit the Gilliard Garden Center to bring a piece of America’s oldest romantic style gardens home with you! They sell a wide range of specialty and seasonal plants, including:
- Heirloom and hybrid flowering plants
- And shrubs for landscaping
The garden center is next to the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens ticket booth and is free of charge.
Magnolia established the Gilliard Garden Center in memory of Tena Lena Gilliard. During the turn of the century, she was a greeter and a beloved employee at Magnolia. Gilliard once lived in the cabin that is now the Gilliard Garden Center.
Special events at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens hosts special events throughout the year, such as:
- Christmas light shows
- Butterfly festivals
- And historical reenactments
Be sure to check the plantation’s website or social media for the schedule of these events and plan accordingly.
One of the most popular events is the Christmas Light Show. It takes place in December and features a spectacular display of lights throughout the gardens.
Another popular event is the Butterfly Bash. This festival takes place in the spring and features a wide variety of butterflies. You’ll also find educational displays and activities for visitors of all ages.
Civil War re-enactors hold events on certain weekends throughout the year.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens also hosts educational events such as:
- And classes on gardening, bird watching and photography
Check the plantation’s website or social media for the schedule of these events and plan your visit.
African American History at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is like most other plantations in the South. It was built on the labor of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The property has a long and complex history closely tied to the history of African Americans in the South. The Drayton family held hundreds of enslaved African Americans over the centuries to work on the plantation. These enslaved workers were necessary for the backbreaking production of crops like rice, indigo, and cotton.
The history of slavery and the experiences of enslaved Africans and African Americans at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is a difficult and painful one.
As is the case in the broader South.
Enslaved people were forced to work long hours in harsh conditions and were treated as property rather than human beings. Society seprated them from their families and communities, and subjected them to violence and abuse.
And yet, the plantation is working to acknowledge and address that history through its:
- Educational programs
- And events
The property has several historic structures that offer the opportunity to learn more about the lives of enslaved people at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Be sure to visit:
- The slave cabins
- Blacksmith shop
- And the smokehouse
The property also hosts events and programs that focus on the history of slavery, such as reenactments, lectures and workshops.
Visiting the property can also be an opportunity to connect with nature. And most importantly, to reflect on the past, present and future of the African American community.
Magnolia Plantation Hours and Tickets: What You Need to Know
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and the Audubon Swamp Garden are open every day of the year, including major holidays. Winter months–November to February–the plantation is open 8:30 am until 4:30 pm, while March to October, hours are 8 am until 5:30 pm. Check the website to see prices for admission to the Plantation.
Their address is:
3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414
All the Best Magnolia Plantation Tours
Besides the half-hour tour of the Magnolia Plantation House and Nature Train Tour, there is also a Rice Field Nature Boat Tour. This tour explores the old flooded fields of this former rice plantation. You can also take a tour through five historic former slaves’ quarters on site. The Slavery to Freedom Tour is an award-winning tour of African American history in this part of the South.
After paying general admission, the following tours are extra:
- The Historic House Tour
- Nature Train Tour
- Nature Boat Tour
- Slavery to Freedom Tour
- An unguided tour of the Audubon Swamp
Considering planning a wedding or event at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens?
What better place to declare your undying love than in the oldest Romantic Garden in America? Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offers 4 beautiful wedding venues:
- Carriage House and lawn overlooks the Ashley River
- The Conservatory and School House Pond Lawn offers an intimate indoor venue surrounded by a gorgeous collection of tropical plants
- The Plantation House Veranda and Long White Bridge Lawn is described by many as quintessentially Charleston with its elegant ambience
- The Pavilion is an excellent outdoor venue for any occasion
Is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens Haunted?
The crew from the TV show “Ghost Hunters” made a visit to Magnolia Plantation to investigate. After all, the house is considered one of the most haunted locations in America. They heard music, the sound of a young girl’s voice, a cough, even some growling and a woman’s voice asking, “What are you doing?” While there was plenty of paranormal activity, the team could not ascribe the activity to one specific member of the family.
The Best of the Places to Stay Near Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC
There aren’t a ton of options very close to Magnolia Plantation.
That said, none of the best places to stay in Charleston, SC, are too far of a drive anyway.
The Inn at Middleton Place is located at the Middleton Place plantation, and is the closest inn or hotel near Magnolia Plantation. Rates start at $186 a night, and include admission to nearby Middleton Plantation for couples, an $86 value. You could kill two birds with one stone by staying here: visit both Middleton Plantation and Magnolia Plantation.
There are also plenty of hotels near the Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, a 20-minute drive away. And just as many hotels and inns are in historic downtown Charleston, a 25-minute drive away.
CARTA also provides service to Magnolia Plantation and the other Charleston plantations on Highway-61 from downtown Charleston.
3 More Amazing Charleston, SC, Plantations to Explore
Magnolia Plantation, SC, isn’t the only choice for plantations near Charleston!
In fact, lining the same Ashley River Road as Magnolia Plantation and Gardens are two other plantations on this list.
And Mount Pleasant, SC, the home of Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens, is an easy drive away.
Some more great options near downtown Charleston include:
Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens
One of America’s oldest still working plantations, one of the highlights of a visit is a tour of the working farmland. This plantation has been featured in more than a few famous movies, including most recently the Notebook. Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens is as idyllic as they come. That is, until you tour the African American exhibit and are reminded of how that idyllic environment came to be for the few.
Drayton Hall Plantation
Drayton Hall features one of the most iconic plantation buildings in the Charleston area. The Palladian architecture home is often what people think of when they see Charleston in their mind. Drayton Hall is also next door to Magnolia Plantation.
The third plantation on Ashley River Road, Middleton Place is tied to the Edmundston-Alston house in downtown Charleston. The Middleton family owned both the historic downtown home and this Charleston, SC, plantation for generations. Ownership passed only recently to the Middleton Place Foundation. The tour of the house is dull, but the gardens and view of the river are spectacular.
And there you have it, plenty of great reasons to visit Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Seriously, don’t miss the gardens there. And check out our list of the best things to do in Charleston, SC, for even more recommendations on other activities and attractions to see on your next visit!
Updated and republished: January 25, 2023